Monday, February 22, 2016

The bloody bishop of Feltro and "cotanto affetto": Paradiso 9

[Update: The last few paragraphs have been revised in faint hopes of producing a bit more clarity.]

Let's look at Paradiso 9 with regard to a pattern of surprise that is still only lightly discernible. Part of the problem is of course that if something "falls" into a pattern, it will have difficulty remaining a surprise. Nonetheless, after our encounters with Piccarda, Justinian and Charles Martel, we should expect the unexpected, and Paradiso 9 delivers.

Still in the realm of Venus, Dante and Beatrice meet three figures: a woman of the world, a crusader-bishop, and Rahab, the prostitute of Jericho. Cunizza and Bishop Folco of Marseilles couldn't be more different, but they share two elements: they were lively young people -- Cunizza ran off with Sordello, a troubadour, while Folco, before his locks turned grey, penned troubadour lyrics to great ladies -- and both lovers are possessed of an ardent disgust with both the secular and religious powers of Italy.

Cunizza and Folco make it clear that they experienced many agonies found in the characters of Ovid's Heroides. Folco says as much of himself, citing the tales of Dido, Phyllis, and Heracles -- all lovers, and all royal beings whose lives ended tragically thanks to all-consuming love. (Heracles's case is more complex, but let's leave it for another time.)

When Dante alludes to a classical text, it invariably pays to go and read that text. Here, for example, is Phyllis, left behind by Theseus' son, Demophoon, who richly promised to return for her:
You swore to me by the sea, all stirred by winds and waves,
over which you surely travel, over which you were to go,
you swore by Neptune, your grandfather, unless that too is a lie,
who calms the waters roused by the winds,
by Venus, and those weapons, made so much so to me,
one weapon the bow, the other the torch,
and by Juno, whose kindness presides over the marriage bed,
and by the mystic rites of the torch-bearing goddess:
if each of these many injured gods took vengeance with their powers,
your life alone would not be enough, in punishment! (Heroides II)
A lovelorn heroine if there ever was one -- it might not be too rash to say that Ovid's Heroides are likely to be at the root of nearly every melodramatic portrayal of scorned lovers.

Folco mentions Dido to evoke her devastating love tale. But the reference reminds us that, in Paradiso 8, as soon as Dante and Beatrice arrive to Venus, Dante the poet takes pains to note that the old tales of Eros and Cupid and Dido were misguided beliefs about Venus and mad love -- antico erroreParadiso's third sphere doesn't contain a hoard of suicides -- it contains vivid lovers like Cunizza and Folco whose hearts found a way beyond erotic possession to a larger relationship with the life of their times.

Cunizza and Folco sharply differ in their sense of space -- their perspective on their respective worlds. Cunizza speaks of being born of one root with the murderous Ezzolino on a low hill north of Venice. Her purview is local, horizontal -- Padua, Treviso, Feltro. She gives Dante three prophecies about her contemporaries -- three tales dripping with blood and betrayal.

Folco's scope of vision is more elevated - it takes him a while to pinpoint that he's from Marseilles - he first has to give us the latitudinal breath of the entire (in fact, larger than entire) Mediterranean, then brings in the longitudinal axis that puts his city on the same north/south line as the Algerian town of Buggea (source of the French word bougie, candle). As a famous lover and poet, he's cosmopolitan in culture as well as geography. He alludes to three ancient tales of mad love, but reserves his critical venom for the highest officials of the Church.

Neither famous lover speaks of his or her own amours, seductions, betrayals, or whatever. Instead of personal telenovelas or sad country music songs, we get the clarity and ardor of their engaged attention to the betrayals they witness, or foresee -- betrayals of civic and sacred trust -- because, quite simply, they care. 

This turning of their hearts from carnal love outward to the body politic and the body of Christ is underscored, virtually literally, when the glow enveloping Cunizza first approaches Dante:
      e 'l suo voler piacermi
significava nel chiarir di fori.
            its will to pleasure me
It signified by brightening outwardly.
Cunizza's three prophecies might almost be scenes from a 14th-century prequel to The Godfather. In one, a mob of Paduan Guelfs is massacred by Cangrande della Scala's Ghibbelines, turning Vicenza's swamp, il Bacchiglione, red; in the next,

a ruler who held his head a little too high loses it to an assassin's pruning hook while at home, playing chess; in the third tale, a bishop betrays a group of young men who came to him in Feltro from Ferrara, seeking the church's sanctuary from a gang of Guelfs. 

Cunizza predicts the kind of "sanctuary" that treacherous clergyman will provide:
Piangerà Feltro ancora la difalta
de l'empio suo pastor, che sarà sconcia
sì, che per simil non s'entrò in malta.
Troppo sarebbe larga la bigoncia
che ricevesse il sangue ferrarese,
e stanco chi 'l pesasse a oncia a oncia, 
che donerà questo prete cortese
per mostrarsi di parte; e cotai doni
conformi fieno al viver del paese.
Feltro moreover of her impious pastor
Shall weep the crime, which shall so monstrous be
That for the like none ever entered Malta. 
Ample exceedingly would be the vat
That of the Ferrarese could hold the blood,
And weary who should weigh it ounce by ounce, 
Of which this courteous priest shall make a gift
To show himself a partisan; and such gifts
Will to the living of the land conform. (Par. 9. 52-60)
It seems that in 1314, three Ferrarese youths -- Antoniolo, Lancillotto e Claruccio da Fontana -- fled from Ferrara to Feltro, believing the longtime Bishop of that town, Alessandro Novello, would give them protection from Guelf vengeance (they had conspired to kill the ruler of Ferrara). Instead of giving sanctuary, Novello handed them over to the Guelfs, who decapitated the three, plus 27 others. Thus the need for the vat to be "ample exceedingly." 

