Back to the Human: Filippo Balducci and Son in Florence as a Parody of Paradiso 31

Olivia Holmes (Binghamton University)

Dante Notes / November 20, 2021

Paradiso 31 begins with an extended metaphor: the pilgrim’s vision of the milizia santa, the ranks of saved souls in the Empyrean, is represented as a candida rosa, with the angelic host figured as bees buzzing around the petals, collecting pollen. The comparison of the angels and bees re-elaborates a similar one in Aeneid 6, in which Aeneas’s vision of the vast throng of spirits awaiting rebirth is likened to how, in cloudless summer, bees settle on many-colored blossoms and pour around shining white lilies.[1] Dante’s “schiera d’ape che s’infiora,” the swarm of bees that enflowers itself, penetrating the white rose like a benevolent occupying army, is thus also determined by Virgil’s “candida … lilia,” and would recall—for a Christian—the frequent association of the lily with the Virgin Mary, following Song of Songs 2:1 (ego flos campi et lilium convallium), and conjure by analogy the Virgin’s flesh, conceptualized as white. Dante connects the Virgin’s spotless purity also to Beatrice, her forerunner in the Commedia, whose departure in this canto heralds the Virgin’s arrival, and whose own arrival in the Earthly Paradise was greeted with another over-determined Virgilian phrase, “Manibus, oh, date lilïa plenis!”[2]

After his vision of Heaven’s forma general as a Mystic Rose, Dante then compares his amazement at the sight, first to that of barbarian invaders arriving from northern climes, seeing the monuments of classical Rome for the first time, and then to a pilgrim finally looking around at a Church that he had made a vow to visit, in the hope of being able to describe it to others. This study contends that the partial novella that Boccaccio recounts in the introduction to Day 4 of the Decameron, in which Filippo Balducci’s son sees Florence for the first time and marvels at the sights—the same Florence to which Dante longs to return as poet (as he reminds us at the opening of Paradiso 25)—contains a parody of these two similes.

But why should Boccaccio draw on this particular scene in Paradiso when making the point that it is useless to try to oppose the force of sexual attraction? Filippo Balducci and his wife are characterized at the beginning of the tale as having had a happy marriage until her death, and having enjoyed with their infant son in Florence a “riposata vita.”[3] Married love, and indeed Florence, are depicted here as a kind of earthly paradise. Interestingly, the one instance of the word “riposo” in Dante’s Paradiso is also associated with Florence; after Cacciaguida describes the city’s decline under the influence of new people and money, he turns to the simplicity of earlier Florentines, concluding:

Con queste genti, e con altre con esse,
Vid’ io Fiorenza in sì fatto riposo
Che non avea cagione onde piangesse. (Par. 16.148-50)

After the fall from his own “sicuro e gaudïoso regno”—to quote Paradiso 31.25—upon his wife’s death, Filippo retires with his son to a tiny cell on Monte Asinaio, where they live on alms, fasting, and prayer, and where he takes great pains never to discuss “alcuna temporal cosa”—similarly to the members of the story-telling brigata in their countryside retreat, incidentally, who also resolve, no matter what they see or hear, to take care that “niuna novella,” no news of the outside world, should reach them (Dec. 1.intro.101). Filippo determines that he and his son should only reflect, rather, on God and the Saints and the glory of eternal life, and never lets the poor boy out of their cell or allows him to contemplate anything except artistic representations of the divine (4.intro.15).

As a condescension to our limited faculties, which need to rely on sense-data, Dante’s “candida rosa,” is likewise a mere figural representation of the joys of eternal salvation. It is an implicitly sexual image as well, since it is not only analogous to the rose-shaped windows of Gothic cathedrals, which typically have an image of Christ or of the Virgin-and-Child at the center, but the rose can also symbolize the female genitals. In the French allegorical poem Le Roman de la Rose, the rose’s plucking represents the long-awaited consummation of the love-relationship (or of the lover’s sexual harassment of the beloved, depending on your perspective). As Gianfranco Contini argued in examining evidence that Dante composed the Fiore, an Italian sonnet cycle based on the Old French Rose, the Commedia’s culminating rose-imagery can be read as a sublimated allusion to, or “anti-parody” of, the more profane culmination of the French romance.[4] Thus when Christ is said at the opening of Paradiso 31 to have wed the white rose “nel suo sangue,” in his or her blood, the reference to blood being shed upon the consummation of a marriage inevitably suggests, along with Jesus’s loss of blood at the crucifixion and the wine transformed into blood during the sacrament of the Eucharist, also the blood shed by a bride upon her deflowerment. Bridal imagery from the Song of Songs (mediated by Bernard of Clairvaux’s Sermons on the Song of Songs) accompanies both Beatrice’s arrival in the Garden of Eden in Purgatory and the Virgin Mary’s appearance at the end of Paradiso 31.[5]

Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, the central metaphor in the Commedia for the individual soul’s communion with God is the marriage bed.[6] This metaphor was not original with Dante, of course. Throughout the ages, spiritual writers have employed sexual imagery to represent the individual’s experience of divine love, and medieval mystics like St. Bernard—Dante’s debt to whom is played out in this very canto—drew especially on the erotic language of the Song of Songs, a Biblical love poem traditionally attributed to Solomon. Christian exegetes understood Solomon’s beloved to have several referents, not only the Church, but also the Virgin Mary and the individual redeemed soul. Mary herself is frequently symbolized by a rose. Christian rose symbolism is polyvalent: the Virgin is called rosa-mystica, and her son is said to be a red rose because of the blood that he lost at the crucifixion.[7] Like the white lilies with which Mary is also associated, Dante’s white rose stands for Mary’s resurrected flesh—she and Jesus are, of course, the only people already in Heaven in their glorified bodies—and it can symbolize her virginity as well. White is also the color of the garments of the 24 elders in the vision of God’s throne in Apocalypse 4:4.[8]

In a tour de force of mixed metaphors and over-determination, after surveying the ranked petals of the mystic rose, Dante likens his own astonishment to that of barbarian invaders from a remote rural area who come to late-antique Rome and stare stupefied at the magnificence of the Lateran Palace, “quando … a le cose mortali andò di sopra”—when its construction surpassed all other human achievements—inasmuch as he, similarly, has come “al divino da l’umano, / a l’etterno dal tempo,” and, in a dig at his native city that makes ironic use of the rhetorical figures of climax and chiasmus, “di Fiorenza in popol giusto e sano” (Par. 31. 37-39). That is, Florence is as distant and different from the City of God as time is from eternity; and fallen humanity, from God. Dante then transitions to another extended simile in which he compares himself to a pilgrim who, upon reaching his destination, “si ricrea / nel tempio del suo voto riguardando / e spera già ridir com’ ello stea” (vv. 43-45), gazing around at everything so that he can remember and adequately recount later what it was like, whereby the rose implicitly morphs back into an element of church architecture. These two comparisons are the culmination of the homo viator imagery set in motion in the opening lines of the Inferno, and Dante’s use of the first-person singular here refers both to his own excruciating homesickness in the course of his historical exile and wandering, and to the Augustinian metaphorics of life on earth as a journey away from and back to one’s homeland in Heaven. The pilgrim has finally arrived in the church that he vowed to visit, in that faraway Rome “onde Cristo è romano” (Purg. 32. 102), and looks around, trying to memorize its contours.

