Meditations on the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri
Purgatorio Cantos I-VII
A. S. Kline © Copyright 2002 All Rights Reserved
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- Introduction to the Purgatorio
- Meditation XXXV: Purgatorio Canto I
- Meditation XXXVI: Purgatorio Canto II
- Meditation XXXVII: Purgatorio Canto III
- Meditation XXXVIII: Purgatorio Canto IV
- Meditation XXXIX: Purgatorio Canto V
- Meditation XL: Purgatorio Canto VI
- Meditation XLI: Purgatorio Canto VII
Introduction to the Purgatorio
After the darkness the sweetness. Purgatory is the realm of hope. After the stasis, after the inability of the spirits to escape the eternal recurrence of their punishment, there is progression, the movement of the spirit onwards and upwards. Purgatorio emphasises Dante’s personal journey, and the spiritual reality, hope for his own salvation, hope for the reform of the Church, but also political hope for Italy. The Inferno revealed the misuse of freewill, its abuse through incontinence, malice and fraud. The Purgatorio is a preparation for the right exercise of freewill, a purgation of sin with effort and through time, a climb to the Earthly Paradise, and for Dante an ascent to his own personification of Love spiritualised, of Divine philosophy, of transcended eroticism: an ascent to beauty, truth and goodness, realised in Beatrice.
Inferno was a vertical prison. The Mount of Purgatory is a vertical Cathedral, a procession with singing and music, a Mass with its repentance and absolution. And for Dante himself it is no longer a question of merely observing, he is in a real sense a participant. This is the journey that he himself must repeat after death, must repeat spiritually once the Vision ends, and his own particular failings will be stressed, the real nature of the journey he still has to endure emphasised. He will come like a penitent, guilty, to the feet of Beatrice, and his pain will burst out of him, in tears and shame. Confession will cleanse him: the waters of Lethe will purge him of the remembrance of sin. The waters of Eunoe will restore the memory of good. Beatrice is real. She affirms it. Love is real, and the spiritual path is real. Dante himself is purified, and emerges with his will ‘free, direct and whole’, ready to understand the Earthly Paradise, the Triumph of the Church, and prepare himself for the final journey of the Paradiso.
Virgil will still be the pagan and classical guide for much of the way, to be joined by Statius, a secretly converted pagan, but both depart as Beatrice nears. She alone can take him onwards into the realm, not of pity, or hope, but of faith.
In Purgatory friendship is apparent: love is operating: the prayers of the living can intercede for the dead: the two realms are closer than in either Inferno or Paradiso to the everyday world. Intellectual and literary errors must be erased for Dante as well as the cardinal sins. The nature of Love must be explored as far as is possible before Divine Love illuminates it fully. The nature and origin and immortality of the soul must be considered. The irrational urge of erotic and temporal love, the love visible in the Celtic world, and the poetry of the troubadours, in Eloise and Iseult, must be sublimated, brought within the control of the will and understanding.
The Earthly Paradise will express the beatitude of earthly life, the cardinal virtues and the right use of the will and intellect, guided by human philosophy, possible in this existence: a place where the Golden Age returns. The beatitude of eternal life will follow in the Paradiso, a Vision of God, as Light and Love, embodying the theological virtues. Dante’s Apocalyptic view of the corruption of Papacy and Politics, the assault on the Church of God, and on the still achievable Empire of Justice, is shown in the symbolic procession of the chariot, a pageant of contemporary history, and a condemnation of temporal degradation. The Church being founded by God points the way beyond the temporal. To reach that beyond, Dante must rehearse the path of penitence and expiation, cross through the thresholds of fire and water, make his own confession and be cleansed, see clearly, once more, the reality of his contemporary world, and then prepare to enter the new dimension of spiritual beatitude, of pure Love.
In order to reach Beatrice Dante must recognise his sins of Lust and Pride: his neglect of Beatrice and the Divine world in favour of earthly pleasures and sins of the flesh, intellectual pride and human philosophy, and the desire for fame. He must reject and go beyond not only the ideas of courtly love with its irrational power and destructive emotions, upsetting the harmony of the mind, ideas which he had indeed moved beyond, but also the spiritualised human love and study of human philosophy that had taken their place, according to both the Vita Nuova and the Convivio. His mind must be focused now, through the person of Beatrice, on Divine Love and Divine philosophy. The sweet love poetry of his youth has to become the idealistic vehicle for abstract ideas and religious awe of the Paradiso.
Meditation XXXV: Purgatorio Canto I
MedXXXV:1 The Invocation: Purgatorio Canto I:1
The intellect is a little boat, afloat in the immensity of history, reality, and the Vision, and Dante now sets it on its way once more over gentler waters. The task is to speak about purgation of the spirit and the preparation for Heaven. He calls on Calliope, the mother of Orpheus, the eldest of the learned sisters, the Muses. She is the muse of epic poetry, and she lead the singing in the competition against the Pierides, that Ovid tells of in the Metamorphoses Book V. It is significant that Calliope sang there the myth of Dis and Persephone and the Underworld. Who better to invoke for the journey away from it?
