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8. Civitas and Love: Looking Backward from Paradiso viii1

© Brenda Deen Schildgen, CC BY 4.0

Brenda Deen Schildgen

‘Qui sarai tu poco tempo silvano
e sarai meco sanza fine cive
di quella Roma onde Cristo e romano’. (Purg., xxxii. 100-03)2

[‘Here shall you be short time a forester, and you shall be with me forever a citizen of that Rome whereof Christ is Roman’.]

‘sarebbe il peggio
per l’omo in terra, se non fosse cive?’
(Par., viii. 115-16)

[‘Would it be worse for man on earth if he were not a citizen?’]


In assuming the role of scriba dei,3 Dante makes the Commedia a progressive revelation4 of his understanding of divine providence as he comes closer to the ‘truth’ of the universe and the unfolding of eternal love (‘suo etterno amore’ (Par., vii. 33)). Beatrice’s explanation in Paradiso vii of how divine love, a love that renews the world, inspired the Incarnation radically alters the terms by which humans might understand the destiny of history and their purpose in it. This motif of love continues into Paradiso viii, the first canto in the Heaven of Venus, appears in Purgatorio viii and flickers in Inferno viii. Thus, there is symmetry among these cantos, in the vertical reading of the poem, but there is also a narrative or conceptual progression.5 The pilgrim’s increasing knowledge and understanding alongside the poet’s self-revelation constitutes the hermeneutical principle for exploring these three cantos as interrelated.

Focusing on the eighth cantos of the Commedia, this essay begins with Paradiso viii and retrospectively connects its concerns, persons and intellectual inquiries to those of Purgatorio viii and Inferno viii.6 Paradiso viii occupies itself with the core issues of the poem and highlights the poem’s ideological unity as it probes the source of human corruption and love7 and the connection of these to civitas, that is, to citizenship, membership in a community and the freedom of citizens.8 As such, it offers a stark contrast with the civil rancor that enters the poem vehemently in Inferno viii, although the ideals of friendship featured in Purgatorio vii and viii hint at the benefits of civic amity that Paradiso viii celebrates. But before delving into the heart of this discussion, let me briefly review how these cantos parallel one another and how they differ.

Structural and Rhetorical Parallels

The ninth cantos have been considered thresholds to the ‘domains proper’ of the respective canticles of the Commedia. Certainly, Inferno ix dramatizes the entrance to Dis, that is, Hell proper, and Purgatory ix, the entrance to Purgatory.9 We have gates to cities here and someone has to open them (Inf., viii. 15; Inf., ix. 88-90; Purg., ix. 73-129). But the eighth cantos, so carefully and tightly linked by themes, events, politics and philosophical issues with both the seventh and the ninth cantos, might well be considered the first phases of these thresholds. In fact, the threshold to Dis does indeed occur in Inferno viii, when Virgil and Dante are barred from entering, as ‘Chiuser le porte que’ nostri avversari’ [These our adversaries shut the gates] (Inf., viii. 115). Purgatorio viii, on the other hand, opens with a magnificent six-line simile, expressing nostalgia and likening the time of day to the sailor yearning for home and to the pilgrim who hears the bells of his town from afar as they mourn the passing of the day. The simile informs us that the first day in Purgatory is reaching nightfall, and thereby anticipates the first dream of the poem (in the following canto) in which the pilgrim will be transported to the gates of Purgatory. In Paradiso viii, rising into the third Heaven is so natural for Dante that he would not even notice the transition but for the fact that Beatrice’s increasing beauty causes him to realize that he has entered the Heaven of Venus (Par., viii. 13-15).

Structurally and rhetorically, cantos seven, eight and nine are linked by a form of enjambment: the beginning flows from the previous canto and the end into the following canto. For example, Inferno viii has the enigmatic opening, ‘Io dico seguitando’ [I say continuing] (Inf., viii. 1), that led Boccaccio to the theory that Dante had written the first seven cantos before his exile from Florence and was now returning to the poem. When the Fallen Angels rebuff Virgil at the end of Inferno viii, the canto does not conclude but continues into Inferno ix, where Virgil turns back towards the pilgrim.10 Purgatorio vii ends with Sordello’s long speech describing all the residents of the Valley of Princes; Purgatorio viii tells us the time (dusk), ‘Era già l’ora’ [It was now the hour] (Purg., viii. 1), and ends with Currado’s prophecy of Dante’s exile; while Purgatorio ix begins by telling us that in Purgatory it was nearly three hours after sunset (Purg., ix. 7-9). This kind of rhetorical enjambment is not apparent between Paradiso vii and viii, although the theme of Paradiso vii, ‘divine love’, most definitely continues. Enjambment does, however, make Paradiso viii run into ix, which continues the exchange between Carlo Martello and the pilgrim (Par., ix. 1-9). These three cantos in Paradiso thereby form a triptych that deals specifically with love, free will and divine providence.