It is not difficult to see an allusion to these similes at the moment when Filippo Balducci’s son first sets eyes on Florence and sees “i palagi, le case, le chiese e tutte l’altre cose delle quali tutta la città piena si vede, sí come colui che mai piú per ricordanza vedute no’ n’avea, si cominciò forte a maravigliare” (4 Intro. 19). The language here recalls not so much that of the simile in Dante’s Empyrean in which the barbarians, upon seeing Rome for the first time, “stupefaciansi” (Par. 31.35), as that of the youthful poet’s very first sight of Beatrice in the Vita Nova, in which his “spirito animale … si cominciò a maravigliare.”[9] The culmination of his first miraculous encounter with Beatrice in the earlier work is of course her apotheosis in this canto, where she—and then Mary—stand for and anticipate his eventual union with God at the poem’s end. Boccaccio reverses the position of the pilgrim, however; whereas Dante’s protagonist has come from the human to the divine, and from Florence to a “popol giusto e sano,” Boccaccio’s adolescent has come from ascetic isolation to Florence, and from “agnoli dipinti” to real girls. Not by chance, the the troop of beautiful, well-dressed young women that the young man encounters, is coming from a wedding (§20).[10] That is, they refer back to, and can figuratively (if parodically) stand for, the mystical union with God that is the ultimate destination of Dante’s pilgrimage. Filippo tells his son not to look at the young ladies, however, because they are bad things—“mala cosa” (§21)—which arguably represents a misreading of the mystic marriage metaphor, but one that is in line with the widespread misogyny of the medieval Church. This scene also recalls the temptation motif in saints’ lives, in which saints encounter devils disguised as beautiful women, a motif parodied in the previous story, Decameron 3.10, about Alibech’s encounter with Rustico in the Theban desert. Filippo’s son counters by telling his father that “Elle son piú belle che gli agnoli dipinti che voi m’avete piú volte mostrati,” that is, they are more beautiful than the artistic portrayals of the divine that Filippo has often shown him (§28). The pictures of angels are like the description of angel-bees around the mystic rose, fictive representations that point to something beyond what our senses can detect unaided. But the girls, like God, are the real thing!

What Boccaccio depicts the young man as seeing for the first time is not, however, the transcendent tenor or ground to which the Mystic Marriage refers, the beatific state toward which the beatific vision can only point, but the vehicle or figure whose attributes are borrowed in constructing the metaphor: a bevy of pretty girls dressed in their finest clothes. Of course, Dante too uses a flesh-and-blood Florentine woman—Beatrice—to depict his encounter with blessedness, starting as early as the Vita Nova. Boccaccio’s partial novella can be read as an allegory, however, not only of the failure of language to represent—or even to mis-represent—higher truths, but also of the failure of exemplary fiction to convey what Boccaccio himself says in his Proemio the stories are meant to teach, “quello che sia da fuggire e che sia similmente da seguitare,” what conduct should be avoided, and what conduct should be pursued instead (§14). This sort of ethical teaching, which contrasts models to be imitated with those to be shunned, would have been particularly associated with the Commedia, the readers of which were expected to learn the spiritual consequences of different behaviors and then to improve their own.[11] Dante was, in a sense, the quintessential medieval practitioner of exemplary fiction; indeed, Carlo Delcorno calls the Commedia the biggest and most beautiful example-collection of the numerous such collections compiled throughout Europe between the 13th and the 15th centuries.[12]

For a writer like Boccaccio, who was more interested in exploring earthly outcomes than his characters’ typological valences or heavenly rewards, Dante was of course the principal authority to challenge, which he implicitly does, I contend, in the novelletta.[13] For Filippo showed his son the painted angels—similar to the angels in Paradiso 31 who are depicted flying around, seeing and singing the glory of him “che la ’nnamora” (4-5), with whom they fall in love—in order to keep the youth’s mind fixed on the splendor of eternal life and away from earthly distractions. But imaginary depictions prove useless in influencing his behavior where more concrete attractions are available. Filippo is unable to control his son’s desires when the younger Balducci finally sees actual representatives of the kind of figures whose beauty is invoked in the bridal metaphor. Presented with a set of appropriate erotic objects, his carnal appetite is awoken in such a way that no rhetorical palinode, no calling of women by another name, can hope to undo.

This is what Boccaccio goes on to say in the latter part of his authorial intervention; to those who assert that he should dwell with the Muses on Parnassus, rather than seeking blissful couplings with flesh-and-blood women on earth, he replies:

… né noi possiamo dimorar con le Muse né esse con essonoi. Se quando avviene che l’uomo da lor si parte, dilettarsi di veder cosa che le somigli, questo non è cosa da biasimare: le Muse son donne, e benché le donne quel che le Muse vagliono non vagliano, pure esse hanno nel primo aspetto simiglianza di quelle, sí che, quando per altro non mi piacessero, per quello mi dovrebber piacere. (Dec. 4.intro.35)

Leaving aside Boccaccio’s substitution of a classical for a Christian reference, if you replace “Muse” with “agnoli” here, he is reiterating the same point as illustrated in the Filippo Balducci story: likenesses of the Muses are modeled on women, and such facsimiles are not as beautiful as the originals.