Venus, the planet of Love, the planet whose influence encourages human Love, is shining in the dawn sky, in the constellation Pisces, as it was reputed to be at the time of the Creation, next to the sun in Aries. Pisces, being the constellation in which the sun actually rose at the Spring equinox during the Christian era, is therefore doubly associated with the dawn of Christianity. And in the sky, near the southern celestial pole which Dante now sees for the first time, in this southern hemisphere where Mount Purgatory lies, is the constellation of the Southern Cross. Presumably news of its sighting by voyagers south of Africa had been carried to Italy by 1300. The sight of the Cross brings joy, and the four stars signify the four cardinal virtues, Justice, Prudence, Temperance and Fortitude. They appear later symbolically as four ladies, accompanying the Chariot of the Church, who say ‘here we are nymphs and in heaven we are stars’. Later in Canto VIII he will see three stars at evening replacing the Southern Cross, unknown stars, which signify the theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity, and correspond to three further nymphs who later accompany the Chariot again in the Earthly Paradise. The Southern Cross was first seen by Adam and Eve and their descendants, expelled from that Paradise, since it is the human race that needs the four cardinal virtues to regulate its spiritual life on earth.
Muses, stars, virtues, the planet of Love, our first ancestors: Dante invokes them all, as he begins the journey towards the Earthly Paradise.
MedXXXV:2 Cato: Purgatorio Canto I:28
Where the Poets stand, on the eastern shore at the foot of the Mount, that east from which the sun rises and which symbolises the risen Christ, Dante turns, to see a noble old man, Cato of Utica, the Younger, Julius Caesar’s Republican opponent. Obliged to become a supporter of Pompey, in a vain attempt to save the Republic, noted for his honesty and moral stance, Cato committed suicide rather than fall into the hands of his enemies. The rays of the four stars, the cardinal virtues, light his face. Dante makes Cato the guardian of the Mount of Purgatory. Though a Republican, Dante treats him as a precursor of the moral Empire under Augustus: as a man who deliberately laid down his life in honour, Dante treats him as an exemplar of free will, his suicide for moral reasons being an exception to the rule that suicide is contrary to the teachings of the Church and a relinquishment or evasion of free will: and as a moral pagan, Dante treats him as an exemplar of the best in human moral practice and ancient philosophy. Cato is therefore sharply contrasted with Brutus and Cassius whom we left in the mouths of Satan, equally Republican enemies of Caesar but treacherous in their intent. The Republic is unimportant to Dante, whose emphasis is on a powerful sole ruler in temporal matters, mirroring God’s authority over the Universe, and the Pope’s over the Church. Dante is a thorough Imperialist, and prefers the rule of the single monarch, as God rules the whole Creation. It is rather Cato’s moral integrity he is celebrating, and the contrast of the honourable man who chooses his own death, in defeat, rather than the treacherous man who chooses malicious deceit and murder. It indicates Dante’s view that treachery and murder is not acceptable however justified the cause, and that suicide (but not murder or treachery) is acceptable if the cause is honourable enough. The one is an abuse of free will, the other a fulfilment of it. The first harms others: the second liberates the self.
Cato questions who they are, surprised at their exit from Hell, and Virgil, quickly and courteously, recapitulates Dante’s prior state, Beatrice’s intervention, and his own role as Guide. Dante, he says ‘seeks freedom’, while he Virgil has come from Limbo where Cato’s Marcia is, and Virgil affirms her love for Cato. She is a type of the noble and chaste Roman wife. Cato is unmoved, since inexorable Divine Justice has placed her the other side of Lethe, and the lower realm cannot influence the higher, but Beatrice’s wishes are enough. Cato it seems is worthy, though a Pagan, to be placed at the foot of the Mount he can never climb, because of his own nobility of spirit, moral worth, and supreme sacrifice. Marcia, like Virgil, despite her worth, must remain in Limbo. (Dante’s knowledge of Cato came from Virgil’s Aeneid VIII where as lawgiver, he is among the righteous, and Lucan’s Pharsalia II.)
Cato now tells Virgil to cleanse Dante of Hell’s foulness. After they have walked a little, like lost travellers returning to the path, he does so, wetting his hands in the dew and wiping Dante’s face, stained with tears of Pity, and then ties a rush around him, as instructed, the pliant marsh-plant, a symbol of humility, which is replaced as it is plucked, as the humble are replenished on the earth, those meek who shall inherit. The whole canto is full of natural beauty, the ‘eastern sapphire’ colour of the sky, ‘the tremor of the sea’, the stars and the dawn light, and is also full of the language of hope, with its planet of love, its reverend figure of Cato, its brightness, its feeling of purification, and with Dante’s inner relief and delight at exiting Hell.
