(For an overview on diagramming astronomy in the Commedia, including introductory diagrams, see here.)
The verses which, in Inferno 1, effectively constitute the poem’s first creation discourse, also make up the poem’s first astronomical reference.
Temp’ era dal principio del mattino,
e ’l sol montava ’n sù con quelle stelle
ch’eran con lui quando l’amor divino
mosse di prima quelle cose belle
As will frequently be the case throughout the Commedia, this reference to the stars is an indication of time – both the time of day and the time of year.
“Temp’ era dal principio del mattino” indicates that it is the beginning of morning and, therefore, that the Sun is just rising over the line of the horizon (“’l sol montava ’n sù”). The following lines then indicate that the Sun is rising in conjunction with the same stars (“quelle stelle”) as when Divine Love (“l’amor divino”) first created the universe and set the heavenly bodies into motion (“mosse di prima quelle cose belle”).
“Quelle stelle” here refers to the constellation of Aries. Medieval belief associated the creation of the universe with the Spring, which begins when the Sun enters the sign of Aries, the first sign of the Zodiac. Accordingly, the creation of the universe is correlated most precisely to the first degree of Aries, the very beginning of the wheel of the Zodiac. Since the Zodiac is a circle of 360 degrees, where each of the 12 signs occupies 30 degrees, astrologers can calculate the precise degree-placement of a planet as it traverses the Ecliptic. Therefore, when the Sun “enters” a sign, it is momentarily located on the first degree of that sign. So, if the Sun has just entered Aries, it is thus located at the first degree of Aries. That said, the text doesn’t specify where in the sign of Aries the Sun is presently located. So, while the reference to the creation of the universe suggests that the poet is likely alluding to the first point of Aries, later astronomical references in the text will complicate such a reading. Due to the fact that astronomy is the only true marker of time, the aggregate of the astronomical references in the text should be able to locate the date of Dante’s journey, though different interpretations of a few contradicting astronomical references have led to debate.
This passage tacitly introduces the concept of a horizon line, which will come to play a fascinating role in the astronomical references made in Purgatorio as the pilgrim’s perspective shifts from northern to southern hemisphere. For this reason, it’s worth introducing the horizon line now. The horizon line is located on the plane at the Earth’s midpoint and is always perpendicular to the zenith at any given location. The zenith at your location right now, for example, is the highest point in the sky above you; in other words, it is the point in the sky directly above your head. If you were standing on the north pole, your zenith would be the north celestial pole, and your horizon would therefore be superimposed upon the equator (see sketch P = North Pole). But, if you were standing anywhere along the equator, your zenith would be located on the line of the celestial equator and, in this case, the horizon line at your position would intersect the northern and southern poles of the Earth (see sketch P = Equator). Finally, if you were somewhere in between the northern pole and the equator—in Florence, for example—your horizon line would be somewhere in the middle of those two extremes (see sketch P = Italy).
The two diagrams on the right are therefore both representations of the position of the Sun as described in these verses. The first diagram is from the perspective of someone standing at north pole, where the black line is both the equator and the horizon, the red line the Ecliptic. The diagram on the bottom is from the perspective of someone standing at the approximate latitude of Florence. The Sun is intersecting the horizon (blue), the celestial equator (black), and the Ecliptic (red). The Sun can only intersect all three of these lines during the equinox. This planetary snapshot represents the time indicated at the beginning of Inferno 1.
For the majority of Inferno 2 (vv. 43-126), Virgilio tells the pilgrim a story about his encounter with Beatrice, thus providing a pre-history for the outset of the poem in Inferno 1. It is in the midst of this story that Virgilio introduces the poem’s next astronomical periphrasis, “quel ciel c’ha minor li cerchi sui” (Inf. 2.78), and, in doing so, begins building out in earnest the cosmological framework that will bolster both the setting of the final cantica as well as a critical part of the poem’s philosophic system.
