From their visit to the shell of Paradise in the heavens which contains the moon, Dante and Beatrice ascend rapidly to the next shell containing the planet Mercury, where they meet the spirits of those who achieved great fame. Because of those high ambitions, their love of God was reduced accordingly, but they still reached Paradise.
The first famous figure they meet there is the emperor Justinian, who ruled the Roman Empire between 527-565 CE. Among his many important achievements was the compilation of Roman law still known by his name. Justinian gives an account of the history of Rome from the arrival of Aeneas in Italy, through the establishment of the Republic in 510 BCE, the Punic Wars, and to Julius Caesar.
Dante, through the words of Justinian, celebrates Julius Caesar and the birth of the Roman Empire as being decreed in heaven, for the good of mankind. This history progresses on to the Pax Romana of Augustus in 27 BCE, then skips hastily forward to Charlemagne. The emperor also names another spirit in this shell as being Romeo, who was gifted but persecuted into vagrancy.
From the shell of Mercury, Dante and Beatrice ascend to the next, containing the planet Venus, where there are the spirits of those whose lives were largely influenced by carnal love and desire. On this ascent, Beatrice’s beauty is once again enhanced.
The first spirit who they meet here is that of Charles Martel, who visited Florence in 1294 and may have met Dante then, but died during an epidemic the following year.
They then meet Cunizza da Romano, who married four times and had at least two other lasting affairs, including one with the poet Sordello.
Next is the troubadour poet Folco of Marseille, who turned from his libinous youth to take holy orders and eventually became the Bishop of Toulouse.
Folco in turn praises the spirit of Rahab, a prostitute from the city of Jericho who, according to the Old Testament, helped Joshua, and was thus spared when he destroyed the city.
Giovanni di Paolo di Grazia (c 1403-1482) was a prolific Italian painter who worked primarily in Siena, and was one of the more important members of the early Sienese School. He started work painting miniatures, later making some important altarpieces as well. He created sixty-one images of Paradise for the “Yates Thompson” Dante commissioned by King Alfonso V, and now in the British Museum in London.
Gustave Doré (1832–1883) was the leading French illustrator of the nineteenth century, whose paintings are still relatively unknown. Early in his career, he produced a complete set of seventy illustrations for translations of the Inferno, which were first published in 1857 and continue to be used. These were followed in 1867 by more illustrations for Purgatorio and Paradiso. This article looks at his paintings.
Federico Faruffini (1831–1869) was an Italian realist painter and engraver, who specialised in history and other narrative works. He rose to fame during the 1860s, culminating in an award in the Paris Salon in 1867. However, he was never commercially successful and tragically committed suicide in 1869 at the age of only 38.
Philipp Veit (1793–1877) was a German Romantic painter who was partly responsible for the revival of fresco techniques in the early nineteenth century. He was a pupil of Caspar David Friedrich in Dresden, and later trained in Vienna. A prodigious draftsman, he preferred watercolours to oils. He went to Rome where he joined the Nazarenes, later returning to Frankfurt, where he became professor.
Robin Kirkpatrick (trans) (2012) Dante, The Divine Comedy, Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso, Penguin Classics. ISBN 978 0 141 19749 4.
Richard Lansing (ed) (2000) The Dante Encyclopedia, Routledge. ISBN 978 0 415 87611 7.
Guy P Raffa (2009) The Complete Danteworlds, A Reader’s Guide to the Divine Comedy, Chicago UP. ISBN 978 0 2267 0270 4.
Prue Shaw (2014) Reading Dante, From Here to Eternity, Liveright. ISBN 978 1 63149 006 4.