In terms of dramaturgy, the Sevens are essentially static. The question and answer of philosophical discourse dominate in Inferno vii, despite its howling voices. In Paradiso vii, Beatrice alone speaks for most of the canto. The Garden of Repose in Purgatorio vii is an unchanging locus amoenus for princes rather than for philosophers and poets (with the exception of Sordello, Dante and Virgil, of course). The Eights, on the other hand, are replete with action and movement. Inferno viii features Phlegias’s boat running swiftly through the air like an arrow (Inf., viii. 13-15); his angry shouting (Inf., viii.18, 81); Filippo Argenti rancorously trying to pull Dante into the muddy waters with him (Inf., viii. 40); Virgil and Dante both expressing rage against Filippo (Inf., viii. 37-39, 41-42); the other sinners attacking Filippo (Inf., viii. 61); the jeering Fallen Angels scorning Dante and sending him on his way (Inf., viii. 82-93); and the dramatic moment of crisis before the closed gates of Dis in which the pilgrim loses trust in his guide’s reliability, ‘io rimango in forse, / che sì e no nel capo mi tenciona’ [I remain in doubt, as yes and no contend within my head] (Inf., viii. 110-11). The canto ends with the devils slamming the city gates in Virgil’s face, while Virgil ‘rase / d’ogne baldanza’ [shorn of all boldness] (Inf., viii. 118-19) awaits divine intervention.11 This canto, on the threshold of the city of disorder that is Hell, stresses the rancour that rules a failed and corrupt society, however efficiently such a society achieves its ends. Purgatorio viii has a similar range of action. The canto first observes a praying spirit, who sings the Te lucis ante and is joined by all the other souls (Purg., viii. 8-18), and then follows the group of five (Virgil, Dante, Sordello, Nino and Currado) as they watch two angels descend from Heaven to guard the valley (Purg., viii. 25-39); the pilgrim’s subsequent exchanges with Judge Nino (Purg., viii. 53-81) and Currado Malaspina (Purg., viii. 109-39) are interrupted by a liturgical drama, or ‘sacred representation’.12 Paradiso viii is less theatrical than its parallel cantos in Inferno and Purgatorio. Nonetheless, it brings together Beatrice’s increasing beauty; the glittering, dancing, singing lights (Par., viii. 19-30); the joyful singing of Hosanna; and the generous greeting spoken by Carlo Martello for everyone, ‘Tutti sem presti’ (Par., viii. 32). Carlo’s exchange with Dante expresses a copious emotional range from loving recognition, to nostalgia and regret, to an indictment of his family, and finally to philosophical discourse. As Benedetto Croce noted, together these details make the canto one of the most dramatic in the entire canticle.13

Thematic Parallels

Now to explore the themes of these cantos vertically. First, all three deal with contemporary historical persons and events, and with some aspect of Dante’s personal, local and, dare I say, provincial Florentine history. Inferno viii presents Filippo Argenti, ‘il fiorentino spirito bizzarro’ [the irascible Florentine spirit] (Inf., viii. 62), a Florentine of the Adimari family condemned by Cacciaguida (Par., xvi. 115-20), who allegedly benefited from Dante’s exile.14 Purgatorio viii brings Florentines together with fellow Tuscans and pan-European figures. Guelphs and Ghibellines find companionship with the appearance of Nino Visconti (Purg., viii. 53) and Conrad Malaspina (Purg., viii. 65). Nino was a staunch member of the Guelph party, even supporting the Florentine Guelphs against his Ghibelline-ruled city of Pisa. He was the grandson of Count Ugolino (Inf., xxxiii. 13), who had betrayed Nino in his struggle for power in Pisa. Conrad, according to Boccaccio (Decameron 2.6), was a Ghibelline whose family would help Dante in exile.15

Finally, Carlo Martello (1271-1295), the central figure of Paradiso viii (though he is not named), was in Florence in 1294 for a visit which, according to G. Villani, lasted twenty days and in which ‘gli fu fatto grande onore’ [he was treated with great honor].16 During this time, we are led to believe, he and Dante met (Par., viii. 31, 37). Carlo Martello was married to Clemence of Hungary (Par., ix. 1-2), daughter of Emperor Rudolf I, whom Sordello names among the negligent rulers (Purg., vii. 94). There are close links between this branch of the Angevin dynasty and Florence’s history. The oldest son of Maria of Hungary and Charles II, the Angevin king whose rule Sordello claims Apulia and Provence lamented (Purg., vii. 126), Carlo was crowned king of Hungary in 1292. He was heir to Provence and to the kingdom of Naples that, until the Sicilian Vespers in 1282, had extended to Sicily. Sicily had been lost due to his grandfather Charles I of Anjou (d. 1285), a Guelf who is also among the negligent rulers named by Sordello (Purg., vii. 113, 125). Charles I had defeated Manfred, become king of Sicily and Naples and, as Imperial Vicar in Italy, was Podestà of Florence for twelve years, creating a set of alliances that united most of the Italian peninsula.17 Sordello says of his son, Charles II, the father of Carlo Martello, ‘Tant’è del seme suo minor la pianta’ [as much is the plant inferior to its seed] (Purg., vii. 127). Thus, Dante presents a genealogy of kings that goes from the modestly good (Carlo I) to the bad (Carlo II) to the potentially ideal (Carlo Martello).18

Connected to this issue of local and pan-European history is a concern, both implicit and explicit in all three cantos, with civic life, politics and friendships. The bellicose atmosphere of Inferno viii vividly displays civil strife, one of the consequences of the rage punished in the muddy waters of the Styx. Virgil and Sordello’s demonstration of civic amity across thirteen hundred years (celebrated in Purg., vi. 70-75, 79-81 and Purg., vii. 1-21) foreshadows the friendly encounters of Purgatorio viii and contrasts with the diatribe against Italy in Purgatorio vi. With Virgil and Sordello keeping company for the three cantos (vi-viii), we see fraternal love and solicitude, virtues that can unite citizens;19 in Purgatorio viii, we witness contemporary examples of civic friendship: Dante, Nino Visconti (Purg., viii. 53-54) and Conrad Malaspina. Carlo Martello’s much commented-on greeting to Dante in Paradiso viii, as the first of a wave of joyous souls to follow, provides spirited evidence of civil society: ‘Tutti sem presti / al tuo piacer, perché di noi ti gioi’ [We are all ready at your pleasure, that you may have joy of us] (Par., viii. 32-33). His greeting contrasts radically with the slammed doors of Inferno viii. Partially because of the attention paid to public figures of Florence’s recent history, all three cantos also raise the question of kinship, and whether and why virtue does or does not run in families. This leads to a doubt, a ‘dubbio’, that Dante implicitly raises throughout the poem: how is it that good parents can bear bad children or bad parents good children? Carlo Martello, with his own genealogy a demonstration of this unpredictable pattern, addresses the question.

