A Call to Revolution and a More Just Society: A Note on Paradiso 8.73-75

Akash Kumar (Indiana University)

Dante Notes / June 20, 2020

The heady mix of love and politics that animates the Heaven of Venus does much to defy our readerly expectations and complicate our cultural boundaries erected between forms of desire and their contingent sociopolitical implications. If we might have expected a paean to the sort of erotic desire and courtly love celebrated in the lyric tradition so vital to Dante’s own poetic identity, we have instead an expanded scope that asks us to meditate on the application of love to identity, heredity, and the bonds between citizens and their rulers. Dante’s encounter with Charles Martel is notable for its impassioned rhetoric that channels the love lyric in expressing the bond of admiration and political loyalty between these two men. Telling in this regard is the last of the Commedia’s autocitations of Dante’s lyric past in the form of the stilnovo canzone later included in the Convivio, Voi ch’intendendo ’l terzo ciel movete. As even the incipit suggests, there is an intermingling of natural philosophy and love poetry, a linking of the movement of the heavens to the desires of the human heart. Such a feeling suffuses the canto, perhaps as a way of insisting on the validity of scientific thought in vernacular form. At the opening of Paradiso 8, as part of the position that we cannot blame the rays that emanate from Venus for our “folle amore” (8.2), Dante deploys the hapax “epiciclo” (8.3) that lends an erudite air, a technical understanding of Venus’ retrograde motion to further defy popular astrological beliefs. This scientific vocabulary creates a further divide between “la gente” (8.1) with their erroneous beliefs and those who truly understand the workings of the natural world. When Charles Martel, in his lament for the lands that have been misruled by his family, descends to the island of Sicily, he deploys a marvelously synthetic verse that privileges a natural philosophical explanation for the volcanic fog over a mythological one drawn upon by poets such as Virgil and Ovid: “non per Tifeo ma per nascente solfo” (Paradiso 8.70). There is a way in which these points of scientific erudition stand in contrast to the masses, defying popular belief and cultural practice. And yet, it is popular will that wins out in Charles’ depiction of the fate of Sicily as it transitioned from Angevin to Aragonese rule.

Interrogating the confluence of love poetry and political thought, I’d like to suggest, might further illuminate Dante’s poetic representation of the Sicilian Vespers. When Charles speaks of “la bella Trinacria,” (8.67) he claims that his heirs would still be looked to as kings if it were not for the misrule that led the people to revolt against the Angevins: “se mala signoria, che sempre accora / li popoli suggetti, non avesse / mosso Palermo a gridar: ‘Mora mora!’” (Par. 8.73-75). In doing so, he is calling out his grandfather Charles I and setting himself up as a noble contrast to his forebear. Charles Martel stands out as a paragon of nobility, but he is distinguished from other similar figures of the poem that tend to celebrate the noble foundings of dynasties and lament their inevitable decline. Fitting this pattern are Hugh Capet of Purgatorio 20 and the many dynasties called out by name in Purgatorio 7, where the principle that worth and nobility might be passed down through the generations is effectively dismantled by Sordello: “Rade volte risurge per li rami / l’umana probitate” (Purg. 7.121-122). Much as we might point to such moments as questioning the foundations of a social structure that continues to reward the rich and powerful at the expense of the majority, Dante’s admiration for the grandi is often clear in the political vision of the Commedia, whether in the pro-imperial celebrations of Rome or the veneration of generations prior of the rich and powerful (as we might find in Inferno 16 or the praise of the Malaspina, who began noble and remain so still in Purgatorio 8). At times, he is of course unstinting in speaking truth to power and calling out tyrants, corrupt rulers, and the like (as we see, for example, in Inferno 12).

But this moment of Paradiso 8 stands out for its empathetic depiction of popular revolt as a response to the misuse of authority. The principle could not be more clear: bad rule always (“sempre” in 8.73) strikes the heart of the subjects of such rule; in this case the whole city of Palermo is moved to shout “Mora mora!” As we have too often been reminded in recent days of the Martin Luther King, Jr. quote, “Riot is the language of the unheard,” we see in this moment a precious understanding of the obligation to rule justly and the violent consequences of failing to do so.

The particular form of this popular outcry, I’d like to suggest, might be said to have its roots in the tradition of the love lyric. The term “accora,” understood as ‘striking the heart,’ has its internal history in the Commedia as well as a history of vernacular usage that suggests it was a part of the repertory of lyric poets to describe a state of amorous suffering. Such is the use that we find in Bonagiunta Orbicciani’s Oramai lo meo core, where the poet laments that his lady weighs upon his heart as he remembers how he had to leave her. In a usage that resonates greatly with moments of “accorare” prior to Paradiso 8, Fiore 7 finds the lover despairing that Lo Schifo has struck him in such a way that he might die without ever attaining the flower of his desire, if Pity and Honesty do not strike the heart of this manifestation of turpitude : “Molto vilmente mi buttò di fora / Lo Schifo, crudo, fello, oltraggioso, / Sì che  del fior non cred’esser gioioso, / Se Pietate e Franchezza no ll’acora; / Ma prima, credo, converrà ch’eo mora” (Fiore 7.1-5). This is by no means to argue for a more certain attribution of the Fiore to Dante but simply to point out a compelling link to the poetic tradition of late 13th-century Italy that might further inform our readings of the language of the Commedia.

