Meditations on the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri

Purgatorio Cantos VIII-XIV

A. S. Kline © Copyright 2002 All Rights Reserved

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Contents


Meditation XLII: Purgatorio Canto VIII

MedXLII:1 The Descending Angels: Purgatorio Canto VIII:1

It is the evening hour, caught in sweet analogies: the sweetness of regret and yearning that is the mirror side of hope. Now the eyes of the spirits are turned upwards to the eternal spheres, and through them to the eternal source of Love, as Dante begins to hint at his Neo-platonic vision of the universe, while one spirit, turning to the East, and absorbed, sings the ‘Te lucis ante terminum: We pray to You before the ending of the light’ the Ambrosian hymn sung at Compline, the last office of the day, which is appropriate for evening, but also for those who repent at the last.

The faces look upwards in hope, and two blonde-haired Angels dressed in trailing green robes descend, with burning swords: the Angels at the gate of the Earthly Eden, who come to guard this place where the will is still open to temptation from the serpent of sin that will try to enter. The brightness of their faces dazzles the eyes. The wreathe of positive words winds around us: sweet, love, tender, devout, humble, eternal, hope, trust, joy. Dante builds the effects, the background music of the cathedral organ that accompanies us through Purgatory.

MedXLII:2 Nino de’ Visconti: Purgatorio Canto VIII:46

Dante goes down three paces and enters the valley of Negligent Rulers just after sunset, to find Nino de’ Visconti of Pisa there, a man devoted to Florence and the Guelph cause, and known to him. Nino Visconti was judge of Gallura, one of the four jurisdictions of Sardinia (Cagliari, Logodoro, Gallura, and Arborea) which belonged at the time to Pisa. He hanged Friar Gomita who took bribes to release prisoners. He married Beatrice d’Este, daughter of Obizzo d’Este II of Ferrara, by whom he had a daughter Giovanna, voted a pension by the Guelphs in 1328. After Nino’s death Beatrice married Galeazzo Visconti of Milan, a separate branch. The Milanese Visconti suffered misfortune in 1302. The arms of the Milanese Visconti was a viper, that of Nino, a cock. Giovanna married Riccardo da Cammino of Treviso. The arrangements for Beatrice’s marriage were in progress at easter 1300, and the wedding took place in the June.

The living Dante causes amazement here. God hides his first cause so deep there is no path to it: Dante is journeying by His singular grace. Nino asks to be remembered to his daughter Giovanna, to ask her to pray for him, since his wife Beatrice in marrying into another branch of the Visconti has clearly forgotten him. Dante makes the conventional Classical and Medieval reference (derived from Virgil and others) to the fickleness and frailty of female love, and the physical rather than intellectual nature of it, surely belied by the religious dedication of saintly women, and countless cases of lifelong loyalty all around him. Such is the perverse and reactionary power of a religious, philosophical and literary tradition! Righteous fervour is here a mortal flaw that Nino should leave behind, despite the due reason!

MedXLII:3 The Serpent: Purgatorio Canto VIII:85

Now Dante’s eyes turn to Heaven again, to the south celestial pole where the circling stars travelling the shortest arc in the same time as the other visible stars therefore move more slowly to the observer. Here are three stars, representing the theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity, which have replaced the dawn four of the Southern Cross, representing the cardinal virtues. Ethical progress, the active use of free will, and the ascent of the Mount is possible only in daylight, presided over by the Southern Cross, the four virtues, visible in the sky. At night the contemplative mind rests in the three theological virtues that should form the bedrock of the Spirit.

Sordello points out the approaching Serpent, a likeness of that which tempted Eve, occasionally twisting head to tail in a form of the eternal circle of sin that is ever-present in the world, and licking itself, in self-absorption. Like falcons the guardian Angels rise and drive the snake away.

MedXLII:4 Conrad Malaspina: Purgatorio Canto VIII:109

Conrad Malaspina is there, still gazing at Dante, and offers a courteous prayer that Dante’s will may be adequate to the ascent. This is Currado II (d.c.1294) grandson of Currado I, the elder, who married an illegitimate daughter of Frederick II and died about 1225. This Conrad’s cousins were Moroello III (d.c.1315) the addressee of Dante’s third letter accompanied by Canzone XI, and Franceschino who was Dante’s host (d. between 1313 and 1321) at Sarzana in Lunigiana in the autumn of 1306, less than seven years, the sun being already in Aries, from the moment of the Vision. The Malaspini were Ghibellines but Moroello III was a notable exception. Valdimagra, in Liunigiana, north-west of Tuscany, was part of their territory. Conrad is mentioned in Boccaccio’s Decameron (II. 6)

Dante is therefore giving a courteous commendation to his patrons and hosts. And Conrad echoes the sentiment, prophesying Franceschino’s protection, in that Valdimagra that Dante has not yet visited.


