Heavens of the Moon, Mercury and Venus (Cantos II-IX)

In this section of the webguide, we explore the major themes that emerge in the Heavens of the Moon. Mercury and Venus. We have grouped together the summaries of the cantos, before dealing with the themes which emerge in each Heaven.

Reading the Heaven of the Moon (Cantos II-V)

Paradiso II can be divided into three sections:

  • warning to readers of the Paradiso (1-18)
  • arrival into the Heaven of the Moon (19-4)
  • explanation regarding the spots on the Moon (46-148).

Paradiso III can be divided into five sections:

  • description of the blessed in the Heaven of the Moon (1-33)
  • Piccarda (34-57)
  • explanation regarding the different states of blessedness (58-90)
  • Piccarda’s unfulfilled vow and the story of Empress Constance (9-1-120)
  • Piccarda's disappearance and the splendour of Beatrice (121-130).

Paradiso IV can be divided into four sections:

  • Dante caught between two doubts (1-27)
  • explanation regarding the presence of different groups of souls in different heavens (28- 63)
  • explanation regarding the fulfilment of vows (64-117)
  • Dante's new doubt (118-42).

Paradiso V can be divided into four sections:

  • further explanation regarding the fulfilment of vows (1-63)
  • warning to Christians to be sensible in choosing what vows to make (64-84)
  • ascent into the Heaven of Mercury and description of the blessed (85-114)
  • Dante's exchange with one of the souls in the Heaven of Mercury (115-39).

Key theme: Representing Paradise, Paradiso IV

We are told in Paradiso IV that everything that Dante sees before reaching the Empyrean does not actually correspond to the reality of the heavens he journeys through. All the different groups of souls Dante meets during his ascent towards the Empyrean do not actually dwell in the different planetary spheres. They all dwell in the Empyrean and only display themselves in the different heavens so as to represent (38) the reality of the Empyrean. We are also told that this is so because the human intellect can only apprehend things through the senses (40-42). So, everything Dante sees throughout his journey through the heavenly spheres does not strictly speaking correspond to the way things actually are in heaven. Everything Dante sees is, rather, a representation of the way things actually are in the Empyrean. The souls Dante meets our real souls, but their state of blessedness, as witnessed by Dante, is a ‘show’ put on just for him so that he may be able to understand and think about their state of blessedness as it actually is in the Empyrean–that is, as it actually is at one with God. In turn, we can see the Paradisoas Dante’s representation of the way heavenly truth was represented to him throughout his journey.

In explaining why it is necessary for the souls to represent heavenly reality in such a way, Beatrice refers to the anthropomorphic images which are used in Scripture and in churches to represent God and angels (43-48). This reference might at first sight appear to be quite odd. The imagery of the Paradiso would appear more elevated, abstract, ethereal and therefore in a certain sense more ‘accurate’ than the crude kind of anthropomorphism referred to by Beatrice. The purpose of Beatrice’s statement, however, is to warn readers of the Paradiso not to think, just because the imagery of the Paradiso might appear a far more refined way of representing heavenly truth than ascribing feet and hands to God, that it might actually be closer to representing God and heavenly truth as they are in themselves. For Dante allrepresentations of God and heavenly truth are, in a sense, equally inaccurate, for it is representation as such that ultimately fails in relation to God. As they are in themselves, God and heavenly truth simply cannot, according to Dante, be an object of representation.

Key theme: Piccarda and the soul’s relationship to God, Paradiso III

In lines 58-66 of Paradiso III, Dante asks Piccarda whether the souls he sees in the Heaven of the Moon desire to be in a higher state of blessedness than that in which they actually are. Picardda replies that if they were to desire a different state of blessedness their will would not be at one with the will of God. And this would be a contradiction in terms. It is impossible for souls in heaven not to be at one with the will of God. It is in the very nature of heavenly being, according to Dante, for it to be defined by/as charity (76 -78). As specified in 79 to 81 this means that it is in the very essence of heavenly being for the will of individual souls to be at one with the will of God and with that of all the other blessed. The way in which Dante's idea of love is, ultimately defined both by one's love for God and by one's love for other human beings is one of the structuring principles of Dante's idea of heavenly being.