In the opening similes of Paradiso 31, Dante is essentially telling us: “what I saw in Heaven was so fabulous, so beyond human understanding, that it was like the experience of travelers coming to Rome for the first time and marveling at its sights—as well as like that of sexual intercourse with a longed-for beloved—except that it was even better than that.” We may note that, as is his usual practice, Dante includes one classical and one Christian analogy: to barbarian invaders and to religious pilgrims. On the other hand, Boccaccio, who also includes in his authorial defense one Christian and one classical analogy (to angels and to Muses), is saying more or less: “preachers and artists are always using feigned examples and figures of speech derived from sensory experience to speak of things that surpass our understanding, but look around! Human experience is more poignant, the real world more expressive, and the human body more beautiful, than all the analogies that anyone can propose.” He also suggests that asking people to give their attention to abstract truths, rather than to earthly existence, simply does not work. As Boccaccio tells the ladies at the end of his self-defense:

… altra cosa dir non potrà alcuno con ragione, se non che gli altri e io, che v’amiamo, naturalmente operiamo; alle cui leggi, cioè della natura, voler contrastare troppo gran forze bisognano, e spesse volte non solamente invano ma con grandissimo danno del faticante s’adoperano. (4.intro.41)

Boccaccio’s partial novella is not a complete, fully developed story, inasmuch as it is itself merely an illustrative exemplum, but one that ironically illustrates the truth that moralizing or exemplary narratives are in fact ineffectual, if not downright harmful, as it is pointless to oppose Nature’s ways.

In conclusion, I am obliged to acknowledge, however, that when Boccaccio mentions Dante in the second half of the introduction to Day 4, he does so not in order to challenge his authority. Boccaccio cites his illustrious predecessor in support of his own position, rather, where he says that he will never be ashamed of seeking to give pleasure to women, whom “Guido Cavalcanti e Dante Alighieri già vecchi e messer Cino da Pistoia vecchissimo” still found it an honor, even late in their lives, to serve and celebrate (¶33). Boccaccio ostensibly alludes here primarily to Dante as a lyric love poet, like the other two authors cited, but as in the earlier novelletta, he may also be understood as responding to Dante’s continued celebration of erotic love in the Commedia, in which figures of earthly and heavenly love are not presented as oppositional, but complementary, the one leading to the other, Beatrice to the Virgin in this canto, and the Virgin ultimately to God. Like her departure in Paradiso 31, Beatrice’s death the Vita Nova was followed by a reference to pilgrims traveling to Rome to see the Veronica, “quella ymagine benedecta la quale Gesocristo lasciò a.nnoi per exemplo della Sua bellissima figura” (29.1), an image perhaps meant to remind us that the physical is not necessarily a diversion from the spiritual, but can stand for it, and that some icons or exempla—such as Beatrice—are true ones.[14] Following the pilgrim’s leave-taking from Beatrice in the Paradiso, the old man who takes her place reveals his identity as Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, whereupon Dante describes his amazement by introducing one more extended simile involving pilgrims arriving at their destination:

Qual è colui che forse di Croazia
viene a veder la Veronica nostra
che per l’antica fame non sen sazia
ma dice nel pensier, fin che si mostra,
“Segnor mio Iesù Cristo, Dio verace,
Or fu sì fatta la sembianza vostra?”  (Par. 31.103-08)

By having the pilgrim ask whether what he sees is a truthful image of Christ, Dante arguably already poses some of the same questions that I have described Boccaccio as posing, that is, how language and material representations can describe or allude to what surpasses sensory experience.

But Boccaccio’s filogyny in the introduction to Day 4, as throughout the Decameron, is also part of his general refusal of the Christian ascetic tradition and his polemics with the novella-genre’s misogynous antecedents in the Lives of the Desert Fathers and in sermon exempla, a topic that lies beyond the scope of this paper. Boccaccio opts to align himself instead with a recent (but already venerable) Italian poetic culture that celebrates, rather than demonizes, the overwhelming power of heterosexual attraction. As I have argued, Dante continued to depict positively, indeed to exalt, this sort of love throughout his career, especially in the Commedia’s apotheosis of Beatrice, who “cometh forth as the morning rising,” like the bride of the Song of Songs (6:9), on top of the Mountain of Purgatory. This imagery culminates at the end of Paradiso 31 in the bodily advent of the Virgin Mary as a white rose, but also as “pacifica oriafiamma” (v. 127), a shiny red pennon that is brightest in the center and lessens in brightness on either side. She thus rises like the sun and processes as Solomon’s bride, accompanied by her handmaids, more than a thousand rejoicing angels, terrible as an army set in array.

