Geography and Eschatology
Each of the Fourteens, in its own way, brings to attention concerns with the problem of conflict within the political sphere. Through the figure of Capaneus, Inferno xiv showcases the story of Thebes, with the fraternal conflict that led to the war of the seven Greek kings against the doomed city. Additionally, political readings of the Old Man statue make it a symbol of the successive rise and fall of great kingdoms, biblical or classical. Purgatorio xiv gives us a close-up analysis of regions, cities, and families where internal rivalry and faction-based alliances have brought devastation to contemporary Italy, turning Tuscany into a metaphorical sewer and Romagna into an imaginary wasteland.Order now
Paradiso xiv offers a view of warfare sanctified by faith, and begins to explore the paradox that violence, so destructive in Inferno and Purgatorio xiv, can serve the cause of peace and unification within a universal Christendom. The interest Dante shows in all three canti concerning political conflict is further underscored by considering their shared emphasis on topography. Like the theme of the Old and New Adam, this is something that perhaps emerges best from the retrospective viewpoint of Paradiso. From here, one can see that several leading images in the three canti have sketched an intriguing to-and-fro between the symbolic compass points of east and west.
Paradiso gives us the principal city of the medieval western imagination of the east: Jerusalem. In Dante’s afterworld geography, Jerusalem lies at the antipodes to Mount Purgatory and Eden; and he follows medieval convention in placing the city at the central meeting-point of the three known continents of the northern hemisphere, as umbilicus orbis. Solomon, builder of Jerusalem’s first Jewish Temple, dominates the first half of Paradiso xiv, in the Heaven of the Sun. In the second half comes the vision of Christ, who spoke of his crucifixion as the destruction of the Temple (John 2:19–21), and whose tomb in Jerusalem was the primary goal of medieval Europe’s pilgrims and crusaders. The presence of the crusader Cacciaguida throughout canti xv–xvii means that the entire Mars sequence privileges Jerusalem. Cacciaguida’s story also serves to underline a second primary characteristic of crusade: that it was launched from west to east, sanctioned by the Church of Rome and led by the Holy Roman Empire.
From Jerusalem, the Fourteens also look further eastwards, to Babylon. According to Old Testament history, Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Solomon’s Temple, and carried its treasures to Babylon (ii Kings 25–26). The captive Jews deported to Assyria included the prophet Daniel. This makes a vertical link between the scriptural history of Solomon and Jerusalem in the first part of Paradiso xiv, and the biblical allusions in the second part of Inferno xiv, with the Old Man statue. The statue itself has a significant orientation, being set along a roughly east-west axis:
che tien volte le spalle inver’ Dammiata
e Roma guarda come süo speglio. (Inf., xiv. 104–05)
In some of the early commentaries, Damietta — an Egyptian port on the Nile delta — is glossed as Babylon, the Bible’s supreme example of hostility to Jerusalem and the chosen people. The reading gives obvious moral symbolism to the statue’s gaze, looking away from the east towards the west and Rome, the city of both ecclesiastical and imperial greatness (but which is also the new Babylon of Augustine’s City of God).38 The orientation of Dante’s statue thus asserts the supremacy of the Roman church and the states of western Christendom, whilst also recalling the crusading impetus towards the east and Jerusalem that focused on capturing the city from its Muslim (typologically ‘Babylonian’) rulers.
Crete, meanwhile, located mid-Mediterranean in mezzo mare, was the umbilical point of ancient Rome’s legendary geography; the site of Saturn’s just kingdom in the Golden Age. The statue, with its Old Adam associations, is thus located at the symbolic centre of a pagan, postlapsarian topography. The reference to Lethe at the end of Inferno xiv however displaces this pagan world view, and looks towards the new geographic centre-points of Dante’s Christian afterworld. The true centre-points of the southern and northern hemispheres will prove, respectively, to be the prelapsarian Eden of Mount Purgatory, and the redemptive Jerusalem lying at the junction of the three known continents.
The grand east-west and north-south sweep of the imagined geographies of these two Fourteens thus matches the ambition of their literary relationships with classical epic and biblical sources, and the regal splendour of their allusions to Solomon, Capaneus, Alexander, Nebuchadnezzar, and the rest. The exercise of vertical reading, however, requires a return to Purgatorio xiv, to different and salutary effect. There is conflict here, and east-west geography: but on the localized scale of the Italian regions. Romagna and Tuscany lie on the opposing eastern and western sides of the Apennine range that runs down the centre of the Italian peninsula. According to Guido del Duca, in the years around 1300 both regions were suffering the violent consequences of failed leadership; while his single portrait of a figure who crosses between east and west, the Forlivese Fulcieri da Calboli, portrays him as a butcher motivated only by greed and prejudice. Dante’s acute sensitivity to contemporary politics makes his portrait of Fulcieri chillingly unforgettable:
‘Io veggio tuo nepote che diventa
cacciator di quei lupi in su la riva
del fiero fiume, e tutti li sgomenta.
Vende la carne loro essendo viva;
poscia li ancide come antica belva;
molti di vita e sé di pregio priva.
Sanguinoso esce de la trista selva;
lasciala tal, che di qui a mille anni
ne lo stato primaio non si rinselva’. (Purg., xiv. 58–66)
[I see your nephew become the hunter of those wolves along the bank
of the fierce river, and he terrifies them all. He sells their flesh while it is
still living; then he kills them like old cattle; he deprives many of life and
himself of praise. All bloodied he comes forth from the wicked wood; he
leaves it such that a thousand years from now it will not be reforested to
its original state.]
