Trees of Gold. Royal Adaptations of Paradise in Dante’s Purgatory

Erik Schoonhoven - International Medieval Congress, Leeds, 2008. This research - including notes - was also published in Italian under the title Per una rilettura del 'legno lucido e sereno' di Purgatorio VII in 'Incontri, rivista europea di studi italiani', 22/2 (2007), Holland University Press, Amsterdam, pp. 123-130.

Per una rilettura del ‘legno lucido e sereno’ di Purgatorio VII - See more at:
Per una rilettura del ‘legno lucido e sereno’ di Purgatorio VII - See more at: the peer reviewed “Incontri, rivista europea di studi italiani”, 22/2 (2007), Holland University Press, Amsterdam, pp. 123-130.

Dante’s vision of afterlife, expressed in his masterpiece the Divine Comedy, starts in the real world: he finds himself lost in a wood, as a metaphor of his difficult position in earthly life being exiled from his patria, the city of Florence. In this wood chaos rules and Dante himself several times in the Comedy opposes to this image the peace and harmony of Paradise, the garden of Eden. The unstable political situation of Italy of his time, which Dante indicates as the ‘garden of the empire’ being abandoned by the emperor, is - like the world - without the good care of the supreme gardiner, Jesus Christ.

In accordance with the medieval tradition the Paradise garden contains elements like trees, rivers, flowers, precious stones and pleasant odours. It represents the perfect state of the world before the first sin of Adam and Eve, having eaten from the forbidden tree. Dante presents the Paradise garden as the situation to which the world, and specifically Italy, should return under the guidance of the emperor as representative of God on earth. On a spiritual level the death of Crist, the second Adam, was needed to return humanity to this perfect state. According to popular belief in the middle ages the cross was made of the wood of the tree of Paradise: the first sin thus is cancelled with the same instrument.

Dante elaborates this political connotation of tree symbolism in several ways. In Hell 34 the tree of evil is present, while Purgatory, which contains the terrestrial Paradise (called by Dante the ‘selva antica’, the ancient wood), is the canticle where all the elements of the Paradise myth are present, including the trees of the garden of Eden.

One of the prominent paradisiacal images in the Divine Comedy is that of the Valley of the Princes, the preoccupied rulers representing the Third Class of the Late-Repentant. They ignored their spiritual duties because they were too much preoccupied with worldly cares. The Valley of the Princes is described in the following words:

Purgatorio VII 70-84:
Tra erto e piano era un sentiero schembo,
che ne condusse in fianco de la lacca,
là dove più ch’a mezzo muore il lembo.
Oro e argento fine, cocco e biacca,
indaco, legno lucido e sereno,
fresco smeraldo in l’ora che si fiacca,
da l’erba e da li fior, dentr’a quel seno
posti, ciascun saria di color vinto,
come dal suo maggiore è vinto il meno.
Non avea pur natura ivi dipinto,
ma di soavità di mille odori
vi facea uno incognito e indistinto.
‘Salve, Regina’ in sul verde e ‘n su’ fiori
quindi seder cantando anime vidi,
che per la valle non parean di fuori.

There was a slanting path, now steep, now flat;
it led us to a point beside the valley,
just where its bordering edge had dropped by half.
Gold and fine silver, cochineal, white lead,
and Indian lychnite, highly polished, bright,
fresh emerald at the moment it is dampened,
if placed within that valley, all would be
defeated by the grass and flowers’ colors,
just as the lesser gives way to the greater.
And nature there not only was a painter,
but from the sweetness of a thousand odors,
she had derived an unknown, mingled scent.
Upon the green grass and the flowers, I
saw seated spirits singing “Salve, Regina”;
they were not visible from the outside.

Translation by Allen Mandelbaum (1980, 1982)

A winding path, not level but not steep,
Led us to where the rising hill-spurs lose
Half of their hight along the valley’s lip.
Gold and fine silver, crimson and ceruse,
Wood yellow lustrous, clear cerulean dye,
Indigo, fresh-cracked emerald’s brilliant hues,
Matched with the foliage and the flowers that lie
Heaped in that lap, would faint, as minor faints
Beneath its major, and show dim thereby.
Here nature not only plied her paints,
But had distilled, unnameable, unknown,
The mingled sweetness of a thousand scents.
Salve Regina singing on and on,
Close-hid till then beneath the valley’s lee
On flowers and grass I there saw spirits strown.