Note the technical vocabulary present in the passage in question. Necesse and esseare Latin terms taken from the philosophical and theological debates of Dante’s day. Necesse (77) indicates logical necessity–that is, it is used in relation to something which could not be otherwise. In the context of Piccarda’s speech it is used in relation to the fact that charity is a ‘necessary’ condition of heavenly being–in other words it simply could not be that heavenly being was not defined by/as charity. Without charity, heavenly being would simply not be heavenly me being. Esse (79) is a Latin noun derived from the infinitive of the verb ‘to be’. It indicates being or existence as such. So ‘beato esse’ in line 79 simply means ‘blessed being’. ‘Formale’, also in line 79, is another technical term. The form of something, for Dante, is its structuring (or ‘in-forming’) principle; that which makes something what it is. It is more than the shape of something, it is its very essence. So line 79 is referring to the very essence of heavenly being.

Paradiso III, 85 is one of the most famous lines of the Commedia and is spoken by Piccarda: "E ‘n la sua volontade e nostra pace." [In His volition is the peace we have.]

Piccarda is one of the most significant characters encountered by Dante on his journey. Always remember that when thinking about an individual character in the Commedia it might be fruitful to consider whether they might be in any way related to other characters in the poem. In Piccarda’s case, for example, you might consider her relationship with Francesca in Inferno V or Forese (her brother) in PurgatorioXXIII-XXIV.


The souls Dante meets in the Heaven of the Moon are those people who failed on earth to fulfil the vows they had made to God; and much space is devoted in the cantos of the Heaven of the Moon to reflection on the nature of vows. The question is to be explicitly addressed in Paradiso III, 94 and is then carried through to the end of the episode of the Heaven of the Moon. Two specific issues regarding vows are treated in these cantos: (i) why it is that one can be considered responsible for not fulfilling one's vow even if failure to do so depends on the violence suffered at the hands of others; and (ii) whether it is possible to make up for an unfulfilled vow by doing something else.

Reflection on the first question is found in Paradiso IV, 16 -21, 64 to 123. The answer given by Beatrice to Dante's question is that it is always possible to resist the violence imposed on oneself by others, even if this might lead to great suffering or even martyrdom.  If one does not so resist, then in some sense one may be seen to be wilfully accepting that one's vow will remain unfulfilled. This is why Piccarda and Constance may both be seen to be partly responsible for not fulfilling their vows. That said, Piccarda and Constance are both in Heaven. As Beatrice explains, although they might be partly responsible for not fulfilling their vows, it would be unrealistic to expect that all human beings may have the moral strength to resist violence even in the face of suffering and/or death.

Reflection on the second question is found in Paradiso IV, 124-42 and V, 1-63. The answer given by Beatrice to Dante’s question is that in making a vow to God one is giving up the greatest gift that one has received from him: free will. So, one cannot make up for an unfulfilled vow with something else. That said, Beatrice explains, it is important to distinguish between the act of making a vow to God and what one actually promises to do. In relation to the former, as has just been said, one cannot substitute the vow with anything else, for there is no greater offering to God than surrendering one's free will in the act of vowing something to him. In relation to what one promises to do, it might be possible to make up for an unfulfilled vow with something else; provided that that something else is a greater sacrifice and is approved by the Church.

Key theme: the Moon (Paradiso II)

The moon

After the warning to readers of the CommediaParadiso II is almost entirely dedicated to a description of, and reflection on, the moon, most of which may at first appear to modern readers as rather dry scholastic speculation. Yet if you look closely enough you will realise that the reflections of Paradiso II carry very important implications for our understanding of the Paradiso as a whole. Through the reflection on the nature of the moon, Dante offers us his view of nothing less than the relationship of the whole universe to truth.

