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Cecco vs. Dante: Correcting the Comedy with Applied Astrology

Fabian, Seth

Cecco d'Ascoli (1269?-1327), was burned at the stake in Florence as a heretic on 16 September, 1327. The Inquisitor also set aflame his texts: a Latin textbook on astronomy and Acerba, a 4867 verse "scientific epic" written in his particular Italian vernacular. The Inquisitor also banned the possession of either text on pain of excommunication. Despite the ban, the texts survived and even flourished. However, Acerba never engaged the public to the extent that the tragedy suffered by the text's author has. For almost seven hundred years, this "anti-Comedy" has gone largely uninterrupted due to the difficulty of the language, an enigmatic hybrid of several vernaculars, and due to the difficulty of the content, technical medieval science written in verse by an author habituated to syncopating his arguments for a university audience familiar with the material. In this dissertation, I provide a reading of the two most difficult chapters, Acerba I.i and I.ii, where Cecco sets forth his system of "applied astrology" that serves as a General Unifying Theorem to explain all phenomena in the cosmos.
In Acerba, Cecco presents a cosmos bound tightly together by principles of interactions that I term "applied astrology", his Grand Unifying Theorem that unites God, angels and humanity. Just as twentieth and now twenty-first century physics tries to find a "Theory of Everything" that can account for both quantum mechanics and general relativity, theories that seem mutually exclusive, Cecco's intellectual goal was to unite a theory of causative astral influences and independent human intellects. The crux of the problem is this: if we believe that astral influences alter earthly life, how can we claim that we, as humans, are independent agents? Cecco wants to account for astral influences, which he sees as a link between man and God, and save free will, and this forms the base of his ethical theories expounded throughout Acerba but especially in Acerba I.i and I.ii. These chapters are thus key to understanding the entire work.
To arrive at an understanding Acerba requires a summation of Cecco's life, an understanding of the intellectual and cultural stakes in his work and a thorough knowledge of his scholastic commentaries in Latin. These, written specifically to make medieval astronomy comprehensible to fourteenth-century undergraduates, are a clear prose exposition of the same "system of everything" that he sets out in Acerba. Before I approach the poem, I will review the content of his Latin prose. Once the basic features of his applied-astrological system are understood, we will then be in a position to understand this notoriously difficult text and examine the merits of Cecco's solution to the problem of free will and material determinism.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Barolini, Teodolinda
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 7, 2014