Meditation XXXVI: Purgatorio Canto II
MedXXXVI:1 The Angel of God: Purgatorio Canto II:1
A flourish of astronomical knowledge to set the chronology. It is dawn in Purgatory, on that same great circle of the earth as Jerusalem, which forms the horizon and zenith at both places. It is evening in Jerusalem, midnight on the Ganges, and Libra, the scales of justice and harmony, is the constellation rising there, in India, the opposite sign to that of Aries the Ram, where the sun appears during the Vision and now lights the morning sky with a deep orange glow.
A quick flow of similes: travellers, Mars, speed: and an Angel of God, a divine bird, comes skimming the waves, driving a vessel with the beat of his wings over the southern ocean. It carries a fresh load of spirits for Purgatory. And the singing begins. It is Psalm 114, the liberation from Egypt, when ‘the mountains skipped like rams’, a psalm that Dante interpreted in its mystical sense as ‘the exit of the sanctified soul from the slavery of this world’s corruption, to the liberty of eternal glory’, allegorically as ‘our redemption through Christ’, and morally as ‘the conversion of the soul from the sorrow and misery of sinfulness to a state of grace.’ (The letter to Can Grande della Scala is assumed authentic.) It is a song of freedom, and of the free will.
Capricorn, the goat of lust, in the mid-heaven, is obscured as the sun, the skipping ram, rises in the sign of Aries, ninety degrees from it. The spirits seek the way, Virgil replies, and, amazed at the living, breathing Dante, they hesitate, until one of them comes forward to embrace Dante. It is a mutual embrace. Here is love, as friendship, in Purgatory, recalling that equally affectionate meeting with Brunetto Latini in Hell.
MedXXXVI:2 Casella: Purgatorio Canto II:1
It is Casella, the musician, who, dying before 1300, has been lingering at Rome by the Tiber, the gateway to salvation, where the spirits who do not pass to the Acheron wait. Since the Jubilee (beginning Christmas Day 1299, so three months previously) the Angel has been transporting the spirits to the Mount. Dante embraces Casella, and in the Classical image employed by Homer and Virgil, his hands meet three times, empty, round the insubstantial spirit of his friend, who smiles. The words conjure the new realities and hopes of Purgatory, embraces, affection, smiles, gentleness, love: mutual love. Dante makes a courteous request for Casella to sing his setting of one of Dante’s own poems, the second Canzone that Dante annotated in the Convivio: ‘Love that in my mind discourses with me.’ The Canzone is a poem of praise for the Lady Philosophy, who is an intermediary between the spiritual and intellectual sphere of God and the material world of Man. Philosophy, like an angel, communicates and interprets between divine truth and corporeal nature. On the ladder of being that reaches from God to inanimate matter, man is between the gross animals and the almost diaphanous angels. As objects are susceptible to inner illumination depending on their translucency, so creatures are more or less capable of understanding the divine, depending on their degree of spirit and intellect. Philosophy is the bridge, the go-between, the ‘lady’ who in her love, and by being loved, spiritualises the erotic, sublimates desire and suffering, and lifts the heart to vision and goodness. In the Divine Comedy she has been replaced with Beatrice, the merging of the spiritualised erotic with the rational and the ethical, so that Truth, Beauty and Goodness are unified in the light of Divine Love. It is a neo-platonic vision, illuminated with light. It is all sweetness, the sweetness that Casella now sings.
Cato alone is not lost in the delight of the singing, and urges the spirits on to redemption. They, like humble doves, alarmed, scatter and move towards the slopes, like travellers unsure where they will emerge. And the Poets likewise.
Pause for a moment to think of Casella. To us he is another character, on a par with Virgil, or with Ulysses, or with Pope Boniface VIII: with literary, historical, or mythical figures. Maybe real to others once: but not real to us now except as names, involved with events in verse or prose. But we should remember that Dante is writing about his dead friend. That like Brunetto Latini, the recent dead here come alive, and speak with him. What did that mean in Dante’s mind? Imagine someone you have known, now dead, returning to speak with you. Imagine that. Dante is not writing conventional epic like Homer, or even epic mingled with history as Virgil does in the Aeneid, or Ovid at the end of the Metamorphoses. He is writing epic, history, and autobiography rolled into one, and extended by intellectual discussion, and aimed at spiritual truth. He is Homer, and Virgil, and the Saint Augustine of The Confessions, and more. Casella was real to him, not a fictional character, not even a remote figure of his day, of history, but a friend, a beloved friend. Imagine. Casella is dead. Casella speaks. And the impact of that on Dante’s contemporaries? Imagine. The Commedia does that all the time. Dante is the writer writing, and his literary projection on the journey, who at any moment of the Commedia may be standing among mythical, historical, literary and contemporary people, in the vast halls of his visionary Christian Moment, which is eternal and beyond time, as well as revealed in succession within time.
