illustration of a human covered in a starry sky walking from the sky and plains toward a fiery opening to hell

The Divine Comedy

by Dante Alighieri

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John S. Carroll (essay date 1906)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3339

SOURCE: An introduction to Prisoners of Hope: An Exposition of Dante's Purgatorio, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1906, pp. xvii-xxvii.

[In the following essay, Carroll explains why Dante's markedly atypical conception of Purgatory, including locating it on a mountain instead of underground, was essential to the symbolism used in the Purgatorio.]

Protestant readers, unable to accept a threefold division of the world to come, may be excused if they approach the Purgatorio with the feeling that its chief ethical interest and value must be confined to members of Dante's own Church. Fortunately it is not necessary for our present purpose to entangle ourselves in the polemics of the subject, for the simple reason that Dante assures us that the whole poem has a meaning for this world as well as for the next. In his Epistle to Can Grande he writes: ‘The subject, then, of the whole work, taken according to the letter alone, is simply a consideration of the state of souls after death; for from and around this the action of the whole work turneth. But if the work is considered according to its allegorical meaning, the subject is man, liable to the reward or punishment of justice, according as through the freedom of the will he is deserving or undeserving.’1 This allegorical or moral sense manifestly covers both worlds: as indeed is implied in the fact that Dante himself climbed the Mountain, and underwent its purifying discipline, while still clothed in ‘the flesh of Adam.’2 Nor is this a mere poetic fiction forced upon him by the exigencies of the work; on the contrary, it is in accordance with the teaching of the Church that the cleansing pain of Purgatory in another world is rendered necessary because sinners shrink from it in this. On the First Terrace, for example, one of the penitents confesses his sin of Pride, and adds:

‘And here must I this burden bear for it
Till God be satisfied, since I did not
Among the living, here among the

The meaning is clear. Since the cleansing discipline ought to be undergone here and now, we are justified in reading the Purgatorio, according to Dante's allegorical sense, as the process by which the soul may purify itself while still in the flesh. This, as Dean Church says, brings this division of the poem much nearer our common experience than either the Inferno or the Paradiso: ‘The Purgatorio is a great parable of the discipline on earth of moral agents, of the variety of their failures and needs, of the variety of their remedies. We understand the behaviour of those who are undergoing their figurative processes of purification. They labour as men do who feel the influence of the Spirit of God striving with their evil tendencies and lifting them up to purer and nobler things. We understand their resignation, their thankful submission to the chastisement which is to be the annealing to strength and peace. We understand their acquiescence and faith in the justice which appoints and measures their “majestic pains.” We understand the aim and purpose which sustain them, the high-hearted courage which endures, the steady hope which knows that all is well. There is nothing transcendental in all this; nothing but what experience helps us easily to imagine; nothing but what good men, always on the way to be better, have gone through on the scene of life.’4 In short, on any theory of the future world, the struggle against the Seven Deadly Sins is not a thing which it is safe to postpone; and...

(This entire section contains 3339 words.)

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the process by which a great poet, a great theologian, and a great penitent like Dante believed they could be finally vanquished, ought surely to be a subject of the utmost interest to every man who knows he sins and longs for purity.

In form, plan, and situation, Dante's conception of Purgatory stands in striking contrast to that current in his day. He departs entirely from the teaching of his master in theology, St. Thomas Aquinas. According to the great schoolman, neither Reason nor Scripture gives material for determining the place of Purgatory; but the probability is that it is divided into two parts: one, ‘according to common law,’ where ordinary cases are purged in an underground prison, which, though not actually in Hell, is so closely connected with it that the same fires burn in both; another, ‘according to dispensation,’ where special cases are punished in divers places, ‘either for the instruction of the living or the relief of the dead.’5 Speaking generally, some such conception as this prevails in the visions of Purgatory in which the Middle Ages were so prolific. Alberic, Tundal, Owain, the Monk of Evesham, Thurcill, and many others, profess to have received revelations of a dark and awful Purgatory of ice, fire, and demonic tortures, so terrifying that not unnaturally they often mistook it for a worse place.6 This gloomy underground conception Dante deliberately set aside, lifting his Purgatory serenely into the sunlight and the blue sky in the form of a great Mountain, the highest under heaven, and the direct antipodes of Mount Calvary. This bold open-air treatment is no caprice; it is essential to his whole conception of the object to be accomplished. That object is to undo the Fall, to bring man back to the original state of natural righteousness, consisting of the four cardinal virtues, Prudence, Justice, Temperance, Fortitude. These natural virtues must be regained before the soul can pass on and up to the supernatural virtues, Faith, Hope, Love, without which the Beatific Vision is impossible. It is for this reason that Dante sets the Earthly Paradise, the Garden of Eden, on the lofty summit of Mount Purgatory; and the long and arduous ascent from Terrace to Terrace is simply the undoing of the Fall, the human soul climbing its painful way back to the fourfold virtue on which the natural life turns as on a hinge.

A second symbolism springs from this. These natural virtues imply society, and society in that free, ordered, and happy state which nothing but righteous government can secure. To Dante, as his De Monarchia shows, this meant a universal Empire under one head; and of this, the Earthly Paradise on the Mountain-top is the symbol. This in its turn was but the prelude to the Celestial Paradise; hence the great Procession of Revelation must meet the penitent soul to add the supernatural virtues to the natural, and thus prepare it for the final blessedness. It is obvious that this scheme of symbolism would be quite impossible in some dark world underground, next door to Hell, and scorched by its flames.

This, then, is the leading idea, and it lends itself easily to the carrying out of the symbolism of purification in many other directions. The origin of the Mountain itself is probably an allegory. When Satan fell on the southern side of the earth, the land there fled to the other hemisphere, and the waters rushed in to fill the vacant space. The soil displaced as he tore his way to the centre of the earth, was flung up behind him by the shock, and formed this Mountain.7 In other words, the fall of Satan which ruined Eden, threw up, by a kind of moral recoil, a pathway of return to the lost Garden, and so far the great Adversary defeated himself. It represents perhaps that mysterious ‘soul of goodness in things evil’ in virtue of which even sin bears within its bosom something of its own cure. Further, the Mountain-form made it possible so to arrange upon its sides the Seven Deadly Sins as to indicate at once their relative distances from God and the order in which they must be faced and conquered. The precipices at the base, with their close tortuous clefts, are natural symbols of the strait gate and narrow way at the beginning of the new life; while the lessening of the pain and toil as Terrace after Terrace is won, represents the increasing ease and joy of right living which every self-conquest brings. Still further, by this open-air treatment Dante gained the aid of the healing powers of Nature, powers which grow purer and more Divine as the soul climbs higher and higher out of evil. Above all, he was able to invest the entire Mountain from base to summit with the sunshine and atmosphere of Hope, in contrast to the dark inscription of Despair above the Gate of the Inferno. The penitents are, indeed, prisoners, but ‘Prisoners of Hope,’ who know that in due time the long exile will be past, and they will stand, each in his appointed place, in the Eternal Fatherland. To say, as a recent commentator does,8 that this open-air situation of Purgatory is due to the ‘demands of poetic treatment’ for the sake of a contrast to the gloom of the Inferno, is totally inadequate. Doubtless the poetic beauty of the work is greatly increased by this contrast; but the far deeper and truer reason is that it is inherent in Dante's entire conception of the moral ends to be accomplished and of the whole process of purification.

We come now to the moral and physical structure, which it will be well to have clearly before our minds from the outset, even at the risk of some repetition when we reach the detailed exposition. The following statement should be compared carefully with the Diagram of the Mount which faces the title-page.

The Mountain is divided into three great sections, each of which represents a distinct stage of the purgatorial discipline: Ante-Purgatory, Purgatory Proper, and the Earthly Paradise.

I. Ante-Purgatory

This division consists of the base of the Mountain, which is occupied by souls that postponed repentance till the eleventh hour. The long delay has created a semi-paralysis of will-power, which renders them morally incapable of beginning their self-purification at once. They can only starve their evil habits into weakness by abstaining from those acts which nourished them for a lifetime. Four classes are distinguished.

I. The Excommunicate.

Their defiance of the Church to the eleventh hour has produced in these souls a moral paralysis which detains them thirty times the period of their contumacy, setting them at the very base of the Mountain, farthest from God, and with the longest distance to climb.

II. The Indolent.

These are not to be confounded with the Slothful on the Fourth Terrace, who pursued goodness, but pursued it slackly. The Indolent simply ignored the claims of goodness to the end of life through sheer laziness of nature. Having died a natural death, they received the full period of repentance. Their indolence still clings round them, detaining them for the period of their life on earth.

III. The Energetic.

This class differs from the last in two respects: (1) they died by violence, and therefore had not the full natural period for repentance; and (2) the very activity of their earthly life was the cause of their delay. It still detains them: they move with the swiftness of shooting stars and summer lightning.

IV. Negligent Worldly Princes.

These are seated in a Flowery Valley, secluded from vulgar eyes—symbolic of the earthly rank and pomp for which they neglected the welfare of their souls. They are set higher up the Mountain, perhaps because the greatness of their temptations forms some palliation of their delay.

The last three classes are detained as many years as they postponed repentance, unless the period is shortened by holy prayers. Hence Ante-Purgatory is described as the place

Where time by time restores itself.(9)II. Purgatory Proper

This division occupies the rest of the Mountain, with the exception of the table-land upon the summit. The only entrance is St. Peter's Gate, guarded by an Angel-Confessor. The three steps which lead up to it represent the three parts of the Sacrament of Penance—Confession, Contrition, Satisfaction. The Gate opens only to the golden key of authority and the silver key of knowledge.

Inside the Gate the Mountain is cut into Seven Terraces, on each of which one of the Seven Deadly Sins is purged away. Since Purgatory, unlike the Inferno, deals not with acts, but simply with evil dispositions remaining in the soul, all the sins are traced to some disorderment of Love, according to the following classification:

Terrace I. Pride.

Terrace II. Envy.

Terrace III. Anger.:

I. Love Distorted—the desire to inflict some injury on our neighbour.

Terrace IV. Accidia.:

II. Love Defective—a weak, indolent desire after the good.

Terrace V. Avarice.

Terrace VI. Gluttony.

Terrace VII. Sensuality.:

III. Love Excessive—the immoderate desire for things not positively wrong in themselves.

This classification of the Seven Deadly Sins and the discipline by which they are conquered will become clearer if we keep the following points in mind:

(1) Sins of the spirit—Pride, Envy, Anger—are set farthest down the Mountain, and sins of the flesh highest—Avarice, Gluttony, Sensuality: to indicate their relative distances from God. The central sin of Accidia, as partaking of the nature of both, is set as a transition vice between the two groups.

(2) On every Terrace, the penitents are represented as entangled in the residue of sinful habit: the Proud still need to have their haughty necks humbled; the Envious have their eyes sewed up; the Angry are enveloped in the smoke of their own blind passion; and so on.

(3) This residue of sin is wrought out of the soul by the constant practice of good deeds—a vice by its opposite virtue.

(4) On every Terrace, a twofold subject of meditation is set before the penitents: great examples of the virtue to be won, as a ‘whip’ to urge them on in pursuit of it; and great examples of the vice to be crushed, as a ‘bridle’ to hold them back from the spiritual ruin it creates.

(5) On every Terrace save one, Accidia, a prayer is given.

(6) All up the Mount, from base to summit, the penitents are aided by the Holy Scriptures and the Hymns and Offices of the Church. When a soul is freed from any sin, it is hailed with the Beatitude of the virtue won.

(7) The entire Mountain is under the guardianship of Angels. Each Terrace has its Angelic Warder, who represents the virtue to be won upon it. In this Dante departs entirely from the usual mediæval visions of Purgatory, which are rendered hideous by the presence of foul demons as tormentors of the penitents.

(8) On every Terrace, the souls accept joyfully ‘the sweet wormwood of the torments.’ The only sign of perfect purity is their own desire to depart. When any soul is finally purified, the Mountain shakes, and all the spirits chant the Gloria in excelsis for their brother's deliverance.

(9) The function of Virgil in the Purgatorio requires some special notice. As the Natural Reason he was able to guide Dante through Hell, for the natural intellect and conscience know sin and its inevitable issues. When the poet enters the Christian Purgatory, however, it might be thought that he would part company with his heathen guide. But he saw no reason for doing so. He regarded Virgil as a prophet of Christianity. In his Fourth Eclogue he was believed to have foretold the Advent of the Christ; and the passage in the Sixth of the æneid quoted at the beginning of this Introduction must have seemed to Dante almost a Divine revelation of the Purgatory of the Church:

‘Nay but, even when life with the last light has fled,
Not yet departeth every ill from the unhappy dead,
Nor yet are they quite quit of all the fleshly stains;
For deep within it needs must be that many a thing remains,
Long grown with the soul itself, in fashion wonderful.
Therefore are they plied with pains, and render back in full
The torments of their ancient sins. Some, hung up on high,
Are stretched out to the empty winds; some have sin's deep dye
Washed clean beneath a whirlpool vast, or by the fire out-brent.
We bear each one our ghostly weird: thereafter are we sent
Through wide Elysium, and, a few, the Happy Fields we roam.
Till the long day, the orb of Time running full circle home,
Has taken out the concrete stain, and left all pure and fair
The sense ethereal, and the fire of unpolluted air.’

Dante must have felt that the man who could thus anticipate the doctrine of the Church was not unworthy to be his guide to ‘the Happy Fields’ on the Mountain-top. At the same time, he recognizes that Virgil is far from being as familiar with the penitent life as with the world of the lost. At first he scarcely knows whether to turn to the right hand or to the left. Again and again he has to ask his way, and lean on the guidance of the penitents themselves. At different points, Sordello and Statius become his guides; on the summit Matelda supersedes him; and when Beatrice, symbol of Divine Revelation, descends, he suddenly vanishes before the higher wisdom.

III. The Earthly Paradise

This final division consists of a great table-land on the summit of the Mountain, covered with a ‘Divine forest,’ in obvious contrast to the dark and savage wood in which Dante lost himself at the beginning of the Commedia. We have seen that it represents the Garden of Eden, symbol of just government.

In the midst stands a great Tree, bare of leaves and flowers—the Tree of Empire, withered up and barren through the Fall. It must be kept in mind that almost the entire symbolism of this part of the Purgatorio gathers round the relations between Church and Empire. The narrative passes through four principal movements.

I. The Procession of the Spirit in Revelation—the Books of Scripture with the Chariot of the Church in the centre. The Chariot is drawn by a Gryphon, representing Christ; and on the Car descends Beatrice, as the Bride, the Spirit of Revelation.

II. The Judgment of Dante. Beatrice refuses to unveil and reveal her beauty till Dante makes full confession of his unfaithfulness to her. After confession, Matelda, the Active Life, draws him through Lethe, and he forgets his sins.

III. Seven Visions of the History of Church and Empire pass before his eyes, ending with the carrying away of the Papacy to Avignon in 1305.

IV. The Final Purification of Dante. He has now learnt from Beatrice the one great lesson of the Earthly Paradise—the true, ideal relations between Church and Empire, and must pass on to the higher revelations of the Celestial Paradise. For these, one thing is necessary: the quickening of his memory of good deeds. Matelda therefore makes him drink of Eunoë, which renews his soul and prepares him to mount among the stars.

One final remark. The first impression of a Protestant reader is, perhaps, that this long purifying discipline is carried out by man's own unaided strength, independently of Divine grace. Nothing could be farther from Dante's thought. The foundation on which the whole process is even possible, is the salvation wrought out by Christ. This is implied on the Terraces and lower slopes of the Mountain in the constant use of Scripture and of the Hymns and Offices of the Church; and it becomes explicit on the summit when the great Procession of Revelation appears in the form of the Cross, with the Chariot of the Church as its centre, drawn by Christ Himself in His twofold nature. Assuredly Dante had no idea that man has any natural ability to save himself: from first to last, he knew that ‘salvation belongeth unto the Lord.’


  1. Epis. x. 8 (Latham's Translation).

  2. Purg. xi. 44.

  3. Purg. xi. 70-72.

  4. Introduction to Vernon's Readings on the Purgatorio, p. xiii.

  5. Summa, iii. App. to Suppl., De Purgatorio, a. 2.

  6. See Forerunners of Dante by Marcus Dods, chap. vi.

  7. Inf. xxxiv. 121-126.

  8. An English Commentary by Rev. H. F. Tozer, M.A., p. 192.

  9. Purg. xxiii. 84.


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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1022

Purgatorio by Dante Alighieri

Italian poem.

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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.

William Warren Vernon (essay date 1907)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2932

SOURCE: “Preliminary Chapter” in Readings on the Purgatorio of Dante, Vol. I, Methuen & Co., 1907, pp. xxvii-xxxviii.

[In the following essay, Vernon discusses the three divisions of Purgatory (Ante-Purgatory, Purgatory Proper, and The Terrestrial Paradise), the time occupied in passing through Purgatory, and the date Dante created the work.]


Description of Purgatory.

The Mountain of Purgatory, as described by Dante, is an immense truncated cone, rising out of the midst of the sea in the centre of the Southern Hemisphere, which, according to the Ptolemaic system of Cosmography, consisted, with the exception of the mountain in question, of a vast ocean. Purgatory is supposed to be situated at the exact antipodes to Jerusalem, and to have been formed by the fall of Lucifer, which in Readings on the Inferno (2nd ed., vol. ii, pp. 656, 657), is thus described:—

“In the headlong velocity with which Lucifer was hurled down from the highest Heaven (the Empyrean), weighed by the load of his immense sin, he struck the earth with such force, as to pierce through the bowels of it; nor was his downward course arrested, until the occult forces that were erroneously supposed to exist in the centre of the earth bound him there. The earth, recoiling in horror at the sight and at the contact of so abominable a monster, then went through two operations, the first to avoid the sight of him, and the second to avoid the contact of him.

“(a) To avoid the sight of him, it sought to cover itself with the waters on that side where he fell; and to hollow out a bed for the waters, it set in motion mountains, hills, islands, etc., which fled from thence and came up to our hemisphere; whereupon the oceans, which had up till then been in our hemisphere rushed furiously into the Southern Hemisphere to fill up the void. And by this operation it came about that the Northern Hemisphere now consists of elevated and inhabited continents, while the other [according to the Cosmography of those times] is filled up by the great Ocean, and is without a single inhabitant.

“(b) To avoid touching him, the inner bowels of the earth, through which the fallen monster passed, seized with terror and disgust, all rushed upwards; and these masses, heaping themselves one upon another on that side where was the Earthly Paradise which alone had not moved, rose to form the island-mountain of Purgatory,” leaving behind them the cavernous opening through which Dante and Virgil wound their way upwards when they quitted Hell.

Let us bear in mind that Dante supposes our first parents to have lived in innocence in the beautiful region on the top of the Mountain of Purgatory. When, in consequence of their sin, they were driven forth from Paradise, they had to take up their abode in the Northern Hemisphere. The Mountain of Purgatory is described as having three principal divisions: Ante-Purgatory, Purgatory Proper, and Post-Purgatory, usually called the Terrestrial Paradise.

Ante-Purgatory is the lower region at the foot of the mountain, in which are found the spirits of those who from indolence delayed repentance, or died in contumacy of Holy Church, and are doomed, as Manfred tells Dante (Canto iii, 136-141), to remain outside the gate of Purgatory for a period of thirty times the length of the time that they delayed their repentance, unless the term were shortened in answer to the prayers of virtuous persons on earth. It will be noticed throughout this Cantica with what earnestness nearly all the spirits that Dante meets beseech his kind intervention with their relations, to urge them to dedicate prayers for the acceleration of their passage through Purgatory. Even in Paradise, Cacciaguida tells Dante that his son, Dante's great-grandfather, has been for a hundred years encircling the Cornice where pride is punished, and that Dante ought to shorten his prolonged sufferings by his good offices on behalf of his ancestor.

                    “Ben si convien che la lunga fatica
Tu gli raccorci con l’ opere tue.”

Par. xv, 95, 96.

Ante-Purgatory is described in the first eight Cantos. In Canto ix Dante falls into a deep sleep, and is carried by an eagle to the gate of Purgatory, into which he is admitted by an Angel, who, with his sword, inscribes upon his brow seven P's representing the seven deadly sins, which will have to be erased in succession, as each is purged in its corresponding Cornice.

Purgatory Proper.—Within the gates are the seven Cornices or terraces just mentioned, each being in width about three times the length of a man's body. These Cornices run right round the mountain, and, at the end of each, a hollow stairway, cut out of the solid rock, leads straight up to the next Cornice. At the entrance to each stairway stands the Angel of the Cornice, who, before permitting the penitent to quit it, effaces with the point of his shining wing, the P (out of the seven marked on his brow) which denotes the sin that has been purged away in that Cornice. Whenever the pilgrims reach the summit of a stairway, they turn to the right, whereas, on entering the circles of Hell, they nearly always had turned to the left. Another peculiarity to be noticed in Purgatory is that, when night falls, they must perforce delay their further progress until the sunrise of the ensuing day. We learn too from Canto xxi, 70, that, whenever a soul has completed its penance and purification, the mountain thrills with joy, and all the other souls burst out into a Gloria in Excelsis. Above the level of the gate of Purgatory all atmospheric influences, such as rain, wind, hail, snow, frost, etc., entirely cease. Higher up, in the Terrestial Paradise, there is indeed a wind which moves the leaves of the forest, but that is supposed to be produced by the rapid movement of the Sphere of Heaven, denominated the Primum Mobile.

The Terrestrial Paradise, or Post-Purgatory.—The penitents who have gone through all the seven Cornices, when they leave the last one, have to pass through the purifying fire, and then ascend by a lofty stair to the summit of the mountain. They here find themselves in the ancient Garden of Eden, the Terrestrial Paradise, which, lovely and deserted, has remained in its pristine beauty since the expulsion of our first parents, with its luxuriant herbage, with its spreading trees, whose leaves are gently moved by a warm and perfumed air, with its flowers of many colours, and with its warbling birds.

The wind and the water of two streams, Lethe and Eunoe, which flow through the Terrestrial Paradise in opposite directions, are produced from supernatural sources, the first-named river being endued with power to take away the memory of sin, but only of sin; the other, to call every virtuous deed to mind.


Time Occupied in Passing Through Purgatory, and Supposed Date of the Vision.

Dr. Moore (Time References, p. 3 et seq.), observes that the date 1300 has been all but universally accepted, from the time of the earliest Commentators down to the present day. There are four passages which strongly support this argument.

First.—In the opening line of the Inferno, Dante speaks of himself as being half-way through the pathway of his life. In the Convivio1 (iv, 23, ll. 88-110), he states definitely that human life is like an arch, whose highest point is thirty-five years; and for this reason it was the will of Christ to die in His thirty-fourth year, for it was not fitting that the Deity should abide in such decay (stare in discrescere).2 Dante then has interpreted the first line of the Inferno as meaning that he was thirty-five years old, and, as he was born in the year 1265, he would consequently be of that age in the year 1300.

Second.—Guido Cavalcanti is known to have died on the 27th or 28th August, 1300. In Inferno, x, 110, 111, Dante informs Guido's father that he was alive.

Third.—In Purgatorio. ii, 98, Casella tells Dante that the Indulgence, connected with the Jubilee of Boniface VIII, began just three months before, and that he and other spirits, delayed at the mouth of the Tiber, had felt the benefit of it. This Indulgence was proclaimed on the 22nd February, 1300, but its privileges were antedated in the Bull itself from the Christmas Day preceding. This, as Dr. Moore points out, necessitates the spring of 1300.

Finally, Dante relates all events that had happened before 1300 as past, but speaks prophetically of all that occurred after 1300 as future events.

Throughout the Purgatorio Dante gives continual indications of time, and we are thus able to trace his progress far more closely than in the Inferno, which he took twenty-five hours to traverse.

He is four days going through Purgatory.

In Ante-Purgatory one day, Easter Day (Canto i, 19, to Canto ix, 9).

In Purgatory proper two days, namely, Easter Monday (Canto ix, 13, to Canto xviii, 76), and Easter Tuesday (Canto xix, 1, to Canto xxvii, 89).

In the Terrestrial Paradise one day, Easter Wednesday (Canto xxvii, 94, to Canto xxxiii, 103).

Although there is much dispute as to the day of the week, or month, on which the journey through Purgatory is supposed to take place, and also as to some of the hours indicated on several days, there is no doubt about the aggregate of time allowed.

There are as many as thirty definite references to time. The last is in Canto xxxiii, 103, and refers to the hour of noon on Easter Wednesday, 13th April, 1300.


The Principal Divisions of the Purgatorio.

Ante-Purgatory is described in Cantos i to ix.

Purgatory proper in Cantos ix to xxviii.

The Terrestrial Paradise, or Post-Purgatory, in Cantos xxviii to xxxiii. At the end of the last Canto of the Purgatorio Dante says:—

                                        “piene son tutte le carte
Ordite a questa Cantica seconda.”

In the divisions of his poem Dante scrupulously observes the rules of symmetry. Each of the three Cantiche has thirty-three Cantos, inasmuch as the first Canto of the Inferno must be considered as the Introduction or Preface to the whole poem. And in fact, in the Inferno, the Invocation is not in the first Canto, as it is in the Purgatorio and Paradiso, but in the second.

The hundred Cantos of the Divina Commedia consist of 14,233 verses, of which

The Inferno has 4,720 verses.

The Purgatorio 4,755 verses.

The Paradiso 4,758 verses.

A parallel case is noted by Professor Charles Eliot Norton, as regards the poems in the Vita Nuova, which Dante has constructed with the most perfect symmetry, namely: 10 Minor poems, 1 Canzone, 4 Minor poems, 1 Canzone, 4 Minor poems, 1 Canzone, 10 Minor poems.


Date When the Purgatorio Was Written.

There is every reason to suppose that the Purgatorio was written before the end of 1314. Philip le Bel, King of France, died 29th November, 1314, and is referred to as still living in the last Canto (xxxiii, 34).

“Sappi che il vaso che il serpente ruppe,
                    Fu, e non è; ma chi n’ ha colpa, creda
                    Che vendetta di Dio non teme suppe.”

This passage, which is intended to censure Clement V and Philip le Bel for having transferred the Papal Throne to Avignon, would seem to show that Philip was not dead when these lines were written, and, as they occur in the last Canto of the Purgatorio, that Division of the Divina Commedia must have been written previously to November, 1314.

In the twenty-fourth Canto an allusion is made to Dante falling in love with Gentucca at Lucca, which we know cannot have happened earlier than 1314, as it was only on the 14th June, 1314, that Uguccione della Faggiuola made himself master of Lucca, which city, up to that time, had been bitterly hostile to Henry VII, as well as to the Ghibellines and the Bianchi. The twenty-fourth Canto, in which Lucca is mentioned, could not have been written earlier than June, 1314, and the thirty-third or last Canto could not have been written later than November, 1314. Thus within six months Dante must have written at least ten Cantos. The invectives against the Emperor Albert, in the Sixth Canto, appear to have been written before his successor visited Italy in 1310. It would seem therefore that the composition of the Purgatorio must have occupied five years, from 1310 to 1314, or even six years. Cesare Balbo thinks it probable that Dante began it in 1309, during his quiet residence in Paris, that he continued it in 1310 amid his first hopes of Henry's visit, and then paused; that he resumed it with fresh vigour after that Emperor's death, and finished it during the last months of 1314. Witte (Dante-Forschungen) does not think that the Purgatorio was finished before 1319. Dean Plumptre is of opinion that the Purgatorio was the most rapidly written of all the three parts of the Divina Commedia, and that the period of its composition embraced the years 1308-12, in which Dante was watching with hope the election of Henry VII to the Imperial Throne, and the preparations for the Italian expedition.


Nature of the Purgatorio as Compared with the Inferno.

Cesare Balbo says “the Purgatorio, taking it altogether, is perhaps the most beautiful part of the Divina Commedia, or that at least which exemplifies the best, the most beautiful part of Dante's character, his love.” After passing through the Inferno, “Dante had now issued from the gloom of the infernal abyss, into the light, and Sun, and hopes of Purgatory; in his real existence he had abandoned the thoughts of his ungrateful country and her factions, and was cherishing hopes of peace and repose, as is natural to an exile treading a foreign land.”

In the Inferno all is gloom and darkness; the indications of the time of day are invariably given by allusions to the position of the Moon; the Sun is never alluded to from the moment when Dante has passed within the gates of Hell, until the point when, after the Poets have passed the centre of the Earth, and are about to commence the ascent of the Southern Hemisphere, Virgil indicates the hour to Dante by a reference to the Sun:—

“E già il sole a mezza terza riede.”

Inf. xxxiv, 96.

As soon as Purgatory is entered, Dante makes us feel the Sun's actual presence.

While out of a whole so harmonious and perfect it is difficult to select passages in the Purgatorio for marked preference, we may nevertheless dwell upon a few of unsurpassed excellence. These are: The description of the four bright stars and the sweet colour of Oriental sapphire in Canto i; the sunrise, and the approach of the Angel in the vessel which he propels by his wings, and the singing of Casella in Canto ii; the conversations with Manfred in Canto iii; Belacqua in Canto iv; Buonconte da Montefeltro, and Pia de’ Tolomei in Canto v; the outburst of indignation against the feuds and factions of Italy in Canto vi; the night in the Flowery Valley, and the souls of the great in Canto vii; the Compline Hymm, Nino Visconti di Gallura, the serpent driven away by the Angels, and the noble words that pass between Dante and Conrad Malaspina in Canto viii; the Gate of Purgatory, and Dante's admittance within it in Canto ix; the sculptures and Trajan in Canto x; the Lord's Prayer and Oderisi d’ Agobbio the miniature painter, in Canto xi; Sapía of Siena in Canto xiii; Guido del Duca's invective against the cities of Tuscany in Canto xiv; the conversation with Marco Lombardo in Canto xvi; the interviews with Adrian V, the good Pope, in Canto xix, and with Hugh Capet in Canto xx; the appearance of Statius in Canto xxi; the description by Statius of the early Christians in Canto xxii; Forese Donati in Canto xxiii; then the beautiful picture of the Terrestrial Paradise and the appearance of Matelda in Cantos xxvii and xxviii; and last of all, the three allegorical Cantos, xxix, xxx and xxxi, when Dante again meets Beatrice after a lapse, according to the fiction, of ten years, but in reality of twenty-four years since her death.

Another peculiar feature in the Purgatorio, as in contrast to the Inferno, is the numerous appearances of Angels. There is only one Angel mentioned in Hell, he who came down to open the gates of the City of Dis, but even the identity of this personage with one of the Angels of God is, wrongly, I think, disputed. In the Purgatorio, however, Angels are continually encountered, and on the appearance of the first one Virgil says to Dante:—

“Omai vedrai di si fatti offiziali.”

Purg. ii, 30.

The Purgatorio closes with a prophecy by Beatrice of the advent of a mysterious personage, whom she styles the “Five hundred, ten, and five.” This is usually interpreted to denote the three letters “D.X.V.,” which when inverted form the word “DVX,” “Leader,” and evidently means some great Ghibelline Captain of the time. Recent research points almost conclusively to the Emperor Henry VII, as the personage indicated. See Dr. Moore, Studies, iii, in the article on “The DXV Prophecy,” pp. 253-283. Also see The Pilot of April, 1901, article on “Dante's Prophetical Enigma—A New Solution,” by D. R. Fearon, C.B.


  1. In the third edition of the Oxford Text (1904) Dr. Moore has substituted the titles “Convivio” for “Convito,” and “De Vulgari Eloquentia” for “De Vulgari Eloquio.” Henceforth I shall make use of the same terms.

  2. It would of course be Christ's Humanity which would decrease after His thirty-fifth year, not His Divinity. And what Dante means is that it was not fitting that the Godhead should abide in decaying Manhood.

Principal Works

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The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri (translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) 1865-67

The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri (translated by Charles Eliot Norton) 1892

The Purgatorio (translated by John Ciardi) 1961

The Divine Comedy (translated by Charles S. Singleton) 1970

The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri: Purgatorio (translated by Allen Mandelbaum) 1981

Dante's Purgatory (translated by Mark Musa) 1981

The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri (translated by Robert M. Durling) 1996

The Divine Comedy: Hell, Purgatory, Heaven (translated by Peter Dale) 1997

Francis Fergusson (essay date 1953)

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SOURCE: “The Metaphor of the Journey” in Dante's Drama of the Mind: A Modern Reading of the “Purgatorio,” Princeton University Press, 1953, pp. 3-13.

[In the following essay, Fergusson makes use of Dante's explanations to his benefactor, Can Grande della Scala, in discussing the importance of differentiating between Dante the author and Dante the Pilgrim.]

For the first line of the first canto of the Divine Comedy Dante wrote:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
(In the middle of the journey of our life)

There everything starts: in the middle of human life considered as a journey. There Dante was so lost and terrified that the journey to the realms beyond the grave became necessary for his salvation. But there too he found the strength and vision he required.

Dante knew that “the journey of our life” was a metaphor. He knew that the journey beyond the grave was a vastly extended metaphor also, in its literal meaning a fiction. But it was the miraculously right metaphor for his purposes, for what he had to show were the swarming journeys of human life with a clarity, vital intensity, and hidden order which seem to be indeed that of death, the aspect of eternity.

Knowing the fictiveness of his poem, knowing its sources, its manifold techniques, and all the subtle stratagems of its make-believe, he certainly did not believe it literally. But he believed, beyond our capacity for belief, in the truth which his fiction was devised to show. He tells Can Grande that his purpose was “to remove those living in this life from the state of misery, and lead them to the state of felicity.” He reveals the truth of the human condition: the state of misery in the beginning of the poem, the state of felicity, after so many changing scenes, at the end. He does not preach: the journey speaks for him. But the journey has a double movement, the literal narrative and the movement of understanding, which is always going from the make-believe of the visionary scene to the truth beneath it: to the human spirit, on its way, or milling in some deathly eddy.

The notion of human life as a journey, and the related notion that the guides of the race must journey beyond the grave and meet the spirits of the ancestors in order to grasp their earthly way and ours, seems to be as old as the myth-making instinct itself. Dante likens his mission to the legendary missions of Aeneas and Paul, both of whom had to acquire the second, the post-mortem vision. Behind the legends of Aeneas's and Paul's journeys to the other world lie the myths of prehistoric culture-heroes, which were associated with rites de passage, ceremonies of initiation marking the stages of human life from the cradle to the grave. The Divine Comedy may be regarded as an initiation, or series of initiations, into the wisdom of the tribe. But Dante's tribe had an old and complex civilization, and Dante is not merely primitive. He is, at the same time, at least as sophisticated in his own way as the hero of a modern Bildungsroman: Hans Castorp, say, doing his reading in his mountain sanitarium, or one of Henry James's American pilgrims, undergoing his initiation on the “stage of Europe.”

In the countless uses which Dante makes of metaphors of journeying, he never loses the primitive power of the metaphor, yet at the same time he employs it for the subtlest metaphysical and epistemological distinctions. All the journey-metaphors are based on the analogy, which the human mind finds very natural, between physical movement and the non-spatial action of the soul. The direct force of this analogy is unmistakable (for example) in Ulysses' narrative of his last ocean-voyage, in Inferno, Canto XXVI. But Ulysses' journey is in a carefully-controlled relation of analogy to Dante's journey down into Hell. It is also analogous to his subsequent journey up the Mount of Purgatory; but the journey into Hell is not continuous with the journey of purgation. The Pilgrim's transition from the one to the other is left mysterious, and each has its own validity as a metaphor for one aspect of earthly life. I have already mentioned the distinction between any of the journeys beyond the grave and the journey of this life. There are also the journeys of the making of the canticles, which are likened to sea-voyages, though different sea-voyages, in the opening sequences of the Purgatorio and the Paradiso. The reader too is supposed to be making a journey, at his peril, under Dante's guidance (Paradiso, Canto 11, line 1):

O voi, che siete in piccioletta barca,
          desiderosi d’ascoltar, seguiti
          retro al mio legno che cantando varca,
tornate a riveder li vostri liti:
          non vi mettete in pelago; chè forse,
          perdendo me, rimarreste smarriti.
(O you, who are there in your little boat,
          longing to listen, following my way
          behind my timbers singing as they go,
turn you back to find your own coasts again:
          do not trust to the open sea; for perhaps,
          once losing me, you would be left astray.)

As one gets used to reading the Divine Comedy, one learns to see that Dante is continually correcting and amplifying one metaphorical journey with another; and by that means creating a sense of ceaseless life and movement, and of perpetually deepening, yet more and more closely-defined meaning.


One can see in a general way why Dante should have had to descend to the bottom of Hell before the other journeys became possible. Once in the terror of the Dark Wood, he had to explore the full import of that experience before his spirit was free to take another direction. And the vision of Hell is the occasion, the necessary preliminary to the other visions. Hell is the death which must precede rebirth, a moment which recurs by analogy through the whole poem: a moment in that tragic rhythm which governs the movement of the Divine Comedy in the whole and in its parts.

After the release from Hell, the incommensurable journey of purgation can get under way; but we know that it does not reach the final Goal which Dante envisaged. The Paradiso, another journey altogether, unfolds Divinity as reflected in the order of the Dantesque cosmos. The beatific vision may be regarded as the center of the whole Commedia, because in Dante's living belief God is the clue to all our modes of life, including the life and form of his poem. Dante regarded himself as the heir of Aeneas and Paul; he certainly believed that he both saw and wrote in obedience to God. Yet at the same time he had a disabused and tender sense of mortal limitations, his own and the reader's; and he placed the vision of God outside the poem—an End and a Center which must remain ineffable. He explains clearly to Can Grande that he does not intend to explore heaven as the theologians try to do, speculatively, as it would be in itself. He reflects it, in successive aspects, in a changing human spirit, and only as it avails for the actual life—the nourishment and guidance—of that spirit. And the Paradiso also is based upon the journey-metaphor.

“But the branch of philosophy which regulates the work in its whole and in its parts,” says Dante, explaining the Comedy to Can Grande, “is morals or ethics, because the whole was undertaken not for speculation but for practical results.” Ethics and morals, and all didacticism, are in bad odor with us because we do not have much faith in our moralists. But when Dante says “moral philosophy” he means something like the natural history of the human psyche, the accumulated lore of its life. And when he says that this “philosophy” regulates the whole poem, including the Paradiso, he means that the underlying subject is always the modes of being and the destiny of the human psyche. The Paradiso presents it in relation to many reflections of its transcendent end; but it is the Purgatorio which explores the psyche itself—not in terms of its supernatural Goal, but in terms of its earthly existence.

It is therefore possible to read the Purgatorio both as a center of the whole Commedia, and as a poem with its own self consistent unity. The journey has its beginning in the Antipurgatorio, its center and turning-point in the evening of the second Day, its end in the Paradiso Terrestre. It is the visionary Fulfillment of the journey of this life, moving always, in many figures, toward what the soul may know of itself within its earthly destiny. It reflects Dante's own life, and by analogy, every man's.

The action of the Purgatorio has a natural source which is not too difficult to identify in one's own experience. After some deep fright, some nightmare-intuition of being nowhere, hope returns, and with hope the disquieting naïveté of the bare forked animal who needs to know who he is, where he is, and what he is trying to do. This need is, apparently, always with us. We may hear it in much of the murmuring of our innumerable radios, in popular music, in the vague complaining of the interminable soap-operas. We may detect it in ourselves whenever we are not too busy, sophisticated, or demoralized. The Purgatorio starts, after Hell, with this need; but Dante knew more about it than we do, and he found, in his time and place, the means to follow its promptings to the end.

Professor Maritain has spoken of the innocence and luck of Dante. The innocence—inseparable from courage, and deep to the point of genius—underlies both the terror and the triumphs of his journeys. His luck has to do with the moment of history in which he worked. Dante's Europe, Christian but full of ancient, Arabic, and Hebrew influences, must have seemed divided, deceptive, and confusing to those who lived in it. There were plenty of wars (to make us feel at home); poets in pursuit of their heretical inspirations; rulers making absolute claims; dissentions foreign and domestic. Dante himself was a displaced person, and he had plenty of reason to see the journeys of this life as lost, caught in the dead-ends of Hell. And yet, as Professor Curtius has recently shown, the culture formed then was to continue proliferating into the Renaissance and far beyond it. Some of its themes may still be heard well into the eighteenth century. The Divine Comedy reflects the path which Dante discovered through the actual confusion about him to the vision of an ideal order: it may be regarded as the epic of the discovery of Europe's traditional culture. This is especially true of the Purgatorio, the transitional canticle, the poem of initiations. Shelley's description of the Commedia as a bridge across time, joining the ancient and the modern world, fits the Purgatorio exactly. Or Eliot's dictum: “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them; there is no third.”

It is strange that the Divine Comedy should have begun to be read again, after its eclipse during the period of the Enlightenment, just when the disappearance of the traditional culture was first sharply felt—with the revolutionary movements of the early romantics. Perhaps that is because the need for a way of life can only be felt with a depth comparable to Dante's, when no common way of life exists.


Dante has plainly indicated the main stages of the purgatorial journey, in the chronology of the ascent of the Mountain, and in the varied scenes of the climb. The first Day is spent in the foothills of the Antipurgatorio. The first night marks the mysterious transition to the realm of purgation proper, within the Gates. The second Day shows the ascent of the Mountain, painfully, under Virgil's guidance; and the second night marks another important change. During the third Day the ascent is easier, the scene of the climb more rich and exhilarating. The third night is spent on the threshold of Eden, and during the morning of the fourth Day, Eden, the Paradiso Terrestre, is explored. The literal narrative is clear; it recounts the ascent of a Mountain, from its rugged foothills to the meadowy plateau on its summit. But the distance figured in this climb is not spatial, but spiritual, like that between childhood and age. The movement which the reader is supposed to follow is double: that of the literal climb, and a movement of understanding, to which the developing inner life of Dante the Pilgrim is the clue.

One may start to enjoy the poetry of the Purgatorio immediately, but there is no short cut to understanding, no possibility of looking up the answers at the back of the book. It is true that Dante used many maps and blue-prints in building his great theater for this journey. There is a geographical plan, and an astronomical scheme governing the significant and elaborately worked-out chronology. There is a moral map, a Thomistic-Aristotelian classification of sins, with Pride at the bottom, nearest to Hell, and Lust at the top, nearest to Eden. The commentators have worked out most of these blueprints clearly, and their results are summarized in the excellent notes and appendices of the Temple Classics edition. But these abstract schemes have no more to do with what goes on in the poem than a road-map has to do with hitch-hiking to Chicago. Dante did not believe that the varied modes of human life could be “known” abstractly; the knowledge he seeks to convey is so close to home that it may actually avail to free and nourish the spirit. That is why, instead of writing a psychology, he dramatizes the acquisition of insight, carefully distinguishing between what he knows as author of the poem and what it takes, and means, to get knowledge.

Dante writes the poem as the record of a journey which he once took and now remembers. He writes in the first person; and yet the distinction between Dante speaking as the author, and Dante the Pilgrim, is fundamental to the whole structure. The author, when he reminds us of his existence, is outside the fictive world of the poem; the Pilgrim is the protagonist of the drama, the center of each scene. The author knows the whole story in advance, the Pilgrim meets everything freshly, for the first time. The two perspectives together produce a sort of stereoptical effect, that of an objective and partially mysterious reality. The shifting tensions between the two make the complex movement of the poem, and sustain its suspense. The Pilgrim is very much like one of Henry James's central intelligences, visible himself as a particular individual, yet revealing to the reader both the story and its meaning as he learns it. The Pilgrim's awareness is always moving toward the author's, but when they coincide, in the very strange and wonderful close of the Paradiso Terrestre, all narrative movement, and all growth of understanding, cease. While the poem unfolds, the Pilgrim's awareness is the moving center of the composition.

Dante explained to Can Grande how his poem was to be read and understood. “The exposition of the letter,” he wrote, “is nought else than the development of the form.” By the letter he meant the literal fiction of the journeys to the other world, all that the Pilgrim sees and feels and hears there. By the development of the form he meant that musical or dramatic unfolding which I tried to describe above: the drama of the Pilgrim's growing understanding. It has not, I think, been sufficiently noticed how strongly Dante puts his prescription for interpreting his poem: the exposition (or interpretation) is the development of the form—not any aspect of the structure which may be abstracted and considered as a static scheme, but the shifting life of the growing soul itself, imitated in the ceaseless movement of the terza rima.

The plan of these studies is intended to follow Dante's prescription as I understand it. Each phase of the journey—from childhood to age, or from innocence to natural sanctity—has its own irreducible significance, its own mode of understanding, which is imitated in the poem itself. The four parts of the book are devoted to the four Days of the journey. The titles I have used for the four Days are intended to suggest the nature of the drama, always a struggle for freedom and understanding, but going on in a different way in each phase of growth. It is necessary to linger over each one, because they are so different from each other.


Dante announces the theme of the whole Purgatorio, with his usual decision, in the opening chords of the very first canto:

Per correr miglior acqua alza le vele
          omai la navicella del mio ingegno,
          che lascia retro a sè mar sì crudele.
(To run over better waters now hoists sail
          the little bark of my native talent,
          which leaves behind it a sea so cruel.)

The search for the better describes the action, the movement-of-spirit, of the whole poem. But the metaphor of the ocean voyage is not connected with the journey up the Mountain. Dante is speaking as author, outside the fictive world of the Purgatorio, of a journey which is neither that of this life, nor that of Hell, but the hope-inspired journey of the making of this canticle:

E canterò di quel secondo regno
          dove l’umano spirito si purga,
          e di salire al ciel diventa degno.
(And I shall sing of that second kingdom
          wherein the human spirit is made clean,
          becoming worthy to ascend to heaven.)

He goes on (lines 7-13) to bid dead poetry, the poetry of the ancient world, to rise again to help him.

We feel the lift of the ocean-voyage through the whole passage, as we do in the more triumphant use of that metaphor in the second canto of the Paradiso, which I quoted above. We may also remember the ocean-music of Ulysses' superb narrative of his foolish flight into these realms (Inferno XXVI)—“to seek virtue and knowledge,” as he told his followers. This is one of several echoes of Ulysses' voyage in the first canto, and no doubt Dante wishes to suggest an analogy between Ulysses' motive and the aspiration which moves him to poetry here. But he does not offer explanations of these relationships. We know that the Pilgrim, leaving Ulysses, descended to the bottom, and then found that his descent had mysteriously turned into a climb upward. We know that Ulysses was wrecked on a Mountain which he had not foreseen. The aspiration of this canticle is like Ulysses' but reborn beyond his confines. But it would be a mistake to try to connect these voyages literally: they are different, and very Dantesque, uses of the journey-metaphor, each with its own relation to the journey of this life.

In line 13 we suddenly find ourselves in this realm, at the beginning of this journey, with the Pilgrim, weak after Hell, where dawn finds him on the beach:

Dolce color d’oriental zaffiro,
          che s’accoglieva nel sereno aspetto
          dell’aer puro infino al primo giro,
agli occhi miei ricominiciò diletto,
          tosto ch’i’uscii fuor dell’aura
          che m’avea contristati gli occhi e il petto.
(The tender color of the eastern sapphire,
          which was appearing in the tranquil height
          of pure air, as far as to the first gyre,
restored to my eyes once more their delight,
          as soon as I emerged from the dead air
          which had so saddened both my eyes and heart.)

The author, outside the poem, speaks with a sense of its vast scope, its difference from life itself, and its varied but related themes of journeying. But the Pilgrim can only see the comforting return of an earthly dawn. The distance between them suggests the distance we have to go, and the childlike state of being with which this journey begins.

Notes on the Text

“Can Grande.” The quotation is from the Letter he wrote dedicating the Paradiso to his patron. It will be found, in translation, in Latin Works of Dante Alighieri (The Temple Classics, London: J. M. Dent and Sons, Ltd., 1929), page 351. The Letter is a concentrated work, and not easy reading, but it contains many useful explanations of the purpose and style of the Commedia. I have used it again and again in these studies.

“Metaphor of the Journey.” There is a very clear analysis of Dante's complex use of this metaphor in the beginning of the Inferno in “The Other Journey,” by Charles Singleton (Kenyon Review, Vol. XIV, No. 2, Spring 1952).

“Myths of prehistoric culture-heroes.” We are only beginning to see how much mythic lore underlies the Comedy in one way or another. There are references to it in The Timeless Theme, by Colin Still (London: Ivor Nicholson & Watson, 1936), page 97 and passim. Die Jenseitsvorstellungen vor Dante, by Dr. August Rüegg (Cologne: Verlagsanstalt Benziger & Co., 1945), is a collection of legends of journeys to the other world which bear some resemblance to Dante's, many of which Dante may have known. I do not think Dr. Rüegg's book is at all complete—it does not, for instance, describe Arabic parallels—but it shows the kind of research that is possible in this field.

“The Paradiso.” The reader can see the importance of the Paradiso for a complete understanding of the Comedy in Auerbach's Dante als Dichter or in Poetica e Poesia di Dante, by Francesco Biondolillo (Messina: Casa Editrice G. d’Anna, 1948), a very useful introduction to the reading of the Comedy. Symbolism in Medieval Thought, by H. F. Dunbar (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1929) is a much more ambitious study of the whole symbolism of the Comedy as culminating in the third canticle. See also “The Symbolic Imagination,” by Allen Tate, Kenyon Review, Vol. XIV, No. 2, Spring 1952.

“Professor Maritain.” cf. “Dante's Innocence and Luck,” by Jacques Maritain, Kenyon Review, Vol. XIV, No. 2, Spring 1952.

“Professor Curtius.” The reference is to Europäische Literatur and Lateinisches Mittelalter, by Ernst Robert Curtius (Bern: A. Francke AG. Verlag, 1948). Professor Curtius has comparatively little to say directly about Dante, but his monumental study shows the centrality of Dante's culture. I mention it here in case the reader may wish documentation—but the erudite problems are beyond my capacity and the purpose of my studies. See below for further references to this work.

“Shelley.” Shelley says: “The poetry of Dante may be considered as the bridge thrown over the stream of time, which unites the modern and ancient world.” From “The Defense of Poetry,” page 511 in The Selected Poetry and Prose of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. by Carlos Baker (New York: The Modern Library, 1951).

“Eliot.” Selected Essays, page 225.

“with the revolutionary movements of the early romantics.” Our modern reading of Dante, like so much else in our literary culture, started to develop in that period. “Dante in der deutschen Romantik,” by Clara-Charlotte Fuchs, in Deutsches Dantejahrbuch, 15 Band, is a useful collection. I owe this reference to Professor Auerbach.

“Henry James.” James's theory of the central intelligence is scattered throughout his Prefaces. He says, for example, about Roderick Hudson: “The center of interest throughout ‘Roderick’ is in Rowland Mallet's consciousness, and the drama is the very drama of that consciousness.” Page 16, The Art of the Novel, Critical Prefaces, by Henry James, with an Introduction by R. P. Blackmur. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1947.)

Further Reading

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Brownlee, Kevin. “Dante and Narcissus (Purg. XXX, 76-99).” Dante Studies XCVI (1978): 201-06.

Interprets Canto XXX as a reversal of the story of Narcissus, with the Pilgrim turning away from his own reflection with shame.

Cambon, Glauco. “The Purgatorial Smile: A Footnote on Dante's Humor.” Yearbook of Italian Studies 4 (1980): 105–15.

Asserts that Dante uses humor in the Purgatorio not just for comic relief, but also to show humor as a part of the “process of self-liberation.”

Doré, Gustave. The Doré Illustrations for Dante's “Divine Comedy.” New York: Dover Publications, 1976, 135p.

One hundred and thirty six plates of engravings by the famous nineteenth-century century illustrator.

Foster, Kenelm. “The Human Spirit in Action: Purgatorio XVII.” Dante Studies LXXXVIII (1970): 17-29.

Examines Canto XVII and finds it a transitional canto, lacking normal drama, but beautiful in its variety and what it shows of human imagination, perception, and reasoning.

Grandgent, C. H. Companion to “The Divine Comedy.” Edited by Charles S. Singleton. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975, 316p.

Commentary, introductions to each canto, charts, and diagrams, to aid readers of The Divine Comedy.

Heilbronn, Denise. “Dante's Valley of the Princes.” Dante Studies XC (1972): 43-58.

Analysis of Canto VIII of Purgatoriothat focuses on the “allegorical enactment of the intermediate Advent.”

——————. “The Prophetic Role of Statius in Dante's Purgatorio.” Dante Studies XCV (1977): 53-67.

Analysis of Canto XXI; focuses on Statius's meeting with the wayfarers, and his transitional function.

Hollander, Robert. “The Women of Purgatorio: Dreams, Voyages, Prophecies.” In Allegory in Dante's “Commedia”, pp. 136-91. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969.

Examines figural patterns, including that of Ulysses and the Sirens, used in passages concerning Matilda and Beatrice.

——————. “Dante's Use of the Fiftieth Psalm (A Note on Purg. XXX, 84).” Dante Studies XCI (1973): 145-50.

Contends that the angels stop singing at the precise point they do because Dante has not yet reached the moment of repentance.

Iannucci, Amilcare A. “The Nino Visconti Episode in Purgatorio VIII (vv. 43-84).” La Fusta 3, No. 2 (Fall 1978): 1-8.

Interprets the negligent priest episode as “universal history individualized” in that Nino's story represents the fall and the redemption of man.

Kaske, Carol V. “Mount Sinai and Dante's Mount Purgatory.” Dante Studies LXXXIX (1971): 1-18.

Argues that Dante uses Sinai typology and Exodus motifs in developing his Mount Purgatory.

Mackay, L. A. “Statius in Purgatory.” Classica et Mediaevalia XXVI (1965): 293-305.

Summarizes Statius's work and argues that Dante liked him because “for Statius the way to salvation was opened by poetry.”

Nolan, David, ed. Dante Commentaries: Eight Studies of the “Divine Comedy.” Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1977, 184p.

Includes analyses of Cantos XIX, XXVII, and XXVIII.

Smith, Nathaniel B. “Arnaut Daniel in the Purgatorio: Dante's Ambivalence toward Provençal.” Dante Studies XCVIII (1980): 99-109.

Explores the reasons why Dante preferred the Italian language while still admiring the language of the troubadours.

Spraycar, Rudy S. “Dante's lago del cor.” Dante Studies XCVI (1978): 1-19.

Analyzes the imagery of the lake of the heart, frozen by pride.

Stambler, Bernard. “The Confrontation of Beatrice and Dante: Purgatorio XXX.” Italica XLII, No. 1 (March 1965): 61-97.

Explains why, in Canto XXX, Dante “projects a marriage only to frustrate it,” and examines the notion of the Three Utopias.

Wenzel, Siegfried. “Dante's Rationale for the Seven Deadly Sins (Purgatorio XVII).” Modern Language Review 60, No. 4 (October 1965): 529-33.

Contends that William Peraldus, a thirteenth-century theologian, is the source for Dante's explanation of the seven deadly sins as misdirected love.

Additional coverage of Dante's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism, Vols. 3, 18; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 21.

Glauco Cambon (essay date 1965)

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SOURCE: “Purgatorio, Canto V: The Modulations of Solicitude,” Books Abroad 39, May, 1965, pp. 69-73.

[In the following essay, Cambon discusses the function of the humorous elements in Canto V, a canto he describes as “a ceremony enacting the progression of solicitude.”]

It is not true of many another Canto, as it certainly is of Purg. V, that its thematic structure recapitulates the movement of the whole Divine Comedy. It does this by looking back to the earth of the living and eventually re-echoing the infernal world, while at its climax foreshadowing Paradise; indeed a Paradisal anticipation can be overheard in the Canto even before the transfigured voice of Pia de’ Tolomei comes to suggest heavenly peace as an antiphon to the remembered turmoil of murder, battle, and storm. Few Cantos exhibit such variety of tones, and no other so thoroughly rehearses the fundamental gesture of the Comedy from the perspective of Purgatory—a privileged perspective for our poet, who can here enjoy the double advantage of closeness to earth, to human history with its passions, and openness to heaven. We might rephrase this by pointing out how this closeness to the physical world is also a distance. The empire of passion—a slavery in Hell—is now left behind, and viewed at one remove, with the liberty warranted by final hope. Yet this hope is bound up with memory, and love with suffering—we are “no longer down there” but also “not yet up there”; we are in a middle kingdom, a kingdom of impermanence between two extremes—and as such indeed the ideal kingdom of artists, who significantly abound on the slopes of this island mountain. A further consideration will show that this transitory stage between two worlds [the one of despair and the one of ecstasy] is the more nearly human world, the one where man, although he has left his flesh behind, must labor to transcend its residual heritage.

In Canto V, transitoriness is even more poignant because we are still in Antepurgatorio—on the threshold of Heaven's threshold, so to speak, in a kind of no man's land where the souls feel their earthly ties along with the urgency of an admission to the hierarchy of purgative suffering. The relief at knowing themselves saved is counterpointed by recurrent nostalgia, as unforgettably focussed by the beginning of Canto VIII. Nostalgia grips Dante and Casella upon meeting each other on Purgatory shore, so that stern Cato has to break up what is an emotional and aesthetic indulgence to urge the new arrivals on to their assignments.

A similar sternness prompts Virgil in turn to scold his easily distracted ward at the beginning of our Canto, when the thronging souls' cries of wonder at Dante's corporeality [he is the only one there to cast a shadow] cause the unghostly one to slow down:

… vidile guardar per maraviglia
pur me, pur me, e ‘l lume ch’era rotto.
“Perché l’animo tuo tanto s’impiglia”
disse ‘l maestro, “che l’andare allenti?
che ti fa ciò che quivi si pispiglia?
Vien dietro a me, e lascia dir le genti … 

Virgil's sententious admonition here, exhorting Dante to keep his purpose more firmly in mind, sounds excessive at first by comparison with the slight occasion for it [in the same way, one resents Cato's censorious intrusion upon the lovely gathering in Canto II]. Our sympathy is with the spontaneous behavior of the childishly curious souls, and with Dante's equally spontaneous reaction:

… e seguitava l’orme del mio duca,
quando di retro a me, drizzando il dito,
una gridò: “Ve’ che non par che luca
lo raggio da sinistra a quel di sotto,
e come vivo par che si conduca!”
Gli occhi rivolsi al suon di questo motto,
e vidile guardar per maraviglia … 

Actually, our pilgrim is emerging from the midst of the negligent souls, and his solicitous guide has reason to warn him against any waste of time. Dante has just taken his leave of lazy Belacqua [Canto IV], and the natural action of turning around and slowing down his gait at the voice of curiosity is too natural for comfort in view of the self-purifying task that awaits him in this realm of purification. At the gate of Purgatory proper, the angel will tell Dante that there is no turning back. As against the solicitude and ascetic purposiveness required by the situation, Belacqua was a comical portrait of the allzumenschlich man, of non-self-transcending naturalness. And a comic note—of the refined quality compatible with Purgatorial atmosphere—rings on right here at the beginning of Canto V, down to Dante's blush at his master's reproach: the self-mortification of the poet renders a kind of poetic justice to Belacqua. We shall find more examples of this Purgatorial humor later on, when Virgil and Dante momentarily conspire to keep eager Statius in the dark about the revered Latin's identity, or when [XXIV, 2-24] Forese shows his friend Dante the Rabelaisian Pontiff who is now purging his immoderate taste for

l’anguille di Bolsena e la vernaccia.

And at the beginning of Canto VI, as a kind of comic relief from the high pitch reached in Canto V through the tragic voices of Jacopo, Buonconte, and Pia, we shall see Dante again involved in a situation of humorous import when the anxious souls crowd around him to wrest promises he knows he cannot keep, feeling as he does like a winning player beset by the less fortunate ones.

To be sure, the comic note is never an end in itself, but only modulates consummate transitions to lyrical transport, as at the end of Canto XXI, when Statius embraces Virgil unexpectedly recognized “trattando l’ombre come cosa salda,” or at the outset of Canto VI, where the animation of the garrulously insistent petitioners around Dante turns out to provide a sharp foil for the affectionate meeting of Virgil with his proudly solitary fellow poet from Mantua and for Dante's own passionate invective against strife-ridden Italy. Here in Canto V, the comical start will gradually introduce the complex choreography that is to culminate in the sustained trio of two warriors and a woman whose epitaph rings forever in our mind's ear. In ranging through such a vast gamut of tones, Dante's gift for dramatic modulation shows to advantage as he reattains a pitch worthy of Inferno's strongest moments yet with an ease, an airiness which would have been impossible there. This ease springs from the new acceptance of human nature as something to be improved, but also understood [hence the airy nature of humor here], and from the detachment with which life on earth is viewed [hence the airy nature of tragedy here: the Antepurgatorio spirits who died violently and repented at the last moment are still recent dead, still very much of earth, yet not so bound to their earthly roots that they cannot rise above them in the very act of describing their earthly end: a cathartic serenity softens the notes of pity and horror here, whereas horror and pity held full sway in Hell].

In such a context, ease is only the other side of solicitude, or else the initial comedy could not lead so naturally to the crescendo of earnestness that brings the Canto, as a subordinate organic unit of the long poem, to its resolution. Consider the comedy of manners, the ritual of etiquette that provides the initial movement: the curious souls attracting Dante's attention, Dante's response [a mixture of embarrassment, amusement, and vanity, as expressed by that “pur me, pur me”] eliciting Virgil's reprimand [no time to lose!], Dante dutifully falling into line as a scolded schoolboy, then a renewed interruption, harder to ignore because it comes, this time, from a flock of souls walking in front and across our visitors' path, not behind; and also because they seem less idle and gossipy than the others—they are brought up short in their absorbing litany by the unexpected discovery of a living visitor in their realm:

E ’ntanto per la costa di traverso
venivan genti innanzi a noi un poco,
cantando ‘Miserere’ a
verso a verso.
Quando s’accorser ch’i’ non dava loco
per lo mio corpo al trapassar de’ raggi,
mutar lor canto in un ‘Oh!’ lungo e roco … 

Again, it is a comical note that elicits dramatic movement and plausibility: Dante's “realism,” to say it with Luigi Malagoli, Dante's observance, Dante's spare language which is all things and actions, and thus makes the essential innuendos possible. At this point, the proceedings cease to be casual and formalize themselves into a kind of courtly choreography, with the new group of souls sending out two messengers to find out who our two pilgrims are, and the messengers returning to their senders with Virgil's diplomatic reply—a reply which shows some relenting from his earlier refusal to get involved with these curious people, without however failing to make the point that Dante's time is precious:

           … “Voi potete andarne
e ritrarre a color che vi mandaro
che ‘l corpo di costui è vera carne.
Se per veder la sua ombra restaro,
com’io avviso, assai è lor risposto:
faccianli onore, ed esser può lor caro”.

