Paradiso 27 is part militant, part mystical, and part polemical. The militant part focuses on the Church and the Papacy.
In verse 11 “the soul who came first”, namely Saint Peter, begins to speak again. He gives vent to one of the Commedia’s toughest invectives against the Church, which takes up the first half of Paradiso 27, coming to conclusion in verse 66.
The first Pope condemns the papacy in extraordinarily strong terms, calling the current Pope (Boniface VIII) a usurper and referring to the papal throne as vacant:
Quelli ch’usurpa in terra il luogo mio, il luogo mio, il luogo mio, che vaca ne la presenza del Figliuol di Dio, fatt’ha del cimitero mio cloaca del sangue e de la puzza; onde ’l perverso che cadde di qua sù, là giù si placa. (Par. 27.22-27)
He who on earth usurps my place, my place, my place that in the sight of God's own Son is vacant now, has made my burial ground a sewer of blood, a sewer of stench, so that the perverse one who fell from Heaven, here above, can find contentment there below.
As we read this passage, we should consider the response of many of Dante’s early readers, who were amazed to find such harshly critical language in paradise, and in the mouth of an apostle.
The Bosco-Reggio edition of Paradiso, commenting on the language of this invective, notes that the verb usurpare (“usurpa” in Par. 27.22) is not intended to suggest that the election of Boniface was illegitimate, as some of his enemies believed. The editors point to Purgatorio 20.86-90 as proof that Dante considered Boniface the legitimate Pope. They claim that Dante sees the papacy as “vacant” only “ne la presenza del Figliuol di Dio” (in the sight of God’s own Son [Par. 27.24]), not in the presence of men.
Others have argued the case differently, depending on their degree of investment in the idea that Dante supported the radical wing of the Franciscan order. I am not supporting that argument, but rather noting that Dante’s language in this passage is extreme and was guaranteed to cause controversial readings.
In verse 67 Dante begins the transition out of the heaven of the fixed stars, describing the souls who begin to drift upwards toward the Empyrean like snowflakes that go up rather than down (67-72). Beatrice now tells Dante to cast his gaze down in order to see how far he has come: “Adima / il viso e guarda come tu se’ vòlto (Let your eyes look down and see how far you have revolved [77-78]).
As discussed in the Introduction to Paradiso 22, the eighth heaven is framed with moments of controlled Orphism, when Beatrice instructs the pilgrim to look back at earth and at the path that he has traveled. The first such moment is at the end of Paradiso 22. We have now arrived at the second and last such occasion.
In order to measure the distance he has traversed, the narrator situates himself with respect to the time that has passed since he looked down before: “Da l’ora ch’ïo avea guardato prima” (from the time when I looked down before ). This conflating of space and time—calculating distance by measuring time, telling time by measuring space—is a harbinger of moving beyond the space-time continuum altogether.
Dante defines the distance he has traveled through the zodiac since he first looked down in terms of the trajectory sailed by Ulysses:
sì ch’io vedea di là da Gade il varco folle d’Ulisse, e di qua presso il lito nel qual si fece Europa dolce carco. (Par. 27.82-84)
so that, beyond Cadiz, I saw Ulysses’ mad course and, to the east, could almost see that shoreline where Europa was sweet burden.
Dante thus names the Greek hero one last time, immediately following the canto where Adam’s sin was defined—in “Ulyssean” code—as the “trapassar del segno” (Par. 26.117). We have known for a long time that Ulysses serves the role of Adam in Dante’s personal mythography; here Dante refers to the classical hero right after meeting his biblical counterpart.
A key sign of Ulysses’ irreducibility, of the fact that he is not just any sinner in Malebolge, is his sustained presence in the poem: he is the only single-episode sinner (with the exception of Nimrod, whom I consider an echoing talisman of overweening pride in human endeavor) to be named in each cantica of the Commedia.
In Paradiso 27.99 Beatrice’s gaze propels Dante into the ninth heaven: “e nel ciel velocissimo m’impulse” (and thrust me into heaven’s swiftest sphere). The “ciel velocissimo” is the Primum Mobile.
The heaven of the fixed stars, a heaven consecrated to difference and dialectic, gives way to the equality of the Primum Mobile, whose parts are so uniform—“sì uniforme son” (101)—that there is no way of knowing which section was chosen for the pilgrim’s entry.
The entrance into the Primum Mobile is marked by absolute vitality, supremity, and uniformity:
Le parti sue vivissime ed eccelse sì uniforme son, ch’i’ non so dire qual Bëatrice per loco mi scelse. (Par. 27.100-02)
Its parts were all so equally alive and excellent, that I cannot say which place Beatrice selected for my entry.
Dante now works very hard to say what the Primum Mobile IS, beginning in verse 106. The whole world has its origin here, and “here” is no other place than the mind of God:
La natura del mondo, che quieta il mezzo e tutto l’altro intorno move, quinci comincia come da sua meta; e questo cielo non ha altro dove che la mente divina, in che s’accende l’amor che ’l volge e la virtù ch’ei piove. (Par. 27.106-11)
The nature of the universe, which holds the center still and moves all else around it, begins here as if from its turning-post. This heaven has no other where than this: the mind of God, in which are kindled both the love that turns it and the force it rains.
We cannot discount the importance of verses like “e questo cielo non ha altro dove / che la mente divina” (This heaven has no other where than this: the mind of God [109-10]): Dante is signaling that we are going beyond the space-time continuum, into the mind of God.
But the discourse of unity—the discourse that tries to conjure God’s everything-all-at-onceness—is sustained for only twenty-one verses (100-120). In these verses the poet relies on paradox (the all-places that is no-place), chiasmus (“amor”/“virtù”/“luce”/“amor” [111-12]), negation (“Non è suo moto per altro distinto”, No other heaven measures this sphere’s motion ), and metaphor: time hides its roots in the vase of the Primum Mobile, while its leaves are the visible and measurable motion of the lower heavens (118-19).
Attempts to define the Primum Mobile, to find language to approximate an ontological reality so far beyond human comprehension, can only be sustained so long. In verse 121, the sacred poem “jumps”. An apostrophe to cupidigia takes center stage and we are suddenly flung into a sea of greed:
Oh cupidigia che i mortali affonde sì sotto te, che nessuno ha podere di trarre li occhi fuor de le tue onde! (Par. 27.121-23)
O greediness, you who—within your depths— cause mortals to sink so, that none is left able to lift his eyes above your waves!
This brusque transition from the high physics that locates the roots of time in the Primum Mobile to the cupidigia that submerges mortals beneath its metaphoric waves is typical of the narrative texture of Paradiso 27.
The polemical tone on human greed and immorality continues, modulating at the canto’s end into a prophecy of divine aid that will make the fleet run straight and true fruit follow the flower:
che la fortuna che tanto s’aspetta, le poppe volgerà u’ son le prore, sì che la classe correrà diretta; e vero frutto verrà dopo ’l fiore. (Par. 27.145-48)
this high sphere shall shine so, that Providence, long waited for, will turn the sterns to where the prows now are, so that the fleet runs straight; and then fine fruit shall follow on the flower.