Pietà is indeed what Dante’s heart is struck with in the infernal uses of “accorare.” In Inferno 13, he asks Virgilio to speak to Pier de la Vigna in his place because “tanta pietà m’accora” (13.84). In Inferno 15, there is a physiological process in play that makes Brunetto Latini’s dear paternal image move from memory to the heart: “ché ’n la mente m’è fitta, e or m’accora, / la cara e buona imagine paterna” (15.82-83). Those poignant encounters set the stage for an enlarged perspective in Purgatorio 5, where Iacopo del Cassero says to Dante that he and his companions who died violently nonetheless made their peace with God in their last moments. Their hearts are now struck with a desire to be reunited with the divine: “sì che, pentendo e perdonando, fora / di vita uscimmo a Dio pacificati, / che del disio di sé veder n’accora” (5.55-57). From a pointedly individual dwelling upon how the heart is struck, we’ve moved to a collective desire. And we might see how the language of the love lyric is retooled to express feelings of pity for the afflicted Pier de la Vigna, profound affection for the teacher Brunetto, and finally moves in a theological direction in expressing the desire of the souls to be in the presence of God.

But that of course is not the end of the story of “accora,” which is transformed further still into the language of political revolution in Paradiso 8. The form of this popular outcry that represents the watershed moment of the Sicilian Vespers is even more closely tied to Dante’s poetic past. In the sonnet that will come to be included in the Vita Nuova, Ciò che m’incontra ne la mente more, we find a mystical turn to fully capture the effects of the lady on the poet’s internal state and external perceptions: “e per l’ebrietà del gran tremore / par che le pietre gridin: Moia, moia” (7-8). Teodolinda Barolini rightly remarks that we see in this sonnet the hallmarks of lyric experimentation with the language of mysticism that will come to be so vital for the crafting of the vision of the Commedia.[1] I’d like to instead focus on the gulf between this imagined, fantastical discourse and the very real shouts of protest that result in the overthrow of a political regime in Paradiso 8. The poetic phrases are clearly linked, sharing the bonds of “gridare” and “morire,” even the insistent, imperative sounds of “Moia, moia” and “Mora, mora.” The difference lies in mediation: the stones seem to shout out “Die, die!” while the city of Palermo unites in shouting for the death of its unjust ruler. And we find a link to the Fiore as well in the rhyming of “accora” and “mora,” as the metaphorical death of the lover is transformed into the calls for a real death to befall those who have abused their power over others.

It has been suggested that the poetry of Paradiso moves toward transcendence and namelessness.[2] Here instead, I think we can see a turn from the mystical and amatory to the violent language of regime change. The names of these places—Trinacria, Pachino, Peloro, Palermo— actualize the geography of Sicily and do not permit us to gloss over its happenings as unmoored and immaterial. Such an insistence on the empirical and the stuff of history further reinforces Charles Martel’s discourse at the end of Paradiso 8 on global citizenship that relies upon the principle of diversity as strength. Citizenship is deemed impossible if each of us do not play to our strengths “diversamente per diversi offici” (Paradiso 8.119). Such a use of “offici” captures its Latin sense of service to the community at large; we might see the in malo version in the form of political corruption in the description of Frate Gomita in Inferno 22.86-87 and Uzzah’s inability to respect ritual boundaries in Purgatorio 10.57, and the in bono version in Bonaventure (Paradiso 12.127-129), who takes on grand offices as service without a thought for the fame and glory (“la sinistra cura”) that might accompany them.[3]

Here at the conclusion of Paradiso 8, citizenship is put forth as a social ideal, with recourse to the beginning of Aristotle’s Politics and its axiom that we are social entities (zoon politikon); we thrive together. The cultural other is valorized in the non-Christian examples—Solon, Xerxes, Melchisedech, Daedalus—of these “diversi offici.”[4] But what is also emphasized is the idea that we must let people be who they are, instead of forcing them (literally twisting them, as the verb “torcere” of Paradiso 8.145 makes violently clear) into roles and professions that might depart from their predispositions. In this, we have another kind of potential “mala segnoria” that suppresses its citizens in the expression of their true selves. It might be less blatant and less violent than Charles I’s rule of Sicily, but the result might well be civic unrest that clamors for a more just society in which all of us find a rightful place and lift each other up to realize our true potential.

[1] See Barolini, Dante’s Lyric Poetry: Poems of Youth and of the Vita Nuova (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014), pp. 149-152.

[2] For such a reading that specifically treats the proper names of Paradiso 8, see William Franke, “The Place of Proper Names in the Topographies of the ParadisoSpeculum 87.4 (2012), pp. 1089-1124.

[3] My thanks to Simone Marchesi (Princeton) for this emphasis on the Latin sense of “officium” and to Susanna Barsella (Fordham) for the reminder of Uzzah’s “officio non commesso” (Purg. 10.57). Such acts of service are writ large across the Commedia, from Pier de la Vigna’s claim of faithful service to the point of physical detriment (“fede portai al glorioso offizio / tanto ch’i’ ne perdi li sonni e ’ polsi” (Inf. 13.62-63) to Bernard’s selfless act of teaching: “libero officio di dottore assunse” (Par. 32.2).

[4] For more on this line of reading, see my “Walls of Inclusivity: Dante’s Divine Comedy and World Literature” in A Companion to World Literature, Ken Seigneurie, ed. (London: John Wiley & Sons, 2020) doi:10.1002/9781118635193.ctwl0057