Monday, February 29, 2016

Paradiso 10: Why the Earth has seasons

Lift up then, Reader, to the lofty wheels
With me thy vision straight unto that part
Where the one motion on the other strikes, 
And there begin to contemplate with joy
That Master's art, who in himself so loves it
That never doth his eye depart therefrom. 
Behold how from that point goes branching off
The oblique circle, which conveys the planets,
To satisfy the world that calls upon them; 
And if their pathway were not thus inflected,
Much virtue in the heavens would be in vain,
And almost every power below here dead. 
If from the straight line distant more or less
Were the departure, much would wanting be
Above and underneath of mundane order. 
Remain now, Reader, still upon thy bench,
In thought pursuing that which is foretasted,
If thou wouldst jocund be instead of weary. 
I've set before thee; henceforth feed thyself . . . 
  1. The Earth's axis is tilted 23.5o with respect to the ecliptic and is always pointed to the celestial poles as the Earth moves around the Sun. Sometimes the northern hemisphere is tilted toward the Sun and sometimes the northern hemisphere is tilted away from the Sun.
  2. The Earth's orbit around the Sun is NOT circular.
  3. The apparent path of the Sun in the sky is known as the ecliptic and is actually the intersection of the plane of the Earth's orbit with the celestial sphere. Because the rotation axis of the Earth (which defines the celestial sphere) is tilted at an angle of 23.5o with respect to the plane of the Earth's orbit, the ecliptic is inclined at an angle to the celestial equator, as shown in the diagram below.
    The ecliptic and the equator intercept at two points, the vernal and autumnal equinox:  
    • Vernal or spring equinox: This point is defined as the point where the Sun, moving along the ecliptic, crosses the celestial equator from south to north. Occuring on March 21, when day and night are of equal length, this marks the beginning of spring.The altitude of the Sun in the sky increases from the spring equinox to a maximum (farthest North) on June 21 - the summer solstice - marking the beginning of summer.
    • Autumnal or fall equinox: This point is defined as the point where the Sun, moving along the ecliptic, crosses the celestrial equator from north to south. Occuring on September 21, when day and night are again of equal length, this marks the beginning of fall.The altitude of the Sun in the sky decreases from the autumnal equinox to a minimum (farthest South) on December 21 - the winter solstice - marking the beginning of winter.

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.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Mary Beard: Why Classics Matter

Mary Beard author of SPQR, a recent history of Rome, talks about the relation of the contemporary mind to turbulence in the Roman world. She touches on Cicero and the Catilinian conspiracy, terrorism, civil liberties, Brutus, the assassination of Julius Caesar, what Caesar actually said, the transition to empire, and more. Podcast on to the best of our knowledge.

Roman Forum seen from the Capitoline

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Allusions in Paradiso 9: Folco and Rahab

Dante was not going to leave the sphere of Venus without some dalliance with love stories from the ancient world and, in a different way, from the Old Testament. A few quick pointers to allusions in Paradiso 9:

Folquet de Marselha, or Folco, brings in both the Aeneid and Ovid's Heroides in speaking of Dido and of Demophon and Phyllis, both of whom were abandoned and perished by their own hand, and of Heracles and Iole, with whom our Sarasota group spent much time when reading Women of Trachis. Dante would not have known Sophocles' play, but thanks to Ovid, all these tales were in some form available to him.


Folco was a troubadour associated with a few famous love affairs. After experiencing a conversion, he joined the Cistercians and later was made Bishop of Toulouse. The city was a hotbed, so to speak, of heretics -- the Cathars, who preached against the corruption of the Church.

Folco's support of the Albingensian Crusade made him very unpopular with the people of his diocese.

His predicament with his own flock may be seen in two vignettes cited here:
St Bernard of Clairvaux, . . . although opposed to the Cathars, said of them in Sermon 65 on the Song of Songs:
If you question the heretic about his faith, nothing is more Christian; if about his daily converse, nothing more blameless; and what he says he proves by his actions ... As regards his life and conduct, he cheats no one, pushes ahead of no one, does violence to no one. Moreover, his cheeks are pale with fasting; he does not eat the bread of idleness; he labours with his hands and thus makes his living. Women are leaving their husbands, men are putting aside their wives, and they all flock to those heretics! Clerics and priests, the youthful and the adult among them, are leaving their congregations and churches and are often found in the company of weavers of both sexes.[21]
When Bishop Fulk [aka Folco], a key leader of the anti-Cathar persecutions, excoriated the Languedoc Knights for not pursuing the heretics more diligently, he received the reply:
We cannot. We have been reared in their midst. We have relatives among them and we see them living lives of perfection.[22]
As his final words show, Folco's campaign against the Cathars did not blind him to the "adultery" they decried in the corrupt Church.

The story of Rahab and the spies begins in Joshua 2. Other scriptural mentions of the prostitute of Jericho are noted here.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The happy man: Charles Martel

A reasonable question to ask of Paradiso 8 is why Charles Martel is the focus of the first encounter after hearing Beatrice's account of the upraising of man through the sacrifice of god + man in Paradiso 7. 

