Now that we have been “congiunti con la prima stella” (Par. 2.30) and are in the heaven of the moon, we are ready to experience our first encounter with a blessed soul. In this canto Dante will meet Piccarda Donati. She is the sister of Forese Donati, the old friend from Florence with whom Dante had a nostalgic interaction on purgatory’s terrace of gluttony. Forese died in 1296; for Piccarda we have less precise information, and place her death at the end of the thirteenth century. Dante’s intimacy with Forese is such that, when he meets Forese on the terrace of gluttony in purgatory, he asks his friend about the whereabouts of his sister:
«Ma dimmi, se tu sai, dov’è Piccarda; dimmi s’io veggio da notar persona tra questa gente che sì mi riguarda.» «La mia sorella, che tra bella e buona non so qual fosse più, triunfa lieta ne l’alto Olimpo già di sua corona.»(Purg.24.10-15)
“But tell me, if you can: where is Piccarda? And tell me if, among those staring at me, I can see any person I should note.” “My sister—and I know not whether she was greater in her goodness or her beauty— on high Olympus is in triumph; she rejoices in her crown already.”
Piccarda is “already in triumph in high Olympus” (Purg. 24.15) because, like her brother Forese, her death is very recent. Her position as already a blessed soul in paradise betokens a very swift ascent up the mountain of purgatory.
Despite her swift ascent through purgatory, Piccarda’s location in paradise seems (literally) inferior. There appear to be lower and higher heavens in paradise, heavens that are therefore farther from and closer to God, and we meet Piccarda in the lowest heaven (also the slowest heaven, because the heavens move more speedily as they get closer to God and to the Empyrean). It seems to be incontrovertibly the case that if one is in “la spera più tarda” (the slowest sphere [Par. 3.51]), as Piccarda describes her home, one is in the least valuable celestial real estate.
Beatrice explains to the pilgrim that these souls are “relegated” here—a strong choice of verb that does nothing to minimize our developing sense of a lower order of bliss—because of unfulfilled vows:
vere sustanze son ciò che tu vedi, qui rilegate per manco di voto. (Par. 3.29-30)
what you are seeing are true substances,
placed here because their vows were not fulfilled.
We will learn in Paradiso 9 that the first three heavens are shadowed by the earth, and the result is that the souls of these heavens are characterized negatively: those who did not fulfill their vows (moon), those who lived with too much earthly ambition (Mercury), and those with too great an inclination toward eros (Venus).
Piccarda’s language stresses her lowliness, prompting Dante-pilgrim to ask a naive but all-important question. It is an important question because it refocuses the paradox of the One and the Many that governs the Paradiso, as articulated in its opening terzina: the glory of the mover of all things penetrates a “Uni-verse” that is by definition One and yet that glory penetrates differentially, “in una parte più e meno altrove” (in one part more and in another less [Par. 1.3]).
So now Dante-pilgrim asks Piccarda whether she experiences unhappiness at being so far from God, in the lowest of the heavens. Does she want a higher place where she can see more? And where she could be more “friends” with God? The childlike simplicity of the pilgrim’s language only adds to the potency of the question, a question that brings to the surface all our unspoken concern about unfairness continuing on into the realm of justice itself.
Ma dimmi: voi che siete qui felici, disiderate voi più alto loco per più vedere e per più farvi amici? (Par. 3.64-66)
But tell me: though you’re happy here, do you desire a higher place in order to see more and to be still more close to Him?
The pilgrim’s question gives Piccarda the opportunity to explain that heaven is a place where one’s desire is always satisfied, where desire cannot possibly exceed the measure of what one has, and where it is always aligned with the will of the transcendent power. In other words, the souls of paradise are completely happy with the grace that is apportioned to them:
E ’n la sua volontade è nostra pace: ell’è quel mare al qual tutto si move ciò ch’ella cria o che natura face. (Par. 3.85-87)
And in His will there is our peace: that sea to which all beings move—the beings He creates or nature makes—such is His will.
Dante-poet scripts this dialogue as a model of ambivalence, in the etymological sense of allowing two different positions to materialize and to receive equal value. He is trying to dramatize the two prongs of his paradox as delineated in Par. 1.1-3: the irreducible difference of the souls—the fact that they are “vere sustanze” as Piccarda says in Paradiso 3.29—can only be expressed via hierarchy, and yet the concept of hierarchy is in apparent contradiction with the concepts of unity and similitude.
This contradiction is forcefully expressed in the narrator’s summation of what he learned from Piccarda, where the crude Latinism “etsi”—“although”—pivots the syntax and the thought from unity to difference:
Chiaro mi fu allor come ogne dove in cielo è paradiso, etsi la grazia del sommo ben d’un modo non vi piove. (Par. 3.88-90)
Then it was clear to me how every place in Heaven is in Paradise, though grace does not rain equally from the High Good.
In The Undivine Comedy I comment on the above terzina thus:
Everywhere in heaven is paradise, i.e., all heavenly locations are equally good; nonetheless, at the same time, grace is not equally distributed. This is a notion we can accept only if we cease to think in terms of space; otherwise, we run into the problem of all celestial real estate being equally valued despite not receiving the same goods and services. Moreover, if grace is not distributed d’un modo (a phrase that doubles in the Paradiso for igualmente), then it must perforce be distributed più e meno. And so we return to the paradox of the Paradiso’s first tercet, which Dante does not so much attempt to resolve as hold up for scrutiny, perusing it first from one perspective and then from another. Given that the problem of the one and the many is not one that Dante can, in fact, “resolve,” we nonetheless may note that our poet seems more to revel in it than to want to cover it over. (p 183)
The latter part of Paradiso 3 contains Piccarda’s poignant story of having been violently kidnapped from the cloister by her brother Corso, who wanted to give her in marriage in furtherance of his quest for power. She also introduces the Empress Costanza, mother of Frederick II, who like her had joined the order of Santa Chiara.
There is much in this story that echoes the story of Francesca, especially in that both women describe experiences of what they view as compulsion. In my essay “Dante and Cavalcanti: Inferno 5 in its Lyric and Autobiographical Context,” p. 35, I show that Dante’s descriptions of Francesca and Piccarda both resonate to Aristotle’s definition of compulsion from Nicomachean Ethics 3.1. In Dante and the Origins of Italian Literary Culture, I write as follows:
I predict that a historicized unpacking of Dante’s representation of Piccarda, analogous to what I did with Francesca [in “Dante and Francesca da Rimini: Realpolitik, Romance Gender”], will prove very fruitful, for Dante signposts the connection of Piccarda to Francesca and to issues of compulsion and the will through his use of the Nicomachean Ethics in forging his contrapasso for Inferno 5. Aristotle’s examples of compulsion—“if he were to be carried somewhere by a wind, or by men who had him in their power”—resonate not only for Inferno 5 but also for Piccarda in Paradiso 3: Piccarda narrates a story according to which “men had her in their power” and precipitates a lengthy meditation on compulsion, not in its more rarified “Desire-compelled-me” variant, but in the brutally stark forms of the physical coercion imposed upon her. (pp. 373-74)