Paradiso II is one of the most difficult cantos of the Commedia. Do not worry if the reflections in it appeared to be rather technical or unclear. The crucial point to bear in mind while reading Paradiso II, 19-148 is that the theory regarding the cause of the spots on the moon is not simply a physical but a philosophical/theological one. Through it Dante expresses his view that the nature of celestial bodies ultimately depend on their direct relationship, through the angels, with divine being itself. The difference in luminosity between celestial bodies (or, in the case of the moon, within a single celestial body) has to be understood in terms of this relationship.

Reading the Heaven of Mercury (Cantos V-VII)

Paradiso V can be divided into four sections:

  • further explanation regarding the fulfilment of vows (1-63)
  • warning to Christians to be sensible in choosing what vows to make (64-84)
  • ascent into the Heaven of Mercury and description of the blessed (85-114)
  • Dante's exchange with one of the souls in the Heaven of Mercury (115-39).

Paradiso VI can be divided into four sections:

  • Justinian introduces himself (1-27)
  • survey of the history of the Roman Empire (28-111)
  • explanation regarding the condition of the souls in the Heaven of Mercury (112-26)
  • the story of Romeo from Villanova (127-42).

Paradiso VII can be divided into four sections:

  • the disappearance of Justinian and Dante’s doubt regarding Justinian’s speech (1- 24)
  • Beatrice’s initial response to Dante's doubt: explanation regarding original sin, the Incarnation and the Crucifixion (25-51)
  • Beatrice further clarifies why the Incarnation and the Crucifixion were necessary (52-120)
  • Beatrice explains why human beings may hope in the Resurrection (121-48).

Key theme: Heavenly Light, Heavenly Smiles (Paradiso V)

In Paradiso V, 85-139 notice the way in which light is referred to and take time to appreciate the different ways in which reference to light informs the poetry of the canto. Pay particular attention to connections drawn between light and smiles/laughter.

Two things that may strike you as unusual are that the planet Mercury is itself said to smile (97) and that a close connection is drawn, in the figure of Justinian, between smiles, eyes and light (124-26). The two references to smiles are more than just poetic embellishments. In Purgatorio XXV, 103-5 laughter/smiles were seen, together with language and tears, as defining the human condition. You should also note that Paradiso V, 126 may be seen as a paraphrase of a statement in the Convivio: ‘E che e  ridere se non una corruscazione de la dilettazione de l’anima, cioe uno lume apparante di fuori secondo sta dentro?’ [‘what is laughter/smiling if not the coruscation of the joy of the soul, that is a light apparent on the outside in accordance with what is inside?’] In the same chapter in the Convivio Dante also says that it is both through the mouth and the eyes that joy -like all other passions–manifests itself.

The light which clothes Justinian (as all other souls in Heaven) is thus to be seen as a physical manifestation of the souls’ joy, as laughter/smiles manifest the joy of human beings on earth. By the same token, and given what we saw regarding the luminosity of celestial bodies in Paradiso II, it would seem philosophically/theologically fully coherent to refer to the ‘riso’ of a planet. To refer to joyful smiles/laughter is, for Dante, to refer to the manifestation of the joyful relationship between creation and the unfathomable ground of its being.

Key theme: Justinian and Empire (Paradiso VI)

Dante's idea of Empire and his understanding of the way the Emperor ought to be a guide for human beings are among the most important aspects of the Paradiso, just as they were prominent aspects of the Inferno and the Purgatorio.

In his survey of the history of the Empire, Justinian places great emphasis on the so-called ‘Augustan peace’ (55-57, 73-81). Remember that for Dante the prime objective of the Empire and Emperor ought to be the creation of universal peace. This, Dante thought, had been achieved only once throughout history, at the time of the Emperor Augustus. It was at this time of universal peace that Christ was born. And this, for Dante, was proof that the Roman Empire was elected by God to play a role of fundamental importance in the unfolding of providential history.

As Justinian explained in lines 82-90, one of the crucial roles played by the Empire in the unfolding of providential history was that of legitimating, from the point of view of human justice, the Crucifixion of Christ. This might well appear an odd idea at first. The point Dante wishes to make is that in order for human nature to be punished in Christ so as to be redeemed, the punishment had to be exercised by a judicial power which had legitimate authority over the whole of humanity (i.e. by imperial authority, which had been chosen by God to govern over human society as a whole).

