Paradiso 16 opens with an apostrophe to our “meager nobility of blood”: “O poca nostra nobiltà di sangue” (1). Nobility of blood, the nobility of one’s family lineage, may be a little thing from the perspective of eternity. And yet our attachment to it is so strong that Dante finds himself still revelling in his family’s nobility, confirmed by his encounter with an ancestor of the stature possessed by Cacciaguida.
Thus, the poet sets up a deliberate paradox: nobility of lineage is a little thing, not worth much, and yet it is of so much value that he, Dante, still gloried in his own nobility of lineage when he was in Paradise. Paradise is where one should be beyond all trivial attachments (see the apostrophe to the “senseless cares of mortals” — “O insensata cura de’ mortali” — in Paradiso 11.1). AND YET . . .
O poca nostra nobiltà di sangue, se gloriar di te la gente fai qua giù dove l’affetto nostro langue, mirabil cosa non mi sarà mai: ché là dove appetito non si torce, dico nel cielo, io me ne gloriai. (Par. 16.1-6)
If here below, where sentiment is far too weak to withstand error, I should see men glorying in you, nobility of blood—a meager thing!—I should not wonder, for even where desire is not awry, I mean in Heaven, I too felt such pride.
The dialectical thrust of this passage is evident and is emblematic of the heaven of Mars, where family ties and human affect are resurgent. The pilgrim’s “appetito” cannot err, a fact corroborated by Beatrice’s response, which is not to censure Dante for his pride in Cacciaguida, but to laugh at him (Par. 16.13-15). And yet — in a splendid example of the Commedia’s non-renunciation of its dialectical texture — he is not immune from a sense of glory in his ancestry.
Dante’s family connections while coming of age were lackluster, perhaps even somewhat unsavory and embarrassing, as evidenced by the nature of the insults exchanged in the tenzone with his friend, Forese Donati, himself the scion of a very rich magnate family. Dante instead was “the son of a middling money-changer” (“Lui era figlio di un mediocre campsor,” from Isabelle Chabod, “Il matrimonio di Dante,” Reti Medievali Rivista, 15, 2, 2014).
In the heaven of the son, however, Dante is able to inscribe himself into the Florentine nobility. Significant from this perspective is Cacciaguida’s explicit statement, at the end of Paradiso 15, that the Emperor Conrad III knighted him: “ed el mi cinse de la sua milizia” (he gave me the girdle of his knighthood [Par. 15.140]).
Although the pilgrim glories in his noble ancestry, the poet immediately registers the ephemeral nature of such glory, given the depredations of time. Our metaphorical cloaks can only get shorter, unless we find new material to add on a constant basis, for time’s scissors continue to cut away at whatever we create:
Ben se’ tu manto che tosto raccorce: sì che, se non s'appon di dì in die, lo tempo va dintorno con le force. (Par. 16.7-9)
You are indeed a cloak that soon wears out, so that if, day by day, we add no patch, then circling time will trim you with its shears.
The menacing tone that Dante thus insinuates into the opening sequence of Paradiso 16, through the metaphor of “time [that] goes around with its scissors” — “lo tempo va dintorno con le force” (9) — sets the stage for a canto that is darker by far than its predecessor.
Paradiso 16 continues the theme of Florentine history but now the poet deploys Florentine history in such as way as to problematize Paradiso 15. As I write in The Undivine Comedy, if “Paradiso 15 creates the mythical moment outside of time and history”, then “Paradiso 16 returns us to the world of time and to the sorrow of history” (p.137).
Where Paradiso 15 presents the idyllic and idealized Florence of yore, and uses history as a lens onto the best that human society can offer, Paradiso 16 tells of Florentine decay and factionalism. Now Cacciaguida uses the past in order to compare it to the present, saying, in the canto’s last verse, that in his day discord and factional hatred had not yet caused the Florentine lily to turn blood-red: “né per division fatto vermiglio” (nor was it made blood-red by factious hatred [Par. 16.154]).
The word “division” in verse 154 takes us back to Inferno 6, the Commedia’s very first canto of Florence, where we find Florence described as “la città partita” — “the divided city” (Inf. 6.61).
The pilgrim asks Cacciaguida “quai fuor li vostri antichi” (who were your ancestors [Par. 16.23]), reminding us of Farinata’s question to the pilgrim in another Florentine canto, Inferno 10: “Chi fuor li maggior tui?” (Who were your ancestors? [Inf. 10.42]).
Cacciaguida’s reply echoes the very language of Farinata, though of course this language is not destined to hurt Dante, like the language of Inferno 10, but to strengthen him. Farinata uses the locution “li maggior tui” and Cacciaguida uses the phrases “Li antichi miei” and “i miei maggiori”:
Li antichi miei e io nacqui nel loco dove si truova pria l’ultimo sesto da quei che corre il vostro annual gioco. Basti d’i miei maggiori udirne questo: chi ei si fosser e onde venner quivi, più è tacer che ragionare onesto. (Par. 16.40-45)
My ancestors and I were born just where the runner in your yearly games first comes upon the boundary of the final ward. That is enough concerning my forebears: what were their names, from where they came—of that, silence, not speech, is more appropriate.
