Alison Cornish, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

title.none: Kay, Dante's Christian Astrology

identifier.other: baj9928.9611.013 96.11.13

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Alison Cornish, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1996

identifier.citation: Kay, Richard. Dante's Christian Astrology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994. Pp. xii, 395. $. ISBN: ISBN 0-8122-3233-X.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 96.11.13

Kay, Richard. Dante's Christian Astrology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994. Pp. xii, 395. $. ISBN: ISBN 0-8122-3233-X.

Reviewed by:

Alison Cornish, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Richard Kay, who has been working on astrology in the Divine Comedy for some time now, reminds us of the fact that what we consider two distinct and unequally valid inquiries--astronomy and astrology--in the Middle Ages went by a single name (Dante used the term astrologia) and were at most distinguished as two aspects of a single science: the science of the stars. It is therefore anachronistic to segregate, as many technical expositions of Dante's astronomy have, the perceptible motions of the stars from their supposed influence on terrestrial things. Dante's Christian Astrology nonetheless depends upon this distinction in its attempt to redress past neglect of the astrological echoes and ramifications of Dante's poem in purely astronomical handbooks.

The astrological allusions in the Comedy are quantified (totalling 1,431 in Paradiso 1-22) as is their neglect (Edward Moore, for example, is said to have spent over 100 pages on astronomy, but less than 2 on astrology, and Patrick Boyde gives 4 to astrology and 40 to astronomy.) This avoidance is assumed to be due to a modern distaste for what today is considered an occult and "disreputable" line of inquiry. To the medieval mind, celestial influence was not supernatural at all, as Kay on occasion suggests, but rather a fact of nature. Indeed what was meant by "nature" in the Middle Ages is often nothing but the whole complex of planetary influences, working together on the earth. The light, heat, and particular powers emanating from the seven wandering stars, varying according to their position with respect to constellations, to the earth, and to each other, served to explain the diversity and changeability of the physical world. These natural causes were in turn thought to be provoked by supernatural causes, such as the angelic movers of spheres, and ultimately by the "first cause," which is, of course, God. It is the interpretation of these natural phenomena for the purpose of making practical decisions that constitutes judicial astrology, and that can open the science of the stars to misjudgments, as well as to fraud, charlatanism and quackery.

The great contribution of Dante's Christian Astrology is its systematic sifting of rarely consulted astrological sources for possible echoes in the planetary heavens of Dante's Paradiso. Kay works from a set of Greek, Arabic, and Latin astrological treatises ranging from the second to the thirteenth century, six of which are taken from the list provided by the Speculum astronomiae, now attributed to Albertus Magnus. These are Ptolemy, Albumasar, Alcabitius, Haly Abenragel, John of Seville, and the anonymous Liber novem iudicum; to which Kay has added Abraham Ibn Ezra and the two thirteenth-century astrologers condemned in Dante's bolgia of fraudulent soothsayers: Michael Scot, who advised the emperor Frederick II, and Guido Bonatti, astrologer to Guido da Montefeltro. The garnering these texts was no mean feat, since none of them is readily available--particularly not in the Latin translations Dante would have known--and had to be consulted in microform or in sixteenth-century editions. This pulling together of possible source-material, combined with the handy "biobibliography" on each of the authors and his text Kay appends to the end of his volume, is in itself a service to all students of Dante whose neglect of astrology may be due less to prejudice against the occult than to ignorance of its literature. It should also be noted, however, that for the purposes of this book this sea of difficult and ill-plumbed literature has been limited to the lists of "properties of planets" provided by each treatise. These properties are then carefully sought out in the corresponding planetary heavens visited by Dante's protagonist in Paradiso 1-22.

At times these treatises are presented primarily as analogous to or representative of the kind of astrology Dante would have encountered in his reading. Yet often, particularly in the case of Scot and Bonatti, Kay proposes them as exact sources, which Dante followed as far as it suited him to do so. Again arguing with statistics, Kay reckons that "a quarter of Dante's astrological allusions were derived from" Scot, and fifteen percent from Bonatti. Some of these textual analogues are intriguing and potentially useful, such as the association of broken vows with the Moon, or the solid correspondence between Mercury and the love of fame. In addition to human traits, Dante's choice of images in each heaven is also found to echo planetary attributes--such as water in the Moon, gems in Venus, plants in the Sun, money in Jupiter, food in Saturn. On occasion the poet's very lyricism finds parallels in the treatises, such as with the "spreading joy" of the moon when it borrows the light of the sun, or the metaphoric blush of Paradiso 18 corresponding to jovial verecundia.

