Paradise | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Paradise | Canto 27 | Summary

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Summary

As Adam concludes his speech, Heaven erupts into another hymn of praise. For Dante, the sound is "the laughter of the universe," a song of joy untainted by any sorrow. Suddenly, the soul of Saint Peter turns from white to red and begins uttering a harsh speech against the modern papacy. As the heavens redden around him and Beatrice blushes, Peter recounts the great sacrifices of the early popes, many of them martyrs. He complains of the "ravening wolves" who have occupied the papacy and other high Church offices in Dante's time. God, he reassures Dante, will soon right these wrongs.

With this, the souls change their hue again and sweep upward like flakes of snow. Dante follows them with his eyes until he loses sight of them entirely. He then, at Beatrice's instruction, once more turns down toward Earth to see how far the Fixed Stars have turned since he arrived. While he is looking back at the solar system, he ascends to the Primum Mobile, the outermost sphere of Heaven. This, Beatrice explains, is the invisible sphere moved directly by the will of God, setting into motion all the rest—stars, planets, sun, and moon. She ends the canto with a speech lamenting humankind's fall from innocence in great detail, which she construes as a loss of spiritual sight.

Analysis

Saint Peter's outburst is a moment of remarkable violence in a poem otherwise concerned with order, tranquility, and the inscrutable perfection of God's plan. True, Peter is not the only Paradise character to lash out against the failings of the "modern" Church. Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure do the same in the fourth sphere (Cantos 11–12), as do Peter Damian and Benedict in the seventh sphere (Cantos 21–22). Dante himself makes Church corruption a constant refrain throughout the Divine Comedy. Peter, however, has a special standing to criticize the Church—or what has become of it since biblical times. Traditionally regarded as the first bishop of Rome (i.e., the first pope), Peter is the forefather of the Church as an institution. Clearly, he is very disappointed in his spiritual descendants and the degenerated conditions they have imposed on the Church.

Moreover, the language used in this episode is coarse—unexpectedly, perhaps shockingly so. To give just one example, Peter describes modern Rome as a cloaca. This Italian word literally means "sewer" or "cesspool," but in Robin Kirkpatrick's colorful translation it becomes a "shit hole / reeking of blood and pus." This vocabulary of disease and excrement would be relatively unremarkable in the Inferno, where filth and pestilence are commonplace. In Paradise, however, such words are downright jarring. Both St. Peter and Beatrice speak against corruption in the Church in detailed and prophetic language, as human behavior has soiled even the sanctity of Paradise when such holy figures must point to the overriding faults of life on Earth.

Why is Peter so vulgar and vitriolic in his criticism of the papacy? His lashing out has much to do with Dante's personal suffering at the pope's hands. The incumbent pope in 1300 was Boniface VIII (r. 1294–1303), whom the editors of Danteworlds describe as Dante's "personal and public enemy number one." Rumored to have bullied the previous pope into an early retirement, Boniface extended the papacy's secular powers far beyond what Dante deemed appropriate.

For Dante, however, the grudge goes deeper than this. In 1302 Boniface had lured Dante and other White Guelphs (the party to which he belonged then) to Rome to discuss diplomatic matters, ostensibly in the interest of securing peace in Florence. While the White Guelph delegation was gone, their enemies the Black Guelphs seized power at home, exiling Dante and his allies in absentia. Banished for life from the city of his youth, Dante harbors the deepest ill will toward Boniface nearly two decades later.

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