Virgil's diplomacy is a matter of solicitude for his pupil, whom he is trying to shield from importunate curiosity. There is condescension in his message to the eager souls, and just as he reproached Dante for indulging in idle diversion, he now emphasizes to the crowding inhabitants of the place the importance of the distinguished “foreign” visitor. The exhortation to honor Dante may, however, imply more than a plea for discretion: it leaves the door open for an interview if the souls here met have more serious business in mind than childlike curiosity. Thus, by a carefully worded after-thought, Virgil the severe mentor becomes once again the tactful intercessor—his severity being definitively mollified by the meteor-like swiftness with which the two messengers flit back to report his words to their group, and by the group's quick response:

Vapori accesi non vid’io sì tosto
di prima notte mai fender sereno,
né, sol calando, nuvole d’agosto,
che color non tornasser suso in meno;
e, giunti là, con li altri a noi dier volta
come schiera che scorre sanza freno.

Apart from the airy, almost Paradisal quality of the similes employed to depict the messengers' rapidity and their senders' promptness in forcing an interview upon our exceptional visitor, it is hard to miss in their action a touch of humor which seems consistent with their bodiless nature. This Purgatorial smile compounds loss and deliverance [what does it mean to have shed a body without yet attaining the ultimate fulfillment of Heaven? small wonder that the bodiless ones fuss about Dante's corporeal integrity, and that the theme of flesh unexpectedly present and flesh too suddenly relinquished runs through the whole Canto, counterpointing smile to sadness!]. The humor is not lost on Virgil the impatient but benevolent oldtimer of the Beyond vis-à-vis these newcomers; at the same time, our stern master of ceremonies would not countenance the sudden unrestraint of these recent dead [who still have to undergo the refining ordeals of Purgatory, and still belong in a no man's land], and he would not plead their cause with Dante, as he does in lines 43-45, if he did not sense in their haste [an otherwise unseemly form of behavior for him] a candid expression of zest. Curiosity was a regrettable form of self-indulgence, but it actually sparked solicitude, and this affords a mutual reward in the initially casual encounter. It is here, at the hinge of dramatic action, when external movement rises to its climax, that comedy modulates into deep earnestness, with Virgil withdrawing from conversation to let Dante take over.

“Questa gente che preme a noi è molta”: these people are not to be put off, and they must not, for their urgency is an imperious prayer, “e vegnonti a pregar.” The exchange between them and Dante can only be defined as passionate courtesy; the diplomacy of exploration yields to the effusion of prayer, the heightened form of solicitude, which includes the dead and the living and makes Dante an intercessor in his turn between the two worlds. This justifies pragmatically the dramatic device of “building up” Dante's person from the start by having him function as the center of converging interest from all sides. There is appropriate dramatic progression in the way Virgil passes on to Dante the role of interceding for the dead with the living, and this progression develops further as Dante hears out the soliciting chorus and in so doing yields in his turn the center of the stage. The dead—for whom it is a little like returning to life to have the privilege of speaking to a man in flesh and blood—first address him as a unanimous chorus, to state their condition and general request; they want to be recognized or at least known, so that their plight and their need for supporting prayer may be reported to whoever cares in the world they so abruptly left:

“O anima che vai per esser lieta
con quelle membra con le quai nascesti”
venian gridando, “un poco il passo queta.
Guarda s’alcun di noi unqua vedesti,
sì che di lui di là novella porti:
deh, perché vai? deh, perché non t’arresti?
Noi fummo tutti già per forza morti,
e peccatori infino a l’ultima ora …”

Then, after Dante denies having ever met any of them before, and assures them of his willingness to help, in the name of that peace which through Virgil

di mondo in mondo cercar mi si face,

the chorus individualizes itself in a succession of three personal voices summarizing three unique destinies. This is the full release of the dead folk's urgency [“questa gente che preme a noi è molta …”], and here the poetry of the episode gains full momentum with the utmost sharpening of dramatic focus. The initial groping of curiosity and wonder has become dawning cognition and final recognition, even if not of the kind that previous personal acquaintance makes possible in the cases of a Latini, a Casella or a Forese. The latter kind, of course, would have demanded a continued dialogue between poet and interlocutor, with the intimate touches that are out of place in this different context, where the voice of each self-revealing figure supersedes that of its intent evoker.

If the breathless sequence of the three tragic stories, punctuated only by Dante's question to Buonconte about Buonconte's burial, rhythmically embodies the release of mounting pressure, the fullest expansion of that delayed release has to be seen in Buonconte's prolonged description of the devil-conjured storm and flood which disposed of his forlorn corpse. The onrush of his words mimetically parallels the fury of the torrential waters, and throws into sharper relief the epigrammatic composure of Pia's elegy:

“Deh, quando tu sarai tornato al mondo,
e riposato de la lunga via”
seguitò il terzo spirito al secondo,
“ricorditi di me che son la Pia:
Siena mi fé; disfecemi Maremma;
salsi colui che 'nnanellata pria
disposando m’avea con la sua gemma”.

Here the expansive momentum of release makes room for an ingathering of the voice, an orchestral etherealization resulting from diminished volume and higher register—fit climax for the dramatic progression we have been tracing in the elaborate unfolding of this rich Canto. After Jacopo del Cassaro's grim account of his bloody death, and Buonconte's story of the power that hell wields on earth, Pia de’ Tolomei's feminine gentleness brings a glimmer of Paradisal peace in the stormy context. Unlike her rugged male companions, she avoids grisly details and—in prefiguration of Paradiso style—gives us the purified essence of her destiny on earth [“Siena mi fé; disfecemi Maremma”]. This shows even in her choice of the most symbolically comprehensive verb for the action of death [“Maremma unmade me”] as against the specific realism of “I fell” on the part of both Jacopo and Buonconte [“Corsi al palude, e le cannucce e ’l braco / m’impigliar sì, ch’i’ caddi …”; “e quivi / caddi e rimase la mia carne sola”].

Thus gentle Pia, midway between Francesca and Beatrice, crowns this foreshortened epic of medieval Italy [the dimension Vico saw as dominant in our manifold poem] with her unwarlike song; and she does that the better because she reveals herself as the very essence of solicitude in this Canto where solicitude provides the keynote against a background of the world's ravages and neglect. Jacopo and Buonconte urge Dante to obtain prayers for them from the survivors; she thinks first of his fatiguing journey, as a sister would, and of the rest he will have to take before busying himself with his embassies from the world of the dead. Her greater detachment from earth and selfishness shows also in the discretion of her request to Dante, whom she merely asks to remember her, while Jacopo gives specific directions as to what to do for him in his native town of Fano, and Buonconte laments that “Giovanna o altri non ha di me cura.” Jacopo even sighs for the world he left when he considers that, if he had not taken the wrong path to escape his murderers, he would “still be there, where one breathes.” It is an understandable trait in such a man of action that he should fleetingly regret the lost chance for further action on earth, while Pia, a passive victim, only thinks of herself in passive terms, even stylistically [“Siena made me; Maremma unmade me; … he knows who … had put his wedding ring on me”]. It is likewise understandable that she, a woman, should refer to her murderous husband [without of course mentioning his name, as if to exorcise him in the very act of bringing him into the picture] and wistfully think of the wedding ceremony.

But all the Canto has been a ceremony enacting the progression of solicitude, as those dead well know who remember their “deserted flesh” and their untended name among the living [“non ha di me cura …”]. Dramatic characterization has undergone a gradual heightening to ritual choreography and choral song, as led by choragus Jacopo and concluded by the soprano voice of Pia. Between Belacqua's laziness in Canto IV and Dante's outburst of patriotic outrage in Canto VI, the awakening and intensification of cura is aptly placed in Canto V. As an ambassador of the dead, Dante speaks to the living, and if he cares for the individual destiny of each purging soul, he cares even more for the communal destiny of Italy and Christianity, which embraces the living and the dead. But only a poet—especially a poet among poets here in Purgatorio—can be trusted with such a mission, and the occasional reluctance he and Virgil show to the thronging souls that want to be heard is only ironic dramatization of this solicitous care. The souls crowding around Dante in Cantos V and VI are characters in search of an author. Like Pirandello's figures in the play by that name and in a short story related to it, these souls solicit their prospective author because they want to exist more fully. It is a double deliverance they expect of him: that he obtain prayers on their behalf to shorten their waiting period in Purgatory, and that he renew their memory on earth—by giving them a local habitation and a name in his poem. If he cannot satisfy all of them, this only dramatizes the magnitude of his task as a poet, as the intermediary zwischen zwei Welten, and his awareness of the impossibility to do total justice to his mission. But the fact that some of these restless ghosts do find their author in Dante seals his success, while objectifying for us the progress of solicitude as the drama of poetry taking shape right here, in this Purgatorial Limbo, on the threshold of a threshold—where the poet's concern for his prospective creatures is most urgently needed, and coincides with his concern for the world they once shared.

Colin G. Hardie (essay date 1965)

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SOURCE: “A Note on Purgatorio IX, 16-18,” Books Abroad, Vol. 39, 1965, pp. 74-80.

[In the following essay, Hardie discusses the importance of variant wording concerning dreams in Canto IX, thereby illustrating the type of problems which stem from the corruption of Dante's text.]

e che la mente nostra peregrina
          più da la carne e men dai pensier presa,
                    a le sue vision quasi è divina.

These lines form part of Dante's introduction to the first of the three dreams on the Mount of Purgatory, which take place just before dawn and are therefore true dreams, on the principle borrowed from Horace, Satires 1. X. 32 [and found also in Moschus, Europa 2-5, and Philostratus, Vita Apoll. Tyan. 2,37] and quoted in Inferno XXVI, 7:

ma se presso al mattin del ver si sogna.

The first dream is of an eagle with golden wings which swoops on Dante, as he dreams that he is like Ganymede on Trojan Ida, and carries him up to the sphere of fire where the heat wakes him. [cf. Aristotle, On divination in sleep 463a; 5-16: “When a slight warmth affects some parts of their body, they imagine that they are walking through fire and being violently burnt.”] …

Virgil tells him that St. Lucy, who had intervened for him in Inferno II, came before dawn and lifted him up from Antepurgatory to just below the entrance to Purgatory proper. It is the height attained rather than the time taken in the journey that makes the sun be more than two hours up when Dante wakes after the flight. In I, 10 Dante reminds us that he was in the body:

che meco avea di quel d’Adamo.

In view of this last circumstance especially, I was troubled when reading this canto by

peregrina / più da
la carne,

since Dante's body is actually lifted up a long way during the dream. It is not that his spirit or soul departs from his body to view something distant in space or time. In the dream he is aware, under a fairly transparent velame of imagery, of what is happening bodily to him. The dream is a reflection of what is actually being done to his body. It seemed therefore inappropriate to emphasize that his mente is unusually detached from his body, and at the same time that his body is concerned in the dream, as it is not in the remaining two dreams in Purgatory, of the siren and of Rachel and Leah.

Accordingly I jotted down in the margin “for ‘più de la carne’ read ‘men da la carne’,” and wished that Dante had said this because it would so much better suit the view he takes of the relation of body and soul in the Comedy, departing decisively from the doctrine of the Convivio, in my opinion.1 No modern commentator mentioned any variant reading, but in his Textual Criticism of the Divina Commedia, Cambridge [1889], Moore cites the variant:

men da la carne e più da pensier presa,

in which men and più have been changed round in the line. Only four MSS., however, have this reading against the two hundred which Moore collated, on the other side. One of these four may be early 14th century, another dates from about 1370, and the other two are of the 15th century. But the interesting thing is that Dante's son, Pietro, had the reading “men … più” before him since he says: “in qua etiam hora matutinali mens nostra peregrina minus a carne et plus a cogitationi occupatur et quasi indivina est;” and also explains why Dante mentions “quel d’Adamo,” namely because the soul does not sleep at all except in the body: “nam anima sine corpore non dormit, sed cum corpore.” It is curious that in the massive selection from the commentators made by Biagi, Passerini, and Rostagno, La Divina Commedia nella figurazione artistica e nel secolare comento, 1931, Pietro's comment seems to be misreported, if one is to trust Nannucci's edition of 1845, published at Lord Vernon's expense. Biagi & Co. assign to Pietro the explanation that Moore mentions as regular among the early commentators, from Jacopo della Lana onwards: that the stomach is empty at this hour of the day and so the brain clearer of its exhalations. Pietro according to Biagi says: “[più dalla carne] cum anima nostra … libera est a passionibus corporalibus, digestione facta et cerebro sobrio facto a fumositatibus stomaci melius et perfectius impressionem recipit a celestibus corporibus et constellationibus.”

Moore adds: “there is little doubt that Pietro is wrong and the lectio vulgaris right,” since “Scartazzini's explanation makes all clear and consistent.” Scartazzini quotes Cicero, de Senectute 79-81 [which is a quotation from Xenophon's Cyropedia VII, 7, 17-] and especially the phrases: “animum … cum omni admixtione corporis liberatus purus et integer esse coepisset, tum esse sapientem” and “multa enim [animi dormientium] cum remissi et liberi sunt, futura prospiciunt; ex quo intelligitur, quales sunt, cum se plane corporis vinculis relaxaverint.”

No doubt Dante had this passage of Cicero in mind, as he had when he discussed the divination of our dreams as a proof of immortality in Conv. II, viii, 13. But why should he not have wished to deny Cicero's doctrine, since in the Comedy he goes out of his way to develop a different view of the relation of body and soul, by showing Virgil, in Purg. III, who in Aeneid VI had embraced the view of the body as the prison of the soul, incapable of understanding the Aristotelian view, and by assigning to Statius later in Purg. XXV, the explanation in Aristotelian terms of the body as the “organ” of the soul? In Inf. X, 58-9 Dante uses the Virgilian phrase for the body, Aeneid, VI, 734, in a very different sense: Cavalcante, who is no longer in the body, but is the immortal soul whose survival he had denied when in the body, uses the words to describe Hell.

Cicero's Somnium Scipionis follows Plato's Phaedo in its hostility to the body as the prison of the soul. If Dante rejects that doctrine, why should he not also reject the consequential doctrine about dreams? Macrobius's Somnium Scipionis is full of Neoplatonic aversion to the body, and in the Consol. Phil. Boethius is more Neoplatonic than Christian. Cicero's de Amicitia, which Dante read early [Conv. II, xii, 3], is similar in rejecting the body as clogging matter.

Moore mentions Witte's Prolegomena [p. 66], where our passage in Pietro's reading, men da la carne is quoted as an example of the rapid corruption of Dante's text, within twenty years of his death, in his son's copy, which one might expect to be actually an autograph. Moore also notes apropos of the fourth MS, [from Florence, dated c. 1370], which reads men dalla carne, that it contains many variants of interest as being somewhat uncommon, though often of questionable value; and some unquestionably arbitrary conjectures, quoting Purg. IX, 17 as one example among several.

Now Pietro is alone among the ancient commentators in reading men da la carne. The others all speak of the soul free from the impacci, vincoli, lacci, contagioni, of the body. The modern commentators follow suit, and not one of them mentions Pietro's variant nor utters the formula lectio difficilior potior. Certainly it looks as if Pietro had simply interchanged men and più, since più dal pensier presa, “more possessed by the thought,” i.e., more absorbed in the apprehension of the idea which the dream presents, is not a very convincing reading. Pensiero hardly seems the word to describe the reception of a dream image, and the meaning “cares, anxieties, anxious and disturbing thoughts” seems more likely. Both the Società Dantesca's text (Vandelli's) and Moore's Oxford read dá, d a apostrophe, pensier, i.e., dai pensieri, less distracted by the thoughts. I should prefer da, without apostrophe, less taken up in thoughts, or in thought, either pensieri or pensiero being taken from pensier, and for the whole line “men da la carne e men da pensier presa” against Pietro's “più dal pensier.” The two expressions would go together; the closer the mind was to the body, the further it would be from its waking preoccupations.

The traditional reading has given rise to some comments that seem strange when one thinks of the immediate context of our lines. Nardi in Dante e la cultura medievale [1949], “L’immortalità dell’ anima,” discussing the argument of Conv. II, vii, 8-13, speaks of “the capacity of the soul to detach itself from the body” and quotes Purg. IX, 13-24 as an illustration. But, as we have seen, Dante's mens is not here detached from his body, but following its spatial movement in an only slightly distorted fashion:

il velo è ben tanto sottile!

Sapegno says that Dante's mind in Purg. IX, 17 is “libero dal peso corporeo,” which is odd when Dante in his dream is very much aware of the weight of his body and the eagle-St. Lucy is “facilitating” (agevolerò) what otherwise would have been a very fatiguing climb.

Porena's comment is “più distaccato dalla carne e meno preso dai pensieri della vita presente … sì che i sogno non sono, come in altre ore, transformazioni di sensazioni attuali o evocazioni di fatti della vita presente: ma vengono dal di fuori di noi per opera divina.” But Dante's dream is precisely here a transformation of present sensations, and is an evocation of the immediate fact, and does not come from outside him “per opera divina.” There is indeed an opera divina at work, namely that St. Lucy lifts his body. Dante's dream is not possible as a simple dream, like the other two; it is conceivable only as a dream within a dream, but that is after all what it is, a dream within the total vision of the Comedy. Porena's comment “vengono dal di fuori di noi per opera divina” reminds us of the comment which Biagi attributes to Pietro di Dante “melius et perfectius recipit a celestibus corporibus et constellationibus.” Now this is in harmony with Dante's theory of “vivid imaginations” in Purg. XVII, 13-18:

                    O imaginativa … 
chi muove te, se il senso non ti porge?
Muoveti lume che nel ciel s’informa
per se o per voler che giù lo scorge.

This is perhaps illustrated by St. Lucy as the light of grace sent down to lift Dante as part of the whole vision, but not by this dream, within the vision, in Purg. IX, which is not an impression obtained “a celestibus corporibus et constellationibus”; it is an impression of what is being done between Antepurgatory and Purgatory proper.

In Purg. IX there seems to be a case for “peregrina men da la carne,” and it is easy to explain why it should have been corrupted by the general view of true dreams as occurring when the soul is detached from the body and so able to foresee the future, and by the prevailing ascetic Neoplatonism, both in Dante's time and now, that regards the body and its passions as disturbing and even corrupting to the “purer” soul. Dante himself, as I have said, expresses this Neoplatonic view in the Convivio, e.g., he says that God has wished to deprive us of the beatific vision while we are encumbered with the body. In the Comedy he is granted the beatific vision and insists that he did not leave his body behind. We need not take this, as Nardi strangely seems inclined to do, as Dante literally saying he had been bodily in the center of the earth or in the sphere of the fixed stars, but only as an insistence on the body as an essential part, indeed foundation, of the personality, and an insistence that all the form of the body will be extracted from it and taken up into the soul at death, as Statius is made to say. In the glorification of the body in Par. XIV, 43-60, the body is necessary to the completeness of our personality: “la nostra persona / più grata fia per esser tutta quanta”; and the restoration of the body at the Last Judgement will enhance the vision: “onde la vision crescer conviene”; Dante speaks here again in Aristotelian terms: “che li organi del corpo saran forti.” If Dante did thus change his conception of the body, it is to be expected that he should have worked out the consequences, e.g., in the domain of dreams. He refutes Plato's tripartite soul on the basis of experience, Purg. IV, 1-14. It is clear that he had much experience of and interest in dreams. Now if one thinks of dreams without being prejudiced by the elaborate theories and classifications of Macrobius in the Somnium Scipionis and yet continues to use the common sense distinction of mind and body (however much it may lead one to a “ghost-in-the-machine” impasse), it is surely odd to say that in the early morning the mind is most detached from the body. After hours of sleep the body is most refreshed and vigorous, and the mind, if also invigorated, has been so by being sunk in the body, reduced to unconsciousness, and the “soul” in sleep is deprived of rational2 and even most sensitive functions and works solely on the vegetative level. Waking is usually accompanied by some sense-perception, e.g., the noise that has wakened one, but may often involve absence of mind and puzzlement, and this is just what Dante describes when he wakes from his dream in Purg. IX, 34 … 41:

non altrimente Achille si riscosse … 
… non sappiendo la dove si fosse
…                                         diventai ismorto.

If the mind had been in the dream free from the body and aware of the air-lift of itself by the eagle, it should not be so surprised. Dante's point would seem to be that he expected to wake where he had been when he went to sleep, as usually happens, and was surprised to be somewhere else, even when that place was where he had reached in the dream.

It seems natural to think of the mind on waking as emerging from a prolonged immersion in the body, as “peregrina men da la carne.” If in the Comedy Dante has a unitary theory of soul in place of the Platonic divided soul, and is trying to escape from the ghost-in-the-machine impasse, he might have thought of waking as repeating the development from conception to birth and growing up whereby the vegetative soul becomes sensitive and then rational. A dream might then be thought of as the waking of the mind to sensitive functions, but first to the sensitive functions of inner sense within the treasure-house of memory in the … clearing house of perceptions from all the five senses, but at a time when none of the outer sense organs is active and when no perceptions are arriving from outside. In Purg. XVII Dante thinks of an inner light forcing images on the inward-turned mind when all external distractions are hushed. I suggest that he thinks of this light as working through the vegetative and sensitive souls, and through the matter of the body, and not descending from above onto the top layer of the soul, but coming up from below.3 In the total vision of the Comedy his map of the inner mind, or symbolic geography of self-exploration in depth, suggests that to reach the light, “che nel ciel s’informa,” one must not fly upwards from this side of the world, as the soul does in Alanus de Insulis's Anticlaudianus, but first descend through all that is most material beneath to the center of the earth, where, perhaps surprisingly, there is found the most spiritual being ever created, Lucifer: the most spiritual and the most corrupt, and the source of all other corruption. Matter is not the source of corruption, as the Neoplatonists thought, but the spiritual act of pride in a supernatural being.

Now in the Convivio Dante had adopted the scheme of Alanus de Insulis, the philosophical ascent through the planetary spheres which symbolize the seven arts, and in it and in the de Vulg. Eloquentia II, 4, which belongs to the same period of his thought, he interprets the Virgilian descent into the underworld as the ascent of philosophy out of the slough of bodily passions. It seems to me that in the Comedy he had deliberately turned this upside down, or rather right side up, and made the Descent into the Underworld a real descent, in abandonment of philosophical self-direction, and a self-abandonment to grace. Moreover, Grace shows itself in the imagery whereby it instructs the mind, especially when the mind is passive and receptive to the inner light in dreams. This function and working of dreams is stressed by Beatrice in Purg. XXX, 133—:

nè l’impetrar ispirazion mi valse,
con le quali ed in sogno ed altrimenti
lo rivocai: sì poco a lui ne calse.

I quoted “difficilior lectio potior” a propos of our “peregrina / men de la carne.” But within the immediate context and in the general context of the Comedy, men is lectio facilior. In the general “climate of opinion,” however, it is lectio difficilior. Dante's contemporaries and even commentators were of the opinion of which he himself had been in the Convivio, and they did not understand the revolutionary change which Dante makes in the Comedy. Moreover, most commentators, ancient and modern, have been accustomed to use the Convivio as only just preceding in time, and continuous in thought with the Comedy. The Convivio and Monarchy have been harmonized with the Comedy at the expense of the Comedy; for instance the Comedy is said to divide the Donna Gentile of the Convivio into Virgil and Beatrice, representatives of Reason and Revelation, and the two ultimate ends of man, earthly and celestial felicity, introduced from the Monarchy into the Comedy, and the Comedy's purpose is then to proclaim the doctrine of the two independent and providential institutions. But such assumptions, in my view, seriously distort the Comedy.

It might seem that Dante, who had St. Paul much in mind in describing his spiritual journey, might be using carne in the special Pauline sense of … corrupt human nature. Of course in St. Paul's Epistles it sometimes means the body, the flesh, when the body is the temple of the Holy Ghost and the Word becomes flesh, and the fullness of Godhead is incarnate in Man. … But he also uses it for the corrupt nature with which the spirit must war. Bauer's Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament (1952) gives a useful conspectus of the range of meaning whereby from human nature as of earthly origin, to human and earthly limitation, what is visible to outer sense and natural apprehension, … and finally “nach paulinischer Vorstellung ist das Fleisch das willenlose Werkzeug der Sünde und dieser so unbedingt unterworfen, dass sich, wo Fleisch ist, auch alle Erscheinungs-formen der Sünde finden müssen und in der Sarx nichts gutes wohnen kann,” Romans 7:18. Philo and Sextus are quoted for this use. The note continues: “das Alte Testament behauptet keine Beziehungen zwischen dem Fleisch als Stoff und der Sünde. Dagegen …” and here follow passages from Greek philosophers, Epicurus, Plutarch, Maximus of Tyre, Philo. …

In the dubious Penitential Psalms and Profession of Faith, carne is used in this Pauline sense, but in the Comedy, among twenty-six occurrences of the word, only one comes near it, viz. Par. XIX, 66 where the Eagle of Justice speaks of the only light being that which comes from God, whereas our natural reason “anzi è tenebra / od ombra de la carne o suo veleno.” Here carne seems to mean “fallen nature,” rather than the body, since elsewhere in the Comedy Dante does not speak as if the body as such were an obstacle (cf. Par. X, 116, of Denys the Areopagite, “in carne più addentro vide / l’angelica natura”), still less as a poison, which the Fall might well seem comparable to. In our passage carne seems to be simply the equivalent of quel d’Adamo.

The terms mente, anima, animus (in Cicero), “soul,” “consciousness” have been used above loosely and as if they were synonymous. This would be open to criticism if Dante had not in Purg. IV denied the possibility of neatly separating various “souls,” vegetative, sensitive, and rational. His criticism of Plato is basically a self-correction, an amendment of what he had assumed in the Convivio and even in the Vita Nuova c. II. (On mens as memory cf. B. Nardi, L’Alighieri I (1960), pp. 5-13.)

The early morning dreams of Inf. XXVI, 7 and the imaginativa of Purg. XVII have been mentioned, but the actual examples of dreams in the Comedy may throw more light on how Dante conceives the conditions of the “true” dream in Purg. IX. The dream of the Siren in Purg. XIX is generally accepted as explained correctly by Virgil, as the symbol of the vices of the last three cornices which remain to be climbed. But, if so, its symbolism is not explained and clarified by anything that occurs on these cornices. I regard it as an anticipation of the confrontation of the puttana and Beatrice in the Earthly Paradise, just as Leah and Rachel anticipate Matelda and Beatrice in the third dream. (The meaning of the Siren, however, would take us too far afield.) Leah and Rachel are Old Testament types, in the same way as the eagle and Ganymede are old Greek mythological types of St. Lucy and Dante. But there is also the dream of Count Ugolino in Inf. XXXIII, 26:

                                                            il mal sonno
che del futuro mi squarciò il velame.

Ugolino and his family figure as wolf and cubs; his enemies as hounds. Evidently already in the dream Ugolino understands this well enough, and the dream recapitulates the past and present, and of the future reveals only how wolf and cubs come near to death. But in fact the future is already planned by Ugolino's enemies, who shortly after arrive to lock, or nail up, the door of the “horrible tower.” The dream is rather an instance of thought-transference than of knowledge of the future. The plan of Ugolino's enemies to kill him cannot be frustrated, and so determines the future. The fact that Ugolino and his enemies take animal forms suggests that the “veil” through which the supernatural [in Ugolino's case diabolical?] light is thrown on the screen of Ugolino's passive mind is a bodily veil of flesh, which transforms the human into the animal. Further in interpreting the symbolism of Purgatorio XXXII as a picture of Dante's soul and not of the well-known public vicende della Chiesa, which have been repeatedly discussed earlier in the Comedy without any veil of symbolism, I suggest that the tree and the animals are symbols of vegetative and sensitive souls [not detached Platonically from the rational, but in play with it, in reciprocal interaction]. Cf. D. D. J., 39 [1961], pp. 137-172. If they are to appear in a dream or vision, the mente cannot be out of touch with them, i. e., not “peregrina più da la carne,” but “peregrina men da la carne.”

When I ask myself whether I would print “men da la carne” if I were editing the text, I hesitate because Dante tends to slip back into the normal ways of thinking in his time and hardly to see that he is committed to a revolutionary change in the conception of the “psyche.” For instance, although in Par. I, 139 Beatrice explains that it is natural for the whole man, body and all, when “privo d’impedimento,” to ascend like a flame, St. Peter in Par. XXVII, 64 refers to the body as “lo mortal pondo” which will weigh Dante down again to earth, and in Par. I, 129 a few lines before Beatrice's words just quoted, she lays blame on matter: “perchè a risponder la materia è sorda.” Again the wolf which compels Dante to turn downward in Inf. I has its message confirmed by Virgil and put into the form of rational human communication and therefore can hardly be identified simply with avarice, in Purg. XX, 15 seems to be so identified: “quando verrà per cui questa disceda,” in the cornice of the avaricious. When Dante follows his imagination, he is right, just as Virgil is in the Aeneid. When Virgil gives a philosophical interpretation, e.g., in Anchises's speech in Aen. VI, he makes the body the prison of the soul and the source of evil, and goes wrong. But when he makes Icarus a symbol of the pride that falls, or speaks of Prometheus's attempted deception of Zeus in Ecl. 6:42 [the prisca fraus of Ecl. 4:31 is probably Prometheus's], he finds a symbol that anticipates the Christian “myth” of the fall of Lucifer. So when Dante turns to explain his imagery, he may go wrong or be inadequate as philosopher to explain what as poet he has been inspired to write.

But he seems likely to have been more aware of the context which he created in Purg. IX than some of his commentators and to have seen that the usual idea of the “mente peregrina da la carne” would be in conflict with it. In the same way it seems unlikely that in the very act of writing Paradiso Dante could at the same time have written the Epistle to Cangrande without any reference to what the Comedy, especially the Paradiso, says about its own interpretation, cf. D. D. J., 38 [1960].

P. S. I have had the benefit of some criticism of the above paper from friends. My suggestion to keep the Società Dantesca's comma after nostra, and to read “peregrina men da la carne e men da pensier presa” is criticized as awkward because da is used unsymmetrically in two different senses [“from” and “by”] in a sentence whose symmetry is stressed by the repetition of men. What I want as the sense can be obtained much more easily by removing the comma after nostra to its more natural place at the end of the line, and by reading “più da la carne e men da pensier presa” as one phrase. The sense of da is the same in both uses. This has a further advantage that peregrina will stand alone without the prepositional phrase, of which there is no example in Dante. Peregrino seems always to be absolute [=pilgrim, Purg. VIII, 4; II, 63; XXIII, 16; etc.] or an epithet, e.g., Canzone [c] lo son venuto, 15: lo vento peregrin, and V. N. 42, 11, Oltre la spera, 1.8: lo peregrino spirito la mira, cf. Par. VI, 135 Romeo persona umile e peregrina. But the parallel of V. N. 42 is disquieting, since in 42, 5 Dante explains: “e chiamolo allora ‘spirito peregrino’, acciò che spiritualmente va suso, e sì come peregrino lo quale è fuori de la sua patria, vi stae.” In Purg. IX the whole man, mind and body, is on the way back to his proper home [Inf. XV, 54: “e reducemi a ca per questo calle”], and the nearer to it the easier the climb [Purg. IV, 88-90]. In the dream of Purg. IX Dante thinks that he “spiritualmente va suso” and is disconcerted to find that he has gone up bodily also. But peregrina absolutely in Purg. IX, 16 may mean that the mind tends to wander away from its salvation after the worldly distractions of its pensieri and needs to be tethered, if it is to be capable of vision. Also there seems no reason why peregrino should not be used with a prepositional phrase, even if Dante does not so use it elsewhere.

Further, it has been suggested to me that Petro's reading needs to be investigated in all redactions of his Commentary, and especially in the late version of the Vatican MS. Ottobon, 2867. Nannucci's text is that of the first version [1340-1] [cf. J. P. Bowden, An Analysis of Pietro Alighieri's Commentary on the Divine Comedy, 1951], and in an appendix he gives variants from Vatican Ms. 4782, but they do not throw any light on my problem. Nannucci observes [p. LXXXI in an appendix of corrections] that the passage quoted by Pietro on p. 355 as from Avicenna is not to be found in Avicenna; it is in fact the passage from Johannitius which Andreas quotes in his Tractatus [see my note on p. XX].


  1. The hostility to body and matter in the Convivio can be shown in many passages, too numerous to quote; compare also de V. E. I, iii, 1; XII, 4; II, ii; Mon. II, ii, 3; III, xv. 2; Epist. V, 8.

  2. The mind is in a curious half-way condition, having inner sense, but not outer senses, and in being unfree, so that it does not think its thoughts actively, but is passive to thoughts which rather think autonomously. Andreas Capellanus, in his Tractatus de Amore III, 388 [Battaglia], quotes Iohannitius: “est enim somnus, ut ait Iohannicius, quies animalium virtutum cum intensione naturalium.”

  3. In The Sleepwalkers [1959], p. 539, Arthur Koestler, speaking of the scientific revolution brought about by Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton, says: “as a result man's destiny was no longer determined from ‘above’ by a superhuman wisdom and will, but from ‘below’ by the subhuman agencies of glands, genes, atoms or waves of probability. This shift of the locus of destiny was decisive,” and he quotes a writer as saying that “the gloriously romantic world of Dante and Milton … had now been swept away.” Dante knew nothing of glands and genes, but he came to see that his genius as a poet was built on his bodily constitution and senses; but he saw further that as God had created his body, He could also work through it, and that the supernatural is the natural transformed, not evaded and purged away. The result of the Fall is that we see things upside down, and the Devil's prime deception lies in making us think that material existence, and not his spiritual pride, is the root of our trouble.

Bernard Stambler (essay date 1965)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9083

SOURCE: “Three Dreams,” Books Abroad, Vol. 39, May, 1965, pp. 81-93.

[In the following essay, Stambler analyzes and interprets the three dream sequences in Purgatorio, discussing their function, roots in myth, sexual allusions, and implications.]

The three dreams of Dante's Pilgrim in Purgatory constitute a mode of exposition or narration different from anything else in the poem. The dreams are markedly set off from the rest of the poem by the kind of experience they express as well as by the breaks in consciousness that introduce them, interrupting the normal flow of the Pilgrim's progress. And yet these dream-episodes, more than any other slices of comparable size, may be used to encompass the entire Commedia—its quality, function, and meaning—just as certain simple forms of life can regenerate themselves in entirety from a section placed in the appropriate broth or, as the biologist calls it, culture medium.

The observations which follow are such an attempt to look into the dreams; my attempt will be greatly forwarded if the reader will revisit the dream-passages in Cantos 9, 19, and 27 of the Purgatorio.

A glance at three dreams suggests first that they may serve as a kind of recapitulation of three canticles of the poem. The first dream centers in a mysterious elevation, which could not have been accomplished without extraordinary aid; the great number of relatives and friends left below testifies to the specific grace and power of the Pilgrim's helper. So was the Pilgrim taken from the Dark Wood and from Hell.

The second dream tells of ugliness and vice made alluring by one's own act of will, and of the repulsion that comes with enlightenment. Here again there is necessary help from others, but not with the same sense of powerful heights that marked the first dream: rather, the cautionary words from the Lady and the swift action by Virgil resemble the naturalistic companionship and aid that characterize the process of purgation on the Mountain—a process of cooperative education.

Finally, in the figures of Leah and Rachel in the third dream we may see not so much the traditional divergence of the two sisters symbolizing action and contemplation as Dante's deliberate blurring of the difference between them. This may be his way of shadowing forth the spirits of Paradise, nearly all of whom (quite apart from the disappearance for them of the need and the possibility of making such a choice) show a significant refusal to limit or commit themselves either to pure action or to pure contemplation.

In short, the spirit of the Pilgrim released in slumber on the Mountain, besides wandering in directions for which there are no names, also wanders backward and forward to recapitulate the entire poem. Such recapitulation would not have been possible in either of the other canticles. In Hell, where there is no hope and where the name of Christ may not even be mentioned, no upward glance could have been taken. In Heaven, downward and backward glances are limited to special purposes—as in Mary's glance at the forlorn Pilgrim or in St. Peter's glance at the offenses of Boniface VIII. But in Purgatory there must be a species of memory of the sins one has been cleansed from, just as there must be hope and premonition of the heavenly goal.

The very slumbers of Purgatory are part of the uniquely realistic quality of this canticle. In neither Hell nor Paradise is there any stopping for rest, much less for slumber; these two canticles present conditions while the emphasis of the Purgatorio is on experience, change, development. The dreams reflect significant experiences and developments of the Pilgrim in an interweaving of three—perhaps four—threads: the prophetic (better, vatic); the mythic (archetypal or other); and the sexual (whether conscious or unconscious); to these may perhaps be added the personal or functional. These threads are tightly intertwined, yet we may try to follow them separately.

Ancient Dream Lore and the Vatic Element in the Three Dreams. Dante would have received his dream-lore from a number of sources: from Old Testament dreams and the exegeses of them; from Cicero and Macrobius; in the psychological-philosophical tradition, from the Aristotelian dream-theory as developed by the Arabic commentators and coming to rest in Aquinas; in the literary tradition, from Virgil, Statius, and the great array of medieval dream-literature. (See, for example, the opening of the Roman de la Rose.)

From classical theory Dante had available to him a great range of possibilities. These have been well summarized, though in another connection, by Werner Wolff in The Dream—Mirror of Conscience:

Freud used most of the theories on dream activity which had been developed since antiquity and—for the first time—united them in a system. He took over the ancient concept that the dream arises from external or internal stimuli, that its content is patterned by memories and impressions from the previous day, some of which did not rise to awareness because of greater waking impulses. He also believed that the dream is an expression of unfulfilled desires and that impulses, especially sexual ones, find their expression in dream imagery. Freud re-emphasized that the language of the dream is symbolic, transforming certain images from reality into other dream images, replacing abstract thoughts by imagery, sometimes using allegories, sometimes rebus-like combinations. All this had been formulated by the ancients.

Virgil and Statius, guides to the Pilgrim in the Commedia, were in their writings probably the major literary guides to Dante's dream-lore. The Aeneid makes structural use of twelve dreams, of various kinds and for various purposes.1 Most of these are dreams of supernatural agency, both benevolent and malevolent, sometimes directly from a divinity and at other times through a specter or allegory contrived by a divinity. (For close parallels with Dante, see the dreams at Aeneid III. 147 sqq. and IV. 465 sqq.)

Much seems to be made in the Commedia of the fact that the three dreams come just before dawn. Medieval belief was that such a dream was sent under benevolent and truthful auspices, and that such a dream was directly rather than cryptically revelatory. The classical phrase for this belief came from Horace (Sat. i. 10. 33): Post mediam noctem, cum somnia vera. The support for this belief is somewhat thin: there are only five ancient references to it out of half a thousand loci where such a detail might possibly have been mentioned. But it remains that Dante, along with others in his day, used this aspect of a dream, presumably to stress its truth and significance.2

Most critical expositions of the dream passages in the Purgatory are concerned with the vatic aspects of the dreams; consequently a synopsis of such foreshadowings will suffice here. While the sleeping Pilgrim is being carried by St. Lucia to the threshold of Purgatory the dreaming Pilgrim is in forecast being elevated by the eagle (God? Christ? the eagle of justice of the Paradiso?) on the way to the high consistory of the saints, but the lifting power takes him no higher than the sublunary sphere of fire. The fear with which the Pilgrim abruptly awakens is an anticipation of the terror he will show at entering the fires on the Terrace of the Lustful.

In the second dream, which takes place on the Terrace of the Slothful, the Siren betokens and foreshadows the vices of the flesh, illusory and vain, which are to be encountered on the next three terraces of the Mountain. Again, a divine intercessor is needed and is provided.

The third dream is taken as foreshadowing the meeting with Matelda and with Beatrice and as betokening a relation with the Active Life and the Contemplative Life.

The vatic aspect of the dreams, though richest in lore and in commentary, is probably the least significant of all within the meaning and structure of the Commedia.

The Mythic Elements of the Three Dreams. A number of today's critics have dealt with the myths, or myth-patterns, that Dante perhaps unconsciously embodies in the structure and purpose of the Commedia. Quite another thing is Dante's highly conscious use of specific mythic stories, in such fashion that while incorporating them into the scheme of his work he is also providing his commentaries or variations on them. This is nearly the most pervasive and significant structural principle of the Commedia: Dante's selection and shaping of myths (or of historical data) are as revealing of his particular purposes, within the context of his axiomatic beliefs, as are his choices of the exemplary persons, living or dead, actual or fictional, that constitute his poemae personae.

Each of the three dreams is built about a myth—the first two are Greek, the third is Judaeo-Christian. The first myth, that of Ganymede, is concerned with translation by divine selection from a lower, workaday region to a supernal realm of activity. (The episode from Achilles's career mentioned in this first dream easily permits an analogous interpretation—even to the ambiguity of values apparent in the higher, translated function: he is taken to become the hero of the Trojan War and to meet his death.) The second dream is most clearly a reshaping of existent myth: here, as in a hundred similar instances, it is more to the point to ask why Dante changed or invented a myth than to hunt for the line that he might possibly have misread in order to arrive at his concept. The third dream, concerned with Leah and Rachel, is one of the few great examples of a pagan myth transposed in antiquity into the Judaeo-Christian ambiance. The ancient Greek world had the parallel figures of Zethus and Amphion, while from the New Testament were derived the figures of Martha and Mary. This parable, or myth, or actuality of the need to choose between action and contemplation is so deep in the ancient and medieval worlds, and so essential in the theme of the Commedia, that it merits detailed examination after a brief look at the first two dreams.

Ganymede, the only favorite of Zeus to attain Olympus, provoked a complex history of interpretations, summarized by Erwin Panofsky in Studies in Iconology (Harper Torchbooks edition, pp. 213-216):

In the fourth century B. C. we find already two opposite conceptions: while Plato believed the myth of Ganymede to have been invented by the Cretans in order to justify amorous relations between men and boys or adolescents (Laws I, 636c), Xenophon explained it as a moral allegory denoting the superiority of the mind in comparison with the body; according to him the very name of Ganymede, supposedly derived from Greek, γάνυsθαι (to enjoy) and μήδεα (intelligence), would bear witness to the fact that intellectual, not physical advantages win the affection of the gods and assure immortality (Symposium VIII, 30).

As a cautionary example I may here cite Landino, who, in his commentary on Purg. 9. 19 sqq., exemplifies the Renaissance handling of allegorical interpretation. Ganymede, he says, signifies the human mind beloved by Jove, that is, the Supreme Being. Ganymede's companions represent the other faculties of the soul, such as the vegetative and the sensitive. “Jove, perceiving that the Mind is in the forest—that is, remote from mortal things—by means of the eagle transports it to Heaven. Hence it leaves behind its companions, that is, the vegetative and sensitive faculties; and thus withdrawn or, as Plato says, divorced from the body, it is thoroughly absorbed in contemplation of the secrets of Heaven.” It is difficult to believe that this style of interpretation, which has its modern analogues, uses the poem for anything more than a series of springboards for the interpreter's rhetorical fancies.

For Dante the point of the Pilgrim as a second Ganymede seems to lie in the place and time of election. Few single lines in the Commedia better exhibit Dante's wilful mixture of pagan and Christian elements than that speaking of Ganymede

quando fu ratto al sommo consistoro.

But this line serves chiefly to focus attention on curious details of this scene. The Pilgrim, he says, “seemed to be in that place where his own people were abandoned by Ganymede.” Why there, if not, as the upshot shows, waiting for the same lightning to strike twice? And why the peculiar direction of the syntax in “abbandonati … da Ganimede” if not to emphasize the self-proffering, even self-election, by Ganymede and consequently by the Pilgrim? And we are to remember that Ganymede was a son of Tros, eponymous founder of Troy and ancestor of the royal family of Troy. Hence there is a suggestion linking the Pilgrim with Aeneas, in a great chain of associations particularly with Inferno 2.32. Similarly, the likening to Achilles which comes after the awakening from the dream links the Pilgrim to the hero on whose emotions and choices turns the whole structure of the Iliad.

This theme of will and choice is continued into the second dream, but now carried to the extremes of wilfulness and solipsism. The language of 19.10-13 is interesting here:

Io la mirava; e come ’l sol conforta
          le fredde membra che la notte aggrava,
          così lo sguardo mio le facea scorta
la lingua … 

The function of the dreaming Pilgrim's eyes is like that of God's vivifying sun: the “Io la mirava” becomes comparable to “Let there be light” when we recall the animating power of the sun in Purgatory; to ensure that we do recall, Dante frames the entire second dream in two passages explicitly reminding us not only of the power of the sun (the mirror of God's light) but also of the opposing power of the forces of cold and darkness (at 19.1-3 and 19.37-39).

The Lady santa e presta who puts the Siren to confusion presents a small but important problem. It seems clear that it is not Saint Lucia, whom Virgil would have recognized and named from the episode of the first dream; probably, too, if he had seen her before, he would not have displayed such unseemly curiosity about her as to approach the Siren

con li occhi fitti pur in quella onesta.

An appearance of Beatrice at this point would not merely be a dramatic error but would surely have met with a greater response from the Pilgrim. Who then, of Dante's Three Ladies, can she be but Mary? For whom would the epithets santa e presta be more precisely defining? Who else would have had the requisite alertness and freedom of movement? And if onesta be taken in its sense of “chaste,” who better than Mary to warrant this term marking her off from the Siren? If it be objected that this is too direct an intervention, too much unlike Mary's method of delegating a similar task to Lucia and Beatrice at the opening of the Commedia, the answer must be not only that the need for haste is much greater here but also that the fantasy-context of the dream permits this to be the only place in the poem to carry Mary herself so far down from her place in the high consistory (and thereby complete the roster of the Three Ladies come to aid the Pilgrim directly in his journey through Hell and Purgatory). Thus, after the first dream has shown the Pilgrim carried aloft by God (or by Christ, as the eagle-component of the griffon), the second dream may show him needing and getting the ready eye and help of the Virgin Mary.

That the third dream in Purgatory is concerned with two figures traditionally symbolizing Action and Contemplation is everywhere seen and said. But precisely how this dream is concerned with Action and Contemplation is rarely stated with either comfort or clarity, although most glosses on this episode state rather firmly that the two women of the dream foreshadow Matelda and Beatrice of the Earthly Paradise. There are many serious objections even to this interpretation, of which one or two may suffice. The essence of the story of Leah and Rachel is the choice of Jacob, choice whether free or limited; and the meaning of the parable is the distinction, and the need to choose, between the active life and the contemplative life. Is there any element at all, let alone an essence, of choice for the Pilgrim between Matelda and Beatrice? Another form of the parabolic meaning would have the active life, still summed up in Matelda, equated with the career of the spirits in Purgatory, while the contemplative life, represented in Beatrice, is that of the spirits' direct knowledge of God in Paradise. This interpretation, too, adds little that is helpful in understanding either the dream or Matelda and Beatrice.

No, I believe that the use to which Dante puts Leah and Rachel is one of the most significant illustrations of his process of manipulating myth to his own ends; to take these figures in their traditional sense is to start becoming tangled in a web of awkward rationalization, a web from which one must early extricate himself. What then is the meaning, in this dream, of the myth of choice between Action and Contemplation?

The need to choose between the active and the contemplative life is one of the many things from the past that today bear a certain air of unreality. But for many centuries a great amount of serious philosophical energy went, directly or indirectly, into debating this question. It is the question that, unspoken, lies behind most of the later Platonic dialogues and, for instance, determines the great change in tone and purpose between the Republic and the Laws. Again unspoken, this question lies behind Aristotle's socio-political thinking, turning his magnanimous man of the Ethics into a non-political creature who establishes statues, highways, and foundations, and turning the treatise on Poetics into a prescription for civic emotion- and thought-control. That is to say, the concept of the contemplative life evolved as an unhappy example of turning a necessity into a virtue.

Epicurean and Stoic, disjunct as they are in most concerns of philosophy, are in accord on the concept and advisability of the contemplative life—the bios theoretikos. For the Epicurean the components of the bios theoretikos are aponia and ataraxia—freedom from toil (ponos) and freedom from passion (tarache). Ponos is a disordering of the body, tarache a disordering of the mind. Epicurean contemplation therefore involved the renunciation of fame and of the crowd of men; through aponia-ataraxia, the refraining from political activity; a culmination in rest and leisure, with a repudiation of society and family.

Stoicism used somewhat different terms to arrive at the same goal. The Stoic comes ultimately to live in conformity with nature by being indifferent to such external things as honors, fame, praise, life, and death. The ideals were autarkeia and apatheia. Seneca provided the inevitable conclusion to this process of self-ruling and not-feeling by justifying and advocating suicide for the contemplative man.

We may pause here to note that anything farther from Dante's ideals than these concepts of the bios theoretikos could not be found; at best these concepts bear a curious resemblance to Aquinas's notions of acedie.

The broad concept of the contemplative man flowed into Christianity by a number of channels among which we may name only two, themselves interconnected—monasticism, with its Eastern sources and analogues, and the near-futility of Christian man as political man, at least until the time of Constantine. Much of this history is directly or indirectly reflected in the City of God; Augustine's counterpoising of the City of God and the City of Man was the most significant single concept (outside of those derived from Scripture) in forming the life-patterns as well as the theology of the Middle Ages, and its effects are still with us. Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, probably the most influential single work towards the ideal of contemplation, ironically rounds out the history begun by Plato: the Consolation was written, after a long and successful life of political activity, while Boethius was in jail awaiting execution on a false charge of treason believed by the emperor to whom he had devoted his life.

We must also see the Contemplative Life in the involvement it acquired with mysticism. This, too, probably took its starting point from Plato, in what was made by later writers of the Platonic Ladder, as discoverable in the Symposium or, better, the Theatetus. For the Neoplatonist, contemplation leads to vision and then rises above sensible things to an identity of the act of contemplation with the thing contemplated, to an immediate beholding of the Idea of Good and the Idea of Ideas. In this way, the theory and practice of contemplation brought it to merge with the mystical experience in Christianity.

There can be no question of Dante's admiration and veneration for the great mystics, for St. Bonaventura, for Hugh and Richard of St. Victor. But there is little question, also, of two other things: that apart from the most general patterns of resemblance there is little mysticism in the Commedia, and that the period of Christian thought which most directly impinged on Dante—the generation or two before him—had been a growth away from mysticism. Aquinas can say, for example, in the de virtutibus cardinalibus, that “the contemplative life is superhuman,” or (at S. T. I, qu. 12, 3 ad 3): “What is seen in visions of the imagination is not God's essence but images which represent him after a fashion of figures, as do the metaphorical figures in Holy Writ.”

Let us now apply these considerations to the third dream. It is notable, in the first place, that Jacob or a Jacob-figure is missing from the dream. Such an argument, by negative evidence, would ordinarily be worth little, but when we remember the centrality of the dreamer in the first two dreams we may be impressed by the absence in this dream of any agent to choose between the two sisters. When we also remember the prominence of will, election, selection in the first two dreams we are struck by the absence of such elements in the third dream—in a myth-pattern of which the essence had always been the need for making a choice, and in a version of the myth in which the choice is made by a third person rather than by the Martha or the Mary concerned. We might also guess at Dante's ironic reasons for using Leah-Rachel rather than Zethus-Amphion (to be consistent with the Greek myths used in the other two dreams) or Martha-Mary (to use a purely Christian parable): Jacob chose Rachel and received Leah.3

What this dream of Leah portends, then, is not choice of any sort but the freedom which lies beyond the need for choice, the freedom of Paradise—a freedom not limited or dictated by ignorance, inadequacy, or external arbitrary power. Coming before this condition of Paradise is the preparatory condition, the final educational exercises, of the Earthly Paradise—where the coexistence and mutual dependence of action and contemplation are as emphatically shown as anywhere in the Heavenly Paradise.4 But the immediate consequent of the dream parabolically liberating the Pilgrim from any separation between the active and the contemplative life is in the words of Virgil—the last he speaks in the poem—which close the canto of the dream:

“… io te sovra te corono e mitrio.”

There seems little doubt that these words signal the cursus complectus fulfilled in the Pilgrim's journey up the Mountain: not, of course, by Dante the man but by the Pilgrim who has, however, rapidly gone through all the purgatorial processes. Such a one, purified of all the tendencies which make man unable to live at peace with himself or with his neighbor, has no further need of crown and miter, the disciplinary powers delegated by God to the secular and spiritual rulers of man in earthly society. [Whether or not this is Joachist theology, or sociology, is another question and not relevant here.]

The Sexual Elements in the Three Dreams. Whatever we choose to make of the allegory of Dante's love for Beatrice, as portrayed in the Commedia, we can have little choice about the literal sense of that love. Beatrice herself, as she indicates at Purg. 31.28-30 and 49-54, is insistent that his love for her was solidly founded on her pre-eminent physical beauty. In many ways the stil nuovists and Dante himself may have moved far from the love poets of Provence and Sicily but not in the firm link between physical and spiritual beauty, between desire of the body of a beautiful woman and love of her soul or of what her soul represented. In great measure the purification and clarification of the Pilgrim's soul as he experiences the processes of the purgatorial terraces may be seen as a preparation to meet, and for the first time truly value, Beatrice. It would have been a curious excision of part of the human capability had this process of maturation included no aspect of the sexual component of man. Quite the contrary, although through a poetic device amounting almost to a necessity the sexual elements of the Pilgrim's growth abound in the dreams and are almost absent from the other portions of the Purgatorio.

Both context and content then of the three dreams are laden with sexual allusions and implications of every kind. These may be direct references, as in the catalogue serving as prelude to the first dream: “the concubine of ancient Tithonus, come forth from the arms of her sweet lover.” Could Dante, one might ask, not have found some other mythological reference to denote the time? He does, a moment later, in telling of the hour when the sad swallow sings her song recalling the involved sexual relations of Tereus, Procne, and Philomela.

But the more significant sexual references are those given indirectly or additively. It might be possible to mention this episode in Achilles's career without summoning up a sexual context for the story, but it becomes difficult to do so in such proximity to Ganymede. Having decided on a figure of seizure and transposition to express the idea of ascension and change of state, Dante had a great array of legendary or actual kidnappings to choose from. The two legends he did select are from the classical realm of perverse sexuality: Ganymede being snatched to Olympus to become the homosexual love and servant of Zeus; Achilles snatched by his mother [to save him from war and death] and taken to live among women as a transvestite. Dante does not mention the sexual aspects of either myth, but his selection and juxtaposition of these two kidnappings make the stories interlock in the reader's mind and produce these significant sexual implications of both.

The fire of this dream is clearly to be associated with the only other fire in Purgatory—that which burns away lusts, perverse or excessive, on the last terrace of the Mountain, as the last prerequisite to entering the Earthly Paradise. But why does the eagle [who has, like lightning, descended from his natural home] burn with the Pilgrim—parea che ella e io ardesse—in the fire that breaks the slumber of the dreamer? [And it is this breaking of slumber that serves as the link with young Achilles.] The simple explanation of the burning of the eagle lies of course in the myth itself: Zeus the eagle burns with love even more than does Ganymede. This mutual burning might of course be extensible into the allegorical interpretations, but, especially on the basis of the cautious parea—“it seemed”—we might also guess that the dreamer is projecting his own feelings to the eagle.

The Siren of the second dream is a three-part song form of sex. First she is the complete antithesis of all that arouses sexual desire; then, when she has been turned into a figure of beauty by the dreamer's gaze,5 she is by her own account the sweet one who turned faithful Ulysses from his course; finally she reverts to the revolting anti-sexual creature she had first been. The Siren is one of the most explicit ancient images of sexual desire within an artistic framework; Dante uses this image to show that her irresistible desirability is a wilful illusion created by the artist himself. There may well be here a confession of guilt [such as occurs in many forms throughout the Inferno and Purgatorio], of having thus erred in some of his early poetry [pietra and pargoletta] until set on a better path by Virgil and the Lady.

The third dream shows us two charming allegorical figures. Yet we must remember that before Leah and Rachel became a choice of careers to be embraced they were two women. The symbolic quality of them would not have come into being had not Jacob found one [and eventually both] of them sexually attractive. Within the dream Dante might have presented the two women in any one of a great choice of situations: he chose a situation involving feminine beauty and the self-enjoyment of it.

A number of curious details remain in the third dream. Again the time of morning is presented in an image associated with sex: “At the hour when … Cytherea who seems always burning with the fire of love. …” Yet, by eliminating any figure who could serve as a Jacob [the dreamer-Pilgrim fills this bill only remotely], Dante seems to be diminishing the element of sexual choice and increasing the significance of the mirror. The imagery associated with the mirror is ancient, extensive, and ambiguous—and highly significant for poetry as well as for theology. Here I can only note that one, especially under the conditions of ancient and medieval technology, saw darkly in a mirror, and that Aquinas said that “seeing a thing in a mirror is like seeing cause through effect.” Both Leah and Rachel then, may be, as Diotima might say, the imperfectly seen forms of love that lead up to the better and best.

The forms of love in all three dreams are imperfect and inadequate, though in different ways, and seem to be arranged in a contrived sequence. From the polymorphous and perverse infantile sexuality of the first dream we proceed to the coarsely fantastic but recognizably realistic, faute de mieux, sex-dream of, say, an adolescent youth, and finally move to a cool and aesthetic context for sex but perhaps suggesting sexual divagations of an age beyond desire.6

The Personal and Functional Level of Meaning. A number of significant details within the dreams are best described as realistic or technical aspects of the three episodes. Perhaps this is a double category: some of these details reveal the quality, often idiosyncratic, of the Pilgrim; others seem to be mechanical details presented for the sake of verisimilitude. In both these groups, however, it is the personality of the Pilgrim, or of his function in the poem, that suggests or dominates such a detail.

The closing lines of Canto 18 may supply the motif for this category: they simultaneously define the process by which a dream may come into being and stress the will of the human agent involved.

           … novo pensiero dentro a me si mise,
del qual più altri nacquero e diversi;
          e tanto d’uno in altra vaneggiai,
          che li occhi per vaghezza ricopersi,
e ’l pensamento in sogno trasmutai.

A new thought, which produces others—a rambling among these until thought becomes dream. But note the stress, and the reinforcement through rhyme, on vaneggiai—I rambled—and trasmutai—I changed thinking into dream—, a stress particularly notable since the process began idly or passively but was made active by this rambler.

Of this same kind are lines 16-18 of Canto 9:

… che la mente nostra, peregrina
più dalla carne e men da’ pensier presa,
alle sue vision quasi è divina … 

It is tempting to see these lines as describing the essentially visionary and contemplative method of the entire Commedia [especially after correlating them with Par. 33.36 and 142], but it is a salutary exercise to hold them down to the context not only of a dream but of the particular dream which is to follow. John of Salisbury [at Policraticus II, 4] had stated a similar, somewhat Gnostic or Pythagorean, thesis about what happens in dreams: “It comes about that the soul is lifted up above contact with the body that it may turn more freely upon itself and contemplate the truth.”

The three dreams vary in realism, in respect to the suddenness or gradualness with which each begins, but they are alike in the seeming lack of preparation for the particular set of events or facts presented in each. There is also a variable amount of dream-realism in the internal logic of the dream-sequence itself and in the postlude to each dream. A few instances of each of these must suffice.

For a preparatory passage we may look at Canto 27.70-93. Here, before the last dream, the Pilgrim and his companions are caught by the descent of the sun while they are on the steps leading to the last terrace. This very stress on the steps, recalling the stepwise movement in Purgatory, sets this dream-scene into marked contrast with the other two, especially with the scene of the Terrace of the Slothful for the second dream.

The impatience of the Pilgrim to get on is conveyed in the image of the next few lines comparing the three travelers to lively goats. But much more is said in this image. The goats, active and wanton before being fed, are then content to lie quiet—mildly chewing the cud. Is this not an emblem of the Active and the Contemplative Life? And if it is a ludicrous, or even degrading emblem, by whose will is it so? Another detail here may be underlining this curious image. The goats lie silent in the shade while the sun is burning. That is fine, and even intelligent, for goats; but are we here suddenly to forget the symbolism of the sun as the power to vivify and not to somnify? Dante concludes this chain of images in line 91, where he is not [as at 18.145] “thinking” but now “ruminating.” This whole image of the ruminating goats is certainly not a prepossessing introduction to a [supposed] praise of contemplation as a way of life. This might also be the place to point out that Dante's words for “action” and “contemplation,” at 27.108, are not only the simplest possible terms—vedere and ovrare—but are better applicable to the work of the shepherds and the goats than to that of the two sisters, even though it is Leah who uses these terms.

The internal mechanism of the second dream marks it off from the others. Here the Lady and Virgil are presented as au courant with the episodes of the dream and even to intervene in it without destroying its dream-quality. This mixture of perspectives, if that is the name for what Dante is doing here, remains curiously unlike any antecedent dream tradition and must finally be explained in terms of Dante's purposes rather than of his sources. Aquinas's discussion of the agent intellect may throw a little light on what Dante is doing here [cf. S. T., I, qu. 79, especially articles 4, 10, 12, and 13]. Aquinas's reasoning is too tight and complex even for abridgment; but his philosophic description of the operation of the agent intellect seems not inconsistent with the poetic persona tentatively identified above as the Virgin Mary [or an equivalent activity proper to each person].

This second dream also has an unusually long aftermath or coda, in the deep thoughtfulness or even fear felt by the Pilgrim after it is over. Virgil's explanation of what has happened is, like many of his in the Purgatorio, solicitous but neither clear nor helpful. When he says, “You saw how man is freed from that ancient witch,” one wonders how the cure in the dream, by the Lady and Virgil, is to be used prescriptively by others. There is even an ironic echo of Virgil's consoling words: Let this explanation suffice, he says, and strike your heels on the ground—i.e., get on briskly to what comes next, with the suggestion that good healthful exercise is the best cure or preventive for such unwholesome dreams as that about the Siren. Ten lines later, at 19.70, we encounter the next group of penitents; they are lying face down, unable even to touch their heels to the ground.

Perhaps the most important clue to the whole dream-sequence comes at Purg. 9.10, in the prelude to the first dream:

… io, che meco avea di quel d’Adamo … 

Dante is using this line ostensibly to explain the Pilgrim's weariness and forthcoming slumber, but we are bound to get more than that from Adam. We recall Adam also for his sin and perfectibility, for freely choosing the worse path but capable of redemption. A question remains about the meco: why “with me” rather than “in me”? (The answer is not, of course, the demands of rhythm.] Is Dante thereby suggesting that the Adam with him, the Adam of weariness and other fallibilities, is accompaniment rather than essence?

