Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The fall of chivalry: Paradiso 17

This will just be a brief suggestion, rather than a reading. The Paradiso, the city of God, spends more than three cantos at its dead center on the city of man. 

That city is riven by two kinds of love:
Benigna volontade in che si liqua
sempre l'amor che drittamente spira,
come cupidità fa ne la iniqua,

A will benign, in which reveals itself
Ever the love that righteously inspires,
As in the iniquitous, cupidity, (Par.15. 1-3)
The good love does something noble right at the start -- it falls silent:
silenzio puose a quella dolce lira,
The knights and armies moving along the four equal arms of the cross extinguish their songs in order to listen to this one soul who's arrived, a bit dazzled by the vast red sphere, the gleaming galaxy of the huge cross, the power of music he is moved by without understanding. 

This giving of attention is a constitutive chivalric act. It is the turn from the needs of the self (cupidità) to the other. That tens of thousands of knights and soldiers fall silent at once is  a signal gesture of the knight's honor, service, and love to one in need. It puts the entire Cacciaguida section under the sign of knightly courtesy, which carries a rich and highly sophisticated ethical discipline. (For a sampling of the range and depth of the chivalric paideia, see Aldo Scaglione's Knights at Court, especially chapter 2.)

If we read Paradiso 16 in this light, it might provide an incisive moral perspective. For what we see is a city that is divided -- Cacciaguida gives us the simple honest families of a modest town; the town grows, rich families from outside move in, bringing with them their aristocratic presumptions even as other families are developing mediated systems of lending that will bring untold wealth to their children.

It's a city marred by a failure of Church and State to work in harmony -- perhaps that ideal was only reached in the Knight, he who placed his mastery of power and skill into the service of his lord, and of his lord's Lord.

Perhaps this is why, when Dante first speaks to his great-great grandfather, Beatrice's smile brings an allusion to the story of Lancelot. Unlike Francesca, who met a literary knight in a Romance, the poet meets one who, though found only here in his poem, is presented as not a literary figure, but as an actual knight who served his Emperor and his God. 

And perhaps this is why the central antagonism of Cacciaguida's survey of Florentine development is the suicidal conflict between families of honor and good will on one hand, and on the other, those whose specialization lay in mooching off the church, or, "the insolent breed that plays the dragon behind him that flees and is mild as a lamb to him that shows his teeth," (Par.16.115-117).

At the heart of this civic ruin is the ruined virtue of the heart -- the honorable city of benign will is succumbing to those whose strength lies in clever merchandising and wealth built by greed. 

In this light, the unhorsings of Buondelmonte and of Corso are not two disparate events in a random development. Rather, the ends of these well-heeled deserters of their ladies are two manifestations of the same event: the fall of Florentine cavalleria.

Cacciaguida's portrait of contingent, mortal Florence is both loving and scathing; Dante's "root" speaks openly and clearly of his past and future, and the outcome is literally en-coeuraging -- he steels the poet with what it takes to complete his poem, whatever the risks.
                    . . . all falsehood laid aside,
Make manifest thy vision utterly,
And let them scratch wherever is the itch;

                   . . . rimossa ogne menzogna,
tutta tua visïon fa manifesta;
e lascia pur grattar dov' è la rogna.  (17.127-29)
When we reach this moment near the end of the central canto of the Paradiso, the necessity of this "detour" begins to become clear. The poem could not come to be without this radical injection of boldness and heart. The courage to speak the truth is the only medicine to cure a sick city:
Ché se la voce tua sarà molesta
nel primo gusto, vital nodrimento
lascerà poi, quando sarà digesta.

For if thine utterance shall offensive be
At the first taste, a vital nutriment
'Twill leave thereafter, when it is digested. (17.130-132)
Cacciaguida compared Dante with Hippolytus, who is Ovid's key transitional figure between Pythagoras and Aesculapius. The tale of the journey of the serpent-god from Greece to Rome is the last journey, and the last good story, of the Metamorphoses. It's all told in disguise; Hippolytus himself is disguised, he's now known as "Virbius."

If Ovid wrote of the metamorphosis of Greece into Rome (it might be his central theme), Dante here, inspired by Cacciaguida, dispenses with oracles and the promises of hidden gods. The root is the truth of his life -- to be voiced with chivalric mastery -- openly, freely, boldly,
"Because the spirit of the hearer rests not,

Nor doth confirm its faith by an example
Which has the root of it unknown and hidden
Or other reason that does not appear."
"che l'animo di quel ch'ode, non posa

né ferma fede per essempro ch'aia
la sua radice incognita e ascosa,
né per altro argomento che non paia.”

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Death in Florence - Paradiso 16

The history of Florence before and after Dante is so rich and fraught with conflicts, treacheries and a wide cast of players as to make it hard to keep even the general outlines clear. 