Meditation XLIII: Purgatorio Canto IX

MedXLIII:1 Dante’s First Dream, The Eagle: Purgatorio Canto IX:1

The Moon has passed through Libra into Scorpio. If dawn, Aurora, is the wife of Tithonus, then it is the moon’s aurora of light that is his mistress, in Dante’s conceit. It is 8.30pm on the evening of Easter Monday, and Dante falls asleep, overtaken by human weakness. He passed through the Inferno without sleep, and is now exhausted. It is near the dawn of Tuesday that he dreams, the first of his three dreams in Purgatory. The swallow Procne sings in mourning for Itys, from that tale of Tereus’s ancient lust. And he dreams beneath the sign of Scorpio with its astrological associations of sexuality. The mind now is ‘almost’ prophetic, as Dante imagines the descending eagle, like Jupiter snatching Ganymede in his divine lust, and carrying him off to be a cupbearer to the Gods. Dante, we discover, is being carried upwards by Lucia whose emblem is light. The eagle in the medieval Bestiaries flies into the circle of fire in its old age, its feathers are consumed, and it falls blinded into a fountain, where it is renewed like the phoenix. It is a symbol therefore of baptismal regeneration through Divine Grace. Ganymede being a son of Tros, and an ancestor of Aeneas, links the regeneration to that of Roman law and justice. The purgation of lust that Dante will finally achieve passing through the fire at the top of Purgatory, is here echoed in the dream, and the purgation of the world’s lust by a new Imperial eagle is prophesied.

Dante wakes like Achilles that agent of Troy’s destruction and therefore indirectly Rome’s creation by Aeneas: Achilles, carried off by Thetis to Scyros, and hidden there among the women. Dante is now alone with Virgil, near the Gate of Purgatory proper. Virgil counsels against fear, and instils hope. He describes how Lucia came down to help at dawn, and her eyes, symbols of the cardinal virtues by which they can make progress up the Mount, showed Virgil the passage.

MedXLIII:2 The Gate of Purgatory: Purgatorio Canto IX:64

Dante turns to address the reader, and signals a symbolic interpretation of what follows, the ‘greater art’. He describes the threshold of Purgatory. The Gate has been interpreted as an allegory of the Sacrament of Penance. The courteous Angel who guards the entrance, is the priestly confessor, while the three steps are the three stages of the Sacrament: Repentance, Confession, and Forgiveness. Repentance is cool marble, Confession rough and scorched, breaking the stubbornness of the heart, and Forgiveness red with Christ’s blood. The adamantine threshold is the rock of the Church with its power to forgive sin, and the firmness and constancy of the confessor.

Dante throws himself at the Angel’s feet, and begs him for pity’s sake to open the gate. The Angel inscribes seven letter P’s on Dante’s forehead representing the seven capital sins, peccata capitali, to be purged on the Mount. The Angel’s silver key is experience by which the confessor judges the penitent’s repentance and worthiness, the golden key is the absolution he grants. His robes are ashen with the colour of humility, with which the confessor undertakes his role, that same humility which gains the penitent the benefit of the doubt.

Dante passes through the Gate, like that which guarded the Roman treasury, and the great cathedral of the Mount is alive with an indistinct music, with the Te Deum Laudamus: We praise You Lord, the Ambrosian hymn sung at Matins, and on solemn occasions, appropriate therefore for this Tuesday dawn in Dante’s Vision, and this entry into Purgation.


Meditation XLIV: Purgatorio Canto X

MedXLIV:1 The Terrace of Pride: Purgatorio Canto X:1

The Mount is circled by seven terraces on each of which one of the seven deadly sins is purged in an appropriate way. Each terrace reveals representations of the corresponding virtue, an example from the life of the Virgin followed by at least one Old Testament, pagan, or classical example. Prayer and singing accompany the journey up the Mount, towards Beatrice and the Earthly Paradise, and the twin threads of the spiritual and personal life are wound strongly together in this journey towards the woman who represents both.