One final aspect that all three cantos share is the significant presence of angels. Dante, following Gregory the Great’s ‘functional approach’ to angels, assigns them a ‘structural role’, in which they aid, accompany, guard, guide or teach the souls.20 In Inferno viii, the Fallen Angels become the first to halt the progress of Dante and Virgil’s journey forward. Virgil – who stuns all the figures from his own epic pagan past: Charon (Inf., iii. 91-129), Minos (Inf., v. 7-24), Cerberus (Inf., vi. 22-33), Plutus (Inf., vii. 1-8) and even Phlegias (Inf., viii. 16-24) – proves impotent against the Fallen Angels (Inf., viii. 82-93) and is stopped at the gates of Hell. Many commentators have addressed Virgil’s inadequacy here on the spiritual journey.21 Opening the gates requires an act of grace in the form of an angel (Inf., viii. 128-30).22 For Dante-pilgrim at this point, there is no possible return except in a recidivist spiral backward, for the pilgrim must descend to the depths. The Fallen Angels, the first intelligences to create discord in the universe, are corrupt guardians over the disordered city of Dis. They constitute a threat not just to the pilgrim’s advance forward, but hover as essences of civic envy, enmity and cosmic rupture. By contrast, in Purgatorio viii, two angels, coloured green like the environment as the sign of hope and carrying blunt swords, appear at nighttime to safeguard the princely penitents, who are singing the Te lucis ante terminum (Purg., viii. 13), a prayer that asks the creator to protect them at night. Addressing the reader, Dante reminds us to sharpen our eyes, although it should be easy to see beyond the veil (Purg., viii. 18-20). The angels’ presence proves necessary when a counter-masque or sacred representation of the events that first brought rupture to the world in Eden threatens the peaceful environment: ‘una biscia, / forse qual diede ad Eva il cibo amaro, / Tra l’erba e’ fior venìa la mala striscia’ [a snake, perhaps such as gave Eve the bitter food. Through the grass and the flowers came the evil streak] (Purg., viii. 98-100). The angels chase ‘’l nostro avversaro’ away, the masque or sacred representation constituting a performance of the prayer and a vivid demonstration of the power of the theological virtue of hope.23

In Paradiso viii, the souls, Carlo Martello tells us, circle with a cluster of angels. Where in the Convivio (II. v. 13), Dante affirms that the angelic order of Thrones moves the Heaven of Venus, here – in Dante’s depiction of the Heaven of Venus itself – the heavenly Principalities (the ‘principi celesti’ (Par., viii. 34) assume this role.24 As the Heaven of Rhetoric (Conv., II. xiii. 13-14), Venus is associated with political order, just as the Principalities are in the order of angels. That Dante changes the angels who move the Heaven of Venus from his earlier work reinforces the political theme of Paradiso viii, which is here also connected to the issue of inclinations.25 Let us take a look at what Pseudo-Dionysus, whom Thomas Aquinas follows in this matter in the Summa Contra Gentiles (III. 80),26 writes of this order of angels in the Celestial Hierarchy:

It remains now to contemplate that final rank in the hierarchy of angels, I mean the godlike principalities, archangels, and angels... The term ‘heavenly principalities’ refers to those who possess a godlike and princely hegemony, with a sacred order most suited to princely powers, the ability to be returned completely toward the principle which is above all principles and to lead others to him like a prince, the power to receive to the full the mark of the Principle of principles, and by their harmonious exercise of princely powers, to make manifest this transcendent principle of all order. (Celestial Hierarchy, IX. 257B)27

Thomas Aquinas specifically states that this third angelic order, the Principalities, commands human hierarchies because in ‘human affairs there is a common good which is, in fact, the good of the state or a people. It falls to this order of angels to instruct leaders among men’.28 Not counting Henry VII, whose presence in Heaven is promised in Paradiso xxxi, Carlo Martello is the only ruler of Dante’s life-time whom the poet includes in Paradiso. Speaking as ‘noi’, in other words, as a community, Carlo informs Dante-pilgrim immediately that he travels with these celestial Principalities. Dante-poet thereby makes Carlo Martello a figura of the ideal ruler, a prince most suited to the ‘harmonious exercise of princely powers’.

Paradiso viii: A Retrospective Vista on Purgatorio viii and Inferno viii

With these broad structural and thematic parallels in mind, let us now turn again to Paradiso viii. It opens with a twelve-line description and history of ‘la bella Ciprigna’, ‘il terzo epiciclo’, the goddess-named planet that was honoured by ‘le genti antiche ne l’antico errore’ [the ancient people in their ancient error] (ll. 2, 3, 6). This exordium introduces the dichotomy that structures Charles Martel’s speech: love that destroys versus love that creates civic unity and order. It addresses the ancient error that assumes ‘folle amore’ is caused by Venus and her blind son, and it provides a retrospective lens through which to re-read Inferno and Purgatorio viii:

Solea creder lo mondo in suo periclo
che la bella Ciprigna il folle amore
raggiasse, volta nel terzo epiciclo;

per che non pur a lei faceano onore
di sacrificio e di votivo grido
le genti antiche ne l’antico errore;

ma Dïone onoravano e Cupido,
quella per madre sua, questo per figlio,
e dicean ch’el sedette in grembo a Dido;

e da costei ond’ io principio piglio
pigliavano il vocabol de la stella
che’ l sol vagheggia or da coppa or da ciglio. (Par., viii. 1-12).

[The world was wont to believe, to its peril, that the fair Cyprian, wheeling in the third epicycle, rayed down mad love; wherefore the ancient people in their ancient error not only to her did honor with sacrifice and votive cry, but they honored Dione and Cupid, the one as mother, the other as her son, and they told that he had sat in Dido’s lap; and from her with whom I take my start they took the name of the star which the sun woos, now behind her, now before.]

Initially, one might think these lines are merely meant to introduce the Heaven of Venus, the star that the Sun, or the source of love, woos; in fact, what Dante achieves here is an indictment of certain beliefs that he associates with the pagan world. While adopting Latinisms (‘periclo’) and echoes of ancient poetry (Ovid. Metam., x. 270 and Virgil Aen., i. 685, 718 for la ‘bella Ciprigna’, or Cupid on the lap of Dido) to characterize ‘le genti antiche’, he rhymes ‘Dido’ with ‘Cupido’ and ‘grido’ to highlight the error both in the Virgilian narrative of the mad love of Dido and in the perilous belief that humans have no freedom.