In Paradiso VI, 1-27 Justinian explained that he compiled the legal works he became famous for, only after having correctly come to terms with the mystery of the Incarnation.

Key Theme: Original sin, Incarnation, Crucifixion (Paradiso VII)

In Paradiso VII Dante presents, through Beatrice’s explanations, his understanding of the relationship between human beings and God as seen in terms of original sin and the redemption of humanity through the Incarnation and the Crucifixion.

In lines 25-48 Beatrice explains that, after Adam’s sin, humanity distanced itself from God and lived in a state of error until the Word of God united itself to human nature. She then explains that insofar as Christ was a human being, the crucifixion was a just punishment for humanity’s sins; but that insofar as Christ was the particular person that he was (i.e. a person who was at one and the same time fully human and an incarnation of the Word of God) the crucifixion was an utterly unjust punishment.

The crucial idea to note here is that for Dante original sin consisted in Adam not being able to bear (‘soffrire’) the idea that there may be a limit (‘freno’) to his will; a limit which, in fact, is beneficial for human beings. For Dante, the crucifixion could be seen precisely as an example of that which Adam was not able to accept: Christ accepts a limit to his will, by being willing to die according to the will of God.

Reading the Heaven of Venus (Cantos VIII-IX)

Paradiso VIII can be divided into four sections:

  • ascent into the Heaven of Venus (1-30)
  • Dante and Charles Martel (31-90)
  • the origin of, and need for, diversity in human nature (91-135)
  • the need for human beings to follow their innate dispositions (136-48).

Paradiso IX can be divided into six sections:

  • Charles Martel's prophecy (1-12)
  • Cunniza of Romano (13-36)
  • Cunniza’s prophecy (37-63)
  • Folquet of Marseille (64-108)
  • Rahab (109-26)
  • invective against corrupt prelates (127-42).

Key theme: The Need for Diversity (Cantos VIII-IX)

In the first part of the conversation between Charles and Dante, we are told that, through the influences of the heavens, divine providence ordains things in such a way that all human beings receive their particular innate nature or character, as well as all the potential to fulfil their nature so as to achieve salvation. According to Dante, different human beings receive different innate characters from the influences of the heavens.

In the second part of the exchange between Charles and Dante we find reiterated an idea that we have met many times before: man, for Dante, is a social animal. We're told that human beings would be much worse off if they did not live in civic communities; and that it would not be possible for them to do so if different people did not carry out different tasks. It is therefore fitting, Charles says, that different human beings should be born with different characters so as to be more suited, some for the government, some for military prowess, some for religion, some for art and craftsmanship.

In the concluding part of the canto we are then told that human beings should follow the natural inclinations received through the heavens from providence; and that moral degeneration arises when human beings misuse their free will and go against their innate characteristics by performing social tasks for which they are not naturally suited.

The above ideas would at first sight appear to offer a rather deterministic view of human nature; one according to which one's character is determined by providence before one even born, and according to which one ought not to stray from the character assigned by it. It is important, however, not to read Dante's idea of the astral influences on human nature in such a deterministic way. ‘Providence’ for Dante does not refer to some kind of master plan according to which the fate of every individual is decided prior to his or her even been born. It refers rather to a mystery according to which things are ordained by God so as best to guide human beings to salvation. So, the second half Paradiso VIII is saying not that everything is decided for human beings even before they are born, and that it is at their peril that human beings stray from this. It says, more simply, that all human beings are born with characteristics which, if allowed to flourish, may lead them to salvation. It says, moreover, that it is a good thing that different human beings are born with different characteristics so as to be able to support each other through the creation of civic communities.