The Fourfold Method of Allegory. Aquinas's multitude of references to allegory and the fourfold system of reading reveal a certain unease with the questions they bring up, including that of the distinction he utilizes between the allegory of poets and the allegory of theologians—a distinction quite misleading without its context.

To begin with, he greatly preferred the term “spiritual sense” to “allegorical.” For the spiritual sense he finds a reason but only a limited utility. “The purpose of the spiritual sense is twofold: first, to help right conduct; second, to help right belief” (Questiones Quodlibetales, qu. vi, art. 14). But the spiritual sense is not another, more profound reading of the literal sense; rather, it is an ornamental duplication of another passage: “The spiritual sense brings nothing to faith which is not elsewhere clearly conveyed by the literal sense” (S. T. Ia, i, 10 ad 1).

It should be clear that Aquinas is speaking of “literal” and “spiritual” only as applied to the Holy Scriptures—in which the things or events are symbols by virtue of their very existence “since the true author of Scripture (as of reality) is God, Who alone is able to make real things symbols of other real things.” “To symbolize anything by words or by feigned likenesses designed as symbols can not produce anything but the literal sense. From this it follows that in no works made by human industry can there be, properly speaking, anything but the literal sense; but only in the Scriptures, of which the Holy Spirit is the author and man but the instrument [is there anything beyond the literal sense].” But even within Scripture this is not consistently so: the parables of the New Testament and the Old, the narrative of which is invented for the sake of the figured meaning; the prophecies; the visions and symbolic dreams in the Bible—all these are not true allegory since their figurative meaning is the sensus metaphoricus seu parabolicus per similitudines fictas, the same kind of figurative meaning that is to be found in the so-called allegories of the poets. (Condensed from Questiones Quodlibetales qu. vii, articles 14, 15, 16.)

Two more citations are needed to explain Aquinas's limitation of human works to the literal sense; these probably define his notion of secular poetry more accurately than his reluctant use of the phrase “allegory of poets.” “History, etiology, and analogy are all grouped under the literal sense … ; and allegory alone comes under the spiritual sense” (S. T. Ia, i 10 ad 2). “The metaphorical sense is contained in the literal sense, for words bear imaginative suggestions as well as their plain and proximate sense. The literal sense of a figurative phrase is not the figure of speech itself, but what it symbolizes; for instance, when speaking of God's arm the Bible literally means He wields power, not that He has a bodily member” (S. T. Ia, i 10 ad 3).

Besides the distinctions Aquinas is explicitly making, between divine and human works, between the Holy Scriptures and all other writings, there are others buried in his sentences: a fundamental difference between reading allegorically and writing allegorically; an allegory hidden in the nature of things, and an allegory that is contrived or a metaphorical ornament. These distinctions—tensions might be the better word—reflect the complex history of the concerns of allegory.

Toward the end of the sixth century b.c. there appeared in Greece a strong opposition to the immoral theology of Homer and Hesiod; at the same time there began to be elaborate “allegorical” readings of the two poets, by Theagenes of Rhegium and a host of disciples.7 To defend Homer, Theagenes found both physical (meteorological) and moral allegory in the persons and episodes of the poem. The word “allegory” seems not to have come into use until the time of Plutarch; for six centuries the activity was conducted under the name of [unóvoia] The term [unóvoia] expressed a great range of significations: from the simplest relation between a thing perceived and the idea that might be conjectured from that perception, all the way to the concealed significations that might lie within poetic narration or description or within philosophical and religious myths.

Another tradition of allegory, stemming from Pythagoras, was connected with the Eleusinian mysteries and Orphism. This is a double allegory, of things as well as of words—an allegory of the relation, or difference, between the world of hidden and invisible reality and the world of appearances; but also the further allegory involved in the need to speak of sacred things with different degrees of indirectness to outsiders and with different degrees to the initiate. The final developments of Greek allegorical theory and practice—combining all the traditions just mentioned—are to be found in Plutarch, certain Stoic philosophers, and such eclectic- or neo-Platonists as Maximus of Tyre and Plotinus.

In the great meeting-ground of Alexandria in the two centuries before Christ, when Jewish Scriptures confronted Greek myth and philosophy, the development of Old Testament allegorical readings proceeded apace. Philo of Alexandria brought the technique to its high point, detailing elaborate correspondences between Greek myth and Biblical history, between Greek philosophy and Old Testament spiritual allegory. His precise classifications served as models for most of his successors.

But fitting the old stories into a new age, as Jew and Greek had to do, was less complex than the early Christian task in the great centuries of syncretism, of peoples as well as of ideas and histories; the Christian theologian had to uncover or specify the new dispensation from God while not abandoning the old—a task that was neither clear nor simple until it had been accomplished by the highest efforts of heart and mind from a millennium of theologians.

The device of “another reading” not merely of the text but of the very event within the text proved to be the key to unlocking the Old Testament as shadow of the substance of the New. But by the time of Bonaventure and Bernard, of Dominic and Thomas, this task had been accomplished: the emotional, philosophical, and even the argumentative purposes had long since been fulfilled. Each of these four men was able to add his bit to the great structure of allegorical interpretations, in much more than a mood of pious ingenuity but considerably less than the grand architectonics of, say, Augustine.

Dante's relation to the fourfold system is anything but simple. In the Convivio, where he was writing theory and not poetry, he seems content with the Aquinian descriptions—though perhaps he goes fondly beyond Aquinas in both adjective and noun of his phrase for the literal sense, una bella menzogna. In this phrase, of the literary models available to him, he seems closer to those near him in time: his phrase better suits the Roman de la Rose or even the Anticlaudianus of Alain de Lille than the Psychomachia of Prudentius or Martianus Capella's De Nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii. The literary thought of Dante's day can perhaps be summarized as believing that the narrative or literal substance of a poem could be one of three kinds: historically true, possibly or probably true, untrue (or, sometimes, marvellous). Dante's bella menzogna—“beautiful deception” or “lie”—might come closest to this third variety.

In the letter to Can Grande, Dante is not as clear on allegory as we might wish him to be. He first speaks of allegory in a broad sense (giving us two readings of a text) and then in a narrow sense (giving us four readings of the same text). Finally he speaks of the ten modes of writing employed in the poem. The broad and narrow “allegory” probably come from Aquinas; the ten modes at first seem to have nothing to do with allegory until we see the similarity between this list and that of Charisius and other grammarians.

The medieval schoolboy had a mnemonic to keep him straight on the allegorical (or spiritual) meanings of a sacred text:

Littera gesta docet,
Quid credas allegoria,
Moralis quid agas,
Quo tendas anagogia.

Dante's Pilgrim in the Commedia has an essential quality of Everyman, but not, I submit, in terms of this mnemonic or of the allegorical system behind it—at least as that system is generally taken or applied to the Commedia. Nor is Dante's journey a figural pattern; it is a unique poetic fiction, theologically impossible qua journey—no soul, for instance, journeys through Hell.

Perhaps now, however, we are prepared to apply the mnemonic in a slightly different way—in the way suggested by Aquinas's difinition of the literal sense of a secular poem. What we must dwell upon at every level of the allegory in the Commedia is nothing other than what happens to the Pilgrim. Dante himself says as much, in the letter to Can Grande, by what he says of the literal sense of his poem.

In terms, then, of what happens to the Pilgrim the anagogic sense—“whither you are headed”—comes quite close to the vatic significance I have discussed for the dreams. Nor does this vatic significance exist for the dreams only; rather, it constitutes the patterned structure of the entire poem—the structure of his Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, by being Dante's device for embracing the entire human capability within one clear schema, compels the reader to be conscious of more than the segment of the poem he is then traversing.

The moral sense of the poem—“what you should do”—is thereby connected with such universal matters of choice and rectifications of choice (culminating in a condition where no choice is possible or necessary) as are discussed above in connection with the mythic interpretations of the dreams.

The allegorical sense—“what you should believe”—is instigator and goal, first and final cause, of both the anagogic and the moral senses; this perhaps also explains why Dante uses “allegory” both narrowly and broadly. It is what you believe that starts you off in any given episode or adventure of life; your beliefs determine your choices at any crossroads of possibilities (moral) as well as the direction in which you are generally headed (anagoge). In turn, your beliefs are refined and, if necessary, corrected by your own experience—so that they may be considerably different at the end of the process from what they had been to start out with.

The narrow allegorical sense has to do with the substratum of habit (as defined by Aristotle and Aquinas) that alone makes belief operational. It comes close to the intuitional or unconscious element in man but is conceived as being always under his own observation and always subject to his own correction. I have discussed this allegorical sense in terms of the sexual aspects of the dreams because so it appears in these portions of the Commedia; outside the dreams this sense of the poem appears in other fashions. Perhaps the sequence of the dreams most reveals this sense, in what might be called a theme of diminishing difference (a Freudian critic might call it a motif of the released ego). In the first dream there are stressed motifs of the elect, of ascension and metamorphosis—of the one who is increasingly to be distinguished from the many. The second dream (coming, we must remember, after a number of enlightening and digested experiences of the Pilgrim) leaves the many behind but presents the power of the one in magnified form—the one who, as observer and artist, is creator and cause of metamorphosis. This “one” is more active than the smugly passive “one” of the first dream, but the unhealth of the artist who is his own audience—who has left the many outside—could not be more strongly presented. In the third dream the “one” has almost vanished; he is there only as observer and listener—but as actor, as wilful chooser, he has disappeared. The very point of this last dream may be the extinction of the ancient difference between the Contemplative Man and the Active Man—roughly equivalent to the One and the Many.

This sense of the allegorical, fulfilled mutatis mutandis in the parts of the poem outside the dreams, is perhaps the central sense of the Commedia. It assumes that each man receives the truths revealed, accepted, or taught in his day. But what he is willing or able to use of these truths is quite another thing. Pattern, the wisdom of the ages or even of the previous generation, insight into the future gained from the past—all these are, so to speak, irrelevant to any man until he has made them his own through experience—experience actual, emotional, imagined, or fictional. And it is all these modes (excepting the directly actual) that the Commedia sets out to convey, in their necessary union with each other and in Dante's concept of their relationships.

These modes, and their union, are the substance of the undertaking for the modern Dante critic. He must remember that for the Middle Ages allegory was not a learned or mechanical mode of complicating simple stories but was rather a necessary and welcome part of man's obligation to find God's rational order in the seeming chaos of the world. Allegory discovered patterns in the past to clarify the present or throw light on the future; allegory floated free between the particular and the universal.

But today's critic has to deal with today's particulars; furthermore, the seriousness of a poem no longer needs endorsement by suggesting similitude to Holy Writ. I am not suggesting that the fourfold method of interpreting the Commedia be scrapped; it has yielded invaluable insights into the poem and, handled today without sanctimony or pretentiousness or a semi-puzzled lip-service, can certainly yield many more. But I am suggesting that we not try to give more veneration or utility to this system than it received from Aquinas or Dante. I am also suggesting that to concentrate on, say, a figural or a mythic or a quasi-theological interpretation is only to establish a clique of new schoolmen: however sturdy each such structure of interpretation may prove in itself it can only precariously support the total plan and weight of Dante's gigantic poem.


  1. A good account of ancient dream lore as treated by philosophers is in Bernhard Büchsenschütz, Traum und Traumdeutung im Alterthum; Berlin. 1868. See also Aristotle's De Somniis and De Divinatione per Somniis. For the popular tradition see the Oneirocriticon of Artemidorus.

  2. The use of dreams in Latin epic and dramatic poetry is studied in J. B. Stearns, Studies of the dream as a technical device in Latin epic and drama, Lancaster. 1927; and in H. R. Steiner, Der Traum in der Aeneis, Bern. 1952. Charles Speroni's article on “Dante's Prophetic Morning Dreams” (Studies in Philology XLV, 50-59) supplies a good summary: The Divine Comedy has seven allusions to morning-dreams - Inferno 26. 7-9; 33. 26-27, 37-39, 43-45; Purgatorio 9. 13-19; 19. 1-7; and 27. 91-98, in addition to a reference in the first sonnet of the Vita Nuova and the material discussed in Convivio II, 9. Artemidorus does not mention morning-dreams, but Moschus, Horace, Ovid, Philostratus the Elder, and Tertullian do.

  3. The reasoning here might be thus outlined. (1) There must be differences, e.g., among women, to make the fact of choice meaningful. (2) Similarly, there must be the possibility of implementing a choice. (3) Jacob, in the story, was not capable of (2). (4) Dante, in his treatment of the story, does his best to destroy (1). Dante's handling of this story, then, is one of compound ironies. Finally, we should remember that in the paradisiac condition there is no giving or taking in marriage.

  4. For a discussion of these aspects of the third dream as they are related to the events and persons of the Earthly Paradise, see my Dante's Other World (New York. 1957), pp. 236-237, 239-242 and note 11, p. 356. On the question of the process and results of purgation for the Pilgrim, ibid., passim but especially chapters 5 and 12 and pp. 298-301.

  5. In the incendio imaginato of Purg. 9.32 there is an important link with the first dream. Two citations from Aquinas are significant here. The first is on the relation between concupiscence and the will: “I answer that, Concupiscence does not cause involuntariness, but, on the contrary, makes something to be voluntary. … Concupiscence inclines the will to desire the object of concupiscence … (yet) the will can resist the passion” (S. T. I-II, xi, qu. 6, art. 7). The second is on the connection between the concupiscible and the irascible, a link shown in the structure of the dream and the interruption of it by the Lady and Virgil: “I answer that, the sensitive appetite is one generic power, and is called sensuality but it is divided into two powers, which are species of the sensitive appetite—the irascible and the concupiscible. … Anger rises from sadness, and having wrought vengeance terminates in joy” (S. T. I-II, qu. 81, art. 2; ed. by Pegis).

    I might add here that the Siren's statements, or boasts, about Ulysses nearly entitle her to be called una bella menzogna.

  6. The only other locus in the Commedia where sexual images and allusions crowd together in such abundance is in the opening scene in the Earthly Paradise. This scene with Matelda is certainly connected with the dreams, and particularly with the third dream. See the references to the Earthly Paradise in n. 5.

  7. An excellent history of this subject is in Jean Pépin, Mythe et allégorie. Aubier (Editions Montaigne). 1958.

Aldo S. Bernardo (essay date 1965)

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Last Updated on January 18, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7650

SOURCE: “Flesh, Spirit, and Rebirth at the Center of Dante's Comedy,Symposium, Vol. XIX, No. 4, Winter, 1965, pp. 335-51.

[In the following essay, Bernardo explores the theme of rebirth in Dante's work, positing that it entails purification of both body and soul.]


In defining the basic originality of Dante's Comedy, Auerbach states: “What radically distinguishes the Comedy from all other visions of the other world is that in it the unity of man's earthly personality is preserved and fixed. … The earthly world is encompassed in the other world of the Comedy; true, its historical order and form are destroyed, but in favor of a more complete and final form in which the destroyed form is included. … It was necessary to destroy the form of the earthly world, for its potentiality, its striving for self-realization, and consequently its variability attain full term and cease in the after-life; the new form possesses everything that the former one possessed, and something more in addition, namely full actuality, immutable being.”1 In this statement Auerbach is referring to Dante's portrayal of “the human beings who appear in the Comedy.” The idea expressed is a fine example of Auerbach's critical acumen at its best, for in a few strokes he clearly explains the paradoxical nature of the subject matter of the Comedy by showing how and why a literary work whose content is literally dealing with the state of souls after death could be classified among those masterpieces of world literature belonging to the realistic tradition.

And yet, one feels compelled to ask, perhaps facetiously, whether it is really proper to speak of human beings in the Comedy. Are they not rather human souls? The answer cannot be categorical, for in this incomparable poem we are made to behold before our very eyes the mystery of spirit made flesh and flesh made spirit.2

It is, nevertheless, beyond any doubt that there is but one real human being present throughout the poem: Dante the wayfarer. He is the only character possessing both body and soul. Can we, therefore, conclude that Auerbach's statement also applies to the poet's portrayal of himself? He is, after all, more than mere spectator or even participant. He is the protagonist. Does he then reflect a figure who also achieves “full actuality, immutable being?” The answer can only be in the affirmative if we are to view him in terms of Professor Singleton's “Whichever-man” who is graced to view his Creator face to face—even for an instant.3 As such, Dante the wayfarer does achieve superhuman proportions without losing his earthly identity. How does this happen? By the simple expedient of having this protagonist undergo a kind of mysterious rebirth as he approaches those realms of the poem's journey where corruptible matter ends and pure spirit begins.

It is through this subtle strategy that the inimitable vision of the Comedy enjoys both intellectual and aesthetic acceptance by the reader who is willing to suspend disbelief. There is little question that without it the poem's subject matter on the literal level would have produced a jarring effect on one's sensibility, especially as the poem moved from the second to the third Cantica where the presence of a live man could seriously interfere with its smooth progress. Instead, as a result of an extensive series of spiritual and physical experiences undergone by the wayfarer between the center and end of the Purgatorio, the reader is disposed to accept the entrance of a man, presumably still in possession of his body, but endowed with special grace, into the purely spiritual realms of the Paradiso. But let us trace from the beginning the development of this practically unnoticed movement in the Comedy.4


The problem of how to resolve convincingly the possibility of a journey to the world of the spirit by a man still in this life and in possession of his earthly body preoccupies Dante from the very beginning of the Comedy. It will be recalled that the introductory canto ends with Dante willingly following Virgil who had offered to help him bypass the wolf by pursuing “altro viaggio.” Just before this moment, however, Virgil had expressed surprise that Dante should be returning to Hell when he could be climbing the “dilettoso monte.” Only when Dante alludes to his difficulty with the she-wolf does Virgil apparently realize that Dante is no ordinary spirit, but still a live person who must be led along a special route.

As the second canto opens, we find Dante suddenly realizing the full import of Virgil's words and intention, and wondering whether he is worthy of such a journey while still alive, inasmuch as only twice in the history of mankind had such a thing presumably happened. In both cases subsequent events had justified the experience, for in Dante's eyes Aeneas and St. Paul had been clear instruments of Divine Providence in preparing the way for the faith. Dante, the wayfarer, therefore expresses serious doubt as to whether there is any justification for his journey, and indeed fears “che la venuta non sia folle” (II, 10-36).

In speaking of Aeneas, Dante specifically mentions that the Roman hero entered the world of the spirit while still in possession of his body. In speaking of St. Paul, he makes only vague reference to the possibility of the Saint also possessing his body during his mystical experience.5 As for his own condition, there is little doubt of Dante's strong awareness of the presence of his body. During the course of the first three cantos, however, there seems to be a significant change of emphasis in describing the state of his body.

Early in Canto I we find a clear allusion to a real human body, with all its frailty, as we observe Dante resting his weary flesh following his frightening “night” (I, 19-30). When he finally confronts the wolf, he feels his “weight” so strongly that he seems to sink to the bottom-most point in his journey (I, 52-63).6 In Canto II he questions his worthiness for such a journey, using as his basic argument the fact that only very select individuals endowed with special grace can hope to visit the world of the spirit while still in possession of a corruptible body (II, 13-36).7 In Canto III Charon's powerful shout, “E tu che se’ costì, anima viva, / Partiti da cotesti che son morti!” (III, 88-89) emphasizes still more Dante's condition. But Charon's subsequent cry, “Più lieve legno convien che ti porti” (III, 93), coupled with Virgil's explanation, “Quinci non passa mai anima buona” (III, 127), implies a different view of Dante's body. It is destined to rise, not sink.

In his ensuing journey Dante seems to imply possession of a real body up to the terrestrial paradise. Thus, in Purg. XVI, 37-43, he explains to one of the penitents:

                                         … Con quella fascia
          che la morte dissolve men vo suso,
          e venni qui per l’infernale ambascia.
E se Dio m’ha in sua grazia rinchiuso,
          tanto che vuol ch’i’ veggia la sua corte
          per modo tutto fuor del moderno uso,
non mi celar chi fosti anzi la morte … 

On the other hand, the poet-wayfarer does not seem quite as certain of his condition in the first canto of Paradiso. Not only is a clear metamorphosis implied in the allusion to Glaucus (v. 68) and in the use of the verb “trasumanar” (v. 70), but echoes of St. Paul's experience are unmistakable when Dante exclaims:

S’i’ era sol di me quel che creasti
          novellamente, amor che ’l ciel governi,
          tu ’l sai, che col tuo lume mi levasti.

(Vv. 73-75)

In Par. II, 37-42, he repeats once again his doubts about the nature of his condition, giving it special emphasis by the reference to Christ:

S’io era corpo, e qui non si concepe
          com’una dimensione altra patìo,
          ch’esser convien se corpo in corpo repe,
accender ne dovria più il disìo
          di veder quella essenza in che si vede
          come nostra natura e Dio s’unìo.

In short, when Dante begins his flight to paradise, he is no longer aware of the nature of his material body. He knows only that now he is “privo d’impedimento” (Par. I, 139-140). Yet, the fact that he is aware of still being a live man implies some form of body. It is the contention of this study that beginning with Purg. XVI Dante, the wayfarer, undergoes a kind of metamorphosis leading to a rebirth in both spirit and flesh which defines his condition in his subsequent journey through paradise.


There is today general agreement that the essential nature of Dante's journey in the Comedy is intellectual and spiritual rather than physical.8 It is, therefore, difficult to speak of an actual physical metamorphosis undergone by the wayfarer as he begins to leave this earth behind him. But his constant intellectual and moral growth reflects changes in his total being that, I believe, cannot be classified as merely intellectual or spiritual. Something seems to happen to his physical nature as well which also implies a new state or condition reminiscent of the “glorification” promised by the faith at the Resurrection.

There is no denying that on the allegorical level the poem basically involves a journey of the mind and heart to God, as Singleton would have it.9 But on the literal level, this is presumably the journey of a specific individual still in possession of his body and highly aware of it. To assume that the role of this body in the poem is simply to give substance to the spiritual world visited by the wayfarer is not going far enough—at least not in a poem written with as lofty a moral and spiritual intent and by a poet so deeply concerned with levels and dimensions of meaning. It also tells us something about man's ultimate perfection which must encompass body as well as soul.10

The crucial point in the wayfarer's development along these lines is reached in Purg. XVII, in mid-poem, where he is presented with a rationalization of the structure of Purgatory. Love, he learns, is the agent responsible for all good and all evil on earth. As for human imperfection, it results from the misuse of love which leads to two categories of sins: of the spirit and of the flesh. For man to achieve Paradise he must put all sin behind him and become a being not unlike Adam before the fall—a being truly “re-formed” in the image of his Creator. This implies a state beyond the human, but without total loss of human identity.11 If we, therefore, assume that such a transformation or transfiguration must occur within Dante the wayfarer, inasmuch as he is privileged to behold a vision of God, it is logical to expect the poem, because it is the Comedy, to contain moments describing or implying this change of state. I believe that three of the key moments are to be found in three episodes of the Purgatorio for which critics have yet to find a clear and coherent explanation that would apply to the literal level of meaning of the poem.12 The first is the description of the birth and nature of the human soul in Purg. XVI. The second is the description of the birth of human flesh and spirit in Purg. XXV. The last is the allegorical procession viewed by Dante at the summit of Purgatory. In these episodes Dante, the wayfarer, gains insights into the nature of the human condition from the viewpoint of eternity (Purg. XXV, 31). These insights, in turn, produce within him changes that are analogous to an actual rebirth of both flesh and spirit.


It is common knowledge that Cantos XVI and XVII of Dante's second Cantica mark the physical center of the Comedy. In these cantos, the wayfarer also reaches the mid-point of the Mount of Purgatory. As Virgil explains toward the end of Canto XVII (vv. 130-133), Dante is located on the ledge of the slothful. He has now left behind the three ledges on which sins of the spirit are purged. Yet to come are the three ledges on which souls expiate sins of the flesh. At this point, it is possible to glimpse another striking example of the amazing symmetry that pervades both the form and content of the poem.13 As Dante emerges from the area in which sins of the spirit are atoned, he is exposed to a rather extensive description of the birth of the soul. As he enters the last ledge of the area in which sins of the flesh are purged, he is given not only a detailed explanation of the birth of the body, but of the relation of soul to body (Canto XXV). It is in this general movement that the concept which Barbi and others consider the basic inspiration of the poem receives ultimate refinement, i.e., that it is possible to reconcile the earthly and human with the celestial and divine.14 By the time the movement is over, the wayfarer has undergone a kind of purification and rebirth of flesh and spirit including St. Paul's “mortification of the members” (Col. iii, 5) and the “renewal in the spirit of the mind” (Eph. iv, 23) that are so essential in order to “Strip off the old man with his deeds and put on the new, one that is being renewed unto perfect knowledge according to the image of his Creator.” There are a number of details to be found between Canto XVI and the end of the Purgatorio which indicate the great care exerted by the poet to emphasize this new and exciting movement of a purified human being truly “re-formed” in the image of the Lord. Let us examine a few.

First of all, there is movement in time. Dante's journey up to this point has taken place in a strange dimension. It has been upward in “space” but backward in time, back to the innocent “childhood” of Eden. In learning the mysteries of the birth of soul and body, the wayfarer travels back to the opening moments of Genesis. Within the poem as we shall see, this is reflected by echoes recalling the opening moments of the very first canto where he also tried to scale a mountain. But now not only are the “beasts” gone, but their last vestiges are about to disappear. Furthermore, just as Virgil had showed him the way to bypass the beasts, now a new helper, Statius, begins to prepare him for what lies in the area beyond the beasts. Virgil can still explain the evolution of the soul from its vegetative to its sensitive and finally to its intellective form. But it is Statius who proceeds to explain the aerial body that can be assumed by the soul after death. By introducing Statius in Canto XXI, Dante clearly implies a movement in time. Virgil lived just before Christ; Statius just after. With Statius we move into the Christian era without a sharp break with the Pagan. Statius, for Dante, is but a Virgil holding the “lantern” before rather than behind him (Purg. XXII, 67-69).15

Echoes of a new start and of a return to a “beginning” are present from the very first verses of Purg. XVI which opens with a distinct recollection of the darkness of Hell:

Buio d’inferno e di notte privata
          d’ogni pianeta sotto pover cielo,
          quant’esser può di nuvol tenebrata,
non fece al viso mio sì grosso velo
          come quel fummo ch’ivi ci coperse
          nè a sentir di così aspro pelo …

(Vv. 1-7)

Only by leaning on Virgil can the “blind” Dante proceed through the “aere amaro e sozzo” (v. 13). In this thick mist can be heard voices humbly praying to the Lamb of God (vv. 19-20). The rime aspre (cozzo, sozzo, mozzo), the smoke, the theme of humility, are all reminiscent of the opening cantos of the poem.16

As the dialogue starts between Dante and Marco Lombardo, the words used sound the themes of Creation, expiation, purification and resurrection:

                     … O creatura, che ti mondi
per tornar bella a colui che ti fece … 

In explaining the presence of his body, Dante next seems to use quite casually a word which implies a child's body. He refers to it as a fascia, a swaddling band.17 As Marco proceeds with his explanation of why virtue has fled the world, he reminds Dante of Man's origin:

Lo cielo i vostri movimenti inizia … 
Esce di mano a lui che la vagheggia … 
L’anima semplicetta …

(Vv. 73, 85, 88)

There is also movement from darkness to light which similarly reflects both the Creation and the experiences of Inferno I. There too Dante moved from darkness toward the light before being stopped by the beasts. But it was Springtime and Eastertide, and the heavens were arranged in the same position as at the moment of Creation (Inf. I, 37-40). The theme of rebirth was clearly present, but it remained indistinct, for the pilgrim was too weighed down by earthly slough. In Purg. XVI, on the other hand, once the wayfarer grasps the relationship between free will and divine providence, the “buio d’inferno” begins to clear. His sight, however, is momentarily like the lowly mole's whose eye is covered by a membrane. The sun can once again be seen, but very faintly. In fact, as he moves out of the cloud of “smoke” he discovers that evening is about to fall. The sun's rays are “morti già ne’ bassi lidi” (v. 12). Thus opens Canto XVII of the Purgatorio. The earthly mists are lifting, but divine enlightenment must come slowly. This significant interplay between light and darkness continues in the subsequent movement from the third to the fourth and middle ledge of the Mount when a “Nova luce … / Maggior assai che quel ch’è in nostro uso” (vv. 41, 45) momentarily blinds the wayfarer. The brilliant light of the angel who removes the third P from Dante's forehead is, however, short lived. Having led the wayfarer to the fourth ledge of sloth, the angel departs, leaving Dante in the falling night with “la possa de le gambe posta in triegue” (v. 75). There follows Virgil's explanation of the structure of Purgatory.

The theme of rebirth continues to be inferred as we move into Canto XVIII. In this canto Virgil's definition of love seems to recall Marco's description of the birth of the soul (XVI, 85-90). Because of their difficulty, Virgil's words do not seem to satisfy our Christian pilgrim's thirst, and we find him almost dozing off when he is suddenly awakened by the rushing penitents representing antidotes to sloth. Fergusson has discussed the manner in which this scene contains echoes of the frenetic and erotic tone reminiscent of the childhood of the race.18 Virgil's explanation of love as a force indeed parallels the very experience being undergone by Dante as a soul. Not only is this soul about to evolve from its vegetative and sensitive state, but it has reached the stage of pure “moto spiritale.” The “nova luce” of Canto XVII, which almost overcame the pilgrim, seems now to become the “novo pensiero” of Canto XVIII which is so overwhelming that the exhausted soul falls into a deep sleep and dreams a dream that mysteriously resolves the doubts that Dante continued having after Virgil's discussion of love.19 As Virgil explains in Canto XIX:

Vedesti … quell’antica strega,
          che sola sovra noi omai si piagne;
          vedesti come l’uom da lei si slega.

(Vv. 58-60)

In short, the soul at this point is capable already of seeing how to free itself of the sins of the flesh which are now the only weights preventing its “rebirth.” As De’ Negri has pointed out, from Canto XIX, 52 to XXI, 6 we have the beginnings of the triumph of pure love.20

The “freeing” of Statius in Canto XX accompanied by the joy that resounds throughout the Mount stands in sharp contrast to the orgiastic rites recalled in simile in describing the antidote for sloth (XVIII, 91-96). This mysterious event represents, indeed, a different kind of love. It recalls, in fact, the greatest act of love in all of Creation, the very moment when God Himself put on human flesh. As the entire Mountain rings out with “Gloria in excelsis Deo!” the poem very vividly reminds us of the most wondrous of all births:

Noi stavamo immobili e sospesi,
          come i pastor che prima udir quel canto …

(Vv. 139-140)

Even the iconography changes at this point. By placing Statius, a sanctified soul, together with souls whose sanctification is still in potential, the poem suggests the proximity of Paradise.21

Associations with Christ's life and resurrection continue to echo in the opening lines of Canto XXI (vv. 2-3, 7-9) until the wayfarers are greeted by Statius with Christ's very words, “Dio vi dea pace.” Having described the role played by free will and love in his “resurrection,” Statius concludes his opening remarks, and the poet once again interjects, quite obliquely this time, two references to Christ. In alluding to the manner in which Statius' words had satisfied his thirst for information (vv. 73-75), Dante invites the reader to recall Christ's quenching of the thirst of the Samaritan woman as referred to back in vv. 2-3 of this same canto. Similarly, when Statius begins to explain why he had remained so long on the present ledge, he makes reference to Christ's crucifixion and death (vv. 82-84). But the most significant reference to the birth of Christ appears, of course, in Canto XXII when Statius ascribes his conversion to the reading of Virgil's fourth Eclogue (vv. 70-72). An allusion to Christ's crucifixion and its role in Mankind's “liberation” appears again in Canto XXIII, 74-75.22 As this canto draws to an end, attention is sharply focused not only on Dante's body, but on the role played by Virgil in freeing Dante from the “crooked” life of the world and leading him to the “straight” life of the spirit (vv. 117-126).

Canto XXIV, with its two fruit trees of prohibition, brings to mind the tree of Eden and the drama of the Fall, as well as the Cross (vv. 74-75, 100-120). As Fergusson has shown, the use of trees in this canto also serves to reinforce the idea of “nourishment” for both flesh and spirit.23 There is also something peculiar about the appearance of the angel toward the end of this canto. For the first time the light that engulfs one of the heavenly emissaries is compared to the red radiance of molten glass or metal. It is an image that the poet will use again in describing the sensation felt by his body as it entered the purifying flames of Canto XXVII, 49-51. Furthermore, the light movements of this angel are like the gentle breezes of springtime whose perfumed gusts announce the impending dawn (vv. 145-147). The subtle allusions to Charity, purification and rebirth are unmistakable. Dante thus sheds his sixth P. There is but one left, the lightest of all, but sufficiently heavy to prevent flight.


As Dante reaches the seventh ledge on which carnal excess is expiated he is eager to ask a question which must doubtless have occurred to him previously but which seems most appropriate at this point. First he significantly likens his state to that of a baby stork that extends its wings to fly, but dares not leave the nest (XXV, 10-12). Prodded by Virgil, he finally reveals what is on his mind. He wishes to know how a bodiless soul can grow thin from hunger, as was the case among the souls of the gluttonous. The question, seemingly simple on the surface, turns out to be considerably involved, for it of necessity touches upon the relationship not only of body to soul, but of flesh to spirit, of life to death, and of Creator to creature. It encompasses, in short, all the mysteries connected with the phenomena of birth and existence as viewed from eternity (v. 31). Indeed, the answer is so involved that Virgil yields to Statius, the classical poet who, unlike Virgil, was privileged to enjoy a full second life because he lived about as many years after Christ as Virgil had lived before, and had, therefore, at least in Dante's view, been graced with the true faith.

As Sapegno has pointed out, the ensuing explanation of Statius goes far beyond the scope of Dante's question and becomes a “vera e propria lezione sull’origine dell’anima umana.”24 The thoroughness with which the processes of conception and generation are exposed according to medieval science might appear unduly prolonged and unnecessary. Yet, if one follows the exposition closely, one senses the mystery and marvel inherent in the fusion of body and soul, flesh and spirit, human and divine. In the Convivium (IV, xxi, 6) a similar exposition leads Dante to conclude: “Non si meravigli alcuno, s’io parlo sì che par forte ad intendere; chè a me medesimo pare maraviglia come cotale produzione si può conchiudere e con lo intelletto vedere.” What makes Statius' explanation especially appropriate at this time is the fact that it affords Dante, who is about to understand the evil inherent in carnal excess, deep insight into the beauty and sanctity of the human body as a truly divine artifact which is ultimately indestructible and, indeed, capable of intensifying not only the joys of salvation but even the pure beatitude of the final vision.25 Furthermore, the description of what happens to the soul after death provides additional proof of the transitoriness of the human faculties (vegetative and sensitive) as compared to the eternity of the divine one (intellective). In traveling back to Eden the soul has passed through the moment of creation of the body and soul and, obliquely, through the moment of rebellion and divine retribution (XXV, 85-88).

As Statius concludes, Dante can already feel the flames of purification that mark the last ledge. The hymn that reaches his ear at this point is one sung on Saturday, praying for purification by fire and cleanness of heart and body26; while the words that he hears the penitents shout bring to mind both divine and human chastity (vv. 172-132). All the building blocks, starting with Marco's discussion of the soul and free will and going through Virgil's discussion of love and the human soul down to Statius' explanation of the union of body and soul are now in place. Though still in possession of his body, Dante, the wayfarer, is ready to depart from the material universe (as defined in the geography of the Comedy) and to enter the universe of pure spirit. He can now do this for he is able to grasp the relationship between spirit and flesh from a divine rather than from a human angle of vision.

Just as Canto XXV ends on a note of chastity, so does Canto XXVI focus our attention on Dante's body surrounded by the purifying flames. Not only does the shadow of his body cause the flames to appear hotter (vv. 7-8), but the penitents who are engulfed in the flames take special care not to emerge. When, furthermore, in Canto XXVII the angel proclaims that further progress can be made only by entering the fire, Dante's first reaction is the recollection of

Umani corpi già veduti accesi.

(V. 18)

In addition, the theme of a return to childhood innocence also emerges strongly. When Dante offers obstinate resistence to Virgil's prodding urging him to enter the fire and is reminded that Beatrice is on the other side, he becomes like a “fanciul … ch’è vinto al pome.” Fergusson's analysis of this moment would appear appropriate here:

We are to take it that the Pilgrim, faced by such painful mysteries as his own infidelity to Beatrice's love (a sign of human infidelity in general) must in some sense become a child again. But as though to remind us that his obedience is not literally the innocence of childhood but innocence regained, his experience is associated with the ambiguous dying and ambiguous revivification of the mythic Pyramus, as his blood, shed in faithlessness and error, stains the mulberry red. And that blood reminds us, though faintly, of the mystic blood of Christ of line 2.27

As Dante and his companions emerge from the fire in Canto XXVII, 57, they are greeted by a voice that welcomes the trio to Eden. Ordinarily, this would have marked the moment for the removal of the last P from Dante's forehead. Commentators have been puzzled by the fact that no reference is made to such a removal.28 To assume that this is an oversight on the part of the poet is inconceivable. What we have here is evidence that the wayfarer's physical purification at this point is almost complete, for he is no longer able to experience direct bodily sensation. He is, however, still aware of his body and, therefore, of his humanity, but in the form of a shadow:

                                         … io toglea i raggi
dinanzi a me del sol ch’era già basso.

(Vv. 65-66)

As evening falls, Dante and his two guides lie down to rest. Once again the pilgrim undergoes an experience reminiscent of childhood as he feels safely tucked away, like a she-goat watched over by two shepherds (vv. 76-87). Just before falling asleep he notes how much clearer and greater the stars over Purgatory appear.29 In the pleasant dream that follows, Lia and Rachel symbolize in depth the beauty inherent in the proper fusion of spirit and flesh. Virgil's words to him upon awaking also recall, by association, images of childhood and innocence (vv. 115-117). It is at this point that the “worm” who has become a “butterfly” begins to sprout wings:

Al volo mi sentia crescer le penne.

(V. 123)

With Virgil's fade-out we once again see a fecund spring landscape and hear echoes, though indistinct, of the conversations held with Marco Lombardo back in Canto XVI (vv. 133-142).

Canto XXVIII opens with verses that clearly suggest a kind of rebirth. The “selva oscura” of Hell has become a “divina foresta spessa e viva,” and we are introduced to a “novo giorno.” The air is fragrant, the breeze is from the East, and the sweet songs of birds greet the “ore prime.” Before the wayfarer is aware of it, he has proceeded a considerable distance into what he now calls “la selva antica” (v. 23). His progress is now impeded by a stream containing waters of incredible purity. Suddenly, across the stream he sees a lovely maiden bathed in sunlight and sweetly singing as she plucks pretty flowers. When this personification of pristine innocence speaks, she refers to the forest as a “luogo eletto a l’umana natura per suo nido” (vv. 77-78). In mysterious terms she implies that she represents, among other things, a fusion of the spirit and flesh, the active and contemplative, the divine and human (vv. 76-81). Furthermore, the surrounding “campagna santa” contains the seeds of all that grows on earth (vv. 118-120). As for the stream, it too comes from a mysterious fount whose miraculous waters eradicate the last vestiges of the slough of earthly life and restore the goodness with which Man was originally endowed as he emerged from the hand of God. The fecund sources of all life in this garden, as explained by the maiden, reflect a fertility and generative powers unknown on earth (vv. 118-126). The wayfarer has thus truly returned to the state of Eden, back to the very origin of the race:

Qui fu innocente l’umana radice;
          qui primavera sempre, ed ogni frutto …

(Vv. 142-143)


However, just as a form of trial was necessary to achieve purification of the flesh, the same holds true for restoring the original innocence of the spirit. Dante's intellectual and “physical” experiences on the last three ledges of Purgatory were all directed toward the ultimate realization of the beauty and mystery of the human body. This was followed by the symbolic purification by fire. Similarly, beginning with Canto XXIX Dante's intellect is exposed to a series of experiences designed to restore original innocence to the spirit. What Dante views basically is the birth and growth of the church and society as willed by God and as vilified by Man. The central focus of the entire pageant is deeply involved with birth, death, and rebirth as we witness the vicissitudes undergone by Revelation as a result of Man's blindness and inability to reconcile human and divine, flesh and spirit, earthly beatitude and heavenly beatitude.30

In order to participate correctly in the procession, it is necessary for Man to recognize his true nature and to confess freely that he has indeed resisted God's will. As is stated in 2 Chronicles: “If my people … shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.”31 As Dante faces Beatrice in Canto XXX, 76-81, we find him first taking one final look at his true self and then assuming the posture of a child. The sight of himself in the clear stream fills him with a shame that brings to mind a young child being scolded by a loving mother. Speaking of these verses, Miss Sayers has remarked, “… there may still be a profound symbolism in that sudden terrible humiliation when he sees himself glassed in the clear water after the regaining of Paradise and the reversal of the Fall. It would mean that for the first time it was possible for him to see sin in its full horror, as it is seen by one who is wholly innocent …”32 As Beatrice concludes her berating of Dante, reference is again made to the image of a child:

Quali i fanciulli vergognando muti,
          con li occhi a terra, stannosi ascoltando
          e sè riconoscendo e ripentuti,
          tal mi stav’io … 

(XXXI, 64-67)33

With the completion of his confession, Dante is ready to undergo a preliminary purification by water which, by analogy with Christian baptism, restores original innocence. Only at this point can a soul in grace, on a special journey back to God, begin to see as God sees. First of all, it is able to see all the beauty and mystery of Revelation (XXXI, 137-145). And then it can see fully the terrible implications of Man's pride and Fall (Cantos XXXII-XXXIII). The appropriateness of Dante's experience at this point was indicated by Auerbach when he wrote: “… only in the place of the first, uncorrupted earthly order and of man's fall from it could the second order and the second fall from it—and this was Dante's view of the world's history since the coming of Christ—be appropriately represented.”34 But even the Earthly Paradise was for Dante still a part of this world. “As the scene of earthly bliss it could only be situated at the summit of completed purification, still a part of the earth but already freed from the natural conditions pertaining on earth and directly subject to the effects of the celestial motion.”35 One step still remained to achieve complete rebirth: the conscious retention by the soul of the memory of the good that is its due. Whence the second immersion, in the stream, Eunoè. Now indeed is the soul thoroughly cleansed and renewed. Now indeed can Dante participate fully in that “love which surpasses knowledge … and be filled unto all the fulness of God” (Eph. iii, 19). In fact, in Eunoè Dante is already drinking unknowingly of the river of light encountered later in Paradiso XXX, 76 ff. from which he, interestingly, is to “drink” more eagerly than a hungry suckling child.36 A man in such a state does resemble a newborn, pure in spirit and flesh, but possessing a distinct personality.37 He has “put off the old man, which is being corrupted through the deceptive lusts,” and, having been “renewed in the spirit of his mind,” has “put on the new man, which has been created according to God in justice and holiness of truth” (Eph. iv, 22-24). He has also learned the meaning of St. Paul's remark that “our citizenship is in heaven from which also we eagerly await a Savior … who will refashion the body of our lowliness, conforming it to the body of his glory by exerting the power by which he is also able to subject all things to himself” (Philip. iii, 17-21).38 The final verses of the Cantica, with their emphasis on the prefix ri- and on the word novello, remind us of all this in terms recalling the rebirth of Nature in the Spring:

Io ritornai da la santissima onda
          rifatto sì come piante novelle
          rinovellate di novella fronda,
puro e disposto a salire a le stelle.(39) 

(XXXIII, 142-145)


  1. E. Auerbach, Dante, Poet of the Secular World, tr. R. Manheim (Chicago, 1961), p. 90.

  2. See C. S. Singleton, Commedia, Elements of Structure, Dante Studies 1 (Cambridge, 1954), pp. 12-13.

  3. Singleton, Journey to Beatrice, Dante Studies 2 (Cambridge, 1958), p. 5.

  4. See, e.g., Singleton, Commedia, pp. 12-13, 73-76; Auerbach, Dante, Poet of the Secular World, p. 142; C. Calcaterra, Nella selva del Petrarca (Bologna, 1942), pp. 260-274.

  5. This is, of course, in keeping with St. Paul's own assertion that he could not recall whether his journey was “in the body … or out of the body,” a statement he repeats twice in 2 Cor. xii, 2-4. See the parallel drawn by Calcaterra (Nella selva, pp. 260-265) between the experience of St. Paul as analyzed by St. Thomas and St. Augustine in terms of types of spiritual vision, and Dante's handling of his own condition upon entering paradise.

  6. See my “The Three Beasts and Perspective in the Divine Comedy,PMLA, LXXVIII (1963), 15-24.

  7. Furthermore, if the encounter with the wolf represents involvement with incontinence and therefore excesses of the flesh (See my “Three Beasts …,” 16, 23-24), the Virgin's intervention in behalf of Dante was prompted precisely by an attempt to get rid of this particular “impedimento” (v. 95). It is interesting to note that in Par. I, 139-140, the phrase “privo d’impedimento” is used to explain why Dante can now rise despite his body.

  8. Singleton, Journey, Chap. I.

  9. Ibid. Also Singleton, Commedia, pp. 1-16.

  10. Scattered throughout the Comedy are many allusions to the concept that not until the souls of the dead are reunited with their bodies will they achieve true perfection. See, e.g., Inf. VI, 103-108; Purg. XXX, 13-15; Par. XIV, 43-51. Calcaterra, in his Nella selva, pp. 270-274, traces this doctrine as used by Dante to St. Augustine even more than to St. Thomas. See City of God, Bk. XIII, Chap. 17-18, 22-23; XXII, 4-5 and especially 19-21. In the Summa contra gentiles, see Bk. IV, Chap. 83-88. See also Grandgent's edition of the Comedy (Boston, 1933), p. 64, n. 106, and E. Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, tr. L. K. Shook (New York, 1956), p. 356.

    It is, after all, also true that the greatest of all mysteries grasped by Dante in his final vision is the relation of the human to the divine, including both spirit and flesh (Par. XXXIII, 130-132). A similar moment occurs at the summit of Purgatory where the pilgrim sees a revelation of the two natures of Christ (Purg. XXXI, 79-81, 121-123). In this connection, see Singleton, Journey, p. 31.

  11. Singleton has indicated the appropriate passage in St. Thomas showing how “man's nature may be raised above its own natural proportions and powers to a dignity that is transhuman” (Journey, pp. 29-30). He has also touched upon the important role of the human body in the unfolding of a journey in the Christian beyond, but only in terms of Dante's artistic strategy in conveying the “journey in allegory” (Commedia, pp. 11-13, 73-76). In this latter study it is interesting to note that for Singleton the concept of the Incarnation and Resurrection provided Dante with an expedient that made his “myth” different from any previous one. “It was that total event which so sanctified the human body that a philosophical poet could find our body in the eternal world beyond, and find it there in all reality—find it there before it could really be there, for the day of our Resurrection is not yet come when Dante visits the three realms beyond. … One day, according to the faith, the whole man, body and soul, will participate in beatitude or damnation. … The myth (Dante's) is only saying: “If one day, why not now?” (p. 75) Singleton's perspective, however, remains focused on what and how Dante, the viator, sees. It fails to include the actual presence and state of the pilgrim himself.

  12. See, e.g., Singleton, Journey, pp. 279-280.

  13. For a thorough analysis of the extent to which symmetry permeates the entire Cantica, see E. De’ Negri, “Tema e iconografia del Purgatorio,RR, XLXI (1958), 81-104.

  14. M. Barbi, Problemi fondamentali per un nuovo commento della Divina Commedia (Florence, 1956), p. 120. See also E. Williamson, “De beatitudine huius vite,” Seventy-Second Annual Report of the Dante Society, (1958), 1-22; and De’ Negri, “Tema e iconografia,” 95-96.

  15. Yet, we must not fail to bear in mind Miss Sayer's explanation of why it is proper for Virgil to accompany Dante throughout Purgatory: “… although Nature cannot ascend Purgatory without the aid of Grace and in company with a soul in Grace, Virgil has a right to be there, and the ascent cannot be made without him. For at the summit of the Mountain is the Earthly Paradise, and what is restored there is, precisely, Nature. The end and aim of the long journey through Hell and up the Mountain is to bring Man back to the perfection of Nature which was lost by the Fall.” D. Sayers, Further Papers on Dante (New York, 1957), p. 76.

  16. See F. Fergusson, Dante's Drama of the Mind (Princeton, 1953), pp. 70-72.

  17. Cf. Petrarch's “Triumph of Time,” v. 136.

  18. Fergusson, Dante's Drama, Chap. 11.

  19. It is interesting to note how Virgil's description of the movement of the “animo” in the operation of love parallels Dante's experience as he tries to penetrate the “nuova luce” of XVII, 41, particularly in vv. 49-51. The dream that follows upon the “Novo pensiero” seems to repeat essentially the same experience, although in connection with a false image (XIX, 7-33).

  20. De’ Negri, 96.

  21. Ibid., 97.

  22. For further discussion of the allusions to Christ, see Fergusson, Chap. 13.

  23. Ibid., Chap. 16.

  24. La divina commedia, (Milano-Napoli, 1957), p. 679.

  25. Starting with Dante's question as to how a bodiless spirit can grow thin from hunger, the emphasis throughout Canto XXV remains on the way in which human qualities persist even in the hereafter. See Par. VII, 145-148; XIV, 37-60; and Conv. III, viii, 1.

  26. C. H. Grandgent, La Divina Commedia di Dante Alighieri (Boston, 1933), p. 558, fn. 121.

  27. Fergusson, p. 167.

  28. See, e.g., Grandgent, p. 574, fn. 59.

  29. Singleton, Journey, Chap. X.

  30. See Barbi, Problemi, pp. 134-139. Of particular interest is the “fleshly” image with which the pageant proper ends (Purg. XXXII, 145-160).

  31. For discussions of the role of humility in the Purgatorio, see De’ Negri, 100-104.

  32. D. Sayers, Introductory Papers on Dante (London, 1954), p. 96.

  33. In the previous canto, indeed, he had turned to Virgil with a trust

    col quale il fantolin corre alla mamma
    quando ha paura o quando egli è afflitto. 

    (Vv. 44-45)

  34. But Virgil was gone and Dante is reduced “to the immediate truth of his own being.” See Fergusson, p. 187. Cf. Matthew xviii, 3: “Amen I say to you, unless you turn and become like little children, you will not enter unto the kingdom of heaven. Whoever, therefore, humbles himself as this little child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

  35. Poet of the Secular World, p. 115.

  36. Ibid., p. 114.

  37. Cf. Rom. xiii, 12-14. “The night is far advanced; the day is at hand. Let us therefore lay aside the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light. Let us walk becomingly as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in debauchery and wantonness, not in strife and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and as for the flesh, take no thought for its lusts.”

  38. The Roman Catholic Mass still recalls in its opening moments the childhood of the race in its innocence and joy. Three times does this theme emerge at the very beginning of the service as a response on the part of the congregation. The celebrant's opening words are: “Introibo ad altare Dei,” to which the participants respond: “Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.” Shortly thereafter the priest's supplication is: “Emitte lucem tuam et veritatem tuam: ipsa me deduxerunt et adduxerunt in montem sanctum tuum, et in tabernacula tua,” words that appear singularly applicable to the journey of the Comedy. Once again the response is: “Et introibo ad altare Dei: ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.” A moment later the priest repeats: “Introibo ad altare Dei,” and is once again answered: “Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.”

    The opening supplications also echo Man's gratitude to God for the salvation of his identity. In fact, God is addressed as both “Deus meus” and “salutare vultus mei.” The same motif reappears at a high point of the Consecration when, just before the distribution of the Eucharist the following prayer is uttered: “Perceptio Corporis tui, Domine Jesu Christe, quod ego indignus sumere praesumo, non mihi proveniat in judicium et condemnationem: sed pro tua pietate prosit mihi ad tutamentum mentis et corporis. …”

  39. Today's Catholic missal still relates Christ's parable of the wedding guest who came without proper garment (Matt. xxii, 1-14) to the man who has yet to “put on” Christ. See Holy Name Manual-Missal (New York, 1944), p. 365.

  40. For a revealing study of the polemics provoked both inside and outside the church during the early fourteenth century by doctrines dealing with the body's role in the hereafter, see M. M. Rossi, “Laura morta e la concezione petrarchesca dell’aldilà,” in Studi petrarcheschi, VII (1961), 301-321. In an article entitled “Spirit and Flesh in Dante's Commedia” Allan Gilbert has recently examined the nature of Dante's shades (see Italica, XLII [1965], 1-19).

Susan Baker (essay date 1966)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3783

SOURCE: “The Analogy of a Poem: Dante's Dream,” Sewanee Review, Vol. 74, No. 2, April-June, 1966, pp. 438-49.

[In the following essay, Baker explores how Dante sought to represent pure beauty through images that function allegorically.]

We should perhaps begin our reading of the Divine Comedy by keeping in mind Aristotle's dictum that poetry is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history because it tends to express the universal rather than the particular. By the universal, the philosopher meant “how a person of a certain type will on occasion speak or act according to the law of probability or necessity and it is this universality at which poetry aims in the names she attaches to personages”. One need not read many pages of the writings of a medieval historian like Gregory of Tours or Geoffrey of Monmouth to recognize that history then was the study of character as it was revealed on given occasions and not the literal record of particular occurrences. The important thing to the medieval way of thinking was that each character participated in the act of Redemption. Like the personages of Biblical history, every man was in some measure a figure or type of the archetypical figure of Christ. Dante understood history in this higher or allegorical sense when he wrote the Divine Comedy.

The great medieval poem was made of secular, sacred, and even mystical history, philosophically interpreted; but its substance is not history, philosophy, or even mystical experience. A poem can only be a poem. To begin to understand what type of poem the Divine Comedy is, we should draw a few distinctions among the purpose of medieval theology, the end of the mystical encounter, and the making of poetry. Then by looking at Dante's dream of the lowest sphere of Paradise from the foot of the Mountain of Purgatory, we shall see how the dimensions of historical or natural, philosophical or discursive, and poetical or illuminative experience were projected to meet at an anagogical point in the medieval mind.

It is a philosophical commonplace that St. Thomas resolved the problem of defining the paradox of God's eternal transcendence and His immanent presence in the world of sensibles by developing his principle of analogy. In this way he discussed St. Augustine's neo-Platonic interpretation of Scripture in terms of Aristotle's category of relation. A human being, as a part of the natural world, must approach God by coming to know His created order. God incarnate in Christ had directly entered the immanent world and revealed His transcendent being for all time. The perfect image of the Creator revealed in Jesus is the limit of God's nature that any man can ever comprehend; and in beginning to approach the Savior's presence, a man must gain self-knowledge and an understanding of his neighbor. In short, a person must work out his salvation by taking analogical steps through natural, historical, moral, and thus, ultimately, religious states of mind. The philosophical method of analogy involves the predicating of concrete names for all of the modes of existence in which man participates in God's integrity. In the Summa contra Gentiles (lib. i, cap. 93) St. Thomas says:

By means of a name we express things in the way in which the intellect conceives them. For our intellect, taking the origin of its knowledge from the senses, does not transcend the mode which is found in sensible things in which the form and the subject of the form are not identical owing to the composition of form and matter. … Whatever our intellect signifies as subsisting, it signifies in concretion. As a result, with reference to the mode of signification there is in every name that we use an imperfection, which does not befit God, even though the thing signified does in some eminent way befit God. This is clear in the name goodness or good. For goodness has signification as something not subsisting, while good has signification as something concreted. … Such names, therefore, as Dionysius teaches, can be both affirmed and denied of God. They can be affirmed because of the name; they can be denied because of the mode of signification.

Now, the mode of supereminence in which the above-mentioned perfections are found in God can be signified by us only through negation, as when we say that God is infinite, or also through a relation of God to other things, as when He is called the first cause of the Highest Good. For we cannot grasp what God is, but only what He is not and how other things are related to Him.

Medieval artists concretely imaged these relations between God and the sensible world by the analogy of a set of four mirrors. The encyclopaedist Vincent of Beauvais denoted the Mirror of Nature as the creation, the Mirror of Knowledge as the story of Adam's fall and man's constant redemption in Christ, the Mirror of Morality as the action by which knowledge of virtue is practiced, and the Mirror of History as living humanity's struggle against its fallen condition. If I may elaborate one analogy upon another, the glasses might be regarded as a set of concentric circles at whose focal point is the reflection of God. Therefore, the artist was free to represent the Virgin by the figure of a particular woman like Beatrice, or simply by the abstract symbol of a rose. The question was, of course, how he could best perfect his craft to transmit an anagogical image of God's divine nature to other men so that they might be delightfully instructed in the way of proper moral action. How could he relate his vision of the beautiful to common understanding?

St. Thomas's idea of the beautiful derives directly from his doctrine of analogy. He defined beauty as id quod visum placet or “what gives pleasure on sight”. As human creatures, we have bodies and consequently can perceive the beautiful initially through our senses and then as it transcends the intelligible world. “The beautiful relates only to sight and hearing of all the senses, because these two are maxime cognovotivi”, and the beautiful, encompassed in a vision, is what gives the joy of intuitive knowledge. As Maritain remarks (in his Art and Scholasticism), man, unlike the angels, can perceive on condition of abstracting and discoursing, so that “only knowledge derived through the senses possesses fully the intuivity necessary for the perception of the beautiful. So also man can enjoy purely intelligible beauty, but the beautiful which is connatural to man is that which comes to delight the mind through the senses and their intuition.” Only by being most himself can a person receive the image of beauty which is completely fulfilled in the Beatific Vision.

There are, as we can see, four different orders of vision. The first of these is the simple sense of sight by which memory is informed of the nature of the external world. On the second level, the imagination can allegorically reorganize these impressions into visual images which have, according to St. Augustine, “the unity that is the form of all beauty”. Maritain uses the word form according to the strictly scholastic definition: “the principle determining the peculiar perfection of everything which is, constituting and completing things in their essence and their qualities, the ontological secret … of their innermost being, their spiritual essence, their operative mystery … above all the peculiar principle of intelligibility, the peculiar clarity of everything. … Every form, moreover, is a remanent or a ray of the creative Mind impressed upon the heart of the being created. All order and proportion are, on the other hand, the work of the mind [in producing art].” The beautiful is, therefore, “the splendor of form shining upon the proportioned parts of matter. … The mind rejoices in the beautiful because in the beautiful … it recognizes itself and comes into contact with its very own light which emanates from God's mind.” According to Dionysius the Areopagite, God's love causes the beauty of what He loves, whereas human love is caused by the beauty of what we love. By participating in a vision of the beautiful, we can experience the love of God.

The imagination, acting freely without the guiding restraint of reason, may perceive the luminous appearance of beauty, emanating from the mind of God, in a prophetic dream. On the third level of visual experience, which is the illuminative way of art, the mind of the poet can give rational order to the contents of such dreams. Only the poet, in recognizing “the unity that is the form of all beauty”, can create a concrete work of art of the proper proportion and magnitude to be “easily embraced by the memory”. Proportion is but another word for the analogy by which we predicate the names of God. The poetic vision is, therefore, the highest knowledge man can have of God's participation in the sensible world.

The sublime visual experience is neither a sense impression nor the perception of an ordered image. On the fourth or anagogical level, the mystic, who has purged his mind of all sensible forms of knowledge, enjoys pure union with God in the Beatific Vision. As Tate observes in his essay on the “Symbolic Imagination”, when Dante passes from the illuminative to the intuitive part of his spiritual journey in the Paradiso, he gradually loses sight of the things that are lit by divine radiance until at the last his mind is filled with the Light itself and he experiences the beautiful directly.

This divine beauty is not, however, the abstract beauty of the Platonic idea. It is the incarnate integrity of the Son who is the express image of the Father and the “perfect Word, lacking nothing and, so to speak, the art of Almighty God” (St. Augustine). Seen in this way the beautiful is transcendental and, Maritain explains, “like being and the other transcendentals, it is essentially analogous, that is to say, it is predicated for divers reasons, sub diversa ratione, of the divers subjects of which it is predicated; each kind of being is in its own way, is good in its own way, is beautiful in its own way”. Man's beauty is analogous to Christ's which is pre-existent, super-excellent, and simply unified.

By an act of the imagination, the poet can give outward expression to his perception of the beautiful and thereby transport himself and his audience beyond the limitations of this world into the inward places where the Spirit dwells. But just as the philosopher can only define the function of art, so the artist can only create images which are analogous to the pure beauty of transcendent reality. Unlike the mystic, the poet does not experience the Beatific Vision which is beyond man's ability to describe directly in sensible forms. We know, of course, from the writings of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, and others that mystical experience may overflow into poetic expression.

An analysis of the nature of mystical poetry is not pertinent to or discussion, but it is important for us to observe that the great mystics characteristically translated their visions of unity into simple statements about the indwelling of God in man as he is. Two examples especially relevant to our reading of the Divine Comedy are St. Bernard's hymn, “Jesu, the Very Thought of Thee” (appended to this essay), and the following words of St. John of the Cross:

O thou soul
Most beautiful of creatures
Who longest to know where thy Beloved is,
Thou art thyself that very tabernacle
Where He dwells.

Dante, who was certainly not a mystic, was to use the fundamental insight of mystical experience in creating his allegory of the “state of souls after death”. He saw clearly how the anagogical dimension was related to the tropological order of human existence, which is the proper concern of poetry.

If any man has ever lived a life of allegory, Dante did; the Divine Comedy is his comment upon it. As he explained in his letter to Can Grande della Scala, he deliberately patterned his poem according to the fourfold method of Biblical exegesis. On the literal or natural plane, corresponding to Vincent of Beauvais's Mirror of Nature, Dante found himself in the Dark Wood, which was a particular place in the world of the poem. Allegorically or historically, he recognized that he was caught up in the political corruption of the Guelph-Ghibelline controversy. Tropologically or morally, he was conscious of his perplexity in battling both false claims in the name of human freedom and tyrannical means of expediency. Anagogically, his story tells of the spiritual struggle of any human being. The poet is not, however, just the historical personage Dante Alighieri. He, like all men, is by analogy a figure of Christ, because Jesus too had come to himself in the Dark Wood of the human mind. Allegorically, humanity must reënact his trial in the wilderness of this world where the principles of church and state are in constant conflict. And morally or tropologically, individual personalities grow aware of ethical dilemmas in which the contrary elements of secular philosophy and theology are opposed. The anagoge is the point at which these three coördinates of the human condition meet and assume spiritual perspective. It is highly significant that Dante did not end the Divine Comedy with his vision of a single point of light but rather with the appearance of the face or image of Man at the center of the triune circles.