Meditation XXXVII: Purgatorio Canto III
MedXXXVII:1 The Limitations of Knowledge: Purgatorio Canto III:1
Dante turns towards the mountain ‘where reason examines us’ that is where the self-questioning intellect examines itself, with moral conscience, as Virgil now does, reproaching himself for having been seduced by the music, and being alarmed into hurrying. Dante, within the poem of the Commedia, seems less aware than Virgil of what has happened. Is there a subtle message here? Dante has indulged himself, somewhat arrogantly for a humble Christian seeker of truth, by requesting a setting of his own poem celebrating Lady Philosophy, and also by doing so invoked an earlier stage of his life, one of desire and longing, love of the flesh as well as of the intellect. Art and memory have seduced him and others from their intent. Pride and Lust Dante’s personal weaknesses, though muted, are both entangled here. Dante is not yet wholly beyond the call of Troubadour courtly love, where love is a fatal and disruptive power, a disturbance created by beauty, troubling the heart and mind. He had sought out a spiritualised human love which goes beyond the ache and longing of unrequited love, as Vita Nuova and Convivio reveal, and learnt to celebrate the grace and beauty of the Lady who goes beyond this world and now becomes a conduit for Divine love, an emblem of it, and a pointer towards it. He is not quite there, but he is on his way towards Beatrice.
Virgil now slows his pace to a more dignified one, as Dante’s gaze focuses on his surroundings and he looks intently at the highest slope of the hillside. The rising sun is behind them in the East, the Mountain lies to the West, and Dante’s shadow is cast in front of him, while the other spirits including Virgil cast none, and Dante starts with fear, with the shadow of fear. Virgil reassures him, and queries his lack of trust. It is evening in Italy where Virgil’s own body that once cast a shadow is buried, at Naples. And Virgil tells Dante that the spirits are transparent, as are the heavenly spheres that do not block the light that falls through them. God does not will that human beings should understand the workings of the Universe, Virgil says, and makes the spirits insubstantial bodies, as they are, transparent but capable of punishment and suffering. Human knowledge is limited, and humanity should be content with the ‘quia’, the ‘what’ of existence, rather than the ‘why’ and have faith. There would have been no need for the coming of Christ, and the Virgin birth, if human beings had understood all that was necessary for salvation. Desire for knowledge of the unknowable is an eternal grief, a constant suffering, a thirst, like the thirst of the Classical philosophers that can never be quenched. Here is a further indication of Dante’s moral and intellectual errors that he must reject and expiate, correct and transcend. Not only is Courtly Love and spiritualised Human Love inadequate, but Human Philosophy, Lady Philosophy, must also give way to Divine Philosophy and Beatrice, Virgil, still troubled by the awareness of the philosophers and poets doomed to Limbo, and his own place there, as well as by the self-reproach caused by Casella’s music, and its seductiveness, the seductiveness of art that Plato condemned, is silent, with bent head.
MedXXXVII:2 The Excommunicated: Purgatorio Canto III:46
Virgil and Dante stop, searching for a way up the cliff, which Dante, revealing his knowledge of the rough tracks of Italy, compares to rocky Liguria. While Virgil is pondering Dante sees a crowd of spirits, the excommunicated but repentant, approaching from the left, the south. They can ask the way, of them. ‘Joyful’ and ‘hope’ are keywords here as Dante emphasises the changed atmosphere of Purgatory compared with that of Hell. They pause, like sheep, in fear of Dante’s visible shadow, cast to the right, the north. Virgil courteously asks them where they can climb the slope, commenting that they are chosen, that they ended their lives well in repentance, that they can achieve peace at the last. Virgil sees their hesitation, and confirms that Dante is in his living body, and that his journey is willed from above. The Poets go along with them.
MedXXXVII:3 Manfred: Purgatorio Canto III:103
One of the spirits, blond, noble, handsome speaks to them, seeking recognition, and the intercession of prayer by his daughter Costanza who is still alive. The prayers of the living are beneficial, they can shorten the duration of the time the excommunicated but repentant spirits must otherwise spend in Purgatory: thirty times their life on earth. Dante humbly denies having seen him (since he died just after Dante was born) and Manfred smiles.
