Danteblogging Paradiso Canto XII

Paradiso Canto XII
So Thomas Aquinas praised Francis and his chivalric love of Lady Poverty and chastened his own order for wandering astray, a second garland or ring comes wit h Bonaventure. Interestingly, Dante gives the classical comparison first – “When the clouds are fine/and Juno sends her herald to earth” (Par XII.10-11) precedes “Rainbows that make us mortals early wise / by the pact God made Noah” (Par XII.16-17). I sometimes think our students wonder about Dante’s devotion to the classics. Is he emulating? Rivaling? Showing off? I tend to think a little of all of those.
So Bonaventure joins them, and praises the mendicant founders together. And where Thomas’s talk was full of chivalry, Bonaventure’s is full of military and imperial terms – even to calling God “the high Emperor who rains forever” (Par XII.40). Bonaventure describes Dominic’s (miraculous) birth and then the military zeal with which he fought heresy:

Then armed with zeal and doctrine and the charge
  of apostolic duty, he fell quick
  as torrents bursting from a mountain vein
And slammed the thickets of the heretic,
  pummeling onward with his surging drive
  where the resistance was most harsh and thick
(Par XII.97-102).

Dominic must indeed have been some kind of force! And then Bonaventure turns to deprecating his Franciscans and how far they have turned from Francis’s path.
Bonaventure’s list of those lights who accompany him includes a few names that interest me. A second Hebrew appears – the prophet Nathan. Aelius Donatus the grammarian – I didn’t know he was a Christian, but he’s certainly late enough (mid 4th C). Rabanus Maurus, Carolingian abbot of Fulda! And finally and weirdest, Joachim of Fiore, the Calabrian abbot and apocalypticist. Odd company.
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Danteblogging Paradiso Canto XI

Paradiso Canto XI
Canti XI and XII run in parallel. Here are Esolen’s prose summaries:
XI: Thomas Aquinas recounts for Dante the life of Francis of Assisi, and concludes by decrying the corruption of the Dominicans of the present day.
XII: Out of a second garland of spirits another soul speaks: it is the soul of Bonaventure, who describes the life of Dominic and concludes by decrying the corruption of the Franciscans of the present day.
OK – to get the joke you have to have minimal Mendicant Friar Knowledge — Aquinas is a Dominican, and praises the founder of the Franciscans. Bonaventure a Franciscan, etc., etc. Dante’s Thomas fully adopts the chivalrous Francis — troubador of Lady Poverty. Remember that nostalgia for the nobler days of the 12th century is pretty thick in the Commedia, and here it gets linked to the Franciscans.
It’s important to remember, at least for people who believe that persistence in vocation and communal direction is probable (like all the nice conservatives who whine that the money of rich endowments is being misdirected by left-trending 3rd generation administrators) get a grip! Dante is setting his poem less than 100 years after the foundations (Dominic, 1206 at Prouille; Francis, 1210 at Rome) and things are already almost hopeless perverted from their original purity. So there. Pessimism about human organizations will go a long way towards making you happier.
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Danteblogging Paradiso Canto X

Paradiso Canto X
Canto X takes us to the fourth sphere, that of the sun. We’re mainly going to talk to theologians here — and it lasts a long time — all the way to Canto XIV. Dante begins with an exposition on why an ecliptic — why that seeming imbalance in the otherwise perfect cosmos? After all, this is a model that depends on spheres because, well, they’re SPHERICAL and we all know that spheres are perfect. As are circular orbits. As our physicist friend pointed out to our class, the ancients (and medievals) had enormous amounts of very good observational data, but they occasionally tripped over a dogma like that.
Dante’s explanation? We need a skew system to keep each hemisphere habitable. Well, I like seasons, too (which is good, because I woke up to more-than-a-dusting of snow this morning).
Dante tells the reader to sit as he sets the table with a feast of poetry (Par X.25). But this is the level of the Theologians, and what satisfies their appetite is knowledge:

So the fourth family of the Father shone,
  who fills their hunger ever, revealing how
  He breathes His Spirit and begets His Son.

