IS FLORENCE A METAPHOR FOR PARADISE?
Worst. Day. Ever. You’re teetering on the cliff-edge of eternal damnation, battling demons and serpents, behemoths and Satan. And The Furies. And The Harpies! You’re witnessing the punishment of sin in the barbaric, violent, torturous inferno, an apocalyptic realm of misery and pain. You’re mustering every sip of emotional strength to battle your way through the Underworld where all are dead while you are alive. You’re exhausted, drained; totally spent and all you want to do is get home to your beloved Florence and put your feet up. And then, the hammer blow. You hear a whisper so shocking, so distressing, you’re winded like a thousand punches have just landed to the stomach. Talk about kicking a guy when he’s down.
Yet that’s what happened to poor Dante, already in crisis as he battled and struggled his way through the blazing, ferocious inferno. Fiercely loyal, proud and protective of his precious Florence, his homestead, his sanctuary; desperate and desirous for a return to that place which holds such a special place in his heart, he’s stunned and dismayed to learn of a prediction that he’s soon to be exiled from that very city, from the home he loves, the compatriots he loves and the politics he loves. Banished from his adored hometown - expelled, evicted from that place of his birth where his emotional, geographical and political roots are so firmly planted - a place he loves so intensely his heart bursts with pride just at the mention of it. He’s utterly distraught.
But, indeed, this is the calamitous news imparted to our hero during a brief encounter with the dead heretic Farinata, gloating as he burns alive in his blazing tomb, skin and body melting, scorched and charred from the roaring fire in which he roasts. Dante is absolutely horrified, as much for the promise of exile as for the pitiful sight before him. He’s dismayed, baffled, completely flabbergasted and this anguish is clearly conveyed in the language of the prose. Exiled. Over. Done. Yet neither Virgil nor Beatrice seem unduly alarmed at their protege's distress and their feeble attempts at placation suggest to the reader that, in reality, it’s no biggie - certainly not in the wider scheme of things. Two realms of the afterlife later and, still in need of clarity, Dante meets his great grandfather in the fifth sphere of Heaven but he merely suggests Dante use his time in exile wisely. In fact, he says, it would be an ideal opportunity to start writing that epic poem warning mankind of the need to renounce sin and restore their faith in God. Oh well. Every cloud and all that…
Almost as much as Dante extols the virtues of his beloved Beatrice, he eulogises about his beloved Florence and this is no accident. It’s his home, his bliss, his sanctuary. The discerning reader should deduce that Florence is Dante’s own little piece of Heaven. So, are we to understand that Florence is a metaphor for Paradise? In Dante’s eyes, probably yes. This is his homestead. A place he loves like no other, a haven where he finds harmony and bliss. Salvation. Yet he is to be exiled, cast aside from the glory of Florence; displaced as the political refugee he is deemed to be. But, hold up. For political refugee, let’s read spiritual refugee. Because as much as Dante is (to be) displaced from the beauty, joy, bliss, comfort and sanctuary of Florence, so is mankind simultaneously displaced from the beauty, joy, bliss, comfort and sanctuary of Heaven. Dante is loyal to the White Gelphs and Florence – man needs to be loyal to God and Paradise.
Metaphorically speaking, exile is to be Dante’s Limbo and he’ll be praying like billy-oh he journeys on to assume his rightful place in Florence when it’s over. A bit like those Undeterminables - genuine residents of Limbo in Hell - stultifying, stagnating in the first circle, waiting for the Day of Final Judgement, desperate for their fate to be determined, to know if they’ll ascend to the heavenly realms to enjoy eternal life in the glory and bliss that is Paradise. Or not.
So, just as Dante is distraught at the thought of his exile from the splendour and wonder of Florence, so mankind should be distraught at the knowledge that if he fails to renounce sin and restore his faith in God, he’ll face exile from Heaven to spend eternal death in the fiery, violent Inferno. It's for his political allegiance to the White Guelphs that Dante is to be exiled from his beloved homeland (by the Black Guelphs). Similarly, for Adam’s monumental faux pas in the Garden of Eden, mankind had been exiled from Paradise and, now, for their errant sinning, exclusion is happening again. At all costs Dante wants to return to his adored Florence. He’s given the stark warning of his exile but no tools to navigate his way back, unlike mankind, spiritually stagnating in a morally and politically corrupt 14th century who, through Dante's poetry is to be given both the warning and remedy to return to his spiritual homeland: Stop sinning. Start praying.
The message of The Divine Comedy is clear - that in death, mankind can spend eternal life in the glory, joy and celestial realms of Paradise but, first, he must sanctify his soul. Without doing so, he will face exile from his spiritual homestead - Home of Angels, Kingdom of Heaven - Home of God. Heaven is waiting! society is told. But to enjoy eternal life in the bliss, glory and perfection that is Paradise, to avoid exile from this perfect place, man must renounce sin, repent and restore his Faith. Dante must hope that after exile, Florence, too, is waiting. His own slice of Heaven.