Dante-pilgrim had also raised the issue of the role of stars as suggested by Plato’s Timaeus in Paradiso iv,29 only to be roundly chastised by Beatrice, who showed him the defects in both Platonic and Averroistic thinking on this point.30 In Paradiso viii, the problem of the influence of the stars appears again; as G. Fallani notes, ‘the theme of the planets and their influence on human affairs constitutes the argument that disciplines the discussion’.31 Dante here detaches the planet Venus from its ancient lore, and in so doing reminds us of Virgil’s limitations, made evident in Inferno viii when the Fallen Angels bar his passage. Similarly in Purgatorio viii, it is not Virgil who can protect the pilgrim at night, but the angels who guard the valley, and in the following canto (Purgatorio ix), it is Lucy, not Virgil, who lifts the pilgrim to Purgatory proper. In these instances, we have Christian grace and free will pitted against ancient fatalism, a redeemed Venus triumphant over the Venus of disorderly desire. By putting all his verbs in the past tense, except ‘piglio’ [I take], which Dante contrasts with ‘pigliavano’ [they took], the poet condemns the ancient error. But he takes Venus’ name to contrast this dangerous, pagan view of love as ‘folle amore’ [mad desire] (Par., viii. 2) with the life-giving love that rules the heavens (‘l’amor che ’ciel governi’) (Par., i. 74) and that moves the sun and the other stars (‘l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle’) (Par., xxxiii. 145).32

This introduces a critical concern of the Heaven of Venus which has already been discussed as the reason for the Incarnation in Paradiso vii and explored in both Paradiso viii and ix. Paradiso viii addresses, that is, the natural order of the universe, the nature of human diversity, providence and the love between Creator and creatures as the motor that moves the universe. This love binds citizens together in contrast to the immoderate desires of individuals who shatter the common good.33

As the ‘lumi divini’ [divine lights] (Par., viii. 25) approach in a polyphonic luminescent splash of unity, one of them (‘solo’) welcomes Dante. He informs him that they all travel with the Principalities, addressing him with the first line of the first canzone of the Convivio:

Noi ci volgiam coi principi celesti
D’un giro e d’un girare e d’una sete,
Ai quali tu del mondo già dicesti:

Voi che’ ntendendo il terzo ciel movete.’ (Par., viii. 34-37)

[With one circle, with one circling and with one thirst we revolve with the celestial Princes to whom you in the world once did say, ‘You move the third heaven by intellection.’]

Two separate palinodes of Dante’s earlier work occur here. First, as pointed out above, in the Convivio, he attributed the movement of Venus to the Thrones, whereas here it is attributed to the Principalities.34 Second, in this canzone Dante had stated that Venus, ‘il terzo ciel’, was responsible for the state in which he found himself: ‘El ciel che segue lo vostro valore /… mi tragge ne lo stato ov’ io mi trovo’ [The heaven that follows your power ... drags me into the state where I am] (Convivio, II. Canzone Prima. 4, 6). However, the speaker in Paradiso viii, Carlo Martello, while quoting from Dante’s poem, specifically declares that humans, and not the stars, are in charge of human affairs. Furthermore, as the third and final instance of Dante’s self-citation in the Commedia (Purg., ii. 112; Purg., xxiv. 51), the quotation serves as a palinodic reference to some of the false assumptions of the Convivio.35 All three citations of Dante’s own lyric poetry concern love and divine truth, and this third citation introduces the Venus that Dante adopts in Carlo Martello’s discourse. This is not the Venus of selfish love, the sensual love or cupidity that had destroyed Dido and Francesca, but the Venus, as Carlo Martello puts it, of ‘mio amor più oltre che le fronde’ [my love more than the leaves] (Par., viii. 57). This love creates unity and harmony with the power to receive to the full the mark of the Principle of principles, and by their harmonious exercise of princely powers, to make manifest this transcendent principle of all order.

Carlo Martello’s segment of the canto (Par., viii. 31-148) can be divided into two sections that include a ‘corollario’ (l. 138). In the first part (ll. 31-84), the Angevin prince introduces himself by recalling his meeting with Dante and his official role as bearer of the crown: ‘di quella terra che ’l Danubia riga / poi che le ripe tedesche abbandona’ [that land which the Danube waters after it has left its German banks] (ll. 65-67). The second part (ll. 85-138) responds to Dante’s question about the stars and the limits of their influence on human behaviour with a specific corollary about how human freedom is contravened by human force (ll. 139-48).36

The exchange with Carlo Martello parallels those with Filippo Argenti in Inferno and with Nino Visconti and Corrado Malaspina in Purgatorio. As pointed out above, all three figures are associated with recent Florentine politics and with the historic Dante. Filippo is an example of unregulated and unjustified rage, an emotion matched by Dante’s and Virgil’s angry responses to him, on which scholars have spilled much ink.37 For my part, I find little purpose in discussing whether Dante-pilgrim’s rage is justified or not. Collapsing the difference between pilgrim and poet, Inferno in its economy follows the lex talionis so common to Hebrew Scriptures. Dante, the poet, has clearly adopted the role of prophet and judge who reveal heinous wrongdoing and show how divine rage results in just punishment. More important perhaps for our vertical reading is the way in which Filippo embodies the individual rage that creates civic disorder, a rage so potent that it would symbolically draw everything into its stagnant waters, including Dante and Virgil. The only hint of the love that binds in Inferno viii is when Virgil displays his approbation of Dante,

Lo collo poi con le braccia mi cinse
basciommi ‘l volto e disse: ‘Alma sdegnosa,
benedetta colei che ’n te s’incinse!’ (Inf., viii. 43-45)

[Then he put his arms about my neck, kissed my face, and said ‘Indignant soul, blessed is she who bore you!’]

If Dante-poet confined himself to historical veracity, Virgil could not know that he was citing Luke 11. 27, ‘benedetta colei che ’n te s’incinse’, spoken by a woman in a crowd to Jesus, who then corrects her, saying ‘beati qui audiunt verbum Dei et custodiunt’ [Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it] (Luke 11. 28). Hawkins argues that the misappropriated citation itself demonstrates Virgil’s limitations,38 which may be true, but the quotation, alongside Virgil’s display of affection, also conveys the loving bond between the two poets, the only hint of unselfish love in the canto.