Since human temperament, inclination, and passions are central to Dante's moral theme, the astrologers will indeed have something to say about most every episode and character in the poem, not just about those set conspicuously against the background of a looming heavenly body. Although this study is limited to the fictional template of the journey through the planetary spheres--stopping short even of the heaven of the fixed stars (containing the astrological signs) let alone the cantos beyond, or the two preceding canticles --part of the explicit aim of the book is to show that astrology is present in places not previously perceived, under the surface and in veiled allusions. Kay presents his work as a preliminary foray, starting with the most likely points of astrological reference, leaving to future study the less straightforward task of answering his own query of whether these sorts of references are omnipresent in the poem. Frances Yates pointed in this direction when she suggested in her Art of Memory that the circles of Hell might be an infernal reflection of the celestial spheres, discernible, for example, in the similarity between Ugolino, suspected of eating his children, and Saturn, the mythical cannibalistic parent. Georg Rabuse made strides in such an investigation in a number of essays on astrological allusion not just in the Paradiso.

Planetary properties are a small part of the astrologer's complex connoisseurship that enables him to interpret particular combinations of planets with respect to various constellations or "signs" and to specific locations on earth --an endeavor admittedly hampered in the Paradiso by the fact that the pilgrim's feet are no longer touching the ground. Kay does not claim any special expertise in astrology, describing his role as that of literary historian intent on source-hunting (Quellenkunde). The astrological authors are put on a par with Dante's other "authorities," such as the Bible, Aristotle, Virgil, Ovid, and Boethius (from whom, incidentally, Dante is also likely to borrow astral imagery), yet little attention is paid to the context of potential echoes. In other words, these sources are not treated as texts with which the Commedia is in dialogue, but rather as a storehouse of images, details, and little-known facts. There is, moreover, a regrettable lack of engagement with previous interpretations (even interpretations making use of astrology, such as those of Robert Durling and Ronald Martinez) that would lend more force to the contention that this astrological material tells us things we did not know before.

There are some errors of an astronomical nature. Not Saturn, but the moon, is considered the slowest of planets; since the more a planet keeps pace with the daily spin of the primum mobile, the more slowly it will appear to slide backwards through the constellations. Similarly, Kay correlates Constantine's turning of the Eagle against course of heavens, that is, transferring the seat of empire from West to East, with the retrograde movement of planets, particularly Mercury itself, which is currently retrograde and where this image occurs. Yet since the regular movement of planets is precisely from West to East, retrograde motion occurs when the planet is moving in the same direction as the daily whirl of the whole heaven from East to West. The assertion that Mercury is presently retrograde, together with a number of other horoscopic inferences, depends upon assuming dates around which there is no consensus--such as the date of the journey or, for that matter, Dante's birthday.

In combing the sources for possible echoes it is of course inevitable that one is tempted to overstate the case, making an astrological allusion out of every poetic image, and to see whole episodes merely as elegant exemplifications of the theory of planetary influence. The identification of astrologically suggestive images or words serves primarily to demonstrate their prevalence, rather than to offer a new or more complex interpretation of what the poet might have been trying to say via such allusions. Kay on occasion apologizes for seeming to "belabor the obvious," but justifies all possible astrological correspondences in the interests of "enriching the astrological context of the poem." It would seem from this book that Dante chose his characters primarily in order to personify the properties of individual planets, as if he too were writing a versified astrological treatise. Dante's Christian Astrology presupposes for the Comedy a method of composition as systematic as its own, in which the poet consulted the planetary lists either from memory or from notes, and then ingeniously figured out how to "scatter" or "saturate" or "work in" the properties throughout each poetic unit.