Within the clear profound Light's aureole
Three circles from its substance now appeared,
Of three colours, and each an equal whole.
One its reflection on the next conferred
As rainbow upon rainbow, and the two
Breathed equally the fire that was the third.
To my conception O how frail and few
My words! and that, to what I looked upon,
Is such that ‘little’ is more than is its due.
O Light Eternal, who in thyself alone
Dwell'st and thyself know'st, and self-understood,
Self-understanding, smilest on thine Own!
That circle which, as I conceived it, glowed
Within thee like a reflection of a flame,
Being by my eyes a little larger wooed,
Deep in itself, with colour still the same
Seemed with our human effigy to fill,
Wherefore absorbed in it my sight became.

(Paradiso, Canto XXXIII, 115-32)

As Dante's soul is united with the mysterious image, his sight is totally absorbed. Auerbach, in developing his figural interpretation, has suggested that each character is represented in its completely actualized or fulfilled state so that those aspects of the personality which were hidden in life are revealed after death. Extending the principles involved in his discussion of Farinata's and Cavalcante's situation in the Inferno to apply to Dante's self-portrait in the Paradiso, we can understand both the nature of the allegory itself and the medieval idea of a poet as a visual rather than a visionary artist. Dante clearly admits that he can grasp only the outward significance of the Beatific Vision because at the end “to high imagination that force now fails”. Character or the image of human nature was both the proper subject and the direct symbol of allegory. The poet who lives in hope of his redemption or total fulfillment after death must return to the tropological domain which is not unlike the state of Purgatory where good and evil forces still conflict in the mind and where the individual has gained sufficient insight to direct his attention primarily to God. He there can best employ his craft to relate his perception of the beautiful connatural to man in figural allegories. During the Middle Ages both the condition and the symbol of the imaginative act was the dream.

It is not surprising that Dante frequently falls asleep but never dreams in the Inferno. Hell is, for its inhabitants, a static two-dimensional realm where their memories perpetually escape the present to be projected into a nonexistent future. The damned have a historical past and that is all. They have no moral sense; they enjoy no possibilities of creative action. Paradise is, in complete contrast, a four-dimensional place where the blessed continuously experience God's presence in eternity. During his journey up the tropological Mountain of Purgatory, Dante has all of his illuminating dreams and visions.

In the ninth canto of the Purgatorio, the poet falls into a deep sleep at the foot of the Mount and, while Lucy is transporting him to the gate, he dreams that he is carried by an eagle up to the sphere of fire which is the lowest order of Paradise.

And Night had made in that place where we were
Two of her climbing steps, and now the third
Hovered upon its wings inclining near,
When I, in whom something of Adam stirred,
Sank down with body overcome by sleep,
Where all we five were seated, on the sward.
At that time wen the swallow wakes to cheep
Her sad notes close upon the morning hour,
Perhaps the record of old plaints to keep,
And when our mind, being a truant more
From flesh, and with its thoughts less tangled up,
In vision wins almost prophetic power,
I seemed in a dream to see above me stoop
An eagle of golden plumage in the sky
With wings stretcht wide out and intent to swoop.
He seemed above the very place to fly
Where Ganymede was forced his mates to lose
When he was snatcht up to the assembly on high.
Within me I thought: Perhaps only because
Of habit he strikes here, and from elsewhere
Scorneth to carry up aught of his claws.
Then having seemed to wheel a little, sheer
Down he came, terrible as the lightning's lash,
And snatcht me up far as the fiery sphere.
Then he and I, it seemed, burnt in the flash,
And I so scorched at the imagined blaze
That needs must sleep be broken as with a crash.
Not otherwise Achilles in amaze,
Not knowing whither he was come, did start
And all around him turn his wakened gaze
When Scyros-wards from Chiron, next her heart,
His mother bore him sleeping, to alight
There where the Greeks compelled him to depart,
Then I now started as sleep fled me quite
And my face turned death-pale suddenly,
Even as a man who freezes from affright.

(Purgatorio, Canto IX, 7-42)

This powerful passage fulfills all of the historical and philosophical requirements of our present discussion in a single image. Most of its implications are so immediately obvious that an elaborate explication is unnecessary; however, a few details should be emphasized if we are to see the whole nature of Dante's use of allegorical symbolism.

During the Middle Ages, the eagle was considered a unique creature for its ability to fly directly into the sun without having to close its eyes and, consequently, it became an emblem both of Christ and of the human soul contemplating his divine mystery. It is therefore appropriate that this particular bird take the poet on his imaginative flight beyond the tropological world to the first sphere of intuitively visual experience. In Purgatory, he can tolerate the vision of light only for a moment in the shadow of a dream which hides the radiance of the figure of Lucy from his unaccustomed eyes. As Dunbar indicates, the eagle is a complex symbol which has many meanings at every level of interpretation. At this point in Dante's quest, it probably represents the Emperor Henry VII, who was the poet's political hero. Later in the Paradiso, the symbol is revealed completely and David, who was both the psalmist and the king, appears in the pupil of the eye while Trajan, Hezekiah, Constantine, William of Sicily, and Ripheus the Trojan occupy the eyebrow. When the eagle, as the ensign of the Roman Empire, speaks, it says that man can find salvation only through Christ and, thereby, it becomes the standard of his vicarage as well. The analogy between the falcon and Christ is an important one in the context of Dante's dream, because it is by his agency alone that the poet can participate in the vision of his perfect beauty and thus experience the love of God.

The eagle is, however, an abstract symbol rather than a figure. Dante in no way bound himself to a literal representation of the external world of material objects; rather he symbolized the inner stirring of the soul itself in the act of imaginative creation. Like Hopkins, his heart in hiding ever stirred for a bird—“the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!” Although the symbolic falcon can look directly at the sun, the living poet is unable to see more than a reflection of God's beauty burning in the eyes of his beloved. At best, he can make more perfect mirrors of his own eyes by washing them in the river of salvation so that he can imagine the whole of the created order in the single image of a rose. Because of the old Adam still stirring in his breast, the poet can never really dream of a world beyond the sublunary sphere of fire, except by analogy. He must rather, as Dante did, turn inward to recognize the figure of Jesus in historical persons and symbolize their “character and temperament”. Unlike Aristotle, Dante would have called poetry a more concrete and a more mystical rather than a higher and a more philosophical thing than history; for in the act of attaching names to the personages of the Divine Comedy, he was preparing to meet God face to face. He knew that the force of imagination must fail to transport us beyond the sublimity of the sphere of fire and “no wonder of it”, just as the poet will ever stir “blue-bleak embers, ah my dear” to “fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion”.

Jesu, the Very Thought of Thee
Jesu, the very thought of Thee
          With sweetness fills my breast;
But sweeter far Thy face to see,
          And in Thy presence rest.
No voice can sing, no heart can frame,
          Nor can the memory find
A sweeter sound than Thy blest name,
          O Savior of mankind.
O Hope of every contrite heart!
          O Joy of all the meek!
To those who fall how kind Thou art;
          How good to those who seek!
But what to those who find? Ah, this
          Nor tongue nor pen can show;
The love of Jesu! What it is
          None but who love him know.
Jesu, our only joy be Thou,
          As Thou our prize wilt be;
Jesu, be Thou our glory now
          And through eternity.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux

Helmut Hatzfeld (essay date 1952)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9070

SOURCE: “The Art of Dante's Purgatorio,” American Critical Essays on The Divine Comedy, edited by Robert J. Clements, New York University Press, 1967, pp. 64-88.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1952, Hatzfeld contends that Dante's esthetic choices are easier to understand when his style is viewed as one of magic realism.]

Il mito non è favola,
ma … 
“storia vera.”
Not merely a story told,
but a reality lived.
                    b. malinowski

1. Introduction

The considerable amount of critical literature on Dante's Divine Comedy contains very few items which concern esthetical, structural, and stylistic problems. The Purgatorio is the most neglected and allegedly the most debatable part of the three Canticles of the Commedia. Consequently, what we need most of all in Dante criticism is an artistic, accurate analysis and appreciation of the Purgatorio. Certain random remarks on Dante's poetics in recent commented editions, particularly that of Momigliano or in refined critics like Olivero, T. S. Eliot, and Singleton, together with new insights into the problems of poetic myth, symbolism, archetypes, psychology of religion and of the human depths, mysticism, and liturgy, now enable us to make at least a sketch of the art of Dante's Purgatory with some hope of success. This attempt may receive a certain significance from the conviction of the modern literary critic that the true poetic symbol or image conveys a kind of wisdom which is irresistible1 to the reader and transcends in his catharsis the subjective discovery of the artist, because it suggests secret affinities which must be rooted in the very nature of reality.2

Since many points, which I shall mention, have been told and retold by others, though under quite different aspects, I reluctantly suppress a list of general bibliographical items at the request of the editor. What I am adding beyond the new general synthesis is:

1. the exclusive stress on esthetical problems,

2. the identification of Dante's general style with magic realism,

3. the explanation of Dante's participation in the mystical purgation of the souls as a miraculous and not as a mystical phenomenon,

4. the artistic identification of the Purgatorio with the Suffering Church,

5. the interpretation of the purification of the souls as an analogy to the later so called passive dark night of the soul coinciding here with illuminative processes, which are in turn visionary and auditory.

2. The Foundation of the Poetical Myth

Dante's Purgatorio is first of all the artistic product3 of a myth-maker who, with selective skill, weaves together Christian, Pagan, Mohametan, and folkloric traditions, to erect his own magic seven story mountain: When Lucifer with his army of revolting angels (Par. XXIX, 49-57) was hurled from Heaven like a thunderbolt (XII, 25-27) to the very center of the Earth, masses of stone and clay, as though they had a presentiment, withdrew in horror from Satan. What Lucifer's body hollowed out appeared on the surface of the Southern hemisphere (Inf. XXIV, 121-126), opposite Jerusalem in the shape of a cone, on top of which the Earthly Paradise was placed, since this point was closest to Heaven. The rest of the hemisphere was covered with water. Thus it came to pass that an isolated mountain, high and steep (IV, 81), far removed from the lands later inhabited by the fallen men, was provided for souls to be purged and brought to salvation after the divinely foreseen Redemption.

But how should the souls get there in visible shape making possible their expiatory punishment by the pain of the senses (III, 31 ff.)? Dante, the myth-maker, having entered with his first step the poetic sphere of magic realism has no difficulty in making the second. The not as yet perfect but chosen (III, 73) Christian souls are at the moment of death miraculously (XXV, 86) “jet-propelled” by an inner urge (XXV, 85) to the mouth of the Tiber (XXV, 85 ff.). Thus they are poetically undergoing their particular judgment. As opposed to the thick, black air of Acheron out of which the bodies of the damned are formed, the thin, clear, holy Tiber air of Ostia (XXV, 89), near the Eternal City, is offered to these souls for creating their new aerial bodies (XXV, 88 ff.). This is again a magic process, comparable to that by which the sun forms a rainbow (XXV, 91 ff.).

As soon as a sufficiently large group has gathered, an angel will arrive with a very light and swift boat to take these fine “soul-bodies” preshaped for the halleluia of the resurrection4 (XXX, 15), to the shores of the purgatorial island (II, 13-57). In spiritual profundity this magic isle is as different from Pindar's island of the Blessed and Homer's Ogygia and all the Atlantic types of mythical Western islands, as it is different in poetical beauty from the Earthly paradise islands of Peter Lombard and St. Thomas,5 not to speak of the prosaic purgatory of St. Patrick on Station Island in Ireland.

Dante's poetic genius furthermore has understood that to climb a mountain step by step over rocks, narrow paths, and crooked terraces was the ideal symbolic setting for a painful purgation. His sense of magic landscape makes these terraces appear as though hewn into steep declivities in fantastic altitudes. Dante's poetic instinct also saw clearly that an island in distant waters (VIII, 57) could best give the vague sensation of limitless space and of a place in which the finite world would fuse with the metaphysical infinite. At this point a new idea, the third one to be poetized, surges in Dante's mind, namely the fact that in the spiritual life on Earth the great purgatorial sufferings start only after a time of a more consoling expectation. To work in this concept he creates an Ante-Purgatorio, consisting of a beach, a colorful meadow (VII, 73-84), and a blooming valley at the foot of this very steep mountain. It is there that certain souls, now called shades (VIII, 45), gentle forms (IX, 58), but also vanities (XXI, 135) are destined to delay their purgatorial sufferings, because they have not developed any spirituality in their earthly life. These souls are worldlings who died in excommunication with only a last sigh of contrition, or elegant gentlemen and ladies who hoped for a long life, but were killed in their youth, and princes who, having yielded to trifles, neglected their duties, or conversely, lost themselves entirely in the affairs of State. Again Dante poeticizes everything, even canon law. He knew that the threat of excommunication gave to the person warned thirty days for a possible resipiscence before the excommunication itself took place. Consequently, as in a fairy tale, though with an unusual reverence for the power of the Keys (IV, 135), Dante makes the excommunicated stay in his Ante-Purgatorio thirty times the period which elapsed between the beginning of their exclusion from the Church and their death.

3. The Poetization of Theology

Of course, if we are well aware of Dante's keen psychology of these aerial creatures, the respite in this Ante-Purgatorio is only an external boon. These souls are unhappy because their eagerly awaited, though feared, purgation is delayed. They feel like accused persons who have been released on bond and have a certain freedom of movement (VII, 41) but who are none the less worried in view of the threat of the penitentiary. These and all the other souls finally will go through all the seven terraces of Purgatory, to atone for and become entirely purged of pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony and lust, with a different length of time, of course, on the different terraces, according to the individual case. Again, Dante's poetic instinct is at work when he chooses among the many systems of the seven capital sins that of Hughes of St. Victor and Saint Bonaventure. Only with this system at hand could he drastically reduce his distribution of the penitents to the principle of the whole Commedia, namely to that Love which moves the sun and all the stars. Actually, on the middle circle of sloth the shades are atoning for their lack of vigor in explicit love of God, higher up for too much inordinate vigor in love for persons or things, lower down for too little implicit love of God by definite forms of erroneous love of self. These latter forms are almost identical with forms of hatred of one's neighbor.

Dante's next problem was the poetization of the “spirits to be ripened by weeping” (XIX, 91) with their single corrective pains in harmony with the concept of the magic mountain. How was Dante to symbolize what the theologian would call their tribute or debt to be paid (X, 108; XI, 188; XIII, 126), the money to be restored by them (XI, 125)? Dante rejected at the outset the prosaic solution of the Middle Ages that the souls are tortured by devils or angels. Dante's penitential souls carry with and in themselves a divinely supported, organic system of painful correction just as they carried their particular judgment in themselves. That means in terms of Dante's poetic symbolism that the proud must moan under the heavy stones they carry, in order to learn humility, that the envious must weep bitter tears from their closed eyes with which they used to squint at their neighbors. Now their lids are painfully sewn like those of a sparrow-hawk. The angry are steeped in a stifling smoke which hurts their eyes as their irascibility hurt their hearts. The slothful have to run relentlessly around the mountain, day and night, to the point of exhaustion, in order to overcome spiritual inefficiency, e.g., scorn of meditation, lack of vigilance, negligence, and procrastination. The avaricious cannot rise from the soil symbolic of their clinging to earthly goods. They appear as if they were irremissibly prostrated before the Golden Calf. The bitterness of their pain consists in not being able to turn their faces to Heaven. The gluttonous are literally tantalized by being placed around the finest trees laden with juicy fruits. Their aroma enhanced by a constant shower from the rocks (XXIII, 68-69) makes them all the more attractive, so that the souls behave like children who stretch out their hands for things they cannot get (XXIV, 108 ff.). Emaciated, with shining teeth (XXIV, 28) and fleshless skeletons, these dead persons seem to have died a second time. Here, Dante's magic realism reaches a climax. The souls, aerial bodies, seem, but only seem, forgotten and we are under the spell of living skeletons. With their eyeballs deeply hidden in their orbits (XXIII, 40) forming two eerie O's and the fleshless nose between them appearing like an M, these souls seem to say: We are the picture of miserable man OMO (homo) (XXIII, 31-33).

We see that with the progress of the action on the higher terraces the artistic rendering of the supplices is also growing. Therefore when Dante climbs through the last narrow gate and stair to the seventh circle, there he finds for the first time the real fire of purgatory as the adequate cleansing punishment for the lustful who were devoured by the fire of erotic passion. This fire is for Dante's art and logic a poetic magician's synthesis of the material fire of the Latin Fathers and of the fire wall surrounding Earthly Paradise of the Orientals.6 Stressing the Oriental concept Dante's artistic skill uses this new synthetic symbol at the same time for his particular politicospiritual doctrine, that the natural virtues when duly developed lead to an earthly beatitude which is the “conditio sine qua non” for the spiritual soaring to the beatific vision: The Earthly Paradise.

4. The Poetization of Asceticism and Mysticism

But Dante does much more with the penitent souls. Although he constantly stresses the fact that atoning pain is never disgusting, revolting, or horrifying (XXXIII, 72), there is, he also brings out, the souls' privation of God, their desire for Him, their temporary loss and inhibition of the beatific instinct.7 And to make this desire for God almost unbearable, and the insight into their own unworthiness intolerable, these souls undergo for their purification and perfection the same treatment which the mystics do on Earth. Visions and voices both exalt and depress them at the same time. All this occurs simultaneously in well-devised and artistic compounds. For instance, on the terrace of the proud, sculptures on the wall representing examples of humility attract these souls so much that they try with difficulty to lift up their eyes to these consoling corporal visions, curbed as they are under the weight of the stones they carry. But when they keep their eyes down upon the ground, they see only engraved pictures of pride, taken from the Bible and classic antiquity which show them their own disgrace and they cannot help trampling on them in shame-faced repentance. But a more unearthly “mysterious” impression—to stress our critical magic principle—comes from the fact that it appears as if these living caryatides (X, 130) seem to move in a museum of bas-reliefs, onlookers and at the same time part of this sculpture gallery of God's direct products of art (X, 99). Dante's scrupulousness in reproducing St. Thomas' ten subdivisions of pride8 thus works out very well artistically; with fewer sculptures there would not be the convincing impression of a museum, or of an art exhibit, a concept which Dante's artistic imagination anticipates, just as it does in other cantos, aviation or moving pictures, as we shall see later.

On the terrace of the envious, things shape up quite differently. The walls and the pavement with their bareness in contrast to the preceding circle offer no pictures because sewn eyes cannot see. The livid souls there, in their pale gray cloaks (XIII, 47), not only particularly pathetic because as spirits they wear clothes, but also because they behave in all their gestures like truly blind people, supporting one another, lifting their chins when they seem to hear something, undergo another type of mystical inner purgation. These envious souls strike Dante by their constant listening to mystical voices alternately relating instances of charity and envy. The psychological effect with the aid of this auditive means seems still more forceful than was the case in the preceding circle with the means of visualization. While the good examples are like a hearty rain, the examples of punished envy appear like claps of thunder.

Dante's magic realism is most varied and resourceful in demonstrating this inner passive purgation in the circle of the avaricious. The penitent souls themselves record the examples by an inner ecstatic urge, the same which makes the mystics cry out their pain and love. On the terrace of the lustful, vision, voices, and ecstatic cries are even supplemented by touch. The souls, marching in opposite directions, embrace one another upon meeting, but so brief is their kiss that it is almost a pax tecum. This, says Dante, looks mysteriously like ants meeting and stopping to ask one another the right direction (XXVI, 34-36). For these souls it is the method by which they learn how to give a chaste kiss of charity and embrace the others out of love of God, by the kiss to the leper. This experience makes them so disgusted with their old kind of life that they shout into the air the most horrible examples of sins of the flesh, some: “Sodom,” others: “Pasiphae,” each group outdoing the other, and then they are themselves ashamed of their outcries (XXVI, 81).

5. The Poetization of Dante's Participation in the Purgation of Souls

Dante, who cannot help crossing their fire in order to reach the Earthly Paradise, experiences their purifying pain to the point that he states that a bath in burning glass would be refreshing compared to this unimaginable heat. So much is needed to turn love into charity. But, lo! Dante's garments are not singed, because this is a cleansing, not a consuming fire (XXVII, 29-30). This example proves that Dante as the living man among the dead is given the particular grace of participating miraculously, not mystically, in some of the different mystical trials and illuminations of the souls. Therefore, this experience is not his own purgation. It is a type of instruction in purgation and a lesson in charity, an initiation, a most drastic retreat, a series of spiritual exercises which prepare him for his general confession on the top of the mountain in the presence of Beatrice. Stranger still than Dante's fire ordeal is his participation in the imaginary visions of the angry (XV) who like the blind envious cannot have corporeal visions because of the dark smoke. On their terrace it seems to Dante as though a screen (XVII, 21) were prepared inside his head on which to project, nay to flash (XVII, 25), in a quick sequence what we would call a series of changing moving pictures, seven hundred years before they were invented, as we mentioned before. Thus he sees in an ecstatic vision (XV, 85-86), Mary meekly entering the temple in search of her lost Child (XV, 89 ff.); he sees Aman, looking wild, on the gallows (XVII, 26); he sees the stoning of St. Stephen (XV, 106 ff.), who is at the same time pardoning his murderers. These ecstatic pictures are given in dynamic form, in foreshortenings and on double planes, and always a new picture breaks the preceding one like a soap bubble (XVII, 32). Dante, perturbed more than ever before and like a person just awaking from sleep, rubs his eyes and Vergil sees him stumbling along wholly benumbed (XV, 118-123).

6. Some Poetical Trimmings of Magical Realism

Dante, wandering from terrace to terrace, makes still other truly amazing discoveries. He finds that the very door to Heaven is at the entrance of Purgatory. This seems bewitching, but is actually very logical in this magic architecture, because any soul passing through this door is well confirmed in grace. Dante experiences that at the beginning of the climbing he needs an almost superhuman effort, because the stairs leading from one circle to the other through the narrow gates (XII, 108) are very steep. On the higher terraces, however, the gates widen, and movement becomes easier. Another surprise: after having witnessed the explosions of hatred in Hell, Dante is now astonished to hear himself called “Brother” by every soul. Thus he understands the growth in grace and charity. But lending a helping hand upward over difficult crevasses is even beyond the strength of such a spiritual guide as Vergil. Therefore, Heaven must interfere more directly. Dante, having fallen asleep (IX, 13 ff.) in the valley of the Princes, dreams that a mighty eagle has caught him like another Ganymede and carried him to the sphere of fire (IX, 17-30); and at his actual awakening Vergil can explain to him that Santa Lucia in cooperation with Beatrice had come down from Heaven and, light-footed and nimble, had carried him a good part of the way up to the great gate of purgatory. Dante undergoes other shocks, as when he sees sun (IV, 56-57) and moon (XVIII, 79-81) not on the expected but on the opposite side.

The magic mountain also has curious laws for earthly visitors. There are only right turns (XXII, 123), as any move to the left, the usual one in the Inferno, would mean danger. At nightfall the movements of the wanderers are hampered (XVII, 67-69; XXVII, 70-75). On the terrace of the slothful this law is aggravated, so that even Vergil seems paralyzed, and Dante feels like a stranded ship (XVII, 78). He fully realized what Jesus (John XII, 35) means when he urges us to walk as long as there is daylight. Dante sleeps and dreams three times (IX, 13 ff.; XIX, 1 ff.; XVII, 94 ff.) on his three-day journey and in each dream, conceived of as a magic superstratum in a magic world, equally introduced by the solemn expression “In the hour when,” there appear to him his protective helpers. After Santa Lucia who carried him off (IX, 59-60; 19-33), it is Beatrice herself9 who drives away the slothful and voluptuous siren at whom Dante still dared to smile in a dream, since he could not resist her smooth, sensuous, and melodious insinuations. Following Beatrice it is the young and beautiful Lea (XXVII, 97), who shows him in the third dream the beauty of active life, gracefully depicted by her gathering of the choicest flowers for a beautiful nosegay. Thus Dante may vie with St. Francis de Sales for the invention of the concept of a spiritual bouquet. Lea tells him of her more beautiful contemplative sister Rachel, who never leaves the mirror in which she sees God. This last dream is a gentle preparation for the apparition of Beatrice.

Dante also realizes the seriousness of the purgatorial pains in a concrete lyrical fashion. Even the souls which suffer least seem to say: “I can no more” (X, 139), and sometimes the pain changes their moaning prayers into an inarticulate: “hui” (XVI, 64). Nor is theirs an immediate purgation. The Roman poet Statius is released from purgatory just at the moment, when Dante passes the terrace of the avaricious, after a stay of 1200 years, of which he spent 500 with the spendthrifts. None the less, Dante also discovers that the holiness (XXVII, 11) of the so-called poor souls outshines their helplessness. Therefore they are always first encouraged by the positive example of virtues before they envisage the opposite disgraceful, remorseprovoking deterrent vices. But to make things lyrically still more beautiful, the first example given in each case is taken from the model life of the Blessed Virgin (XVIII, 113; XX, 22-23, etc.), the Immaculate, whom Saint Bonaventure, in this case the pattern for Dante, had praised as “septem vitiis capitalibus immunissima.”10 Mary is present still in another way. Her name on his lips, says Buonconte, killed in battle, saved him at the last moment (V, 102); the angels (VIII, 37) sent to the purgatorio came from her arms and motherly embrace and defeated the Serpent in her name; and now when the purgatorial “Prisoners of Hope” unconsciously pregnant with virtue already suffer like mothers giving birth to a child, they mitigate their pain by the ejaculatory cry: “O sweet Mary” (XX, 20). Even on the sculptures she seems to live and talk (X, 95) and Dante would swear when looking at the picture of the Annunciation that he could hear her say: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord” (X, 43). Thus also the lyrical Mary theme appears incorporated in the magic realism of the Mountain.

7. The Poetization of Liturgy

One of the greatest discoveries made by Dante, the wanderer, during his four days in purgatory is that he does not find here a disorderly mass of souls, as was the case in the Inferno, but a well-ordered, silent and devout crowd (XXIII, 21), a part of the “turba magna” (ib.) once to adore the Lamb, in other words: he meets the Suffering Church. Consequently the souls as a group add to the mystical individual suffering and contemplation, the collective liturgy of hymns and prayers, and sacramental attitudes. For the most part they form processions as pilgrims to which the pilgrim Dante feels attracted (XXIII, 15). They also gather for devotions fit for their particular purposes. As Dante arrives in the different terraces at different hours of the day, he witnesses many of these canonical hours, according to the “religion of the Mountain.” The awe and recollection of the worshipers is only endangered by the frightening strangeness of the shadow of Dante's body, a recurrent motif. Dante's shadow seems as unreal to them as the voices and the gestures of the spirits seem outlandish to the earthly ears and eyes of Dante.

On the terrace of the angry, Dante overhears a wondrous Agnus Dei by which the souls implore the Lamb for mercy and peace (XV, 16-19) and all the voices unite in a choir of the sweetest harmony (XVI, 20-21). The proud souls of the first terrace say the Our Father, changing the text to correspond with their own situation. Thus they are praying for their daily manna in their purgatorial desert as the Jews did in theirs, and this manna is the suffrage of the faithful for which all the souls on all terraces will implore Dante (VIII, 71; XI, 32; XIII, 147). Dante is impressed by the reciprocation of these souls who offer on their part the petition “And lead us not into temptation,” for the living because there are no temptations in purgatory. The hymn “Te lucis ante terminum” in the Ante-Purgatory is not only sung but the whole Compline is staged by human and heavenly actors. The “leo rugiens” (lectio brevis from I Petr. 5, 8), the “pestis quae vagatur in tenebris” (Ps. 90), and the “noctium phantasmata” (Hymnus) are not mentioned, but to the horror of the souls who never can be tempted any more, a frightful spectacle occurs every evening: The temptations to which these souls consented and succumbed on earth reappear here much more frightful than any “negotium perambulans per noctem,” in the shape of the Serpent (VIII, 131), perhaps the same, says Dante significantly, which once gave Eve the bitter apple (VIII, 99). But every evening also two heavenly messengers “Angeli sancti … qui omnes insidias inimici … longe repellunt” (Oratio) appear with drawn flaming swords to drive the serpent away (VIII, 25-42; 94-108) and thus protect the still “exiled children of Eve” as the souls call themselves in the “Salve Regina” which they intone (VII, 76 ff.).

When Dante approaches the main door of purgatory, it not only opens automatically as in the Vision of Tundale11 but it starts also wondrous organ music and all the souls sing the Te Deum solemnly and beautifully (VIII, 14-15). At the quasi-resurrection of Statius from purgatory to Heaven the whole mountain trembles as the Earth did at the death of Christ, and Statius appears to Dante and Vergil as suddenly and mysteriously as Christ the Risen once appeared to the disciples on the way to Emmaus (XXI, 7-13). At the same time a Gloria is heard, sung by the rejoicing souls, forgetting their own sorrow, Dante listening to the heavenly tunes feels something of the bliss of the shepherds on the memorable Christmas night (XX, 140).

Of course, it is fitting that Dante meets more often slowly moving penitential processions of praying shades (XI, 20), mostly weeping and singing at the same time. They entune the Miserere (V, 22) or cry for help with the Litany of all the Saints (XIII, 50; XVI, 19). The processional hymns of the angry are heard, although the singers cannot be seen in the stifling smoke of their dark night (XVI, 1 ff.). The gluttonous who have opened their mouths for good food rather than for the praise of the Lord suddenly understand altogether why their Divine Office stresses so much Psalm 50, 17: Domine, Labia mea aperies (XXIII, 11). The hymn of Saturday at Matins, Summae Deus Clementiae, containing the strongest prayer for the preservation of chastity, is sung even twice at each occasion by the lustful (XXV, 121). They have no other hymn but this (XXV, 131). These are some examples of Dante's inexhaustible variations of the liturgical theme embedded in the magic-realistic action.

For helping to perform all the liturgical ceremonies there are no priests. Priests are not needed where there is no sacrifice. But those who take care of the penitential rites are angels with priestly functions, beautiful angels, clad in the splendor of white rays (XVII, 52-57), their faces shining like the trembling morning star (XII, 89-90). They have delegated powers in a mystical penitentiary where it would be not compatible with the dignity of the Master to appear Himself. These angels with their blessings by the sign of the cross (II, 49) convey the sacramental atmosphere to the Mountain. They stand watch on the highest point of each circle to keep any soul from leaving the terrace assigned to it before its time is up. This function is merely formal, however, because no soul would do so; on the contrary, all of them are so eager to please the Lord, that despite their pain, they keep straight to their particular mode of purgation and try to accelerate the process so earnestly that they scarcely take time out to talk to Dante, which Oderisi, Pope Hadrian, Guido del Duca, Marco Lombardo bluntly tell him.12 Conversely, the souls in the Inferno only thought of tricks to escape the devils. Therefore the much more important function of these reigning angels with their loving voices is to welcome the souls, first to the main purgatory with the symbol of the keys (IX, 76-132) and then to each one of the higher circles after their penance on the lower one is fulfilled. They open their arms wide to the redeemed sinners like Christ on the cross (XII, 91). They greet them with the beatitude most appropriate to their situation (XII, 109 ff.; XV, 37 ff.; XVII, 67 ff.; XIX, 49 ff.; XXII, 4 ff.; XXVII, 7 ff.), hinting in a melodious, poetical manner to the fact that purgation has brought about the heightening of the virtuous capacities of the souls to the full gifts of the Holy Spirit, which, when accumulated, will give them the power to soar automatically to Heaven from the plateau of Earthly Paradise. Thus the inner process of sanctification hinging on a major automaton is stressed as were the others.

The angels have more priestly functions: They bless, aid, and direct Dante in his symbolic penitential initiation into the mysteries of the Mountain (XXX, 82-99). The first angel draws the seven Peccata signs on Dante's forehead (IX, 112) like a penitential cross of ashes and each of the following angels removes one of these P's, revealing to him the true meaning of a heavy conscience and a conscience at ease. Their work is crowned after Dante's most perfect contrition and confession on the plateau when Matelda washes the remembrance of any guilt from him (XXXII, 1-3) and makes him drink the memory of good works instead.

8. The Poetization of Vergil's Guidance

Dante's spiritual guide, ever present and blindly obeyed (XVI, 6), is not an angel, but Vergil; Vergil who, though not a Christian, could not help becoming for many a guide by his literary work, and a directing-sign to Christ. Much to Vergil's own sorrow, he is so informed by Statius, the Crypto-Christian, who had read the poet's fourth eclogue with its curious prediction of the birth of a savior from a virgin and of a new golden age. This is the topic to be discussed by the two spirits, Vergil and Statius, on the way from the terrace of the avaricious to that of the gluttonous. Vergil cannot help envying Statius, who is on his way to Heavenly peace (XXI, 17), while he himself will return to the sad limbo, the “eternal exile” (XXI, 18), as he says bitterly. If some critics wonder why Vergil, the pagan, has such high powers as Dante's guide, one may conclude from the text that he, who particularly led Statius and others to Heaven, is also capable of guiding Dante at least to Beatrice and to “crown and miter” him (XXVII, 142).

Vergil is the most affectionate (XVII, 82), true (XVIII, 7), dear (XV, 25; XVIII, 13), and sweet leader (XII, 3) as well as wise adviser (XIII, 75), as Dante, Vergil's spiritual son (XVII, 92) and dear child (XXIII, 4), calls him. He awakens him when he has weird dreams (XIX, 34-35); he offers encouraging words (XIX, 25); and against temptation he gives him a simple, natural remedy: an upward glance toward the stars (XIX, 62-63). The most charming scene is that of Dante the child (XXVII, 20-45) who, refusing to cross the zone of fire, keeps so near the outer edge that he is in danger of toppling thousands of yards into that mythical ocean (XXV, 117), which no human eye has ever seen. Vergil must lure him into the flames by stratagem, the casual remark, that he already sees faintly on the other side of the fire the long-sought eyes of Beatrice (XXVII, 54). Upon other occasions he assumes strictly sacerdotal attitudes, such as teaching (XII, 84) and imparting blessings (XXVII, 142).

The situation of a pagan, such as Vergil, guiding a Christian, Dante, leads poetically to the development of the motif of the blind leader. Vergil who must show the way to Dante does not know the way himself. Although he finds the wide road, he does not discern the narrow gates. Therefore he must ask continually, first Cato, later the angels and the souls, what path to take in this strange “cloister of charity” (XV, 57).

9. The Poetization of Dante's Meeting with his Dead Friends

The meeting of Dante with his dead friends is a breathtaking, lyrical motif. In their dialogues Dante reveals himself as a pitiful soul (XIII, 53-54) of thoughtful manner (XIII, 85), while his erstwhile companions have become so gentle, brotherly and self-effacing, that they already speak another language. Upon seeing Dante, they do not exclaim like Dante's friends in Hell: “What a surprise!” but “What a grace!” (XXIII, 42). The souls, in a discreet (XXIII, 43-45) and noble manner, delicately share certain of Dante's earthly interests, whereas Dante learns unconsciously and gradually to view things from the standpoint of true eternity. Here are some concrete artistic consequences of this situation. When Pia dei Tolomei wants to relate to Dante her brutal assassination at the hands of her husband, she only evokes in a melancholy way the time when he lovingly gave her the dear wedding ring and then adds with a sigh: Well, “Siena brought me to life; Maremma to death” (V, 133-136), and she urges Dante to say some prayers for her only after having had a good rest from the hardships of his trip. The painter Oderisi (XI, 82) and the poet Guido Guinicelli (XXVI, 114), both once eager for glory, now gently reject Dante's praise of their artistic achievements. Upon meeting with Pope Hadrian V, Dante falls to his knees, whereupon the pope says: “Brother, get up (XIX, 133 ff.), here I am a servant like you” (XIX, 134). The neque nubent (of Math. XXII, 30) in the other world has its analogical extension also for the relationship between the faithful and the pope, “The only value left to me is a niece on earth.” With this imperceptible suggestion that Dante should try to procure the niece's suffrages in a kind of spiritual topsy-turvy nepotism, this unearthly dialogue abruptly ends the canto and leaves Dante perplexed.

Dante does not forget that these spiritual souls must also fit into the atmosphere of his Purgatorio. Therefore his friend Forese Donati, appearing as a meager skeleton (XXIV, 16 ff.), is recognized only by his voice. The beautiful Manfred, fatally wounded in battle, even in Purgatory retains his youthful blond hair and the scar on his forehead (III, 107-108). The Mantuan troubadour Sordello, to the great surprise of Dante, is able to embrace Vergil (VI, 75), whereas Statius is discouraged by Vergil in his attempt to do so (XXI, 132); and Dante never will know the exact code of the sentimental life of shadows. Similarly Dante is astonished by the abrupt manner of departure of the shades who rush back to their purgation, as does Marco Lombardo (XVI, 142-145) or Forese Donati (XXIV, 75 ff.). One of the most mysterious persons of all is Cato, the Pagan enthusiast of liberty, who, with his parted white beard, and surrounded by a halo of four stars, appears like a patriarch liberated from limbo. Dante has made him a half-saint and superintendent of the seven kingdoms (I, 82), a solemn creature, certain of a glorious resurrection on doomsday, despite his paradoxical suicide.13

The greatest shock is the appearance of Beatrice, who is far from being the lovely girl from Florence when she descends from Heaven. She is similar to the bride of the Canticle, or to the morning sun clouded in the East (XXX, 20-27); she is like an admiral in battle array (XXX, 58), or an adored mother who even when scolding would appear superb and beautiful to her son (XXX, 79). Dante's bewilderment reaches its peak when with the mysterious griffin she disappears heavenward. These are moments when logical allegorization would destroy all the poetry, while the literal sense finds the modern critic and artist entirely at ease.

10. Lyrical Elements in the Creation of a Magic Landscape

Until now we have considered, so to speak, only the necessary poetically transformed elements of the subject matter of Dante's Purgatorio. But what makes the poem more lyrical and underscores the magic realism decisively is the exploitation of astronomical and atmospheric conditions for a gamut of landscapes, seascapes, and skyscapes, whose beauty creates a melancholy mood of sadness and nostalgia in the reader. These scenes with their half-descriptive foreground and half-lyrical background create with comparative means a counterpoint to the leading melody of the main action and the dialogues.

When Dante comes out of the infernal mines of the Earth, the dawn of a dreamlike Eastern morning greets him. There are shining on a greenish-blue sky (I, 13-27) four unknown stars, grouped around the smiling, serene, and pure Venus (I, 19). The still, dark sea is moved by a slight breeze (I, 117), and with the growth of light it seems to tremble, covered as it is with tiny rippling waves. Not far from the beach appears a very unusual scene; there are meadows with flowers of all imaginable colors, and a beautiful, little, wondrous valley which, at nightfall under the setting sun of a foreign sky, evokes nostalgia. It is the kind of melancholy known to the sailor who finds himself at sea the first night after having kissed his beloved ones good-bye, or it is the type of sadness which overcomes the pilgrim who, deep in thought, approaches an unknown village at the hour when the Angelus starts to mourn the parting day (VIII, 1-6).

Later, Dante's and Vergil's silhouettes appear on the third terrace enveloped in the smoke of the angry souls; one is following the other, and Dante is rubbing his sore eyes (XV, 139-140) when the weak rays of the setting sun pierce the smoke clouds as suddenly as though they were alpine mist on a rainy day (XVII, 1-20). It is a totally different picture when in the late morning sun the glittering Holy Mountain appears like a blast. Dante has overslept because of the spell of the terrace of the slothful, and it is as though the sun were smiling ironically and blaming Dante for his nasty dreams (XIX, 37-38), which occurred under a condoning moon, which had had the uncanny form of an overturned bucket (XVIII, 76-81). An eerie impression comes also from Dante's walking between the setting sun and the fire of the lustful, keeping to the outer edge; but Dante's shadow, nevertheless, makes the flame darker, and it seems, more glowing (XXVI, 4-8), a most astonishing observation and artistic setting some hundred years before the impressionists discovered color reflexes in shades. The starry sky over the last stair on which Dante is resting during the final night is reminiscent of those clear nights, during which the flocks stay in the open, protected by their shepherd leaning on his staff. In like manner is Dante protected by Vergil until Dawn jubilantly chases the stars and the darkness away in all directions (XXVII, 112).

The most magic landscape, of course, is the dark green shadowy pine wood of Earthly Paradise. Streamlets, fresh and transparent, although appearing almost brown like the trunks of the trees, murmur in union with the birds singing on the ever peacefully moving branches (XXVIII, 1-33). Since a fiery but none the less mild sunlight casts a sea of light through the thicket (XXIX, 34-35), and rosy blossoms come from leafless branches (XXX, 22-24), and virtuous nymphs (XXIX, 4-5) dance in this woodland, Dante understands that Ovid, in speaking of the Golden Age, had in mind this Garden of Eden.

Dante as a poet knows that he does not have to compete with the painter in description and he draws mood and climate, as we have said before, rather from lyrical suggestions. Therefore there is still another layer of remembered earthly landscapes which become magic in the light of the remembrance of souls who lived or died therein. Thus is portrayed the battlefield of Campaldino (V, 92 ff.) with the wounded Buonconte, who, fleeing with his throat pierced, tinges the field with dripping red blood (V, 99 ff.); then he collapses and is dragged into the river on that stormy day (V, 119 ff.). Or to choose a brighter picture: There looms in the mind of Dante, who is on his way to Earthly Paradise, a Proust-like landscape-comparison of a balmy May air, full of the perfume of blossoms announcing an as yet unseen orchard full of blooming trees (XXIV, 145-154).

11. The Art of Using Comparisons

There is even a third layer of pictorial-lyrical evocations, those existing only in comparisons. Dante's casual remarks, actually, are full of imagery. Beatrice's name is in his mind like a refreshing spring (XXVII, 41-42), which will help him courageously even through the fire. It makes him feel like Pyramus, who on the verge of death opens his eyes again upon hearing the name of Thisbe (XXVII, 37-42). The souls with Dante among them as one able to procure prayers for their earlier release, feel as if they were being visited by a messenger of peace bearing the olive branch (II, 70-75). Dante on his part, surrounded by a pressing crowd of souls pleading for Our Fathers (XXVI, 130), feels like the winner in a dice game called Zara who tries to brush aside people who want to share in the winnings (VI, 1-12). Or he looks at the magic trees on the terrace of the gluttonous with such a concentrated attention that he could be taken for a birdhunter (XXIII, 1 ff.). Similes make the magic atmosphere appear quite natural. When Dante feels the Angel's wing touch his forehead for the first time, he lifts his hand up to his head like someone warned by the gestures of passers-by that he has something on his face which he cannot himself see, and Dante discovers that one of the seven P's on his forehead has vanished (XII, 127-135); Vergil cannot help smiling, having noticed Dante's surprise. When Dante comes back to himself from the vision of examples of anger, his ecstasy fades away and like a person awakening from a heavy dream, asks: “Where am I?” Finally, a voice heard all of a sudden, brings him to full consciousness (XVII, 40-48). Under the taunt of Beatrice, Dante bursts forth into tears as a crossbow bursts from extreme tension, so that the bolt flies through the air in lessened speed (XXXI, 16-20). On a more symbolic scale, the concept of the Suffering Church, as a flock: pecorelle (III, 79), capre (XXVII, 77), mandra (III, 86), is repeatedly suggested by the similes of the sheep either fearful or disturbed, trembling and timidly following the leader, with eyes and mouth turned down to earth (III, 79-93), or of sheep well under the protection of the shepherd (XXVII, 76-84).

Psychological similes of a resounding vibration come up even in the conversations, as when Statius, the saved, explains to Vergil, the non-saved, the latter's tragic mission: “You carried the lantern in the night, giving light to others, and remaining yourself in the dark” (XXII, 67-69), or when Dante compares his timidity in restraining his eagerness to ask questions to the behavior of the little storks who want to lift their wings, not daring however to leave their nest (XXV, 10-14). In other words Dante compares his preconceived but not uttered questions Mallarmé-like to flights desired but not made.

A simile sometimes transfers the central theme of the Purgatory into an analogy, taken, e.g., from the realm of insects, an analogy which will be dear to Santa Teresa one day later in history: We are worms destined to form the heavenly butterfly; we are insects in their deformity, helplessly exposed to the transforming power of divine justice and grace (X, 124-129). Guido Guinicelli, in order to demonstrate that the purgatorial pain is at the same time a solace, leaps back into the fire like a fish plunges into the water seeking its life element (XXVI, 135). Nothing could make clearer the implications that the poor souls are holy souls.

12. The Technique of Awareness and Surprise; Contrasts of Silence and Sound

To underscore Dante's bewilderment on this unusual mountain, there is furthermore a technique of awareness. Confronted with new and strange things, Dante often gets an enigmatic impression which announces something tremendous and unheard of and which grows still more in importance when elucidated. Long after having talked, sung, and initiated Dante, the enigmatic Primavera and forerunner of Beatrice reveals her name: Matelda (XXXIII, 119). The voices, heard by Dante, often are veiled. He is not able to ascertain whence they come, whether from the souls or the angels, from invisible spirits (XIII, 25), from a tree, from a rock, or from Heaven. Therefore Dante, in his poetically exact reporting, remarks: It was not clear whence the words came, but actually they were spoken (XI, 46-49). Little wonder that Dante is frightened by such a mysterious (XXIV, 133 ff.) hierophany. When Dante beholds in an imaginary vision Mary's meekness in admonishing Jesus in the Temple, he first sees an unknown lady and several persons in a church until he is able to identify the scene (acc. to Lucas II, 46-48). When the first angel arrives with the ghostly speedboat, Dante has not even time to coordinate his impressions: a wondrous light, something white, white wings, before Vergil cries: kneel down, God's messenger (II, 13-29). Suspense and incertitude are conveyed in a similarly impressionistic way when the abbot of San Zeno on the terrace of the slothful breathlessly tells his story without interrupting his course; and at a certain moment when the abbot moving away is heard from a distance only, Dante is unable to say whether he is still talking or has become silent (XVIII, 127). When the proud with their stones on their shoulders appear in the distance, Dante is frightened by the moving stones, or rather by something that moves and does not seem to live, it is to him just an “I don’t know what” (X, 112-114). Thus Dante's magic invention of moving stones anticipated Shakespeare's marching wood of Dunsinane in Macbeth. But the greatest suspense of all is, as Professor Singleton discovered, the moment when the procession of the Church entunes the Benedictus as though Christ Himself were to appear—but who actually appears is Beatrice (XXX, 19-32).

Despite the many happenings in the Purgatorio, the wanderers go long stretches in solitude and silence high above the deep ditch of this unique quasi-Carthusian monastery-fortress of God's honored prisoners. Solitude and silence are actually a dominant note in the lyricism spread over the mountain-city, which links Earth to Heaven.14 This mood is stressed from the outset by the appearance of only one old man, Cato, on the wide, vague and lonely beach (I, 31); it is emphasized by the wanderer's feeling entirely lost on the pathless plain (I, 118-120), and again by the already mentioned recurring silhouette of Vergil and Dante, one behind the other, on almost all the terraces as though seen from a ship in the magic ocean (IV, 136; XV, 40). It is stressed by the gigantic shadow of the Mountain covering a hilly, lifeless landscape (VI, 51); it is brought out by Sordello's isolated appearance in a complete solitude (VI, 59) like a lion in a desert (VI, 66) made more lonesome still by Dante's motifs and metaphors in his political remarks on the forsaken weeping widow, Rome, and the sick, neglected woman, Florence (VI, 112-113; 149-151). Even the path covered with those interesting bas-reliefs is said to be more deserted than the desert (X, 21); the terrace of the silent blind is, in the livid greenish-gray, terrifyingly lifeless (XIII, 7), particularly since not the slightest sound is heard (XIV, 142). We are definitely in the land from which no traveler returns. Dante, so talkative in Hell and Paradise, is here merely pondering over spiritual problems, a mute pensieroso who soon will see as a spirit the very places he now sees in the flesh. Thus he feels still more lonely, even in the presence of his paternal friend (XX, 151). Vergil's exclusive discussion with Statius makes him almost jealous and more forsaken than ever, soletto (XXII, 127). Dante's solitude assumes heart-rending proportions when the austere Beatrice has summoned the angels to ostracize him as a sinner among the saints (XXX, 103 ff.). Thus Dante experiences the inner loneliness of the lonely souls he has visited.

In this silence of the Purgatorio, paradoxically, there is much music, not only liturgical hymns befitting a church. The souls seem attracted by the soothing element of music as a healing medicine for their wounds. Therefore the angels sing the beatitudes to them. Casella is not hindered, except by the austere Cato (II, 120), from singing one of Dante's songs with a celestial sweetness (II, 113). We may recall also that the murmuring trees in the Earthly Paradise are tuned in as counterpoint to the singing birds, that the door to Purgatory is a resounding organ, that all the processions are singing, though in tears, and the procession of the triumphant Church fills the luminous air with the sweetest melody (XXIX, 22-23). The voices of unseen spirits flitting through the air are arranged in a concerto rolling forth and fading away pianissimo (XIII, 25-35). One thinks of the expression of St. John of the Cross: Silent Music.

13. The Artistry of the Word

Wondrous suggestions come often from single words. The terraces larger below, smaller above, are called by different names according to the circumstances: giri, gironi, cinghi, piani, cerchi, gradi,15 the process of purgation is called purgare (I, 5, 66; XI, 30), mondare (XVI, 31; XIII, 103), dismalare (XIII, 3), far lieto (XIV, 83), far bello (II, 75), assotigliare (XXIII, 63), rifar santo (XXIII, 66). The spirit of charity appears incarnate in the many diminutives: vedovella (X, 77; XXIII, 92), miserella (X, 82); enjambements express shock and surprise, as when Dante deep in thought, sees suddenly his path barred by a tree (XXII, 130-131). The most uncanny impression comes from the repeated use of the very strong verb gridar for expressing surprise, joy, disgust and other reactions of the souls, whose ecstatic utterances cannot be grasped by a non-superlative expression. Very strong syntactical condensations and far-fetched allusions enhance the mysterious atmosphere. The appearance of a white bas-relief is cast into one verb: biancheggiare (X, 72). The fundamental difference of the earthly existence from the post-mortem existence is underscored by Dante's using the past tense in inquiring of the personalities behind the souls: “chi fosti anzi la morte” (XVI, 43). Metaphors do the work of a metaphysical irony, e.g., when the slothful souls running relentlessly are likened to the slackened oar, which is plied again steadily (XVII, 87); or when Beatrice calls Dante's face, in contempt of his spiritual immaturity, a “bearded chin” (XXXI, 76), Metonymies contribute to representative dignity, as when the angels are called “Messengers of the eternal realm” (XXXII, 78), or when the hour of death becomes “the hour of good pain which unites us to God” (XXIII, 81). For more minute details in Dante's verbal art one can refer now to the book of Luigi Malagoli.

14. Conclusion

In conclusion we may say that, while Dante's Inferno is a very “earthly world” and the Paradiso a spiritualization which almost neglects the human element, the art of the Purgatorio consists in the creation of a very human, magic myth, including the poetization of theology, spiritual life, human relations, liturgy, landscapes, actions, and situations. The real meaning of Dante's display of creative imagination and captivating symbolism in his Purgatorio does become still clearer when we reduce his fantastic variations to their theme which scholars found very closely preformed in the sentence of Hughes of Saint Victor: “The virtues drive out the vices …, the virtues finally taking over the place of the vices are called sanities or healings. The joy over the recovered health are the beatitudes.”16 Such a retranslation from poetry into prose, which is supposed to have engendered that very poetry, is not only helpful to our own inadequate understanding of the spell of Dante's symbolic, magic, and persuasive reality. There is still implied the problem of the significance of Dante's poetry. Theologians, philosophers, and historians have done very much to find out Dante's sources. The literary critic, allegedly their opponent, is nevertheless grateful to them, because their doctrinal interpretations and verifications make Dante's subtle imagery and symbolism much more transparent, solid, secure, meaningful, and existentially important. Dante's painstaking in keeping strictly to the fundamental Catholic doctrine on purgatory is discernible in every line. Despite his apparent independence in the transformation of a traditional fire into a mountain, or in inserting an Earthly Paradise between Purgatory and Heaven, transformations more radical than the poetical changes in his Inferno and Paradiso, Dante's Purgatorio remains the dogmatic purgatory with its ontological truth. However, the formal truth is seen by a temperament and is broken by Dante's poetic prism into a bundle of most adequate, grandiose, and symbolic images, radiating all the more his firm, vivid, and unshakable faith (Par. XXIV, 142; XXV, 52-53). Therefore, Dante's Purgatorio, although it owes its reality only to the magic wand of the poet, is in the fullest sense littérature engagée. Modern readers under its cathartic spell cannot help feeling already with Dante the thread sewing their envious eyes and the heavy stone destined to curb their pride (XIII, 133-138).


  1. Romano Guardini, Über das Wesen des Kunstwerks (Stuttgart: Wunderlich, 1949), p. 16.

  2. Jean Danielon, “The Problem of Symbolism,” Thought, XXV (1950), 423-440, p. 428.

  3. See however Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theol., Suppl. LXIX, a, 4-7, quoted in Ernesto Trucchi, Esposizione della Divina Commedia. Purgatorio (Milano: Montaldi, 1943), p. 1.

  4. Romano Guardini, Vision und Dichtung; der Charakter von Dantes Göttlicher Komödie (Tübingen: Wunderlich, 1946), p. 11.

  5. Petri Lombardi Sent., dist. 17 and Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theol., Ia, Iae, 102, 1, 4, Quoted by Ernesto Trucchi, op. cit., p. 2.

  6. Bruno Nardi, “Intorno al sito del purgatorio e al mito dantesco dell Eden,” Giornale Dantesco, XXV (1922), 289-300, p. 289.

  7. Santa Caterina di Genova, Trattato del Purgatorio, ch. 3, quoted by Paolo Perez, I sette cerchi del purgatorio di Dante (Milano: Cogliati, 1896), p. 50.

  8. Giovanni Busnelli, L’ordinamento morale del Purgatorio Dantesco (Roma: Civilita Cattolica, 1908), p. 90.

  9. Giovanni Fabri, “Il secondo sogno di Dante nel Purgatorio,” Giornale Dantesco, XXVI (1923), 97-109, p. 101.

  10. Edward Moore, Studies in Dante, Second Series: Unity of Design in the Purgatorio (Oxford: Clarendon, 1899), p. 258.

  11. Howard Rollin Patch, The Other World. According to Descriptions in Medieval Literature (Harvard Univ. Press, 1950), p. 113.

  12. Attilio Momigliano, La Divina Commedia commentata. Il Purgatorio (Firenze: Sansoni, 1946), p. 411.

  13. Ibid., pp. 264-267.

  14. Ibid., pp. 262 and 268.

  15. P. Perez, loc. cit., p. 89.

  16. Hughes of St. Victor, Sermo XI, De spirituali sanitate, quoted in Perez, loc. cit., p. 96.

Etienne Gilson (essay date 1967)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9712

SOURCE: “Dante's Notion of a Shade: Purgatorio XXV,” Mediaeval Studies, Vol. 29, 1967, pp. 124-42.

[In the following essay, Gilson explores the nature and origin of the shades—the characters in Hell, Purgatory, and the lower circles of Paradise—and the motivation behind Dante's efforts to scientifically justify them.]

The art of Dante is so imperious and compelling that, as with Michael Angelo's and Beethoven's, when its spell has taken hold of us, the artist can make us believe what he pleases. I know from personal experience that one can read the Divine Comedy for many years without wondering about the nature and origin of the beings called by Dante ombre and by us shades. Yet the Sacred Poem is full of such beings. Shades make up the bulk of the population in hell and purgatory and we take them for granted; but as soon as we begin to ask questions about their nature, difficulties make themselves felt.

A poet highly conscious of his own art, Dante wondered about the nature of these poetic beings; and speaking as a poet with intense speculative interests, he asked himself how such beings could be conceived.

The question offered itself to his mind (at least, according to his own poetic convention, and perhaps too in historical reality) in the Purgatorio III, 16-45. Dante and Virgil are walking with the setting sun behind them. Suddenly Dante realizes that while his body casts a shadow before him, Virgil's shade does not. For one moment Dante wonders whether Virgil has deserted him. But no, the shade of Virgil is still with him; but a shade is not a body. Virgil's true body, the one that used to cast a shadow, is not in Purgatory; it now lies buried in Naples. “That no shadow falls in front of me,” says Virgil, “is in no wise more surprising than that light beams do not interfere with one another in the skies.” Virgil is here replying to a question which Dante had not asked, and which might well have been let pass. But Virgil went on: “The Power who does not intend to unveil to us his doings, makes such bodies susceptible to sufferings caused by heat and cold. That man is insane who hopes by reason to follow to its end the infinite road taken by one substance in three persons. O men, content yourselves with knowing that it is so, for if you were able to know all, there would have been no need for Mary to conceive. You have seen, vainly thirsting for knowledge like this, men for whom such knowledge would have satisfied the very longing now given them as their eternal sorrow. I speak of Aristotle and of Plato, and of many others.” Whereupon, bending his brow, Virgil ceased to speak and remained troubled.

Dante could just as well have asked the question in his Inferno, but he did not. Moreover, it is remarkable that, having first asked it in the third book of the Purgatorio, he seems to have lost sight of it for over twenty cantos, for he does not take it up again until the twenty fifth canto of the Purgatorio, on the occasion of the sixth Beatitude: Beati qui esuriunt et sitiunt justitiam,1 After submitting it to a rather bold reinterpretation, with which we are not now concerned, the poet divides it into two parts esuriunt and sitiunt; furthermore, he places those who thirst for justice before those who hunger for it; in fine he understands by those who thirst for justice, those who desire what it is fiitting to desire and who desire it as it should be desired. The best way to understand who these men are, is to look at their opposites in purgatory, to wit, the avaricious, whom God punishes for their unruly love of gold, and also the prodigals who, on the contrary, squander away riches of which the right use could be beneficial to others.2 The second half of the Beatitude concerns the men who hunger for justice. Their opposites in purgatory are the gluttons and, generally speaking, those guilty of intemperance. To conclude: “Those are blest, in whom grace so abounds, that the love of the pleasures of taste does not burn too fiercely in their breasts and that they always hunger just as much as is right.” (Purg. XXIV, 151-154).

The punishment of the intemperates is appropriate. The population of the twenty fourth canto of the Purgatorio consists of shades so exceedingly lean that, for one who has seen them in life, they now are past recognition. They are doubly shadowy shades. What has reduced them to this pitiful condition is the very torture to which many of our own contemporaries submit themselves, if not with pleasure, at least of their own accord; namely la dieta, diet, the abstention from food.3 As is the rule in the Divine Comedy, Virgil is at that moment aware that Dante is eager to ask a question, and as he encourages him to speak his mind, Dante naturally asks the question present to the minds of all his readers: How can one lose weight by dieting in a place where there is no need to eat?4

And indeed that is a good question. Whatever their nature, the shades of Hades are mere images of their former bodies; they are some sort of spooks, merely spectral beings; how to make spectres become still leaner than they naturally are, is indeed quite a proposition. Fully aware of the difficulty, the poet will proceed to a precise description of their nature: What kind of being is a shade?

The shades, le ombre, are not real bodies. The shadow projected by a body is not itself a body, yet it is at least visible and it more or less resembles its body. The shades too are sorts of shadows, so they are not nothing, but they are something for the sight only: O ombre vane fuor che nell’ aspetto! At the moment he is saying these words Virgil has just experienced their truth, for indeed, as a shade had approached him with the manifest intention of embracing him with great affection, Virgil had obeyed the urge to reciprocate, but in vain, for he had had to realize that the shade was for him something to see, nothing to touch: “Thrice did I clasp my hands behind him, and thrice did I clasp them on my own breast.”5 In other words, if one attempts to embrace a shade, his arms and hands go through it. And the shades themselves are painfully aware of their condition. In another passage of the Purgatorio, the poet Statius suddenly realizes that his interlocutor is Virgil, the same poet for whom he has just expressed feelings of warm admiration; deeply moved, he wants to kneel before the master and to kiss his feet, but Virgil stops him: “No, brother, don’t, for you are a shade and what you see is a shade.” Whereupon, rising to its feet, the shade of Statius exclaims: “Now at least you can see the extent of my love for you, since it causes me to forget our emptiness and treat a shade as if it were a substantial reality.”6

We all resemble Statius in this respect. Were we wise enough to read Dante for our pleasure, we would let well enough alone and ask no questions. Only, this time, Dante himself is asking the question. We know it is a characteristic feature of Dante's poetry that, in it, beauty and truth, bellezza and bontà, should always be both distinguished and united. Moreover, Dante was of the opinion that the pleasure of enjoying the substantial truth of the poem was greater than that of feeling its beauty.7 Hence the belated scruple he seems to have felt when, reaching about the middle of the Sacred Poem, he realized that, ever since the beginning of the Inferno, he had been talking of shades, and to shades, without pausing one moment to consider their nature. What is a shade of Hades? How are such beings born? Why do these unsubstantial images resemble their former bodies? How do the souls of the shades manage to move them at will, to make them talk and cry as they formerly used to do when they animated their bodies before death?

In order to answer these questions, Dante resorts to the scientific embryogeny of Aristotle as perfected by the theology of Thomas Aquinas. The production of the shades in the netherworld will be conceived after the pattern of the production of the body by the soul in this present life. How it is that that which is produced in the other world is but a shade, not a real living body, is what Dante will attempt to make clear for us.

The origin of the formation of the body is the blood of the father. That blood is not completely absorbed by the veins through which it flows; what of it is left is saved for future use. In the heart, that blood acquires a formative virtue (or formative power) that will enable it to shape all the limbs of the future body. It will turn itself into these limbs, just as it turns itself into the veins in which it is contained. After undergoing a second digestion in the heart, the blood flows down into certain organs it is better to leave unnamed and, thence again, it trickles into a natural vessel of another human being (i.e. the female), so that it falls upon somebody else's blood. There the two bloods blend together, one of them (the female blood) being passive by natural disposition, while the other one is active in virtue of the perfection of the form in which it originates. As soon as it is in the female organ, the active blood begins to operate; first it coagulates, next it vivifies the clot to which it has conferred a consistency fitting the nature of such matter. That active virtue in the blood thus becomes a soul, such as that of a plant (i.e. a vegetative soul), with this difference however, that the vegetative soul of a plant has already reached in it the term of its development, whereas the soul of a man, which is the one we are now describing, is still on its way to a further goal; the vegetative soul of a man is a future intellective soul, that of a plant is incapable of further progress: quest’è in via e quella è gia a riva.