My diagrams focus on the information that Dante is providing for us in the places where he actually provides it, referencing source material when necessary in order to uncover the cosmic systems used to structure this imagined world. This world does not simply appear. Rather, the poet builds it out in time using a number of tools, astronomy chief among them. I do not want therefore to anticipate in my diagrams any of the poet’s inventions merely because they have become so prominent in our imaginary as readers of the Commedia: for the spectacular craft of the poet’s world-building is often wrought by his astronomical periphrases and discourses, and to anticipate them is to diminish the artifice. Consequently, it is for this reason that my diagrams do not yet feature Mount Purgatory. For a more elaborated explanation of the reasons behind this choice, see my Note on Method of Presentation here.
This astronomical periphrasis, which stands in for the Moon, is by no means emphasized in the canto: it immediately follows Beatrice’s climactic speech (vv. 58-76), it is presented only in an appositive to “donna di virtù,” and, after uttering it, Virgilio quickly moves to accept his charge and ask Beatrice an unrelated question (vv. 79-84). Nonetheless, it is exemplary of how Dante uses astronomy in the first two cantiche. Astronomy usually appears in the poem in the form of a periphrasis, it comes in quick and unexpected bursts, and provides us with bits of information that will eventually bear on the narrative itself. In this case, these verses already inform us that the first stop in Paradiso will have to be the Heaven of the Moon.
Dante’s cosmos consists of manifold concentric spheres which increase in size from the Moon up to the Primum Mobile, a concept he first articulated in the Convivio. While it is not always the case that readers will find consistency between these two texts, there is a decided congruence between the astronomy of the Convivio and that of the Commedia. In Convivio 2.3.7-8 Dante outlines his thoughts on the ordering of the heavens:
Ed è l’ordine del sito questo, che lo primo che numerano è quello dove è la Luna; lo secondo è quello dov’è Mercurio; lo terzo è quello dov’è Venere; lo quarto è quello dove è lo Sole; lo quinto è quello di Marte; lo sesto è quello di Giove; lo settimo è quello di Saturno; l’ottavo è quello de le Stelle; lo nono è quello che non è sensibile se non per questo movimento che è detto di sopra lo quale chiamano molti Cristallino, cioè diafano, o vero tutto trasparente. 8. Veramente, fuori di tutti questi, li cattolici pongono lo cielo Empireo, che è a dire cielo di fiamma o vero luminoso; e pongono esso essere immobile per avere in sé, secondo ciascuna parte, ciò che la sua materia vuole.
[The order of their position is as follows. The first in number is the one in which the Moon resides; the second is the one in which Mercury resides; the third is the one in which Venus resides; the fourth is the one in which the Sun resides; the fifth is that of Mars; the sixth is that of Jupiter; the seventh is that of Saturn; the eighth is that of the Stars; the ninth is the one which is not perceptible to the senses except for the movement mentioned above, and which many call the Crystalline (that is to say, the diaphanous or completely transparent) Heaven. Moreover, outside all of these the Catholics place the Empyrean Heaven, which is to say, the “heaven of flame,” or “luminous heaven”; and they hold it to be motionless because it has in itself, with respect to each of its parts, that which its matter desires (Lansing)]
This is precisely the ordering of the heavens that we will later find in Paradiso. Very much in line with medieval belief, Dante holds that each of the seven visible planets “resides” on the surface of massive spheres which constitute their heavens. The so-called eighth sphere is the heaven of the Fixed Stars, which houses all the constellations and stands at the reaches of the perceptible cosmos. The Primum Mobile, which is not physically perceptible except for a movement previously described (“non è sensibile se non per questo movimento che è detto sopra”), then follows the eighth sphere. The movement to which Dante refers here, which he discusses in Convivio 2.3.3-6, is what astronomers have termed “precession of the equinoxes.” This is a phenomenon whereby the constellations appear to slip across the sky from West to East at an incredibly slow pace. The discovery of this movement is what led to the logical supposition of the Primum Mobile, so as to not assign two distinct and complicated motions to one single heaven (the eighth). And finally, outside of the Primum Mobile is the Empyrean.