This is Manfred, illegitimate son of the Emperor Frederick II, grandson of Henry VI and his wife Constance. Costanza, his daughter by Beatrice of Savoy, married Peter III (Pere) of Aragon, and had two sons James II, King of Aragon, and Frederick II, King of Sicily, both alive in 1300. Manfred was the Ghibelline leader, and therefore of Dante’s political party, who opposed three Popes and was excommunicated by all three. He fought Charles of Anjou who was sponsored by Pope Clement IV, the Pope who furthered the French entry into Italy and moved the Papal Court to Avignon, and was defeated by him at Benevento, near Naples, in 1266. His body buried under a cairn was disinterred by the Bishop of Cosenza on the Pope’s orders, and carried over the River Verde (The Garigliano) outside the boundary of the Kingdom of Naples and the Papal States, with the rites of excommunication, so that the body might not rest. Manfred stresses that the excommunication does not prevent divine love being shown, and the repentant may still hope for peace. God pardons the repentant willingly. Dante’s mention of Costanza’s remaining sons is to point to the recovery of Sicily by Pere after the Sicilian Vespers in 1282. We will find Pere, a negligent ruler, further on in the Purgatorio. Though Manfred calls Pere’s sons ‘Sicily’s and Aragon’s pride’, Dante regarded them as degenerates. Manfred acknowledges his own sinfulness (though not the specific charges, such as incest, made by his Guelph enemies). Dante clearly marvels at meeting him, respects the noble warrior, but is there some ambivalence perhaps, a lack of praise, that indicates reservations on Dante’s part? Though a protagonist of Empire, Manfred’s attitude to the Church may have indicated the designs of the Empire on the spiritual realm, or a wanton disregard for the spiritual life until the end on Manfred’s part that Dante, believing in a separated Papacy and Empire, may have found not in alignment with his own preferred views. Nevertheless Manfred was one of the great Ghibelline ‘lost’ leaders involved in that long struggle between the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy, in which the Guelph and Ghibelline confrontations played a significant part. (The Empire was created, though that specific name was not employed until the mid-thirteenth century when Charlemagne was crowned Emperor by Pope Leo III, in 800AD. The Imperial title passed to the German Kings until the Holy Roman Empire was abolished in 1806. Its territory comprised much of Western and Central Europe, centred on Germany and Austria but including parts of Eastern France and Northern Italy.) It is part of Dante’s sometimes maddening reticence that we are left to deduce his attitude to Manfred, and as with Farinata and Guido da Montefeltro, I am left with a feeling of his uncertainty about the role of the noble warrior in his own age. Champions perhaps, but also stirrers of strife and war? Particularly those who were Imperialists, supporters of Imperial order and law, who might also be seen as destructive of the Church’s true mission and the proper spiritual rule of the Papacy? Dante treads his careful path between orthodoxy and unorthodoxy (sometimes toying with heresy, for example how acceptable was his role as prophet, even though it is often merely a literary device, how valid was his claim to have seen the workings of the afterlife?)
Meditation XXXVIII: Purgatorio Canto IV
MedXXXVIII:1 The Unity of the Soul: Purgatorio Canto IV:1
Illustrating the increasing emphasis on human reason a necessary adjunct to the ascent to the Earthly Paradise, Dante introduces philosophical, ethical and intellectual or scientific topics into the Purgatorio. Here he uses the meeting with Manfred that has so absorbed his attention to address Plato’s error, as reported by Aquinas, concerning the nature of the soul. Dante argues that the soul is a unity, since if we had multiple souls we would not be distracted in our thoughts by focusing on one thing to the exclusion of all others. In particular we would not lose track of the time, which Dante has done in speaking with Manfred. The free will turns its attention to some absorbing pain or pleasure, and the other powers of the mind are temporarily constrained. It is mid-morning when Dante again realises the time, and they reach the way up the mountain.
Dante adds a delightful image of agricultural life, and another of his testaments to having wandered the hill routes of Italy, round Urbino and Reggio, and a metaphor of desire as a bird with swift wings, calling Virgil also his leader, who gave him hope, and was a light to him. Dante gives a mathematical image to indicate the steepness of the slope they are climbing, and the tiring Dante is spurred on to effort by Virgil to reach the ledge above. The descent to Hell is easy. In Purgatory we have to make an effort, we have to force ourselves to climb. And there has to be a great desire driving us, to engender that effort, and sustain it.
A piece of astronomical learning follows, as Virgil explains the reason for the sun being to their North. Reflecting the Divine Light downwards like a mirror the Sun in the Southern hemisphere arcs to the North and not the South as it crosses the sky each day, whereas at Jerusalem it will pass to the South towards Arabia. If the sun were in Gemini, in the Summer, here, rather than in Aries, in the Spring, as it is now, it’s zenith would be even higher towards the North, and the constellations of the Bears, this being the effect of the earth’s 23.5 degree tilt combined with its position in its orbit round the sun at the respective times of year. The sun’s apparent annual path against the background of the fixed stars is the ecliptic, the points on it where the noonday sun appears highest and lowest in the sky are the solstices. The projection of the earth’s equator on the heavens is the celestial Equator, which is a circle at 23.5 degrees to the tilted circle of the ecliptic. The points where the ecliptic, the sun’s annual path, crosses the Equator (i.e. the points where the two circles cross) are the equinoxes. The points where it is furthest from the Equatorial circle are the solstices. The Equator can therefore be said to lie between the solstices, ‘If your intellect understands quite clearly’!! If not draw the diagrams, or go look at a book on astronomy, as I frequently have to. Dante is showing off his learning, while pretending to learn from Virgil, a nice mock-modesty, but perhaps not quite fully in keeping with Christian humility. Dante is not yet free of intellectual pride and arrogance!
