The Purgatorio is the middle section of Dante's Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy), uncontestedly one of the greatest and most celebrated poems ever written. In the Purgatorio, Dante, as the Pilgrim, makes a four-day journey. He begins this journey on Easter Sunday of the year 1300, to the island mountain of Purgatory, which is divided into three sections: the Antepurgatory, Purgatory Proper, and the Earthly Paradise. In the course of his own spiritual rehabilitation, Dante meets repentant shades (dead personages) cleansing their sins as they make their way to the peak of the mountain. At the summit, repentant sinners are forgiven and may proceed to Paradise. The characters Dante writes of in the Purgatorio are from both classical Roman and recent Italian history, as well as from contemporary Italy; thus, Dante makes strong political commentary an integral part of his poem. It is almost impossible to overestimate the influence of the Divina Commedia on European culture. So masterful is Dante's use of language in the poem that to this day some readers recall its imagery first, and the Bible's second.
Plot and Major Characters
The Purgatorio is comprised of thirty-three cantos which follow a rhyme scheme—created by Dante expressly for the Divina Commedia—called terza rima, in which the first and third eleven-syllable lines of verse rhyme, the second line rhymes with the first and third lines, and so on (in the pattern aba, bcb, cdc). Leaving the lowest circle of Hell, Dante travels to the shores of the island of Purgatory in a boat moved by the wings of an angel. Vergil, the great classical poet, accompanies Dante as his guide through Purgatory, although Dante is also at times led by Sordello (a Medieval troubadour), Statius (a Roman epic poet), and Beatrice (Dante's beloved). Dante learns that souls in Purgatory may have their terms of punishment reduced if their families pray for them. Dante is repeatedly told not to tarry, that no good can come of allowing himself to be overly distracted. He also is told that Purgatory is constructed so that at its bottom, travel is much more difficult; as one ascends the mountain, the going becomes progressively easier. In Antepurgatory, Dante meets the negligent, who were contemptuous of the church, and those who waited until the last hour or even the final moment to accept God. Passing through a gate, Dante and Vergil reach Purgatory Proper. They stop at the first ledge or cornice and see the souls of the proud bent close to the ground, carrying heavy stones to help purge them of their arrogance. Next, they meet those who were envious. They are dressed in coarse haircloth and their eyelids are sewn shut with thread spun from iron. On the next ledge are the wrathful, who had been guilty of anger. Next, they see the sins of sloth or indifference purged. Avarice is purged on the next ledge. Statius joins Dante and Vergil, his own soul cleansed of sin, and together on the sixth ledge they see the sin of gluttony purged. Lastly they see fire cleanse those who lusted. Vergil urges Dante to pass through a fire of terrific heat, but which does not burn, and then takes leave of him, for Dante cannot proceed to the Earthly Paradise without the grace of God. Matilda takes Dante to Beatrice, who assumes the role of guide, and tells Dante about the nature of the Earthly Paradise. Dante confesses to her that he had been lured by others after her death, and she prepares him for Paradise.
As Dante ascends Mount Purgatory, he meets in turn souls who have experienced the seven deadly sins: pride, envy, wrath, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust. Vergil explains that the first three sins occur when the natural instinct to love becomes perverted. Sloth represents the pursuit of good but without enough zeal. The last three sins are from loving too much and focusing that love on earthly things. Practicing control and balance is stressed throughout Purgatorio. Another theme that predominates is that one should remain focused on Paradise and not become too attached to earthly pursuits. Again and again Dante is admonished: lose no time, do not become distracted, do not become obsessed, don’t look back. There are also clear political messages in the Purgatorio. As John A. Scott writes, the poem's vital message is “that God has given humanity two luminaries to light up its dual path to salvation, the true way to happiness in this world (the Emperor) and the way to blessedness in the next life (the Pope).” Dante decries what has happened to Italy under the oppressive rule of tyrants.
The most frequent criticism of the Purgatorio is that it suffers by comparison to the Inferno. Unquestionably, its action seems much more subdued after the excitement of witnessing the horrors of Hell; Vergil states that the wailing sounds of Hell are replaced with sighs in Purgatory. Some critics take exception to the common verdict that the Inferno is superior and insist that the Purgatorio must be judged on its own merits. As is the case for the other parts of the Divina Commedia notes and explanations are essential for a fuller understanding of Purgatorio; it is a complex work packed with obscure references. Expending a staggering amount of effort over the course of centuries of study, scholars have explicated the poem admirably. Some modern scholars urge that rather than concerning themselves with allusions, investigations should now focus on Dante's motives and decisions in writing the poem. Another area of concern for scholars is with the matter of finding the most reliable texts. There are well over five hundred manuscripts of the Divina Commedia but none are in Dante's hand or, indeed, taken directly from the original. Corruption in the text occurred from the time of Dante's death, possibly even while the poet was alive. His masterwork continues to engage the lay reader and the expert alike. More than one scholar has remarked that to fully absorb even current Dante studies is an impossible task due to sheer volume.