In canto XVIII of Paradise Dante and Beatrice ascend to the sixth heaven, that of Jupiter, where they see a large number of radiant souls – the souls of the Just – which move around forming letters of the alphabet so as to write in the sky a sentence which is a direct admonition to earth-bound governments: “Diligite iustitiam qui iudicatis terram”

[1].  Other shining spirits then descend in order to arrange themselves into the last M of the writing, gradually changing it into the figure of an eagle, symbol of the empire to which, according to Dante, the administration of justice on earth has been entrusted.

The souls of the Just, assembled in the majestic figure of the eagle, give it a voice.

The celestial Eagle talks for a long time and in canto XIX declares that it is easier for a non-Christian who has lived according to the laws of nature and the dictates of reason to enter into the kingdom of heaven than for a Christian who has not obeyed the commandments of his faith.

After this Dante, through the Eagle’s voice, launches a weighty invective against a good sixteen contemporary reigning Christian princes of Europe whom he considers to be bad rulers and whose misdeeds, on the day of Universal Judgment, will appear written in full – so says the eagle – in the eternal book of divine justice.

In a way we can say that the celestial Eagle utters its harsh indictment by taking advantage of the presence of Dante, an exceptional visitor from the world of the living, so that he may transmit it to those who are responsible after returning to earth.

The Eagle’s list of accusations begins with this rhetorical question: whatever will the Persians, i.e. the non-Christians, say when on the great day of judgment they read the names of those monarchs and their misdeeds in the great book?  (Paradise, canto XIX, verses 112-114):

Che poran dir li Perse a’ vostri regi,
come vedranno quel volume aperto
nel qual si scrivon tutti suoi dispregi?

Verses which sound like this in John Ciardi’s English translation:

What shall the Persians say to your kings there
when the Great Book is opened and they see
the sum of their depravities laid bare?

And like this in Giovanni Peterlongo’s Esperanto:

Kion al viaj reĝoj diros Persoj,
vidante libron malfermita, kie
iliajn hontindaĵojn oni skribas?

These three verses are followed by the accusations which are directed towards the sixteen princes under consideration and which are indeed to be written in the eternal book of divine justice on the day of judgment (verses 115-148).  In general it is a question of accusations which are justified in a more or less summary manner, but in two instances, those of King Denis of Portugal and King Hakon of Norway, there is absolutely no justification.

Nowadays we should say that Dante was not politically correct with regard to these two persons.

In order to read verses 115-148 of canto XIX of Paradise, readers have three hyperlink connections available:
For Dante’s original verses click here.
For John Ciardi’s English translation of the verses click here.
For Giovanni Peterlongo’s Esperanto translation of the verses click here.

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In a famous commentary to the Divine Comedy, done by the Swiss-Italian man of letters Giovanni Andrea Scartazzini (1837 – 1901), revised and enriched in 1928 by Giuseppe Vandelli (1865 – 1937), the gradual changing of the letter M into the figure of an eagle was illustrated through the following three drawings:

And here is the plate of Gustave Doré representing the souls of the Just moving in such way as to assemble into the figure of the celestial Eagle:


[1] “Love justice, you who rule the Earth”.