So, when Dante says, “quel ciel c’ha minor li cerchi sui,” he is referring to the heaven with the smallest celestial sphere, which is the Heaven of the Moon. “Ogne contento,” then, of the heaven of the Moon, would refer to everything that exists within the Moon’s sphere, which is, ultimately, the Earth. All that is called “sublunar” or “within the heaven of the Moon,” is simply another way of stating “all that which is on the Earth.” Dante uses a similar phrase in Inferno 7.64, when he says “[…] tutto l’oro ch’è sotto la luna,” by which he means “all the gold that is on the Earth.”
Or discendiamo omai a maggior pieta;
già ogne stella cade che saliva
quand’ io mi mossi, e ’l troppo star si vieta.
Virgilio declares in Inferno 7.98-99 that “già ogne stella cade che saliva / quand’ io mi mossi,” indicating that the time has come for the pilgrim and his guide to move on to the subsequent circle of Hell. This phrase, which seems innocuous enough, presents two issues: one epistemological, one interpretive. The first issue, which we ultimately will set aside, is how exactly it is that Virgilio can know that the stars, which were rising when he first moved, are now falling. As we learned in Inferno 3.22-23, it is impossible to see the stars in Hell: “Quivi sospiri, pianti e alti guai / risonavan per l’aere sanza stelle” (my emphasis). Yet Virgilio’s evident ability to track the movement of the stars implies that there is some means by which the souls in Hell can intuit the passage of time even without having any physical perception of it. That said, Dante does not ever clarify how it is that this is possible.
The second issue, which is interpretive by nature, regards the terms “cade” and “saliva.” How we choose to understand these terms also implicates how we understand “mi mossi.” Astronomically, there are two ways in which the terms “cade” and “saliva” can be read: one from a horizontal perspective and one from a global perspective. In the diagram above, “horizontal interpretation” and “global interpretation” are terms I use for the sake of clarity, as I have not seen any standard nomenclature used regarding these interpretations. Buti and Bertagni, for example, who argue for the global interpretation, simply say “Cade e saliva non possono riferirsi ad un orizzonte (in questo caso all’orizzonte di Gerusalemme […]) e indicare il ‘sorgere’ e il ‘tramontare’ delle stelle” (page 79). Edward Moore, one the other hand, who sides with the horizontal interpretation, does not mention the “global interpretation” at all (page 42), nor do any of the commentators I cite below mention that there is a discrepancy regarding the interpretation of these lines. Instead, critics tend to just gloss these verses as either an indication of 6 or 12 hours, depending on which interpretation they’re siding with.
On the horizontal interpretation, by which one takes into account the visible sky stretching from Eastern to Western horizon, critics have interpreted “saliva” to indicate a period of 6 hours during which the stars rise from the Eastern horizon to their highest point in the sky, the meridian, which implies that “cade” indicates another period of 6 hours during which the stars are falling from the meridian to the Western horizon. The horizontal interpretation thus only accounts for a section of the motion of the stars, namely, that section which is visible in the sky—i.e. above the horizon—at a given observer’s location. The fundamental issue with the horizontal interpretation is that from most observational loci on Earth, there is an apparent asymmetry regarding the stars’ path over the horizon. Some stars, like the Sun during the equinox, do appear to rise for roughly 6 hours and fall for another 6 hours regardless of one’s location on the Earth. But some of the fixed stars located closer to the northern celestial pole, for example, never actually fall below the horizon, while some other stars closer to the southern celestial pole are only ever above the horizon for a few hours each day. In essence, not every star in the sky crosses the horizon, rises for 6 hours, falls for another 6 hours, and then crosses the horizon again: depending on the position of the stargazer, some stars will rise for 8 hours and fall for 8 hours, spending only 8 hours a day below the horizon; some stars cross the horizon and rise for 4 hours, fall for another 4 hours, and then dip below the horizon for the remaining 16 hours of the day. In fact, some stars never dip below the horizon at all, and instead rise for 12 hours and fall for 12 hours, hanging perpetually in the sky, while others never cross the horizon and are therefore never visible in the northern hemisphere at all. For this reason, the horizontal interpretation hinges on an ideal revolving sky that features the uniform rising and setting of every star. In such a case, the rotational axis (the axis connecting the northern and southern poles of the Earth) would have to be on the same plane as the horizon line. Thus, the horizontal interpretation only ever holds in reality if we are standing on the Equator (see caveat to horizontal interpretation above), where the line of the horizon superimposes the rotational axis of the Earth. For any observers who are not at the Equator, then, it would not make sense to say “saliva” and “cade” and intend sorgeva and tramonta, since the stars are rising and setting at asymmetric intervals, ranging from just a few minutes to 12 hours.
