After visiting hell, Mt. Purgatory, and the spheres of the Moon and the planet Mercury, Dante ascends to the planet Venus. His companion and guide at this point is the lovely Beatrice.
Before discussing his experiences in the third heaven, Dante states that the ancients mistakenly believed that the goddess Venus sent down from this sphere rays that inspired mad love. For this reason, they paid divine honors not only to Venus, but also to her mother Dione and to her son Cupid. The reason for this excursion into Greek and Roman mythology is to explain how the planet Venus received its name.
It is helpful to remember that in Dante’s world view, there were ten concentric spheres surrounding the earth. The sphere of the Moon was closest to the Earth, followed by the spheres of Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the stars, the Primum Mobile, and the Empyrean. An order of angels presided over each of the nine lowest spheres. For example, seraphim presided over the Primum Mobile, and principalities presided over the sphere of Venus. However, medieval authorities did not perfectly agree on which order of angels presided over which sphere.
When Dante and Beatrice ascended from the sphere of Mercury to the sphere of Venus, the passage was so swift that Dante did not notice that they were rising to the third heaven. However, when he looked at Beatrice, he knew that they were on the planet Venus. From her enhanced beauty, Dante inferred that they were now closer to the Source of all goodness than they had been before, when they were on the planet Mercury.
As he examined the environment of the sphere of Venus, he beheld a host of lights dancing wildly in circles. These lights were the souls of deceased Christians.
As they approached, they continued their joyful gyrations. Then they stopped. A joyful “Hosanna” emanated from their foremost ranks. Dante felt an ineffable rapture as he listened. Throughout his life, Dante wished that he could hear it again.
Then one of the lights approached Dante and informed him that they stood ready to serve him. He was a well-known historical figure at the time that Dante wrote The Divine Comedy, but today he is not so well known. His name was Charles Martel, not the famous eighth century figure who bore that name, but a Charles Martel who made a splash in history during Dante’s lifetime.
Apparently Dante and Charles Martel had met each other before the latter’s death. The spirit identified himself as a friend of Dante. The light that surrounded the spirit prevented Dante from recognizing him.
Charles Martel did not tell Dante his name. Instead, he provided biographical information from which Dante could easily figure out who the spirit was. Because this biographical information is fragmentary, I shall give a more complete account of the position that Charles Martel occupied in European politics.
Charles Martel had been connected with several European dignitaries. His grandfather was Charles of Anjou, the brother of King Louis IX of France, otherwise known as St. Louis. His father was Charles II, the son and successor of Charles of Anjou. His mother was Maria, the daughter of Stephan V, king of Hungary. His father-in law was Rudolph of Hapsburg, the Holy Roman Emperor.
Even during his lifetime, Charles Martel was the titular king of Hungary. However, his supporters were on the losing side of a civil war in Hungary, and his cousin Andrew became king. (After the death of Andrew, Charles Robert, the son on Charles Martel, did rule over Hungary. He founded a dynasty that ruled over Hungary till the year 1395.)
If Charles Martel had lived long enough, he would have inherited Provence, which his grandfather Charles of Anjou had received as a dowry when he married Beatrice, one of the daughters of Ramon Berenguer IV (or V), count of Provence. Provence was in southern France on the left bank of the Rhone.
Had he lived, Charles Martel would also have inherited territory that Charles of Anjou had wrested from the house of Hohenstaufen. Charles of Anjou had defeated Manfred in the Battle of Benevento in 1266. Then he defeated Conradin in the Battle of Tagliacozzo in 1268. He thereby became the ruler of southern Italy and Sicily. So Charles would have ruled over southern Italy (the kingdom of Naples) if he had lived longer. He would not have inherited Sicily because Charles of Anjou lost it in1282 when the populace of Sicily freed itself from Angevin rule in a revolt known as the Sicilian Vespers.
Charles of Anjou died in 1285. Charles II, his son and successor, ruled until 1309. Charles Martel was the son and heir of Charles II, but he died in 1295. So his brother Richard became ruler of southern Italy when Charles II died.
The conversation between Dante and the spirit of Charles Martel is supposed to be taking place in the year 1300, so the death of Charles II is still a future event from the point of view of the epic. However, Richard’s reign was already taking place by the time Dante wrote about his imaginary visit to the sphere of Venus, so the author endowed the spirit of Charles Martel with knowledge of what would happen in the future. Charles Martel told Dante that if he were still living, many future evils would be avoided. He meant to say that if he were to become king of Naples, the people would enjoy a much better government than his brother Richard provided.
In this connection, Charles Martel applied the Italian adjective “larga” to the Richard’s progenitors, perhaps referring chiefly to Charles II. In contrast, he applied the adjective “parca” to Richard. Larga means “liberal,” and parca means “frugal” or “parsimonious.” Thus the generous Charles II produced a son who was parsimonious.
This caused Dante to ask Charles Martel how it could happen that bitter fruit could come from a sweet seed.
I wonder whether Dante is being completely fair to Richard. All in all, Richard seems to have been a fairly good king. However, Dante was in a better position to judge him than I. It also must be remembered that when Dante composed this canto, Richard’s long reign had just begun. Perhaps he had an inauspicious start and improved later on.
At first, I thought Dante was asking Charles Martel how a Christian father could produce a wicked son. From a Biblical point of view, the answer to this question is easy. Every descendant of Adam is conceived and born in sin. So if it were not for the redemptive work of Christ and the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, everyone would be evil.
However, the more I look at this section, the more I am convinced that Dante is not talking about good and evil in the moral sense. He is talking about abilities and natural endowments. Why did Charles II, who had a generous nature that made him an admirable ruler, produce a son whose frugal nature made it difficult for him to rule well?
In his answer, Charles Martel explains that the divine Mind provides for every entity in the universe. In the heavens, through the agency of the angelic orders, God provides the celestial spheres with their natures and unerringly gives them whatever is necessary for their well-being. Then, through the agency of the celestial spheres, God’s Providence extends to the affairs of men. Different people have different duties, and God’s Providence equips people with whatever they need to fulfill their role in society. Because of these gifts of God, one person became a Solon, another Melchizedek, another Xerxes, and another Daedalus.
However, the operation of God’s Providence does not take family relationships into consideration. Jacob was different from Esau, and the illustrious Romulus had a base father. It is necessary for the well-being of society that the endowments of children differ from those of their respective fathers. If fathers would unfailingly pass their endowments to their children, all people would have the same endowments, and society would lack the diversity necessary for its well-being.
While this operation of nature produces good results, people do not always follow nature. In such cases, the results are unfortunate. This will happen, for example, when someone becomes a king even though he would make a better preacher. Charles Martel does not say so, but he seems to be referring to his brother Richard, who is known in history as “Richard the Wise.”
After answering this question, Charles Martel tells Dante about some wrong that his progeny would suffer. He also prophesies that those who wrong his progeny will come to grief. However, he asks Dante not to reveal the details of his prophecy, so we do not know what it is.
With this prophecy, the conversation of Dante and Charles Martel reached its conclusion.
The notes in my edition of The Divine Comedy assume that the wrongs mentioned by Charles Martel refer to the fact that Richard inherited the Kingdom of Naples instead of the son of Charles Martel. This is possible, but I am not convinced. Richard did not really do wrong to the son of Charles Martel. He merely accepted the throne that Charles II bequeathed to him with the blessing of the pope.
It is more likely that the complaint refers to the opposition faced by Charles Robert when he was fighting for his throne in Hungary. His opponents did come to grief, just as Charles Martel predicted.
“Paradiso” from “The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri”; Italian text and English translation by Allen Mandelbaum; Note by Anthony Oldcorn, et alii