Paradiso Dante Alighieri
The following entry presents criticism of the Paradiso (c.1318-21), the third cantica of Dante's Commedia (1306-21; The Divine Comedy). For coverage of Dante's other works, see CMLC, Volumes 3, 18, and 39.
The third and concluding part of Dante's Divine Comedy, the Paradiso, has been extolled as one of the most magnificent achievements in world literature. The first cantica of the Divine Comedy, the Inferno, describes the torments of hell, while the second, the Purgatorio, delineates the painful travails souls undergo in purgatory. In both of these works, the poet describes fantastic realms in highly visual terms. In the Paradiso, however, Dante relies on suggestion rather than concrete description to present the reader with a vision of Paradise. As Marguerite Mills Chiarenza has observed, the foundation of Dante's poem is intellectual vision, which contradicts the traditional concept of poetry as an art that relies on images and symbols. “Intellectual vision,” Mills Chiarenza writes, “is by its nature incongruent with poetry, for it is the denial of that of which poetry is made. … Therefore, I would like to … suggest that the basic position of the poet in the Paradiso is revealed by his struggle to express a vision which is imageless from the start.” Dante's poem, which opens with the idea of God's glory shining throughout the universe, closes with the poet's ecstatic vision of God—a vision, as far as Dante is concerned, as indescribable as it is true.
Scholars agree that the Paradiso was written after the death of Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII (c. 1275-1313), whom Dante venerated as the God-given king destined to unify Italy and conduct a reign of justice and peace—a terrestrial Paradise. In the view of some commentators, Henry's death, which spelled the end of Dante's hopes for Italy's political future, may have moved the poet to translate his worldly vision into a poetic dream of celestial perfection. There is evidence to suggest that Dante started writing his poem in 1318 and the general consensus among scholars is that the Paradiso was completed in 1321, the year of Dante's death. The period between 1318 and 1321 was an extremely difficult time for Dante, as Ravenna (the city to which he was exiled by his political enemies in Florence) and Venice were preparing for war. During 1321 Dante was in fact part of an attempt, which was ultimately unsuccessful, to establish a Ravennese embassy in Florence. Returning to Ravenna through the marshes of Cimacchio, Dante contracted malaria and died on September 14, 1321.
Plot and Major Characters
A journey through the realms of Paradise culminating in a vision of God, Dante's poem also portrays the individual's struggle to attain spiritual illumination. The protagonist is the poet himself, who describes his voyage as a pilgrimage. While the intellectual and philosophical foundation of this pilgrimage is quite orthodox from the point of view of medieval Christianity, Dante, in radical departure from theological and biblical tradition, introduces the figure of Beatrice, his guide to the heavens. Neither angel nor saint, Beatrice, who may have been a historical figure, represents a force that may be viewed as divine, despite the obvious heretical implications of such a claim.
In the Paradiso Beatrice represents the dazzling incarnation of faith, wisdom, justice, beauty, and love—a tangible connection to the ineffable mystery of God. While Beatrice is an expression of the deepest level of the poem, which is spiritual, the reader also finds, as a negative reflection of Paradise, Dante's meticulous disquisitions on the sorry state of Florence and Italy. These passages emphasize what Dante viewed as the sin, evil, and political corruption that ruled the world around him. The poet himself, in his famous letter to his patron Can Grande della Scala, explained that the Divine Comedy depicts “the state of souls after death” and had four levels of meaning: literal, allegorical, moral, and mystical (or anagogical, after the Greek term anagoge, which can be translated as “upward movement”). “The three allegorical meanings, in the Comedy,” John Saly has written, “reveal to us first the state of human society and the way to the realization of the Kingdom of God on earth, secondly the progress of the individual soul in this life from sin to purification and to the life of grace and, finally, a series of inner states through which a human being passes from complete isolation to unity with all that is.”
Dante's contemporaries were aware of his greatness, and commentators of the time recognized the Paradiso not only as a sublime poem but also as an encyclopedic synthesis of science, astrology, mysticism, theology, and mythology. The most famous Renaissance champion of Dante's work was Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75), writer and humanist, who was the first to offer public lectures on the Divine Comedy. In the fifteenth century, as Saly observes, thinkers related Dante's description of the soul's ascent toward God to the Neoplatonic conception of a union with God, an idea which, according to scholars, can also be found in the medieval mystical traditions that inspired Dante. According to Saly, the Neoplatonists, who “gathered around Lorenzo de'Medici in what came to be known as the Medici circle, recognized in Dante a kindred spirit.” For example, the Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino (1433-99) regarded his Theologia Platonica, (1482), an attempted synthesis of Christianity and Neoplatonism, as a philosophical equivalent of the Paradiso. Later studies focused on the mystical and philosophical aspects of Dante's poem. In the early twentieth century, this approach is exemplified by the work of Edmund G. Gardner. In 1929, Erich Auerbach published a seminal study of the historical and political context of the Paradiso. Complementing the work of such scholarly writers as Etienne Gilson, who described the vast range of sources of Dante's inspiration, T. S. Eliot focused, in an eloquent and compelling fashion, on Dante's poetic genius, defining the Paradiso as a work in which the immense power of great poetry overshadows any strictly thematic or historical considerations. Later in the twentieth century, scholars such as Barbara Reynolds and Rachel Jacoff have offered perspectives on the text that contribute to the widely held view that Dante's great poem is, like its subject, a source of endless interpretation.