The heaven of Mars is a long heaven, comprising the last section of Paradiso 14, and then Paradiso 15, 16, 17, and the first half of canto 18. The transition to Jupiter occurs in Paradiso 18.61-62. It is about one canto less in overall length than the heaven of the sun: the heaven of the sun comprises four complete canti (Paradiso 10-13) plus about two-thirds of a fifth canto, Paradiso 14. The heaven of Mars comprises three complete canti, Paradiso 15-17, plus about one-third of canto 14 and one-third of canto 18.
Although it has crusading and Church militant elements, the heaven of Mars is ultimately the heaven of personal affect and personal history. The Augustinian section at the beginning of Paradiso 15, with its emphasis on right love (“amor che drittamente spira” the love that breathes righteousness ) versus wrong love — “cupidità” in verse 3 — reprises the essence of Beatrice’s Augustinian critique in Purgatorio 30-31 and sets the stage for the affective complexity of this heaven. Especially because the long prefatory meditation on right versus wrong love concludes with a condemnation of one who, “on account of love of things that do not last” — “per amor di cosa che non duri” (11) — deprives oneself of the love that lasts eternally. And yet . . . this heaven is chock-full of the love of things that do not last.
The personal nature of this heaven is immediately on display. Looking at Beatrice, Dante feels that he has reached the extreme “of my glory and of my paradise”:
ché dentro a li occhi suoi ardeva un riso tal, ch’io pensai co’ miei toccar lo fondo de la mia gloria e del mio paradiso. (Par. 15.34-36)
for in the smile that glowed within her eyes, I thought that I—with mine—had touched the height of both my blessedness and paradise.
The heaven of Mars is anticipated by the discussion of the resurrected body in the first part of Paradiso 14 (still in the heaven of the sun), a discussion that leads the souls to exclaim “Amen” in joy at the thought that they will get their bodies back. In fact, they experience “disio de’ corpi morti” (Par. 14.63), and their desire for their dead bodies is conditioned by their desire “for their mothers, fathers, and for others dear to them before they were eternal flames”:
forse non pur per lor, ma per le mamme, per li padri e per li altri che fuor cari anzi che fosser sempiterne fiamme. (Par. 14.64-66)
not only for themselves, perhaps, but for their mothers, fathers, and for others dear to them before they were eternal flames.
The mothers and fathers desired by the souls of Paradiso 14.64-65 are historicized in the heaven of Mars, where they are the mothers and fathers of Florence, and where Dante meets his own great-great-grandfather.
Dante’s paternal ancestor, Cacciaguida (we learn in Par. 16.34-39 that he was born in 1091), is described in a simile where his affection is compared to that of Anchises, father of Aeneas, on greeting his son:
Sì pia l’ombra d’Anchise si porse, se fede merta nostra maggior musa, quando in Eliso del figlio s’accorse. (Par. 15.25-27)
With such affection did Anchises' shade reach out (if we may trust our greatest muse) when in Elysium he saw his son.
We note the stipulation of verse 26: “if we may trust our greatest muse” refers to the description offered by Vergil of the affectionate encounter between Anchises and Aeneas in Book 6 of the Aeneid. This verse constitutes the first, albeit indirect, reference to Vergil in the poem since the disappearance of Virgilio in Purgatorio 30. In Purgatorio 30, in recounting the moment of his loss, Dante refers to the Latin poet as “Virgilio dolcissimo patre” (Virgilio sweetest father [Purg.30.50]). Thus, true to the dialectical terza-rima texture of this poem, ever spiraling forward and back, the arrival of a new father, Cacciaguida, elicits from Dante the memory of the father whom he has lost, now remembered as “nostra maggior musa”.
The heaven of Mars is the heaven of the bloodline: of the lineage, of ancestry, of the family — root, branch, and tree. Cacciaguida’s first words to Dante are “o sanguis meus” — “O blood of mine” (Par. 15.28) — and canto 16 begins with Dante’s celebration of his family lineage, his “nobiltà di sangue” (nobility of blood [Par. 16.1]).
