Paradise | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Paradise | Canto 16 | Summary

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Summary

Dante continues his interview with the soul of Cacciaguida, his great-great-grandfather. Full of pride in his family, he speaks to Cacciaguida in noble but somewhat archaic Italian and asks about Cacciaguida's own youth and ancestry. Of his forefathers Cacciaguida says little except that all were Florentines. He then nostalgically describes the Florence of his boyhood as "pure in blood"; that is, uncorrupted by peasant stock from the surrounding countryside. "Miscegenation," he says, is the source of "all ills" in a city, as the examples of other Italian city-states show. Many Florentine families since "destroyed / by their own pride" were still thriving in Cacciaguida's day, he further reports. Moreover, the ranks of the Church had not yet been as corrupted as they are in Dante's time.

Analysis

Cacciaguida's outburst against "miscegenation"—or, as translator Allen Mandelbaum less contentiously renders it, "mingling of populations"—is at the very least an expression of elitism. Translator Robin Kirkpatrick goes a bit further, characterizing Cacciaguida's remarks as "betraying [...] a dangerous tendency to racism." Either way the poet's ancestor seems to insist that Florence's problems stem in part from unions between "insiders" and "outsiders." For him the intermarrying of noble families—some of them with little history in Florence—is like the patching together of various types of cloth. The differences remain, and the union is superficial.

This raises the question, is Dante on board with his ancestor's xenophobic attitude? Not entirely, it seems. Although Dante respects Cacciaguida tremendously and accepts much of what he has to say, the poet is self-conscious about his own prideful tendencies. From Heaven's point of view, Dante recognizes, boasting of one's own noble pedigree—of its purity, or of particular famous ancestors—is a vain and foolish exercise. Nonetheless, Dante clearly agrees Florence is in turmoil, and he does not entirely discredit Cacciaguida's attempt to blame ethnic "others" for this outcome.

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