That is, there are no Mysteries anymore – the Trinity will be revealed. The description of the souls here is one of my favorite passages in the whole Commedia. Dante see them from a little distance:

Those ardent suns that had not ceased to sing,
  as stars revolving round the pole nearby,
  as stars revolved about us three times in a ring,
Then stopped: as ladies pausing in their glee
  hold the reel’s places and resume the dance
  when they catch the returning melody.
(X.76-81)

The first time I ever read that I was reminded of the dance scene in the Franco Zeffirelli Romeo and Juliet. I’ll see if I can scare that up on youtube for my class.
Their interlocutor, the dancer who speaks to them, turns out to be Thomas Aquinas. He names a lot of the others — Albert the Great, Gratian, Dionysius the Areopagite, Boethius, and (the only Englishman in the Comedy, according to my colleague), Bede.
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Danteblogging Paradiso Canto IX

Paradiso Canto IX
Dante has mentioned living family members before — especially in Purgatory, where the souls frequently named them and asked that they be begged for prayers. But Canto IX begins with direct address more like Dante’s use of “Reader” than his usual 3rd person method. Dante speaks directly to Charles Martel’s daughter (or wife).
I believe we also have our first saved Old Testament figure in this sphere.

Know that within it Rahab finds her peace
  The highest of our saints, she seals her light
  on every rank of spirits in our choir.
(Par.115-117)

Rahab is the prostitute who helped Joshua and later married him. Esolen reminds us that the Fathers saw her as a type of the Church, since Joshua is, of course, the same name as Jesus. So this is a spectacularly reformed Bride of Christ — but Dante would agree that the Bride needs constant reforming. In fact, he ends this canto with a denunciation of the devotion of the Church of his own day to canon law, not to Christ.
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Roanoke, VA

I’ve been in Roanoke for the weekend for the Southeastern Medieval Academy meeting. Busy, busy! Got to hear my colleague Laurence Erussard’s paper (by the skin of my teeth – she was in the first possible session), see a lot of my old friend Julie Hofmann, put faces to lots of names I’ve known, meet new people, read a paper of my own, and eat both sushi and Indian!

And visit the Taubman Museum of Art — a nice exemplar of a deindustrializing city. Roanoke is a railroad town still, but it used to be the headquarters of the Northern and Western and a major builder of engines and railcars and a place for engine servicing. Not very much of that any more, I read. They blew $66 million on this building and are having a hard time keeping it full of art (all construction, no operations, in that budget). So now they’re re-imagining. I missed a train in the foreground of this photo by about 30 seconds. Alas!

But it’s a neat building – Randall Stout, former Gehry assistant – and I’ll have interiors up on flickr soon.

Danteblogging Paradiso Canto VIII

SMartini_LouisAltarpiece_1317.jpg
Paradiso Canto VIII
They have moved in Canto VIII to the Sphere of Venus. Dante compares the souls to the notes of polyphony and the movements of a dance:

And as you’l find the flickerings in a flame
  or song in song when one voice holds the note
  while the other comes and goes in melody,
I saw a host of lamp glows in that light
  more or less swiftly moveing all a-dance
  according totheir grace of inner sight.
(Par VIII.16-21)

These are souls who were too attached to earthly love. Most of the canto is given up to Charles Martel – not the hero of Poitiers, but a 13th C Angevin prince, titular king of Hungary, and probable acquaintance of Dante (he spent some time in Florence in the 1290s). Charles is an example of one of Dante’s crushed hopes — a political leader who failed or went wrong or died young (in this case, died young), leaving Italy torn and the Empire unrestored.
Dante always likes the ones who die young, and damns the ones that lives. Well, he doesn’t damn Robert of Naples, Charles’s younger brother, but he has Charles dismiss him in the last lines of the canto — and everyone else in Italy disagreed.
Charles was the eldest son, Louis the second, and Robert the third, of Charles the Lame, the Angevin king of Hungary. During the Sicilian Vespers uprising in Palermo, the three boys were given as hostages. Eventually freed, Charles went to to die young. Louis renounced all his titles, became a Franciscan, was appointed bishop of Toulouse, and died young. Robert ruled for 30 years and ended up being called Robert the Wise — and long after Dante’s death was praised by Petrarch and Boccaccio as a patron of the arts. Here’s what Dante has Charles say:

If all the world down there would set their minds
  to follow the foundation nature brings,
  the’d have a populace that’s good and strong.
But you wrench someone to religious things
  who has been born to strap the sheath and sword,
  and of the sermon givers you make kings.
And that is why your strides go off the road.
(Par VIII.142-148)

Remember, Dante is not dogma. He’s often wrong about history. Robert of Anjou may not have been the savior of Italy that Dante was looking for, but he was a good king. And Louis of Toulouse was a saint. And Charles Martel died so young that Dante can project whatever he wants on him. His point about misunderstood vocations is well-taken, but not necessarily correctly applied to this family.
The picture is a Simone Martini altarpiece showing St Louis crowning his brother Robert of Anjou — it’s one of my favorite pieces of dynastic religious art — talk about claiming your legitimacy from heaven! Robert kneels at his already-sainted brother’s throne to receive his crown. It’s at the Museo Capodimonte in Naples.
Fun facts to know and tell — Louis, as in San Luis Obispo, which therefore must’ve been a Franciscan Mission. I didn’t know that until I started to link the Wikipedia entry.
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Danteblogging Paradiso Canto VII

Paradiso Canto VII
Dante’s persistent failing in this canto is not fear, but a reverence for Beatrice that gets in the way of communication. Admittedly, she’s like a stern or pitying mother, but she does want him to talk – and she keeps encouraging him with smiles.

“Speak, speak to your Lady,” I began to exclaim
  within myself, but wavering, “Speak to her!
  she slakes your thirst with hr sweet drops of truth.”
But reverence played the mistress over me
  and like an old man nodding off I bowed
  when in my mind I heard the name of “Bee.”
Beatrice for a little while allowed
  my speechlessness, then flashed me such a smile
  as would bring gladness to a man in fire.
(Par VII.10-18)

Let’s hope he improves. As is, he hears another lecture – this time on the Atonement. The only thing particularly novel (man sinned, he can’t pay God back, God must become man to pay God back) about her explanation i her insistence that no one understands this doctrine who does not understand it mystically.

More secret than a tomb is this decree,
   brother, from anyone whose native wit
  hasn’t been fostered in the fire of love.
(Par VII.58-60).

I admit that the doctrine can seem very legalistic, so perhaps Beatrice is right – we need the inwardness of fire to really get it. Dante, of course, was purified in the refining fire of Purgatorio XXVII, so perhaps he’s ready, too.
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Danteblogging Paradiso Canto VI

Paradiso Canto VI
Beatrice may go on and on, but Canto VI is delivered in one voice. Justinian, representing those who paid too much attention to worldly duty, describes the career of the Roman eagle from Troy to Dante’s present for 142 lines. By putting this speech in the mouth of Justinian, Dante reinforces the importance of the civil law and the primacy of Rome.
Dante uses the speech, of course, to beat up on the Ghibbelines and Guelphs and to execrate the French. Charlemagne comes in for praise, though, for protecting the papacy from the Lombards (not that Dante has shown himself to have any use for modern Lombards, either).
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Danteblogging Paradiso Canto V

Paradiso Canto V
Beatrice is — umm — a lecturer. Or a soloist. Where Dante and Virgil conversed, Beatrice sings on:

So then did Beatrice begin this song,
  continuing her holy reasoning thus
  as one does who does not break his speech in two.
(Par V.16-18).

Not break it in two? She doesn’t break off for 66 lines — she sings from 19 to 85. Not that there’s not great stuff in there! For instance, she discourses on the creation of humankind in liberty and to be intelligent, and how the high value of vows depends on these two characteristics, which are needed to form consent.
The medieval Church was great on consent; one of the revolutions of medieval Christianity is the reshaping of marriage as something entered into only by mutual consent; families could make arrangements, but those arrangements could be dissolved if there was no consent. Not that that didn’t lead to problems, but it was still a considerable step forward for the rights of women (and minor boys).
After that speech Beatrice and Dante once again zip off to the next sphere by looking,

. . . as an arrowhead will hit
   the mark before the cord has ceased to hum,
  so did we speed into the second realm.
(Par 91-93)

The second realm is the sphere of Mercury, where those who cared too much for worldly glory are shadowed, just as Mercury is frequently obscured by the Sun’s light. In Canto VI they will hear from Emperor Justinian.
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