By Dr. Ron Herzman
Location, Location, Location. It is no accident that Canto 17 is the exact center of the Paradiso, with sixteen cantos coming before and sixteen after. It is literally and thematically its center. We are in the Heaven of Mars, where Dante meets his great great grandfather Cacciaguida, a warrior-crusader who died a martyr’s death in the Holy Land. In a brilliantly executed three-part movement, the poet moves us from Canto 15, where Cacciaguida, emerging as a flashing light from the crusader’s cross that bisects the red planet, tells his own story and the story of Florence in an earlier and more virtuous time; to canto 16, where Cacciaguida speaks of the degeneracy of present day Florence; to canto 17, where Cacciaguida looks into the future to allow Dante to see the fate that will befall him in two years when he is exiled from Florence.
Exile is a harsh fate. We need to remind ourselves that when Dante writes the Commedia he has been in exile for many years, but he sets the journey in the year 1300, two years before that exile and at a time when he was at the height of his political career. Dante’s exile has been hinted at and explicitly predicted at various earlier parts of the poem, most notably in Inferno 10. Here in Paradiso 17, that exile is portrayed within the contours of Dante’s personal history and the larger historical currents swirling in Dante’s Italy. Its harshness is presented with great specificity by precise images of the pain of day-to-day living. Cacciaguida tells the pilgrim that in exile he “will experience how salty tastes the bread / of another, and what a harsh path it is to descend / and mount by another’s stairs.” One perfectly acceptable gloss for the phrase “how salty tastes the bread of another” is that the bread that Dante eats in exile will be salty from his own tears. Perhaps a better one is that, in point of fact, Florentine bread is made entirely without salt. For Dante, therefore, any other bread is by contrast bound to taste salty. This is a wonderfully apt way to suggest that what is lost in exile is the familiar, the accustomed, the comforting. In exile Dante will have to do without comfort food for the rest of his life. Exile means always being dependent on others, and no home cooking. It would be hard to find a better set of images to describe what it means to have lost all that you previously took for granted.
The comfort that Dante will find is a different sort altogether. He will write with the power of someone who has nothing to lose because he has lost it already, and he will be able to see more clearly into the heart of things because he will be free from temptations to power. He pays a high price—exile will truly be for him a kind of spiritual martyrdom, an updated version of what his great great grandfather suffered as an actual crusader—but like all great prophets he will speak truth to power because he has been called to do so. This canto authenticates Dante’s calling.
In the Inferno, Dante is taunted by predictions of his exile. Here, Dante learns that, painful though it will be, exile can become a means of liberation, a way for him to understand his deeper and truer self, and a way to speak out against injustice by reporting what he has seen in his journey to the afterlife. In other words, here Cacciaguida is explicitly giving Dante a battlefield commission that turns him into a crusader as well, and the battle plan that will allow him to turn his martyrdom-through-exile into a pilgrimage. Exile and the journey that he is taking to the afterlife are both pilgrimages by which Dante will find his voice, and Cacciaguida tells him that his obligation is to do exactly what the great prophets of Hebrew Scripture have done—tell it like it is. Cacciaguida says to him:
Nevertheless, with every falsehood scrapped,
let everything you’ve seen be manifest,
and where they’ve got the mange, let them go scratch.
For if your words are sharp at the first taste,
they’ll leave behind a living nourishment
when they have been digested at the last.
This shout of yours will batter like a gale
that pounds the tallest peaks with greatest force—
and of its worth that’s no small argument. [lines 127-135]
Thus Dante will mimic his great great grandfather by his spiritual martyrdom-though-exile, and mimic him by writing the poem, which will make him a crusader whose more potent weapon is the pen rather than the sword.
Even if not quite as dramatically as Dante, all of us have experienced change and loss, disorientation and defeat. This canto gives the reader a blueprint for how to respond. To see these difficulties as somehow mysteriously graced, to remain hopeful in the midst of great trials, does not come easy. Dante provides a model, suggesting that mercy can be sought and found in periods of profound dislocation. The whole poem speaks to this issue. Paradiso 17, as an exemplification of the virtue of Fortitude or Courage—the virtue associated with the Heaven of Mars—does so in a particularly intense way. This canto also suggests that we are all called, to the degree that circumstances allow, to speak the truth in circumstances that might be very inconvenient.
Ron Herzman is a member of the English Department at SUNY Geneseo. He has taught, written, and lectured extensively on Dante. This year he is a Fellow at the Center for Medieval Studies at Fordham.