MedXXXVIII:2 Belacqua: Purgatorio Canto IV:1
Dante now emphasises again the effort required for purgation. Purgatory is a labour, demanding desire and will power. But Virgil explains that the higher one gets the less the effort, that is the more the will is fixed on the goal, and the more sins are purged away, the lighter the burden of sin, and the more attractive the destination. The summit of Purgatory is ease and rest. Nevertheless a wry voice is heard: wearied spirits are sitting exhausted under a rock. Among them, Dante, breathing heavily from his efforts recognises Belacqua, the instrument-maker, a friend noted for his laziness. Dante is relieved. He was clearly not sure if Belacqua had repented and where he would be in the afterlife. Belacqua barely lifts his head. Can Dante really have understood that complicated astronomical discourse? Is he really so steadfast? What use is it to bother so? You have to wait for the duration of your lifetime if you repent only at the end, unless there is intercession through prayer, before you can enter Purgatory proper, so why not do only the minimum needed? But it is midnight in Jerusalem, dawn on the Ganges, evening in Morocco, and noon now in Purgatory. Virgil is already climbing on. Dante will not be one of the late-repentants we feel! And Belacqua will be hard put to it to reach the summit of Purgatory
Meditation XXXIX: Purgatorio Canto V
MedXXXIX:1 The Late-Repentant: Purgatorio Canto V:1
Once more Dante blocks the light, he alone, and is noticed by the spirits behind him. His hesitation is quickly seized on by Virgil, with a proud admonition to ignore the people, to ‘stand like a steady tower’ and to avoid too much reflection. to focus his thoughts. Virgil has no time for the crowd, and Dante shows that he is ashamed. The tension between pride and humility is interesting in Dante, as the innately proud man bows to his Master, to Beatrice, and to God. He himself constantly recognises his weaknesses in this direction. Intellectual and artistic superiority rightly engender pride, but Divine Love demands humility and acceptance through faith. Humility is constantly in danger of bowing to, and thereby confirming the worth of, what is base. Pride is constantly in danger of valuing incorrectly and ignoring the true merit of what is superior.
A crowd of late-repentant spirits in front come chanting the Miserere, a setting of Psalm 51, and an appropriate psalm of repentance that begins ‘Have mercy upon me, O God’. These are spirits who died of violence, and repented in dying. God fills the penitents with desire to see Him. Virgil confirms Dante’s fleshly being, while the whole troop wheel round like cavalry, as swift as night mists or evening cloud. They plead for recognition, and for news of them to be carried to the other side, and Dante courteously says that he will, for the sake of the peace he himself pursues.
MedXXXIX:2 Penitents dead of violence: Purgatorio Canto V:64
The spirit of Jacopo del Cassero replies, expressing their trust in Dante’s good will. Purgatory is a place of faith and trust, where Hell was a place of mistrust and treachery. Cassero was a Guelph from Fano, in the mark of Ancona, ruled by Charles II of Anjou and Naples, and was Podestà of Bologna in 1296. He frustrated Azzo VII d’Este’s attempts on the city and exchanged his office for that of Milan in 1298. He was murdered on Azzo’s orders, at Oriaco near the River Brenta, between Venice and Padua, and died in the marshes there, while fleeing to La Mira would have taken him to dry land. The Paduans killed him, whom he calls Antenori after their founder Antenor, who betrayed Troy to the Greeks. Courteously Jacopo asks to be remembered in Dante’s prayers, if Dante ever sees Fano again, so that those prayers might intercede for him. This is the first of three of Dante’s marvellous individual vignettes of individuals who died by violence, that conjure up person and scene.
Next comes another graphic and beautiful piece of description. Buonconte da Montefeltro, Guido’s son, and like him a Ghibelline leader, mourns that his memory is neglected by his wife Giovanna and the rest of his kin. He led the Aretines when the Ghibellines were defeated by the Florentine Guelphs at the battle of Campaldino in 1289. Dante was supposed to have taken part on the Florentine side. The site of the battlefield, in the Val d’Arno is about an hour’s walk from the confluence of the Archiano and the Arno, at Bibiena, where mists and fog are common features of the valley. Repeating the name of the Virgin Mary, and crossing his arms on his chest, indicated his repentance in dying. An Angel caught up his spirit, saved by his tear of repentance, while a Demon from Hell snatched his body. Dante gives a skilful scientific account of evaporation, condensation, and precipitation, and ends with Buonconte’s body swirled into the boiling Arno in the Demon’s storm, and buried in the silt. Science has joined philosophy as evidence of Dante’s intellectual learning, to be exhibited through the Purgatorio as a right use of human reason, to be extended ultimately by Divine wisdom. Yet again we lack any personal judgement or comment by Dante on the great Ghibelline warrior.