The description underlines the horror of warfare as an expression of human sinful fragility, however small-scale the episode may be. The canto’s sketch of local Italian tumults does not attempt to parallel them with civilization-changing episodes of crusade, or the battles of classical epic. Equally, though, Dante-poet does not let his audience forget that local clashes spring from the same fatal human tendency to sin and error that are expressed in grand images such as the Old Man of Crete or the vision of Christ crucified.
Warfare, and family or faction rivalry have combined, Purgatorio xiv tells us, to produce the metamorphosis in Tuscany of city communities into packs of wild beasts, and to distort the family trees of Romagna’s nobility into ‘venenosi sterpi’ (l. 95). Dante-poet’s familiarity with these two regions permits detailed analysis of the destructive consequences of such rivalries for the social microcosms of city and castle, village and family. His conclusions cast light on the grander, but more remote, conflicts that Inferno and Paradiso xiv both contemplate. Warfare in Thebes and Jerusalem, although we know about it primarily through epic poetry and the sacred word of Scripture, must also be counted in the kind of individual losses and single moments of mistaken choice, folly, or corruption that Dante has at his fingertips for central Italy in 1300.
The intimacy and intricacy that he summons in these surveys remind his readers that despite the complexity of relationships in any human community, large or small, all are founded on simple encounters between individuals. We know our neighbours when we can name them, place them in their localities, remember their family relationships and personal preferences.These concerns inform my final vertical perspective, linking forward to Paradiso xiv. In Paradiso, the canto’s first part emphasizes the collective harmony and happiness of the celestial community of the wise. Individuality is scarcely marked as the souls cluster into circles, to dance and perform choral hymns. Even the episode’s main speaker, Solomon, is not directly named in the canto; he does not leave the circle to address Dante-character; and despite earthly kingship and pre-eminent wisdom, he speaks with a voce modesta, conveying the truths of an authority higher than his own. Equally, what he has to say focuses on the future, collective experience of universal resurrection, that moment when:
In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet the dead
shall rise again incorruptible. And we shall be changed. (i Corinthians 15.52)
These concerns inform my final vertical perspective, linking forward to Paradiso xiv. In Paradiso, the canto’s first part emphasizes the collective harmony and happiness of the celestial community of the wise. Individuality is scarcely marked as the souls cluster into circles, to dance and perform choral hymns. Even the episode’s main speaker, Solomon, is not directly named in the canto; he does not leave the circle to address Dante-character; and despite earthly kingship and pre-eminent wisdom, he speaks with a voce modesta, conveying the truths of an authority higher than his own. Equally, hat he has to say focuses on the future, collective experience of universal resurrection, that moment when:The response to Solomon’s speech, though, draws back to the level of simple, intimate human relationships, and the social value of each individual’s connection with his or her fellow-beings. The elevated linguistic register dips towards the everyday as Dante-poet reveals the almost childlike, spontaneous reaction of every paradisal soul to this message, displaying a perfect harmony of collective response with individual feeling:
Tanto mi parver sùbiti e accorti
e l’uno e l’altro coro a dicer ‘Amme!’,
che ben mostrar disio d’i corpi morti:
forse non pur per lor, ma per le mamme,
per li padri e per li altri che fuor cari
anzi che fosser sempiterne fiamme. (Par., xiv. 61–66)
[So swift and eager were both choruses to say ‘Amen!’ that they well
showed their desire for their dead bodies, perhaps not for themselves
alone, but for their mamas, for their fathers, and for the others who were
dear before they became sempiternal flames.]
That love for ‘le mamme, li padri e gli altri cari’ which the souls express is the foundational bond of human relationships. Vertically and retrospectively, Paradiso xiv thus corrects the vision of Inferno xiv, with its ancient Theban warfare fuelled by fraternal hatred, and of Purgatorio xiv’s struggling Italian cities and families. The joyful response to Solomon’s speech also gives a measure of the sacrifice offered by the holy warriors of Mars, in the second part of Paradiso xiv. Each of the Fourteens thus offers a different emphasis in its scrutiny of terrestrial history and of the pain and difficulty inherent in life in the body.
Solomon’s speech looks towards the perfected afterlife of ‘la carne glorïosa e santa’ (l. 43) beyond the Last Judgement; though Inferno xiv and Purgatorio xiv offer harsher reminders of the fragility and indignity of sinful bodies, in the images of the infernal souls’ tortured dancing and the sewn-blind eyes of Purgatory, or the mutation of Tuscans and Romagnoli into beasts and plants. Individually, these canti offer examples of bodies wounded and broken in the violence of historical tensions between peoples: the crusaders, the Theban warlords, the Italian faction heads who clash at particular moments in the perpetual human struggles for power and authority, whether secular or sacred. The vividly imagined geographies of the three canti highlight these currents of opposition by providing recurrent east-west compass points for the clashes between cities, regions, and continents.
Via the vertical connection, Dante’s Fourteens locate such single, even trivial, instances of crisis within a larger perspective. Framing the individual historical and geographical reference points, the paired images of the gran veglio and Christ crucified as Old and New Adam, and the grand axes linking Eden and Jerusalem, Lethe and Phlegethon (but also Arno, Po, and Reno), open vistas between the three Fourteens onto the entire span of creation history.