In the first half of Paradiso 18 we are still in the heaven of Mars with Cacciaguida; in verses 68-69 the pilgrim and Beatrice are received in the sixth heaven—the “stella / sesta”—and we are in the heaven of Jupiter. Hence, Paradiso 18 is a transitional canto like Paradiso 14 (where we began in the heaven of the sun and ended in the heaven of Mars).
In discussing the heaven of Mars I have stressed the “epic” features of the fifth heaven. It is a heaven that is saturated with the particular culture of Florence: clothes, sport, dowries, language, and shared stories of origins, as passed down by mothers to children. It is saturated with the history of Florence, embedded in all those family names, all those bloodlines. It is saturated with the geography of Florence, invoked in specific quartieri, porte, the ancient walls versus the newer walls.
The poet in this heaven therefore takes on the peculiarly epic work of the transmission and preservation of a specific people and their culture.
As discussed in the Introduction to Paradiso 16, its long catalogue of family names is an epic topos, comparable to the Iliad’s catalogue of ships (mediated through the Aeneid). Similarly, the poet’s desire to write in such a way that he will not be forgotten by “coloro / che questo tempo chiameranno antico” (those who call this time ancient [Par. 17.119-120]) is a typical trope of the epic poet.
And so in Paradiso 18 it is altogether appropriate that we should encounter real epic heroes—the protagonists of real epic poems.
These souls were of such great fame that their deeds would provide a rich theme for any poem:
spiriti son beati, che giù, prima che venissero al ciel, fuor di gran voce, sì ch’ogne musa ne sarebbe opima. (Par. 18.31-33)
are blessed souls that, down below, before they came to heaven, were so notable that any poem would be enriched by them.
Thus, Cacciaguida names and singles out heroes of epic poems. They are: Joshua, Judas Maccabeus, Charlemagne, Roland, William of Orange, Renouard, Godfrey of Bouillon and Robert Guiscard.
A consideration of these heroes and their provenance is quite revealing. The first two are biblical heroes, Joshua and Judas Maccabeus. They are followed by the key heroes of Carolingian epic: the emperor Charlemagne himself (whence the word “Carolingian”), who lived from 742-814, and his most renowned paladin, historically Hruotlandus but Orlando in Italian and Roland in French, the hero of the Chanson de Roland. Then come Guillaume d’Orange, one of Charlemagne’s chief counselors and hero of the most extensive epic cycle of the Middle Ages, and Renouard, a legendary Saracen convert of Guillaume’s. The final two are Godfrey of Bouillon and Robert Guiscard. These are later heroes who fought against the Saracens, and many of their deeds or gestes continue the theme of Christian/Muslim conflict alluded to at the end of Paradiso 15.
Indeed, Godfrey of Bouillon (c. 1060 – 18 July 1100) was a medieval Frankish knight who was one of the leaders of the First Crusade from 1096 until his death. After the successful siege of Jerusalem in 1099, Godfrey became the first ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. He is the hero of Torquato Tasso’s epic poem, Gerusalemme liberata (Jersusalem Delivered).
Later in this canto Dante invokes the “diva Pegasea” (Par. 18.82), a generic Muse who stands for the inspiration of poetry itself. Strikingly the poet reverses the dictum of Paradiso 16 regarding the death of cities, or at least attenuates it. The poetic Muse empowers genius, giving it glory and longevity—and at the same time confers these benefits on “cities and kingdoms” (84). It is to this Muse that the poet asks for the light to describe the figures that he saw in the heaven of Jupiter:
O diva Pegasea che li ’ngegni fai gloriosi e rendili longevi, ed essi teco le cittadi e ’ regni, illustrami di te, sì ch’io rilevi le lor figure com’io l’ho concette: paia tua possa in questi versi brevi! (Par. 18.82-87)
O godly Pegasea, you who give to genius glory and long life, as it, through you, gives these to kingdoms and to cities, give me your light that I may emphasize these signs as I inscribed them in my mind: your power—may it appear in these brief lines!
From the ruddy/bloody vehemence of the heaven of Mars, Dante moves to the candid whiteness and temperate affect of Jupiter: “lo candor de la temprata stella / sesta” (Par. 18.68-69). The heaven of Jupiter is the heaven of Justice—hence “temprata”, balanced, like the scales of Justice—and the souls here proclaim the centrality of justice in earthly governance. They do so with their very selves, obligingly forming a sentence of thirty-five letters for us and for the pilgrim to read. They thus confirm the identity of souls and signs, and further the conflation of life and text, as discussed vis-à-vis the principle of exemplarity announced by Cacciaguida at the end of the previous canto.
The souls of the heaven of Jupiter engage in a kind of divine sky-writing, taking the shape of letters for Dante to read. The letters spell the first verse of the Book of Wisdom, attributed to Solomon. Solomon, we recall, was the fifth soul of the first circle of the heaven of the sun, celebrated for his “prudenza regal”, the specific type of wisdom appropriate for a king. The verse cited in Paradiso 18 was considered a commandment for rulers: “DILIGITE IUSTITIAM QUI IUDICATIS TERRAM”—“Love justice you who rule the earth”.
The message written out by the souls is a solemn one, deeply connected with the Commedia’s serious theme of social justice, but the language here is light and airy: the souls are compared to birds, flying, singing, and moving about.
There is much stress on representational/painterly language used in this section of Paradiso 18, and a strong link between this divine sky-writing and the divine engravings on the terrace of pride in Purgatorio 10-12. In both cases God is highlighted as artist/fabbro.
The souls eventually settle on the final M, “on the “M of the fifth word”: “nell’emme del vocabol quinto” (Par. 18.94). This whole passage is full of grammatical and linguistic terminology and is an intense example of the hyper-literacy of the Commedia. The shape of the gothic M then transforms itself, its stem elongating to form the head and neck of a heraldic eagle (Par. 18.107).
Here is a diagram that visualizes the transformation of gothic M into a heraldic eagle:
(The diagram is from Anna Maria Chiavacci Leonardi’s commentary to Paradiso 18, p. 385.)
This is the eagle of justice, the “sacrosanto segno” of Paradiso 6 made visible. In the spirit of the words written in the sky by the souls, there will be much condemnation of bad rulers in this heaven. Rulers who did not “love justice” will be featured in an acrostic (another kind of visibile parlare) at the end of Paradiso 19.
Paradiso 18 ends with a ferociously sarcastic indictment of the Church and Pope John XXII, continuing the theme of writing and literacy that is so important in this canto. As compared to the divine sky-writing, which is written by God in history itself and cannot be cancelled, as compared even to human epic poets who do their best to keep the history of cities and families from being cancelled by time, John XXII writes only in order to cancel what he writes:
Ma tu che sol per cancellare scrivi, pensa che Pietro e Paulo, che moriro per la vigna che guasti, ancor son vivi. (Par. 18.130-32)
But you who only write to then erase, remember this: Peter and Paul, who died to save the vines you spoil, are still alive.
The pope writes excommunications that he then commutes for money. He writes — deliberately and cynically — just to cancel what he wrote. Nothing could be further from the mandate of an epic poet.