The active virtue of the blood then exerts itself so strongly that the clot begins to feel and to move, like a sea fungus, and it sets about shaping up the organs of which itself is the seed. Thus born of the heart of the begetter, the plastic virtue dilates and extends itself to all the parts where nature intends to produce members. Up to this point, Dante has simply followed the embryogeny of Aristotle and of scholastic medicine, but we are here reaching the point where, after living as a sort of plant, then an animal, the embryo will become a human body animated by a rational soul. Dante here seems to remember the controversies still active in the schools of the time, particularly at the universities of Paris and Padua, on the origin of the rational soul and its relationship with the body. The theology of Thomas Aquinas now replaces the biology of Aristotle. The first thought of Dante is of the celebrated doctrine of Averroes on the separation of the intellective power of man, and he rejects it: “Still you do not yet see how, from being an animal, the embryo becomes a child. This is a point on which a wiser man than you are has been mislead. According to his doctrine the possible intellect must needs be separated from the soul, because no organ seems to be used by that intellect.” But Averroes was wrong. In fact, as soon as the structure of the brain has been perfected by the plastic force at work in the embryo, “the Prime Mover turns toward it and, rejoicing in the wonderful art of nature, He breathes into it a new spirit full of force. Gathering into its own substance whatever active virtue there is to be found, that spirit grows into one single soul that lives, feels and is able to know itself.”8

So much philosophical and theological material is heaped up by Dante in these few lines that the better informed his reader is, the more discouraged he feels if he has to restate their meaning. Within the narrow space of two tercets, the poet has managed to recall (and reject) the doctrine of Averroes according to which the possible intellect is a Separate Substance; by the same token, he has taken sides with Thomas Aquinas in the then famous discussion on the unity of the substantial form in the composite, including man. Dante has done all that, in verse, and yet in a language technically so perfect that to retranslate it into the original school latin would be very easy. For instance, what is that intellective soul, in verse 75, which sè in sè rigira, if not the very same of which Thomas often says that it is able to reflect upon itself reditione completa? But the main point here seems to be the touch of Christian naturalism which represents God proudly rejoicing at the sight of the natural beauty He himself has created. The middle ages at their best here are speaking through the mouth of Dante, and their voice is one on this point with that of Thomas Aquinas.

Everything here is Thomistic: the Christian doctrine that rational souls are immediately created by God is being maintained by Dante in the same spirit, and often in the same terms, as it was in the doctrine of Thomas Aquinas. The sensitive soul, Thomas says, is transmitted by the begetter along with the seed; it is not immediately created by God;9 on the contrary, the rational soul, which is the sole substantial form there is in man,10 cannot be caused by way of animal generation, but by way of direct creation only.11 Just as he follows Thomas in theology, Dante follows Aristotle in biology and embryogeny, at least on general lines. What else could he do? Himself a theologian, he had learned biology in the schools, and to reform it was none of his business. So, according to Dante, to Thomas and to Aristotle, the seed is not borrowed from the very substance of the full grown begetter, otherwise, being itself fully formed, it would have no aptitude left to inform the different parts of the body still to be born. If it is to perform these various functions the seed must originate in some element still in potency to all the limbs and organs of the future animal it is going to animate. Now there is only one such element, blood. Only blood is in potency with respect to the whole body, because it is generated from the food before being turned into the very substance of each particular organ.12 We still are following Aristotle: semen est superfluum alimenti.

What has all this to do with the origin and nature of the shades of Hades? Everything. I have just been following the explanation given by Statius to Dante, and the main feature of the doctrine is that, in it, the embryogeny of the shades is one particular case of the embryogeny of human beings in general. Dante himself realizes that his own poetic exposition of it makes it still more difficult to understand in verse than it would be in plain scholastic latin prose. Hoping to make things easier for the reader, he resorts to some simple comparisons. Before inviting Statius to answer Dante's question, Virgil has told the poet, banteringly, that with a little attention he could solve the problem by himself. If only, Virgil tells Dante, you did remember how the poet Meleager was destroyed by a wasted brand, the question would not look to you so hard to answer. To which he adds that if we noticed how our own images in mirrors seem to follow our movements, the answer would be at hand. Now, surely, among modern readers, few if any still remember Meleager,13 and we do not see at once how images reflected in mirrors by real bodies are related to visible forms produced in empty space by bodies that do not exist. Since there is no short cut, we must fall back on our previous biological considerations.

We stopped at the moment when the blood and its active plastic virtue have brought the human body to completion. If the story looks incredible to us, Dante says, let us only consider how, when united to the juice of the grape, the heat of the sun becomes wine. At present, however, the thing is done and the body pursues the course of its life until the moment comes when Lachesis has no more thread left for it. The soul then separates itself from the body and carries away with itself the human and the divine elements it contains. All the other powers, of which the operations require the cooperation of the body, cease at once to operate while, on the contrary, memory, intelligence and will grow keener in their operations than ever before. All this expresses traditional views on the condition of the soul after death, but, thus far, the shades have no place in it. Where are the separated souls going to go between the time of the death of their bodies and the resurrection?

There are two ways of access to the netherworld, or, rather, there is only one, that which leads to hell, for the other one, which leads to purgatory, does not really lead to the netherworld, but to heaven.

As soon as it has left its body, without stopping (senzarrestarsi), of its own accord (per se stessa) and in a wondrous way (mirabilmente) the soul falls on either one of two shores, thereby getting the first intimation of its final destination. Dante does not mention any particular judgment of the soul by God but, rather, he presents the whole process as an almost natural one. Not quite, however, for there is something astounding in the very way the soul directs itself towards its appointed goal, and does so without any special intervention of God.

Once it has found its place, the soul initiates a new cycle of operations, of which the result will be the constitution of its shade. Why that new cycle? Normally speaking, death is for man the end of the line. In the philosophy of Aristotle death means the separation of the soul from the matter of the body of which it is the form. The material body is corrupted while the soul returns to the potency of matter; another man can now be born, but the history of the former is finished. In the theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas, the separated soul survives and preserves its individuality, but the body is corrupted and its soul will survive it, bodiless, until its body will be resurrected by God on the last day. There are no shades of Hades in the world of Aristotle or in that of Thomas Aquinas. The new cycle of operations imagined by Dante has for its object to account for the existence of such shades in his own poetic universe. On this precise point, Dante is entirely on his own; he will make Aristotle answer a question which the Philosopher had never asked.

The death of the body has not deprived the soul of its virtute formativa, or plastic power. As soon as it finds itself in a new place and in a new environment, the soul begins to irradiate it, simply because it is of its very nature to emit such radiations. In this sense, one could say that there never is anything like a ‘separated soul’ in the world of Dante, for right after the death of its body, it continues to exercise on its new environment the formative energy by which it first produced the limbs and the organs of the living body; only, because the new material at its disposal is no longer blood, the product of its new activity cannot be a real body made up of flesh, as the living body is. What then happens is this. “Just as, when it is saturated with rain and moisture, the air adorns itself with various colors due to the refraction of the sunbeams, even thus the surrounding air assumes the shape impressed on it by the (formative) power of the surviving soul; and as a tiny flame follows a fire wherever it goes, so too the spirit of the dead is everywhere accompanied by that new aerial shape. Because it has thus been rendered visible, the spirit is called a shade; it then fashions the organs of each sense, including even that of sight.” All this, which sounds to modern ears like a tall story, is said by Dante in all seriousness: Perocchè quindi ha poscia paruta, / è chiamata ombra. Whereupon Dante makes Statius add: “And this is how we shades laugh, how we fashion the tears and the sighs you may have heard on the mount. According as certain desires and other affections arise in it, a shade shapes itself differently, and that is the cause of what occasions thy surprise.”14

In this passage, Dante has given us a complete scientific explanation of the origin, growth and functioning of a class of beings of which the very existence is, to say the least, doubtful. It deserves to be called scientific because it follows the pattern of the biological description of the formation of the human body given by Aristotle in De Generatione animalium, I, 21-22. The very same plastic power that has shaped the solid living body of man continues to operate after the latter's death and it operates in the same way. The reason it then causes a shade rather than a body is that the matter on which it now operates is no longer the same; it is not blood and flesh, but, rather, air thickened by moisture. Still, between death and the resur-rection, the soul provides itself with a pseudo-body capable of imitating the appearance of a living body and, by its attitudes as well as its language, of expressing its sentiments and even the thoughts of the soul that animates it. The continuity of the biological process is unbroken and it follows from one and the same cause, the plastic power of the soul.

Did Dante himself believe in the reality of those poetic beings? The belief in the reality of ghosts, spooks and phantoms of every denomination is far from extinct in our own days; it was almost universally held in the time of Dante. He himself could hardly believe in the reality of his own shadowy people, since he must have been aware of inventing it as he went along, but he certainly believed in the actual existence of such men and women subsisting in hell and purgatory. That he took seriously his explanation of their origin and nature is even more certain. If there are shades, their origin and nature must needs be such as he himself describes them. He shows himself too careful to follow in the wake of Aristotle not to convey to the reader the irresistible impression that what he says is to be taken seriously.

Two orders of considerations suggest that Dante really believed in the existence of such beings, the one related to the theological conception of the angels, the other related to the condition of the soul between the death and the resurrection of its body.

The angels are pure spirits; hence they are naturally invisible. That they sometimes are seen is always the effect of a special grace of God. In fact, the apparition of an angel is always a miracle, but even a miracle should at least be possible. Like a shade in hell, a visible angel is an incorporeal spirit that causes itself to be seen under the appearance of a body. There were various theological explanations of what was considered an indubitable fact. According to Thomas Aquinas, whom Dante usually follows in such matters, angels merely assume the appearance of a body. It is not a real body because, not being a living soul (that is, the substantial form of a body) an angel does not animate his visible appearance from within so as to cause in it the operations of life. What we call the body of an angel is not an animal body; it does not live. In the Summa Theologiae the Angelic Doctor asks: “Whether the angels assume bodies”, then “Whether the angels exercise the operations of life in the bodies assumed by them.”15 The answer to the first question is yes, to the second question is no. In such pseudo-bodies angels appeared to Abraham and to his family, them to Lot and to the inhabitants of Sodom, and again to Tobias and his friends. Such beings are not truly living bodies, yet they are not mere visions or products of the imagination either. They are true objects actually seen by the eyes; the angles are said to assume such bodies, because they do not animate them as though they were their souls.

How do angels assume bodies? Thomas Aquinas has offered a tentative answer to the question. The angels cannot assume earthly bodies, otherwise they could not instantaneously vanish, as they do, at any moment they may wish to disappear. Neither can they make themselves such bodies out of thin air, for indeed air cannot be given shape and color, whereas appearing angels are visible and colored beings. But here is a possibility which closely resembles that imagined by Dante: “Although air, taken in its natural condition of thinness, can receive neither shape nor color, it can receive both when it is in a state of condensation, as is the case with clouds. Even so do angels assume bodies made up out of air, by condensing it, through the power of God, as much as is necessary for giving it the shape of a body.” The proximate cause of that condensation is not conceived by Thomas Aquinas in the same way as Dante: in Dante the cause is the moisture of air in an obscure subterranean place; in Thomas Aquinas, it is a sort of air reduction miraculously caused by God; yet there is a common element: in both cases, a spiritual being, angel or intellective soul, manages to fabricate unto itself a mock body. In both cases the bodily appearances are but ombre vane fuorchè nellaspetto, but they can be seen.

Even within that resemblance, however, there is an important difference, for the angels fabricate their pseudo-bodies at will, with the miraculous assistance of God who enables them to condense the surrounding air, whereas the Dantean shade secretes, so to speak, its apparent body by the natural exercise of its own plastic power. The separated soul does not assume a body in the proper acceptation of the verb; its operation much more resembles that of a true soul making up a body with the material at its disposal. Hence, an important difference between the angel and the shade, for in a way that shade can be said to be animated from within by its soul, of which it spontaneously assumes all the atittudes required for the expression of its feelings, thoughts and acts of will. An easy way to realize the difference is to go back to the question asked by Thomas Aquinas: Whether the angels and the devils have bodies naturally united to them. Thomas answers it in the negative.16 In Dante's netherworld, the question should receive an affirmative answer. As the poet describes it, the formation of the shade by the separated soul is an entirely natural operation. True, the shades have no real organs, no blood, no true animal life, yet their cause is the very same formative or plastic power by which the living corporeal body of man is progressively brought to completion. The Most High Poet has adapted to the needs of his own universe the data provided by the theology of his time. Having to describe beings similar to the angels of the theologians, he has borrowed from the Angelic Doctor some usable material and submitted it to a thorough reinterpretation.

Another theological problem could help Dante orientate himself in his own poetic universe. The theologians themselves found it difficult to account for the condition of the soul between the death of man and the resurrection of his body. Souls are judged right after death and it was the firm conviction of Thomas Aquinas that they began to be punished as soon as they were judged. Moreover the souls of the damned began at once to suffer corporeal punishments, especially fire. How can that be, since the souls of the dead remain deprived of their bodies until the day of the resurrection? Now during that long stretch of time the souls of the dead find themselves in a situation similar to that of the Dantean shades; they are without bodies, yet they are suffering bodily punishments.

Thomas Aquinas freely acknowledges that the thing is naturally impossible. In the natural order, the soul suffers from its body only because it is united with it as its form: how can it suffer bodily pain while it is bodiless? Thomas answers that what is not naturally possible then becomes possible by the allpowerfulness of God. It is natural for souls to be united with bodies because it has pleased God that things should be that way, but souls can be conjoined with matter in any number of other ways. With the help of devils, the necromancers can magically bind the spirits of other men to small statues and other images; why cannot the spirits of the damned be subjected to the power of fire by the mere will of God? It is even for these unfortunate spirits a superadded affliction to find themselves subjected to the power of such a low thing as material fire in punishment for their sins.

This curious doctrine opened for Dante speculative possibilities but it left the poet's imagination entirely resourceless. Let us not forget that, as a poet, Dante was not in charge of teaching theology, but he had to imagine it, to express it under the form of plastic images and, so to speak, to make us see it. Now, following the doctrine of Thomas Aquinas, between death and the resurrection, since there are no bodies left, there is nothing left to be seen. The souls of the damned suffer from eternal fire, but this is being achieved without bodies, without shades and even, if it so pleases God, without fire. Thomas himself admits that certain expressions used by Scripture in speaking of the corporeal punishment of the damned should be understood allegorically. The notorious “gnawing worm” of Isaias (66:24) can be interpreted as meaning the remorse torturing consciences. Albert the Great had already observed that, were it a real animal in real fire, the worm would have been consumed a long time ago. Thomas contents himself with observing that, just now, a material worm cannot well bite an immaterial substance and that, in the future, it will not be able to do so either, since after their resurrection all the bodies will enjoy the privilege of being incorruptible. For the same reason tears and the grinding of teeth do not make sense in the case of separated souls and of resurrected bodies. Incorruptible bodies are impassible; they can neither dissolve into tears nor be ground away. Such tropes mean only that the souls of the damned can experience deep sorrow and that such disturbances in the head and eyes usually attend the shedding of tears.17 All this can be achieved by God even without real heads, eyes and tears.

This leaves us far from the poetic hell of Dante, a visible and tangible place somewhere below the surface of the earth and full of its impressive array of tortured sinners. Now the point was not unimportant for Dante. On the contrary, as a poet, he had to make us see, at least in imagination, the truth of the theological doctrine: it was therefore necessary for him to show us, by inventing an appropriate imagery, the literal truth of Scripture rather than to elaborate on its allegorical meaning. The body here becomes all-important as being the first victim of the punishment and the first plastic figuration of the tortures it suffers; thus it comes first in the intentions of the poet. But Dante is well equipped to solve the difficulty, since, without being bodies in the full sense of the word, his shades have bodies of a sort, which the separated souls of the theologians have not. Moreover, these bodies are related to their souls by positive bonds, which the apparitions of angels are not. Being produced out of dense air by the very same plastic force that shapes living bodies, the shades naturally resemble the living bodies to which they succeed. That is the reason Dante recognizes the shades of many men and women he used to know before their death. He can read their feelings on their faces and carry on normal conversations with them. Why should not such souls be able to act upon their shades as they used to act upon their bodies? Just as their former bodies, their shades are their own work. Obviously, the shades of Dante's Inferno are specifically different from the separated souls of Thomas Aquinas.

On the contrary, they closely resemble the ghosts of popular belief, as exemplified, for instance, by the treatise of Saint Augustine De Cura pro mortuis gerenda ad Paulinum. For indeed, although he is a theologian, Augustine does not ask any precise questions about the nature of those curious beings and he takes their very reality for granted. It is interesting to note that Augustine does not believe that what Virgil pretends to have seen in hell is true; on the contrary, he thinks that, to Virgil himself, the narrative of the Aeneid was but a poetic lie: “Velut si quisquam videat in somnis, quod Aeneas vidisse apud inferos poetica falsitate narratur.” What we today call telepathy was to Augustine a clear proof that such visions are possible. In such cases, what is seen is neither the soul nor the body of a man, but his image. By this word, Augustine probably signifies the equivalent of the Greek word eidolon:18 “Sic autem infirmitas sese habet, ut cum in somnis quisque viderit mortuum, ipsius animam se videre arbitretur; cum autem vivum similiter somniaverit, non ejus animam, neque corpus, sed hominis similitudinem sibi apparuisse non dubitet.” The man whose image is thus seen at a distance may well be unaware of the fact. While Augustine himself was in Milan, he appeared (at least his similitudo did) to one of his ancient students then teaching rhetoric in Carthage, and finding himself embarrassed by a passage in Cicero which he was to explain the next day to his own pupils: “Qua nocte somnianti ego illi quod non intelligebat exposui: imo non ego, sed imago mea, nesciente me, et tam longe trans mare aliquid aliud sive agente, sive somniante et nihil de illius curis omnino curante.” A more complicated anecdote is that of a certain Curma, mistakenly called to the netherworld in place of another Curma, going there and, once out of his lethargy, telling what he had seen. What made him realize that he was dreaming was that, “inter eos defunctos, quos videbat pro meritorum diversitate tractari, agnovit etiam nonnullos quod noverat vivos.”19 That was exactly what Dante himself was going to do with Brunetto Latini and the others, men and women, whom he had known still living on earth.

In his De Genesi ad litteram, bk. XII, ch. 33, § 62, Augustine has a question De Inferis, in which, after maintaining that hell itself (not what Virgil said of it) is not a poetic fiction but a reality, he confesses himself embarrassed on how to understand the celebrated passage of the gospel of Luke on the wicked rich. The beggar Lazarus died, he was carried by angels into Abraham's bosom (Luke, 16:22-26), “and then the rich man also died: and he was buried in hell.” Now Abraham recognizes both Lazarus and the rich man: how can one recognize souls? Augustine answers that the nature and place of hell is uncertain, for indeed why should the place be called inferi, if it is not located below the surface of the earth? On the contrary, Augustine does not merely believe that the soul is incorporeal, he knows it. But then the questions arises: if it is incorporeal, how is it that, in dreams, one sees souls bearing the resemblance of bodies, standing, sitting, walking, and even flying? The notion of eidolon once more helps him out of trouble: similitudes of bodies are in hell as in similitudes of places, but, of course, Augustine realizes how weak the answer is and that, finally, he does not know how:

Quanquam possimus ostendere illorum quoque sapientes de inferorum substantia minime dubitasse, quae post hanc vitam excipit animas mortuorum. Unde autem sub terris esse dicantur inferi, si corporalia loca non sunt, aut unde inferi appellentur, si sub terris non sunt, merito quaeritur. Animam vero non esse corpoream, non me putare, sed plane scire, audeo profiteri; tamen habere posse similitudinem corporis et corporalium omnino membrorum quisquis negat, potest negare animam esse, quae in somnis videt vel se ambulare, vel sedere, vel hac atque illac gressu aut etiam volatu ferri ac referri, quod sine quadam similitudine corporis non fit. Proinde si hanc similitudinem etiam apud inferos gerit, non corporalem, sed corpori similem, ita etiam in locis videtur esse non corporalibus, sed corporalium similibus, sive in requie, sive in doloribus.”20

That no technical explanation of the nature and origin of the shades seems to have been attempted before Dante, does not mean that the popular belief in such beings had not been shared by many theologians. In his Dialogues, IV, 25-58, pope Gregory the Great has a mine of anecdotes and indications concerning the way he himself conceived, or imagined, the condition of souls after death, but he does not seem to have attempted to explain how spiritual souls can suffer from corporeal fire; they do so suffer, and that is all we know about it. The angels gather together the sinners that are destined to suffer the same kind of torments, “luxuriosi cum luxuriosis, avari cum avaris,” etc. In short, “similes in culpa ad tormenta similia deducuntur, quia eos in locis paenalibus angeli deputant.” So we have here a weak foreshadowing of the ‘circles’ in Dante's Inferno. Like Dante, Gregory thinks that those who have visited the netherworld can tell about what they have seen there; the meeting with the soul of the deacon Paschasius could have easily found its place in the Divine Comedy. Like Augustine, Gregory is not sure where hell is located, but he does know that one and the same fire can torment different souls according to the diversity of their sins, and that of such torments there is no end.21

Saint Julian, bishop of Toledo (d. 690) has left us a curious Prognostikon futuri saeculi22 as interesting for what he says as for the authorities he quotes. For instance, Julian reproduces the passage of Augustine's De Genesi ad litteram quoted above. He offers no explanation for the fact that incorporeal souls can suffer from corporeal fire, but he devotes four chapters to the problem raised by the fire of purgatory (cap. 19-22) and another one (cap. 24) to the possibility there is, for the souls of the dead, to recognize one another, even, as Gregory had already stipulated, souls of persons they have never seen in life. The gospel of the wicked rich man and of Lazarus is here again exploited in full. The passage likewise borrowed from Augustine, De Cura pro mortuis, cap. 15, stipulates that while the dead do not know what the living do at the time they are doing it, they nevertheless can receive information about it afterwards. Particularly interesting is the remark that the dead can receive news from the earth through men who, dying after them, can go and carry to them pieces of new in which they may be interested (cap. 29; PL 96, 492). Naturally, the dead can appear to the eyes of the living (cap. 30) but only the souls of the blessed can know what the living are doing (cap. 31), as, in fact, Beatrice knows what Dante is doing on earth. Another interesting chapter (cap. 39) establishes the reality of the pleasures and pains experienced by the souls separated from their bodies by comparing them with those we experience in dreams; however, those of the afterlife are more vivid than those experienced in dreams.

Recently published texts of Eric of Auxerre bear testimony to the survival of those notions in the early middle ages.23 Eric borrows freely from Saint Julian's Prognostikon futuri saeculi: at present the souls of the deceased are kept in certain receptacles; the souls that are saved, but still imperfect, do not directly go to heaven; how the souls pass from the body to heaven or to hell; the soul resembles its body; the souls of the dead can recognize one another after the death of the flesh; the dead can visibly appear to the eyes of the living. These notions, and similar ones, integrate the picture of a future life of which the reality seems to have been widely accepted, at least under the form of popular belief, and which Dante himself probably never thought of questioning. The whole Inferno is such a netherworld inhabited by visible and recognizable shades, naturally unaware of what is going on in our own world, but anxious to receive news brought to them by those who died after them or who, like Dante, are still living in it. Of course, this does not mean that Dante believed in the reality of the scenes in the Comedy which his poetic imagination invited him to describe. His own shades are poetic creations; their true antecedents are neither philosophical, nor theological; one should rather look for them in Virgil's poetry, particularly in the VIth book of the Aeneid.

Everything in the Comedy recalls to the reader's mind the presence of Virgil. The facts are so well known that I shall content myself with briefly listing some of them. Virgil is the guide of Dante during his journey to hell and part of the Purgatorio; as a writer and an artist Virgil is the poet Dante quotes as his model, his master: “You are my master and my model …,” you are the only one to whom I am indebted for the beautiful style that has made me famous. Now there was one good reason why Dante should be particularly interested in what Virgil had said of the other world. Having to write a poem of which the setting would be hell, purgatory and paradise, the poet could not fail to realize that Scripture says practically nothing about these places. The few samples we have borrowed from the theologians suggest that there was no theological notion of their nature, apart, of course, from the notion of their general destination. As far as that aspect of his work was concerned, Dante found himself on his own. Now precisely Virgil was there to fill the gap. The medieval culture of the grammatica, wherein Virgil reigned supreme, did not permit anybody to ignore the Aeneid, especially that part of it which, presupposing the immortality of souls, attributed to each and every man a future life of misery or of happiness. To the extent that they attempted to imagine that kind of life, Christians found more help in Virgil than in the Old and the New Testaments.

The Fathers of the Latin Church could not forget that Virgil had been for them an eminently classical author during their school years.24 The mere fact that the Aeneid confirmed the belief in the reality of a future life was enough to recommend it to their favorable attention. But Virgil had done more. Already Lactantius had been pleased to find in the words addressed by Anchises to his son Aeneas an answer to the objection: “If the soul is immortal, how can it be tortured?”25 A pertinent question indeed, since to be tortured is passively to undergo an action, and passivity is a sure token of destructibility. Bur Virgil himself had wondered about the nature of the strange beings he called vitae (souls), or umbrae (shades): “Di quibus imperium est animarum umbraeque silentes (Aen. VI, 264). He had attributed to some of them a definite shape: forma tricorporis umbrae. Like those of Dante, the shades of the Virgilian netherworld were little more than shadows, but they could be very impressive ones. Dante never loses completely his sense of the comical. He can laugh at the personage he himself would have been in hell, had he really been there; when the devils become too frightening, he hides behind Virgil and clings to his garment; but Aeneas is a hero; on similar occasions, Aeneas draws his sword and gets ready to fight. The wise Sybil then holds him back and warns him that the beings he sees are but empty and unsubstantial souls (vitas), mere images flitting in empty shells. Did Virgil strike one of them, his sword would vainly cut through mere shadows: frustra ferro diverberet umbras (Aen. VI, 290-294). I have quoted above the case of Statius trying to embrace the shade of Virgil and thrice closing his arms on his own chest; now that was a reminiscence of Aeneid, VI, 700-702, where Aeneas encounters his father Anchises and three times attempts to embrace him, but in vain, for each time “the shade runs through his hands, like the light breath of a breeze or vanishing dream.”

To Virgil as to Dante the shades are a problem, but not exactly the same problem. Following the tradition of Plato's school, Virgil considers the virtuous souls as destined to come back to life after undergoing in another world the necessary purification. Their reward will be to see again, in new bodies, the light of the sun. On that point the shade of Anchises delivers, for the benefit of his son Aeneas, a lecture that parallels the lengthy explanation of the origin and nature of the shades given by Statius to Dante in the Comedy. All remember the solemn beginning of the passage, VI, 724-751: Principio caelum ac terras camposque liquentes. … In the beginning heaven, seas, earth, everything is quickened from within by a spirit (spiritus); a kind of thought permeates that mass and animates it, running through its various parts and moving them. Such is the origin of life and of living beings. That primordial force never ceases to be present in matter. There still remains in every living germ, or seed, a kind of spark of energy of the same nature as fire. That igneus vigor of celestial origin subsists as long as unwholesome elements do not deaden bodies and their decaying organs. Thus imprisoned in perishing bodies, souls experience pleasures and pains, desires and fears, so much so that, during the course of their lives, they grow more and more blind to intellectual light. At the last moment of their lives, these unfortunate souls have not succeeded in completely ridding themselves of their blemishes of corporeal origin. On the contrary, these defects have grown amazingly deep roots into them, and such is the reason the souls are punished after the death of their bodies. They have to pay off in torments the price of their past wrongs: ergo exercentur poenis veterumque malorum suppliciis expendunt. … Thus are some of them hanging in the air and shaken by the winds, while others are expiating their crimes at the bottom of some deep hole, or are burning in fire. In short, whoever we are, we all have to expiate for our own past: quisque suos patimur manes. … Only the small number of the perfect will recover, purified, the spark of heavenly fire they were at the beginning, and that also is the moment when the shades of Virgil begin to desire to return to their body: incipiunt in corpore velle reverti.26

The similarity between the umbrae of Virgil and the ombre of Dante is striking to the point of being evident. Nobody has ever missed it. In both cases the shades have been imagined by two great poets as the natural inhabitants of their respective poetic worlds. As has been seen, great theologians have shared with Virgil and popular belief the certitude of the existence of such shades (ghosts, spooks, etc.), but none of them, among those I happen to know, has given them a theological status. If one goes beyond the level of the mere anecdote, there are no rationally justified shades in the universe of the Christian theologians; there are only angels and demons, who are pure spirits, and provisorily separated souls waiting for the time when they will recover their resurrected bodies. Like the souls of Virgil, those of Dante incipiunt in corpore velle reverti …, although while the Virgilian souls of the good desire to begin again living an earthly life, the Dantean souls aspire to recover their lost bodies, either for eternal blessedness or for eternal misery. The whole population of the Aeneid, book VI, consists of shades. The filiation is beyond doubt, so much so that, had we no other arguments, this sole fact would suffice to establish the intentionally poetic essence of the universe described by the Divine Comedy. All hypotheses on the non-expressed intentions of a writer are arbitrary; yet it is permitted to consider, at least as a possibility, that the attempt of Virgil to give a scientific explanation of the origin and nature of his shades invited Dante to imagine the theory of his own Aristotelian ombre. At any rate, the shades of Dante are incomparably more solidly established than those of Virgil; taking the word science in the meaning it had at the time of Dante, it is literally correct to say that, by connecting their explanation with the embryogeny of Aristotle, Dante has conferred on the ombre of the Comedy, a scientifically justified status. Furthermore, because they are engaged in a Christian universe which Dante conceives as swayed by the supreme law of Justice, the shades of Dante are fully conscious of their personal destinies. At each moment every one of them knows where it is and the reason it is there. Assuredly Dante has put himself, with all his loves and hates, in his poem, and that is what makes it to be a sort of personal confession at the same time as a profession of faith. The Sacred Poem is full of substance, yet, at the same time, it remains an art-created universe; itself a reality, its substance is to provide a shadowy picture of reality. Virgil is a shade, Statius is a shade, all the characters in the play whom Dante meets in hell, in purgatory and even, paradoxially enough, in the lower circles of paradise, are likewise shades, that is to say, poetic creatures of Dante rather than real creatures of God. They are grandchildren of God, by Dante, himself one of God's masterpieces.

To sum up, in the order of the poetic filiation, the proximate sources of the shades of Dante are those of Virgil. He may have been prompted by the example of his master to improve on the explanation of their nature sketched in the Aeneid, but there is a point on which I can find for him no predecessor at all, even among the theologians of his own time. It is his boldness in providing a scholastic and Aristotelian explanation of those creatures of his imagination. In explicitly asking himself the question, and in giving it a precise answer, Dante was leaving us a perfect illustration of the dual nature of his own genius, equally anxious to create beauty and to teach truth. We know that, to him, the bellezza of a poem was a lesser source of joy than its bontà, or intelligible meaning. In this sense, the Divine Comedy itself must have been less admirable to him for its beauty than for its teaching. This certainly comes to us as a surprise, but it is perhaps the most evident proof that Dante and his work belong in the scholastic culture of the medieval world, not in the predominantly literary culture, Ciceronian rather than Virgilian in its inspiration, of which Petrarch was soon to be the elegant exponent. To confer upon the poetic world of Virgil a substantial reality borrowed from the biology of Aristotle was an undertaking of which nobody but Dante seems to have conceived the possibility.


  1. Matt. 5: 6: “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after justice.” On the subject of this article, see my Trois études dantesques pour le VIIecentenaire de la naissance de Dante, in AHDLMA, 32 (1965) 71-126. The present essay is a recasting of the first of those three studies: “Qu’est-ce qu’une ombre?” 71-93. I shall take the liberty of making cross references to the documentation found in the French article which the present article completes in a number of ways but especially by taking into account the survival of the popular belief in ghosts found in the writings of the Fathers of the Church such as Augustine and Gregory the Great. The two articles are complementary and should be read in relation to each other.

  2. “And those whose longing is after justice he [the Angel] had called beati, but his words said it with sitiunt, without adding anything.” Purgatorio, XXII, 4-7. So, in Dante's own version of the sixth beatitude, the first men to be mentioned are those who thirst after righteousness. Hunger is introduced, as a second part of the same beatitude, in canto XXIV, 151-154: “And I heard him say: Beati …”, etc.

  3. A shadow here observes that, in what follows, there is no harm in mentioning the proper names, for they have been so changed by fasting that they now are unrecognizable: “da ch’è si muta / nostra sembienza via per la dieta.” Purg., XXIV, 17-18.

  4. Purg., XXV, 20-21.

  5. Purg., II, 79-81.

  6. Purg., XXI, 130-136.

  7. Convivio, II, 12.

  8. Purg., XXV, 70-75.

  9. Summa Theol., I, 119, 1.

  10. Op. cit., 1, 86, 4.

  11. Op. cit., I, 90, 2. Cf. 118,2: “non potest (anima intellective) causari per generationem, sed solum per creationem a Deo.”

  12. Summa Theol., I, 119, 2. Only blood can acquire in the heart “a tutte membra umane virtu informativa.” Purg., XXV, 40-41. This is what Thomas Aquinas calls to be “in potentia adtetum.”—For the Aristotelian background of the doctrine, see Aristotle, De Generatione animalium, lib. I, cap. 17-18, cap. 21 and cap. 22. Cf. the articles of Bruno Nardi listed in AHDLMA, 32 (1965), 74, note 4.

  13. Ovid, Metamorph., 260-546. On the meaning of that allusion, see art. cit., AHDLMA, 32 (1965), 76.

  14. Purg., XXV, 103-108.

  15. Summa Theol., I, 51, 1; I, 51, 2 ad 2m, ad 3m. In his answer to the second objection Thomas stipulates that the body assumed by an angel is not united to it as a physical body is united to its soul; it is not a truly ‘animated’ body. On the other hand, it would not suffice to say that the body of an angel is united with him as with a mover. The body assumed by an angel is united with him as “with a mover represented by the moved body which it assumes.” The notion of a union consisting of a representation agrees with Dante's conception of the shades; they ‘represent’ their movers.—On the moist air used by the appearing angel in assuming its pseudo-body, “Dicendum quod licet aer, in sua raritate manens, non retineat figuram, neque colorem; quando tamen condensatur, et figurari et colorari potest, sicut patet in nubibus. Et sic angeli assumunt corpora ex aere, condensando ipsum virtute divina, quantum necesse est ad corporis assumendi formationem.” Summa Theol., I, 51, 2, ad 3m.

  16. De Potentia, q. VI, art. 6.

  17. Contra Gentiles, bk IV, cap. 90.

  18. On the notion of eidolon, see “Ombre e luci dans la Divine Comédie,” AHDLMA, 32, 97-101.

  19. Saint Augustine, De Cura pro mortuis gerenda ad Paulinum, x, Migne PL 40, 601; xi, 601 and 602; xii, 603.

  20. Saint Augustine, De Genesi ad litteram, xii, 33, PL 34, 481.

  21. Saint Gregory the Great, Dialogi, iv, 28-29, PL 77, 365; iv, 35, 380-381; iv, 36, 384-385; iv, 40, 396-397; iv, 42, 401.

  22. PL 96, 453-524.

  23. Eric of Auxerre, Sententiae de libro prognosticorum, c. 1, ed. Riccardo Quadri, Collectanea di Eirico di Auxerre (Spicilegium Friburgense, 11) Fribourg-Suisse, 1966. The excerpts from St. Julian of Toledo are found pp. 140-161. See particularly pp. 141-144 and 146-147: quod nunc animae defunctorum in quibusdam receptaculis teneantur; quod anima similitudinem corporis habeat; quod animae mortuorum se invicem post mortem carnis recognescere possunt; utrum possint mortui viventium oculis apparere, etc.

  24. Pierre Courcelle, ‘Les Pères de l’Église devant les enfers virgiliens,’ AHDLMA, 22 (1955) 5-74, particularly 47-55.

  25. P. Courcelle, op. cit., 47.—On the answer of Saint Ambrose to the question, 49, notes 4 to 7.—Critical commentary of the speech of Anchises by saint Augustine: De Civitate Dei, XXI, 13; in P. Courcelle, op. cit., 55, note 1.—A capital difference should be noted. In Dante, the poet really descends into Hades; his visit there occupies the whole first third of the Divine Comedy, of which the very subject is a voyage to the other world. Not so in the Aeneid, of which the whole subject is the foundation of Rome and in which Aeneas does not enter Tartarus, the properly infernal part of the netherworld. In other words, there is no personal journey of Aeneas to the pagan equivalent of Dante's Inferno. And indeed, Aeneas is looking for his father Anchises, a noble soul not to be found in hell.

  26. The Christian souls desire to recover their own bodies, but in a new and immortal condition. Augustine, De Civitate Dei. XXII, 26; in P. Courcelle, op. cit., 55, note 1.

Richard Koffler (essay date 1968)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4888

SOURCE: “The Last Wound: Purgatorio, XXVI,” Italian Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 45, Summer, 1968, pp. 27-43.

[In the following essay, Koffler contends that critics who decry a lack of drama in the Purgatorio are mistaken. Koffler states that the action is simply of a different type than that found in the Inferno, and that Dante thereby demonstrates in his own poem the art of renunciation.]

Dante's last meeting with fellow poets in the twenty-sixth canto of the Purgatorio—that canticle which seems almost to suggest, at times, that poets belong in Purgatory as sinners belong in Hell and saints in Heaven—has long struck critics as a drama manqué. There is something anticlimactic about the very narrative structure of this canto, something which (to quote one such critic, Irma Brandeis) “shift[s] the narrative stress away from its emotional centre, and thus from its small dramatic potentiality.”1 I want first of all, then, to marshal the evidence to support this view: for I shall presently be contending that this canto is indeed highly dramatic—but dramatic in a mode particularly difficult for the post-romantic age, out of which we have scarcely emerged, to envision.

The first event in the canto, the encounter with Guido Guinizelli, is interrupted before the latter has had a chance to identify himself, by a procession of sodomites (an altra novità ch’apparve allora). The shades enjoy their breve festa of kisses, then separate, uttering cries still unintelligible to Dante. He appeals for information, in his turn bewildering the shades. In the center of this confusion, and only after half the canto has run its course, Guido finally resumes his discourse, naming their sin and, at last, himself. The simile to which Dante resorts at this juncture to describe his reaction (like that of the sons of Lycurgus on seeing their mother again), if not so “dark” as Miss Brandeis finds it,2 at least forces the reader to reflect on Dante's feelings, rather than to share them. Only after beholding Guido for a long time in silence does Dante “offer himself” to the service of his literary “father,” nor does he bother to render for us the words that leave so clear a trace in Guido. Guido modestly rejects the praise Dante bestows on him—hyperbolic by any standards for Guinizelli, by the way—and in his turn bestows them on Arnaut. Guido asks Dante to pray for “us of this world,” then disappears into the fire like a fish into water. The interview with Arnaut is left us, another anticlimax; and to make matters worse, after Arnaut conceals his sentiments in Provencal (a perverse intellectual exercise in neo-trobar clus on Dante's part), he too disappears into the refining fire.

Something has clearly been sacrificed: narrative tension perhaps, conflicting desire, the scenes of pathetic motivation which have caused critics from De Sanctis on to look for the dramatic in Hell. (One needn’t look too hard.) In Purgatory, on the other hand, the higher we ascend the mountain, the more Dampfung (to borrow Spitzer's word, which he applies to Racine) sets in, and the less of what De Sanctis and the post-romantics thought of as “drama” is allowed by Dante's design. There may be hamartia here, but precious little pity and terror, and what with such muted effects, and almost a willful transposition into a minor key, what possibility is left for the catharsis which (one would hope) is the whole intent of Dante's voyage through the second kingdom?

To put the question more specifically, are the heights of the terrace of the lustful in fact barren of drama? Or can dramatic action, a moto spiritale or movement of the psyche,3 be found up here as well as in Hell? Obviously the action in this canto won’t depend on the sort of emotional conflict which post-romantics—for whom drama begins when Nora walks out of the doll's house—normally demand in order to find drama at all. Let me suggest, for a start, that we discard such notions of drama in reading canto XXVI, and if we find analogies from our time helpful, that we seek them out instead in such a theory as Brecht's epic-drama, which asks us to judge what is happening rather than to be caught up emotionally in it.

To help us find the action in this canto, Dante has left us several clues, all available to the reader who will bring memory and judgment to bear on the events now unfolding. Memory, that is, of the infernal plunge, particularly where the action of the sinners portrayed resembled the action on this terrace; judgment acquired, under the tutelage of Vergil and Statius, during the purgatorial climb thus far. The emotional-conflict theory of action applied so well to the Inferno precisely because that canticle makes no such demands on our faculties. Or, to put it in Dantesque terms, the denizens of Hell share with the reader only an awareness of the literal, having lost, along with their souls, il ben dello intelletto (Inf. III). Consequently, the only means Dante has at his disposal to create dramatic situations in Hell are literal ones: in short, emotional conflict. In Purgatory he has other means, of which he will avail himself, hoping the reader will catch on to the new rules of the game:

Aguzza qui, lettor, ben gli occhi al vero,
chè il velo è ora ben tanto sottile,
certo, che il trapassar dentro è leggiero.

(Purg. VIII, 19-21)

The first clue to the moto spiritale has to be sought in the passage at the end of canto XXV that serves, in fact, as a prelude to the action which unfolds in XXVI. It lies in the mode of purgation itself, purification by fire. The Ambrosian hymn which Dante first hears the lustful singing, directly upon reaching this terrace, Summae Deus clementiae, contains the following third verse, in my own very free translation:

To burn in appropriate flames
Loins and ailing liver [as seat of passions]
that the armed limbs may keep watch
and dastardly Lust keep far away.(4)

These shades exist by burning in that terrible and joyful fire—a fire which keeps Dante at some distance from Guido (XVI, 102) and which Dante will hesitate to enter even at Vergil's urging—to burn in which constitutes a rite, complete with its Ambrosian hymn and its exemplary cry of

[donne] e mariti che fur casti,
come virtute e matrimonio imponne.

(XXV, 134-135)

Now virtute e matrimonio, admirable subjects though they may be for repentant lechers up here, were hardly the subjects sung by a Guinizelli or an Arnaut. Dante makes a sharp distinction, in De vulgari eloquentia (II, 2), between these two (out of the three great possible) subjects for poets: love and virtue. He defines love, Guido and Arnaut's subject, as that “which gives pleasure by the most exquisite object of appetite,” and virtue, simply and exclusively, as “what is right.” The sin to which Guinizelli confesses in canto XXVI, then, takes on a disturbing resonance, if we use the definition of love I have just quoted as a gloss:

Nostro peccato fu ermafrodito;
ma perchè non servammo umana legge,
seguendo come bestie l’appetito … 


The clue afforded us as to the moto spiritale of the canto to come must have something to do with the rite of purification by fire itself. All this passionate burning, and singing amidst the fire, must at the same time relate itself figurally to a poetic career in this life (the literal fiction) of passionate burning in the service of an object which, however exalted and “exquisite,” remains an object of appetite.

The clue to the action, as always in Dante, takes as its point of departure the literal, seen however (because divine and poetic justice, in Dante's view of the world, coincide) as an illustration of the contrapasso. That principle, by which another troubadour, Bertran de Born, was made to carry his own severed head (Inf. XXVIII), is still operating in higher regions, and upon singers of higher subjects than war (i.e. safety, the third and last possible one). Those who burned in this life with lust, which they confused with the whole of Love, must burn away the remnants of that lust on this final terrace of the mountain. The action, in part, must be to heal that last wound, and somehow Dante must be made to imitate that healing along with Guido and Arnaut and the others on this terrace.

If we are attentive to the language, I think we can establish that Dante calls our attention to the connection between his situation (qua pilgrim) and that of the lustful, in the passage we have been examining:

“Summae deus clementiae”
nel seno
al grande ardore allora udii cantando,
che di volger me fe’ caler
non meno.

(XXV, 121-123)

The striking thing about this description, it seems to me, lies in those two words, ardore and caler, the first applied to the scene before the pilgrim's eyes and ears, the second to his reaction to that scene. They are both words having to do with burning. Ardore has very different connotations from a more usual synonym such as abbruciante, which appears at the end of this same canto: “Il foco gli abbrucia” (137). Horace, Vergil, and Ovid all used ardor to mean the kind of burning inspired by the passion of love, while the Latin verb ardeo meant “to burn with love.” As for caler, a now defunct infinitive, its Latin source, caleo (“glow, be hot, etc.”) meant figuratively “to be inflamed” with some passion, especially, again, the passion of love. The lustful and the pilgrim are both afire, to cauterize their piaga dassezzo, the last wound of love understood only carnally. The lustful, of course, must purge themselves directly. The pilgrim, and the reader in particular, are compelled first of all to reflect on the meaning of this cure. So (and here, I think, the analogy with Brecht's Alienation-effect is apropos) the note on which the prelude ends is one of ironic, even somewhat cruel, detachment:

E questo modo credo che lor basti
per tutto il tempo che il foco gli abbrucia
con tal cura convien, con cotai pasti
che la piaga dassezzo si ricucia.

(XXV, 136-139)

That note of detachment carries over into the beginning of our canto, where we perceive it not in terms of ironic commentary, but rather of physical position: the edge of the flame, in the literal fiction, separates these shadows from Dante's corporeal body. They look on him in amazement, keeping always carefully within the flames. The wall his body makes against the sun, as well as the shadow he caste over their flames, lets them know he isn’t one of their number. He in turn lags far behind Vergil and Statius, who for once (as so rarely in the climb) allow him to command the stage while they look on as mere spectators. Guinizelli interprets Dante's hesitation, his returning the shades' glance, as a possible act of reverence; but might that glance not signify a wonder the pilgrim does not yet fully comprehend—the dawning awareness of the correspondence between the last wound these shadows are purging, and his own piaga dassezzo? For that dawning awareness in the pilgrim's psyche is part of the moto spiritale of the canto as a whole, and suggests analogies between his situation and Guido's which we must now pursue beyond the literal fiction, if we are to understand the action in its wholeness.

At this point I must ask my reader to recall my early appeal to his memory of the Inferno, on which (I said) Dante relies so heavily. One of the things he will have learned by now—it sometimes helps to point out the obvious—is that important moti spiritali which have been enacted once in the Commedia will often be re-enacted at some later point. (Part of the drama, and the meaning of specific actions, in later cantos depends on the reader's awareness that what he is seeing is a re-enactment, with variations.) The re-enactment is signaled, as in a musical composition of any length, by a return to an earlier motif, re-echoed in the language itself. If canto XXVI should provide us with such echoes, they would help us to identify the pilgrim's relation to the action as objectively as poetry can ever point to anything. We will know where we are by where we have been.

As it happens, the section of the canto (25-51) immediately following on Guido's unanswered question resounds with such echoes. Some refer us back to cantos V and XIV-XV of the Inferno, where the carnal sinners and the male regine, respectively, were punished. Others refer us farther back still, to the dark wood in which, nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, Dante had lost the straight path. Dante's first view of the sodomites is of a crowd of people coming toward them per lo mezzo del cammino acceso (28); the fiery path, through which they pass, constitutes the new way out of the forest. We can relate this cammino to that other one: detached from its purely local reference to the sodomites, it recalls Dante's own lost way, and points to the new one he must seek.

The principal echoes in this passage, however, are not those recalling the dark wood, but those recalling Paolo and Francesca's black air and Ser Brunetto Latini's burning plain. The imagery of the cranes from the one and the setting from the other are merged in one portmanteau simile, which retains the mountains as a sort of intermediary term. The prevailing echo, appropriately enough, is of Paolo and Francesca, for the sodomites serve only as antiphonal participants in the larger purgation of this canto; but we would oversimplify to eliminate them altogether from our consideration. Compare, then, the use to which that striking simile of the cranes is employed in Hell and in Purgatory:

E come i gru van cantando lor lai
facendo in aer di sè lunga riga;
così vid’io venir, traendo guai,
ombre portate dalla detta briga.

(Inf. V, 46-49)

Poi come gru, ch’alle montagne Rife
volasser parte, e parte in ver l’arene,
queste del gel, quelle del sole schife:
l’una gente sen va, l’altra sen viene,
e tornan lagrimando ai primi canti,
ed al grider che più lor si conviene.

(Purg. XXVI, 43-48)

We have, in both tenor and vehicle in each of these crane similes, this difference: that the shades in Hell were carried along in the storm, they knew not where; but the shades here control their “flight” (the vehicle) and their will (the tenor). Moreover, the division of flight, with some going towards the sands and some the mountains, should bring to mind another simile which juxtaposes those same extremes of temperature and geography:

Sopra tutto il sabbion d’un cader lento
piovean di foco dilatate falde,
come di neve in alpe senza vento … 
tale scendeva l’eternale ardore;
onde l’arena s’accendea … 

(Inf. XIV, 28-30, 37-38)

I have not pointed out thus far the essential difference; that the souls who come and go up here return willingly in tears to their songs and cries because they do so only for a certain time; but Paolo and Francesca must draw out their wailing, and Ser Brunetto must blaze on that sandy plain, forever.

These similes, so hauntingly alike and so pointedly at variance, provide us with our second clue to the nature of the moto spiritale, which I had tentatively formulated as “to heal the last wound.” For the wound itself serves as a complex metaphor for several kinds of experience, including, certainly, a literal, “real” wound, effected by lust. But Dante has imported onto the terrace of lust, as we have just heard in those echoes of cranes and sands and mountains, not only bestiality and sodomy—the outward occasion, like the physical wound, for repentance. He has brought into this canto something of the moti spiritali of cantos V and XV of the Inferno. Whatever that something turns out to be, it must furnish an analogy to the action of the poets Guido and Arnaut, who wrote love poems and are now joyfully burning away their lust, redirecting their wills (directio voluntatis, as Dante puts it in De vulgari eloquentia) to the new subject, virtute e matrimonio. And it must reflect the experience Dante himself “embarks” in these regions, Dante whose own psyche has been afflicted with the same last wound as the one suffered by the poets on this terrace.

Both cantos in the Inferno point toward Dantesque versions of the traison des clercs, that is, to sins to which (Dante's experience of life and letters convinced him) poets were particularly vulnerable. Paolo and Francesca, on the one hand, were seduced not only by their own weakness, but by the attractiveness of what Pound has called the spirit of Romance: Galeotto fu il libro, e chi lo scrisse (Inf. V, 137). Ser Brunetto's company had stopped, I suppose, at too low a rung of Diotima's ladder:

In somma sappi, che tutti fur cherci
e letterati grandi e di gran fama,
d’un peccato medesmo al mondo lerci.

(Inf. XV, 106-108)

The tropological significance suggested by Dante's fusion of carnal appetites up here on the terrace of lust, it seems to me, is a warning to Dante as letterato grande, master-scribe of the love that both leads Paolo and Francesca and moves the sun and the other stars. That warning is appropriate to the terrace where the last of the sins of disproportionate love is being purged away. Hence the hesitancies, the reflective moments of this canto, serve to dramatize the effect on the pilgrim of the healing of the wound: he must pause, and with him the reader, to translate the warning into a caution against the urgencies of the very art which Dante so greatly admires. Immediately after the scene of the breve festa follows the encounter with two exemplary masters of that art, both lavishly praised for their mastery. First, Guido (the praise is the pilgrim's):

                                                            il padre
mio, e degli altri miei miglior,
che mai
rime d’amore usar dolci e leggiadre.


Later, Arnaut (the praise this time is Guido's):

“[Questi] fu miglior fabbro
del parlar materno.
Versi d’amore e prose di romanzi
soperchiò tutti …”


In an Ovidian world, where love and metamorphosis conquer all, where the epic lacks a trope and the will a direction, this would be high praise. In a world of art for art's sake—Walter Pater's, that is, and Casella's, but not Dante's world—these laurels would suffice. I think, however, that critics and commentators who have argued over whether Guido Guinizelli or Arnaut Daniel deserves the high praise bestowed on them have missed the essential moral point about the efficiency of art in this canto: that to be miglior fabbro is insufficient, that the lyrical impulse itself leads to an elevation of animal appetite over virtute, of eros over agapê. The moto spiritale can be understood on this level as to heal the last wound of art, and it is dramatized in the encounter with these exemplary, and repentant, artists.

Were the point merely external to Dante, we could accuse him of didacticism (though not, to be sure, of the “Life is real, life is earnest” variety). The goad in this canto, however, applies to Dante's own situation, while he stands on the edge of the cammino acceso that he must cross to get to Beatrice. For he had been, had he not, a celebrated love poet in his own right, no less a one than the author of the new rhymes beginning, “Donne, ch’avete intelletto d’Amore?” And he had abandoned Beatrice:

                    “… E [ella disse] mutai vita,
questi si tolse a me, e diessi altrui … 
e volse i passi suoi per via non vera,
imagini di ben seguendo false. …”

(Purg. XXX, 125-126, 130-131)

Hence the sin of Guido and of Arnaut serves to embody Dante's own sin, the wound with which Dante had burned in his pursuit of false images of the good, which he must purge now by a new burning, before he will once again be worthy to confront Beatrice. There is, then, a dramatic irony in the very praise of the art of love in mouths which must renounce that art and burn away its vestiges—a dramatic irony, yes, but a structural device as well.

The third clue to the nature of the action in this canto can be found in the verbal play on courtesy and refinement and fin’ amor, whether of the Provencal, or the sweet new style. The play at which I am hinting underlies the whole of the canto, it seems to me. It is wit at the service of allegory—i.e. Dante's four-fold medieval allegory, rather than the Spenserian or Bunyanesque sort with which we are all too familiar. Before I can do more than hint, I must assert what this canto tells us about the place of the secular love lyric in Dante's evolved scheme. The three subjects of De vulgari eloquentia, safety, love, and virtue, to which he had given collateral status in the early treatise, have now been ordered hierarchically, with each stage excluding the one below it, till only virtue is left. Such an ordering is entirely consistent with Dante's “ideological” bent. But the very ordering suggests a state in which art itself no longer is relevant; and it is hardly an accident that Dante puts so few poets in his Paradiso. (I have been able to find only two: Folquet of Marseilles, surely a minor troubadour, who was an Albigensian Crusader to boot; and St. Francis of Assisi, who was St. Francis of Assisi). The ordering further suggests a rejection of the troubadours' and stilnovists' code, since the order of art of the secular love lyric isn’t a redemptive order.

The drama of purgation in canto XXVI consists, allegorically, in passionate atonement, in the turning of the repentance of these masters into desire for a realm in which no art will matter except St. Francis's: the adoration of the Maker. The appeal on which this turning—another form of healing the wound of love, after all—is no longer grounded in any aesthetic or logic, but in faith. Guido and Arnaut recognize the disparity between the realms even while they remember the old aesthetic values; their burning is a token of their acceptance of the consequences of their change of heart. The drama of Dante the pilgrim, on the other hand, his purging of the last wound, lies in his being forced to acknowledge the disparity at the last stage in the second kingdom when art as such is still important to him. He knows, abstractly, thanks to Vergil, that a lady is waiting for him up there, yet he can still praise Guido, and Guido (with attendant ironies already noted) can praise Arnaut, in terms that none of the three, finally, can accept, because such praises and such laurels are inappropriate where they are all going. A pun on inchiostro (ink) and chiostro (cloister) reinforces the disparity. Dante tells Guido how

                    “Li dolci detti vostri
che, quanto durerà l’uso moderno,
faranno cari ancora i loro inchiostri.


But Guido asks Dante rather to say a paternoster for him, if he (Dante) is permitted

                    “l’andare al chiostro
nel quale è Cristo abate del collegio. …”


This pair, inchiostri/al chiostro, coming within nine lines of each other, extends the tropological meaning (pens are not enough) into the allegorical (to get you to heaven). Guido's appeal, which denies himself (and Dante) the final consolation of art, finds a direct parallel in Beatrice's denying him the final consolation of the paradiso terrestre:

“Qui sarai tu poco tempo silvano,
e sarai meco, senza fine, cive
di quella Roma onde Cristo è Romano.”

(Purg. XXXII, 100-102)

In the Purgatory, where alone in Dante's three kingdoms one's station isn’t fixed for all time, the moto spiritale is always directed by belief. That direction helps us to fathom the clue I have tried to pin down in verbal wit. Let us take, as an instance of the latter quality, that brilliant simile, introduced by a litotes, which Dante uses to convey the astonishment of the bestial group when they learn he is still a living body:

Non altrimenti stupido si turba
lo montanaro, e rimirando ammuta,
quando rozzo e salvatico s’inurba … 


The two words I have emphasized5 express, on the literal level, a clear enough image: perhaps Dante had in mind nothing grander than a rustic fiesolano coming into Florence from his seclusion in the hills.6 But if the allegorical meaning for which I have been arguing is valid, it forces us to reconsider that innocent, almost Homeric image. All these people on this terrace, and the six earlier terraces we have climbed to, are montanari, for Mount Purgatory is their habitat, as long as their penitence must last. Yet their reason for being there is to move from the mountain into the City of God, to become, as Dante will become, civi di quella Roma.

We are therefore involved in a paradox, for there is no one less rozzo e salvatico, more civilized (in the root sense of the word), than a Guido or an Arnaut. Dante toys with this paradox in the case of Guido. He completes the simile just quoted with a glance at Guido's most famous phrase: “[Stupore] lo qual negli alti cor tosto s’attuta” (72). But in the case of Arnaut, an eight-line Provencal pastiche (Dante's only departure, discounting nonsense words and Latin, from Italian in all three canticles) turns into something other than a glance. Parody ends as confession. It begins, as Francesca's reply to Dante (Inf. V) had begun, by responding to Dante's cortes deman. The hendiadys of the third line—

“Ieu sui Arnaut, que plor e vau cantan”—


deliberately echoes Francesca once again:

“Farò come colui che piange e dice.” 

(Inf. V, 126)

The spirit of Romance is re-evoked for the last time, in the mouth of one who excelled all others in prose di romanzi (that mysterious phrase which no commentator has clarified satisfactorily), in order to be exorcized and atoned. That exorcism and atonement are Arnaut's way of imitating the action of the canto, of healing his wound of love. For the next two lines of the Provencal reverse the courtly trend leading up to the line I have quoted, and summarize, as neatly as two lines can, the burden of both trope and allegory as I have described them:

“Consiros vei la passada folor,
e vei jausen lo jorn, qu’esper, denan.”


La passada folor is his considered judgment on his own career as the greatest craftsman of love poetry. The note of hope and joy restores what can be salvaged from that poetry, but only after he has renounced the means (the wound) he had earlier thought would attain them as folly. He confesses himself, he asks Dante to remember him, and then?

Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina. 


The paradox touched on by the simile of the mountaineer is sustained contrapuntally in this last line of the canto. The fire refines away the roughness of the master of trober clus.

The meaning of the paradox and the meaning of the action are ultimately the same. The pattern throughout the canto, that healing moto spiritale we have been tracing, is a pattern of renunciation. If I may reformulate that pattern one last time, I should prefer to lengthen it thus: to find again the true way by passing voluntarily through the fire that heals and refines. Such a passage comes at the expense of everything we hold dear in this world: sublunar loves, the art that exalts and laments those loves, the praise in turn that celebrates that art. All these, in the larger scheme of things, are passada folor, the last wound to be purged away. And the moment is a fitting one for Dante the pilgrim to purge them, for he has clung to them all the way up the mountain. Now he too must pass through the fire that refines, on his way back to a new succession of ladies and to his restored innocence. The Beatitude which marks his passage out of this terrace and into the fire, “Blessed are the pure in heart,” makes earthly art, as Tolstoi knew (and Brecht as well, in his own way), irrelevant and misdirected. Renunciation, this side of the redemptive order, like Edgar's ripeness, is all.


  1. The Ladder of Vision (Garden City, 1962), p. 109.

  2. Brandeis, p. 108. But Dante had devoted five lines (Inf. XVIII, 91-95) to the seduction of Hypsipyle by Jason—one of numerous infernal echoes on the terrace of lust, as we shall see.

  3. I am adopting the phrase Francis Fergusson, following Vergil (Purg. XVIII), suggests as an extension of the Aristotelian notion of praxis.

  4. I found the Latin original in Wicksteed and Oelsner's notes to my Temple Classics ed. (London, 1962), p. 321.

  5. Each appears in the Commedia only at this one strategic moment, I discovered by consulting the Wilkins and Bergin commentary.

  6. Francis Fergusson offered me this interpretation.

John G. Demaray (essay date 1969)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10011

SOURCE: “Pilgrim Text Models for Dante's Purgatorio,” Studies in Philology, Vol. LXVI, No. 1, January, 1969, pp. 1-24.

[In the following essay, Demaray demonstrates how, in the Purgatorio, Dante drew from tales of actual Holy Land pilgrimages.]

The theological virtue of hope, so Beatrice declares before St. James, enabled Dante Alighieri to make the journey from Egypt to Jerusalem to see the Church Militant (Par. XXV, 52-7).1

A long and perhaps wearisome familiarity with Dante's epistle to Can Grande della Scala has taught us the kind of multifold interpretation that the author of the Commedia intended be applied to such a spiritual pilgrimage. Yet for a full appreciation of the Commedia, the poet's words to Can Grande must be taken most seriously. The Exodus from Egypt to the Holy Land, as Dante explained by reference to Psalm 114 (Ps.113 in the Vulgate),2 need not be understood simply as a literal journey. In an allegorical sense, the Exodus signifies the redemption of man by Christ; in a moral sense, the conversion of the soul from sin to the state of grace; and in an anagogical sense, the departure of the soul from the imprisonment of mortal corruption to the liberty of eternal glory.3

Dante's spiritual pilgrimage from the sinful Egypt of this world to the holy Jerusalem of the earthly paradise is allegorically depicted in the poet's ascent of Mt. Purgatory; all souls on the mountain are pilgrims making a religious journey like that of the Israelites.4 Once again it may be observed that, while in Hell and Heaven both damned and saved are eternally fixed in categories required by God's justice and Love, the souls in Purgatorio ascend spiritually through a midway region based solidly in the world yet rising beyond earthly time and climatic change toward immutable Heaven. In Purgatorio, as upon earth, man in fellowship and song, repentance and hope, is able to confess and be forgiven his sins while progressing up the steep path to salvation.

