“The loveliness I saw surpassed not only
our human measure—and I think that, surely,
only its Maker can enjoy it fully.”
(Canto XXX Paradise 19-21)
Dante Alighieri tells us of paradise with the extraordinary heritage of Ravenna’s monuments from the fifth and sixth centuries in his eyes, which were even more numerous at that time, with mosaics covering the floors and walls of the basilicas.
Ravenna, his city of refuge in exile from 1218 to 1231, was the unparalleled artistic, historical and literary atelier in which the verses of the cantos of Paradiso were born, therefore, but which also inspired many other splendid images of the Commedia (a good part of Purgatorio and some cantos of Inferno), thanks to a re-elaboration of the glorious beauty that stood before the poet ‘s eyes as a guest of Guido Novello Da Polenta, Lord of Ravenna .
Caesar I was and am Justinian,
who, through the will of Primal Love I feel,
removed the vain and needless from the laws.
Before I grew attentive to this labor,
I held that but one nature—and no more—
was Christ’s—and in that faith, I was content;
but then the blessed Agapetus, he
who was chief shepherd, with his words turned me
to that faith which has truth and purity.
[Justinian refers to the flight of the eagle whose swift departure from Ravenna gave rise to the imperial era.]
And what it did, once it had left Ravenna
and leaped the Rubicon, was such a flight
as neither tongue nor writing can describe.
(Canto VI Paradiso)
Although he does not mention them directly in the Comedia, Dante must have been dazzled by the light of the mosaics in the Byzantine basilicas. In fact, scholars have found numerous parallels within the cantos of Purgatorio and Paradiso which recall such splendour. In Canto VI, for example, one can almost see the mosaics of the Basilica di San Vitale, with the imperial procession of Justinian, the Byzantine emperor of the VI century, to whom Dante offered a eulogy to the perfect monarch: Justinian is the personification of the flight of the eagle, whose swift departure from Ravenna launches the imperial era.
According to scholars, even the “spirti luminosi” (luminous spirals) that form two equal arms of a cross, at the centre of which Christ stands out in relief, recall the mosaic in the apsidal basin of Sant’Apollinare in Classe.
“(…)for splendors, in two rays, appeared to me,
so radiant and fiery that I said:
“O Helios, you who adorn them thus!”
As, graced with lesser and with larger lights
between the poles of the world, the Galaxy
gleams so that even sages are perplexed;
so, constellated in the depth of Mars,
those rays described the venerable sign
a circle’s quadrants form where they are joined.
And here my memory defeats my wit:
Christ’s flaming from that cross was such that I
can find no fit similitude for it.
(Paradiso Canto XIV)
For certain, the entire sojourn in Ravenna inspired the Poet. Besides the preeminent source of inspiration – the historical and artistic heritage of basilicas, the mosaics and eminent figures depicted here – several verses of the Divina Commedia make reference to the city, its geopolitical position, to the distinguished members of the nobility and their families (e.g. the Da Polenta and the Traversari) and much of the surrounding area.
Famous, in this regard, is the description Dante gives us of “that divine forest, dense, alive with green” of earthly paradise, in canto XXVIII of Purgatorio which the Poet relates to “the pinewood on the lido of Chiassi” (presumably the pinewood of Classe, a few kilometres from Ravenna):
“A gentle breeze, which did not seem to vary
within itself, was striking at my brow
but with no greater force than a kind wind’s,
a wind that made the trembling boughs—they all
bent eagerly—incline in the direction
of morning shadows from the holy mountain;
but they were not deflected with such force
as to disturb the little birds upon
the branches in the practice of their arts;
for to the leaves, with song, birds welcomed those
first hours of the morning joyously,
and leaves supplied the burden to their rhymes—
just like the wind that sounds from branch to branch
along the shore of Classe, through the pines
when Aeolus has set Sirocco loose.”.
(Purgatorio Canto XXVIII)