If we consider what I call the global interpretation, by which one accounts for the entirety of the motion of the stars from their absolute nadir (lowest point) to their absolute zenith (highest point) around the entire celestial sphere, then every star can indeed be said to rise (salire) for 12 hours, and fall (cadere) for another 12 hours. While the global interpretation is, strictly speaking, the most doctrinally correct in astronomical terms, we will see that it is much more difficult to fit it into the poem due to the attendant “mi mossi” of Inferno 7.99.
The horizontal interpretation implies that Virgilio’s “mi mossi” refers to an event 6 hours in the past, while the global interpretation ties “mi mossi” to an event 12 hours in the past. Those who choose the horizontal interpretation claim that “mi mossi” refers back to Inferno 1.136 and Inferno 2.1, where Dante states clearly “Allor si mosse, e io li tenni dietro” (my emphasis) and then “Lo giorno se n’andava, e l’aere bruno […].” Thus, the horizontal interpretation holds that Virgilio is referring to the moment when he and Dante first started their journey, understood to be around 6 PM, just as day was departing (Inferno 2.1), neatly connected by the repeated verb. The information value of the horizontal interpretation is that Inferno 7.97-99 tells us that it’s now just after midnight, 6 hours having passed since Dante and Virgilio first left the selva oscura at the close of Inferno 1.
On the other hand, those who side with the global interpretation have a harder time determining where to put “mi mossi” given that, ultimately, the information value of the global interpretation has to be more or less the same as the horizontal interpretation: it’s still going to be just after midnight. Critics who prefer the global interpretation find themselves somewhat stuck since the next indication of real time will come in Inferno 11.112-115, where we will see that it’s still before sunrise. Since the Sun will rise around 6am given the proximity of the equinox, “mi mossi” cannot refer to Inferno 1.136 on the global interpretation: a duration of 12 hours from that moment would functionally postdate Inferno 7 to Inferno 11. So, in the end the only substantive difference between the two interpretations is the assertion that “ogne stella cade che saliva” means, on a purely technical level, that 12 hours have passed since some indeterminate moment when Virgilio first moved, rather than 6 hours since Inferno 1.136.
Buti and Bertagni’s Commento astronomico della Divina Commedia is an incredibly astute survey of astronomy in the Commedia. But in this particular instance it’s clear that the desire to defend a rigid, scientific technicality for the poet’s craft leads them to a rather strange conclusion. They claim that “mi mossi” does still refer to Inferno 1.136, but that it is midday at the close of the first canto and there are an inexplicable “6 ore ‘vuote’” (page 81) between Inferno 1.136 and Inferno 2.1. Others who side with the global interpretation claim instead that “mi mossi” is a reference to Inferno 2.118, “E venni a te così com’ ella volse,” the moment when Virgilio first moved from Hell at Beatrice’s behest. This latter solution is certainly preferable to leaving 6 hours unaccounted for between Inferno 1.136 and Inferno 2.1, but there is no clear indication of when it was that Virgilio spoke to Beatrice and departed from Limbo. At any rate, it quickly begins to feel like one is needlessly splitting hairs by forcing the global interpretation when the outcome, as regards Inferno 7, is precisely the same. What’s more is that, as previously stated, Virgilio cannot actually see the stars. As we have seen, the horizontal interpretation hinges on the location of the stargazer: in order to completely rule it out, we would have to know where on the Earth the observation of the stars’ rising and falling is made. As the epistemological issue will remain unanswered, so too will the interpretive question remain unsettled.