Beyond the Gate the way is at first difficult, the Poets, caught between the wavering rocks, as if in the vacillations of the wavering will, making their passage as the Argo did, following the dove, between the Symphlegades, those two rocky islands in the Euxine Sea, clashing rocks according to the fable, that otherwise crushed what passed between them.

It is now moonset, or about 9am on the Tuesday morning, as the Poets free themselves from the ‘needle’s eye’ and stand on the lonely space, the cornice about eighteen feet wide from its outer brink to the inner cliff. The inner wall is vertical, of marble, carved with friezes like the Greek pediments. And here on this first terrace where Pride is purged the Annunication is depicted, Mary, receiving the words of Gabriel: the Angel saying Ave:Greetings, and her attitude displaying Humility as though saying Ecce ancilla Dei: Behold the servant of God. Next there is a depiction of the incident where Uzzah put out his hand to steady the Ark of the Covenant and was struck down for his temerity, and here is David, the humble psalmist dancing before the Ark, while Michal, Saul’s daughter, who despised him for it, looked on. And as a classical example we have the Emperor Trajan, unbending to grant a widow justice, demonstrating pity. Pope Gregory supposedly interceded on Trajan’s behalf, through prayer, to bring about his deliverance from hell, to allow him time for repentance. Dante constantly and implicitly stresses the divinely regulated nature of the events of Roman and Imperial history, and winds together the streams of secular and religious history through his chosen examples.

MedXLIV:2 The Proud and their Purgation: Purgatorio Canto X:97

Dante now explains the nature of Purgatory, that here there is a debt to be paid rather than a punishment, and that the burden of purgation, its suffering, cannot last beyond the Day of Judgement. Hell is eternal recurrence, but Purgatory is bounded in time. The proud have to carry heavy burdens to humble them, they are like the hunched corbels on Medieval buildings holding up the roof, that create a sense of discomfort in the observer. As they do in Dante whose own Pride must eventually be purged. Pride is a perverted desire or love of the wrong thing, as are anger and envy. The Christian is innately weak and exposed, a caterpillar that will be transformed into the butterfly of the departed spirit, the butterfly being a very ancient metaphor for the human soul, as is the bird, both creatures that have delicate flight. Therefore humility is its proper attitude. Dante sets before himself the image of what he as the student, the disciple of his Master Virgil, the Christian spirit seeking salvation, must become. Yet he is always conscious of the greatness of the work he is creating, even to the invention of these new sculptures and images carved in the friezes, ‘new to us’ because ‘not found here’.


Meditation XLV: Purgatorio Canto XI

MedXLV:1 The Lord’s Prayer: Purgatorio Canto XI:1

The Proud paraphrase the Lord’s prayer. God is above the stars, rather than on Earth, not through limitation, but because Love is associated with the first highest creations of the sublime universe. This is in line with Dante’s neo-platonic view of Divine light, intelligence and goodness radiating downwards through the world from sphere to sphere. Praise of the divine is a natural act of gratitude for the gifts poured down from above. Human intellect is limited and peace is an act of grace otherwise unreachable by us. The Angels sacrifice their free will to God in humility, as men should. Forgiveness should be granted others as we seek to be forgiven, and God’s justice is not according to what we deserve for our sins but according to our repentance and intention. The Proud pray for deliverance from evil not for themselves since they are already penitents, but for those left behind. Dante suggests we reciprocate by praying for the dead to gain them intercession and a swifter passage up the Mount so that they might issue to the starry spheres, a further hint at Dante’s neo-platonic vision of the Universe, influenced by Boethius, Albertus Magnus and the Liber de Causis (The Book of Causes) a late-antique work. Neo-Platonic thinking was a significant factor in the thirteenth century universities, and Dante’s sources are many and varied.

MedXLV:2 The Vanity of Fame: Purgatorio Canto XI:37

Virgil courteously asks directions and explains that Dante is burdened by his human flesh: and his courtesy is rewarded with assistance. Here is Omberto of the arrogant Aldobrandeschi, who held Santafiora and warred with Siena. Omberto was put to death at Campagnatico in 1259.