Translation Dorothy L. Sayers (1955)

The problem

The Princes are surrounded by the beauty of nature, colours so intense that gold, silver, precious stones and all sorts of colorants would be defeated. The beauty of God’s creation outshadowes the riches desired by mankind – riches that belong most prominently to monarchs. But in all this display of wealth, the presence of ‘legno’, wood, seems to be out of place. The ‘legno’ is ‘lucido’ and ‘sereno’: how can wood be lucid or brilliant and serene at the same time? This verse has caused many interpretative problems and the solutions proposed by several Dante scholars vary.

The two English translations give a fine summary of the discussion. On the one hand it has been suggested that ‘indaco, legno lucido e sereno’ contains an error in the interpunction, proposing the correct version is ‘indaco legno, lucido e sereno’. In this frase ‘indaco legno’ means ‘wood from India’, refering to the yellow hue of polished wood, and ‘lucido e sereno’ would refer to the blue sky. On the other hand it has been suggested that ‘legno’ doesn’t mean wood, but ‘Indian lychnite’ – as we see in Mandelbaum’s version. Lychnite is a red stone and this hypothesis is based upon the inaccurate assumption that the latin word for lychnite is lignum (meaning wood). In reality the latin term is lychnus, derived from the Greek lychnos, meaning lamp. At the same time we see that in post-classical Latin poetry ‘lignum’ means tree. But the proposed solutions are problematic in itself: first of all the different interpunctions causes problems on a grammatical level since Dante never uses the adjectives ‘lucido’ and ‘sereno’ as nouns, while on a semantic level ‘indaco’ is a reference to the well known colorant indigo.

The assumption that ‘legno’ means ‘lychnite’ is improbable for two reasons: ‘legno’ is a very common and well known concept since the dawn of mankind, while ‘lychnite’ is a stone that is recurrent in hardly any medieval lapidary. One of the conclusions of my research concerning the symbolism of precious stones in Dante’s work, is that he only included the best known precious stones of his time, to be more precise: jasper, heliotrope, crystal, diamond, sapphire, emerald, topaz and ruby. One of the main characteristics of Dante’s poetic language is his very precise way of describing in very few words. This preciseness makes is unnecessary to rewrite his verses into something else and it is highly probable that verses we have problems with interpreting is the result of weaknesses in our knowledge of the cultural context of the work. In his use of the word ‘legno’ Dante shows himself very conscious of the medieval traditions surrounding this basic element of human society. But to what concept refers ‘legno lucido e sereno’?

What is described?

Let us return to Purgatory VII: it is the troubadour Sordello da Goito who guides Dante and Virgil through the Valley of the Princes. Sordello wrote the Compianto, a mirror for princes written on the occasion of the famous Provencal knight Blacatz. According to Sordello, the kings of his time need to eat from Blacatz's heart in order to become more virtuous: his mirror of princes is a satire. Sordello indicates the princes present in the valley: they spend their time in Purgatory joined with their earthly enemies, watching over the bad behaviour of their sons. The description of the beauty of the valley is an example of the provencal model of the plazer and of the classical locus amoenus. What we see in the list of natural riches is a threefold division: gold and silver are materials used by gold- and silversmiths, while the second group consists of colorants like white lead, cochineal and indigo. The third group consists of wood and a precious stone, both of which materials were considered to be of transcendental value in the Middle Ages. If we take a closer look at these materials, in relation with the context of Purgatory 7, we see that the combination of the materials results in the splendour of kings: gold and precious stones are used for crowns, while colorants are needed to make ceremonial clothes. Silver, like wood, was one of the materials of which thrones were made, while wood is also needed for royal carriages.

Peace on earth

If we bear in mind the criticism of Sordello and Dante on the Princes we see that at the same time royal splendour is needed to express royal power, but excessive splendour is the first thing to be criticised when a king doesn’t fullfil his godgiven task. According to Dante’s political views, the main objective of a sovereign is to reassure peace to his people. The use of the word ‘sereno’ in this context is highly significant since every single occurrence of the word in the entire Comedy is connected to peace, whether on earth as in heaven. Based upon these assumption, my hypothesis is that the list of riches of the valley is a metaphorical introduction of the princes present. The materials represent the coats of arms of the enlisted princes, which are the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf I of Habsburg, the kings Ottokar II and Wenceslaus II of Bohemia, Peter III of Aragon, Charles I of Anjou, Henry III of England, Henry I of Navarra and the Marquess of Monferrato, William III. Their coats of arms all contain the colours gold/yellow, silver, white (white lead), red (cochineal) and blue (indigo). Emerald is not a colorant and it is not a common symbol in heraldry, but it is not a coincidence that the coat of arms of Henry I of Navarre actually contains this precise stone. The proof that Dante was familiar with royal heraldry comes from several descriptions of coats of arms in the Comedy.

Wood, glorious wood?

