David Bruce: Dante’s PARADISE: A Discussion Guide — “Canto 16: Mars — Cacciaguida’s Florence”

“Canto 16: Mars — Cacciaguida’s Florence”

  • Can Dante properly take pride in having Cacciaguida as an ancestor?

Dante takes pride in his ancestor, and he says that he now understands why men on Earth take “pride in noble blood” (Musa 16.1):

O thou our poor nobility of blood,

If thou dost make the people glory in thee

Down here where our affection languishes,

A marvellous thing it ne’er will be to me;

For there where appetite is not perverted,

I say in Heaven, of thee I made a boast!

(Longfellow 16.1-6)

This pride can make us pause and think. After all, in Inferno10 we met a very proud man: Farinata. We also learned that pride in family can lead to bad factionalism.

In addition, the first terrace of the Seven-Storey Mountain is devoted to purging the sin of pride.

What is going on here? Dante is in Paradise. Dante has made much progress since he was lost in the dark wood of error. Is Dante backsliding now?

There is one way in which pride in ancestors is justified. That is when we regard our good ancestors as models for us to emulate. Dante is very much aware of this:

Nobility, a mantel quick to shrink!

Unless we add to it from day to day,

time with its shears will trim off more and more.

(Musa 16.7-9)

Here we have a metaphor. Nobility is compared to a coat. We need to keep doing noble deeds or our nobility will be lost. The word “noble” is used here in the sense of a high and good character. Noble deeds are brave deeds; noble deeds are good deeds.

In other words, we can take pride in an ancestor’s nobility of character only if doing so inspires us to make our own character noble. Taking pride in being related to Mother Teresa is good only if it inspires you to do good deeds.

  • How does Cacciaguida compare and contrast the Florence of his time with the Florence of Dante’s time?

Canto 15 ended with the martyrdom of Cacciaguida. In Canto 16, Cacciaguida talks about the changes in Florence from the time of his own death (circa 1150 C.E.) up until Dante’s time (1300 C.E.).

Of course, he already did a little of that in Canto 15:

“O happy wives! Each one of them was sure

of her last resting place — none of them yet

lay lonely in her bed because of France.”

(Musa 15.118-120)

In Cacciaguida’s day, families were together. France had not yet messed up the lives of families in Florence.

Times changed after the death of Cacciaguida. Husbands traveled to France on business, leaving their wives at home. Husbands traveled to France, bought merchandise at one of the great fairs there, and then returned to Italy and sold the merchandise at a profit. Making a big profit was more important to these husbands than staying in Florence with their wives.

Another thing that changed after Cacciaguida died is that the Pope used French troops to drive the White Guelfs out of Florence.

The main point is that Florence is very different from the way it was in Cacciaguida’s day. Now factionalism has divided the city, resulting in Dante’s exile.

  • Why does Cacciaguida wish that the Buondelmonti family had never come to Florence?

Cacciaguida wishes that the Buondelmonti family had never come to Florence because they are the family whose coming started the factionalism in Florence.

This is what happened: Buondelmonte was engaged to be married, but he had a chance to make a better marriage, so he jilted his bride-to-be. This was, of course, a major insult to her and her family, and members of her family murdered Buondelmonte. This led to factionalism in Florence, and the split of its citizens into the Guelf and the Ghibelline groups.

Cacciaguida says,

“The house that was the source of all your tears,

whose just resentment was the death of you

and put an end to all your joy of life,

was highly honored as were all its clan.

O Buondelmonte, wrong you were to flee

the nuptials at the promptings of another!

Many who are now sad would have been pleased

if God had let the Ema drown you when

you started for our city the first time.”

(Musa 16.136-144)

If only Buondelmonte had died (by drowning) before he came to Florence, Florence and its citizens (and Dante) would be much better off.

The first Guelf is Buondelmonte, and the first Ghibelline is his murderer.

Notice who Dante is criticizing here: Buondelmonte, who is the founder of his own political party. Clearly, Buondelmonte did the wrong thing by jilting the woman he was engaged to. (Of course, the man who murdered him also did the wrong thing.)

Dante is not saying, My political party is right, and your political party is wrong. When a member of his political party is wrong, he says so. Political factionalism can be a bad thing, and Dante is very well aware of that.

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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PARADISE: CANTO 16  RETELLING

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PARADISE: CANTO 17  RETELLING

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PARADISE: CANTO 18  RETELLING

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PARADISE: CANTO 22  RETELLING

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PARADISE: CANTO 23  RETELLING

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PARADISE: CANTO 24  RETELLING

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