Dante recognises Oderisi of Gubbio, illuminator and painter of miniatures, who worked with Franco of Bologna in the Vatican Library for Pope Boniface VIII. This is a pretext for Dante, in a famous passage, to attack the sin of artistic pride, and to show its foolishness by proclaiming the transience of artistic fame. Giotto has superseded Cimabue in painting. Guido Cavalcanti has superseded Guido Guinicelli, inspirer of the school of the dolce stil nuovo, in poetry. And, not so humbly, Dante has perhaps superseded both!! Modesty is not one of Dante’s strengths, as justified pride in his achievements is in his eyes a weakness.

And pride of power meets the same fate as artistic glory, since here is Provenzan Salvani, the leading Ghibelline among the Sienese at Montaperti, where Florence was humbled, killed at Colle in 1269. The story tells of how he humbled himself by dressing as a beggar to procure the money to ransom a friend imprisoned by Charles of Anjou. This act, despite his late repentance, allowed him to enter the Gate of Purgatory. And Gubbio prophesies that Dante too will know through exile the pain of begging hospitality of others.


Meditation XLVI: Purgatorio Canto XII

MedXLVI:1 Examples of Pride: Purgatorio Canto XII:1

Dante follows the spirit, bowed like an ox under the yoke, until Virgil exhorts him to drive on his metaphorical journeying boat, and Dante walks on, humbled in thought.

The terrace ahead is carved with sculpted reliefs like tombstones in the ground over which the Poets walk (as I have walked over the floor-tombs in the church of S. Croce in Florence). Reliefs designed to prompt the memory of the merciful. Pride adorns itself.

Now there follows a swift series of examples of Pride, alternating between classical and sacred instances. First Satan who fell through pride, then the Giants who challenged the gods: next Nimrod whose tower was frowned on by God, and Niobe who boasted of her children: Saul who disobeyed the Lord’s commands, and fell at Gilboa, and Arachne who challenged Pallas Athene: Reheboam who refused to lighten the taxation of the people, and Alcmaeon who killed his own mother: Sennacherib killed by his own sons, and Tomyris who savagely revenged herself on Cyrus: Holofernes the invading Assyrian slain by Judith, and proud Troy brought low by the Greeks. Dante’s point is that excess is punished, often by excess. Distorted love or desire has created hubris that is punished by fate. The sacred and classical histories run in parallel, and lead to the same end.

MedXLVI:2 The Angel of Humility: Purgatorio Canto XII:64

It is now noon on Tuesday, and Virgil exhorts Dante not to lose time. At the conclusion of each visit to one of the seven terraces they meet an Angel, whose attribute is the opposite of the sin being purged, here it is the Angel of Humility, robed in white with the aspect of Venus, the morning ‘star’, that once signified Lucifer and now Divine Love. The climb to the next terrace is like the ascent of the steps at San Miniato overlooking Florence, and Dante is unable to resist a jibe at Florence, the ‘well-guided’ city. Voices appropriately sing the first Beatitude from the Sermon on the Mount, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’, and Dante contrasts the singing in Purgatory with the groans of Hell. He feels lighter and gropes at his face: one of the letter P’s inscribed on his forehead by the Angel at the Gate has been removed, as the respective letters will be erased at the conclusion of the visit to each terrace. Purgation gradually leads to less labour, the ascent is easier the higher we climb, and the heavy weight of pride has here been lifted. Virgil smiles, signifying the first victory of hope.


Meditation XLVII: Purgatorio Canto XIII

MedXLVII:1 The Voices in the Air : Purgatorio Canto XIII:1

The second terrace is that of the Envious, bare and livid in colour, since while pride adorns itself, envy sees only its own lack of possession. Virgil turns to the North where the afternoon sun is burning, its light a guide, light derived from the source of Light and Love. And voices in the air give examples of fraternal Love, the counter-virtue to envy. They are those of Mary at the marriage in Cana proclaiming the need for hospitality prior to Christ turning the water to wine: Orestes noted for his friendship with Pylades: and that of Matthew’s Gospel proclaiming the need for love rather than hatred.

Those spirits purging themselves of envy are cloaked with the colours of the stone, and repeat the Litany of the Saints, in which, after the Trinity, the Virgin Mary, the archangel Michael with the other angels, Saint Peter and the other apostles, and finally the saints, are invoked. Dante is moved to pity at their state, their eyelids wired together like wild hawks being tamed, as they lean together like blind beggars seeking alms. Their eyes, which did not value the visible world correctly, are now sealed from vision. Dante feels the discourtesy, and lack of fraternal feeling, in passing them unseen in silence, and Virgil tells him to speak to them briefly.

