Paradiso 27 is part militant, part mystical, and part polemical. The militant part focuses on the Church and the Papacy.
It also contains a rhapsodic glance back at earth that highlights the pathway carved by Ulysses’ journey beyond Cadiz. The Greek voyager is here named for one final time.
In verses 10-11 the poet refers to the four saints with whom he has been speaking as “four torches” and indicates that the one of the four who came first, namely Saint Peter, begins to speak again. Saint Peter now 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]), and 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 here taking a position on 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 Commento on 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 situated at the end of Paradiso 22. We have now arrived at the second and last such occasion.
Dante thus bookends the heaven of the fixed stars with two extraordinary moments of looking back, which bracket the four intervening canti of the eighth heaven, Paradiso 23 to Paradiso 26. These moments belong to transitional canti: Paradiso 22, which transitions from the heaven of Saturn to the heaven of the fixed stars, and Paradiso 27, which transitions from the heaven of the fixed stars to the Primum Mobile.
The look backs are themselves part of the larger narrative of the incremental approach to the end of the poem. The pilgrim is looking back and gauging — measuring in physical and spiritual terms — the immense voyage that he has undertaken, and that is drawing to its end.
In Paradiso 27, the pilgrim looks back at the path that he has already traversed, the path that starts on earth, with all its creatures and all its multiplicity. In this way he stresses the importance of the eighth heaven as the first differentiator — the generator of creation.
In order to measure the distance that 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 one of a growing number of signals of having moved 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 performs the role of Adam in Dante’s personal mythography, as discussed in the Commento on Inferno 26. Now, in Paradiso 27, Dante refers to the classical hero right after the canto where he finally meets Ulysses’ biblical counterpart: Adam. That Adam is the “true” transgressor of Christianity is known to all of Dante’s original readers, but also dramatized by the poet in the events that occur around the despoiled tree in Purgatorio 32.
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” (they are so uniform ) — that there is no way of knowing which section was chosen for the pilgrim’s entry. This is a marked contrast to the pilgrim’s entry into the heaven of the fixed stars in Paradiso 22: that entrance was so specifically tailored to Dante that he arrived in his natal constellation of Gemini.
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 language is paradoxical, mystical, not reducible to human terms, not sustainable in human language. The whole world has its origin here, in the Primum Mobile, and yet the Primum Mobile has 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 the journey 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, 115]), 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 before they inevitably collapse. In verse 121, the sacred poem “jumps”. An apostrophe to cupidigia — that singular composite of human greed — 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 “onde” or waves of the metaphorical sea of cupidigia of Paradiso 27 recall the extraordinary metaphor of Paradiso 26, where Dante declares that his beliefs pull him ”from the sea of twisted love” — “dal mar de l’amor torto” (Par. 26.62) — and place him on the shore of “right love”: “e del diritto m’han posto a la riva” (Par. 26.63).
The 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 — and indeed of the “high” Paradiso in general, where Dante tries heroically to capture the Transcendent Principle in language. He tries until he reaches the limits of his ability to sustain discourse/language/ signification, until the act of “figuring paradise” — “figurando il paradiso” (Par. 23.61) — becomes unsustainable. And then the poem “jumps”: “convien saltar lo sacrato poema, / come chi trova suo cammin riciso” (the sacred poem is forced to jump, as one who finds his path cut off [Par. 23.62-3]).
The poem that finds its path cut off can jump in a positive way: into fervent prayers, powerful exclamations, ineffability topoi about the profundity of the divine, and similes and metaphors that attempt to capture that ineffable reality. Or it can jump in a negative direction: into indictments of greed and the papacy and the errors of human ethical comportment and governance. In Paradiso 23 we see the language of “positive” jumping, while in Paradiso 27, we find more of the “negative” variant.
The polemical tone on human greed and immorality continues for the rest of Paradiso 27, modulating at the canto’s end into a prophecy of divine aid. The time will come in which the fleet will run straight and when true fruit will 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.