Lastly in this Canto is the cry of La Pia, Pia de’ Tolomei. The traditional story is that La Pia belonged to the Tolomei of Siena, and married Nello d’Inghiramo dei Pannocchiesci, the Podestà of Volterra in 1277, and Lucca in 1314, the captain of the Tuscan Guelphs in 1284, and still alive in 1322. He put her to death at the Castello della Pietra, in the marshes of the Sienese Maremma, in 1295, throwing her from a window, or alternatively she died of disease in that unhealthy place. He was said to be jealous, or to want rid of her in order to marry the Countess Margherita degli Aldobrandeschi, the widow of Guy de Montfort. The identification of La Pia may well be wrong, but the story survives. (The elegiac quality of this little plea has always appealed, and in her words to Dante there is an echo of the lines on Virgil’s tomb, at Naples, ‘MANTUA ME GENUIT, CALABRI RAPUERE, TENET NUNC PARTHENOPE : CECINI PASCUA, RURA, DUCES.’ ‘Mantua bore me, Calabria took me, Naples holds me: I sang of pastures, farms, and heroes.’)
Meditation XL: Purgatorio Canto VI
MedXL:1 The Crowd of Spirits: Purgatorio Canto VI:1
A superb extended analogy of the gambling game follows, as the crowd of spirits, those dead of violence, press around Dante. Here is Benincasa, the murdered judge: Guccio de’ Tarlati, a Ghibelline of Arezzo, killed by Guelphs after Campaldino, and Federigo Novello of the Conti Guidi who assisted the same Tarlati family, and was killed, in 1289. Here too is Farinata Scornigiani of Pisa, whose father Marzucco, who became a Franciscan Friar, pardoned his son’s murderers: Orso of the Alberti, son of Napoleone, victim of the continuing vendetta within the family: and Pierre de la Brosse, chamberlain of Philip III of France, and brought to his death by Mary of Brabant in 1278, she the type of the wicked stepmother, accused of poisoning Louis, the King’s son by his first wife. Dante warns Mary, still alive in 1300, to repent, lest she end in Hell. There is no shortage of examples of those whose lives ended violently. A whole crowd are there. This is the darkly colourful Italy of poison and vendettas, treachery and murder, factional violence and political killing that intrigues and enthrals like a good crime thriller, so long as it is distanced from us. The later lives of the Borgias, for example, are a distillation of that darkness, shot through with gleams of entrancing and seductive light. But Dante is quite clear about the evil of his times.
MedXL:2 The Benefit of Prayer: Purgatorio Canto VI:25
Dante questions Virgil now regarding a passage in his Aeneid which seems to deny the efficacy of prayer. It is Aeneid VI 372, where Aeneas, in the underworld, guided by the Sibyl, meets his pilot Palinurus, who, drowned at sea, and, not properly buried, cannot cross the Acheron for a hundred years. He entreats Aeneas to carry him across, at which the Sibyl tells him: ‘Cease to imagine that divine decree can be altered by prayer.’ Virgil explains that the words were uttered in a Pagan world, where Christian prayers had as yet no efficacy, since they were not uttered from a state of grace, but that in the Christian world Love, a moment of love’s fire, may intercede and redeem. Dante is seeking in works of human art for a reassurance that comes only from faith in the divine, and Virgil tells Dante to believe unless Beatrice tells him otherwise, she whom he once more gives Dante hope of seeing above, at the summit of the Mountain, smiling, and blessed. She, Divine Philosophy, spiritualised Love, is ‘the light linking truth to intellect.’ And, at this promise of meeting Beatrice, Dante is already less weary, as hope eases tiredness, and wants to hurry on, since the sun now in the North-West is hidden by the mountain, though Virgil gently warns him that it will take more than one day to reach the summit.
MedXL:3 Sordello and the State of Italy: Purgatorio Canto VI:49
The poets now encounter the proud spirit of Sordello, watching ‘like a couchant lion’. Sordello is ‘preoccupied with self’ and responds not to Virgil’s request as to the ascent of the Mount, but to his answer regarding his birthplace. He too is of Mantua. Sordello, poet and knight, was born at Goito near Mantua c1200, and wrote in the Provençal language. He carried on an affair with Cunizza da Romano, Ezzelino III’s sister, and wife of Count Ricciardo di San Bonifazio, while staying at Treviso, and was obliged to flee to Provence in 1229. Sordello had abducted her for political reasons at her brother’s request. He returned in 1265 as a knight in the service of Charles of Anjou, and received possessions in the Kingdom of Naples. He died a violent death some time after June 1269. His finest poem, written about 1240, was a planh (lament) on the death of Blacatz, a Provençal baron, in the service of Count Raymond Berenger IV, in which he rebuked the kings and princes of Europe, and told them to eat the dead man’s heart, and be inspired to valiant action.