Key theme: Love, the shadow of the Earth, and the memory of earthly failings

The first three heavens of the Paradiso all contain groups of souls whose blessedness is defined by the fact that their pursuit of goodness was characterised by their giving in to some moral weakness–failing to fulfil vows, pursuing goodness because of desire for earthly glory, giving in to earthly love. The cantos of the Heaven of Venus, then, may be seen to bring to completion a reflection on the relationship between blessedness and human failing that characterises the first nine cantos of the Paradisoas a whole. This reflection becomes explicit in Paradiso IX.

In Heaven, according to Dante, there can be no repentance, but only ‘riso’ [‘smile’] at the memory of one's failings. This is because these are not remembered as sins (remember that the memory of sin is erased by immersion in Lethe). They are remembered by the blessed only in terms of being part of the process through which one came to blessedness (remember that through immersion in Eunoe the memory of the goodness of one's actions is enhanced). This is a very important idea for understanding the stated blessedness as presented in the Paradiso. It suggests that, for Dante, in the state of blessedness, awareness of one's failing is not so much erased as joyfully integrated in the way one thinks about one's relationship to God. As such, it complements Piccarda’s speech on the possibility of being perfectly at one with God while not necessarily having been as worthy as other souls in Heaven.

It might at first appear to be surprising that Dante gives a place of such importance in the Paradiso to figures–Cunizza, Folquet, Rahab–who were said to have been overcome by the same sort of passions for which Paolo and Francesca are condemned in Inferno V. Even more surprising, perhaps, is the fact that the figures Dante meets in Paradiso IX are said to look back on their earthly passions not with repentance but with joy. What Paradiso IX seems to suggest is that earthly love may be the first step in a process that might eventually lead to God. Some critics suggest that, for Dante, one can move closer to God in recognising the sins related to sexual desire. Other critics suggest that, for Dante, there is something in earthly love which is, in itself, consonant with the love which may lead to God.

Key theme: Oneness with God, oneness with others (Paradiso IX, 73-81)

As we have seen, a recurrent element of the Paradiso is the notion that the souls of the blessed are perfectly at one with God and with each other. One of the expressions of this is the idea, also recurrent throughout the Paradiso, is that through their being at one with God the souls are able to see into each other's and Dante's mind. A particularly rich and powerful statement of this idea is found in Paradiso IX, 73–81. Particularly striking in this passage are the expressions ‘inluia’, ‘intuassi’, ‘inmii’, coined by Dante to convey the idea of the possibility for souls to be at one with each other and with God.

Key theme: Love Poetry and Folquet (Canto IX)

Folquet was one of the most important poets of the thirteenth century. Dante quotes him in the De vulgari eloquentia (II, vi, 6) and takes direct inspiration from his poetry in composing Purgatorio XXVI. Particularly significant, in light of the fact that Folquet was a poet, are lines 76–78 of canto IX. Dante devotes an entire terzina to refer in beautiful terms to Folquet’s voice. By doing so he seems to suggest that a poet’s voice may make a distinctly important contribution to the song of Heaven.

Consider, for example, the word ‘trustulla’. Do you recall finding this word in any other canto of the Commedia? Look at Purgatorio XIV, 93 and Purgatorio XVI, 90. What connections, if any, do you think can be drawn between these different uses of ‘trustullo’ and ‘trustulla’? The noun ‘trustullo’ refers to something which gives pleasure and delight, and the verb ‘trustulla’ refers to one’s receiving pleasure and delight from something. In Purgatorio XIV ‘trustullo’ is used to refer to the highest moral good. In Purgatorio XVI ‘trustulla’ refers to that which gives pleasure to the soul and to the fact that what gives ultimate delight to the soul is God. 

Through Folquet, Dante would seem explicitly to invite reflection on the love poetry tradition, and on the role that a love poet may play not only in the poetic but also in the civic and moral life of the community of which he is part. As such Paradiso VIII-IX could be seen as developing a reflection on love poetry which also runs through Inferno V, and Purgatorio XXIV and XXVI.


© Vittorio Montemaggi, Matthew Treherne, Abi Rowson

This resource is a collaboration between the Leeds Centre for Dante Studies at the University of Leeds, and the Devers Program in Dante Studies at the University of Notre Dame