More than has been realized, Dante Alighieri drew upon the oral and written materials of the Holy Land pilgrimage tradition in creating Purgatorio and infusing this part of the Commedia with a body of “real” experience recognizable to readers of his period. For the pilgrimage of Dante and the souls in Purgatorio is a reflection of actual pilgrimages made by palmers along the route of the Exodus past traditional “stations” that linked worldly Egypt to holy Jerusalem. Mt. Purgatory is in part modeled upon accounts of an existing mount of purgation that palmers climbed to visit a very special “ring” of stations as part of their Exodus pilgrimage.5 And Dante's letter to Can Grande is a sophisticated restatement of the customary allegorical interpretation given to passages in Psalm 114, Exodus, and popular pilgrim literature referring to the Egypt-to-Jerusalem journey of the Israelites and their fellow “true Hebrews.” “The significance of these stations [of the Exodus], and a catalogue of them I have arranged so as to mention them in my work,” writes Fetellus in a pilgrim guide book of the twelfth century still in use in the seventeenth, “through them the true Hebrew who hastens to pass from earth to heaven must run his race, and, leaving the Egypt of the world, must enter the land of promise, i. e., the heavenly fatherland.”6 Anonymous Pilgrim VI (Pseudo Beda) repeats the words of Fetellus writing, also in the twelfth century, about “the meaning of the stations … ; it is through them that the true Hebrew who is eager to make his way from earth to heaven must pass, and leaving behind the Egypt of this world, enter into the land of promise and his heavenly home.”7

Carrying guide books, Breviaries, and copies of the Bible,8 many “true Hebrews” of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries took what might be termed the famous six-month to four-year “Venetian tour,” usually boarding ship before the Doge's Palace off St. Mark's Square and debarking at Alexandria on the Egyptian delta, proceeding south along the River Nile to Babylon (Old Cairo), turning east in the approximate path of the Exodus to the Red Sea, then under the leadership of pagan guides riding by camel across the deserts of the Sinai peninsula toward Mt. Sinai and the Holy City,9 places where either Greek Orthodox or Roman Catholic priests attended the palmers.10 All along the Stations-of-the-Exodus route from Egypt to Jerusalem, the written accounts reveal, the pilgrims on the great journey of their lives were often swept by intense emotion as they prepared themselves spiritually for entrance to the Holy City. They sang and wept, confessed and repented; they reflected on the sins and good actions of their past lives, read appropriate Biblical passages at venerated sites, listened to the edifying exempla of their guides, and prayed before holy icons, often arranged in story-groups, depicting Biblical events—their literal and spiritual experiences paralleling those of souls in Purgatorio. They believed, moreover, that through confession and repentence of sin and the gaining of special Holy Land indulgences remitting the temporal punishments of Purgatory, they were in fact spiritually ascending toward Heaven as they trudged the lonely sand tracks, supposedly up-hill over the globe, to a Holy City considered to be a pole of the world.

Exactly what official Roman Catholic indulgences they were gaining is still something of an ecclesiastical and scholarly puzzle.11 But in 1346-50 when Fra Niccolò of Poggibonsi compiled the first, complete, unofficial list made by a pilgrim, he noted some twenty-six partial indulgences granting the full remission of all temporal punishment, and ninety-two partial indulgences granting a limited remission of temporal punishment. Undoubtedly not all of these indulgences were recognized by the Roman Church. In a very human way the palmers tended to exaggerate colossally the supposed benefits of the indulgences until in the fourteenth century references appear to indulgences remitting every sin, presumably past, present, and future (A Voyage, p. xxiii). Yet the palmers who made the long pilgrimage to gain all possible indulgences, whatever they might be, were those fortunate few who could say that before death they had truly been, not only to the Holy City, but also “once to Sinai.”

Dante was in a position to know much about the travels of the palmers. The poet, one should recall, wrote at length about and may have studied under the Franciscan fathers,12 those guardians of Mt. Sion who from the early thirteenth century to the present day have considered it their duty to maintain houses in the Holy Land and to care for Holy Land pilgrims.13 Dante refers in Paradiso to the thirteenth-century debate between St. Francis and the Sultan of Egypt which resulted, according to tradition, in St. Francis' being granted permission to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (Par. XI, 100-3). During Dante's own frequent sojourns over a twenty-year period on the roads between Florence, Ravenna, Verona, Padua, Bologna, Rome, and Venice, the poet could have talked directly to pilgrims on their way to or from the Holy Land. And it seems most likely that a poet who wrote so luminously of his own spiritual pilgrimage would have been at least somewhat aware of one or more works from a voluminous body of popular and devotional pilgrimage literature which includes St. Jerome's The Pilgrimage of Holy Paula (cir. 382 a.d.), Theodosius' On the Topography of the Holy Land (530 a.d.), and the Venerable Bede's On the Holy Places (cir. 700 a.d.).14

Even in the event that Dante had no direct contact with pilgrims or Franciscans and no direct knowledge of pilgrimage literature—a most unlikely supposition—the poet could have learned of Holy Land pilgrimages from a more general oral tradition of extreme antiquity fostered by pilgrims passing through Italy. By the fourteenth century the Italian cities of Venice, Genoa, and Naples had for one thousand years been the principle ports of embarcation and debarcation for pilgrims traveling between Europe and the Holy Land. At first the number of pilgrims was small, but in the twelfth century successive waves of Crusaders with pilgrims in their wake crossed and recrossed Italy spreading tales of that venerated “land beyond the sea.” In the manner of modern tourists, many persons must have talked more than they wrote about their journeys.

The surviving writings dating from the fourth to the fourteenth century which afford insight into the tradition reveal a remarkable resemblance in structure, content, and tone because palmers generally recorded the same basic reactions to the same places in the same order. During a tour of the Holy Land in 326 a.d., the Byzantine Empress Helena, displaying a unique talent for allegedly divining the exact sites on which numerous Old and New Testament events occurred, fixed most of the place stops along the pilgrimage route. St. Silvia in cir. 382 a.d. confirmed and added to the established stops while traveling along and writing of the Exodus route. Guide books and other pilgrim accounts of the twelfth century categorized the stops into the Stations of the Exodus.15 While certain pilgrim texts written shortly after Dante's death will be quoted for their detailed information, one can be assured that these writings describe no new experiences or new places; they simply give more elaborate accounts of the familiar old ones.

In Jerusalem a separate series of stops along the Holy Circle path of venerated places eventually became known as the Stations of the Cross after Franciscans, leading palmers to the places beginning in the fourteenth century, established a regular pattern of worship centering on the theme of Christ's death and resurrection.16 Priests and palmers from the Holy Land introduced the ritual of worshiping at Stations of the Cross into Europe where it was adopted by the Roman Church, but the less organized observances at the desert Stations of the Exodus, concentrating generally on the purgation of sin before entrance to the Holy City, were practiced by fewer persons and were forgotten.

In briefly tracing the pilgrimage theme in Purgatorio, one notes that the ante-Purgatorio section of the poem contains allusions to the opening stages and general direction of the pilgrimage. Dante in Canto 11 suggests that he and Virgil are “come gente che pensa a suo cammino,/ Che va col cuore e col corpo dimora” (11-2). Other figures are soon mentioned as travelers. “Ma noi siam peregrin come voi siete,” says Virgil when meeting the souls arriving by angelically-propelled boat from the Tiber's mouth near Rome, souls apparently dying within the fold of the Roman Church (63). These figures are likened to pilgrims about to follow in the path of the Exodus, for the souls chant the first of many songs to be heard in Purgatorio, the familiar Psalm 114, “In exitu Israel de Aegypto”: “con quanto di quel salmo è poscia scripto” (46, 48). The Psalm, traditionally recited at the time of death, contains references to places along the route of the Exodus actually visited by pilgrims in Dante's time: the supposed locales where the Red Sea parted, where Moses struck a fountain from the rock, where the River Jordan stopped flowing before the tribes of Israel. Still, Dante's journey up the mountain proper has not yet begun. Twilight in ante-Purgatorio reminds the poet of that hour when “lo novo peregrin,” sadly leaving his loved ones, starts on his trip (VIII, 4). The pilgrimage begins in earnest the next morning from the far side of the gate at the entrance to the seven terraces of Purgatory proper. Dante alludes in this section to “peregrin” passing one another on the road (XXIII, 16-21) and to the “cotidiana manna” needed as food while moving across the “aspro deserto” of life (XI, 13-4). The pilgrimage is over once the Jerusalem of the earthly paradise has been reached on the summit of Mt. Purgatory. There Dante sees a number of visions of the Church Militant, and Beatrice admonishes Dante to carry within him at least pictures of all that he has seen “che ’l te ne porti dentro a te, per quello/ Che si reca il bordon di palma cinto” (XXXIII, 77-8). The poet is now like those contemporaneous pilgrims who, after having arrived at the Holy City from Egypt, return home bearing staffs wrapped with palms. And so it is appropriate that the pilgrimage theme concludes when Dante, following Beatrice's example, lifts his eyes from Eden to the sun, his eye-beams racing swiftly upward “pur come pellegrin che tornar vuole …” (Par. I, 51). As Beatrice later assets, Dante has made the pilgrimage from Egypt to Jerusalem (Par. XXV, 52-7), and by implication this journey has been allegorically related to the spiritual pilgrimage of the Israelites of the Exodus, of the palmers in contemporaneous times, and of all Christian men seeking salvation.

The trip from the world to the earthly paradise is made up a mountain standing at the antipodes opposite Jerusalem with a summit lifted close to the sphere of the moon. Mt. Purgatory rises with terraces for each of the seven deadly sins from a surrounding sea in which Ulysses and his crew once drowned (Inferno XXVI, 133-42). It is a construct of steep cliffs (Purg. III, 46-8), winding paths and ridges (VII, 70-4), narrow clefts in the rock (IX, 74-8; XII, 97), and low, craggy rocks so large that the poet, bent on the lower slopes under the weight of sin, must clamber up using both hands and feet (IV, 46-51). The summit is always out of sight behind sharply-angled slopes (IV, 40-3). Dante, ascending by day-light and resting at night, gradually straightens to an upright posture (XXIII, 3) as he is healed of his sins (XIII, 3). After having a vision of angels from Mary (VIII, 22-39) and kneeling before the guardian at the gate of Purgatory (IX, 109-11), the poet climbs with ever-increasing ease up steps alternating with terraces. Attention is focused upon individual objects and souls along the way and not only the mountain as a whole. Dante reaches the Garden of Eden on the summit only after passing through a wall of fire at the top of the stairs (XXVIII, 7-18). In the garden the poet sees trees, grass, flowers, and a fountain from which flow the rivers of Lethe and Eunoe (XXVIII, 22 ff.).

Mt. Sinai, in the various editions of Fetellus' Guide Book and in the account of Anonymous Pilgrim VI, is interpreted as meaning “bramble” and is listed twelfth among forty-two Stations of the Exodus extending from the Egyptian city of “Ramsesses,” said to mean “commotion” or “thundering,” to the Holy Land site of “Galgala” on the plains of Moab, a station said to mean “revelation” or “rolling.” The mountain stood toward the end of those worldly stations on the Exodus route representing such ideas as “bitterness” (station five), “hatred” (station eight), “discontent” (station ten), and “desolation of the brave” (station eleven). Past Sinai were Holy Land stations representing such ideas as “bridle” (station eighteen), “Christ” (station nineteen), “miracle” (station twenty-one), “in the assembly” (station twenty-two), and so on to “revelation” (station forty-two).17 The rational meanings given to those stations that had them—some did not—derived from fanciful etymologies or Biblical events and together have no clear relationship to ideas about the seven deadly sins or to formal theological or philosophical thought. Sometimes the interpretations and numbers of the stations varied in differing accounts: Anonymous Pilgrim VI, in contrast to Fetellus, reverses the order of stations four and five and gives certain stations slightly different interpretations; John of Wurzburg (1160-70 a.d.) mentions only “forty halting-places” instead of forty-two.18 It is sufficient to realize, however, that to pilgrims in Dante's time Mt. Sinai served as a station in a haphazard chain of conceptions linking ideas of evil and confusion, associated with worldly Egypt, to ideas of religion and order, associated with the Holy Land.

Located geographically in the southern corner of the triangular Sinai peninsula between the two lands, Sinai like Mt. Purgatory visably and symbolically united Heaven to earth; by tradition it was on Sinai that Moses received the Law, Elijah saw God, and “heavenly angels” descended (Fetellus, p. 15). “It is not possible,” comments Procopius in a work circulating about 560 a.d., “for a man to pass the night upon the peak, because at night continuous thunderings and other yet more terrible manifestations take place, which overpower men's strength and reason.”19 Therefore, the lower areas of the mountain and the monastery of St. Catherine at its base were said to be inhabited by only the most holy monks: “so illustrious their reputation,” writes Fetellus, “that from the confines of Ethiopia to the utmost bounds of the Persians, they are venerated by every Eastern tongue. … They are so reverenced that no one presumes to offend them in anything, and if one should happen to touch them in any way, it is heavily avenged by God” (pp. 15-6). Legends about the miraculous protection of the monks by heavenly powers have continued to circulate to the present day throughout the Sinai peninsula and have recently been recorded by Arthur Penrhyn Stanley.20

In making an ascent reminiscent of that of Dante and Virgil up Mt. Purgatory, pilgrims climbed Sinai to its summit using paths alternating with about 3,400 stone steps set or carved into the mountain; the paths and steps are still in use today. In two places the steps pass beneath stone arches, also still in existence, constructed at the end of narrow, rock passageways. Just as a garden sat at the gate of Mt. Purgatory to receive penitent souls, so too at various times beginning at least in the sixth century monks sat at the archways, now called the Gates of Confession and of St. Steven, refusing pilgrims permission to ascend until they had confessed their sins.21

The myth-making potential of stories related to the steps and arches can be noted in the accounts of certain pilgrims. Fetellus in the twelfth century emphasized the enormous height of Sinai by citing the number of steps at “three thousand five hundred” (p. 15). Leonardo Frescobaldi of Florence in his account (cir. 1386) stretches the number to “fourteen thousand” (Visit, p. 61). Giorgio Gucci, who before his pilgrimage was a Prior of Florence and an ambassador from Florence to Rome, enunciates a sounder poetic truth by avowing (cir. 1389) that in “climbing them [the steps], they were infinite” (Visit, pp. 3, 117). This same pilgrim learned that the first archway, “or rather a gate, because it was like a gate,” was so old that it was “from the hands of Moses”; the second gate was “from the hands of Elias [Elijah]” (pp. 116-7). Reading the details of Gucci's climb, one almost suspects him of having accompanied Virgil and Dante up Mt. Purgatory: “There are three miles of very quick ascent, and you go by a way that is very narrow, and in several places most narrow, with great valleys on either side so that in fear and peril you go, and not otherwise than on foot, and that with fatigue can you go. You find a stairway, on which you ascend the said mount and which was by hand and force made, which stairway several times you leave again and retake …” (p. 117). In stressing the perils of the climb, Florentine Simone Sigoli mentions (cir. 1389) the “many places on the said mountain to which one must cling with hands and feet in order to ascend …,” and he writes of the “very big crags in height a stone's throw, and up these crags you must climb, … and in this there is very great danger, because from one crag to another there are many and deep clefts” (Visit, p. 196).

The climb up this most reverenced mountain, like that up Dante's mountain, was thought spiritually healing to those burdened with sin. In the fourth century St. Silvia writes of ascending Sinai in a manner that even then appears to have been traditional. She and her group started up the mountain, which from a distance seemed “to be single, in the form of a ring,”22 accompanied by a “priest and monks who lived there”; along the way the pilgrims “were encouraged by the prayers of the holy men …” (Silvia, p. 13). Pausing on a narrow ridge near “the cave where holy Elijah hid” and “the church which is there,” the group offered an oblation and an earnest prayer, and the passage from the book of Kings was read; for we always especially desired that when we came to any place the corresponding passage from the book should be read” (p. 15). Close to the summit at the traditional spot where Moses is said to have received the Law, St. Silvia states that “the book of Moses was read, and one psalm said which was appropriate to the place …” (p. 16). She adds that “on the very summit of the central mountain no one lives permanently; nothing is there but the church and the cave where holy Moses was. Here the whole passage having been read from the book of Moses, and the oblation made in due order, we communicated; and as I was passing out of the church the priests gave us gifts of blessing from the place …”(p. 14).

Procopius mentions in the sixth century that pilgrims gain blessings by mounting first to a spot below the Cave of Elijah where stands a small church “dedicated to the Virgin” which “the Emperor Justinian built.” Then the pilgrims move on to the summit and find a church of such “venerable dignity” “that none dare to enter it, or even to ascend the mountain unless they have first rendered themselves acceptable by fasting and prayers” (Procopius, p. 147). Niccolò of Poggibonsi tells how pilgrims gain a “big indulgence” at the Virgin's Church, a “plenary indulgence” on the summit of Sinai, and another “plenary indulgence” on the summit of neighboring Horeb, often identified as Jebel Catherine (A Voyage, pp. 110-3). Thus were the temporal punishments of Purgatory remitted.

Clearly the “processional method” of spiritual education so peculiar to the Commedia and later to be formalized in Stations-of-the-Cross worship was in use at Sinai from early times; one or more persons are led by a guide from one instructive place to another and encouraged to stop, look, and listen. The separate series of places stops on Sinai (Jebel Moussa), a part of the same pilgrimage pattern that included the Stations-of-the-Cross circle of the place stops at the end of the route, were fully established by the sixth century and are in use even today.

At the first stop near the foot of the mountain, pilgrims joyfully gazed on Mt. Sinai, sang songs, and embraced the monks in a way reminiscent of the souls meeting Dante and Virgil at the base of Mt. Purgatory (II, 37-87). In the fourth century St. Silvia, when she first saw Mt. Sinai from a distance, was told by guides that “‘It is the custom that a prayer be offered by those who come hither, when first from this place the Mount of God is seen.’ So then we did” (Silvia, p. 11). About one thousand years later Niccolò writes of a group of pilgrims at this same place: “from afar we beheld the precious Mt. Sinai, and out of great joy we fell to the ground on our knees, with many tears, chanting: Salve Regina” (A Voyage, p. 103). The same hymn, sung by souls in Purgatorio (VII, 82-3), is later chanted by Niccolò's group along with a prayer on the summit of Mt. St. Catherine (A Voyage, p. 113).

Outside the monastery at Mt. Sinai following a dangerous eight-day passage of the Sinai deserts, Antonius Martyr records (cir. 560 a.d.) an emotional meeting with monks and hermits: “singing psalms, they came to meet us, and falling upon the ground, they did reverence to us. We also did likewise, shedding tears.”23 And just as Dante moved to greet Casella with an embrace (II, 80-2), so too did Niccolò and his group greet the “Greek monks, many of whom came out to see us; and when we were in their midst, we all embraced with great love …” (A Voyage, p. 104).

Near the monastery several days later Niccolò met other pilgrims, “full forty Latin Franks,” who clustered about him like those souls seeking news from Dante and Virgil at Mt. Purgatory's base (II, 70-3). “For long we talked together,” writes Niccolò, “they asking us about our journey, and we about theirs, and if it were safe; and so we asked the news of the west, and especially of Italy, if there had been anything new: and we enquired about many other things” (A Voyage, p. 116).

The second stop at the valley and Church of St. Mary of the Apparition just below the gates of Sinai corresponds to that valley below the gate of Mt. Purgatory where Dante and Virgil make their first prolonged stop for the night and where two angels from Mary appear. Niccolò describes the climb to the valley over the typical Purgatorical terrain of Mt. Sinai: “The mount is rough with a steep grade, and very stony; and ever you climb vertically as if mounting a ladder: and it is a climb of a good two miles. Arriving at the middle of the mount, you find on the way a beautiful church, which stands in a small valley; and this church is called St. Mary of the Apparition, because here was wrought a beautiful miracle, as you shall hear” (p. 109).

In a similar valley on Mt. Purgatory, Dante is aware that it is the hour that pierces “no novo peregrin d’amore” (VIII, 4). And the poet hears sung the evening hymns Salve Regina followed by Te lucis ante, the last a prayer to the Creator for protection against dreams and phantoms. The prayer is answered when two angels in green garments come “del grembo di Maria” to beat back but not kill a serpent (VIII, 37).

On Mt. Sinai pilgrims such as Niccolò were told that the Virgin appeared with St. Catherine in the valley before the assembled monks and gave evidence of her love for their monastery by miraculously ridding it of “rats and other nasty little beasts” and arranging for its provision (A Voyage, pp. 109-10). Pilgrims then worshiped in and around the Church of St. Mary of the Apparition, perhaps again singing Salve Regina.

The third stop on Mt. Sinai, the two gates before the plain of Elijah, is similar to the gate at the entrance to Mt. Purgatory. “Proceeding on the said mount,” writes Niccolò, “you meet to the west two gates, a bowshot apart: and these gates are strong and narrow, vaulted and well fixed into the mountain. Arriving at the gates you find a monastery called St. Elias, the prophet” (p. 110). Niccolò mentions no warders sitting by the gates on the day of his climb, though at various times the monk St. Stephen and other monks were said to have lived on the plateau of Elijah to be near their posts at the gates (Eckenstein, p. 112).

Dante also observes a gate fixed close to a mountain: “Noi ci appressammo, ed eravamo in parte,/ Che là dove pareami prima rotto/ Pur come un fesso che muro disparte,/ Vidi una porta …” (IX, 73-6). And as a monk might question a palmer at a gate on Sinai, the poet is questioned by a porter who sits at the gate carrying the sword of God's Word in one hand and the keys of pardon and understanding in the other: “Dite costinci, che volete voi?’/ Cominciò elli a dire: ‘Ov’è la scorta?/ Guardate che’l venir su non vi noi!’” (IX, 85-7).

Though on the barren, rocky summit of Mt. Sinai pilgrims certainly found no earthly paradise, they did see “speaking pictures” which, allegorically interpreted like Psalm 114, reminded “true Hebrews” of the soul's passage to Heaven. Niccolò viewed in the summit chapel of Moses an exemplum in the form of a “painted board” depicting many of the events with which the palmer now felt intimately familiar: “how Moses divided the Red Sea with rod in hand, and how the people of Israel passed over, and how Pharaoh's army was drowned in the Red Sea; and at the very place on the Red Sea I have been, which is five days from Babylon; in this church is represented in order all the history of Moses” (A Voyage, p. 111).

Fatigued and thirsty, pilgrims regularly rested near the end of the circle beside a church in a garden of repentance, the single patch of green in the brown valley between Sinai and Mt. St. Catherine. It is here that Frescobaldi and his companions “were honoured: and so they [the monks] do to each one who ascends the … mount” (Visit, p. 64). Of the twelve tribes of Israel, writes Frescobaldi, “that part which repented withdrew to this place, leaving their relatives, who were about three miles from this place; and for the forgiveness God made them, it [the church] is called St. Mary of Mercy.” Outside the church Frescobaldi found “a very beautiful garden well planted with the thickest olive trees I have ever seen; and there are date-trees and figs of Pharaoh, cedars, oranges, and very fine grapes. And in this garden there are three very fine fountains with a great supply of water …” (p. 62). Niccolò too mentions the “beautiful garden, with many varieties of apple trees; a stream of running water, in season, crosses the garden.” Niccolò notes that there the monks allowed them “to eat and drink and sleep …” (A Voyage, pp. 112-13).

Admittedly, the garden is very different from the idealized Eden in which Dante sees “un rio” and a “selva antica,” and parallels need not be pressed. But to the “honored,” though exhausted, pilgrims the garden was a beautiful haven associated with repentance and mercy and no doubt would have been long remembered.

It is worth noting that the pilgrims regularly received communion early the next morning, before departing, in the main monastery Church of the Transfiguration where Christ reigned with two figures at his side sometimes identified as ladies. “In the apse is a picture of the Saviour,” writes Niccolò referring to the dominating seventh-century mosaic on the rear ceiling and wall, “on the right is St. Mary, on the left St. Catherine” (A Voyage, p. 106). In the center of the mosaic, which still exists, the Saviour soars toward Heaven; Moses, Elijah, St. John, St. James, and St. Peter are depicted in various postures below and around Christ; the frame is composed of round portraits of prophets, apostles, and saints. In the arch of the apse are two adjoining medallion figures which Niccolò mentions as being on the right and left of Christ.24

At the conclusion of a spiritual pilgrimage paralleling that of the palmers, Dante, meeting Beatrice who serves under Mary, receives spiritual nourishment in Eden as he prepares to gaze into Beatrice's eyes to see reflected in them the two natures of Christ symbolized by a Gryphon. “L’anima mia,” he writes, “gustava di quel cibo …” (XXXI, 128). The poet can take this food because with God's help he has assured his own spiritual transfiguration. After witnessing a series of visions, Dante sleeps but soon awakes in a manner likened to the spiritual awakening of St. Peter, St. John, St. James, Moses, and Elijah at Christ's Transfiguration (XXXII, 70-80). Dante in Paradise later sees a vision of Christ Transfigured and lifted into Heaven accompanied by the souls of prophets and apostles (Par. XXIII, 16-138). During the questioning of Dante by three persons at the event—St. Peter, St. James, and St. John—Beatrice asserts that the poet shared the same hope given to the three by the Transfiguration and so was permitted to make the journey from Egypt to Jerusalem (Par. XXV, 55). And Dante soon after insists that God makes His Love plain by revealing it through prophets such as Moses (Par. XXV, 40).

After noting similarities between the poet's fictitious and the palmers' actual pilgrimages, one can say with some assurance that those palmers who exultantly returned from their journey “once to Sinai” would have been far less convinced of Dante's originality in inventing Mt. Purgatory than many modern Dante scholars and critics. Spiritually transfigured after a passage over one of Christianity's most important Holy Circles, emotionally moved to song and tears through participation in a centuries-old, collective, religious experience, the palmers would have appreciated well the tone and content of Purgatorio remembering their own meeting with Christians at the base of a great purgatorial mountain, their confession of sins at the mountain's gates, and their final reception of Christ in the form of communion in the Church of the Transfiguration. Like Dante, they would have been led spiritually up the mountain to Christ through the influence of Mary, who was venerated in both the holiest chapel in the monastery and in the two churches flanking Sinai's summit.25 In 808 a.d. the monastery was named after Mary (Visit, 112 n.). Later in the tenth century St. Catherine assumed an intermediary position between the Virgin Mary and the pilgrims, just as Beatrice assumed such a role for Dante. Niccolò records how during a visionary appearance the Virgin confirmed St. Catherine's spiritual position telling the monks to act “for love of me, who am the spiritual mother-in-law of this lady whom you serve. And turning to St. Catherine, she said: this is my daughter-in-law; and take it for certain that you shall not part so soon” (A Voyage, p. 110). With such a holy Lady as St. Catherine to serve, Niccolò might well write that when he and his group first saw her “glorious monastery,” “we felt as if we had arisen from the dead …” “Straightway we went to the precious tomb,” he continues, “wherein was that glorious and blessed body of St. Catherine. From great joy and devotion we all commenced to weep, as those who had found what they desired, and for long we had desired to come to this blessed body” (p. 104).

While for both physical and spiritual reasons Siani resembles Mt. Purgatory, the Mountain of Moses obviously lacks such features as a sheet of flame near the top of the stairs, a garden located on the summit, and streams in the garden flowing from a fountain. Yet these features can be found in charming, second-hand pilgrim tales of an earthly paradise on Mount Eden or Adam's Peak, tales of a kind Miguel Asín has cited as circulating in the thirteenth century and earlier in an oral and written tradition of Moslem legends.26 Descriptions of the supposed earthly paradise survive, Asín has shown, in such works as the Rasail by Ilkhwan as-safa and Futuhat by Ibn Arabi. But Asín fails to record that there were pilgrims who, claiming to have heard stories of the paradise from persons living in the East, merged these tales with writings about the Stations-of-the-Exodus route and carried them back to Europe. Fetellus, for example, writes that, because “Mount Eden” is in a distant place somewhere beyond Mount Or, the thirty-fourth station, it is necessary to depend for information upon what “those who live more near to it assert” (Fetellus, p. 19). Fetellus relates only that the Mount “is situated in a sandy district. It is an inaccessible mountain, and of marvellous height, naturally erected like a tower, as if it had been cut away artificially. Its circuit is more than a day's march. On the sides of the mountain trees are rarely seen” (p. 19). Mount Eden and mountains near it are said to be “cut into from the summit downwards by arches, by caves, by crypts, by cells of diverse dwellings, in which they say that holy hermits and monks dwelt in ancient times” (p. 20). According to Fetellus, the higher parts of Mount Eden, where “eternal spring” is said to reign (p. 20), are characterized by “the serenity of the air, the redolence of the flowers, the odour of the spices, the variety of precious stones in the rivulets of the fountains, and the shining of the fountains, the affluence of the fruit-bearing trees and the beauty of the fruit, the chatterings and songs of the birds, the shady spaces and their greenness …” (p. 19).

Although this account of Mount Eden is quite vague, the author calling himself Sir John Maundeville, who less than a year after Dante's death claimed to have begun a Holy Land journey,27 writes in some detail about the location and appearance of the earthly paradise. “I was not there,” Maundeville modestly admits. “It is far beyond; and I repent not going there, but I was not worthy. But as I have heard say of wise men beyond, I shall tell you with good will” (Early Travels, p. 276). Maundeville declares that “beyond the land,” beyond “more than five thousand isles,” beyond a dark region where “men find nothing but mountains and great rocks” lies the Terrestial Paradise “towards the east, at the beginning of the earth. But this is not the east that we call our east, on this half where the sun rises to us; for when the sun is east in those parts towards Terrestial Paradise, it is then midnight in our parts of this half, on account of the roundness of the earth …” (pp. 220, 276). Men always go around and down, Maundeville asserts, to reach Paradise; “in going from Scotland or from England, towards Jerusalem, men go always upwards …” “Jerusalem is in the middle of the world; and that may be proved and shown there by a spear which is fixed in the earth at the hour of midday, when it is equinoxial, which gives no shadow on any side” (pp. 220-1).

Maundeville's instructive account of Paradise is worth quoting entire:

Terrestial Paradise, as wise men say, is the highest place of the earth; and it is so high that it nearly touches the circle of the moon there, as the moon makes her turn. For it is so high that the flood of Noah might not come to it, that would have covered all the earth of the world all about, and above and beneath except Paradise. And this Paradise is enclosed all about with a wall, and men know not whereof it is; for the wall is covered all over with moss, as it seems; and it seems not that the wall is natural stone. And that wall stretches from the south to the north; and it has but one entry, which is closed with burning fire, so that no man that is mortal dare enter. And in the highest place of Paradise, exactly in the middle, is a well that casts out the four streams which run by divers lands.

(p. 276)

From this fountain the four streams, which later turn into the Nile, Ganges, Tigris, and Euphrates Rivers, “come down so outrageously from the high places” that they create in the waters below “tempests” and “great waves that no ship may row or sail against …” Maundeville adds that of the “many great lords” with “full great companies” who tried to sail to the Terrestial Paradise, some died from rowing, some became blind or deaf, and “some perished and were lost in the waves; so that no mortal man may approach to that place without special grace of God …” (p. 277). Maundeville's remarks about the drowning of great lords and their companies in waters near Mt. Purgatory thus parallels the account in the Inferno of Ulysses' death (XXVII, 91-142).

Although extensive studies of theological, philosophic, literary, and pseudo-scientific treatises have disclosed no entirely adequate visual model for Mount Purgatory, one finds that from combined elements relating to the Terrestial Paradise, Mt. Sinai, and the Egypt-to-Jerusalem journey—all in the basically oral pilgrimage tradition—there emerges the unmistakable outline of Dante's purgatorial mountain. The details are not always in complete harmony—Maundeville, for example, gives us four streams in Eden; Dante, two; the pilgrims mention two gates on a mount of purgation; Dante, one—yet the individualizing features of Mt. Purgatory are sharply defined in the tradition. From the pilgrim writings one gains a consciousness of pagan and Christian guides; a Terrestial Paradise on a mountain in the east opposite Jerusalem; a thundering Mount of Moses allegorically located between earth and Heaven; a summit renowned for divine manifestations and visitations; tempestuous waters in which great lords perish at the base of the mountain; barren slopes fringed by cliffs and characterized by large rocks, steep paths, and narrow clefts; a seemingly endless flight of stairs; gateways guarded by figures hovering over kneeling penitents; a sheet of flame before the entrance to Eden; a paradisal garden raised almost to the sphere of the moon; and a central fountain from which flow various rivers.

Most significant is the fact that these elements are already fused in the tradition by the underlying assumption that a Christian's longing to travel from Egypt to Jerusalem, to ascend the Mount of Moses, and to visit the Terrestial Paradise is analogous to the soul's longing to pass from earth to Heaven. This allegorical view is fortified idealogically by a series of stations along the pilgrimage route and spiritaully by a system of Holy Land indulgences granting remission of temporal punishment after death. The merged elements of the pilgrimage tradition, united by the central allegory, produce in rough outline a visual and allegorical model for Mt. Purgatory.

Dante, whatever the degree of his conscious borrowings, was an heir of this tradition; he gave its elements sophisticated form by dividing the mountain into terraces for each of the seven deadly sins, making the pilgrims known persons who serve in themselves as exemplum, and moulding the whole in accordance with selected philosophical and theological views.28 The poet then adopted the “processional educational method” as a narrative technique, making himself the central figure and moving to and writing about terrace after terrace as a pilgrim might move to and write about holy station after holy station. In creating the general emotional tone of the successive episodes, Dante simply reflected the actual emotional mood of palmers progressing through the successive stages of a Holy Land pilgrimage. By abandoning his role as one among many emotional, penitential pilgrims on a purgatorial mountain, and by becoming a unique, spiritual traveler whose reactions varied according to his growing knowledge and his acceptance of God's Grace, Dante was able to add to his processional education in both Hell and Heaven.

The pilgrim texts, then, do far more than provide us with a model for the outward appearance of Mt. Purgatory; they are a further addition to materials which can be used to study Dante's development of the structure, content, tone, and narrative technique of Purgatorio and, indirectly, of the Commedia as a whole. And the texts can be referred to with confidence as the products of a Christian tradition unforgettably experienced by myriads of pilgrims whose footsteps through the centuries have worn hollows into Sinai's ancient, stone stairs. The pilgrims in their writings reveal that they knew well the world of Purgatorio. On a lofty mountain in a distant “land beyond the sea,” many may even have spoken to their guides in the manner of Arnaut Daniel to Dante:

Ieu sui Arnaut, que plor, e vau cantan.
Consiros vei la passada folor,
E vei jausen lo jorn qu’esper, denan.
Ara vos prec, per aquella valor
Que vos guida al som de l’escalina,
Sovegnha vos a temps de ma dolor!

(Purg. XXVI, 142-7)


  1. La Divina Commedia di Dante Alighieri, ed. C. H. Grandgent, rev. ed. (Boston, 1933), p. 889. All other line references are to this edition of the Commedia.

  2. See Grandgent's comments on the numbering of the psalm in Commedia, Purg. II, p. 335.

  3. Edward Moore has shown in Studies in Dante: Third Series: Miscellaneous Essays (Oxford, 1903), pp. 284-374, that Dante's Epistle X to Can Grande seems a genuine document written by the poet, though in the past the authorship of the epistle has been disputed. H. Flanders Dunbar rightly points out in Symbolism in Medieval Thought (New York, 1961), pp. xi-xiii, that, whoever the author may have been, the allegorical interpretation of the Exodus in the epistle is traditional and would have been in accord with the thought of Dante and his educated readers. As the present article demonstrates, the contents of the epistle reflects interpretations found in the twelfth-century writings of Fetellus and Anonymous Pilgrim VI (Pseudo-Beda).

    Grateful acknowledgement is here made of a Fulbright-Hays Grant for 1965-66 which allowed me to pursue this and other Renaissance studies in Jerusalem and the Middle East.

  4. Charles S. Singleton in Dante Studies I: Commedia: Elements of Structure (Cambridge, Mass., 1957), pp. 22-3, observes that the pilgrimage theme, which he does not relate to the Holy Land pilgrimage tradition, has obvious structural implications. In commenting on the arrival of the souls by boat at the foot of Mount Purgatory (Purg. II, 106-33), Singleton writes that “to the reader who has grasped the whole conceptual structure of the Purgatorio, the relevance of the passage is most evident. At the ultimate summit of the journey now begun by souls who have just landed here lies a city prepared for them, an heavenly one, which they all desire.” And he adds, “These souls have now left Egypt (which is the world, says Augustine) behind them. And the words which Virgil speaks to them place him and Dante within the figure: ‘We are pilgrims even as you are.’ It may be observed, moreover, that nowhere in the journey through Hell had the poem suggested that Dante and Virgil were pilgrims. … This is a Christian place, as Hell is not.” Souls must pass, therefore, up a structurally ordered Christian mountain to salvation. And Singleton suggests that “it is in the figure of those pilgrims that we are asked to find ourselves and our true condition as Christians. We, even as they, are involved in a journey.”

  5. Karl Vossler in Mediaeval Culture: An Introduction to Dante and His Times, trans. William Cranston Lawton (London, 1929), II, 167, is correct to warn Dante scholars and critics against “silly positivist criticism” and “picture-postcard scholarship” that “strives to identify this or that Roman amphitheatre, this or that volcanic crater, as the model of the Dantesque Hell, and this or that cone-shaped mountain as the model for Purgatory.” In a work centered upon allegorical meaning, superficial scenic resemblances do seem insufficient to account for the outward form of Mt. Purgatory. However, Miguel Asín in Islam and the Divine Comedy, trans. Harold Sunderland (London, 1926), pp. 113-25, notes that Dante was generally influenced in his creation of Mt. Purgatory by Moslem legends about Adam's Peak and paradisal gardens. A more general study of the Oriental influence on the Commedia is E. Blochet's Les Sources Orientales de la Divine Comedie (Paris, 1901). Auturo Graf in Miti, leggende e supersitzioni del medio evo., (Turin, 1892), l, 5-61, examines legends about the earthly paradise and asserts that there were no precedents prior to Dante's time for placing the earthly paradise on top of a mountain. See also G. Busnelli's La concezione del Purgatorio dantesco and L’ordinamento morale del Purgatorio dantesco (Roma, 1906, 1908); R. Palgen's Das mittelalterliche Gesicht der Göttlichen Kommödie (Heidelberg, 1935).

    Because the similarities between Dante's Mt. Purgatory and the legends are of a general kind, it has usually been held that the over-all form and physical details of Dante's mountain, including the gateway, steps, terraces, and wall of fire, are the allegorical products of the poet's imagination, though Dante is said to have invented Mt. Purgatory introducing fleeting depictions of Italian landscape and placing the Mount within the framework of the Ptolemaic universe. See Bernard Stamber's Dante's Other World: The “Purgatorio” as a guide to the Divine Comedy (New York, 1957), pp. 8 ff.; Marjorie Hope Nicolson's Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory: The Development of the Aesthetics of the Infinite (Ithaca, 1959), pp. 44-8; Singleton, Dante Studies I, pp. 22 ff.; and Vossler, II, 160 ff.

    It can be argued, nevertheless, that models for Dante's Mt. Purgatory can be found in a pilgrim text tradition that revealed the Holy Land, not in the clear light of realistic scenic description, but through a misty cloud of exemplum stories, allegorical stations, accounts of icons and mosaics, and curiously factual descriptions of individual places and objects.

  6. Description of Jerusalem and the Holy Land, trans. James Rose Macpherson (London, 1892), p. 14. The translation is based mainly upon the Latin ms. (cir. 1130) now in the National Library of Paris (Imperial Library, Fonds Latin; No. 5, 129). This Latin version was copied many times and was even published as late as 1653 by Leon Allatius under the name of Eugesippus.

    Possibly the writings of Fetellus and other early Palestine pilgrims have been neglected by Dante scholars because many were published individually in the 1890's under the auspices of the British-controlled Palestine Exploration Fund; later the same fund financed the publication of fourteen volumes of the works as The Palestine Pilgrim Texts (London, 1890-1897). One would expect these texts to contain much geographic and scientific information; instead, such positivistic comment as one can find is highly colored by the pilgrims' excited accounts of a series of religious stops or stations. The texts really belong to the literature of “spiritual travel.”

  7. A Holy Land Account, trans. Aubrey Stewart (London, 1894), p. 40. Stewart's translation is based upon the text published in Oesterreichischer Vierteljahresschrift für Katholische Theologie, notes V. Newmann (Vienna, 1868, 1870).

  8. The types of books carried by the palmers are mentioned in the introductions to Niccolò of Poggibonsi's A Voyage Beyond the Seas, trans. Fr. T. Bellorini and Fr. E. Hoade, intro. Fr. Bellarmino Bagati (Jerusalem, 1945), pp. xi-xlviii, and Fetellus, A Short Description, pp. 1 ff. In addition to regular Breviaries in use, a special Breviary or Short Description of Jerusalem, anonymously written, was produced in the sixth century (cir. 530) for Holy Land pilgrims. See Breviary, trans. Aubrey Stewart (London, 1890), pp. 13-6; Fr. Eugene Hoade, Western Pilgrims (Jerusalem, 1952), p. 89.

  9. For a discussion of the usual itineraries and activities of Holy Land pilgrims see Thomas Wright, Early Travels in Palestine (London, 1848), pp. i ff., 137-42; Lina Eckenstein, A History of Sinai (London, New York, 1921), pp. 154-64; Hoade, pp. i-viii; Niccolò's A Voyage, pp. vii-xlvii; and Leonardo Frescobaldi, Giorgio Gucci, and Simone Sigoli, Visit to the Holy Places, trans. Fr. Theophilus Bellorini and Fr. Eugene Hoade, preface and notes Fr. Bellarmino Bagatti (Jerusalem, 1948), pp. 1-28; Mahfouz Labib, Pèlerins et Voyageurs au Mont Sinai (Cairo, 1961), pp. 1-42; and Elinor A. Moore, The Ancient Churches of Old Jerusalem: The Evidence of the Pilgrims (Beirut, 1961), pp. 20-74.

  10. Eckenstein, pp. 121-33; William Farid Bassili, Sinai and the Monastery of St. Catherine (Cairo, 1962), pp. 128-34. H. Rabino in Le monastère de Sainte Catherine du Mont Sinai (Cairo, 1938), pp. 33-84, notes that the Greek Orthodox monks in the monastery at Mt. Sinai did not think of themselves as separated from the Roman Church until after the Council of Ferrar (1438-1445) when they were considered as excommunicated. Bishop of Sinai Mark V went to Rome in 1378 to seek funds for the monastery, and in 1425 the Franciscan Fra Antonio da Fana celebrated mass before Greek Orthodox monks in the monastery Church of the Transfiguration. Roman Catholic pilgrims received communion from the Greek monks from the fourth through the fifteenth centuries.

  11. See Fr. Bellarmino Bagati's exhaustive table of unofficial Holy Land indulgences as compiled from pilgrim texts and included in his introduction to A Voyage, pp. xl-xlviii. Fr. Bagati compares the unofficial indulgences with those which the Roman Church, as far as can be ascertained, officially recognized (pp. xxii-xxvii). A list of more or less official indulgences can be found in the Table of Indulgences of Acre reproduced in Itinéaries à Jérusalem, ed. Micheland and Raynaud (Geneve, 1882), pp. 235-6.

  12. Michele Barbi, Life of Dante, trans. and ed. Paul G. Ruggiers (Berkeley, 1960), pp. 4-7.

  13. Girolamo Golubovich, Serie cronologica dei Superiori di Terra Santa (Jerusalem, 1899), pp. 204-5. Golubovich notes that the Friars Minors had founded a convent at Rama (er-Ramieh) near modern Beirut in 1296. A Franciscan convent at Jaffa, in existence in 1257, was destroyed in 1267 and refounded in 1654. In the thirteenth century the Franciscans also founded convents at Nicosia and Famagusta as noted in Girolamo Golubovich's Biblioteca bio-bibliografica della Terra Santa e dell’Oriente francescano (Quaracchi, 1927), II, 372-87, 525-34. The order seems not to have been firmly established in Jerusalem until 1335 (A Voyage, xvii). The coming of the Franciscans and early pilgrims to the Holy Land is discussed generally in Eckenstein, pp. 155 ff. Dante writes of the Franciscans in Par. XI, 37-139.

  14. St. Jerome, trans. Aubrey Stewart (London, 1887), pp. 1-16; Theodosius, trans. J. H. Bernard (London, 1893), pp. 3-19; Bede, trans. James Rose Macpherson (London, 1895), pp. 67-87.

  15. See Eckenstein, pp. 14-6; Labib, pp. 18-22; Bassili, pp. 59-61; and The Pilgrimage of St. Silvia of Aquitania to the Holy Places, Intro., notes, trans. John H. Bernard (London, 1891), pp. 1-148. The translation is based upon the Latin ms. discovered by G. F. Gamurrini in 1883 at Arezzo in Tuscany and published as S. Silviae Aquitanae Peregrinatio ad Loca Sancta, 2nd ed., ed. G. F. Gamurrini (Rome, 1888). At various times during 1962-63 and 1965-66, I have traveled along the ancient pilgrimage route visiting traditional stops at Alexandria, Cairo, Mt. Sinai, Hebron, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Damascus, Sednaya, and Beirut; and I can attest that modern visitors are still directed to many of the sites discovered by St. Helena and St. Silvia. On the Sinai peninsula, where there have been relatively few noticeable changes since Dante's time, travelers are driven between Suez and Mt. Sinai over sand tracks running along the ancient stations of the Exodus route. Among the religious sites pointed out along the way are many included in the Stations of the Exodus.

  16. Fr. Bagatti in discussing the Holy Circle route includes a Table of the Major Stops compiled from the writings of pilgrims of the fourteenth century (A Voyage, pp. xvii-xix). See also Fr. H. Thurston, The Stations of the Cross (London, 1906), pp. 165 ff.; Michel Join-Lambert, Jerusalem, trans. Charlotte Haldane (London New York, 1958), pp. 219-21.

  17. Description of Jerusalem and the Holy Land, pp. 14-21. The following is a list of the stations and a condensed summary of their primary interpretations as found in Fetellus: 1. “Ramesses”: “commotion or thundering”; 2. “Socoth”: “Tabernacles or tents”; 3. “Ethan in the desert”: “fortitude or perfection”; 4. “Fyairoth”: “mouth of the nobles”; 5. “Mara”: “bitterness”; 6. “Helim”: no interpretation; 7. “The seventh station again at the Red Sea, some winding of it being met with”: no interpretation; 8. “The eighth station in the Wilderness of Sin, which extends as far as Mount Synai”: “bramble or hatred”; 9. “Depheca”: “pulsation”; 10. “Alus”: “discontent”; 11. “Raphidin”: “desolation of the brave or bringing back of hands”; 12. “Synai”: “bramble”; 13. “The Graves of Lust”: no interpretation; 14. “Asseroth”: “offense”; 15. “Rethma”: “sound or juniper”; 16. “Camoth”: “division of a pomegranate”; 17. “Lebna”: “in the side”; 18. “Retsa”: “bridle”; 19. “Celeta”: “church”; 20. “Mount Sepher”: “beauty, i. e., Christ”; 21. “Araba”: “miracle”; 22. “Maceloth”: “in the assembly, i. e., in the church”; 23. “Taath”: “fear”; 24. “Thare”: “for service or for pasture”; 25. “Methca”: “delight”; 26. “Asmona”: “haste”; 27. “Afferoth”: “bonds or discipline”; 28. “Baneiachan”: “sons of necessity or of crashing”; 29. “Gadgad”: “messenger, or sharpness, or circumcision”; 30. “Gabatath”: “goodness, i. e., Christ”; 31. “Erbrona”: “crossing”; 32. “Asiongaber”: “to the wood of man”; 33. “The Desert of Sin, which is Cades, or Cades Barne”: “holy”; 34. “Mount Or”; no interpretation; 35. “Selmona”: no interpretation; 36. “Fynon”: no interpretation; 37. “Hebar, on the confines of Moab”: “heaps of passers-by”; 38. “Oboth”: “Magi or Phitons”; 39. “Dibungat, in which Israel fought against Seon, King of the Amorites, and Og, King of Basan. Seon is interpreted temptation of the eyes; Og, conclusion; Basan, confusion”; 40. “Selmon Deblataim”: no interpretation; 41. “Mount Abarim”: no interpretation; 42. “The Plains of Moab” on which are located “Galgala”: “rolling” or “revelation.”

  18. Description of the Holy Land by John of Wurzburg, trans. Aubrey Stewart (London, 1896), p. 61; A Holy Land Account, pp. 40 ff.

  19. Of the Buildings of Justinian, trans. Aubrey Stewart (London, 1896), p. 147.

  20. Sinai and Palestine in Connection with Their History (London, 1910), pp. 24-43. The monks of St. Catherine's monastery have fostered the legends to forestall attack by the large numbers of pagan and Moslim Beduin who inhabit the Sinai peninsula. Some of the Beduin believe, as Stanley notes, that the monks have the power to control the rainfall. Further to insure the safety of their monastery, the monks retain in their library a spurious firman of protection supposedly marked with the handprint of Mohammed and a genuine guarantee of protection signed by Napoleon Bonaparte. Both documents were shown to me in 1963 at the monastery.

    The legends about the monks' special and even supernatural relationship to God would have made them excellent mythic types which could have been transformed by poetic imagination into the guardians of the gate and terraces of Mt. Purgatory.

  21. Eckenstein, p. 112; Bassili, pp. 164-7.

  22. Silvia, p. 13. St. Silvia's statement about the appearance of Mt. Sinai is not entirely clear, although she seems to be suggesting that Sinai is in the middle of a ring of mountains: “when you enter the ring [of mountains?], there are several, the whole range being called the Mount of God” (p. 13). However, in 1695 a line drawing of Mt. Sinai and Mt. Catherine appearing in a French pilgrim book shows the two mountains as ringed with terraces which slope from the summits to the ground. See Monconys' Journal des Voyages de Monsieur de Monconys' Conseiller du Roy en ses Conseils d’Estat et Privé et Lieutenant Criminel au Siège Présidial de Lyon (Paris, 1695), I, p. 403: a reproduction of the drawing appears in Labib, pp. 94-5. The drawing is mentioned because it confirms my personal impression that Mt. Sinai, when viewed from the middle slopes of Mt. St. Catherine in the late afternoon sunlight, does appear as a lofty, triangular mountain ringed with sloping terraces, an existing visual model for Mt. Purgatory. After the ninth century when pilgrims in large numbers began to climb Mt. St. Catherine, they would have passed from three to four hours in the late afternoon facing Mt. Sinai during their descent.

  23. Of the Holy Places Visited, trans. Aubrey Stewart (London, 1887), p. 29.

  24. A photograph of the mosaic can be found in Bassili, p. 143. There is some confusion about the identity of the figures in the arch of the apse. Bassili names them as Moses and St. Catherine and asserts that the monks point them out as Justinian and Theodora (p. 142); Eckenstein states that they are said to be either Constantine and Helena or Justinian and Theodora (Eckenstein, p. 129); Niccolò gives the identification already quoted.

  25. The churches on the sides of the mountain are, of course, St. Mary of the Apparition and St. Mary of Mercy. The holiest chapel in the monastery Church of the Transfiguration, the Chapel of the Burning Bush, is said by Sigoli to enclose the “exact place where Moses, being on the mount, saw a pillar of fire. … They say that the pillar of fire signifies the Holy Ghost descending from heaven to earth to take flesh of the Virgin Mary …” (Visit, p. 195). And Gucci comments upon the chapel “where God appeared to Moses in the bush, that is, in the fire; and in that it was preserved without ever being changed, signifies to us how the Virgin without stain should bring forth” (Visit, p. 112).

  26. Islam and the Divine Comedy, pp. 113-25.

  27. Dante died on 14 Sept. 1321. The writer calling himself Maundeville, according to his own account, set out from England in 1322, traveled through the Holy Land to the regions ruled by “Prester John,” and returned to the west in 1356. Shortly thereafter, The Book of Sir John Maundeville appeared in French, Latin, and English versions (Early Travels, pp. viii, 129).

    The book has long been recognized as a curious compendium of fact and fiction perhaps actually written by Jean de Bourgogne and Jean d’Outremeuse. A detailed analysis of the case for various authors, together with arguments suggesting that at least one of the authors really visited Palestine, can be found in The Buke of John Maundevill, ed. with French text, notes, and intro. by George F. Warner (London, 1889), pp. xv-xxii. For other discussions of the book and its authorship see C. Raymond Beazley, The Dawn of Modern Geography (Oxford, 1906), III, 319-24; Arthur Perceival Newton, Travel and Travellers of the Middle Ages (New York, 1926), pp. 160-3; and George H. T. Kimble, Geography in the Middle Ages (London, 1938), pp. 95-8.

  28. See Etienne Gilson, Dante and Philosophy, trans. David Moore (New York, 1949).

E. D. Blodgett (essay date 1970)

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Last Updated on January 18, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6097

SOURCE: “Dante's Purgatorio as Elegy” in The Rarer Action: Essays in Honor of Francis Fergusson, edited by Alan Cheuse and Richard Koffler, Rutgers University Press, 1970, pp. 161-78.

[In the following essay, Blodgett contends that two types of elegy are present in the Purgatorio, a work that mourns the loss of Vergil and the inadequacies he represents.]

Forse in Parnaso … 

Purgatory is where no one stays forever. Its fire, unlike the fire of Hell, is temporary. It is a fire that makes its joyful victims acutely aware of transience and suspension between different temporal conditions. This is one of the reasons why the figure of a mountain rising both from Hell and from an indeterminate sea and reaching toward the transparencies of Heaven is so eminently suitable to the various movements of Purgatory. The mountain itself is a figure for time and, once the climb is undertaken, it seems to lead almost unerringly to two great temporal climaxes. The first in the farewell to Vergil and the second is the final act of spiritual renewal, anticipated by Statius, in which the poet is changed

                    come piante novelle
rinovellate di novella fronda.

(33. 143-144)

Vergil returns to the ancient shades and Dante rises to the shores of light. This is the frame within which we sense that Purgatory is a kind of vast drawing apart of things and, like many situations in which we are confronted with a widening gyre, making choices and distinctions becomes an act of overwhelming poignancy. Dante, of course, is unquestionably skillful at playing with such an emotional fact. Within an almost excessively doctrinal structure, the desire, we might say, to become transient gives the poetry its peculiar elegiac cast.

Dante's play, however, is also a form of discipline. The reader is lured by transience the same as Dante the pilgrim. The fact of the reader's weakness is what gives such a universal character to Beatrice's reproval of Dante when he first meets her again in the Paradiso Terrestre. Beatrice berates Dante because he yielded to time:

          Alcun tempo il sostenni col mio volto:
mostrando gli occhi giovanetti a lui,
meco il menava in dritta parte vòlto.
          Sì tosto come in su la soglia fui
di mia seconda etade e mutai vita,
questi si tolse a me, e diessi altrui.
          Quando di carne a spirto era salita,
e bellezza e virtù cresciuta m’era,
fu’ io a lui men cara e men gradita;
          e volse i passi suoi per via non vera,
imagini di ben seguendo false,
che nulla promession rendono intera.

(30. 121-132)

Because of Dante's failure to see beyond the mortal and transitory, he moved away from true bellezza e virtù, preferring the world of flesh to the world of the spirit. Thus Vergil is sent to draw him from a transient joy to show him how to see the spirit. The magnificence of Dante's notion of such a purgatorial process is that he knows that the search for liberty depends upon giving things up. It is a search which runs head-long into the solitude and second thoughts one might have reaching an unknown shore upon an uncharted sea. It may be intellectually true that freedom is salvation, but it does not always seem so to the pilgrim trying to get his first bearings:

          Io mi volsi dal lato con paura
d’essere abbandonato, quand’io vidi
solo dinanzi a me la terra oscura … 

(3. 19-21)

Without the pilgrim's fear of being abandoned, the Purgatorio would have been merely didactic. Without the canticle's doctrine, the middle state of the Commedia could have become merely sentimental. As the poet, however, draws the pilgrim more steadily to himself, as Rome drew Statius, elegy is pervaded with joy and assumes a special meaning.

I have suggested that Dante plays with his persona of pilgrim in such a way as to point an elegiac contrast. His dramatization of place as well as his use of characters is equally elegiac. The farewell to Vergil, however, is the most obvious example of the kind of loss which is among the enduring characteristics of elegy.1 His departure, in fact, is more than a farewell. It is a kind of failure, a testimony to the insufficiency of a particular way of life. If the insufficiency were not radical, it might be possible to compare his yielding of his role as a guide to other famous separations in Western literature. We think of Hector and Andromache, of Dido and Aeneas, of Roland and his sword, not to speak of all of Ovid's abandoned heroines. But Vergil's return to the fire

ch’emisperio di tenebre vincia

(Inf. 4. 69)

is symbolic of the ultimate failure of reason's uses once it has been employed to the greatest avail.2

Vergil's departure is mentioned in two places in the poem. The first is in the course of Canto 27; the second is the brief and poignant complaint that occurs in Canto 30. The latter dramatizes the fact of absence as it impinges upon the pilgrim's consciousness. It is enough to eclipse the greater loss of Eden:

          Ma Virgilio n’avea lasciati scemi
di sé, Virgilio dolcissimo patre,
Virgilio; a cui per mia salute die’mi
          né quantunque perdeo l’antica matre,
valse a le guance nette di rugiada
che, lagrimando, non tornasser atre.

(30. 49-54)

Dante's action here anticipates by analogy what Beatrice later accuses him of. He fails to distinguish significant process from loss. Just as he prefers to weep for Vergil rather than for Eve's loss at this point in his ethical education, so as a youth he failed to follow the transformation of Beatrice to spirit and followed the fleeting passage of another lady.3 The awareness of absence on the part of the pilgrim is used to illuminate his acute appetite for transience and the passing away of human things. The process of Purgatory is the response to the process of loss, but one of the characteristics of purgation is to create conditions which impress upon us varieties of absence so that we learn to distinguish their values. It is in this manner and for this purpose that Dante's memory confronts Eden and Vergil, both symbols of loss, both aspects of gain.

The canto in which Vergil actually departs is punctuated by a number of remarks and allusions that cast suggestions of elegy. While the reader is carefully reminded of the times of day on earth, the setting of the canto is toward evening. Day was on the point of departure in Purgatory, but we are told that it was dawn over Jerusalem where the sun's Creator shed His blood. The imagery of time with which the canto opens points to a specific hour for the pilgrim who is about to lose Vergil, as well as to the other hour of darkness in which Christ died. Thus absence is woven into a temporal context. But what are signals to us are not yet seen by the pilgrim. Christ's blood was redemptive in a manner analogous to Vergil's failure as an illuminator. What faces the pilgrim is more painful than the memory of Christ's crucifixion. Vergil's immediate role is to turn Dante to other afflictions:

          Ricordati, ricordati! E se io
sovresso Gerïon ti guidai salvo,
che farò ora presso più a Dio?

(27. 22-24)

Not only is Dante urged to remember in a manner at once hortatory and elegiac, but Vergil is also thrown into the ambiguous situation that may be noted in the canto's opening lines. What, indeed, will Vergil do now that he is nearer to God but begin to withdraw? This is the fire that will eventually sunder father from son, guide from pilgrim, teacher from student. But to encourage Dante, he freshens his charge's memory with the name of his youthful love and suggests, by calling the fire a wall, an older fairy tale of youthful heroism. As Dante notes in his brief simile, no wall prevented Pyramus from venturing to embrace death to reach his love, and thus the pilgrim overcame his scruples of conscience. But while the focus of the reference to Pyramus concerns how he could wake to love, the fact of how he died broods through the stanza: he committed suicide from a failure in perception. Love made him believe that Thisbe was dead. Thus the presence of Pyramus in the canto participates in the types of ambiguity already noted. The wall of fire makes everybody acutely aware of before and after.

Once through the fire, the poets arrive in the country of pastoral and its timeless evenings. By poetic suggestion, Dante evokes Vergil's youth at the same time as he is about to meet the Lady of his own early poetry. But the timeless aspects of the passages are merely the environment for a very gradual movement forward to sleep and the illumination of the third dream. Thus the reminiscence of many of the endings of the eclogues is ironic, for the pilgrim merely withdraws to new perceptions, and the reader is not urged to see evening as a sign of a little drama coming to close at a moment when

maioresque cadunt altis de montibus umbrae.

Thus the final evening of Purgatory continues to shape a sense of transience by the modulations of recollection, imagery, and sound-shift:

          Sì ruminando e sì mirando in
mi prese il sonno; il sonno che sovente,
anzi che ’l fatto sia, sa le novelle.

(27. 91-93)

Still a pilgrim, Dante continues to be suspended between a before and after of temporal fire in a way that recalls the ambiguity of the canto's opening lines. The dream, however, gives ambiguity a symbolic meaning by presenting the dreamer with a vision of Leah and Rachel. The dream and all the flow that prepares it brings the pilgrim to a kind of interior climax that marks by anticipation the larger transition of the whole canticle which is the movement from Vergil to Beatrice. And with the close of that dream

le tenebre fuggian da tutti i lati … 

(27. 112)

Such is the dawn of the most glorious day in Purgatory: darkness and flight. The contrast between this morning and the morning of the First Day (1. 13 ff.) could not be more sharply drawn. Here, then, is the threshold of Vergil's falling away to shade. It is the moment, we are led to believe, that all the albas of Provençal poetry point to. Here is the loss of shade as well as the loss of all earthly light. Here Dante is ready for fulfillment at a time when he can be no more fully alone.

Purgatory might be described, in fact, as the loss of Vergil, inasmuch as it makes Dante essentially alone. It is a process that began with Cato, whom Vergil addresses when explaining Dante's journey:

libertà va cercando, ch’è sì cara,
come sa chi per lei vita rifiuta.

(1. 71-72)

What is marvelous, however, about Dante's conception of Purgatory is that he knows that it is a kind of refusal of earthly life, which is something not yielded with ease. Thus Cato is implicated in the beginning of the journey, for Purgatory, no matter how tender and joyful, is a kind of suicide. Like suicide, Purgatory is an existential crossroad that perceives events temporally in a framework of before and after. This kind of perception is most apparent in the speeches made by those suffering from particular sins. It is also part of the structure of the broad base of the mountain, the Ante-Purgatory.

The morning of the First Day, when Vergil and Dante stand confused upon the new shore, is marked by a peculiar ambivalence which is suffused through all the objects and characters at the mountain's foot. As Dante notes,

          Noi eravam lunghesso mare ancora,
come gente che pensa a suo cammino,
che va col cuore e col corpo dimora.