Given that the information value of the two interpretations yields identical results, siding with one or the other is ultimately immaterial. But the spirited and centuries-long desire to reconcile these verses to a particular temporal map of the journey does underscore the extent to which astronomy is continuing to serve Dante as a buttress to the poem’s mimetic quality. The rising and setting stars are brought into the poem as a narratological sleight of hand: in highlighting the movement of the stars (which Virgilio of course cannot even see), Dante manages to ground the poem in real time insofar as the movement of the stars is understood to be the unquestionable distillation of time itself since Plato (see Timaeus 37c-38c, cited at length below). And Dante does not just ground this particular moment of the poem in real time, but he links it to another scene in the fiction and anchors them both to historical reality. Thus, the result of this time-reference is to try to convince us, once more, that this fiction is built of real, historical truth. In doing so, it spurs the attentive reader to try to weave these time-references together in such a way as to chart the progression of the journey and locate it in historical time. The chart of commentaries below attests to the prevalence of such a desire.
If we want to try our hand at locating the poem in historical time, up to this point our clues to the date and time of the poem are the following.
(1) This journey takes place in the middle of Dante’s life (cf. Inferno 1.1), therefore between 1265 and 1321. The year 1300 stands out as the obvious choice, particularly in the context of Convivio 4.23.9-10:
Là dove sia lo punto sommo di questo arco [della vita], per quella disaguaglianza che detta è di sopra, è forte da sapere; ma nelli più, io credo, tra il trentesimo e ‘l quarantesimo anno; e io credo che nelli perfettamente naturati esso ne sia nel trentacinquesimo anno. E muovemi questa ragione: che ottimamente naturato fue lo nostro Salvatore Cristo, lo quale vollemorire nel trentaquattresimo anno della sua etade; ché non era convenevole la divinitade stare in cosa [in] discrescere […].
[It is difficult to determine where the highest point of this arc lies, because of the inequality mentioned above, but in most lives I believe it is attained between the thirtieth and fortieth year, and I believe that in those whose nature is perfect it is attained in the thirty-fifth year. My belief is compelled by the argument that our Savior Christ had a perfect nature and desired to die in the thirty-fourth year of his life, because it would not have been fitting for a divinity to enter into such a decline as this. (Lansing)]
Ultimately, though, we will have to wait until Inferno 21 for the precise declaration of the date of the voyage.
(2) It is springtime, most likely the day of the equinox (cf. Inferno 1.37-40).
(3) It has just passed midnight on the first day of the journey (cf. Inferno 7.97-99). The journey began in the morning in the selva oscura (cf. Inferno 1.37), and it was already nightfall by the opening of the second canto (cf. Inferno 2.1).
Interpretation of Inferno 7.97-99 by Authoritative Commentators:
|Horizontal Interpretation (see note to Inferno 7.98)||Global Interpretation (see note to Inferno 7.98)|
|Jacopo Alighieri, Jacopo della Lana, L’Ottimo Commento, Boccaccio, Benvenuto da Imola, Francesco da Buti, Anonimo Fiorentino, Cristoforo Landino, Alessandro Vellutello, Lodovico Castelvetro, G.A. Scartazzini, Tommaso Casini and S.A. Barbi, G.A. Scartazzini and G. Vandelli, Luigi Petrobono, Attilio Momigliano, Charles Singleton, Anna Maria Chiavacci Leonardi, and Robert Hollander. See also Edward Moore’s 1887 Time-References in the Divina Commedia (page 43).||Natalino Sapegno, Daniele Mattalia, Siro A. Chimenz, Giorgio Padoan, and Umberto Bosco and Giovanni Reggio. See also Buti and Bertagni’s 1966 Commento astronomico della Divina Commedia (pages 79-81)|
N.B: All commentaries accessed via dante.dartmouth.edu.