Cacciaguida explains Dante’s family to him, where he fits into the family lineage, his “cognazione” or family name, which Cacciaguida will later explain derives from his wife’s non-Tuscan family in “val di Pado” or valley of the Po (137), and who he, Cacciaguida, is in relation to the pilgrim:
Poscia mi disse: «Quel da cui si dice tua cognazione e che cent’anni e piùe girato ha ’l monte in la prima cornice, mio figlio fu e tuo bisavol fue: ben si convien che la lunga fatica tu li raccorci con l’opere tue.» (Par. 15.91-96)
then said: “The man who gave your family its name, who for a century and more has circled the first ledge of Purgatory, was son to me and was your great-grandfather; it is indeed appropriate for you to shorten his long toil with your good works.”
The above verses showcase Dante’s genial method of buttressing important moments by using the fictional truth of the text itself, supporting textual reality with more textual reality. Here Cacciaguida tells the pilgrim that his son, Alighiero I, Dante’s great-great-grandfather, is still circling the first ledge of Purgatory, the terrace of pride. Cacciaguida thus lets his descendant know that pride is a family trait: we remember the pilgrim’s stated fear (in Purgatorio 14) that he will be spending much time on the terrace of pride when he returns to Purgatory.
A lot of affect enters the Paradiso when we enter the heaven of Mars. We are plunged into a world of human feeling and human history: when Dante meets his ancestor Cacciaguida, the conversation becomes very personal, both about Dante’s family and about Florence. His birthplace, the place in which he came of age as an author, married, had children, and entered politics, Florence elicits great passion from our poet throughout the Commedia.
This is a social heaven, a heaven that features culture in all its social manifestations, as the previous heaven featured ideas. The heaven of Mars depicts family life, civic life, social status, the use of language in family life (mothers telling stories to children of Troy, Fiesole, and Rome), the use of language to communicate social status, knighthood and other social privileges, fashion and clothing for both men and women, dowries, the position and tasks of women, inheritance, the origin of one’s family name (Dante’s family name comes through his mother’s line), sport (palio), food. The heaven of Mars is about the self in connection to the ties that bind.
The essence of the personal is captured in the way that Cacciaguida speaks to his descendant in verses 58-60; he points out that Dante doesn’t wonder who Cacciaguida is or why he would be more happy than any of the other souls in this heaven to meet Dante. Eventually Peter Damian will tell the pilgrim that it does not matter who he is or which soul in the heaven of the contemplatives Dante addresses. In the divergence of approaches is the key of the heaven Mars as Dante conceives it: the heaven of Mars is designated to capture all the affect that humans have directed toward Paradise in their thinking about the home of the blessed. Augustine as Bishop of Hippo received letters from people who wanted and expected to meet their beloveds in Paradise. This is the affect that Dante directs here.
In Paradiso 15 Cacciaguida paints for his descendant the picture of the idyllic Florence of old in which he, Cacciaguida, lived, before Florentine society was overtaken by decay and corruption. Dante’s description of an earlier Florence is full of real history, and at the same time it is an idealized vision of the city when it was pure and at peace:
Fiorenza dentro da la cerchia antica, ond'ella toglie ancora e terza e nona, si stava in pace, sobria e pudica. (Par. 15.97-99)
Florence, within her ancient ring of walls— that ring from which she still draws tierce and nones— sober and chaste, lived in tranquility.
In a patrilineal and honor-based culture like that of Dante’s Florence, the honor of the society is measured by the comportment of its women. In the above passage, the city is gendered female; Cacciaguida’s city is sober and chaste: “sobria e pudica” (99). The chastity and sobriety of Cacciaguida’s “Fiorenza” contrasts with the current sordid scene, where a daughter’s birth brings fear to her father, and all facets of female behavior are unregulated. In Cacciaguida’s time, the ages and dowries of women were not yet without misura: “’l tempo e la dote / non fuggien quinci e quindi la misura” (age and dowry did not flee the proper measure [Par. 15.105]).
We remember the importance of the word misura as a social barometer from a previous discussion of Florentine corruption, in Inferno 16. In contemporary Florence, there is no misura in female dress, and there is no misura in female dowry requirements, which bankrupt contemporary Florentine fathers. By contrast, in Cacciaguida’s time, there were not yet expensive ornamentation and misura still held sway:
Non avea catenella, non corona, non gonne contigiate, non cintura che fosse a veder più che la persona. Non faceva, nascendo, ancor paura la figlia al padre, che ’l tempo e la dote non fuggien quinci e quindi la misura. (Par. 15.100-05)
No necklace and no coronal were there, and no embroidered gowns; there was no girdle that caught the eye more than the one who wore it. No daughter’s birth brought fear unto her father, for age and dowry then did not imbalance— to this side and to that—the proper measure.