The word for vat - bigoncia - is interesting. As commentator Nicola Fosca notes, the word describes a large tub made of wooden planks that was used to collect, then press, grapes. The eventual wine would be ladled out and sold "ounce by ounce." The tale of the wedding feast of Cana might come to mind here. The bigoncia for this harvest would have had to be giant, and ladling the "wine" would certainly have wearied the ladler. Additional grim irony arises from the fact that bigoncie were also used by butchers, according to Fosca. 

I'm not sure any commentator has noted that Cunizza has the bishop of Feltro gifting the Guelf faction he wishes to impress with wine turned to blood -- a ghastly consecration.

Possibly an additional layer of irony is present, if bigoncia was also used, as the etymological dictionary suggests, to mean a cathedral's pulpit:

If so, then Cunizza is evoking the place where a cathedral's pastor feeds his flock with the words of the gospel, as well as indicating the generosity of this prete cortese:
Of which this courteous priest shall make a gift
To show himself a partisan; and such gifts
Will to the living of the land conform. (Par. 9. 52-60)
Fosca takes "living of the land" to be the customs, or way of life, of this part of Italy, and this seems right. Cunizza's tale of "such gifts" in the form of a human harvest is grim enough. Dante does not include an additional item offered by the commentator Benvenuto da Imola, who claims Bishop Alessandro Novello was so loathed for his betrayal that he was beaten to death with sandbags. Perhaps the poet wanted to make sure we had no reason to feel a wisp of sympathy for Novello or his novel sacrament.


What comes through in Cunizza's telling is not merely the high justice of the Troni, from whom nothing is hidden and nothing remains unadjudicated. It's also the sense of insult, the blood boiling at such acts of betrayal -- the acts of a traitor hurled back at him, much the way Phyllis and Dido had done with their faithless lovers.

Yet this passion, while undeniable, is not the whole tenor of Cunizza or Folco's tales. As Folco says (in a passage that has several textual uncertainties), they see their own follies, and those of others, from a higher, smiling recognition of "so much affection (cotanto affetto) in the art that adorns."
Non però qui si pente, ma si ride,
non de la colpa, ch'a mente non torna,
ma del valor ch'ordinò e provide.
Qui si rimira ne l'arte ch'addorna
cotanto affetto, e discernesi 'l bene
per che 'l mondo di sù quel di giù torna.
Yet here is no repenting, but we smile,
Not at the fault, which comes not back to mind,
But at the power which ordered and foresaw.
Here we behold in the art that adorns
So much affection, and discern the good for which
The world above wheels about the one below.*  (Par. 9.103-108)
 . . . 
The echo here of Francesca's words describing the moment she and Paolo succumbed to passion (while reading of Lancelot and Guinevere), could not be more pointed, or more astonishing.

For it was at this moment that the earthly lovers were surprised by eros, a more than human force. But this power or mad force of passion is precisely what the cantos of Venus are written to transform.

When Folco uses these words, it's not his own passion he speaks of. This cotanto affetto is divine love itself, making beautiful the world already ordered by its power.** There might be no more diametrical opposition than what happens here with these two instances of these words. Folco's cotanto affetto echoes the fall into erotic enslavement of the first lovers we meet in the Commedia, but here and now, he's speaking of how he rose from "telenovela love" to a love that smiles at seeing, in the ordered art of the Creator, cotanto affetto.

Here on Venus, Francesca's words echoed by Folco now convey the joyful surprise of beholding an affection legible in the order, beauty, and purpose shaped by the artist. Not just any artist, but one who, as Providence, displays such care and absolute mastery.

The repetition / revision of the phrase fits the pattern we've been finding in Paradiso: Something enigmatic throws us off, we work at putting some seemingly ill-fitting pieces together. If we're fortunate, there's a kind of poetic lift-off, or levity, an unexpected turn that expands what we think of as comedy.

There may be a subtle joke here as well: the effect of God's affetto is about as unlike Paolo and Francesca's as can be imagined. But they were reading a book, in which the artistry of the author was not merely visible, but effective -- it turned them from detached readers into lost lovers. When the author of Paradiso 9 adorned his book with this bold leap of figuration, perhaps he smiled.

*Going with Sinclair's translation rather than Longfellow's in the latter part of this tercet, in line with Fosca and others' reading.
**This reading is greatly indebted to the comments of Nicola Fosca on this challenging passage.


Pete D'Epiro said...

It might be worth adding with regard to that vat of blood that Cunizza's horrifically tyrannical brother, Ezzelino da Romano, who may have executed as many as 50,000 people, is briefly spotted in Canto 12 of the Inferno (vv. 109-110), steeping up to his eyebrows in Phlegethon, the river of boiling blood. Cunizza herself freed her father's and dead brothers' slaves in 1265 in an act drawn up in Florence in the house of Cavalcante de' Cavalcanti (Inf. Canto 10), the father of Dante's friend Guido, his famed fellow stilnovista. Cunizza died in 1279, and it's not out of the question that the young Dante may have seen the apparently repented old noblewoman in his native city.

Tom Matrullo said...

Yes - thanks, this canto really is incredibly rich and full of resonances to other parts of the poem. Cunizza's second prophecy about Rizzardo da Camino might recall, as Hollander notes, his father, "il buon Gherardo" of Purg. 16. The canto (Par.9) is rich, complex, and quite bloody for a scene set in Paradise, in the sphere of Love.