The fact that all the elements of the description of the valley’s natural wealth are recognisable in the heraldry of the princes except for the wood is significant. Clearly Dante meant to accentuate this modest material. In Purgatory VII Dante twice uses plant and tree symbolism to indicate royal dynasties and their decadence. Dante’s opinion on these rulers is utmost negative. But the exception is made for Henry III of England, the king of simple life, who has far better branches ('Vedete il re de la semplice vita/ seder là solo, Enrico d’Inghilterra:/ questi ha ne’ rami suoi migliore uscita', VII 130-132). Dante thus refers to Edward I, the English Giustinian, by Dante evaluated positively several times. By reassuring order and peace he fulfilled his godgiven duty, thus becoming worthy of the adjective ‘sereno’. The habit of comparing rulers with trees and plants is ancient, in fact Hugh Capet calls himself the ‘root of the evil plant’ in Purgatory XX 43.

And indeed, vegetal symbolism surrounds Edward I: his family name is Plantagenet, which derives from plante genet for which the emblem of the dynasty is the sprig of broom. More interesting though is that Edward I commissioned in 1299 the throne that is still being used during British coronations. The particularity of this throne is that it is made of wood, instead of stone, which was a novelty at that time. The throne was a symbol of the unification of the British isle, but in Paradiso XIX Dante blames Edward I for his continuous warfare against Scotland. Edward’s fame is ambiguous, like the symbolism of wood, being at the same time the material of human sin and of redemption. This ambiguity in symbolism is also present in the image of the fresh emerald showing it’s colour while breaking (verse 75): it is the inherent weakness of this particular stone in combination with the green colour, which represents the bloom and death in nature.

The fourteenth century commentators of the Comedy, Buti and Della Lana, suggested that ‘legno lucido e sereno’ refers to wet oak which shines in the night. To the modern reader this seems strange, but in 13th century German poetry the image of shining wood in the night exists. Conrad of Wurzburg in his Die Goldene Schmiede compares wood with the carbuncle, which doesn’t need light and hence shines in the night as well. Conrad presents the Virgin Mary as the guiding star in the darkness of sin. He opposes her light to that of rotten wood which shines in the night: it’s light is deceitful because it disappears at dawn. The state of deterioration is indeed one of the themes of Purgatory VII. If another phenomenon didn’t exist this explanation would have sufficed as explanation for the ‘legno lucido e sereno’.

As I mentioned before, in post-classical latin the word ‘lignum’ was used to indicate a tree. Also Dante uses the word legno in this way, for example when he refers to the myth of Daphne turning into a tree. But the tree of good and evil in Paradise is indicated as the wood that is the cause of the exile of humanity, the first sin committed by Adam and Eve. In his Convivio, Dante refers to himself as a ‘wood (boat) without sail and without government’, making reference to his exile status. It is highly probable that ‘legno lucido e sereno’ refers to a shining and serene tree. And in fact, such trees existed in the Middle Ages.

Trees of gold

During the 13th century mercantile and diplomatic contacts between Europe and the Mongol empire existed. For example, William of Rubruc and Bartholomew of Cremona arrived as envoys of king Louis IX of France at Karakorum, the Mongol capitol, in 1253. There they met Guillaume Boucher, a goldsmith from Paris who was in service of the Khan, who habitually employed a western artist at his court. Boucher in fact made a silver tree for the palace of the Khan. The tree had four lions at the base, which was encircled by the tails of a guilded serpent. In the base sat a man who blew a trumpet, which made it seem like the angel on top of the tree produced the noise. At the signal of the trumpet inebriating fluids emerged out of the mouths of the lions and the court gathered and drank from it.

Mechanical devices like these are known in imperial courts since antiquity. The best known example of it is the Chrysotriclinium, that was destroyed during the sack of Constantinople in 1204. The 12th century legend of the pilgrimage of Charlemagne to Jerusalem contains a description of his fictional visit to the Byzantine emperor, who had a mechanical room were statues of children turned around and blew horns when the wind would blow, like they were alive. The legend describes that whoever saw this spectacle believed to be in Paradise where angels sing. In reality the palace of the emperor contained the Chrysotriclinium, an octagonal room surmounted by a dome. It was the center of imperial cult and during receptions the whole court gathered there. When two silver covered doors opened the emperor was shown sitting on his throne and the court would fall prostrate. In another room golden thrones of the imperial family surrounded that of the emperor and on the stair in front two golden lions were lying. In the room were golden trees with singing golden birds, like they were alive.