Kay's own meticulous method has a tendency to overdetermine his findings. Whatever is mentioned in the heaven of the Sun must refer to the properties of that planet, even if the same trait, object, or relation is signified by more than one of the wandering stars. There is a certain gratuitousness of some of the resulting observations: because the moon has influence over sisterhood, one of Piccarda's important traits is the fact that she is somebody's sister. Since the same planet signifies a host of other feminine roles, however (not just sisters, but also mothers, aunts, pregnant women, nurses, matrons, and wives) it would have been hard to find a female character with no lunar resonances. At the same time, the specificity of Dante's choices is often only weakly supported by astrology. For example, only Michael Scot provides a possible indication that ex-nuns should be encountered in the Moon, when he says that that planet signifies, among other things, "a religious life that is more for women than for men." Since it also signifies the extreme asceticism of (presumably male) hermits, however, Kay suggests that the Moon is appropriate both to the "easy" rule of Costanza's order, and to the relative austerity of Piccarda's. In cases like these, some of the slipperiness of the astrologers' prognostications seems to have rubbed off on their student. There are often notable stretches to turn every detail in the canto into an allusion to this science. If a certain trait is lacking, its opposite will prove just as significant--such as truth-telling in the heaven of the Moon, where falsehoods would be expected. Some of the most prominent dantesque images are assigned meager analogues from the planetary lists; the great figure of the eagle is said to be linked with Mercury's affinity for starlings and bees, and with Jupiter's association with peacocks, chickens, and pigeons.

Some of Kay's assertions are, moreover, astonishingly astrologically deterministic. The Moon is blamed for the inconstancy of the ex-nuns Dante meets there, even though much is made in those cantos of the capacity of a sound and strong will to resist even physical violence in the maintenance of a vow. Similarly, because Mars "incites human cupidity, it can be blamed for all the evil on earth." It is equally surprising from a Christian standpoint to claim that it was their astral nature that eventually brought these people to heaven, since that would be to discount things like supernatural grace and free will. In Kay's presentation, Dante's inhabitants of paradise would seem to be moreover still marked by their astrological make-up: Justinian is still greedy, vainglorious, ostentatiously pedantic, and shallowly pious. Cunizza, now in heaven, still cannot stop thinking about jewelry.

The book's qualifying adjective, "Christian," becomes important with heaven of Mars, since it is there that the universally negative prognostications of the astrologers must be softened into the virtue of fortitude with the help of theology taken from Thomas Aquinas. The centrality of this malignant planet in Dante's paradise is a question that has been dealt with, in particular by Jeffrey Schnapp, who takes the emphasis on music in the Martian canto to be an ingenious way of transforming potentially violent diversity into the harmony of different voices. Indeed, the relation between Mars and music may be foreign to the astrologers here consulted, but it was one that Dante himself made explicit in his Convivio. This obvious precedent is hardly mentioned, perhaps because Kay believes that the poet's earlier idiosyncratic correspondences between heavens and sciences has been entirely abandoned in the Paradiso --an argument one would now have to sustain against the powerful interpretations of Giuseppe Mazzotta's Dante's Vision and the Circle of Knowledge. More importantly, to qualify Dante's departure from the astrological sources as simply "Christian" would seem to ignore the professed Christianity of many of the astrologers themselves. Michael Scot's book, for example, treats theology and angelology alongside astrology, and there is no sense that the one is incompatible with the others. So, too, does Guido Bonatti begin his work with considerations about how through the knowledge of creatures, such as the stars, we come to the knowledge of the Creator. Moreover, the "Christian," or, really, Thomistic solution to Dante's untraditional use of planetary symbolism downplays the tremendous complexity and variety of other possible sources of inspiration through which Dante's recourse to the stars might be mediated, both Christian and pagan, scientific and poetic.

The sheer frequency of Dante's mention of the stars has been cause for surprise, dismay, and sometimes disdain. His heavy use of astral imagery and astronomical fact has often been considered excessive, ostentatious, pedantic, and extraneous both to the beauty and the point of his song. Despite its goal of deepening our understanding of and sensitivity to the language of the stars, Dante's Christian Astrology often sustains the notion that it is, in essence, extra. It becomes decoration, or "astrological applique," rather than something integral to the message and medium of the poem. How planets and stellar configurations signify is a question that is fundamentally analogous to the project of fiction- writing itself. So, whereas Kay sees his contribution as a solid gain for old-fashioned philological positivism, the question which he is admittedly less sure of answering ("what does it all mean?") is the astrological question par excellence, since astrology is, as Michael Scot pointed out, nothing else but interpretation.