Now when the Father who had begotten the universe observed it set in motion and alive, a thing that had come to be as a shrine for the everlasting gods, he was well pleased, and in his delight he thought of making it more like its model still. So, as the model was itself an everlasting Living Thing, he set himself to bringing this universe to completion in such a way that it, too, would have that character to the extent that was possible. Now it was the Living Thing’s nature to be eternal, but it isn’t possible to bestow eternity fully upon anything that is begotten. And so he began to think of making a moving image of eternity: at the same time as he brought order to the universe, he would make an eternal image, moving according to number, of eternity remaining in unity. This number, of course, is what we now call “time.”
For before the heavens came to be, there were no days or nights, no months of years. […]
Time, then, came to be together with the universe so that just as they were begotten together, they might also be undone together, should there ever be an undoing of them. And it came to be after the model of that which is sempiternal, so that it might be as much like its model as possible. For the model is something that has being for all eternity, while it, on the other hand, has been, is, and shall be for all time, forevermore. Such was the reason, then, such the god’s design for the coming to be of time, that he brought into being the Sun, the Moon and five other stars, for the begetting of time. (37c-38c)
Ma non cinquanta volte fia raccesa
la faccia de la donna che qui regge,
che tu saprai quanto quell’ arte pesa.
In Inferno 10 Farinata degli Uberti provides the pilgrim the following prophecy: within fifty full moons you will know the difficulty of returning from exile. Despite its importance, the prophecy’s historical account of Dante’s experience of exile lies outside the scope of this astronomical study. My focus here is on the indication of time Farinata uses: fifty lunar cycles. The Moon is implicated by the periphrasis, “fia raccesa / la facia de la donna che qui regge,” the reference being to Proserpina, traditionally associated with the moon. So, how long is fifty full moons?
Unlike the Sun, the Moon does not shine with its own light, and this was understood to be the case since antiquity. The phase of the Moon is thus determined by its position relative to the Sun: when the Moon stands between the Sun and the Earth, there is a new Moon in the sky, as the entirety of the Sun’s light falls on the side of the Moon that faces away from the Earth; likewise when the Moon is on the opposite side and it is the Earth instead that stands between the Sun and the Moon, there is a full Moon in the sky, as the entirety of the Sun’s light falls on the side of the Moon that faces the Earth. In the Ptolemaic system, the Sun and Moon are both understood to be satellites of the Earth, meaning we could reword this to say that there is a full Moon when the Moon and Sun are in opposition (180-degree difference on the Ecliptic), while there is a new Moon when the Sun and Moon are conjunct one another (0-degree difference on the Ecliptic). The crescent, quarter, and gibbous Moon are each intermediate phases which occur between the new and full Moon: the crescent occurs when less than half the Moon is lit; the quarter occurs when precisely half the Moon is lit; the gibbous occurs when the Moon is more than half lit, but not yet fully lit. In the diagram above, adapted from Buti and Bertagni’s diagram for the phases of the Moon (page 44), the outer circle represents a total view of the Moon while the inner circle shows the Moon’s appearance from the perspective of Earth and indicates the lunar phases.
The length of a single lunation (which is traditionally marked from new Moon to new Moon) can be ascertained by a somewhat lengthy observation, or by means of a quick observation and some simple calculations. The former method is rather intuitive, though more approximate: we could just count the days from one new moon to the next, which would turn out to be a period of approximately twenty-nine days. So, 29 [days from one full moon to the next] x 50 [full moons] = 1450 days / 365 [days per year] = roughly four years. This is the length of time indicated in Farinata’s prophecy.