In the 10th century Liutprand of Cremona gave a description of the display of imperial splendour he witnessed (quoting Edward Gibbon’s paraphrase): ‘‘When he approached the throne, the birds of the golden tree began to warble their notes, which were accompanied by the roarings of two lions of gold. With his two companions Liutprand was compelled to bow and fall prostrate; thrice he touched the ground with his forehead; he arose, but in the short interval the throne had been hoisted by an engine from the floor to the ceiling: the imperial figure appeared in new and more gorgeous apparel, and the interview was concluded in haughty and majestic silence.’ The imperial palace of Constantinopel was based upon a scale model of the palace of the Caliph of Baghdad, brought to Europe by an ambassador. This palace contained golden trees as well, which represented the vegetation of terrestrial Paradise. Gardens imitating Paradise are a part of all the orientel and Hellenistic traditions: often, the leaves and fruits were made of precious stones like emeralds and pearls. The ground used to be covered in ambergris and musk to imitate the pleasant odours of Paradise (to which Dante refers as well, in Purgatory VII).

Traditionally the garden of Eden was located in India, and since the 12th ce, with the rise of the legend of Prester John, it was said to be located in his realm. Various descriptions of paradisiacal landscapes exist in this letter, that describes rivers filled with precious stones, and of course descriptions of the jewel studded palaces of Prester John. In these palaces trees of silver, gold and precious stones play an important role as well. They are at the center of the palaces of this model king. Also, some om his philosophers compared this king to an exceptional tree, lavishly adorned with fruits and scents, since both of them are incomparable to anything else in the world. In the letter of Prester John we see how the exemplary king is compared with a tree and how trees of precious metal are present in his palaces.

Political Utopia

I already established that the description of the riches of the Valley of Princes in Purgatory VII belong to the cult of the king, since precious metals and stones and royal mantles all enforce the display of royal power. This way the gold, silver, the emerald and the colorants can be explained. But now, the ‘legno lucido e sereno’ has also found its reference in the monarchic cult: the shining and serene wood is probably the description of the trees of gold present in Constaninople and in the letter of Prester John. The presence of the ‘softness of a thousand fragrances’ of verse 80 confirms this imitation of terrestrial Paradise within the royal or imperial palace.

The letter of Prester John presents a political utopia in which the perfect monarch rules and provides peace and prosperity, the ‘serene’ state of the world, as Dante has put it. It is exactly this situation to which Dante aspired in the hope he vested in emperor Henry VII and which the princes of the valley failed to realise. The Chrysotriclinium with its golden tree thus functions to Dante as a model – and in fact within the Byzantine empire the pax romana was continued for centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire. Dante, following the example of Sordello, uses Purgatory VII as a mirror of princes containing implicit references to model monarchs like the Byzantine emperor and Prester John. It probably is coincidence, but the tradition of mirrors of princes started in the IXth century with Smaragdus – emerald – of Saint-Mihiel, who wrote his Via Regia for Charlemagne. In this work he describes the path of the king leading his people into eternal life in heavenly paradise. The Christian kings follow the example of Christ, but the preoccupied princes neglected this duty and thus are exiled right outside the gates of Purgatory. It is interesting to note here, that Dante's life as an exile was the result of the political warfare between princes.

Hortus and oriens

Paradise as the perfect place is a classical image and a locus amoenus to medieval authors. Isidore of Seville proposed the connection between garden and birth, the eternal spring, because the garden always bares fruit. This way the concepts of hortus and oriens were closely linked together. Hrabanus Maurus extrapolated the concept affirming that the garden is a symbol of the church in which the believers are the plants. In the same way, Dante calls Italy the garden of the empire, abandoned by it’s gardener, the Holy Roman Emperor. Christ himself after his resurrection appeared to Mary Magdalene in the garden of Joseph of Arimatea, dressed as a gardiner. And just like Paradise contains the tree of life, the monarchic tree is present in the locus amoenus described by Dante in his mirror of princes.

The kings in the valley once were enemies, but because of the decadence of their dynasties, were overwon by there only superior, Jesus Crist, who took care of his garden by way of his death on his wood, the cross. Dante created the analogy with the garden in a very refined way: on the one hand shining wood refers to the rotting wood that shines in the night and on the other hand it refers to the shining imperial trees of gold. It is exactly the opposition between the garden well taken care of and that of the neglected garden, where dead wood is not being removed.

The description of the valley is not simply an enumeration of the natural riches there present, but it introduces the transgression of the princes, containing all the elements that indicate the decadence of earthly rulers. The pleasant wealth of the description turns into decay after this study of the symbolism that Dante invokes in Purgatory VII. Most of these princes return in Paradise XIX, where they are severely judged by Dante, including Edward I of England.



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