Purgatorio viii, in contrast to the examples of rage in Inferno viii, extends its one display of affection when Dante meets Nino Visconti. In an exchange which demonstrates civic amity and mutual pleasure, the pilgrim is joyful to find Nino, ‘...quanto mi piacque / quando ti vidi non esser tra’ rei!’ [How I rejoiced to see you there, and not among the damned] (Purg., viii. 53-54). And Nino, for his part, with ‘Nullo bel salutar tra noi si tacque’ [No fair salutation was silent between us] (Purg., viii. 55), greets the pilgrim: ‘Quant’ è che tu venisti / a piè del monte per le lontane acque’ [How long is it since you came to the foot of the mountain over the far waters?] (Purg., viii. 56-57). As the grandson of Count Ugolino (punished with the traitors in Inferno xxxiii), Nino raises an implicit question about ‘virtue in families’, an inquiry that also applies to Carlo Martello’s family. The pilgrim’s second encounter in Purgatorio viii continues this theme of civic amity. Although Dante did not know Currado Malaspina, who died in 1294, he was a guest of the Malaspina family in 1306 and uses this occasion to praise the family known throughout Europe for its generosity and gallantry (Purg., viii. 121-33).39 More particularly, Dante praises this family which ‘sola va dritta e ’l mal cammin dispregia’ [alone goes right and scorns the evil path] (Purg., viii. 132) even when ‘il capo reo il mondo torca’ [the wicked head turn the world awry] (Purg., viii. 131), themes that reoccur in Paradiso viii. Following the laudatio, Currado prophesies Dante’s coming exile and, in contrast to Filippo Argenti, who is reputed to have despoiled Dante of what wealth he had possessed following the poet’s exile, he promises that Dante’s opinion of the family will be proven true (Purg., viii. 133-39).

Dante’s meeting with Carlo Martello in Paradiso viii further develops these themes, with Dante’s status as exul inmeritus linking Currado’s prophecy with Carlo’s spontaneous and regretful ‘s’io fossi giù stato, io ti mostrava / di mio amor più oltre che le fronde’ [for had I remained below, I would have shown you of my love more than the leaves] (Par., viii. 56-57).40 The section of Carlo Martello’s speech following his citation of Convivio’s ‘Voi che ’ntendendo’ (Par., viii. 31-84) states that he and the other souls are ‘sì pien d’amor, che, per piacerti, / non fia men dolce un poco di quïete’ [so full of love that, in order to please you, a little quiet will not be less sweet to us] (Par., viii. 38-39). Specific contrasts have been drawn between this wave of lovers, or ‘lumi divini’, who leave the circle of the Seraphim to stop and talk with Dante, and Paolo and Francesca’s brief escape from ‘la schiera ov è Dido’ in Inferno v.41 This becomes yet another occasion to contrast the ‘folle amore’ of Venus that opens the canto with the divine love that Carlo Martello immediately declares to the pilgrim, of whom he says, ‘Assai m’amasti’ [Much did you love me] (Par., viii. 55). Like Virgil’s reference to the early death of Marcellus in the Aeneid (Aen., vi. 890-92), what follows expresses a melancholic sense of the unfortunate and inexplicable loss of a young prince, whose generosity and talents might have unified much of southern Europe. Carlo’s expression of regret about what might have been also conveys the ill that is still to follow:

[…] Il mondo m’ebbe
Giù poco tempo; e se più fosse stato,
Molto sarà di mal, che non sarebbe… (Par., viii. 49-51).

[The world held me below but little time, and had it been more much ill shall be that would not have been…]

Carlo’s geographic description of the political realms that he would have inherited if he had not died so young includes a hint that he would have restored Sicily to the Kingdom of Naples. Such a political realm would have unified Hungary, Provence and the Kingdom of Naples. At the same time, Carlo chastises his brother, who inherited his place (Par., viii. 76-78), for avarice, thereby allowing Dante to further indict the Capetian and Angevin lineage, already so scathingly exposed for avarice by Sordello in Purgatorio vii and by Hugh Capet, the founder of the dynasty, in Purgatorio xx. 79-84. Carlo Martello emerges here as an exemplum, a figura of the monarch, the utopian monarch specifically described in the Monarchia:

iustitia potissima est in mundo quando volentissimo et potentissimo subiecto inest; huiusmodi solus Monarcha est: ergo soli Monarche insistens iustitia in mundo potissima est. (Mon., I. xi. 8)

[justice is at its strongest in the world when it resides in a subject who has in the highest degree possible the will and power to act: only the monarch is such a subject; therefore justice is at its strongest in the world when it is located in the monarch alone ]

Dante continues:

Preterea, quemadmodum cupiditas habitualem iustitiam quodammodo, quantumcunque pauca, obnubilat, sic karitas seu recta dilectio illam acuit atque dilucidat. Cui ergo maxime recta dilectio inesse potest, potissimum locum in illo potest habere iustitia; huiusmodi est Monarcha: ergo, eo existente, iustitia potissima est vel esse potest. (Mon., I. xi. 13)42

[Moreover just as greed, however slight, dulls the habit of justice in some way, so charity or rightly ordered love makes it sharper and brighter. So the man in whom rightly ordered love can be strongest is the one in whom justice can have its principal abode; the monarch is such a man; therefore justice is or can be at its strongest when he exists.]

Highlighting justice informed by caritas [charity] as the signature virtue of the ideal monarch and opposing it to cupiditas [greed], these passages from Monarchia appear to comment on Carlo Martello’s career as represented in Paradiso viii. Furthermore, cupiditas, the trait identified in the Monarchia as the mark of an unjust ruler, connects the philosophical discussion to a concrete historical case: Carlo’s great promise as a loving ruler is undone by his early death; he is succeeded by an avaricious brother. With the pitting of caritas against cupiditas, Dante adopts Augustinian language, but on the surface his point appears to differ radically from Augustine, who contrasts the excessive love of the earthly city leading to contempt of God, with the love of the heavenly city leading even to contempt of the world. However, Augustine contrasts those rulers driven by a lust for dominion (for which, of course, he condemns the Romans) with those rulers and citizens who serve one another in love (caritas) and, thereby, bring the City of God to earth. This, Dante intimates, is what Carlo Martello would have attempted and what his early death prevented (City of God XIV. xxviii).43

This historical narrative spurs Dante to question ‘com’ esser può, di dolce seme, amaro’ [how from sweet seed may come forth bitter] (Par., viii. 93), picking up the metaphor of plant and seed used by Sordello in Purgatorio vii about Carlo II, Carlo Martello’s father. The second part of Carlo’s speech (Par., viii. 94-138) answers this question with a corollary (ll. 139-48). Together, they address the main themes of the canto: love, providence, free will, fortune and their connection to citizenship.