[1] “Apes aestate serena / floribus insidunt variis et candida circum / lilia funduntur”; Aeneid 6.707-09); qtd. from Virgil, Eclogues; Gorgics; Aeneid I–VI, trans. H. R. Fairclough, rev. ed. (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1935). See Albert L. Rossi, “The Poetics of Resurrection: Virgil’s Bees (Paradiso XXXI, 1–12),” Romanic Review 80.2 (1989): 305-24.

[2] Purg. 30.21, echoing Aen. 6.883, where it invokes the birth of Marcellus, heir to the Roman Empire, who (like Beatrice) died young. Quotations of the Commedia are from The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, trans. and notes by R. M. Durling and R. L. Martinez (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996–2011).

[3] Dec. 4.intro.12. Quotations of the Decameron are from Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, ed. V. Branca, 2 vols. (Torino: Einaudi, 1992).

[4] Gianfranco Contini, “Un nodo della cultura medievale: La serie Roman de la rose – Fiore – Divina commedia,” Lettere italiane 25.2 (1973): 162-89, at 171-72. See also Gustavo Costa, “Il Canto XXXI del Paradiso,” L’Alighieri n.s. 8 (1996): 57-77.

[5] See Olivia Holmes, Dante’s Two Beloveds: Ethics and Erotics in the Divine Comedy (New Haven: Yale UP, 2008), esp. 119-22 and 182-87, and on St. Bernard in the Commedia, Steven Botterill, Dante and the Mystical Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994).

[6] Holmes, “Sex and the City of God,” in Dante, Oggi, ed. R. Antonelli et al., 3 vols. (Roma: Viella, 2011), 2: 67-108.

[7] Rosetta Migliorini Fissi, “Il canto XXXI del Paradiso,” Critica letteraria 23.86–87 (1995): 223-79, at 229-30. The image of a white rose stained with red could also allude to the martyrdoms of the early Christian saints.

[8] The inhabitants of Dante’s City of God are already identified as having white garments—like the seniores of Apocalypse 4:4—in the previous canto, where Beatrice refers to the saved souls in the Empyrean as “’l convent de le bianche stole” (Par. 30.129-30). (I am grateful to Simone Marchesi for recalling this passage for me.)

[9] Dante, Vita Nova, ed. Guglielmo Gorni (Torino: Einaudi, 1996), 1.6. This linguistic parallel is pointed out by James Kriesel in “The Marvelous between Dante and Boccaccio,” Traditio 73 (2018): 213-54, at 249.

[10] See Pier Massimo Forni, Forme Complesse nel Decameron (Firenze: Olschki, 1992), 32-33.

[11] The Epistle to Cangrande explicitly places the Paradiso under the heading of moral philosophy, or ethics, inasmuch as it was conceived “for the sake of practical results, not for the sake of speculation”; Dante, Epistola 13.15-16, in Opere minori 3.2, ed. A. Frugoni and G. Brugnoli (Milano: Ricciardi, 1979), 522-643; translation from Literary Criticism of Dante Alighieri, trans. R. Haller (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1973), 101-02.

[12] Carlo Delcorno, “Dante e l’Exemplum medievale,” Lettere italiane 35.1 (1983): 3-28, at 4.

[13] Cf. Simone Marchesi, “‘Sic me formabat puerum’: Horace’s Satire I.4 and Boccaccio’s defense of the Decameron,” MLN 116.1 (Jan. 2001): 1-29, who interprets Filippo Balducci’s negative pedagogy as a foil for Cacciaguida’s (and Boccaccio’s) use of the exemplary mode.

[14] See the chapter on the Vita Nova in my Assembling the Lyric Self: Authorship from Troubadour Song to Italian Poetry Book (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2000), 120-44.