It inspires Dante now to a similar invective. Italy is captured in metaphors of disaster. Mantua joins the list of cities riven by conflict. Dante laments the state of Italy. The German Hapsburg Emperor, Albert, is absent, and indifferent, and Dante calls on him to come and see Rome, widowed from the Empire, and to pity Italy or be ashamed, and calls on God also, as the highest ‘Jupiter’, that is the ultimate authority over Empire and Religion. The power Justinian had, to enforce the Roman law he framed, has lapsed. The clergy have usurped secular power (the ‘people who should be obedient’). Feuding is rife within the cities: in Verona Montagues fight Capulets: in Orvieto the Monaldi duel with the Filippeschi: Siena has fragile peace with Santafiora, of the Aldobrandeschi. Every petty partisan is a Marcellus, an opponent of Caesar and the Empire. Florence is treated with irony and sarcasm, as a role model of how to sway backwards and forwards with the current, unstable and sick, like a patient tossing on a bed trying to find comfort, its populace too quick to judge, greedy for office, profligate and changeable. Dante again shows his firm political stance, in favour of a strong Empire, enforcing the Roman legal code, with state and church separated, the Church handling spiritual, and the state, secular matters. The verse is almost uneven with anger, choking with metaphors. Once more the tension of political pride and anger with Christian humility. Dante has not yet transcended his temporal entanglements. Florence, Italy, Empire, Papacy are the terrible magnets that draw him back into the conflicts of the world and his age. It is the anger and frustration of the exile. It is artistically and spiritually appropriate that it is at this point, exiting from the Inferno, and beginning the long climb of Purgatory, that Dante should express the intensity of the political emotions within him, emotions that must ultimately be left behind in an understanding of the greater Universe. And in his mind the political maelstrom is associated with other elements he must leave behind, personal things, signified by Troubadour poetry, and now superseded: love as an un-intellectual desire that overcomes the free will: lust: pride. Sordello is echoed later by Arnaut Daniel, Provençe is something both loved and to be gone beyond.
Meditation XLI: Purgatorio Canto VII
MedXLI:1 The Valley of the Negligent Rulers: Purgatorio Canto VII:1
Virgil confirms his identity to his fellow Mantuan, and Sordello marvels, and runs through all the trappings of fame, showing Virgil great courtesy and respect. Virgil, who lost Heaven through lack of the faith replies with a swift description of Limbo and the journey. He was moved by Divine Virtue, by Beatrice, and is denied the vision of Christ because he died before Christianity. Limbo is a place of sighs, a place for the innocents who died before baptism, and for the followers of the Pagan virtues but not the Christian triad of faith, hope and charity. Virgil’s reply entitles him to now question Sordello as to the way into Purgatory proper.
There is a degree of freedom in Purgatory, not appropriate for Hell. Purgatory is a place of spiritual movement and progression. Sordello can be their guide for a while, but it is the evening now of Easter Monday, and they cannot climb at night, due to the properties of the Mount that take away the power of the will to do so.
MedXLI:2 The Valley of the Negligent Rulers: Purgatorio Canto VII:64
The three Poets now reach the hollow or valley of the negligent rulers, a place of physical beauty that elicits a sweet description from Dante. There the spirits sing the Salve Regina (Salva Regina, mater misericordiae), the antiphon sung after Vespers, invoking the aid of the Virgin. That which has shown negligence calls in prayer on She who is never negligent, the symbol of spiritual and maternal care.
Sordello points out the famous spirits, those who have also gained Dante’s particular disapprobation! Rudolph, the Hapsburg Emperor and Ottocar, King of Bohemia, under whom he initially served, and with whom, after becoming Emperor, he subsequently disputed the right to Imperial lands: and Wenceslas II of Bohemia and Moravia, his son, whom Dante condemns for lust and sloth. Then Philip III of France who connived with the Papacy to take Aragon for his son Charles de Valois but was defeated by Pere III, with Henry I of Navarre, the Fat, whose daughter Joan married his son and heir Philip IV. Here then is mention of Dante’s negligent Emperors and despised French Kings, those who failed the Empire or attacked it, caused internal strife and dissent, or conspired with the Papacy. And Dante points to a generic failing, a hereditary inadequacy.
Here then is Charles of Anjou, and that Pere III of Aragon, whose son Alfonso sits behind him, and whose other, degenerate, sons James and Frederick, the grandsons of Manfred through Costanza, hold Aragon and Sicily in 1300. Charles’ son is degenerate also, and Charles’ successive wives Beatrice, the daughter of Raymond Berenger, and Margaret of Burgundy, have no more to boast of than Pere’s wife, Costanza.
Finally the pious Henry III of England, father of the warrior King Edward I, who also married a daughter of Raymond Berenger, Eleanor, and William Longsword, the Marquis of Montferrat, who first allied himself to Charles of Anjou and then turned against him, and was captured by the citizens of Alessandria who brought about his death. His son John subsequently attacked Alessandria and the town of Canavese, bringing them great suffering.
It is evening in this place that the Virgin watches over, where free will is not yet proof against temptation, outside the Gate of Purgatory proper, and where Divine Grace and Intercession is needed to maintain the Divine order.