Dante’s Paradiso – Canto 15

The music of the souls that welcomed Dante and Beatrice to Mars stops, and from out of the great Cross of Spirits one light descends and greets Dante in the formal Latin of Virgil’s Aeneid with the words of Anchises when he sees his son, Aeneas, come to visit him in Elysium. Dante is both moved and stunned at such a greeting. As the spirit continues to speak, Dante’s ear becomes attuned to his words and he learns that this is his great-great-grandfather, Cacciaguida, who delights in telling Dante who he is. By way of revealing his identity, Cacciaguida tells Dante what old Florence was like and how peaceful and civil its citizens were. We also learn the origin of Dante’s surname.

            The goodness that always flows from true love (just as greed leads to iniquity) soon brought the glorious music of Mars to a close and quieted the sounding of those blessed strings tuned by Heaven itself. Never deaf to righteous prayers, those spirits who first encouraged me to pray now became quiet. It is right that those who love what does not last should mourn also the loss of the One Love forever.

            As when a bolt of lightning streaks down through the cloudless sky arousing the attention of someone not really looking carefully; and as if one star were to change places with another in a blaze of light – except no star is missing, just so from the right arm of that great cross before me, a star seemed to leave its place, speed toward the center, and then down to the foot, radiant like a fire behind alabaster. And if we believe Virgil, our greatest Muse, it was with similar affection that Anchises ran to meet his son Aeneas when he saw him in Elysium. “O blood of mine! O grace of God poured over thee! For whom was ever twice, as for thee, heaven’s gate thrown open?” So that resplendent soul spoke to me – and all I could do was to stare at him in wonder. Then I turned around and saw Beatrice’s face. Standing there between them in complete amazement, her smiling eyes invited me to match them with my own as I looked upon my glory, my paradise.

            Then this bearer of such joyful affection continued to speak to me, but his words were so profound I could not as yet decipher them. He did not choose to obscure himself from me like this, there was simply no other way because his heavenly manner of speaking at this point rose far above my ability to grasp his meaning. But when the arrow of his love hit the target of my comprehension the first words I understood were those of a gracious prayer: “Holy Trinity of Persons in One God! How blessed are You to honor my descendant with such grace!”

            And directing his happy words to me, he continued: “At last, after reading for so long in  the great book of God’s Mind, whose writing will never be changed, you have rewarded my eager hope to see you, thanks to this lovely lady who enabled you to make this noble flight. And since you already know that in that Mind I can read your thoughts, you do not ask who I am or why I am happier to see you than anyone else here in this paradise. And that is right, because we in this realm – from the greatest to the least – always gaze at that Mirror where thoughts are reflected before they are even spoken. And yet, let that Love which prompts me to look forever upon the Godhead, and which creates in me a delightful thirst, be fulfilled for me by hearing you speak in your own voice. Express your heart’s desire in words that are bold and filled with joy. You know that in the Mind of God my answer already awaits your questions.”

            Beatrice knew what I would ask when I turned to her, and her smile only strengthened my desire to speak. And so I began: “Love and intelligence became equally balanced in you when you came to this place and saw that One Who is the First Equality, because that Sun Who filled you with warmth and light is poised with such perfection that nothing else compares to It. But as you know, for mortals, speaking and feeling are not the same, and I feel the difference between them strongly.  So it is from within my heart that I offer you my deepest thanks for your affectionate welcome. And it is from my heart that I entreat you, O lovely topaz set within this sacred jewel, to satisfy my own eagerness to know your name.”

            “You are a branch of my tree,” he began. “I was your root, and the expectation of your arrival here has filled me with untold delight. Your great-grandfather was my son. It was he after whom your family was named long ago, and his soul for more than a hundred years now still carries a weight on the first terrace of Purgatory. Pray for his soul that his sentence might be shortened.

            “Old Florence, modest and sober, was once peacefully settled within her ancient walls where church bells still mark the times for prayer. Her women did not need jewels and fancy clothes to make them beautiful. A daughter’s birth did not anguish her father because the age for marriage was not low, nor was the dowry too high. Houses were of moderate size, not like those of eastern kings who gave themselves up to every pleasure. And your city, doomed to fall in its pride, had not yet surpassed Rome in vanity.

            “I used to see Bellincion Berti wearing a simple belt of leather and bone, and his wife did not use make-up. It was the same with the de ‘Nerli and the del Vecchio – they dressed simply, and their wives spent the day at the spinning wheel and the loom. Happy wives! They knew their graves would be next to their spouses, and their beds would not be abandoned by husbands gone off to France to make their fortunes. Good mothers, they tended to their children with love and care. Surrounded by their children, they would tell them stories about the ancient times – of Troy, Rome, and Fiesole. Corrupt citizens like a present-day Lapo Salterello or a Cianghella would have scandalized them back then as much as the famed Cincinnatus or the honorable Cornelia would shame them today.

            “And so, to this wholesome community –  faithful, civil, and sweet – the Virgin Mary gave me as my mother called to her in the pangs of childbirth. Within your ancient Baptistery I became a Christian in faith and Cacciaguida by name. My brothers were Eliseo and Moronto, and my wife, born in the valley of the Po, brought with her your surname  – Alighieri.

            “Later, while in the service of the Emperor Conrad, and moved by my gallant deeds, he made me one of his knights. Proudly, I battled at his side against those of the false faith who occupied the Holy Land because your popes cared little for it. In the end, at the hands of the infidel I was delivered up from the cares of this world which corrupt so many. As a martyr, then, I came to this place of peace.”