The war in which Dante’s ancestor Cacciaguida participated was not with his fellow citizens in the kind of factional strife that plagued Florence in Dante’s lifetime (and that caused him to be exiled from Florence). From Dante’s perspective, Cacciaguida fought in an honorable cause and acquitted himself well: he became a knight under the emperor Conrad III, and was killed in the Second Crusade. Thus, Cacciaguida was a crusader, and the end of Paradiso 15 offers the most conventional medieval Christian anti-Muslim rhetoric that you will find in the Commedia.
Chapter 10 of The Undivine Comedy, “The Sacred Poem Is Forced to Jump: Closure and the Poetics of Enjambment,” analyzes the latter half of Paradiso from a meta-narrative perspective. Paradiso 15 offers a foundational passage in this regard, verses that provide a philosophical key to reading Paradiso. In answer to Cacciaguida’s exhortation to sound forth his will and his desire (in other words, to speak), Dante replies by explaining the diegetic problems — problems of dis-equality and difference — that beset all mortals:
Poi cominciai così: «L'affetto e ’l senno, come la prima equalità v’apparse, d’un peso per ciascun di voi si fenno, però che ’l sol che v’allumò e arse, col caldo e con la luce è sì iguali, che tutte simiglianze sono scarse. Ma voglia e argomento ne’ mortali, per la cagion ch’a voi è manifesta, diversamente son pennuti in ali; ond’io, che son mortal, mi sento in questa disagguaglianza, e però non ringrazio se non col core a la paterna festa. (Par. 15.73-84)
Then I began: “As soon as you beheld the First Equality, both intellect and love weighed equally for each of you, because the Sun that brought you light and heat possesses heat and light so equally that no thing matches His equality; whereas in mortals, word and sentiment— to you, the cause of this is evident— are wings whose featherings are disparate. I—mortal—feel this inequality; thus, it is only with my heart that I can offer thanks for your paternal greeting.
As I write in The Undivine Comedy:
The pilgrim cannot express his thanks because he is mortal and, being mortal, a creature of difference; never (in a typically Dantesque move) have the disadvantages of mortality been more stunningly expressed than in the simplicity of “ond’io, che son mortal” followed by the enjambment that isolates and highlights the word that forms a hemistich, the magnificently protracted “disagguaglianza”. (p. 219)
This passage tells us clearly that mortality is “disagguaglianza” (Par. 15.83), dis-equality. On the other hand, God/Paradise/Transcendence are the First Equality: “la prima equalità” (Par. 15.74).
And yet, the poet is empowered by the very disagguaglianza that the pilgrim claims marks his mortality. There would be no second half of the Paradiso without dis-equality. Equality, absence of time, also means absence of language, which is a temporal medium. In the linguistic sphere, equality is silence. Dis-equality gives us language; dis-equality gives us poetic life.
Similitude, in the linguistic sphere, is death. As I note in The Undivine Comedy, the triple rhymes of Cristo/Cristo/Cristo are a sign of the silence to come, for “as difference in the form of three different rhymes gives way to identity, homology, and stasis, the poem begins to die”:
What obtains for the pilgrim within the possible world of paradise is, as is frequently the case on Dante’s circular scales, precisely the opposite of what obtains for the poet within the reality of praxis and the written poem: while the pilgrim is blocked by his disequality, the poet is empowered by the very disagguaglianza that he must, in the third canticle, nonetheless forswear. As the poem heads toward the uguaglianza of its ending, as it is deprived of the fuel of disagguaglianza, it stutters; early instances of such stuttering are the first sets of “Cristo” rhymes, located in the life of Dominic in Paradiso 12 and in the passage, toward the end of Paradiso 14, relating the miraculous appearance of Christ within the cross of Mars. These triple rhymes of Cristo / Cristo / Cristo signify not only the incommensurability of Christ to anything other than himself but also the inevitable death of terza rima; as difference in the form of three different rhymes gives way to identity, homology, and stasis, the poem begins to die.
(The Undivine Comedy, p. 219)