A helpful (and well written) summary can be found in the first chapter of R.W.B. Lewis's Dante: A Lifepublished years ago in the New York Times (the text might be marred by some coding, but it's worth it)

Lewis's chapter is here, and begins with Cacciaguida:
As you walk across the Ponte Vecchio in Florence today, you come upon a plaque bearing a passage from Dante's Divine Comedy. The lines are spoken by Dante's ancestor Cacciaguida, whom the poet encounters in one of the higher spheres of heaven, among the warrior saints. They reflect grimly on an event that took place on that very spot in 1216, almost fifty years before Dante's birth, and plunged the city into decades of turmoil. The event was the murder of Buondelmonte dei Buondelmonti . . . more . . ..
We last encountered Buondelmonte lying dead at the feet of "the mutilated stone that guards the bridge" - the ancient statue of Mars. Cacciaguida's depiction of early Florence climaxes in the tale of the failed attempt to unite two feuding families, the Amidei and the Donati, through marriage. An alliance with the daughter of the Amidei would have forged a bond of common interest between them. All Buondelmonte had to do was to accept the daughter and dowry offered. Instead he chose another bride from the wealthier Donati. 

Remembering an earlier time, Cacciaguida spoke of dowries before they had transformed brides into commodities:
Non faceva, nascendo, ancor paura
la figlia al padre, ché 'l tempo e la dote
non fuggien quinci e quindi la misura.

Not yet the daughter at her birth struck fear
Into the father, for the time and dower
Did not o'errun this side or that the measure.
(Par. 15.103-05)
As a direct result of his open betrayal of his troth, Buondelmonte was struck as he came from his wedding. He was knocked from his horse, then stabbed to death in front of his new bride. 

Some nine decades later, the city is ruled and roiled by the irrepressible Corso Donati, fomenting faction at every turn.

In Paradiso 17, Dante will learn of his own exile, of "how hard is the way going down and up another man's stairs." The key figure behind his exile and expropriation was Corso, a relation through Dante's marriage to Gemma Donati, and the swashbuckling head of the black Guelfs, who opposed the Whites, headed by the Cerchi.

Corso married the daughter of a wealthy Ghibelline, which enraged many who had supported him. Eventually the citizens forced Corso to flee the city; he was soon captured nearby. While being led back to Florence, Corso fell or threw himself from his horse, whereupon a captor lanced him to death.

Death of Corso Donati
Dante must have pondered the striking resemblances between the fates of these two men. Both Buondelmonte and Corso chose wealthy brides, not modest maids. Their choices unhorsed them. In Cacciaguida's story, Florence itself had once been a modest maid, but now is festooned with jewelry, make-up, and dress. And the old man compares Dante to Hippolytus, exiled from his native city by a lie, dragged to his death by frightened horses.  (Dante turns out to be less Euripides' tragic Hippolytus than Ovid's, who returns from Hades to live a new life in Italy.)

Buondelmonte's death at the bridge divided the city into the factions which then first were called Guelfs and Ghibellines. Corso's death ended the contention between the city's Whites and Blacks. In both cases, Florentine blood was spilled by Florentines. 

The fates of these two men, almost a century apart, are uncannily alike -- almost as if one fate. They are root and branch of the same "seed plot." It's like an opera or Greek myth, not devised by literary artifice, but given by the history of Florence. From the same plot, but a different seed, Dante will be cut off from his city, but not from his "root." He'll complete his solar journey thanks to the clear oracles of Cacciaguida. 

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Auerbach on Dante as poet of the secular world

. . . every aspect of earthly life is here, if only in the concentrated power of the poet’s similitudes: “croaking frogs in the evening, a lizard darting across the path, sheep crowding out of their enclosure, a wasp withdrawing its sting, a dog scratching; fishes, falcons, doves, storks; a cyclone snapping off trees at the trunk; a morning countryside in spring, covered with hoarfrost; night falling on the first day of an ocean voyage; a monk receiving the confession of a murderer; a mother saving a child from fire; a lone knight galloping forth; a bewildered peasant in Rome,” and on . . .

This passage is from Erich Auerbach's Dante: Poet of the Secular World, quoted by Michael Dirda in a fine brief overview of that book. Auerbach was one of the great readers of the 20th century. Dirda's whole piece can be found here, and is worth reading in full. For more on Auerbach's reading of Dante, see Edward Said's intro to a reissued edition of Mimesis.)

Auerbach found Dante's art distinctive for the vivid mimesis of everyday life, as well as for the distinctive characters of individual men and women captured by the poet, even as the arc of his poem aimed beyond all individual material bounds.

As we progress through Paradise, the focus changes from specific human beings to more complex structures, Dirda notes. Instead of single lives, we encounter groups that form constellations with their own internal complexities -- as with the learned authors in the Sun. Individuals become parts of larger wholes which tend to deal with, for example, Justice, Knowledge, and History writ large. 

Perhaps in part to counterbalance that universalizing tendency, Dante has Cacciaguida bring us down from the heavens to the l'ovil di San Giovanni, the sheepfold of his native city. There, instead of encountering one human being, we get an elaborate tale of Florence seen through time. Instead of specific persons, we mostly encounter families, some identified solely through their heraldic imagery. But what story do we get?

Dante is certainly taking stock of the city of his birth, which happened to be the scene of dislocations -- economic, political, and artistic -- that reverberated throughout Europe. 

But the story of Florence offers no easy moral, no simple insight or nostrums that would resolve the incessant conflicts, the welter of competing classes and interests, ethical allegiances both sacred and secular that shook and divided Florence again and again. 

As Mario asked, why does this granular image of Florence appear here, now? It seems perfectly true to the Commedia for Dante to grapple with his own particular earthly seed-plot at the moment he's approaching the upper reaches of the heavens. But what does that story yield? A few thoughts in hopes of making a bit more headway in the next post.