Dante and the Astronauts

Dante and Dan Brown share a taste for bringing references to science and recent discoveries into their storytelling. Like the ancient Greeks, Dante knew two centuries before Columbus’s maiden voyage that the earth is round. Dante is aware of the different time zones. He specifically notes that the earth is in a different position relative to the sun at the same moment in Jerusalem as compared to Florence. He knows there is a world beyond the Pillars of Hercules. He also knows there is a civilization in the Indus river valley and he worries philosophically that it cannot be morally just that the man of the Indus who has never heard of Jesus cannot be saved spiritually.

Dante pays a lot of attention to the stars and the constellations, ending each section of the Commedia on a reference to stars, just as Dan Brown ends his Inferno with the word stars. (Dante: “Thence we came forth to re-behold the stars.” Dan Brown: “The sky had become a glistening tapestry of stars.”)

In the wake of the publication of Dan Brown’s novel, science writer Amir Aczel commented on Dante’s advanced understanding of heavenly formations, noting his reference to what is known as the “Southern Cross” a century and a half before this constellation was documented by European explorers and navigators. In Purgatorio, Dante says:

Then I turned to the right, setting my mind
upon the other pole, and saw four stars
not seen before except by the first people.
Heaven appeared to revel in their flames:
o northern hemisphere, because you were
denied that sight, you are a widower!

Although it is not without dispute, many experts think the “four stars” Dante references are those that comprise what is now known as the Southern Cross. Dante knows he is describing something he expects most of his contemporaries––all of whom are northern hemisphere dwellers––don’t know about. Indeed, Dante claims he is the first to see this celestial formation since Adam and Eve (“the first people” in the above-quoted reference). However, owing to the phenomenon of the precession of the equinoxes, the visibility of the Southern Cross in the northern hemisphere has changed considerably over a 26,000 year time cycle. It was visible to the Greeks 2,500 years ago, but by Dante’s time, according to some experts, you could no longer see the Southern Cross in Mediterranean Europe. It took Portuguese and Italian explorers traveling into the southern hemisphere in the fifteenth century to re-identify it. Even today, the Southern Cross is visible at some times of the year in the northern hemisphere in the latitudes of North Africa, Egypt, and the Middle East. Dante could have come upon references to it from Greek, Roman, or Egyptian sources. There is evidence in his writings that he understood the precession of the equinoxes and was therefore not dependent on future generations of European explorers to re-find the Southern Cross. This kind of obscure, if not completely unknown detail, especially about astronomical and scientific facts that most intellectuals of 1300 did not know, reflects Dante’s encyclopedic mind and finds its way into the Divine Comedy in a manner that modern scholars marvel at.

Dante is also realistic about earth’s extremely modest place in the scheme of the universe. He is not afraid to draw the obvious–were it not for medieval religion–conclusion that earth is but a small speck in the cosmos.

It is instructive to compare the comments of twentieth century astronauts who looked back at earth from space with Dante’s imagined visit to the celestial realm in Paradiso. Considering the gap of seven hundred years, and the fact that the astronauts actually went into space while Dante only imagined celestial travel, their view of earth is remarkably similar:

“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”
––Neil Armstrong

“Then looked I downward through the seven spheres. How mean, how paltry our proud earth appears seen from that height! I must smile to see its meager aspect.”
––Dante Alighieri

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