In the third canto of the Paradiso, Dante has arrived in the lowest sphere of Heaven with his guide Beatrice, who has just given him a long lecture about the origin of spots on the moon. There, he sees just the faint faces of the spirits who abide there—as if they were behind glass or seen through water. At first, he assumes they must be reflections of solid people and turns around—but there’s no one there. Beatrice laughs at him a little and explains that these are the “true substances” of the souls in this part of Heaven.
One soul seems eager to talk, so Dante asks her to tell her story. She speaks:
I’ fui nel mondo vergine sorella;
e se la mente tua ben sé riguarda,
non mi ti celerà l’esser più bella,
ma riconoscerai ch’i’ son Piccarda,
che, posta qui con questi altri beati,
beata sono in la spera più tarda.
On Earth, I was a virgin nun—
And if you look into your mind,
My beauty won’t mask my identity;
Instead, you’ll recognize me: I am Piccarda
And I am blessed among the blessed
Here in this slowest sphere
She’s Piccarda Donati, the cousin of Dante’s wife and the sister of his friend Forese Donati (who’s in Purgatory). Her other brother, Corso Donati (who’s in Hell) forced her to leave her convent and marry a political ally; so she’s in this lowest part of heaven because she broke the vows she made as a nun.
Dante then asks a theological question: I know you’re happy here, but don’t you want to be higher up in Heaven; wouldn’t you be even happier? She explains that they’re all in sync with God’s order, so they’re perfectly happy. She introduces him to the spirit of Empress Constance of Sicily then disappears back into the light singing the “Ave Maria.”
This illustration by Gian Giacomo Macchiavelli is dated 1806, but comes from an 1821 edition in the Divine Comedy Image Archive at Cornell University.