As Dante had asked Ciacco in Inferno 6 to tell him the whereabouts of the previous generation’s great Florentines, only to learn that they are among the darkest souls of Hell, now he asks Cacciaguida to recount who were the greatest citizens of his era: “chi eran le genti / tra esso degne di più alti scanni” (who in that flock were worthy of the highest offices [Par. 16.26-27]).
In responding about the people who inhabited the Florence of his day, Cacciaguida returns to the theme of yet another Florentine canto, Inferno 16. There we learned about the “gente nuova e i sùbiti guadagni” (newcomers to the city and quick gains [Inf. 16.73]) who brought arrogance and excess — “dismisura” (Inf. 16.74) — to the city. Now Cacciaguida insists that in his day, before the “gente nuova” came into Florence, the city was pure and “unmixed”:
Ma la cittadinanza, ch’è or mista di Campi, di Certaldo e di Fegghine, pura vediesi ne l’ultimo artista. (Par. 16.49-51)
But then the citizens, now mixed with Campi, with the Certaldo, and with the Figline, were pure down to the humblest artisan.
It is interesting, as we struggle with immigration in a global world, to consider that for Dante the impurity that corrupted Florence, the “confusion de le persone” (mingling of the populations [Par. 16.67]) that he so deplores, was a result of influx from rural areas that are still well within the province of Tuscany. Indeed, most of these areas we would now consider Florentine suburbs. Certaldo, in verse 50, is the town where Boccaccio was born.
For Cacciaguida, the theme of Florentine impurity leads back to the theme of time’s scissors. Time is the great destroyer of what humans create. Given that cities themselves are subject to time, how could we not expect families and lineages to die out? Families and lineages are perforce like all our human creations, and therefore they too “possess their death”: “Le vostre cose tutte hanno lor morte” (Par. 16.79).
All our things — all human things — possess their death, are destined to die. These melancholy verses are the heart of Paradiso 16:
Se tu riguardi Luni e Orbisaglia come sono ite, e come se ne vanno di retro ad esse Chiusi e Sinigaglia, udir come le schiatte si disfanno non ti parrà nova cosa né forte, poscia che le cittadi termine hanno. Le vostre cose tutte hanno lor morte, sì come voi; ma celasi in alcuna che dura molto, e le vite son corte. (Par. 16.73-81)
Consider Luni, Urbisaglia, how they went to ruin (Sinigaglia follows, and Chiusi, too, will soon have vanished); then, if you should hear of families undone, you will find nothing strange or difficult in that—since even cities meet their end. All things that you possess, possess their death, just as you do; but in some things that last long, death can hide from you whose lives are short.
The key verse is verse 79: “Le vostre cose tutte hanno lor morte” (All your things have their death). In Mandelbaum’s beautiful translation: “All things that you possess, possess their death”. The rubric “vostre cose” includes:
- cities, as in the above citation (Luni, Urbisaglia, etc.)
- family lineages (“le schiatte” in the above passage, verse 76)
- language (hence in the previous canto the emphasis on Cacciaguida’s earlier form of Florentine)
Indeed, all human culture falls under the tragic rubric of “Le vostre cose tutte hanno lor morte”. The ultimate carrier of this message in Paradiso 16 is the catalogue of Florentine names — the “Florentine phonebook” of my title. These are names of great lineages, now in decline, the “alti Fiorentini / onde è la fama nel tempo nascosa” (noble Florentines, whose reputations time has hidden [Par. 16.86-87]). Time may have eclipsed their fame, but Dante caresses these names, records them, and in this way preserves them:
Io vidi li Ughi e vidi i Catellini, Filippi, Greci, Ormanni e Alberichi, già nel calare, illustri cittadini; e vidi così grandi come antichi, con quel de la Sannella, quel de l’Arca, e Soldanieri e Ardinghi e Bostichi. (Par. 16.88-93)
I saw the Ughi, saw the Catellini, Filippi, Greci, Ormanni, Alberichi, famed citizens already in decline, and saw, as great as they were venerable, dell’Arca with della Sannella, and Ardinghi, Soldanieri, and Bostichi.
The fact that Cacciaguida does not expect his descendant to recognize these names, because time’s scissors have shorn them of their fame, tells us everything that we need to know about what time does to human constructs. “Le vostre cose tutte hanno lor morte” indeed. The analysis that Dante here provides of time eclipsing fame — “la fama nel tempo nascosa” — is so compelling that it provides the model for Petrarch’s Trionfi.
These Florentine names are analogous to the names of the Greek tribes that set sail for Troy in the catalogue of ships in Book 2 of the Iliad. (Since Dante did not know the Iliad, this is a topos that he encountered through reading the Aeneid.) In other words, the recording of names is an epic topos, and the implications of writing these names have to be considered in the light of the mission of the epic poet. The mission of the epic poet is to preserve the names and the culture that they represent. Dante’s goal here is to preserve the culture that was embodied by those names, the culture whose passing he memorializes in Paradiso 16.. And, in fact, the names are still here, and we still know them.
Although Dante’s reader is confronted with the mortality of these names, he or she is also faced with the indelibility of the Florentine phonebook. For the task of the epic poet, as we shall see in the next canto, is nothing less than to record human history and thus to preserve it.