(2. 10-12)

The shore is there to underscore the sense of division and separation that the poet's anabasis with Vergil dramatizes. While it is true, as Professor Fergusson has observed, that Dante the pilgrim in the Ante-Purgatory “is always aware of the same ‘distant’ or homesick scene,”4 I would hesitate to agree with him by characterizing Dante's homesickness as lyrical. The Ante-Purgatory defines an elegiac situation which involves distance in the manner in which it looks behind. The look behind is struck in the initial invocation to the Muse when he bids la morta poesia to rise again (1. 7). We are reminded of a more immediate past when the pilgrim remarks that he has just issued from Hell, l’aura morta (1. 17). A variation on the pilgrim's relief occurs in Cato's surprise that someone has risen from Hell, a surprise that suggests that God's laws have been violated in such a way that the old and enduring order has been changed (1. 43-48). Thus elegy is turned to an ironic vantage: the laws indeed endure while Vergil and Dante are allowed to wander without being esperti d’esto loco (2. 62). Events and encounters for the pilgrims become modes of recession and loss. As Dante reaches for Casella, he fails to grasp anything:

          Ohi ombre vane, fuor che ne l’aspetto!
tre volte dietro a lei le mani avvinsi,
e tante mi tornai con esse al petto.
          Di maraviglia, credo, mi dipinsi;
per che l’ombra sorrise, e si ritrasse;
e io, seguendo lei, oltre mi pinsi.

(2. 79-84)

What occurs in fact occurs as well in rhyme. As the suffix falls in the coupling of pinsi with dipinsi, a similar suggestion of loss occurs between aspetto and petto. Thus we might speak grammatically of the failure of first encounters in Purgatory, and the failure to grasp only anticipates the sudden departure of the masnada fresca at the end of the canto.

Of the many other types of loss and separation that characterize this region, I shall call attention to the two which most clearly illustrate my topic. One is the meeting with Manfred; the other is the encounter with Sordello. The Manfred episode is used to create a sense of both spatial and temporal recession. The meeting begins from a search for a way through la terra oscura, for the certainty of some quia that will take them to the steps of Purgatory. They see a new crowd of spirits and begin to move toward them, and the pilgrim notes:

          Ancora era quel popol di lontano,
i’ dico dopo nostri mille passi,
quanto un buon gittator trarria con mano … 

(3. 67-69)

The same crowd had already tried to move toward Dante and Vergil—

e non pareva, sì venïan lente.

(3. 60)

Thus Dante's uncertainty is reflected by the crowd chi va dubbiando, not only creating vast openings of space but also slowing down time. It is precisely time's loss, figured in the hyperbole of the thousand steps across the shore, that defines the special poignancy of the excommunicated and the more general pathos of all that precedes Purgatory. Purgation depends upon time in order to reach God's time by the renunciation of earthly time. And so, not knowing what to look forward to, the souls of the shore can only look back and wait. It is a region filled with the mood and pace of Richard II's speech as he awaits the arrival of Bolingbroke and exclaims:

For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings—
How some have been depos’d, some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have depos’d,
Some poison’d by their wives, some sleeping kill’d,
All murthur’d.

(3. 2. 155-160)

Here, before Purgatory, doing nothing is not sweet,

ché perder tempo a chi più sa più spiace.

(3. 78)

Manfred's particular speech is very brief and focussed upon two major points: his body, disinterred by the archbishop of Cosenza, and God's love, which cannot be put out by papal malediction. It is a speech deliberately designed to avoid explaining lo perchè and, thus, rising from the simplicity of the narration, is the striking solidity of his body's bones that the rain washes and the wind moves. Manfred does not yet conceive of himself as a spirit but as a body behind him, still enmeshed in process and decay. It is a body, furthermore, that symbolizes the random weariness of the long wait that the souls in the Ante-Purgatory have before them. For them, time has stretched thin. For them, time seems merely to go by without meaning, for these are souls who are literally stranded between earth's time and God's time. What seems most important to Manfred is the message he wishes Dante to take back to his bella figlia. While the speech is hardly nostalgic, it is concerned with the past and with the things of earth. To that extent it participates in the mood of the opening lines of the eighth canto. Manfred's is the voice of one whose ear is still attuned to

                                                           squilla di lontano,
che paia il giorno pianger che si more.

(8. 5-6)

Dante the pilgrim is also entranced, it would seem, by the same distant sound, for in the time that he took listening and gazing with wonder upon Manfred the sun rose fifty degrees from the horizon. Over such a stretch of time, even Manfred's bones would become ethereal. The speech, then, within the framework of the slow walk that precedes their meeting and the discussion on perception that begins the fourth canto seems to make earthly time dissolve:

vassene ’l tempo e l’uom se n’avvede … 

(4. 9)

The encounter tends to break down the outlines of events and make the past recede to where the prior time appears, as one of the Old English elegists says, swa bit no wære,5 as if it never were.

The encounter with Sordello is of a different order. It is at once more intimate and more political, springing from the almost magic mention of Vergil's birthplace. For the moment I should like to concentrate upon the seventh canto, in which Vergil identifies himself. It is remarkable self-description, for Vergil does not reveal himself as the author of the Aeneid, but rather as

          Virgilio; e per null’ altro rio
lo ciel perdei che per non aver fé.

(7. 7-8)

It is upon such an accent of loss that the canto begins and proceeds. And the statement is particularly appropriate as an anticipation of the pilgrims' sojourn in the valley of the rulers, who neglected their duty and thus jeopardized their heritage. It is a canto of protracted lament which, in contrast to the Manfred episode, recedes into the future. It is an elegy of men whose failure ruined what they should have protected.

What I have spoken of as division or separation—the suspended state that may conduce to an idea of elegy—is suggested in this canto both thematically and rhetorically. When Sordello is told he has been speaking to Vergil, he acts as one

che crede e non, dicendo “Ella è … non è …”

(7. 12)

Sordello's implied doubt becomes a very painful echo of the short sounds of grief that harmonize Vergil's statement,

lo ciel perdei che per non aver fé.

In a sense, this might be called the original speech of elegy, to say è è. Here, however, the dialectic of loss and gain is both the intellectual environment of the Ante-Purgatory and Vergil's own situation. Vergil has lost the sight of the high Sun:

Non per far, ma per non fare … 

(7. 25)

Thus the sound of elegy is used to initiate a dramatization both of Vergil's loss and of the loss of the negligent kings.

The same kind of spatial and temporal vagueness that is apparent in the Manfred episode may also be noted here: it provides the background against which one is undone by not doing. As Sordello remarks,

Loco certo non c’è posto … 

(7. 40)

It is a landscape whose uncertainty is reflected by the uncertainty of rulers who fail their duty. It is a place, finally, that calls for Sordello's pessimism when he states that

          Rade volte risurge per li rami
l’umana probitate … 

(7. 121-122)

The valley suggests a receding future of failing heritage, a future which is seen as dimly as the kings seated at random in the twilight—

là dove più ch’a mezzo muore il lembo.

(7. 72)

Vergil participates in the failure of light and failure of doing, and it is this participation that gives the scene its pathos. For him as much as for the kings it may be said that

del retaggio miglior nessun possiede.

(7. 120)

This scene is analogous then with the later canto in which Dante is conscious of his loss of Vergil. It is part of the whole rhythm of the canticle, which forces characters and reader to look behind, to become attuned to different kinds of losses and withdrawals. It is a structural and thematic rhythm that is succinctly figured in Dante's early appeal to Vergil as they start to climb the mountain:

O dolce padre, volgiti, e rimira
com’ io rimango sol, se non restai.

(4. 44-45)

Not only is the liberty Dante seeks fearful, but also the things behind constantly remain attractive. Reaching one of the first “viewpoints,” the poet tells the reader,

          A ceder ci ponemmo ivi ambedui
vòlti a levante ond’ eravam saliti,
che suole a riguardar giovare altrui.

(4. 52-54)

As a consequence, one of the poetic pleasures of the Purgatory is the fact that looking back is not entirely painful. In fact, remorse of conscience seems effectively ambivalent as Vergil implies in his suggestion to Dante:

                                                            Volgi li occhi in giùe:
buon ti sarà, per tranquillar la via,
veder lo letto de le piante tue.

(12. 13-15)

But, as I indicated earlier, it is in such a manner that Dante uses poetry for theological effect. It is as if the reader were meant to enjoy the wrong thing, to follow Dante the pilgrim when he prefers to weep for the loss of Vergil rather than for the loss of Eden. As Dante the poet plays with the persona of the pilgrim, so he plays upon the misplaced sentiment of the reader. In this way, as the pilgrim's experience approaches the poet's wisdom, so, it is hoped, the reader's experience will undergo the same process.

The rhetoric with which Dante shapes contrition is employed precisely to give the reader a false theological pleasure and permit him to enjoy the wrong thing. To what other end are the anaphora and exclamatio directed when the pilgrim addresses the exempla of the punishments of the proud? Pride assumes an elegiac mask:

          O Nïobè, con che occhi dolenti
vedea io te segnata in su la strada,
tra sette e sette tuoi figliuoli spenti!
          O Saùl, come in su la propria spada
quivi parevi morto in Gelboè,
che poi non sentì pioggia né rugiada!

(12. 37-42)

If the reader does not wish to linger upon such portraits to the extent that the pilgrim does, then Vergil's admonition not to lose time has little effect. The point of presenting so attractively the many varieties of pathos is to force a kind of satiation of grief, in other words, to purge pathos, for a heaven where past and present do not seize the soul across an elegiac space. This is done by employing, if such a phrase is permitted, a rhetoric of purgation. It is rhetoric that urges the pilgrim, not to speak of the reader, to look back according to la punctura della rimembranza.

The same technique is used in Guido del Duca's appeal to the failure of Romagna:

          Ov’ è ’l buon Lizio ed
Arrigo Mainardi,
Pier Traversaro e Guido di Carpigna?
Oh Romagnuoli tornati in bastardi!
          Quando in Bologna un Fabbro si ralligna?
quando in Faenza un Bernadin di Fosco,
verga gentil di picciola gramigna?
          Non ti maravigliar s’io piango, Tosco,
quando rimembro, con Guido da Prata,
Ugolin d’Azzo che vivette nosco,
          Federico Tignoso e sua brigata,
la casa Traversara e li Anastagi
(e l’una gente e l’altra è diretata),
          le donne e’ cavalier, li affanni e li agi
che ne ’nvogliava amore e cortesia
là dove i cuor son fatti sì malvagi.

(14. 97-111)

The reason that passages like these are so moving is not so much because of their structure, because of their questions and exclamations, because of the skill with which future and past are made to be psychologically the same thing, or because so much talent is used to attack the Romagnuoli turned to bastards. On the contrary, Guido's outburst is a cry of sadness, and the reader, as much as Dante, marvels at the grief. For against the prick of memory, the fact that hearts have become wicked only makes more pathetic those who felt that è mestier di consorto divieto. In spite of the sin for which the loss of so many is invoked, the character of the invocation runs contrapuntally against sin and gives the tirade a tone the same as that of Villon in his more famous ballades. The accent of the appeal falls upon its rhetoric, upon the nostalgia of memory, and, finally, upon the reader's memory of his own pain, brooding upon those who have gone before. It is the same kind of plaintive note that resides in Statius' query of Vergil:

          dimmi dov’ è Terrenzio nostro
Cecilio e Plauto e Varro, se lo sai:
dimmi se son dannati, e in qual vico.

(22. 97-99)

It participates, finally, in the same moto spiritale that urges Dante to weep over the loss of Vergil despite Eve's greater loss. It is a sorrow similar to that which punctuates the examples of anger when the pilgrim sees Lavina:

          surse in mia visïone una fanciulla
piangendo forte, e dicea: “O regina,
perché per ira hai voluto esser nulla?
          Ancisa t’hai per non perder Lavina;
or m’hai perduta! Io son essa che lutto,
madre, a la tua pria ch’a l’altrui ruina.”

(17. 34-39)

Such an image seems to capture in microcosm what we have been examining as the elegiac aspect of Purgatory. It is loss implicated in other loss, in the process of which relationships are changed for the worse. The rhetorical skill is obvious to the point where it borders upon deliberate sentimentality, which eventually, like a form of homeopathic therapy, carries both pilgrim and patient reader to an awareness of order beyond personal loss.6 Lavina's first word is regina, which is not only answered by Lavina and ruina, but also by another vocative that consummately defines domesticated tragedy:

madre, alla tua pria ch’al l’altrui ruina.

Loss as a kind of heritage is made rhetorically intimate in the change from perder to perduta, and it is not hard to sense an allusion here to the sons of the negligent rulers. Lavina, finally, underscores the elegiac character of the vision by sharing the sorrow of Amata's fate but at a distance, so that her grief becomes distilled and vaguely ironic. A similar technique may be seen in Ovid's version of Dido's epistle to Aeneas:

Facta fugis, facienda petis; quaerenda per orbem
          Altera, quaesita est altera terra tibi.
Ut terram invenias, quis eam tibi tradet habendam?
          Quis sua non notis arva tenenda dabit?
Alter amor tibi restat habendus et altera Dido:
          Quamque iterum fallas, alter danda fides.

(Heroides 7. 13-18)

Although the skill with which Hellenistic rhetoric is employed in this passage is obvious and forced, it throws into relief the same qualities I have been indicating in Dante. As the last line makes bitterly clear, separation continues to occur like a tragic curse. It is a sense of loss that seems to penetrate Vergil's poetry almost inevitably, and Orpheus' successive failure gives it an archetypal stamp. As Vergil tells us, after Orpheus looked back, Eurydice

                    fugit diversa, neque illum
prensantem nequiquam umbras et multa volentem
dicere praeterea vidit … 

(Georgic 4. 500-502)

It is the sentiment that penetrates profoundly Forese Donati's question to Dante,7

Quando fia ch’io ti riveggia?

(14. 75)

I have purposefully devoted most of the space of this paper to the Purgatorio as a poem of loss inasmuch as its didactic structure and tone are more widely appreciated. But all elegy is not flebilis, even though it seems committed to change and process. The question, then, that we might ask, is whether only the kinds of things I have pointed to are elegiac. Is it possible to consider the rest of the canticle as elegy? Paradoxically, it can be, but in a manner that creates from the counterpoint of two kinds of elegy a genre of greater value than those which went into its composition.

The other kind of elegy which the didactic elements of the Purgatorio resemble is early Greek elegy, particularly the poetry of Tyrtaeus and Solon. What characterizes their poetry is an essentially ethical intent which encourages a young man to compete for the highest prize. For Tyrtaeus, the prize was valor in battle:

Hoûtos anèr agathòs gígnetai en polémoi
(This man becomes good in battle.)

(Diehl, fr. 9. 20)

For Solon, life was not merely a matter of community defense, but rather a contest that involved more complicated aspects of ethics. The city, as he observes in one of his central poems, is not a Spartan camp but a social organization beset by the ills of pride and surfeit (Diehl, fr. 3). From these psychological conditions develop sociological and political break-downs. The hope of the city lies in the concept of Eunomía, or Good Order. The poet's role is political; his style is analytical; his tone is hortatory. All of these characteristics are reflected in the didactic elements of Dante's poem, with certain significant differences. Dante's politics are of course subsumed under theology. Nevertheless, Good Order—even if more profound than Solon's idea of it—is the hope which sends Beatrice after Dante. The exhortation to virtue is shared by both Dante and the Greek elegists of the seventh and sixth centuries b.c. Adjuration, in fact, is signaled by Eric Auerbach as one of the “three hallmarks of Dante's style,”8 and adjuration, as Jaeger remarks, is, if nothing else, “the one constant element in elegiac poetry.”9

The major difference, however, between Dante's use of parainetic elegy and the Greeks' is the fact that Dante employs process and development when he teaches. Instead of the static moral exhortation of the type cited above from Tyrtaeus, Dante's whole notion of ethics as it is exposed in the Purgatorio depends upon love as a moto spiritale. It is with such a notion that Dante unifies ethics and poetry.10 But to see the teaching of ethics, to understand paraineses to virtue as dependent upon process is the mark of Dante's understanding of Purgatory. The result of Dante's perception is that he never forsakes the sense of movement and process upon which Alexandrian elegy depends. But against the notion of things slowly receding from loss to loss, Dante poses another kind of movement that carries the renewed soul, like Statius (not to speak of Dante the pilgrim), closer to new gains. Thus, the didactic element of Purgatorio not only recalls the early Greek elegy, but also seems to spring directly from the later elegy of lament. The process of parainesis, then, connects both types of elegy in intellectual and poetic counterpoint. Their dual effect, as poetic movements, serve to carry out Cato's command

          a spogliarvi lo scoglio
ch’esser non lascia a voi Dio manifesto.

(2. 122-123)

An example of both kinds of elegy working toward such an end may be seen in Dante's brilliant cry of adjuration and despair beginning “Ahi serva Italia …” (6. 76 ff.). It is also what resides in the inversion of Statius' line, “a sè mi trasse Roma” (21. 89): as the poet returns to the source of his language, he approaches, unwittingly, what will be the new Rome of his conversion. Going backward, in the case of Statius, turns out to be a movement forward. The phrase in nuce seems to fix the effect of the double movement of the Purgatorio. While it seems as if much of the movement of the canticle is toward loss, the movement is a paradox. It suggests the drawing back of a bowstring whose purpose is to propel an arrow suddenly in an opposing direction.

It would be unwise to assert that Dante had a firsthand knowledge of the early Greek elegy. We might conjecture that his understanding of its effects developed from his knowledge of Aristotle's Ethics and the Provençal sirventes. The combined effect, however, of the kinds of elegy I have been examining seems to be his own discovery. One of its aspects is its similarity to Old English elegy. Space does not permit even the slightest analysis of this small body of poetry. Suffice it to say, however, that while it shares with Hellenistic elegy a sense of irremediable separation and loss, it is also characterized by an effort to come to grips with a new situation by doing more than lamenting. While not carrying parainesis to the point of invective, it often suggests an acceptance of new values by a subtle interplay of shifting perspectives.11 The role of shift and contrast is to achieve some measure of understanding of the fact and implications of loss. As Leonard H. Frey has put it, “the likely movement is toward a general understanding of the nature of the world, beginning with contemplation of one's own situation.”12 And the situation is inevitably the problem of transience, which conduces to reflection upon things more permanent than what was. What makes the Old English elegies particularly persuasive is the use of the first person as a dramatic speaker. The lament is not for someone else but for the poem's speaker and through him all who are alienated or exiled. We might claim the same for Catullus 68 (Quod mihi fortuna casuque oppressus acerbo …) except for the fact that the design of loss in that great elegy protects the speaker from participating in loss. For Dante and Old English elegy, loss means in a very profound sense self-loss and self-re-evaluation. It is a purgatorial act.

No one, of course, need ask whether Dante had read or needed to read Old English elegy. It was an expression of medieval poetic consciousness and, to the extent that Dante participated in the “medieval spirit” (the studies of Karl Vossler and E. R. Curtius make this abundantly clear), a discovery of the effects of Old English elegy was possible. Thus Dante may be said to have completed the vision of these anonymous elegists in the process by which he adapted Hellenistic and, unwittingly, early Greek elegy.


  1. As a working description of the kind of elegy the bulk of this paper discusses, Northrop Frye's is sufficient: “the elegiac is often accompanied by a diffused, resigned, melancholy sense of the passing of time, of the old order changing and yielding to a new one.” See Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, 1957), pp. 36-37.

  2. See Francis Fergusson, Dante's Drama of the Mind (Princeton, 1953), p. 166.

  3. Whether there was “another woman” is in historical doubt. What counts, nevertheless, is the fact of “falling-away,” which Erich Auerbach has already discussed in Dante: Poet of the Secular World, ed. Theodore Silverstein, tr. R. Manheim (Chicago, 1961), p. 115.

  4. Dante's Drama, p. 23.

  5. “The Wife's Lament,” 24. Cp. “The Wanderer,” 95-96.

  6. Although it would be imprudent to claim extremely early influences of Dante upon Chaucer, a similar use and understanding of sentimentality as necessary to purgation may be observed in the Book of the Duchess.

  7. The dramatic context within which this question is uttered is one that establishes a rhythm of appeal without response. Here are souls che pregano, e ’l pregato non risponde … (109). Such an ambivalent situation is highly suggestive of Leo Spitzer's discussion of Jaufré Rudel's paradoxical amor de lonh in L’amour lointain de Jaufré Rudel (North Carolina Studies, 1944), repr. in Romanische Literaturstudien 1936-1956 (Tübingen, 1959), pp. 363-417. Although Spitzer wishes to emphasize “le thème foncièrement chrétien ‘possession-non-possession’ de cette poésie séculière” (p. 404), I am inclined to doubt him. The same theme can be found in ancient poetry. It is one of Ovid's favorite rhetorical devices. Vergil was equally fond of it. It was hardly Christian in Dante's sense. It might be more accurate to say that Dante uses such a theme to overcome the pathos it engenders.

  8. Dante, p. 59.

  9. Werner Jaeger, Paideia: the Ideals of Greek Culture, tr. G. Highet, 3 vols. (New York, 1943-1945), 1. 89.

  10. Fergusson, Dante's Drama, p. 92.

  11. See Neil D. Isaacs, “Image, Metaphor, Irony, Allusion, and Moral: the Shifting Perspective of ‘The Seafarer,’” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, LXVII (1966), 266-282.

  12. “Exile and Elegy in Anglo-Saxon Epic Poetry,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology, LXII (1963), 294.

R. E. Kaske (essay date 1974)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10054

SOURCE: “Dante's Purgatorio XXXII and XXXIII: A Survey of Christian History,” University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. XLIII, No. 3, Spring, 1974, pp. 193-214.

[In the following essay, Kaske interprets the images found in Cantos XXXII and XXXIII as the “figurative celebration of the beginning of Christianity.”]

I suppose it is no great news that during the past few decades, scholarship and criticism in the immense field of medieval literature have been moving with unusual speed. Within this general awakening, it is worth asking what has been the effect, if any, on interpretation of Dante's Commedia. Surely no one can accuse past Dante scholars of a failure to explore unfrequented corners of medieval knowledge; and even allowing for the preoccupation of earlier generations with Dante's political message, it is obvious that the recent revival of interest in the theological allegory of the Middle Ages cannot have come to Dantists as the complete surprise that it often did to others. If there is truth in these rather easy generalizations, it may well be asked whether contemporary scholarship can find anything new and important to add to our understanding of the Commedia; and if so, how we are to go about finding it.

I would suggest that the most important innovation of contemporary Dante scholars is a new degree of rigour in their concentration on the text to be explained, even when the explanation involves extended use of external documents. In itself, this observation will hardly strike anyone as a fresh discovery—the less so since it could probably be applied about equally well to contemporary scholarship on any other literature, medieval or otherwise. When the subject is so learned and admittedly philosophical a poet as Dante, however, the change brings with it some important implications. I suppose it is obvious that in trying to illuminate a highly intellectual literary text by the aid of external documents, one can move between two extremes. At the one extreme, he can let himself be guided by the content of the external documents, and depend on it to explain as much of the literary text as it is able to; at the other, he can let himself be guided entirely by the features of the literary text before him, consult as wide a variety of external documents as may be necessary to help him explain it closely and convincingly, and use these documents in as piecemeal or even chaotic a way as a detailed explanation of the text may require. He can, for example, either read a given passage of the Commedia from the philosophical position of Albertus Magnus, assuming that Dante's thought will somehow correspond to that of Albertus and noting his departures from it as departures; or he can make Dante's passage his absolute criterion of relevance, and explain it as closely as possible with the help of (let us say) two concepts adapted from Albertus, the medieval exegesis of a verse in Exodus, a detail from Ovid and its medieval moralization, a fact of Florentine history, a significance from an Italian bestiary, and an echo from the liturgy, along with two apparently original ideas. At the one extreme, he fragments the literary text and preserves the integrity of the external document; at the other, he fragments the external documents in order to demonstrate the unity of the literary text. The distinction itself is by no means a profound one, and I have of course been oversimplifying it greatly; but it does seem to me that the trend away from the first of these methods, and toward a rigorous application of the second, is of peculiar importance in current Dante scholarship—as illustrated preeminently, for example, in the work of my friend John Freccero.

A worthy object for such analysis would seem to be the series of cryptic images and actions crowded into Purgatorio XXXII and XXXIII, after the Heavenly Procession has come to rest in an alta selva (‘lofty forest’) clearly recalling the Garden of Eden (XXXII 31-6): the description of the great bare tree, its refoliation, and the events that follow (37-108); the series of assaults on the car and its usurpation by the whore and the giant (109-60); and in the following canto, Beatrice's prophecy concerning the arrival of a mysterious cinquecento diece e cinque (‘five hundred, ten, and five’), or, in terms of its equivalent in Roman numerals, D, X, and V (XXXIII, 31ff.). I have suggested elsewhere that this notorious puzzle is in fact a reference to the second coming of Christ, by way of a monogram which appears consistently in medieval missals and sacramentaries.1 Since we will need this information to understand what follows, let me recapitulate my argument here as briefly as possible.

Figure 1 is a sketch of the monogram itself, which stands for the Latin words Vere dignum (‘It is truly meet’) in the Preface of the Mass; it consists of the capital letters V and D, joined and embellished by a cross at their centre.2 The central part of this monogram may easily be thought of as suggesting a common type of medieval x, in which the point of juncture appears vertically elongated. Illuminated specimens provide further opportunity for recognizing some sort of X between the V and the D. For example, the ornamentation itself very frequently produces a distinct visual X. … Again, the cross at the centre of the monogram can easily be thought of as a figurative ‘X’, in accord with a popular medieval association between Christ's Cross and the letter X. And finally, the centre of the monogram is very often occupied by a strongly Apocalyptic picture of Christ Himself, holding a book and surrounded by the four Gospel Beasts. … Throughout the Middle Ages, Christ is commonly designated by a Greek chi or a Latin X. … A recognition of any of these kinds of X between the V and the D of the monogram would of course give us the letters V-X-D, a symmetrical reversal of Dante's DXV.

Now among liturgists of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Vere dignum monogram itself is regularly interpreted as a symbol of Christ, with the V representing His human nature and the D His divine. (By a rather striking coincidence, the V and D correspond also to the initial letters of the Italian words Uomo or Vomo, ‘man,’ and Dio, ‘God.’) It seems reasonable to suppose, then, that Dante is using this familiar liturgical device as a deliberately enigmatic symbol of Christ's second coming near the end of time. The reversal from V-X-D to D-X-V can be accounted for plausibly enough in various ways. For example, medieval liturgists sometimes conceive of the monogram as ‘heralding’ a real reenactment of Christ's historical first coming, in the sacrifice of the Mass; if in these terms we can allow ourselves to conceive of the monogrammatic V-X-D as an anticipation of the first coming, with the precedence of V signifying the greater outward prominence of Christ's humanity, Dante's symmetrical reversal of the three letters may be seen as a dramatic heralding of the divinity which according to medieval tradition will shine forth at Christ's second coming, represented by the precedence of the letter D.

This interpretation of Dante's DXV as the second coming is strongly supported by the Apocalyptic imagery with which it is surrounded in this part of the poem. For example, the whore who sits on the car (XXXII 148ff.) is obviously a reflection of the meretrix magna or ‘great whore’ in Apocalypse 17, evidently bearing her common exegetical significance as the ecclesia carnalis or ‘carnal church’—in broad terms, the multitude of the wicked within the Church. The giant who is her lover (151ff.), and who will be killed along with her by the DXV (XXXIII 43-5), is clearly the Antichrist, who appears prominently as a giant in almost all medieval commentary on the famous number 666 in Apocalypse 13:18. The role of the Antichrist in medieval eschatology as both seducer and persecutor of the great whore seems reflected in Purgatorio XXXII 151-6, by the giant's first kissing the whore and then beating her. The Antichrist is very frequently portrayed as sitting above or upon the corrupted Church, here represented by the transformed and damaged car on which the giant sits (130-47, 152). And in the final time of the world the Antichrist will be killed—like the giant in the Purgatorio—by Christ Himself, in accord with a familiar interpretation of II Thessalonians 2:8, ‘Et tunc revelabitur ille iniquus, quem Dominus Jesus interficiet spiritu oris sui, et destruet illustratione adventus sui eum. …’ (‘And then shall be revealed that iniquitous one, whom the Lord Jesus shall kill with the spirit of His mouth, and He shall destroy him with the brightness of His coming. …’)

This summary has provided only the barest hint of the intensive eschatological allusion which does in fact control every detail of these passages concerning the whore and the giant.3 But perhaps it has succeeded in showing that the closing passage of Canto XXXII portrays allegorically a time very late in human history, with the Antichrist firmly in control of the Church and its carnal members; and that Canto XXXIII foretells one of the climactic events in medieval eschatology, close to the end of time itself. These clear eschatological references, preceded by the well-defined series of allegorical attacks on the car representing the Church (XXXII, 109-47), lead one to ask whether the structure of this difficult bit of the Commedia may not depend in part on one of those schematized analyses of ecclesiastical history into a given number of periods, which do so much to shape the medieval historical outlook. The principal source of such historical schemes is medieval commentary on the Apocalypse; and one of the most popular of them all, derived primarily from the opening of the seven seals in Apocalypse 6-8, is that of the seven status ecclesiae or ‘ages of the Church.’ Though commentators are far from unanimous in their identification of these seven great periods, a sort of rough common denominator would identify the first age with the time of the Apostles; the second, with the time of the early persecutions; the third, with the time of the early heresies; the fourth, with the time of hypocrites and ‘false brothers’; the fifth, with a miscellany of alternatives showing little agreement (presumably because it represents the present); the sixth, with the future time of the Antichrist; and the seventh, with the time of peace following the death of the Antichrist.

Bypassing temporarily the question of the first age (the time of the Apostles) in Dante's series, let us begin by noticing that in XXXII, 109-17, the descent of the eagle to smite the car allegorizes with obvious appropriateness the second age (that of the persecutions), with the eagle itself as an inevitable symbol of the Roman Empire. In lines 118-23, the entry of the she-fox is equally appropriate as an allegory of the third age (that of the heresies); the fox as a figure of heresy or heretics is common in medieval Biblical commentary, particularly on Canticles 2:15, ‘Capite nobis vulpes parvulas quae demoliuntur vineas.’ (‘Catch us the little foxes that destroy the vines.’) In lines 124-9, the second descent of the eagle and the gift of feathers allegorize the legendary Donation of Constantine and the resulting corruption of the Church—which, though not enumerated among the ‘ages’ of the Church, seem thematically to be a natural enough inclusion. In lines 130-5, the familiar significance of the dragon as cunning, malice, or hypocrisy would agree well enough with the dominant feature of the fourth age (that of hypocrites or ‘false brothers’); or the dragon might be conceived of as the devil himself, directly inspiring hypocrisy within the Church. In lines 136-47, the further corrupting effects of the eagle's gift might, I suppose, be thought of as absorbing the vaguely and inconsistently defined fifth age (the present), with emphasis on the theme of corruption so prominent in criticism of the contemporary Church. In lines 148-60, the picture of the whore and the giant Antichrist seated upon the deformed car of the Church, and the giant's dragging the car itself into the concealment of the wood, clearly allegorize the sixth age (the time of the Antichrist). And in XXXIII, 40-5, the advent of the DXV to slay the guilty pair corresponds precisely to the event that will usher in the seventh age (the time of peace after the death of the Antichrist).

This pattern of correspondences, though not perfect in all its details, seems to me to provide a fairly strong argument for interpreting our series of events in the Purgatorio as an allegory of the seven status ecclesiae.4 As to the significance of the seven heads which sprout from the corrupted car of the Church (XXXII, 142-7), with the related question of why three of them have two horns and the rest only one, I must confess to being not much wiser now than when I began being distressed over this passage some years ago:

          Trasformato così ’l dificio santo
mise fuor teste per le parti sue,
tre sovra ’l temo e una in ciascun canto.
          Le prime eran cornute come bue,
ma le quattro un sol corno avean per fronte:
simile mostro visto ancor non fue.(5)

(Thus transformed, the sacred structure put forth horns on its parts, three over the pole and one at every corner. The first were horned like an ox, but the four had a single horn at the forehead; such a monster never yet was seen.)

There can be no doubt that these heads and horns are somehow derived from the seven heads and ten horns of the beast in Apocalypse 13:1 and 17:3-16, and bear some sort of contrasting relationship to the seven heads and ten horns that are said to have once adorned the bella donna (‘lovely lady’) in Inferno XIX 109-11. Whatever the precise significance of the seven heads in our present passage, a hint concerning the distribution of their horns into three pairs and four singles may perhaps be found in the thirteenth-century commentary by Hugh of St Cher on the seven heads of the Apocalyptic beast, including also an emphatic reference to the material possessions that in the Purgatorio have brought about the corruption of the car of the Church:

capita septem, idest, septem Principes iniquitatis. Princeps primus Cain, qui Ecclesiam malignantium incepit, eique praefuit. Et recte incepit a possessione, quia Cain interpretatur ‘possessio,’ et terminatur in apertam Christi adversitatem, et contradictionem, scilicet in Antichristum, qui erit ultimum caput. Secundum caput fuit Nembrot. … Alia quatuor [capita] sunt quatuor regna, quae significantur per quatuor cornua, Zach. 1[:18: ‘Et levavi oculos meos et vidi; et ecce quatuor cornua.’]6

(seven heads, that is, seven princes of iniquity. The first prince is Cain, who began the church of the wicked and ruled over it. And appropriately did it take its origin from possessions, because the name Cain is translated as ‘possession’; and the church of the wicked finds its ending in open hostility and contradiction of Christ—that is to say, in the Antichrist, who will be the final head. The second head was Nemrod. … The other four heads are four kingdoms, which are signified by four horns, Zacharias 1[:18: ‘And I lifted up my eyes and saw; and lo, four horns.’])

These four single horns, associated with four of the Apocalyptic seven heads, bear what might be thought of as a promising resemblance to the four single-horned heads in line 146. Spiritual interpretation of Zacharias 1:18 identifies them with four perturbationes or passiones (‘emotions’/‘passions’)—aegritudo and gaudium, metus and cupiditas7 (‘grief’ and ‘joy,’ ‘fear’ and ‘desire’)—which are prominent among the emotions assigned to the sensitive appetite, particularly the concupiscible part.8

The pairs of horns on the other three heads in the Purgatorio can perhaps be explained by way of Apocalypse 13:11, where the second beast is described as having ‘cornua duo similia agni’ (‘two horns like those of a lamb’). Medieval commentators interpret these two horns of the second beast as signifying various virtues simulated by the Antichrist, in hypocritical imitation of the true virtues of the Apocalyptic Lamb, Christ—for example, knowledge of the two Testaments, preaching, innocence, true doctrine, the grace to perform miracles, and so on.9 If all this is relevant, it may suggest that in the Purgatorio the four single-horned heads are to be somehow understood as the symbol of a corruption resulting from the misuse of man's natural emotions, and that the three two-horned heads somehow represent the deeper corruption resulting from more deliberate evils like hypocrisy—a significance that might be ironically heightened by their position above the pole of the car, which is surely a symbol of the Cross. The entire image, I suppose, would then present the deformation of the Church as vessel of truth by two basic kinds of human corruption, paralleling respectively the incontinenza and malizia which play so important a part in the structure of the Inferno. Clearly, this interpretation cannot be described as overwhelmingly convincing; I offer it as a desperate attempt to mitigate the difficulty of what must remain a formidable crux.

Leaving the heads and horns to their well-earned obscurity, then, let us turn to the extended and bewildering series of images in Purgatorio XXXII 37ff.:

          Io senti’ mormorare a tutti ‘Adamo’;
poi cerchiaro una pianta dispogliata
di foglie e d’altra fronda in ciascun ramo.
          La coma sua, che tanto si dilata
più quanto più è sù, fora da l’Indi
ne’ boschi lor per altezza ammirata.
          ‘Beato se’, grifon, che non discindi
col becco d’esto legno dolce al gusto,
poscia che mal si torce il ventre quindi.’
          Così dintorno a l’albero robusto
gridaron li altri; e l’animal binato:
‘Sì si conserva il seme d’ogne giusto.’
          E vòlto al temo ch’elli avea tirato,
trasselo al piè de la vedova frasca,
e quel di lei a lei lasciò legato.

(I heard all murmur ‘Adam!’; then they encircled a tree despoiled of flowers and other foliage on every bough. Its crowning branches, which spread wider as it rises, would be marvelled at by Indians in their woods, for their height. ‘Blessed art thou, Griffon, who dost not rend with thy beak from this tree sweet to the taste, since afterwards the belly writhes from it.’ Thus round the mighty tree the others shouted and the two-formed animal said, ‘Thus is preserved the seed of every just one.’ And turning to the pole he had drawn, he dragged it to the foot of the widowed bough, and what came from it he left bound to it.)

It is of course generally agreed that the Griffon (43)—a fabulous beast, half eagle and half lion—here represents Christ, the Deus-homo or ‘Godman’; and that the pole by which he fastens the car of the Church to the great tree (49-51) represents the Cross. The tree itself was generally explained by earlier scholars as the Empire; more recently, there has been a tendency to explain it as an inclusive symbol of what might be called ‘justness’ - embracing, for example, both the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil as an emblem of law, and the condition of ‘original justice’ lost to mankind through Adam's fall and partially restored by the Atonement. Concerning other details of the passage, there seems to be little agreement.

I begin with the simile in lines 40-2, comparing the height of the tree to that of trees in India. Among the many gigantic trees of India, the fig-tree seems to have been particularly popular throughout the Middle Ages, sometimes with an additional reference to the expanding foliage at its top. Pliny, for example, reports that in India ‘superiores ejusdem [i.e., fici] rami in excelsum emicant silvosa multitudine, vasto matris corpore, ut sexaginta passus pleraeque orbe colligant, umbra vero bina stadia operiant.’10 (‘the upper branches of this same tree [i.e., the fig] stretch forth on high, forest-like in number, from the enormous trunk, so that they grow together in a circle of sixty paces or more, and indeed the shadow may cover two stadia.’) The likelihood that Dante's giant tree is to be recognized by implication as literally a fig-tree seems heightened by the remark about the sweetness of its fruit (44), corresponding to a familiar detail in medieval descriptions of the fig;11 and the reference to the belly writhing from it (45) finds an additional parallel of sorts in a comment by Thomas of Cantimpré: ‘Est in India etiam [ficus] huic dulcior, sed extraneorum valitudini infesta.’12 (‘There is also in India a sweeter [fig] than this, but dangerous to the health of strangers.’) The repeated emphasis on the bareness of the tree (38-9, 60) suggests inevitably the great medieval image of the arbor sicca or ‘dry tree’13—which, as it happens, bears also a natural relation to the fig-tree, by way of Christ's withering the fruitless fig-tree in Matthew 21:19 and Mark 11:13-21.14

Now in some versions of the popular medieval legend of Seth, the Tree of Knowledge appears as a ‘dry tree’; in the thirteenth-century scientific encyclopedia L’Image du monde, for example, Seth returns to the Garden of Eden and is shown a magnificent tree full of leaves and fruit, which suddenly withers to a lifeless trunk; the angel who is guiding him explains that this is the original Tree of Knowledge, dried up by the sin of Adam and Eve.15 The Tree of Knowledge is identified as a fig-tree in rabbinical literature as well as in the apocryphal Apocalypsis Moysis;16 more to our present point, it appears unmistakably as a fig-tree in a number of Italian sculptures and mosaics from the twelfth century through the fourteenth.17 On the other hand, both fig-tree and dry tree often signify fallen human nature itself, particularly in its unjustified condition between the Fall and the Redemption. Witness for example Garner of St Victor in his Gregorianum, a twelfth-century encyclopedia drawn from the works of Gregory the Great:

Fici nomine humana natura designatur, sicut in Evangelio Veritatis voce dicitur: ‘Arborem fici habebat quidam plantatam in vinea sua et venit, quaerens fructum et non invenit,’ etc. [Luke 13:6]. Quid enim arbor fici nisi humanam naturam signat? Quae bene quidem plantata est sicut ficus, sed in culpam propria sponte lapsa fructum non servat operationis. Ad peccatum quippe ex voluntate corruens, quia fructum obedientiae ferre noluit statum rectitudinis amisit.18

(Human nature is designated by the name of the fig, just as in the Gospel it is said by the voice of Truth, ‘A certain man had a fig-tree planted in his vine-yard, and he came seeking fruit and did not find it,’ etc. [Luke 13:6]. For what does the fig-tree signify unless it is human nature? Indeed human nature, like the fig, was well planted; but having lapsed into guilt of its own accord, it does not preserve the fruit of well doing. Rushing into sin by its own will, because it would not bear the fruit of obedience it has lost the condition of rectitude.)

Ambrose expounds the dry tree in a way that seems relevant also to the tree's bursting into bloom in lines 58-60: ‘Lignum aridum factus eras in Adam; sed nunc per gratiam Christi pomiferae arbores pullulatis.’19 (‘You were made a dry tree in Adam; but now through the grace of Christ you sprout forth as fruit-bearing trees.’) The same concept is given clear visual expression in a famous fifteenth-century painting by Piero della Francesca, where the Resurrection is framed on the left by dry trees and on the right by trees in leaf.20

In our passage from the Purgatorio, an interpretation of the tree as the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is strongly implied in line 51, where the reference to the pole (that is, the Cross) as somehow derived from the tree recalls inevitably the legend of Seth, with its well-known derivation of the Cross from the Tree of Knowledge. On the other hand, an interpretation of the Tree as human nature itself seems just as strongly implied in line 50, by the Griffon's attaching the pole of the Cross to la vedova frasca (‘the widowed bough’)—an image surely echoing the commonplace that the Cross, by reuniting mankind to the divine Bridegroom, has ended its state of widowhood.21 And the application of the tree-image to mankind is hinted at unmistakably in the final tercet of Canto XXXIII, along with a parallel to the burgeoning of the great tree after it has been joined to the car of the Church:

          Io ritornai de la santissima onda
rifatto sì come piante novelle
rinovellate di novella fronda … 

(I returned from the most holy waves refashioned, even as new trees renewed with new foliage …)

Following such leads, I would suggest that the tree in Canto XXXII is literally the desiccated Tree of Knowledge, signifying spiritually human nature itself deprived of original justice by Adam's fall. The essential connection between these two meanings seems to lie in the fact that both tree and mankind were originally adorned with God's ‘justice’—the total ordering of a thing to its proper nature, the condition of being as it ought to be. In despoiling the tree physically, Adam despoiled himself spiritually; under both aspects, his act was a violation of justice. A pattern of this kind seems compatible enough with Beatrice's final explanation of the tree (XXXIII, 55-72), ending with the explicit though not very revealing statement (71-2),

la giustizia di Dio, ne l’interdetto
conosceresti a l’arbor moralmente.

(thou wouldst recognize, in the moral sense, God's justice in the interdict on the tree.)

And the entire pattern finds some external support in a letter by Hildegard of Bingen, which approximates the exclamatory Adamo of line 37, refers to Adam's condition of original justice, and compares contemporary mankind to a dry tree by way of an apparent allusion to the Tree of Knowledge: ‘Oi, Oi, Adam novum testamentum omnis justitiae, et radix seminis hominum fuit. … Nunc arbor haec arida est. … Tempus enim istud, ad tempus istud respicit, quando prima mulier nutum primo viro in deceptione fecit.’22 (‘Alas, alas, Adam was the New Testament of all justice, and the root of the seed of men. … Now the tree is dry. … For this time looks back to that time when the first woman fashioned a command to the first man through deception.’)

In lines 43-5, the Griffon is praised for taking nothing from the tree with his beak. Since the eagle-half of the Griffon obviously represents Christ's divine nature and the lion-half His human nature (cf. Purgatorio XXIX 113-14), this specific reference to the beak suggests an allusion of some kind to His divinity. If so, and if the dry tree is to be understood as the Tree of Knowledge signifying man's fallen nature in the way that I have proposed, the point of lines 43-5 would seem to be that Christ, because of His divinity, does not partake of the ‘fruit’ of the Tree of Knowledge—that is, of the corruption in human nature resulting from the Fall.

In line 48, the Griffon's mysterious ‘Sì si conserva il seme d’ogne giusto’ (‘Thus is preserved the seed of every just one’) is apparently to be understood as a comment on his own immediate action of binding the car to the tree (49-51). The usual suggestion that this speech is an echo of Matthew 3:15, ‘Sic enim decet nos implere omnem justitiam’ (‘For thus it becomes us to fulfill all justice’), contributes no clarification that I can see. Instead, let us consider Sapientia (Wisdom) 10:4 and 14:6-7, alluding to the preservation of Noah and his family in the ark:

cum aqua deleret terram, sanavit iterum sapientia, per contemptibile lignum justum gubernans … [10:4]. Sed et ab initio … spes orbis terrarum ad ratem confugiens, remisit saeculo semen nativitatis … [14:6]. Benedictum est enim lignum per quod fit justitia [14:7].

(when water destroyed the earth, wisdom healed it again, directing the just man by contemptible wood … [10:4]. But also from the beginning … the hope of the world, fleeing to a vessel, left to the world seed of generation … [14:6]. For blessed is the wood through which justice is brought about [14:7].)

A common liturgical variant or gloss adds to 14:7, ‘quoniam regnavit a ligno Deus’ (‘because God ruled from a tree’). Throughout the Middle Ages, the standard interpretation of these verses from Sapientia presents Noah and his family as the ‘just men’ of their own generation, emphasizes their importance as the seed of all the just in future generations, and allegorizes the entire passage as the preservation of the souls of the just through the instrumentality of the Cross. If the pole by which the car of the Church is attached to the tree in the Purgatorio bears its generally recognized allegorical significance as the Cross, and if the tree can indeed be understood spiritually as man himself deprived of original justice, it seems highly probable that the Griffon's remark in line 48 alludes to the re-justification of mankind through the Cross, by way of these allegorically charged passages from Sapientia. When the Cross—and through it the Church—is applied by Christ to the desiccated tree of human nature, the tree bursts into the fresh bloom of re-justification, again becoming spiritually ‘the seed of every just one.’23

This renewal of the tree is described immediately:

          Come le nostre piante, quando casca
giù la gran luce mischiata con quella
che raggia dietro a la celeste lasca,
          turgidi fansi, e poi si rinovella
di suo color ciascuna, pria che ’l sole
giunga li suoi corsier sotto altra stella;
          men che di rose e più che di vïole
colore aprendo, s’innovò la pianta,
che prima avea le ramora sì sole.

(As our trees, when the great light [of the sun] falls downward mingled with that which beams behind the celestial Carp [more precisely, Roach or Mullet], begin to swell and then renew themselves, each in its own colour, before the sun yokes his coursers under other stars, so, taking a colour less than of roses and more than of violets, the tree was renewed which before had its branches so bare.)

Postponing lines 52-7 for a moment, I proceed to the description of the tree renewing its foliage, taking a colour ‘men che di rose e più che di vïole’ (58). The concept of a colour less than red and more than violet seems calculated to defy a literal understanding, and so to demand some sort of allegorical explanation. If my analysis of the passage so far has been credible, one would expect this mysterious colour to signify the degree of human justification resulting from the Atonement—somewhat less than the state of original justice from which Adam fell, but of course much greater than it was in the time between Fall and Atonement. The encyclopedist Pierre Bersuire, writing some ten to fifteen years after Dante's death, makes the rose signify ‘vir justus & perfectus’24 (‘the man just and perfect’); and the thirteenth-century liturgist William Durandus, for example, remarks that the Church uses violet at the feast of the Purification ‘pro eo quod officium illud est de anxia expectatione Simeonis, et sapit Vetus Testamentum’25 (‘because that service is concerned with the anxious expectation of Simeon, and smacks of the Old Testament’). In this same connection, we may recall also the three steps at the entrance to Dante's Purgatory (Purgatorio IX 94-103), where the white step seems most satisfactorily explained as signifying man's condition before the Fall, the purple-black step his condition after the Fall, and the red step his condition after the Atonement. If so, the time between Fall and Redemption would be symbolized in both passages by approximately the same colour (violet or purple); but the time before the Fall would seem represented in Canto XXXII by red (the colour of roses) and in the description of the steps by white. Or, in view of this tantalizing correspondence itself along with the fact that the great rose of the Paradiso is a white rose (XXXI 1), can it be that the ‘colour of roses’ in our passage concerning the tree is to be understood as white?26 However that may be, let us notice that Benvenuto da Imola, perhaps the most informed and intelligent of Dante's early commentators, explains the colour of the tree's renewed foliage in precisely the way I have suggested:

renovata fuerunt folia in planta ipsa, cum reconciliatum fuit genus humanum deitati; non tamen ita quod reduceretur ad primam gratiam, idest, ad statum innocentiae, sicut erat prius; ideo bene dicit, quod folia erant colorata non ut rosae, sed plusquam violae.27

(the leaves were renewed in this plant when the human race was reconciled to the divine nature—not, however, in such a way that it might be restored to its original state of grace, that is, to a state of innocence, just as it had been at first; therefore he well says that the leaves were colored not as roses, but more than violets.)

This allegorical pattern seems reinforced by the immediately preceding lines (52-7), with their obvious reference to the Zodiac. In line 54, ‘la celeste lasca’ is of course the constellation Pisces (the Fishes), the last zodiacal sign in the astronomical year; the constellation that is said to shine behind Pisces is Aries (the Ram), the first sign in the new astronomical year. The beginning of the year, along with the season of spring that accompanies it and the creation of the world that it symbolizes, is also an inevitable symbol of the regeneration following the Atonement;28 and no one needs to be reminded of the fish as a symbol of Christ. The function of this elaborate astronomical simile, I take it, is to allude thematically to the time of grace (represented by the sign of the Ram) which follows and results from the work of Christ (represented by the sign of the Fishes, with a significant adaptation from plural to singular).

The passage continues with an account of the hymn sung by the assembled company, the sleep into which it sends Dante, and his eventual awakening:

          Io non lo ’ntesi, né qui non
si canta
l’inno che quella gente allor cantaro,
né la nota soffersi tutta quanta.
          S’io potessi ritrar come assonnaro
li occhi spietati udendo di Siringa,
li occhi a cui pur vegghiar costò sì caro;
          come pintor che con essempro pinga,
disegnerei com’ io m’addormentai;
ma qual vuol sia che l’assonnar ben finga.
          Però trascorro a quando mi svegliai,
e dico ch’un splendor mi squarciò ’l velo
del sonno, e un chiamar: ‘Surgi: che fai?’.
          Quali a veder de’ fioretti del melo
che del suo pome li angeli fa ghiotti
e perpetüe nozze fa nel cielo,
          Pietro e Giovanni e Iacopo condotti
e vinti, ritornaro a la parola
de la qual furon maggior sonni rotti,
          e videro scemata loro scuola
così di Moïsè come d’Elia,
e al maestro suo cangiata stola;
          tal torna’ io, e vidi quella pia
sovra me starsi che conducitrice
fu de’ miei passi lungo ’l fiume pria.

(I did not understand, nor is it sung here, the hymn that company then intoned; nor did I endure the music to the end. If I could describe how the pitiless eyes fell asleep on hearing of Syrinx—the eyes whose long watching cost so dear—like a painter who paints from a model I would picture how I fell asleep; but whoever wishes [to do so], let him be one who can depict slumber well. Therefore I pass on to when I woke, and I say that a bright light rent for me the veil of sleep, and a call, ‘Arise, what dost thou?’ As, when to see some of the blossoms of the apple-tree that makes the angels greedy for its fruit and makes perpetual marriage-feast in heaven, Peter and John and James were brought, and, having been overcome, came to themselves again at the word by which deeper slumbers were broken, and saw their company diminished as well by Moses as by Elias, and their Master's raiment changed—so came I to myself, and saw standing over me that compassionate one [Matelda] who had been guide of my steps along the stream.)

The hymn (61-3) evidently reflects the canticum novum or ‘new song’ which appears several times in Scripture—most significantly in Apocalypse 5:9, where it is sung by the four Gospel Beasts and twenty-four elders who also constitute part of the Heavenly Procession in the Purgatorio, and so are presumably among the singers here. A standard medieval exegesis of this canticum novum makes it either a song of rejoicing at man's regeneration through the Atonement, or the New Testament which announces these joyful tidings; in either case it is sung by the Church, which, having put off the Old Man, now walks in newness of life.29

Lines 64-6 allude to the Classical fable of Jupiter, Io, and Argus, along with the related tale of Pan and Syrinx, as told in Ovid's Metamorphoses (1568-721). Jupiter sets things in motion, so to speak, by raping Io. When Juno suspects what is afoot, he quickly changes Io into a heifer and presents her to Juno, who then sets Argus with his hundred eyes to guard her. Mercury is sent by Jupiter to kill Argus, and succeeds in doing so after lulling him to sleep with the tale of how Pan pursued the nymph Syrinx, and how at his touch she was transformed into a set of reed pipes. Medieval commentary on this rather awkward fable overlooks Jupiter's inaugural action, and makes Io a devout virgin who for a time is faithful to God (represented, surprisingly enough, by Jupiter), but then is seduced by the wicked world and its delights (represented by Argus). Mercury is either Christ or the good preacher, who rescues Io by putting to sleep and then killing her worldly attachments (that is, Argus).30 Now Dante's own history, as told in the Commedia, has been one of straying from the ‘right way’ and being rescued by Beatrice—who not only preaches him what might fairly be called a sermon, but is herself analogous to Christ. The pattern underlying this allusion, then, seems to be a parallel between on the one hand Io afflicted by Argus and rescued by Mercury, and on the other Dante afflicted by worldly attachments and rescued by Beatrice. Line 65 emphasizes that the eyes of Argus were closed by hearing the tale of Syrinx—a tale explained in the Ovide moralisé as an allegory of the world (that is, Pan) pursuing vain delights (that is, Syrinx).31 Let us recall that in Canto XXXI of the Purgatorio, Dante has been reproached by Beatrice for listening to the Sirens (44-5) and especially for his attentions to a pargoletta, or ‘young girl’ (59)—both of whom there is reason for interpreting as approximate equivalents of this allegorized Syrinx. In line 65, then, are we to understand that the ‘Argus’ of worldly attachments in him has been put to sleep, partly by having heard from Beatrice what in these terms can be thought of as a ‘tale of Syrinx’?

If this interpretation of the Ovidian echoes is convincing in itself, there remains the question of its relationship to the larger theme of Fall and Redemption that I have been proposing in the rest of the passage. Very briefly, I would suggest that the character Dante here is himself a representative figure of Christian mankind; and that the parallelism I have proposed between Io afflicted by Argus and rescued by Mercury, and Dante afflicted by worldly attachments and rescued by Beatrice, is intended ultimately to evoke still another parallel pattern: mankind afflicted by the Fall and rescued by Christ.

This figurative correspondence between the fictional Dante and newly regenerate mankind at large can, I think, be detected also in the long simile of lines 73-82 comparing Dante's waking from his sleep to the waking of the three Apostles from their sleep at the Transfiguration. Hugh of St Cher, commenting on the Transfiguration in Luke 9:28-36, expounds the sleep of the Apostles in V. 32, ‘Item somnus est mors spiritualia qua homo moritur mundo, in quo anima evigilat per caelestem contemplationem.’32 (‘Likewise the sleep is the spiritual death by which man dies to the world, in which [sleep] the mind keeps watch through heavenly contemplation.’) Bonaventura, also commenting on the Transfiguration, explains that ‘ad contemplationem divinarum revelationum occurrunt duo quasi in principio, scilicet gravamen ex parte naturae et iuvamen ex parte gratiae; primum soporat, et secundum excitat.’33 (‘toward the contemplation of things divinely revealed, two things occur, as it were, in the beginning—namely, oppression on the side of nature and assistance on the side of grace. The first puts to sleep, the second awakens.’) This ‘sleep’ of the senses corresponds, I take it, to Dante's sleep in line 68; and this ‘awakening’ of the spirit, to his subsequent awakening. In the context of our passage as a whole, however, the character Dante's experiencing this beginning of ‘the contemplation of things divinely revealed’ becomes recognizeable as a further figure of the regeneration of mankind at large by the advent of Christianity—a meaning strongly supported by medieval exegesis of the Transfiguration. For example, an eighth-century homily by Ambrosius Autpertus asks, with reference to the cloud that appeared at the Transfiguration, ‘Quid autem putamus, fratres, exprimi per nubem lucidam [Matthew 17:5], nisi Novi Testamenti gratiam. …’34 (‘What shall we think, brothers, to be expressed by the bright cloud except the grace of the New Testament. …’) And Hugh of St Cher adds that ‘in hac transfiguratione significatur transfiguratio corporis mystici [Christi].’35 (‘in this transfiguration is signified the transfiguration of the mystical body [of Christ].’)

In line 72, Matelda's command Surgi (‘Arise’) echoes Christ's command Surgite (‘Arise’), spoken to the Apostles in Matthew 17:7 immediately after the Transfiguration. A sermon by the twelfth-century Gottfried of Weingarten explains this command in the light of the change from Old Law to New:

‘Surgite,’ inquit, ‘et nolite timere.’ ‘Surgite,’ hoc est sursum corda erigite, de mea pietate amodo praesumite. Usque modo enim servili timore coacti laborastis, servitio medio die noctuque insudastis. Sed jam ‘nolite timere,’ me nunc ut patrem mitissimum diligite, quem prius ut Dominum et judicem severissimum studuistis timere. Sicut ante servire mihi cum tremore vobis placuit, ita nunc poenali formidine postposita in amore quaelibet bona perficere libeat opera.36

(‘Arise,’ he says, ‘and fear not.’ ‘Arise,’ that is lift up your hearts on high, be confident henceforth in my mercy. For until now you have striven compelled by servile fear, at midday and at night you have sweated in servitude. But now ‘fear not,’ now love me as a most mild father, whom before you have been careful to fear as a most severe Lord and judge. Just as before it pleased you to serve me with fear, so now, with the fear of punishment set aside, let it please you to bring forth all good works in love.)

In lines 79-80, we are told that the three Apostles ‘videro scemata loro scuola / così di Moïsè come d’Elia’ (‘saw their company diminished as well by Moses as by Elias’). The thematic relevance of this detail, along with the oddity of introducing Moses and Elias only by way of their disappearance, seems again to be explained by medieval commentary on the Transfiguration - for example that of the twelfth-century Glossa ordinaria on Luke 9:36: ‘Ablata nube, euanescentibus Moyse & Elia, [Christus] solus cernitur, quia legis & prophetarum umbra discedente, uerum lumen coruscante Euangelij gratia reperitur. … Finis enim legis est Christus ad iusticiam omni credenti.’37 (‘The cloud having been withdrawn, Moses and Elias having vanished, [Christ] is seen alone, because when the shadow of the Law and the prophets has departed, the true light is perceived by the flashing grace of the Gospel. … For the end of the Old Law is Christ, as justice to every believer.’)

Within this extended simile of the Transfiguration, Christ is called (73-5) the ‘melo / che del suo pome li angeli fa ghiotti / e perpetüe nozze fa nel cielo’ (the ‘apple-tree that makes the angels greedy for its fruit and makes perpetual marriage-feast in heaven’). The allusion here is to Canticles 2:3, ‘Sicut malus inter ligna silvarum, / sic dilectus meus inter filios’ (‘As the apple-tree among the trees of the woods, so my beloved among the sons’)—in which the apple-tree is universally understood to signify Christ. The references to the angels and to Christ's making perpetual marriage-feast in heaven seem directly dependent on medieval exegeses of this verse, which explain that Christ, through the Atonement, has benefited the angels in heaven as well as ourselves who are on earth, and present Christ also as the Tree of Life sustaining and delighting the blessed in heaven.38 Of further interest for our passage is an interpretation exemplified by the twelfth-century Italian commentator Bruno of Asti:

Sicut enim malum inter ligna infructuose fructuosum est, ita et Christus inter Judaeos aliquando et Apostolos fuit. … Erant enim tunc temporis Apostoli sine fructu, cum multos in Judaea Christus daret fructus. Ad ejus autem comparationem non solum sine fructu, verum etiam sicci videbantur. Unde ipse ait: ‘Si in viridi ligno hoc faciunt, in arido quid fiet?’ [Luke 23:31].39

(For just as the apple-tree is fruitful among unfruitful trees, so also was Christ at one time among the Jews and the Apostles. … For at that time the Apostles were without fruit, while Christ gave forth many fruits in Judaea. In comparison with Him they appeared not only without fruit, but even dry. Whence He Himself says: ‘If they do this in a green tree, what will happen in a dry?’)

Such exegeses, I take it, bring the figure of Christ as the fruitful apple-tree in line 73 into direct and significant contrast with that of fallen human nature as the dry and unfruitful fig-tree in lines 38ff.

After the ascension of the Griffon (Christ), Matelda says of Beatrice in lines 86-7, ‘Vedi lei sotto la fronda / nova sedere in su la sua radice.’ (‘Behold her under the new foliage, seated upon its root.’) A few lines later (94), she is described as sitting alone ‘in su la terra vera’ (‘upon the very earth’). Though I am not at all sure I understand what is going on here, I would offer the hesitant conjecture that the root may bear its traditional significance as preaching, and represent the preaching of the Church during the Apostolic time;40 and that the earth may bear its equally traditional significance as the Gentiles, who were both the target of this preaching and the substance of the early Church.41 Beatrice, signifying something like Divine Revelation, would then be represented first as carried by the early preaching of the Church, and subsequently as residing in the Church of the Gentiles.

Obviously, even this laboured exegesis is still far from accounting for all the facts of this notoriously difficult passage. But let us call a merciful halt at this point and ask ourselves what pattern, if any, can be detected in this cryptic series of images so far as we have been able to interpret them. What emerges, I think, is an extended figurative elaboration of the event that in Christian terms is the undisputed center of human history: the spiritual regeneration of mankind through the Atonement, and the resulting joyful tidings of Christianity. It is this cataclysmic event that we have seen embellished in various ways by a really remarkable series of symbols, including the Scriptural and exegetical echo ‘Thus is preserved the seed of every just one’; the restoration of mankind to its divine Bridegroom; the zodiacal sign of Aries; the dry tree burgeoning into a hue less than of roses and greater than of violets; the canticum novum; the sleep of Argus; Christ as the apple-tree; and the Transfiguration. This whole figurative celebration of the beginning of Christianity is, of course, chronologically accurate as a prelude to the allegory of the seven ages of the Church, which begins a few lines later and occupies the remainder of the canto, reaching its climax with the prophecy of the DXV in Canto XXXIII. My conjecture about Beatrice's sitting on the root and on the ground, if it can be entertained, would fit neatly into place as our hitherto unaccounted-for first age, universally identified as the time of the Apostles and of Apostolic preaching.42

A final question concerns the thematic relationship between this whole figurative survey of Christian history, and the earlier survey of human history that seems embodied in the procession of Sacred Scripture in Purgatorio XXIX 82ff. If Cantos XXXII and XXXIII do indeed contain the historical pattern I have suggested, why has Dante chosen to duplicate its theme, though in strikingly different imagery, in a part of the poem so closely preceding? I would suggest that what is being dramatized here is the distinction between ‘history’ as it exists in the mind of God, and history as it is allowed to work itself out in a material universe. The Procession of Scripture—unearthly, severely ordered, and using as its major symbols the Books that are themselves the word of God—is history seen, as it were, sub specie aeternitatis; the historical survey of Cantos XXXII and XXXIII, allegorical though it is, presents with greater liveliness and variety the vicissitudes and ultimate triumph of this divinely ordained drama when it is put into production on the imperfect stage of earth.