Before proceeding, it is worth observing in parenthesis that Aquinas, following his discussion of the order of angels, explores the ‘order among men’. Just as angels have an order, so ‘divine providence’, he writes, ‘imposes order on all things’. Following Aristotle (Politics I. 4), Aquinas emphasizes that humans have a natural order: those with understanding are naturally suited to governance, while those with strong bodies are naturally fitted for service. But disorder occurs, he explains, in human government ‘as a result of a man getting control, not because of the eminence of his understanding, but because either he usurps dominion for himself by bodily strength or because someone is set up as a ruler on the basis of sensual affection’.44 Aquinas’s main point, it seems to me, is that divine providence, with the angels as agents, imposes order, but humans force this order awry.

Returning to Carlo Martello’s explanation of why good seed produces bitter fruit, Carlo, who knows the truth directly from God, ‘là ‘ve ogne ben si termina e s’inizia’ [there where every good ends and begins] (Par., viii. 87), is concerned to show the pilgrim that

Lo ben che tutto il regno che tu scandi
volge e contenta, fa esser virtute
sua provedenza in questi corpi grandi. (Par., viii. 97-99)

[The Good which revolves and contents all the realm that you are climbing makes its providence become a power in these great bodies.]

Whatever the effects produced by these Heavens (infused as they are with the perfect Mind), they cannot be less than perfect because, if God were not directing this order, the result would be ‘ruine’ (Par., viii. 108). The pilgrim quickly agrees with this statement because to contradict it would make the divinity defective.45 But, in that case, whence does civil and moral disorder emanate? Rather than an immediate answer, we get Carlo Martello’s question, one that goes back to the core concerns of the canto and is equally important for the entire ideological structure of the poem:

‘…sarebbe il peggio
per l’omo in terra, se non fosse cive?’
(Par., viii. 115-16)

[...would it be worse for man on earth if he were not a citizen?]

The pilgrim is certain that it would be worse and requires no proof. Man, of necessity, must be part of a larger society, not a party to himself. The Latinism cive is used only twice in the poem: in the first instance (Purg., xxxii. 101), it refers to Dante’s ultimate destiny as a citizen of the City of God; here, it sanctions the earthly destiny of man.46 Carlo Martello affirms that divine providence orchestrates civil society so that men may have diverse duties, making one born Solon, another Xerxes, another Melchizedek and another Daedalus (Par., viii. 122-26). To create a city or regnum, in other words, requires diversity, and it is in this way that Nature disposes of human talents.

The problem still remains, however, that virtue does not run in families: hence Jacob and Esau, Romulus and his base father, Nino, and his treacherous grandfather Ugolino, or Carlo Martello and his father and brother. Carlo attributes this to the world down there (‘il mondo là giù’) which, not following the foundation of Nature that would make people good (‘buona la gente’), instead makes ill proof (‘mala prova’) of itself (Par., viii. 139-44). Men twist nature by forcing those suited to religion to take up the sword and those suited to the sword and kingly rule into religion (Par., viii. 145-48). Carlo’s point is exemplified by the Malaspina family, featured in Purgatorio viii and, according to Dante, privileged by nature to avoid the path of evil (‘l mal cammin’) (Purg., viii. 132). Civic and religious failure – whether institutional or personal – results, in other words, from distorted will: when human arrogance, intransigence and temerity violate Nature and the divinely orchestrated providence that regulates it. In forcing people into professions unsuited to their natural talents, the world has lost its way (è fuor di strada’) (Par., viii. 148). Carlo Martello’s conclusion connects, thereby, the ‘folle amore’ of ‘la bella Ciprigna’ with the disordered politics and society of Dante’s own benighted times.47 In his own person, by contrast, Carlo maintains hope in good government, while deploring bad, exhibits a sense of justice informed by love, and provides a voice of regal courtesy. He knows that divine providence and love would make the people good but equally recognizes that miscreants will work against this divine gift.48

In the Eights, Dante skillfully brings the affective together with the intellective: characters exhibit a range of emotions from the bitterness of wrathful hatred to the loving warmth of friendship. At the same time, a scholarly speculation on the cause of civil and personal wrongdoing in Paradiso viii ties the personal to the political, the civic to the moral, rationalism to faith, passion for civil order to divine providence, and human to transcendent love. Through the retrospective lens of Paradiso viii and the canto’s central protagonist Carlo Martello, Dante nonetheless leaves us with a sense of melancholy about the elusiveness of what might have been achieved in the civic domain, so vulnerable as it is to the whims of Fortune and to the twisted desires of humans. This ideal of what might have been contrasts with what can still be – as witnessed in the show of friendship, camaraderie and hope in Purgatorio viii – and what unfortunately is, recreated for us by the angry, distorted and vitriolic figures at the gates of the city of Dis in Inferno viii.

1 The video of this lecture is available at the Cambridge Vertical Readings in Dante’s Comedy website,

2 All citations and translations from the Commedia are from The Divine Comedy, trans. and commentary by Charles S. Singleton. Bollingen Series 80 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1970-76).

3 G. R. Sarolli, ‘Dante, Scriba Dei’, Convivium 4-6 (1963), 385-422, 513-44, and 641-71.

4 See Christian Moevs, The Metaphysics of Dante’s Comedy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 5; also central is Giuseppe Mazzotta, Dante, Poet of the Desert (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979); also close to my reading is Silvio Pasquazi, All’Eterno dal Tempo: Studi Danteschi (Rome: Bulzoni, 1985, 1st edn 1966).

