In the first half of Paradiso 18 we are still in the heaven of Mars with Cacciaguida. Only in verses 68-69 are the pilgrim and Beatrice received by the sixth heaven: the “temprata stella / sesta” (the temperate sixth star), the heaven of Jupiter. Hence, Paradiso 18 is a transitional canto like Paradiso 14, where we begin in the heaven of the sun and end in the heaven of Mars.
In discussing the heaven of Mars I have stressed the “epic” features of the fifth heaven, by which I mean the features that are connected to the epic poet’s mission to memorialize and preserve a culture. Thus, the heaven of Mars 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.
In the heaven of Mars, the poet of the Commedia has taken on on the peculiarly epic work of the transmission and preservation of a specific people and their culture. As discussed in the Commento on 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 quintessential epic trope.
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.
Cacciaguida now names and singles out other souls in the heaven of Mars, all 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 or Charles the Great himself (whence the word “Carolingian”), who lived from 742-814, and his most renowned paladin, historically Hruotlandus. Known as Orlando in Italian and Roland in French, he is 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 Muslim convert of Guillaume’s. The final two are Godfrey of Bouillon and Robert Guiscard. These are later heroes who fought against the Muslims, 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 sixteenth-century chivalric 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: “li ’ngegni / fai gloriosi e rendeli lonvevi” (who give to genius glory and long life [ Par.18.82-83]). And it confers these same benefits on “cities and kingdoms”: “ed essi teco le cittadi e ’ regni” (84).
In other words, poetry can indeed preserve.
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” (the candor of the temperate sixth star [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” (regal prudence), the specific type of wisdom appropriate for a king. The verse from the Book of Wisdom that is written in the sky 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 profoundly 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 and painterly language in this section of Paradiso 18. God is here specifically called a painter: “Quei che dipinge lì, non ha chi ’l guidi” (He who paints there has none who guides him [Par. 18.109]). Moving into the shape of an eagle, the souls become a pictogram: “la testa e ’l collo d’un’aguglia vidi / rappresentare a quel distinto foco” (the head and the neck of an eagle I saw represented by that patterned fire [Par. 18.107-8]). The use of the verb rappresentare in Paradiso 18.108 is the second use in the poem, after Paradiso 4.47.
There is a strong link forged between the divine sky-writing of the heaven of Justice and the divine engravings on the terrace of pride. In both cases God is highlighted as artist/fabbro:
Moving into the shape of an eagle, the souls become a pictogram of sorts: “la testa e ’l collo d’un’aguglia vidi / rappresentare a quel distinto foco” (the head and the neck of an eagle I saw represented by that patterned fire [Par. 18.107-8]). As God is an artist on the terrace of pride, so here he is a writer and painter: “Quei che dipinge lì, non ha chi ’l guidi” (He who paints there has none who guides him [Par. 18.109]). And, lest we miss the connection to Purgatorio 10, it is underscored again in Paradiso 20, where we find among the just souls of this heaven the same two figures who, with the Virgin, served as purgatorial examples of humility: the introduction of David as “il cantor de lo Spirito Santo, / che l’arca traslatò di villa in villa” (the singer of the Holy Spirit, who transferred the ark from town to town [Par. 20.38-39]) cannot but recall the second engraving, in which David performed his humble dance before the ark; likewise Trajan is “colui che . . . la vedovella consolò del figlio” (he who consoled the widow for her son [Par. 20.44-45]), in an overt reprise of the episode that forms the subject of the third relief. (The Undivine Comedy, p. 129)
The souls eventually settle on the final M, “on the “M of the fifth word”: “Poscia ne l’emme del vocabol quinto / rimasero ordinate” (Then they took their order in the M of the fifth word [Par. 18.94-95]). Other souls then descend onto the apex of that M: “E vidi scendere altre luci dove / era il colmo de l’emme” (And I saw other lights descending on the apex of the M [Par. 18.97-98]). 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 from the Chiavacci Leonardi commentary that visualizes the transformation of gothic M into a heraldic eagle:
(The diagram is from Anna Maria Chiavacci Leonardi’s commentary to Paradiso 18, verses 97-99, p. 385.)
This whole passage is full of grammatical and linguistic terminology; it is an intense example of the hyper-literacy and self-conscious literacy of the Commedia.
The shape that the souls have formed is the eagle of justice: the “sacrosanto segno” that courses through Roman Providential history in Paradiso 6. That sacrosanto segno is now made visible by souls in the heaven of justice. 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 — yet another kind of visibile parlare in this heaven of divine sky-writing — at the end of Paradiso 19.
The eagle of the heaven of Jupiter is the first pictorial rather than geometric shape to appear in Paradiso, and is followed only by the “candida rosa” — white rose — of the Empyrean. The shapes we have seen thus far are the geometric circles of the heaven of the sun and the geometric (albeit also religious) Greek cross of the heaven of Mars. The remarkable trope of the speaking eagle, who speaks in the first person singular although composed of plural souls (this singular invention is presented at the beginning of Paradiso 19) is unique in Paradiso. It is a singular way of conjuring the issue of the One and the Many, and ultimately the mystery of the Trinity.
The pictorial rather than geometric nature of the eagle of Justice also underscores the governing trope of God as painter: ““Quei che dipinge lì, non ha chi ’l guidi” (He who paints there has none who guides him [Par. 18.109]).
Paradiso 18 ends on a completely different note, veering away from the aerial language and tone of the divine sky-writing. Now we find a ferociously sarcastic indictment of the Church and Pope John XXII, an indictment that continues, for all its difference in tonality, 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.
Dante here addresses John XXII, the pope who reigned from 1316 to 1334, calling him “tu che sol per cancellare scrivi” (you who only write to then erase), and exhorting him to remember the apostles Peter and Paul, who died to protect what he despoils. 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.