Though slightly more involved, the latter method is more precise and a truer indication of how a medieval astronomer would have made the calculation. That said, it yields the same result. On any given night, we could step outside at midnight and mark the location of the Moon in the sky, relative to the nearest star. Recall that the Moon is one of the “wandering stars” while the constellations are considered “fixed stars;” it is this fixity that will make it possible for us to calculate the length of a lunation in a single day. On the following night we could step outside and mark the new location of the Moon relative to that same star. While everything in the sky—including the fixed stars—spins about the celestial polar axis each day from East to West, only the wandering stars move about the Ecliptic from West to East (again: hence “wandering” stars). So, over the course of 24 hours we would come to find that the Moon appears to have traveled a distance of approximately 13-degrees of the 360-degree Ecliptic (cf. Buti e Bertagni, page 43; cf. Brunetto Latini: “Ora è leggier cosa a sapere in che segno rimane lo Sole. E poi che l’uomo sa ciò, e’ può leggermente sapere ov’è la Luna, chè ella si dilunga ciascun dì dal Sole 13 gradi […],” book II, cap XLIX). We could make this same observation for the Sun and note that the Sun, too, is travelling East to West along the Ecliptic at a pace of about 1-degree per day.
Now for a bit of math which will allow us to use this information to calculate the length of the lunar cycle. As the diagram above highlights, the Moon is full when it is located 180-degrees opposite the Sun, which we can take that as our starting point. From here, for the Moon to be full again, it will need to travel at least another full 360-degrees: 360 [degrees] / 13 [degrees per day] = approximately 27.5 days. If the Sun were to be stationary in the sky, then the lunar cycle would simply be 27.5 days. The Sun is not stationary, though, and appears to be moving at 1-degree per day. So, in the time it takes the Moon to round the entire Ecliptic, the Sun has traveled another 27.5-degrees. At 13-degrees per day, the Moon will come to reach again its position precisely opposite the Sun in a little over two days’ time, as it makes up this extra 27.5-degrees. Of course, we must also factor in the extra two degrees the Sun travels in those two days, which the Moon will then travel in just a few hours. At any rate, we arrive at the same conclusion: the lunar cycle is a period of approximately 29.5 days, again indicating that fifty full Moons will occur in a period of roughly four years.
Ma seguimi oramai, che ’l gir mi piace;
ché i Pesci guizzan su per l’orizzonta,
e ’l Carro tutto sovra ’l Coro giace,
Readers of Dante in the 21st century face a host of challenges, some linguistic and others cultural. Perhaps it is strange to consider that among these challenges one is a direct result of light pollution. Short of traveling to a designated dark sky zone, it is near impossible to fathom the night sky as it once appeared, unencumbered by the glow of artificial nighttime lighting. Of course, this was the norm for Dante and his contemporaries, who could use the relative position of the constellations to tell time at night.
Virgilio thus provides a snapshot of the night sky in Inferno 11.112-115, serving as the fourth indication of time in the poem (following Inferno 1.37-41; Inferno 2.1; Inferno 7.97-99). The information of these verses is that Pisces is just now flitting above the horizon, while the Wagon (Ursa Major) is laying over Caurus (the north-western wind). To determine the time indicated by this utterance, we must recall that the Sun is in Aires, the first sign of the Zodiac. Pisces, on the other hand, is the twelfth sign of the Zodiac, therefore the sign that crosses the horizon just before Aries. From this we can already ascertain that the Sun has not yet risen.
While a solar day is the amount of time it takes for the Earth to rotate such that the Sun appears to travel from the meridian (the highest point in the sky; noon) on one day to the meridian on the next, a sidereal day is the amount of time it takes for the Earth to rotate such that any of the fixed stars appears to travel from meridian to meridian. We recall that everything rises on the eastern horizon. Since, in the Ptolemaic understanding of the cosmos, the Sun is a wandering star that moves from West to East at a rate of 1-degree per day, the solar day—which we know to be 24 hours long—is slightly longer than the sidereal day, which is only 23 hours and 56 minutes long. The 1-degree eastward displacement of the Sun each day with respect to the fixed stars is what results in this slight 4-minute difference between the solar and sidereal day.