MedXLVII:2 Sapia : Purgatorio Canto XIII:85

Dante makes a courteous speech about clearing the dark film of conscience so that memory’s stream may flow clearly, and asks if any of the spirits is of Italy. Sapia de’ Saracini of Siena, yields an individual reply that they are no longer wanderers or pilgrims in Italy but citizens of the true city. She rejoiced over the Sienese Ghibelline defeat at Colle, where Provenzan Salvani died. Generous at the end of her life, she was prayed for by the Franciscan Pier Pettignano, so that her debt of purgation was reduced. Dante, self-aware, tells once more the nature of his journey, and that he is living, and significantly anticipates brief penitential suffering here after his death, but fears the purgation of Pride, one of his major faults, more. He suggests that as an elect or chosen spirit she ask a favour of him, to carry word of her to the living, and she, taking all this as a sign of God’s love for him, asks to be remembered among the Sienese, who envious of other cities with harbours and fresh springs wasted their efforts trying to obtain both.


Meditation XLVIII: Purgatorio Canto XIV

MedXLVIII:1 Guido del Duca and Rinier: Purgatorio Canto XIV:1

Now a new device: we overhear two spirits talking about Dante and Virgil. In Hell the spirits talk against one another, here they join in fraternal conversation, Ghelph with Ghibelline. Guido del Duca invokes Dante’s charity and asks his origin. He replies with an elliptical description of the Arno, and Guido, a Ghibelline follower of Pier Traversaro now replies with a long diatribe against the bestial valley of the Arno and its cities, from its source down to the sea, near Pisa. The citizens are as if transformed by some Circe, Casentines are hogs, the Aretines curs, the Florentines wolves, the Pisans foxes. And he ends with a dire prophecy of the misdeeds of his companion Rinieri da Calboli’s grandson Fulcieri, who was to be a bitter enemy of the Florentine Whites in 1303. Guido tells his name, despite Dante withholding his own, and after confessing his own envious nature in life, Guido announces that his companion is indeed Rinier, a Ghelph. Rinier fought against Guido da Montefeltro, surrendering to him in 1276, and died fighting the Ghibellines once more in 1296.

A diatribe against the state of the Romagna follows, and a model of the Medieval lament for past glories, for ‘the ladies and the knights’, expressed by Villon’s ‘Where are the snows of yester-year?’ A list of the virtuous dead follows, Guelph mixed with Ghibelline: Lizio a Ghelph follower of Rinier, from Duca’s own Bertinoro: and Arrigo Mainardi a Ghibelline follower of Pier Traversaro: and Guido di Carpigna noted for his liberality. Fabbro the Ghibelline, and Bernadin, the Guelph risen from a humble background. Ugolin who married Provenzan’s daughter, and Guido da Prata of Ravenna, the generous Federico of Rimini, and the now defunct Houses of Traversari, and Anastagi, great Ghibelline Houses of Ravenna.

Now Duca laments the decline of his native Bertinoro, and a list of less than virtuous men follows, the Malavicini, Counts of Bagnacavallo, the Castrocaro of Forlì, the Barbiano of Conio nearby, and Mainardo Pagani, ‘the devil’, the Ghibelline Lord of Faenza, Imola and Forlì. And Duca ends with the extinguished line of Ugolin de’ Fantolin of Faenza, a Guelph whose two sons died fighting for the cause.

Dante’s message is once more, degenerate Italy, fallen from its ancient virtues, lost in factional strife. His examples are almost meaningless to us, but well known to his contemporary audience. But the names after all do not matter, this is the traditional lament, a Troubadourplanh’ and its tone is enough to communicate the ‘golden age’ of a past world of ‘courtesy and love’.

The Poets leave. And the counter examples to those first voices of love that they heard at the start of the terrace are now echoing in the air. Voices of envy, one Biblical one Classical: of Cain, who envied and killed his brother Abel, and of Aglauros who envied her sister Herse. There is time for Virgil to both admonish the human race for failing to take notice of examples, and to recall Dante to the neo-platonic vision of the circling spheres of Heaven.