5 I am grateful to Giuseppe Mazzotta for this formulation.

6 Monica Keane, PhD in Comparative Literature, UC Davis (2014) tracked down the endless single canto discussions and produced the bibliography for this project, for which I am deeply grateful. Here I will just note those works that I cite directly in the order in which they appear in this article: Ettore Paratore, ‘Il canto VIII del Paradiso’, L’Alighieri: Rassegna Bibliografica Dantesca 26:2 (1985), 33-52; E. Ragni, ‘Il canto VIII del Paradiso’, in Lectura Dantis Metelliana, I primi undici canti del Paradiso, ed. by A. Mellone (Rome: Bulzoni, 1992), pp. 155-75; Rachel Jacoff, ‘The Post-Palinodic Smile: Paradiso VIII and IX’, Dante Studies 98 (1980), 111-22; Emilio Bigi, ‘Moralità e retorica nel canto VIII dell’ Inferno’, Giornale storico della letteratura italiana, 154 (1977), 346-67; Vincenzo Cioffari, ‘Lectura Dantis: Paradiso VIII’, Dante Studies 90 (1972), 93-108; H. A. Mason, ‘Filthy Rage v. Righteous Indignation—Canto VIII’, The Cambridge Quarterly 17:2 (1988), 141-55; Georges Güntert, ‘Canto VIII’, Purgatorio, Lectura Dantis Turicensis, ed. by Georges Güntert and Michelangelo Picone (Florence: Franco Cesati, 2001), pp. 109-20; Giovanni Pischedda, ‘Motivi provinciali nel canto VIII dell’ Inferno’, in Dante e la tematica medioevale (Aquila: Japadre, 1967), pp. 35-40; Lloyd Howard, ‘The blindness of Virgil in Inferno 8-9, Purgatorio 15-16, and Purgatorio 22-23’, in Virgil the Blind Guide: Marking the Way through the Divine Comedy (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010); Giuseppe Acciani, ‘L’ingresso di Dante nella città di Dite’, L’Alighieri 19 (1978), 45-58; Victor Castellani, ‘Vergilius Ultor: Revenge and Pagan Morality in the Inferno’, Lectura Dantis 9 (1991), 3-10; Peter Hawkins, ‘Virgilio cita le Scritture’, in Dante e la Bibbia, Atti del Convegno internazionale promosso da ‘Bibbia’, ed. by Giovanni Barblan (Florence: Leo S. Olschki, 1986), pp. 351-59; André Pézard, Il Canto VIII del ‘Paradiso’ (Bologna: L. Cappelli, 1953); Giovanni Fallani and Alighieri Dante Il Canto VIII Del Paradiso (Turin: Società editrice internazionale, 1964); Ettore Paratore, ‘Il canto VIII del Paradiso’, L’Alighieri: Rassegna Bibliografica Dantesca 26:2 (1985), 33-52; Giovanni Fallani, ‘Il canto VIII del Purgatorio’, Nuove letture dantesche IV (Florence: Le Monnier, 1970), 19-33; Edward Peters, ‘Human Diversity and Civil Society in Paradiso VIII’, Dante Studies 109 (1991): 51-70; Sonia Gentili, ‘L’Arco di Cupido e la freccia di Aristotele’ in Esperimenti Danteschi Paradiso 2010, ed. by Tommaso Montorfano (Genoa and Milan: Marietti, 1820, 2010), pp. 87-112; Michelangelo Picone, ‘Canto VIII’, in Paradiso, ed. by Georges Güntert and Michelangelo Picone (Florence: Franco Cesati Editore, 2002), pp. 119-32; Giuseppe Antonio Borgese, ‘The Wrath of Dante’, Speculum 13 (1938), 183-93; Daniel J. Donno, ‘Dante’s Argenti: Episode and Function’, Speculum 40 (1965), 611-25; Umberto Bosco, Il canto VIII dell’ Inferno (Rome: Signorelli, 1951); Ettore Romagnoli, ‘Il canto VIII dell’ Inferno’, in Letture dantesche, ed. by Giovanni Getto (Florence: Sansoni, 1955), pp. 133-50; Marino Szombathely, Il canto VIII dell’Inferno (Turin: Società Editrice Internazionale, 1959).

7 This is the central argument of Paratore, ‘Il Canto VIII del Paradiso’, 33-52.

8 As Ragni writes of Paradiso viii, ‘è coerentissimo, stringente in ogni sua articolazione, e altrettanto stringentemente e coerentemente si collega, ancora una volta, con l’intero poema’ [it is most coherent, linked in every articulation, and equally it connects deeply and coherently, once more, with the entire poem] (Ragni, ‘Il canto VIII del Paradiso’, 175).

9 Jacoff, ‘The Post-Palinodic Smile: Paradiso VIII and IX’, 119.

10 For Boccaccio’s idea that the Commedia had its beginnings in Florence, see Marcello Ciccuto, ‘Minima boccacciana sulla forma della Comedia’, Textual Cultures 1 (2006): 137-42; see also Giorgio Padoan, Il lungo cammino del ‘poema sacro’: Studi Danteschi (Florence: Leo S. Olschki, 1993). For Boccaccio’s use of “Io dico seguitando” to build a literary history of the poem’s composition, see Martin Eisner, Boccaccio and the Invention of Italian Literature: Dante, Petrarch, Cavalcanti, and the Authority of the Vernacular (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. 48; for the observation about enjambment between Inf., vii, viii, and ix, see Bigi, ‘Moralità’.

11 On the issue of static versus dramatic, Inf., vii versus Inf., viii, see Mason, ‘Filthy Rage’, 141-55.

12 See Güntert, ‘Canto VIII’, in Purgatorio, pp. 109-20.

13 Benedetto Croce, La Poesia di Dante (Bari: Laterza, 1921), p. 137, where he writes of Carlo Martello, ‘la malinconia di una magnifica e benefica regalità, spezzata prima che ottenuta’ (the melancholy of a magnificent and charitable majesty, broken before obtained), and places him alongside Piccarda, Romeo, Cunizza and St. Bernard as one of the few lively figures in Paradiso.

14 Pischedda, ‘Motivi provinciali nel canto VIII dell’ Inferno’, in Dante e la tematica medioevale, pp. 35-40; see also Bigi, ‘Moralità’, 346-67.