So, if it takes 23 hours and 56 minutes for the fixed stars to appear to make one full rotation, then a new sign of the Zodiac will appear on the eastern horizon just under every two hours. Therefore, if Pisces is just now darting over the horizon, it means we are just about two hours away from sunrise. The location of Pisces alone is enough to indicate the general time at this point in the journey, though we are also given information about Ursa Major (“’l Carro”). The diagram above is an approximate depiction of all the stars which appear in the sky above Jerusalem in the Spring, moments before sunrise. The two which Virgilio chooses to highlight are marked: (1) Pisces darting over the horizon and (2) the carro—“wain” or “wagon,” i.e. Ursa Major—located in the northwestern quadrant. The light blue line is the Ecliptic, which of course is not a visible line in the sky. Other than Ursa Major, only the constellations of the Zodiac are labeled, along with Ursa Minor and the North Star, Polaris.
Boccaccio in his Esposizioni sopra la commedia di Dante (accessed via dartmouth.dante.edu) echoes the precise language used by Isidore to describe the northwestern wind, Caurus:
Boccaccio: “l’ottavo [vento] chiamano ‘coro’ o vero ‘maestro’, il quale è tra ponente e tramontana: e chiamasi coro per ciò che compie il cerchio, il quale viene ad essere in modo di coro, cioè di quella spezie di ballo il quale è chiamato ‘corea’.” (ad locum)
Isidore: Corus est qui ab occidente aestivo fiat. Et vocatus Corus quod ipse ventorum circulum claudat, et quasi chorum faciat. [Corus is the one that blows from the west in the summer, and it is called Corus because it closes the circle of winds, and makes them like a ring-dance (chorus) (Barney, et al. translation)] (book XIII, xi)
If we were able to see the sky adorned with the lights of the firmament, we could sit and watch at night as these stars spin from East to West around Polaris, the northern pole of the celestial axis. Indeed, there can be no doubt that, from time to time, Dante himself would have sat to admire this nightly spectacle.
–Louis J. Moffa, Jr. (2020)
Alighieri, Dante. Convivio. ed. Gianfranco Fioravanti. Mondadori, 2019.
Alighieri, Dante. Il Convivio (The Banquet). trans. Richard H. Lansing. Garland Library of Medieval Literature, 1990.
Boccaccio, Giovanni. Esposizioni sopra la Commedia. ed. Giorgio Padoan. Milano, Mondadori, 1964. 11.83, pp. 557-558
Buti, Giovanni, and Renzo Bertagni. Commento astronomico della Divina Commedia: rassegna analitica con una parte generale sistematica e una appendice critica. Sandron, 1966.
Isidore of Seville, Saint. Isidori Hispalensis Episcopi Etymologiarum Sive Originum Libri XX. ed. W. M. (Wallace Martin) Lindsay. Clarendon Press, 1911.
Isidore of Seville, Saint. The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. ed. and trans. Stephen A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Bach, and Oliver Berghof. Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Latini, Brunetto. Il Tesoro di Brunetto Latini. Luigi Gaiter, P. Chabaille, and Bono Giamboni. G. Romagnoli, 1877
Moore, Edward. Time-References in the Commedia and their Bearing on the Assumed Date and Duration of the Vision. Nutt, 1877.
Plato. “Timaeus” in Complete Works. eds. John M. Cooper and D. S. Hutchinson, Hackett Pub, 1997. pp. 1224–1291
Recommended Citation: Moffa, Jr., Louis J. “Astronomical Diagrams of Inferno.” Digital Dante. Columbia University Libraries, 2020.