A second related question would be why at its outset, and then later in canto 8, does the poem perform an act of rational correction -- first noting the ancient world's error about the goddess Venus (1-10), later by translating Typhoeus into mere sulfur (70)?

Working through the remarkable web woven in Paradiso 8 calls for more than even a lengthy blog post. I hope to be brief, but not cryptic.

Giovanni Villani
In the Nuova Cronica, Giovanni Villani depicts Martel coming to Florence to meet his father, King Charles II, who was returning from France after a complex diplomatic mission:
Book 8.13: . . . come to meet him was Charles Martel . . . king of Hungary, with his company of 200 knights with golden spurs, French and Provençal and from the Kingdom, all young men, invested by the king with habits of scarlet and dark green, and all with saddles of one device, with their palfreys adorned with silver and gold, with arms quarterly, bearing golden lilies and surrounded by a bordure of red and silver, which are the arms of Hungary. And they appeared the noblest and richest company a young king had ever had with him. And in Florence he abode more than twenty days, awaiting his father, King Charles, and his brothers; and the Florentines did him great honour, and he showed great love to the Florentines, wherefore he was in high favour with them all. (Italian edition)
It is this Martel, now one of the lumi divini -- moving faster than lightning in a dance begun by the alti Serafini -- who welcomes the pilgrim with joyous hospitality, as if he were the grand seigneur of the mansion of Venus.

Martel warmly greets Dante with the first line of the poet's canzone:
Voi che 'ntendendo il terzo ciel movete
Curiously the line concerns the very sphere to which Dante has just arrived. The poet realizes that he has been recognized, but Martel is concealed, nested in the happiness that shines about him. He then discloses his identity, using the rivers that carve out the lands to which his royal bloodlines made him heir.

Interestingly, Martel's name in Italian, Martello, means "hammer," and throughout the canto Charles speaks of moving forces that shape things. As the rivers shape the lands he seemed destined to rule, the streaming intelligences of the spheres shape the human natures that are found in abundance on earth, not grouped by bloodline. Once again, as has been the case consistently in the Paradiso, natural forces -- whether purely natural like rivers, or "super" natural like angelic intelligence, are depicted at work. Nature is a vast system and order, but not always genetic.

This sense of powerful intelligences embodied in vast bodies is manifest when Martel says:
Lo ben che tutto il regno che tu scandi
volge e contenta, fa esser virtute
sua provedenza in questi corpi grandi.
The Good which all the realm thou art ascending
Turns and contents, maketh its providence
To be a power within these bodies vast;
Martel is about to explain how it is that bitter fruit can come from sweet seed. That is, how natural filiation cannot explain large differences in nature between parent and child.

The Good puts its providential power into this giant machine of heavenly forces, but strangely its provision -- literally, fore-seeing --  is not looking at specific individuals, nor is it guided by some preconceived plan.
Revolving Nature, which a signet is
To mortal wax, doth practise well her art,
But not one inn distinguish from another; (8.127-29)
It rays down dispositions, gifts, talents and abilities not according to DNA, nor due to some destiny, but abundantly so that those who are formed with such gifts are left entirely free to make what they will of them.

Yet it's all foreseen:
And not alone the natures are foreseen
Within the mind that in itself is perfect,
But they together with their preservation. 
For whatsoever thing this bow shoots forth
Falls foreordained unto an end foreseen,
Even as a shaft directed to its mark.
What we have here borders on antinomy - a strong description of provedenza aiming at and hitting a foreseen goal, yet coupled with a strong affirmation of free will on the part of the one who is nonetheless shaped by the rays of heavenly gifts. There is high tension between these two realms. The providenza that fore-sees somehow doesn't see the particular beneficiary. (It's as if a gear in the machine had slipped - can Providence be blind?)

Perhaps the key to the puzzle is that these are gifts. If one is "gifted," one is usually happy to use one's gift. They are freely given, and carry no contractual commitment on the part of the recipient to reciprocate with service or work of equal value. The heavens are always sending these gifts with no specific end user, no price tag, no fine print. It is a vision of loving generosity so vast as to make anyone happy.

Charles is certainly happy, as we've noted. Which is why it is singularly crucial to note that this Charles Martel lived but 24 years, and never sat on any throne to which he was legitimately entitled except a portion of Croatia. His very name echoes the "real" Charles Martel, the multi-gifted 8th century ruler and administrator who laid the groundwork of the Carolingian empire, as Dante's infelicitous Charles Martel of Anjou did not.

Charles's claim to the Hungarian throne was rejected by the land's nobles, and he died too soon -- in 1295 from plague -- to come into his own in Naples.  As we learn at the beginning of Paradiso 9, the succession of his own child to the kingdom of Naples was pushed aside by his brother Robert. In USian parlance, Charles would be termed a "loser."

He was gifted with the best qualities of a ruler, coupled with the legitimate expectation of earthly power, yet his life (vita) on earth was too brief for any of this giant promise -- clearly seen by Dante during Charles' splendid visit to Florence in 1294 -- to be realized. Martel is barely a footnote in the annals of the kings of Hungary, Provence, or Naples, (regardless of what sort of contenda he coulda been).