15 See notes to Singleton, Purgatorio, pp. 172-73.

16 Giovanni Villani, Cronica (Frankfurt: Minerva, 1969), VIII, 13; for Dante and Carlo Martello, see Vincenzo Mazzei, Dante e i suoi amici nella Divina Commedia (Milan: Editrice nuovi autori, 1987), pp. 125-38.

17 For details on this history, see Raoul Manselli, ‘Carlo Martello’, in Enciclopedia dantesca I (Rome: Istituto dell’ Enciclopedia Italiana, 1996), pp. 841-43; John A. Scott, ‘The Sordello Episode: Purgatorio VI-VIII’, in Dante’s Political Purgatory (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996), pp. 5, 96-127; Cioffari, ‘Lectura Dantis: Paradiso VIII’, 98-99.

18 For these lineages, see Scott, ‘The Sordello Episode’, pp. 96-127.

19 See Scott, Dante’s Political Purgatory, p. 127.

20 Susanna Barsella, In the Light of Angels: Angelology and Cosmology in Dante’s Divina Commedia (Florence: Leo. S. Olschi Editore, 2010), p. 34

21 Castellani, ‘Vergilius Ultor: Revenge and Pagan Morality in the Inferno’, 3-10; Hawkins, ‘Virgilio cita le Scritture’, pp. 351-59; Howard, ‘The blindness of Virgil in Inferno 8-9, Purgatorio 15-16, and Purgatorio 22-23’.

22 Acciani, ‘L’ingresso di Dante nella città di Dite’, 51; see also Hawkins, ‘Virgilio cita le Scritture’, in Dante e la Bibbia, pp. 43-45.

23 Güntert, ‘Canto VIII’, 110.

24 Dante Alighieri, Il Convivio, ed. by G. Busnelli and G. Vandelli, 2 vols (Florence: Felice le Monnier, 1954).

25 See Barsella, In the Light of Angels, pp. 115-17.

26 Thomas Aquinas, Providence, in On the Truth of the Catholic Faith: Summa Contra Gentiles, trans., intro. and notes by Vernon J. Bourke (New York: Doubleday, 1956), pp. 264-72.

27 Pseudo-Dionysius, ‘Celestial Hierarchy’, in Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, trans. by Colm Luibhéid, with intro. by Jaroslav Pelikan, Jean Leclerq and Karlfried Froehlich (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), pp. 143-91 (p. 170). See Diego Sbacchi, La Presenza di Dionigi Areopagita nel Paradiso di Dante (Florence: Leo S. Olschki, 2006), for Dante’s use of Dionysius the Areopagite in Paradiso.

28 Thomas Aquinas, Providence, in On the Truth of the Catholic Faith, p. 271; see also Paratore, ‘Paradiso VIII’, 51-53.

29 See Pézard, Il Canto VIII del Paradiso, 4.

30 See Brenda Deen Schildgen, ‘Philosophers, Theologians, and the Islamic Legacy: Inferno 4 versus Paradiso 4’, Dante Studies 125 (2007), 113-32.

31 ‘il tema dei pianeti e della loro influenza sulle vicende dell’uomo costituisce la trama che disciplina il racconto’. See Giovanni Fallani and Alighieri Dante, Il Canto VIII Del Paradiso, 5; see also Paratore, ‘Il canto VIII del Paradiso’, 33-52.

32 See Ragni, ‘Il Canto VIII of Paradiso’, 159-62; Cioffari, ‘Lectura Dantis: Paradiso VIII’, 94-97.

33 See Peters, ‘Human Diversity and Civil Society’, esp. 59-68; also Gentili, ‘L’arco di Cupido e la freccia di Aristotele’, 87.

34 Jacoff writes: ‘When Charles says that Dante’s poem had been addressed to the Principalities as the angelic intelligences of the sphere of Venus, he is correcting Dante’s claim in the Convivio that the Thrones were the appropriate angelic intelligences of their sphere. This correction is so understated that none of the early commentators even remark it. Dante’s revision of his position on the angelic hierarchy is dealt with more directly in Paradiso 28 when he specifically privileges the scheme of the Pseudo-Dionysius over that of Gregory. In Paradiso 8 the correction calls no attention to itself, but once we see it we can attend to the larger ways in which Dante is palinodic toward the Convivio in this episode’ (Jacoff, ‘The Post-Palinodic Smile: Paradiso VIII and IX’, Dante Studies, 114).

35 See Jacoff, ‘The Post-Palinodic Smile’, 111-22; Picone, ‘Canto VIII’, pp. 122-23.

36 Picone, ‘Canto 8’, p. 120.

37 See, for example, Bigi, Borgese, Castellani, Donno, Bosco, Romagnoli, Szombathely, and Sapegno.

38 See Hawkins, ‘Virgilio cita le Scritture’, pp. 43-45.

39 See Singleton, Notes, Purgatorio, pp. 172-73.

40 Picone, ‘Paradiso VIII’, p. 125.

41 See Ragni, ‘Il canto VIII del Paradiso’, 167-68.

42 Monarchy, ed. and trans. by Prue Shaw. Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). See also Ragni, ‘Il canto VIII Paradiso’, for the connection between Dante’s description of the ideal monarch and Carlo Martello, pp. 168-75.

43 Augustine, De Civitate Dei Contra Paganos. Libri XI-XXII, ed. by Bernard Dombart and Alphonse Kalb, CCSL 48 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1955).

44 Thomas Aquinas, Providence, in On the Truth of the Catholic Faith, pp. 274-75. See Paratore, ‘Il canto VIII del Paradiso’, 50-52 for this suggestion.

45 See Peters, ‘Human Diversity and Civil Society’, 65-68.

46 See Pézard, Il Canto VIII del Paradiso, 19; see also Cioffari, ‘Lectura Dantis: Paradiso VIII’, 104-05.

47 Pézard, Il Canto VIII del Paradiso, 22-23.

48 Giorgio Cavallini, ‘Canto VIII’ in Paradiso: Lectura Dantis Neapolitana, ed. by Pompeo Giannatonio (Naples: Loffredo, 2000), pp. 163-85.