In essence, Martel replicates in his own life the sharp antinomy he just described: the contradiction between the rational order of providence and the hit-or-miss errancy of Earth. With his hopes dashed and all promise of political creation and royal primogeniture lost, Charles certainly had all reason to stew in his bile beans. Dante no doubt saw an alternate version of his own vita in the young king's fate.

But we find no eulogy, no elegy, no Virgilian threnody. Charles is the happiest man we've met so far, which might come as a shock -- in fact, it should. This is the strange tension of canto 8.

Henry VII of Luxembourg
Martel speaks of the shaping of lands and souls, and incarnates the utter dissolution of human and divine potential. He could be angry at his brother, he could curse God and die, he could "whinge," as our group surely expected him to be doing the other day. We can be fairly sure that Dante, learning of the death of his young friend, and, then in 1313, receiving news that Henry VII -- in whom he'd placed all his hopes for a renewed Empire -- had also perished, was sorely tempted to emit a few expletives.

The spectacle of hopes dashed is powerfully seductive. Who can continue to place faith in Providence when so many good people fall?

Let's remember how we first saw Charles -- he was compared to a spark in a flame, then to a note moving away from and back to a cantus firmus, then to a dancer moving at the speed of light, in a dance begun by the highest beings of creation -- then, when he speaks, he turns into a warm, friendly, luminous human being.

Combine that with the canto's emphasis upon the power of Reason to strip myths that can rule our souls, which otherwise might worship mad eros, or fear angry Typhoeus. Reason opposes the mythic notion that we are driven by irrational powers. For Dante and Martel, Reason is built into the fabric of things, but earthly things are subject to all manner of contingency, freedom, and derangement.

Martel sits -- one could say he is broken -- at the point at which the rational intelligences of the Good that turns and contents all things encounter the random, senseless, fallen sub-lunar world. The creature raised up by the Word of God as described in canto 7 has no easy time of it. Our best efforts often go to naught, despite the generosity and good will of the Good. It's enough to drive a good man to distraction.

Charles Martel - Dore

Many would say Charles Martel never really lived. How is it that he's swathed in happiness like a creature in its own silk?

Charles offers us a clue, when he says (quoted in English above):
La circular natura, ch'è suggello
a la cera mortal, fa ben sua arte,
ma non distingue l'un da l'altro ostello. (8.127-29)
Nature is the seal, we are mortal wax -- cera mortal. At the end, the wax is no longer there -- we are literally sine-cera. To be sincere is to stand free from all mortal traces. The intelligences shaping the world through the gifts of the Good do not distinguish one transient hostel from another (ostello rhymes with martello). Charles is the gracious host wherever he resides.

Martel is at a place where he might regret that his brother Robert isn't right for the role he's playing in Naples. But Charles lives at another ostello, one where nothing of his stunted earthly life can touch the contentment provided by the Good that turns the Kingdom. His words speak of joy; his alacrity, his voice, and his royal friendship embody the intelligent love of the third sphere -- love on a scale that could provide for nations and empires.

Charles not only lived, but lives. That's affirmed by Dante in Paradiso 9, when Charles, as he turns toward the sun, is not ombra (shade), nor lume (light), nor anima (soul), but life -- vita:
E già la vita di quel lume santo
rivolta s'era al Sol che la rïempie,
come quel ben ch'a ogne cosa è tanto. (9.7-9)
And of that holy light the life already
Had to the Sun which fills it turned again,
As to that good which for each thing sufficeth.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

A "whispering" image from Syria

At the Yale University Art Gallery hang wall paintings from one of the world’s oldest churches. Buried by the middle of the third century, this house-church from eastern Syria had images of Jesus, Peter and David. The gallery showcases a well-preserved procession of veiled women that once surrounded its baptistery, a room for Christian initiation.
Given our recent concern with the account of the Incarnation in Paradiso 7, this piece from the New York Times may be of interest. It argues that a painting
owned by Yale could in fact be the oldest depiction of the Virgin Mary:

The church’s painted baptistery remains a unique discovery. Outside of funerary contexts, such as the catacombs in Rome, there are precious few Christian paintings from before Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in the fourth century. These also offer a glimpse into the beliefs and rituals of Syrian Christians, a community currently in peril.

While the Samaritan Woman at the Well was a respected biblical figure for early Christians, there was actually a more prominent “woman at the well” in Syria: the Virgin Mary during the Annunciation, when an angelic visitor informed her of her miraculous pregnancy.

The remarkable image might be pregnant with an unsuspected surprise:
The woman at Dura-Europos has yet more secrets to reveal. Archival photographs and drawings made by the archaeologists on site show that the supposed absence behind the female figure is not totally silent — it speaks a couple of lines. That is to say, a field sketch of the wall done “to show additional details” depicts two painted lines touching the woman’s back, along with a kind of starburst on the front of her torso, features described as “unexplained” in the archaeological report. But with the new interpretation of the figure, in connection with the Eastern iconography that came later, the lines invite a rather evident meaning. They appear to represent a motion toward the woman’s body and a spark of activity within it, as if something invisible were approaching and entering her — an incarnation.