  1. ‘Dante's “DXV” and “Veltro”,’ Traditio 17 (1961) 185-254, especially pp 187-98; abridged, though with some additions, as ‘Dante's DXV,’ in Dante: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. John Freccero (Twentieth Century Views; Englewood Cliffs, NJ 1965) 122-40, especially pp 123-8.

  2. Seventeen examples of this monogram are reproduced in ‘Dante's “DXV” and “Veltro” ’ at p 188, with a bibliography of further examples on pp 252-4; an interesting addition to the list is cited in ‘Dante's DXV,’ 123 n1.

  3. For a more detailed treatment and full documentation, see ‘Dante's “DXV” and “Veltro”,’ 193-221; abridged in ‘Dante's DXV,’ 127-37.

  4. See also ‘Dante's “DXV” and “Veltro”,’ 220-1.

  5. All quotations of the Purgatorio are from La Commedia secondo l’antica vulgata, ed. Giorgio Petrocchi (Le opere di Dante Alighieri, Edizione Nazionale a cura della Società Dantesca Italiana, 7; Milan, 1966-7), III.

  6. Opera omnia in universum Vetus et Novum Testamentum, on Apocalypse 13:1 (Lyon 1645) VII fol. 403v

  7. Jerome, Comm. in Zachariam prophetam I (PL 25, col. 1429); repeated for example in Biblia cum glosis ordinarijs et interlinearibus … (Venice 1495) fol. 959v, marginal gloss, and by Hugh of St Cher, Opera v fol. 214r. This group of four basic emotions is found in Cicero, Tusc. Disp. IV, vi, 11 et passim, and Vergil, Aen. VI 733: ‘Hinc metuunt cupiuntque, dolent gaudentque …’ (‘Hence they fear and desire, grieve and rejoice …’). It is frequent in patristic literature, particularly in Jerome; see Harald Hagendahl, Latin Fathers and the Classics: A Study on the Apologists, Jerome and Other Christian Writers (Göteborg 1958) 331-46.

  8. For example Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I-II q. 23, a. 4, Opera omnia (Rome 1882-1948) VI 177: ‘Sic igitur patet quod in concupiscibili sunt tres coniugationes passionum: scilicet amor et odium, desiderium et fuga, gaudium et tristitia. Similiter in irascibili sunt tres: scilicet spes et desperatio, timor et audacia, et ira …’ (‘So therefore it is clear that in the concupiscible part there are three pairs of emotions: namely love and hate, desire and aversion, joy and sorrow. Likewise there are three groups in the irascible part: namely hope and despair, fear and daring, and anger …’) See also q. 23 a. 1 (VI 173); and q. 25 a. 4 (VI 187).

  9. For example, Hugh of St Cher, Opera VII fol. 404v; ps.-Albertus Magnus, In Apocalypsim B. Joannis, ed. A. Borgnet, B. Alberti Magni … opera omnia (Paris 1890-9) XXXVIII 671; and ps.-Aquinas, Expositio I in Apocalypsim, ed. S. Fretté and P. Maré, Thomae Aquinatis … opera omnia (Paris 1874-89) XXXI 632

  10. Nat. hist. XII, V, 22, ed. Karl Mayhoff (Bibl. Teubneriana; Leipzig 1870-1906) II 284; repeated by Vincent of Beauvais, Speculum naturale XIV 13 (Nuremberg [c1480]), and by Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De rerum proprietatibus XVII 61 (Frankfurt 1601) 838, who says that the upper branches of the fig-tree of India ‘in altum valde se extendunt’ (‘extend themselves to a very great height’). For further references, see Thomas Malvenda, De Paradiso voluptatis XVI (Rome 1605) 40-1.

  11. For example Pliny, Nat. hist. XII, V, 23 (ed. cit. II 284); Vincent and Bartholomaeus, loc. cit.; and Thomas of Cantimpré, De naturis rerum V ‘De ficu,’ MS Paris, Bibl. nat. lat. 14720, fol. 130v: ‘Fructum gignit coctum sole, predulci sapore. Harum [i.e., ficuum] cibo Indi sapientes vivunt, sed incomparabiliter dulciorum.’ (‘It bears fruit ripened by the sun, extremely sweet in taste. The wise men of India live by the nourishment of these [i.e., figs], but incomparably sweeter ones.’)

  12. Ibid., fol. 130v

  13. For this concept generally, see the works cited in my article ‘ “Sì si conserva il seme d’ogne giusto” (Purg. XXXII 48),’ Dante Studies 89 (1971), 53 n3.

  14. See for example Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos XXXI, ii, 9, on Psalm 31:1-2, ed. E. Dekkers and J. Fraipont, Opera (CCL 38; Turnhout 1956) X, i, 232. Note also Isaias 34:4, Joel 1:7, Habacuc 3:17, and their commentaries. For a possible connection between fig-tree and ‘dead tree’ in fifteenth-century Italian painting, see Oswald Goetz, Der Feigenbaum in der religiösen Kunst des Abendlandes (Berlin 1965) 81-6; I am indebted to John V. Fleming of Princeton University for this reference.

  15. This passage, which apparently has never been printed, is paraphrased by Carl Fant, L’Image du monde: poème inédit du milieu du XIIIesiècle … (Diss., Uppsala 1886) 31-2. For other examples, see Esther Casier Quinn, The Quest of Seth for the Oil of Life (Chicago 1962) 110-14.

  16. XX 4-5, ed. Wilhelm Meyer, Vita Adae et Evae, in Abhandlungen der philosophisch-philologischen Classe der Königlich Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften XIV 3 (1878) 238; trans. L.S.A. Wells in The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament in English, ed. R.H. Charles (Oxford 1913) II 146. The Tree of Knowledge is a fig-tree also in the Old English prose Salomon and Saturnus 16, ed. John M. Kemble, The Dialogue of Salomon and Saturnus (London 1848) 182.

  17. Lucca, sculpture on the façade of the cathedral, twelfth century (Goetz, Feigenbaum, Abb. 13 and p 39); Monreale, bronze door by Bonanno da Pisa, 1186 (ibid., Abb. 16 and p 40); Palermo, mosaic in the Capella Palatina, twelfth century (ibid., Abb. 14 and p 39); Venice, sculpture on the southwest corner of the Palace of the Doges, thirteenth century (ibid., Abb. 17 and p 40); Venice, mosaic in the vestibule of the cathedral of San Marco, thirteenth century (ibid., Abb. 15 and pp 39-40); Orvieto, sculpture by Lorenzo Maetani on the façade of the cathedral, early fourteenth century (ibid., Abb. 5 and pp 29-30).

  18. IX 14 (PL 193, col. 341); from Gregory, Hom. in Evangelia II, xxxi, 2, on Luke 13:6 (PL 76, col. 1228). See also Gregory, Moralia in Iob VIII, xlviii, 82, on Job 8:17 (PL 75, cols. 852-3); and Rabanus Maurus, De universo XIX 5 (PL 111, cols. 508-9). In La Queste del Saint Graal, ed. Albert Pauphilet (Les classiques français du Moyen Age; Paris 1949) 61 and 69-70, the spiritual condition of Lancelot is repeatedly described as ‘plus nuz et plus despris [or despoilliez] que figuiers’ (‘more bare and more despoiled than the fig-tree’), with reference to Matthew 21:19 and Mark 11:13-21.

  19. De sacramentis V, iii, 14 (PL 16, col. 450)

  20. Municipio, Borgo San Sepolcro, repr. Roberto Longhi, Piero della Francesca (Florence 1963) pl. 145, 146, 151. See also Andrea Mantegna, ‘Agony in the Garden’ (London, National Gallery) and ‘Agony in the Garden’ (Tours, Museum), repr. Renata Cipriani and Paul Colacicchi, All the Paintings of Mantegna (New York 1963) pl. 45, 56; and the further examples cited by M.R. Bennett, ‘The Legend of the Green Tree and the Dry,’ Archaeological Journal 83 (1926), 21 n1.

  21. For example the De cruce et latrone, a Latin abridgement of a homily by Chrysostom, traditionally attributed to Augustine (ps.-Augustinian sermon CLV, 1; PL 39, col. 2047): ‘Propter hanc [i.e., crucem] jam in viduitate non sumus; sponsum enim recepimus.’ (‘Because of this [i.e., the Cross] we are not now in widowhood; for we have regained our Bridegroom.’) A fuller Latin version of this homily circulated under the name of Chrysostom himself; see André Wilmart, ‘La collection des 38 homélies latines de Saint Jean Chrysostome,’ Journal of Theological Studies 19 (1917-18) 313-14.

  22. Epistola XIII (PL 197, col. 167)

  23. This interpretation of the Griffon's speech has been presented somewhat more fully, along with complete documentation, in my article ‘ “Sì si conserva il seme d’ogne giusto”’ (note 13 above), 51-2.

  24. Reductorium morale XII 133, ‘De rosa,’ Petri Berchorii Pictaviensis … opera omnia (Cologne 1730-1) II 518. Ibid. 517: ‘verae rosae, id est, viri boni & justi …’ (‘true roses, that is, men good and just …’)

  25. Rationale divinorum officiorum III, xviii, 9 (Naples 1859) 131

  26. This possibility was suggested to me by John Freccero.

  27. Benevenuti de Rambaldis de Imola comentum super Dantis Aldigherij Comoediam, ed. Jacopo Philippo Lacaita (Florence 1887) IV 250

  28. See Jean Daniélou SJ, The Bible and the Liturgy (Notre Dame 1956) 287-92.

  29. For example, Haimo of Auxerre, Expositio in Apocalypsim (PL 117, col. 1020); Bruno of Asti, Expositio in Apocalypsim IV 14 (PL 165, cols 681-2); and ps.-Aquinas, Expositio II in Apocalypsim, in Opera omnia (Paris 1874-89) XXXII 166

  30. The fullest version is that in the Ovide moralisé I 3905-4030, ed. C. de Boer et al., ‘Ovide moralisé: Poème du commencement du quatorzième siècle,’ 1, Verhandelingen der Koninklijke Akademie van Wetenschappen te Amsterdam, Afdeeling Letterkunde, NR 15 (1915) 145-7. See also Arnulf of Orléans, Allegoriae super Ovidii Metamorphosin I 10-11, ed. Fausto Ghisalberti, ‘Arnolfo d’Orléans: Un cultore di Ovidio nel secolo XII,’ Memorie del R. Istituto Lombardo di Scienze e Lettere, Classe di lettere, scienze morali e storiche, XXIV 4 (1932) 203; Giovanni del Virgilio, Allegorie librorum Ovidii Metamorphoseos … prosaice ac metrice compilate I 10, ed. Fausto Ghisalberti, ‘Giovanni del Vergilio espositore delle “Metamorfosi”,’ Giornale Dantesco 34, NS 4 (1931) 46; and Pierre Bersuire, Metamorphosis Ouidiana moraliter … explanata (Paris 1509) fols 21v-22v. The main elements of this interpretation appear more or less consistently in annotated texts of the Metamorphoses—for example MSS Vat. lat. 1593, fol. 8v (twelfth century); Paris, Bibl. nat. lat. 14135, fol. 7v (thirteenth century); Vat. Palat. lat. 1663, fols. 9v, 10v (thirteenth or fourteenth century); and Vat. lat. 1479, fol. 60r (fourteenth century).

  31. I 4043-98 (pp. 148-9). Bersuire (fol. 22v) interprets Pan pursuing Syrinx as God pursuing the sinner; her metamorphosis is the effect of sin. Other interpretations are Rome pursuing the arts of Greece; the discovery of music; the pursuit of wisdom; knowledge pursuing study and through it the Seven Liberal Arts; and Pan looking for a syringe (syringa, ‘Syrinx’ or ‘syringe’) to relieve his bladder.

  32. Opera VI fol. 187r-v. See also Ambrose, Expositio Evangelii secundum Lucam VII 17, on Luke 9:32 (PL 15, cols 1703-4); and Albertus Magnus, In Lucam expositio, in Opera XXII 662.

  33. Expositio in Lucam, on Luke 9:32, Opera omnia (Quaracchi 1882-92) VII 235.

  34. Homilia in Transfiguratione Domini 18 (PL 89, col. 1317)

  35. Opera VI 59r, on Matthew 17:2. See also Bonaventura, Dominica secunda in Quadragesima, sermo I, in Opera IX 218.

  36. Homiliae Dominicales XXVIII, ‘In Sabbatum ante Dominicam II Quadragesimae prima’ (PL 174, cols 190-1)

  37. Biblia cum glosis ordinarijs et interlinearibus, fol. 1118v, marginal gloss; see also the comment on Matthew 17:8, fol. 1051r, marginal gloss.

  38. See especially Philip of Harvengt, Comm. in Cantica II 21 (PL 203, cols 285-9); and Hugh of St Cher, Opera III fol. 114r-v.

  39. Expositio in Canticum Canticorum (PL 164, col. 1244)

  40. For example, Gregory, Moralia in Iob XII, v, 6, on Job 14:8-9 (PL 75, col. 989); the Clavis Scripturae VII, xxxii, 2, ed. J.-B. Pitra, Spicilegium Solesmense (Paris 1852-8) II 385; Garner of St Victor, Gregorianum IX 16 (PL 193, col. 343); Alain de Lille, Distinctiones (PL 210, col. 920); the Allegoriae in universam Sacram Scripturam (PL 112, col. 1036); and Peter of Capua, Rosa alphabetica, ‘Radix,’ MS Paris, Bibl. Mazarine 1007: ‘Radix fidei predicatio, Job [14:8-9]’

  41. For example, Gregory, Moralia in Iob II, xxxv, 57, on Job 1:20 (PL 75, col. 583); Clavis IV, i, 8 (Spicilegium II 120); Garner, Gregorianum VI 1 (PL 193, cols 242-3; Alain, Distinctiones (PL 210, col. 970); and Allegoriae (PL 112, col. 1065)

  42. The seven status ecclesiae derived from the opening of the seven seals in Apocalypse 6-8 (above) are accompanied respectively by seven great ordines predicatorum (‘orders of preachers’), derived from the sounding of the seven trumpets in Apocalypse 8-10; the first of these periods of preaching, corresponding to the first status, is the preaching of the Apostles themselves. On the sounding of the first trumpet (Apocalypse 8:7), see for example Biblia cum glosis ordinarijs et interlinearibus, fol. 1380r, marginal and interlinear glosses; and Hugh of St Cher, Opera VII fol. 391v.

This paper was presented at the meeting of the Mediaeval Academy of America at Los Angeles, California, 15 April 1972; and at a seminar entitled ‘The æsthetics of Difficult Literature in the Middle Ages, Part II,’ sponsored by the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto, 3 November 1973. My present documentation is intended to be suggestive rather than complete.

Christie K. Fengler and William A. Stephany (essay date 1977)

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SOURCE: “The Visual Arts: A Basis for Dante's Imagery in Purgatory and Paradise,” Michigan Academician, Vol. X, No. 2, Fall, 1977, pp. 127-41.

[In the following essay, Fengler and Stephany demonstrate Dante's knowledge of art as evidenced in Canto X of Purgatorio, and furnish examples of the type of art that he may have observed and been inspired by.]

The observation that the visual arts inspired certain sections of Dante's Divine Comedy has frequently been made. Therefore an understanding of the type of art which Dante would have seen aids the reader in understanding Dante's imagery. When the poet borrows ideas from the visual arts, he utilizes them not as mere decorative additions to the Comedy; rather, the actual style of art invoked contributes to the meaning of Dante's passages. We will examine the reliefs in canto X of Purgatory and the mosaic images recurrent in Paradise as examples of Dante's familarity with both the visual appearance and the underlying stylistic implications of art.

Furthermore, we suggest that much of the basic structure of Purgatory and Paradise is conceived in pictorial terms. In the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, poets in central Italy, writing in what Dante called the dolce stil nuovo (“sweet new style”), were experimenting with a vernacular poetry of increased emotional and psychological depth. At the same time, sculptors such as Nicola and Giovanni Pisano and painters such as Giotto and his followers reflect a similar shift in style and sensibility in their respective art forms. In Purgatory, where souls cleanse themselves of their worldly attachments, the inspiration for the passages dealing with art seems to be this new, “worldly,” materialistic style of sculpture and painting. In Paradise, however, Dante uses the earlier, more other-worldly, abstract style of the Byzantine mosaics as the basis for many of his visions.

In canto X of Purgatory, on the terrace of the proud, Dante finds three reliefs carved into the rocky face of the mountain, each depicting an example of humility intended to provide moral instruction to help expiate the sin of pride. The figures in the reliefs are so convincingly rendered that “nature herself would there be put to shame” (Purg. X, 33).1 The representational fidelity stressed by Dante was one of the remarkable stylistic innovations of artists of his own period, who combined the traditional medieval didactic intent with increased naturalism.

One of the sources for this shift toward naturalism was a renewed interest in the art of the classical past. Just as Dante turned frequently to ancient authors for inspiration, so the figurative artists took a new look at remnants of pre-Christian antiquity. The naturalistic representation characteristic of the Greeks and Romans was, therefore, something of which the thirteenth century was increasingly conscious.

Dante himself acknowledges a resurgent interest in the art of the ancient world in claiming that Polykleitos would have envied the results achieved in the Purgatory reliefs (X, 32-33). Dante's reference does not imply that he had firsthand knowledge of the work of this particular fifth-century b.c. sculptor. While he had undoubtedly seen some antique remains both in Florence and on his travels, his allusion to Polykleitos would have been based on literary convention. By the thirteenth century, it is doubtful that any original work by Polykleitos had survived the damaging raids and lootings of the early Middle Ages.2

Nevertheless, Polykleitos remained one of the most celebrated classical masters because his reputation had outlived his material accomplishments. In his Natural History, Pliny wrote of Polykleitos' best known work, the Doryphorus (Spear-Bearer), as follows:

Polykleitos … made what artists have called the model statue [or “canon”] from which, as from a sort of standard, they study the lineaments; so that he, of all men, is thought in one work of art to have exhausted all the resources of art.3

Cicero and Quintilian also discussed the pivotal importance of the Doryphorus in the evolution of Greek sculpture, and Plutarch added the observation that Polykleitos was concerned with a high degree of detail and finish in his work4 (an important consideration also in the sculptural reliefs in Purgatory). The testimony of ancient authors, therefore, stressed the importance of the lifelike qualities in this exemplary artist. Thus when Dante proclaims that Polykleitos would have been jealous of the representational skills demonstrated in the Purgatory reliefs, he is, in a shorthand way, speaking of the mimetic process.

Another source for the increased humanization of art at Dante's time was the influence of the mendicant orders, and in particular of the Franciscans. Given the long-standing supposition that Dante himself was a third order Franciscan, this may be particularly relevant for our consideration. Francis and his followers urged people to imagine, on the basis of their own experiences, what life must have been like for Christ and his family. For example, the Franciscan devotional book Meditations on the Life of Christ, written by the Tuscan “Pseudo-Bonaventura” in the second half of the thirteenth century, suggests the following model for meditation upon the holy family's Flight into Egypt:

How did they carry food with them? And where did they rest and spend the night? Have pity on them, for it was a very difficult, great, and long exertion for them as well as for the child Jesus. Accompany them and help to carry the child.5

The emphasis which the Franciscans placed on the human aspects of religious stories led to a greater stress on humanity in the artistic depiction of such scenes. Thus the renewed interest which we have already observed in antique art, where man and his relationship to the world had been of central importance, was, perhaps unintentionally, one by-product of Franciscan teachings.

The Franciscan ideals were, of course, primarily spread through their preaching.6 In addition, the Franciscans developed a form of religious drama in which they sometimes “impersonated” the holy figures of whom they were speaking, a practice which had evolved into a type of Franciscan play in Florence in the latter part of the thirteenth century.7 Francis himself had not hesitated to use visual aids when he felt they would make abstract religious concepts more real. His setting up of the Christmas crib at Greccio is the best known example. Art inspired by Franciscanism shows protagonists increasingly lifelife in appearance and behavior. A comparison of Antelami's Romanesque relief of the Flight into Egypt (Parma, Baptistry, 1204-1211) and Giotto's treatment of the same subject in the Arena chapel at Padua (ca. 1305) illustrates these changes.

In canto X of Purgatory, Dante enters Purgatory proper, where art regularly serves a moral function, aiding in the systematic refinement of the souls. The lifelike reliefs that Dante finds in this canto are the first and most carefully articulated example of Purgatory's art. They had been executed by God himself, an unerring craftsman, as examples of humility for those who had been excessively proud. Therefore, we may infer that Dante approves of an art rooted in sensual reality as best suited for the instruction of those who retain a lingering attachment to earthly things. Just as their vices had been indulged through the senses, virtue must also be reinforced through the senses.8 Indeed, the visual impact of these carved reliefs is so persuasively naturalistic that, Dante tells us, other senses, specifically hearing and smell, seem to be engaged as well.

Moreover, the arrangement of the three reliefs and their relationship to each other reflect contemporary artistic practice. Images from the Old Testament and from pagan antiquity frequently foreshadowed Christian events or elaborated on the moral lesson in a Christian story. The three examples of humility in the Purgatory reliefs come from three distinct literary and historical traditions: the New Testament (the Annunciation to Mary), the Old Testament (David and Michal), and Roman History (Trajan and the Widow). A parallel example in art is provided by Giotto's Arena Chapel frescoes. Here small medallions immediately preceding New Testament narrative scenes are typologically related to these scenes. The subject matter of the medallions is drawn in part from the Old Testament; Jonah and the Whale, for example, precedes the Lamentation, the moment before Christ's entombment. Popular legend, however, provides the subject matter of the lioness and her cubs, who were believed to have remained lifeless for three days and then to have received the breath of life from their mother. This medallion appropriately precedes the fresco depicting the Angels at the Tomb and the Noli Me Tangere, images associated with Christ's resurrection.

The Perugia Fountain (1277-78) by Nicola and Giovanni Pisano provides a similar sculptural example. Its thematic program combines Christian elements with Old Testament heroes, ancient history, mythology, and a cycle illustrating the Labors of the Months.9 Moreover, the panels of this fountain run in a continuous band which the viewer is invited to read in an episodic way, much as Dante's reader experiences the humility reliefs. The four great pulpits also sculpted by the Pisani10 were banded with reliefs depicting episodes from the life of Christ which can also be read sequentially, which are also highly naturalistic, and which also serve a didactic function. With the rise of the preaching orders in the thirteenth century, the pulpit's importance as a piece of church furniture increased greatly. The educational programs that were preached from the pulpits would have been well reinforced by the kind of art depicted on them: didactic and realistic, so as to aid meditation. In canto X of Purgatory, Dante has God sculpt in a similar manner.

Certain details of the Purgatory reliefs support the theory that Dante was a careful observer of the art around him. When he says that the postures and gestures of the figures were so persuasive that their words seemed to be heard, he may have been entertaining a visual memory of the artistic tradition in which the actual words of the protagonists were incorporated in written form directly into the work. Such a practice was, as a matter of fact, especially widespread in images of the Annunciation to the Virgin. A familiar example, executed shortly after Dante's lifetime but reflecting a pre-existent tradition, is Simone Martini's Uffizi Annunciation (1333), where the angel's words to Mary issue forth in a horizontal stream on the gold background of the painting. In Purgatory's Annunciation, “one would have sworn that [the angel] was saying, ‘Ave,’” and that “these words were imprinted in [Mary's] attitude: ‘Ecce ancilla Dei’” (X, 40-45). In God's superior art, however, the words arise from the naturalism of the scene and need not be depicted literally.

Dante seems also to have been aware of the different styles available to sculptors in executing reliefs. His Annunciation shows Gabriel and the Virgin against a neutral ground without secondary props, whereas the reliefs of David and of Trajan are filled with descriptive details. The cart and oxen, seven choirs, smoking censers, and Michal sitting at a palace window form the background of the former, and soldiers carrying banners which were blowing in the wind, of the latter.11 Both of these approaches were used by sculptors of Dante's generation. The figures could be handled quite naturalistically in either case. The decision of whether to fill the background with supplementary visual information or to leave it neutral was based on both aesthetic and practical considerations.

The same artist might use one approach or the other depending on the nature of his work and its intended location and also on the amount of information required to make the subject matter clearly recognizable. For example, the Pisani carved the individual scenes for their pulpits with a wealth of characters and episodes which tended to fill each panel from side to side and top to bottom. The relief from the Siena Cathedral Pulpit (1265-1268) illustrating the Presentation in the Temple, Herod and the Magi, Joseph's Dream, and the Flight into Egypt demonstrates this horror vacui. In this case, the style comes in part from the desire to show several chronologically related events in a single relief format so as to be as complete as possible about the canonical account of Christ's life within a structurally limited number of episodes.12 The figures were cut with deep pockets of shadow between them so that they would still “read” clearly in the dark church interior.

Yet the same artist, a few years later, used the alternative approach to his relief carvings for the Perugia Fountain. Here, in the Labors of the Months, for example, a figure in fairly shallow relief is silhouetted against a neutral ground of blank stone. The paired representatives of December, who prepare meat for the winter feasts, are in poses which convey succinctly the activity in which they are engaged. The only other objects present are the dog which has aided them in the hunt and the zodiacal sign of Capricorn in the upper left that identifies the particular period of time depicted. Only the minimum information necessary for an understanding of the iconography has been transmitted. It has been suggested that this simplified handling may have been better suited to the exterior placement of the fountain. A neutral background with shallow relief figures may have been determined to “weather” better than the Siena pulpit style would.13 It is also true that the artists had a more extended relief surface in the fountain base and did not need to condense the information presented into a relatively small number of panels.

God, the sculptor of the Purgatory reliefs, has used both techniques in his work. The Annunciation is a theme which had a long iconographic tradition in art and which formed an integral part of every pictorial cycle dealing with the life of Christ or that of the Virgin. A relief of this subject would have been immediately recognizable to viewers of Dante's time, and the attitudes of the two figures alone would have conveyed the entire notion of Mary's acceptance of God's will. The stories of David and Trajan, while suited admirably to the didactic function which they are asked to perform, are far more obscure and must be bolstered by as much descriptive information as possible in order to become legible. Therefore they have been sculpted in the alternative mode. What Dante has done in his imaginary sculptures is to shift from one prevailing style to another in order to make his points clear. Such creativity provides a further demonstration of his intimate awareness of artistic options.

Finally, it is frequently forgotten that a large number of medieval relief panels were embellished with gilt and polychrome. There is evidence, for example, that the edges and linings of the drapery in the Siena and Pistoia pulpits of Nicola and Giovanni Pisano, respectively, were colored in this fashion.14 Thus when Dante speaks of the soldiers around Trajan with their standards flying overhead and says “above them the eagles in gold moved visibly in the wind” (Purg. X, 80-81), he is envisioning similar touches of gold on the grounds of the flags.15

Dante's response to the visual arts has clearly enriched his poem. The great surge of artistic activity in Tuscany during Dante's lifetime would probably have led any sensitive soul to contemplate such productions with amazement and admiration. Dante, however, had an especially heightened awareness of art, perhaps because he himself appears to have been at least an amateur artist.16 In chapter 35 of La Vita Nuova, Dante, while thinking about his departed Beatrice, begins to draw an angel on panel. Two aspects of this revelation are noteworthy. The first, as many have noted, is that Dante portrays himself as a man given to making artistic images to fill an inner need at a time of emotional duress. The second is the more explicit information that Dante was drawing on panel. Historically, we are well before the period in which drawings were valued for their own sake. Such drawings usually constituted the preliminary step in the making of a subsequent painting on that same panel.17 Thus Dante's familiarity with the concerns of the working artist may go well beyond what has been expected. This “secret life” of Dante remains, of course, in the realm of speculation.

When we turn out attention from Purgatory to Paradise, we find that Dante's interest in art continues, but no longer in an art that is contemporary and naturalistic. The didactic function of Purgatory's art, to tame worldly inclinations with “worldly” models, would be redundant in Paradise. The very fact that the souls are in Paradise demonstrates that they have already been perfected. The goal of the climb up Mount Purgatory has been to become worthy of entering God's presence, and, once there, the souls have no further need of instruction.

The appropriateness of the kind of art Dante chose to use in much of Paradise is implied in certain aspects of the medieval light metaphysics tradition revealed in this canticle.18 In this tradition, God is the pure light which stands in the Neo-Platonic tradition as the source of Being. Truth, Love, Beauty, and the other abstract pefections. Thus, when Dante and Beatrice enter the Empyrean, she informs him that they have come to the heaven of this pure light:

light intellectual full of love, love of true good full of joy, joy that transcends every sweetness.

(XXX, 40-42)

This light shines throughout the universe, and is absorbed by and reflected by all things in proportion to their perfection. The opening lines of Paradise assume the reader's familiarity with this tradition:

The glory of the All-Mover penetrates through the universe and reglows in one part more, and in another less.

(I, 1-3)

Since all creatures, men included, express their value in their ability to absorb this light, the souls' radiance increases as they draw closer to God. If we remember that this light is the source of moral perfection, the aptness of this phenomenon will be clear. This divine light, moreover, retains its integrity, even though reflected from all creatures in proportion to their worth. As Beatrice puts it just before entering the Empyrean's “Primal Light”:

Behold now the height and breadth of the Eternal Goodness, since it has made itself so many mirrors wherein it is reflected, remaining in itself One as before.

(XXIX, 142-45)

Dante's artistic problem in Paradise is to create visual images for such a heaven, where light retains its conceptual unity even while its reflections are scattered abroad. One of his principal solutions, especially after the Circle of the Sun, is to describe his several visions of the saved as mosaic images akin to the ones he would have encountered in the city of Ravenna, where he completed Paradise. The dominant artistic character of Ravenna, then as now, was found in its many splendid sixth-century Byzantine mosaics. These works embody visual principles which, in direct contrast with the practices of Dante's contemporaries, are intentionally non-naturalistic, abstract, and other-worldly. Many critics have noted in Paradise “a tonal and figurative analogy with the mosaic treasures of Ravenna.”19 However, we would argue for a connection that is precise and intimate rather than general and impressionistic.

In order to understand this relationship we must bear in mind the way a mosaic is made and the way it achieves its aesthetic effect. In mosaic technique, tesserae, the individual pre-cut tiles of various sizes and colors, are so arranged as to depict the desired image. This much is readily apparent in photographs. What two-dimensional reproductions do not reveal, however, is that the tiles are intentionally set at oblique angles to each other. A smooth, continuous surface would frustrate one of the principal effects of Byzantine mosaics, namely the shimmering, other-worldly play of colors as the light source or observer changes position. According to Giuseppe Bovini, this phenomenon occurs as follows:

[In the mosaic technique] light is multiplied because as it strikes the surface it is automatically split into an infinite number of chromatic units. … When one realizes that these tesserae are small cubes of enamel, glass, marble, and sometimes even mother of pearl, … it is easy to understand why an unknown poet, overwhelmed by the dazzling brilliance of light sparkling from the mosaic-covered walls, was inspired to write the following lines which were transcribed on the vestibule walls of the Archiepiscopal Chapel [in Ravenna]: “Either light was born here or, imprisoned here, it reigns supreme (Aut lux nata est aut capta hic libera regnat).”20

It is not surprising, therefore, given the importance of light to Dante and to the mosaics, that several of Paradise's images seem inspired by Ravenna's mosaics.21 The two circles of stars—souls of philosophers and theologians—that ring Dante and Beatrice in the sun recall such mosaic ceilings as that of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, where stars circle around a cross. The great cross glowing from the surface of Mars brings to mind the apsidal mosaic in the Church of S. Apollinare in Classe, where the transfiguration of Christ is symbolized by a cross.22 Furthermore, the Cross of Mars flashes forth an image of Christ which may be compared with the centralized head of Christ in the S. Apollinare cross. As we will argue shortly, the eagle of Jupiter is also inspired by mosaic technique, as is the river of light in the Empyrean.

Dante's use of visual motifs in Purgatory and Paradise, however, extends beyond inspiration for specific images. In fact, in a fundamental way, the very relationship of individual souls to God in the two regions is conceived of in terms of the art we have discussed. In Purgatory, the souls are the material of God's art: God shapes them into the perfect moral form they must assume before they will feel free to enter Paradise.23 This artistic metaphor, which had been implicit throughout the terraces of Purgatory, is made explicit by Beatrice in the first canto of Paradise. She explains that in God's design, man should return to heaven, but that man's free will can frustrate this desire, “even as a shape often does not accord with the intention of the art, because the material is deaf to respond” (Para. I, 127-129).

That the souls in Purgatory are the material of God's art is dramatized in canto X on the terrace of the proud. After Dante and Virgil study the marvelous marble panels sculpted directly by the hand of God, the souls of the proud enter, each bent under the weight of the unhewn stone he is carrying. Dante describes them as statuary, the very art form God has chosen to use for their instruction:

As for corbel to support a ceiling or a roof, sometimes a figure is seen to join the knees to the breast—which, unreal, begets real distress in one who sees it—so fashioned did I see these when I gave good heed. They were truly more or less contracted according as they had more and less upon their backs; and he who showed the most suffering in his looks, seemed to say, weeping, “I can no more.”

(X, 130-139)

Dante responds to these souls as he had to the reliefs. Just as the imagined suffering of the corbels can inspire real suffering in the observer, these souls are so fashioned that Dante reads their postures and hears what they seemed to say: “I can no more.” In hearing their “visible speech” as he had previously heard what seemed to be said in the three panels, Dante makes the point that the proud are also being sculpted by God and will serve a didactic function for Dante analogous to that of the previous artworks.

In contrast to the souls in Purgatory, who still need to be shaped and refined, the souls in Heaven may be thought of as tesserae, as the already shaped, already polished stones that communicate their meaning not in isolation from each other, but only in the composite images they form in relationship with one another. In the cross of Mars, for example, the image of the white cross on the red planet is comprised of the souls of the saved warriors, each an individual reflection of God's glory, placed together as mosaic tiles in the cruciform shape. Cacciaguida, as typical of the souls in the cross, is variously a mirror (XVII, 123 and XVIII, 2), a jewel (XV, 22, 85 and XVIII, 115, a flame (XVI, 29), or a glow (XVIII, 25). The two intersecting bands of such souls are like two galaxies or two dust-laden sunbeams (XIV, 97-117), suggesting anew the mosaic analogy.

In Jupiter, the souls have a mobility uncharacteristic of mosaic tiles. Here they arrange themselves successively as each of the 35 letters of the Latin inscription, “diligite iustitiam qui iudicatis terram” (“love justice, you who govern the earth”). The souls then rearrange themselves from the final “m” of terram to a lily, and then to an imperial eagle. The animation is miraculous, but the individual images thus created are, once again, mosaic. The eagle is a single image comprised of “interwoven souls,” each “a little ruby” on which a ray of sun glowed (XIX, 1-6). Dante later calls these souls “the bright and precious jewels wherewith I saw the sixth luminary engemmed” (XX, 16-17). The eagle then calls special attention to the six souls who together comprise his eye. This is a difficult image to visualize, but one made simpler if we consider the eagle a mosaic and the saved souls the tesserae. The detail of Saint Peter's head from the Orthodox Baptistery in Ravenna helps to make the point, since his eye is similarly formed (Figure 4). David is the stone set as the pupil, and the other five are stones set around as the eyelid (XX, 31 ff). The gems (XVIII, 115) are in reality the “soldiery of Heaven” (XVIII, 124), who have been arranged in these shapes by God the artist (XVIII, 109).

Finally, in the Empyrean, the river of light is clearly conceived as a mosaic image:

I saw a light in form of a river glowing tawny between two banks painted with marvelous spring. From out this river issued living sparks and dropped on every side into the blossoms, like rubies set in gold. Then, as if inebriated by the odors, they plunged again into the wondrous flood, and as one was entering another was issuing forth.

(XXX, 61-69)

Dante comes to understand that the flowers are saints and the sparks, angels, flashing between the saints and the river of light. The theological implications are later clarified (XXXI, 1-24), but the visual intent seems to be to suggest with words the effect of a mosaic similar to the landscape portions of the S. Apollinare Transfiguration (Figure 5). The multi-faceted surface of such a m⊙saic shoots momentary rays of reflected light off in various directions. The flickering of candles or the movement of the observer's head is enough to send these “angels” darting about the surface of a mosaic.

Beatrice then asks Dante to drink with his eyes from the river of light to prepare himself for a more complete vision of truth. She explains as follows:

The stream and the topazes which enter and issue, and the smiling of the grasses, are the shadowy prefaces of their truth.

(XXX, 76-78)

Dante does what Beatrice had requested and then sees the Empyrean as it really “is,” not as it had been symbolically manifested. The two-dimensional representation becomes three-dimensional as we leave the river of time for a fuller comprehension of the eternal present. What had been depicted as flowers reveal themselves as “the saintly host” (XXXI, 2). They appear to Dante in bodily form, seated within the amphitheatric rose. In reality they are saints; in God's art, they were tiles in the mosaic flowers.


  1. This and all subsequent references to Dante are to Charles Singleton's Italian text and English translation of The Divine Comedy, 3 vols. in 6, Princeton, 1970-1975.

  2. Cornelius Vermeule, Polykleitos, Boston, 1969, p. 11.

  3. Book 34, ch. 19. The quotation is from the translation by John Bostock and H. T. Riley, vol. 6, London, 1857, pp. 171-172.

  4. Gisela M. A. Richter, The Sculpture and Sculptors of the Greeks, 2nd ed., New Haven, 1930, pp. 246-248.

  5. Translated by Isa Ragusa and Rosalie B. Green, Princeton, 1961, p. 65.

  6. Pope Urban IV (1261-1264) extended the privilege of granting preaching rights, formerly the prerogative of bishops, to the mendicant orders as well. Such preaching could, furthermore, be done either in Latin or in the vernacular. Thus, as Michael Ayrton, Giovanni Pisano, Sculptor, New York, 1969, p. 29, has pointed out, the devotional ideas of the Franciscans soon reached a broad audience.

  7. Edward A. Armstrong, Saint Francis: Nature Mystic, Berkeley, 1973, p. 241.

  8. One is reminded of Thomas Aquinas' argument for the necessity of sacraments, physical signs of a spiritual reality. Because in sin man subjected himself to corporeal things, the healing remedy should be applied directly to the affected part (Summa Theologiae, question 61, article 1).

  9. These labors contributed to the religious meaning of the monument in that they were considered the means by which man began the process of redemption after his original fall from grace. Ayrton traces this notion to Vincent of Beauvais (Giovanni Pisano, p. 44).

  10. Nicola Pisano, Pisa Baptistery Pulpit, 1259/60; Nicola Pisano, Siena Cathedral Pulpit, 1265-68; Giovanni Pisano, Pulpit for Sant’ Andrea, Pistoia, 1297-1301; Giovanni Pisano, Pisa Cathedral Pulpit, 1302-10.

  11. Giovanni Fallani, Dante e la cultura figurativa medievale, Bergamo, 1971, pp. 87-91, observes this difference in style without explaining it further.

  12. The choice, of course, also reflects aesthetic preferences. For one thing, the multitude of episodes is further explained by an increased interest in French Gothic art, which tended to be less classically restrained than Nicola had been earlier in his career.

  13. John White, Art and Architecture in Italy, 1250 to 1400, Baltimore, 1966, p. 52.

  14. White, Art and Architecture, pp. 37, 49.

  15. This point has also been made by Fallani, Dante e la cultura figurativa, p. 91. Primarily because of the mention of gold in Dante's description of these reliefs, Licisco Magagnato, “La città e le arti a Verona al tempo di Dante,” Dante e la cultura veneta, eds. Vittore Branca and Giorgio Padoan, Florence, 1966, pp. 285-286, has produced an elaborate explanation of how Dante moved back and forth between borrowings from miniature painting and those from relief sculpture to form the imaginary Purgatory reliefs. Polychrome, however, is not incongruous with relief sculpture.

  16. At this time, the status of the working artist was not elevated. Such inclinations, therefore, would not have been considered appropriate for a gentleman and would have been practiced only by someone with a real interest in artistic problems.

  17. The suggestion was first made by Valerio Mariani in Conversazioni d’arte, Naples, 1957, pp. 7-8, and is cited by Fallani, Dante e la cultura figurativa, p. 29.

  18. For a full discussion, see Joseph A. Mazzeo, Structure and Thought in the Paradiso, Ithaca, New York, 1958, pp. 141-166; and his Medieval Cultural Tradition, Ithaca, New York, 1960.

  19. Eugenio Chiarini, “Ravenna,” Enciclopedia Dantesca, vol. 4, Rome, 1973, p. 862.

  20. Ravenna Mosaics, trans. Gustina Scaglia, Greenwich, Connecticut, 1956, p. 6.

  21. Rosario Assunto, “Concetto dell’arte e ideali estetici in Dante,” La critica d’arte nel pensiero medioevale, Milan, 1961, p. 272.

  22. Chiarini, Enc. Dant., p. 863.

  23. Philip Berk makes a similar point in “Some Sibylline Verses in Purgatorio X and XII,” Dante Studies, vol. 90 (1972), pp. 59-76.

James I. Wimsatt (essay date 1977)

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Last Updated on January 18, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7309

SOURCE: “Beatrice as a Figure for Mary,” Traditio, Vol. XXXIII, 1977, pp. 402-14.

[In the following essay, Wimsatt furnishes evidence found in Purgatorio that demonstrates that Dante depicted Beatrice as an analogue for, or surrogate of, the Virgin Mary.]

The identification of ‘Christ figures’ in medieval literature has no doubt been overdone. Yet it can hardly be denied that we do find there characters who present meaningful analogues to Christ, for along with a good number of probable analogues, the parallels in some cases are explicit; for example, Galahad in the Queste del Saint Graal and Thomas Malory's Grail story.1 So too in Dante's Vita Nuova the parallel of Beatrice with Christ is not left to surmise. In Chapter 24 Joan, Guido Cavalcanti's donna, is presented as preceding Beatrice; to Dante she is like her namesake John, the one who comes before the True Light. Beatrice who follows, then, is like Christ to him. And in the preceding chapter (23) Dante reports a vision in which he is told of the death of Beatrice; thereupon he sees a cloud ascending to heaven, accompanied by a host of angels singing ‘Hosanna in excelsis,’ conventionally addressed to Christ. Again the analogue seems unavoidable.

Not only are there Christ figures in medieval literature, there are clear analogues to Mary too. Beatrice again—this time in Purgatorio—is one of these. This is not to deny that she there also represents Revelation and Wisdom. She may even in a sense stand for Christ, as Charles S. Singleton asserts, though I think his persuasive statement needs qualification:

In the Vita Nuova, at the center of Vita Nuova, Beatrice is seen to depart this life, uplifted in the company of a host of angels, in a cloud, and the cry that accompanies her is Hosanna. At the center of the Divine Comedy, Beatrice comes, Beatrice returns, in the company of a host of angels, in a cloud of glory, and in a company whose first cry is again Hosanna. But what is more striking than all of these details is this: Beatrice's death at the center of the Vita Nuova is like Christ's death. We have seen the signs—like Christ's death and like an ascension. And at the center of the Comedy, Beatrice's return, what is literally Beatrice's second coming, resembles not a coming of Christ, but the second coming of Christ—in a day of Judgment.2

There is surely a measure of truth in what Professor Singleton perceives here in Purgatorio. Nevertheless, he may not tell the whole story, nor even the main story. Many factors point to Beatrice in Eden as in the first place a figure for the Virgin Mary, whose emissary she is. These also indicate that the event which is celebrated by the Pageant of the Church is primarily the first coming, not the second. Development of these points is the concern of this paper.

Though ‘Mary figures’ in literature have received less attention than Christ figures, prominent examples are not lacking. In Geoffrey Chaucer's poetry two rather elaborate analogues to Mary, Fair White in the Book of the Duchess and Griselda in the Clerk's Tale, have been documented.3 In the latter the analogue is asserted most notably through a parallel to the Annunciation story that appears in Walter's first visit to Griselda. In the Book of the Duchess it is manifested in the description of White, which is imbued with Marian allusions that are particularly appropriate to the Assumption, the feast which commemorates Mary's departure from the world just as Chaucer's poem commemorates Blanche of Lancaster's death. Thus these parallels to Mary are based especially on references to main events of her life—the Annunciation, and the Assumption and Coronation—in the same way as literary analogues to Christ are pointed up through references to crucial events of his life such as the Crucifixion and Ascension.

Two other literary parallels to the Assumption which have special interest in this paper appear in the Middle English Pearl and in Guido Cavalcanti's sonnet ‘Chi è questa che vèn.’ In Pearl the Maiden reports that Christ summoned her to heaven in the same words of the Canticle of Canticles with which in Assumption legend and liturgy he calls Mary to her Assumption. The Maiden states:

When I wente fro yor worlde wete,
He calde me to hys bonerté:
‘Cum hyder to me, my lemman swete,
For mote ne spot is non in þe.’(4)

The Maiden reports that once in heaven she was made a crowned queen, just as Mary was. She emphasizes, of course, that her queenship in no way impinges on or abridges Mary's status; as with all such parallels, hers to the Virgin is significant and real, but it remains a parallel. Cavalcanti's sonnet presents a beautifully simple and effective analogue to the Assumption. The opening line, ‘Chi è questa che vèn, ch’ogn’om la mira?’5 [‘Who is she who comes that every man gazes at her?’], describes the admiration felt by onlookers as his lady enters into a noble company on the arm of Love. Cavalcanti's question echoes the three ‘Que est ista?’ [‘Who is she?’] questions of the Canticle of Canticles, which through the Middle Ages were seen as the angels' exclamations of admiration as Christ takes Mary into heaven.6 The parallel that the sonnet presents to the Assumption is unmistakeable.

Pearl, which is perhaps based largely on Purgatorio, is relevant to Beatrice's figuration of Mary because it too shows a Mary figure who on earth has been personally important to the narrator and then after death appears to him in a paradisal setting first to correct him and then to guide him to a vision of heaven. Cavalcanti's sonnet provides important testimony for Dante in showing a stilnovist donna, whose literary appearances Dante knew particularly well, as a figure for the Virgin in the context of one of the major events of her life.

To begin to see how Beatrice in Eden is a figure for Mary, it is appropriate to consider the procession as it approaches Dante across the stream in Eden in Canto 29. Seven candlesticks representing the spirits of God are followed by twenty-four elders who personify the books of the Old Testament. The lilies they are crowned with have the color of Faith, the characterizing virtue of those who preceded Christ. Lilies are common symbols of the Annunciation, the event at which the Incarnation takes place;7 they are therefore especially appropriate for the elders since the Incarnation was seen as the whole subject of the Old Testament. Accordingly, all the elders join in singing words clearly based on those of the angel of the Annunciation: ‘Benedicta tue ne le figlie d’Adamo’ [‘Blessed are you among the daughters of Adam’] (Purg. 29.85-86).8 In its varying the angel Gabriel's statement to Mary, ‘Blessed are you among women,’ to emphasize the female progeny of Adam, the song aptly suggests the historical coverage of the Old Testament books which the elders represent—from the Creation to the Incarnation.

The elders add, ‘E benedette sieno in etterno le bellezze tue’ [‘And blessed are your beauties forever’] (86-87). Professor Singleton says, ‘This additional blessing goes quite beyond the words addressed to Mary and since we are expecting Beatrice to come, could these words not be a welcoming salutation to her?’9 But to say the second blessing goes beyond the words addressed to Mary is to ignore the blessing that Elizabeth adds to Gabriel's; she greets Mary, ‘Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb’ (Luke 1.42). The logical inference seems to be that the second blessing of the elders echoes Elizabeth's and is still directed to Mary—or to Beatrice as Mary. Accordingly, as ‘among women’ is equivalent to ‘among the daughters of Adam’ so ‘the fruit of your womb’ is equivalent to ‘your beauties.’10 The latter phrases, then, both signify Jesus. Substantial evidence bears out such inference, which I will return to later. It will be more productive now to observe the procession as it draws to a halt before Dante in Canto 30.

The elders of the Old Testament precede the car, symbols from the Apocalypse representing the gospels surround it, and the remaining books of the New Testament personified follow it. Can there be any doubt of the historical arrangement of the procession? Is it not designed to express to our time-bound minds the Incarnation, the first coming? The second coming, of course, in tradition is prefigured by the first, and is suggested by some important details here in Purgatorio, but what is expected primarily is the Incarnation and that is what is presented. When the procession has stopped, the elders turn to the car and one of them, clearly representing the Canticle of Canticles, calls out, ‘Veni, sponsa, de Libano’ (30.11). All the weight of medieval interpretation of Canticles says that this call is directed either to the Church, to the perfected soul, or to Mary.11 When Beatrice now appears on the car, then, she represents one of these. Which one? The Church is already there in the form of the car. Since the individual soul hardly dominates the center of Christian history, its appearance is not to be expected. What is left is Mary, who does dominate history at one point, not in her person alone, but in the Incarnation when Christ takes corporeal form within her. That Beatrice when she appears on the car represents Mary in this central event in the scheme of salvation is confirmed in several ways. The traditional Marian interpretation of ‘Veni, sponsa’ is not the least of these, but that matter too is better treated at a later point.

The fact that accompanying the appearance of Beatrice angels arise to scatter lilies over the car, and that she is said to appear amid a cloud of these flowers, testifies most openly that the Annunciation is being reenacted. The lilies of the elders announce their theme, the Incarnation; the angels with the lilies provide a direct parallel to Gabriel, with whose appearance at the Annunciation lilies are pervasively associated.12

The visual image Dante creates offers additional important evidence that Beatrice here is a surrogate for Mary with Christ. She appears just after dawn with the sun in the east at her back. Evidently she stands in the sun and the light from it surrounds her. Of itself the highly allegorized context suggests that Christ, represented by the sun, is illuminating Beatrice's person; but there is a more certain indication, a direct reference to a crucial biblical passage. The Apocalypse having been the primary source of the pageant from the beginning, surely now its ‘central vision’13 is evoked: ‘A great sign appeared in heaven [in coelo]: a woman clothed with the sun and the moon was under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars’ (12.1).

In later scriptural tradition the association of the woman with Mary is strong. From at least the twelfth century painters and sculptors used the attributes of the woman—the sun behind her, the crown with twelve stars, the moon beneath her feet—in portraying the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption, and the Virgin in Glory. In exegetical literature too Apocalypse 12.1 is very commonly linked to the Virgin.14 Twelfth and thirteenth century interpretations of the verse seem particularly to dramatize its relevance to Dante's scene wherein Beatrice stands in the car of the Church with the sun behind her. In the Biblia Mariana, attributed to Albertus Magnus, the author glosses, ‘A great sign appeared in heaven, that is, in the Church, a woman clothed with the sun, that is, Mary with Christ, who illuminates her.’15 And St. Bernard in his important sermon on this verse sees the sun as Christ, the moon as the Church, and the woman as Mary, mediatrix between Christ who shines on her and the Church which is at her feet. St. Bonaventure and Richard of St. Victor offer very similar glosses.16 It is especially notable that in addition to seeing the woman as Mary and Christ as the sun, all fix the Virgin symbolically in and upon the Church. She is in the sky, which represents the Church, and upon the moon, also seen as the Church, just as Beatrice is in and upon the car of the Church. Such depictions seem related to representations of Mary in art where the architectural features of a church provide the setting.

Here in Canto 30 there is a second, separate evocation of the woman of the Apocalypse. Not only does Beatrice appear with the sun behind her, which clothes her in an aureole of light, but she is doubly clothed with brilliance; when she comes into view on the car beneath her green mantle of hope she has a robe of the ‘hue of living flame’ [‘color di fiamma viva’] (Purg. 30.33)—the flaming red of charity. St. Bernard quite logically connects the sun clothing of the woman of the Apocalypse with St. Paul's injunction, ‘Let us put on [induimini] the Lord Jesus Christ’ (Romans 13.14); and he exclaims rhetorically to Mary: ‘How you have found grace with him! He remains in you, and you in him: and you clothe him, and are clothed by him. You clothe him in the substance of flesh, and he clothes you in the glory of his majesty. With a cloud you clothe the sun, and by the sun himself you are clothed.’17 Beatrice comparably appears in a cloud18 that covers the sun while its rays outline her form, and at the same time she is clothed in a robe which like the sun has a flaming color.

The symbolism of the robe perhaps is clarified in the last canto of Paradiso, where Dante intuits the Trinity as three distinct but inseparable circles of color which reflect each other like rainbows. The circle representing the Father appears to be reflected on that representing the Son, and the third circle seems ‘fire breathed forth equally’ from the first two (33.118-20). This mediating circle of fire, of course, is the Holy Ghost, who is Love. Beatrice's mantle of charity—that is, divine love—which is like living flame, thus suggests that the flame-hued Holy Ghost is with Beatrice here. That he clothes her with Christ much as he brought Christ to Mary at the Annunciation is a ready inference.

Beatrice on the car is a figure for Mary at the time of the Incarnation. The song of the elders in Canto 29, then, is consummately appropriate in announcing her coming. It is time to consider these lines further. The elders, as was noted, have paraphrased Gabriel and Elizabeth in chanting, ‘Blessed are you among the daughters of Adam and blessed are your beauties forever!’ The congruence of their words with those in Luke is puzzling chiefly on one point. How is Elizabeth's ‘Blessed is the fruit of your womb’ more than casually equivalent to ‘Blessed are your beauties forever’? Dante's meticulous craftsmanship leads us to expect a meaningful equivalence, to anticipate that in the ‘beauties’ of Beatrice Christ, the fruit of Mary's womb, will be found.

It would be possible to assume that the radiance with which she is clothed, which shows forth Christ, is the reference of ‘bellezze’ in the elders' song. But even granting that this may be implied, the plural ‘beauties’ in the Comedy also has a more specific reference, as we find out in Canto 30.138, where the angels urge Beatrice to uncover her ‘seconda bellezza,’ her mouth. The first beauty obviously is her eyes. May we see, then, what shows in Beatrice's eyes and mouth as in some way equivalent to the fruit of Mary's womb? There are compelling reasons for thinking so. There is first of all Dante's exclamation at Beatrice's revealing her smiling mouth to him: ‘O splendor of living life eternal!’ (139), words which might suitably apply to Christ. But Beatrice's eyes are even more specifically receptacles of Christ. After Dante has been drawn across the stream of Lethe he is taken to Beatrice, who stands with eyes uncovered in front of the griffin. Her eyes reflect the griffin ‘like the sun in a mirror’ [‘Come in lo specchio il sol’] (121). He perceives mystically in the reflection the twofold nature of the beast. It has been suggested that the mirror image here evokes a phrase from the Book of Wisdom that describes Wisdom as ‘the unspotted mirror of God's majesty’ 7.26).19 This reference—as seems not to have been noted—is verified by a further echo of the biblical text: as Wisdom's ‘unspotted mirror of God's majesty’ seems to apply well to Beatrice's eyes which mirror Christ, so too the first phrase of the verse, in which Wisdom is said to be the ‘brightness of eternal light’ is closely paralleled by Dante's description of Beatrice's mouth. His words, ‘isplendor di viva luce etterna’ are very close to Wisdom's ‘candor lucis aeternae.’ This all reinforces an identification of Beatrice with Wisdom, Sapientia.20 But there are further implications in the echoes of Wisdom 7.26, for this text is associated directly with Mary by the strongest ties of tradition. Among the many manifestations of this, the most indicative to me is that in perhaps the one medieval Christian art work that rivals Paradiso in anagogic effect, the Van Eycks' altarpiece of the Mystical Lamb, the verse is inscribed prominently on the throne of the Virgin. Of course there is no lack of specific applications of the verse to Mary in exegetical and homiletic literature from Dante's time and before. I have cited a number of these in my study of Chaucer's Book of the Duchess, in which the Black Knight applies it to Fair White in similar subtle fashion.21

After the griffin leaves, and Dante and Beatrice ascend, her eyes retain and increase their power. Christ, it seems, is even more clearly presented by them and by her mouth as they ascend toward the Empyrean. In this she represents Revelation and Sapientia, but does she not also continue to represent Mary who mediates between Christ and the Church, mirroring him and shining with his brightness? In Canto 14 her eyes are said to be ‘the living stamps of every beauty’ (134); in 20 she warns Dante that if she smiled at him he would be burned as Semele was at beholding Jupiter in his majesty (4-12); and in 30, just before Bernard replaces Beatrice at his side, Dante finds her beauty as she smiles such that ‘only he who made it could fully enjoy it’ (21).22 In the final cantos the smile and the eyes of the Virgin clearly are successors to those of Beatrice, which seems obvious testimony to Beatrice's continuing figuration of the Virgin.

There is one more salient point to be brought out about Beatrice's appearance on the car of the Church in Purgatorio. I have said that the call ‘Veni, sponsa,’ in the light of the specific situation and the exegetical tradition, almost surely refers to Mary. I have not, however, dealt with the specific appropriateness of the verse, which presents an apparent enigma. In Marian readings of Canticles the verse from which the threefold call of the elders is drawn—‘Come from Libanus, my spouse, come from Libanus, come: you shall be crowned’ (4.8)—is generally applied to the Virgin's Assumption and Coronation.23 What, then, one may ask, does the Assumption/Coronation have to do directly with the Annunciation/Incarnation, the occasion that Dante is staging? The answer to this is that in tradition one has very much to do with the other, for they were closely associated from early times.

The association is already marked when the Assumption legend received its authoritative statement in the sixth-century version of pseudo-Melito, which provided the basis for numerous later versions, including those in the Legenda Aurea.24 As the legend developed, parallels with the Annunciation story were elaborated. As in the Annunciation tradition, an angel is represented carrying a verdant emblem—a palm frond instead of a lily—appearing suddenly to Mary in her house, greeting her with ‘Ave,’ and announcing the coming of Christ, this time to take her to heaven. Accordingly, Christ does descend to her. The traditional connection is also apparent in the assignment to the Feast of the Assumption a gospel text that was always seen as referring to the Incarnation, Luke 10.38: ‘Jesus entered into a certain town; and a certain woman received him into her house.’ St. Bernard in one of his important sermons on the Assumption takes up the apparent paradox in using this text for the Assumption:

Why today in Christian churches is this gospel reading recited in which the woman blessed among women is understood to have received the Savior? I believe that this which we celebrate [the Assumption] should be valued according to that reception [the Incarnation], indeed, that by the inestimable glory of that, this should be known to be inestimable. … Happy certainly the kisses impressed on the lips of the babe whom the mother lulled in her virginal bosom. But indeed do we not think more happy those which she received today in blissful salutation from the mouth of him sitting at the right hand of the Father when she ascended to the throne of glory, singing the epithalamium [the Canticles] and saying: ‘Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth’? The generation of Christ, and the Assumption of Mary, who can recount them?25

Similarly, in another twelfth-century sermon Amadeus of Lausanne brings out the close connection of events, recalling two texts from Canticles. He speaks of the joy of the sainted confessors of the Church when they see Mary in heaven crowned: ‘They will rejoice, I say, seeing that unique diadem, which in the day of solemnity and joy, in the day of assumption and glory, Christ has placed upon his best-loved mother, recalling that diadem with which she crowned him on the day of his espousals.’26 The crown that Christ calls Mary to in heaven is the counterpart of the crown that Mary placed on Christ when he descended to earth, which is, according to standard interpretations of Canticles, the flesh of human nature.27

The association of the Assumption and Incarnation is not uncommon in art and literature.28 It seems to be present in the Divine Comedy in three separate places. In Paradiso the link may be inferred twice: in Canto 23 when Mary's assumption to heaven is re-enacted, and in Canto 32 when Bernard speaks of Gabriel. In the Assumption scene, while Dante gazes on Mary he sees a light [‘facella’] (23.94), which in the form of a crown descends and encircles the Virgin's head. The light identifies itself as ‘amore angelico’ [‘angelic love’] (103) and promises to circle her head till she follows her Son to heaven. Most commentators identify the light as Gabriel, the angel of the Annuncuation. The crown bestowed on Mary, then, represents Christ, whose coming is marked by Gabriel's announcement. In the Incarnation, we understand, the Coronation is implicit. Dante's juxtaposition of the descent of Gabriel with the presentation of the crown dramatizes the close filiation of the Annunciation and Assumption.

The link seems marked again in Paradiso 32 when Bernard identifies the angel who is gazing on Mary with particular rapture as ‘the one who carried down the palm to Mary when the Son of God wished to take upon himself the burden of our flesh’ (112-14). What is particularly notable for us here is the attribution of a palm to Gabriel at the Annunciation. According to the legend the palm is taken to Mary before her Assumption, the lily being the traditional emblem of the Annunciation.29 Through Bernard's statement Dante appears once more to be identifying, one with the other, these two great events involving Mary.

The third conjunction of the two events in the Divine Comedy occurs in the scene which provides the main subject of this paper, the appearance of Beatrice on the car of the Church. At the point in the procession when the Incarnation is expected, an elder calls out the words that summon Mary to her Coronation. ‘Veni, sponsa, de Libano,’ he cries three times. The unspoken conclusion of the Canticles verse is ‘coronaberis’ [‘You will be crowned’]. Beatrice now comes as Mary; angels throw lilies announcing the coming of Christ; the Holy Ghost covers Beatrice in a robe of the living flame of love, and Christ the sun clothes her in his glory; in her eyes—her ‘beauties’—is mirrored the griffin who in his dual nature represents Christ, and by his golden head, and red and white body, is identified with the sponsus of Canticles.30 The grace of God, signalled in this special vision of the Incarnation, has descended to Dante. He is now ready to ascend with his special intercessor, who comes as a surrogate of Mary, into the Empyrean.


  1. See, e.g., the monk's interpretation of Galahad's adventure at the Castell of Maydens, Malory: Works, ed. Eugène Vinaver (London 1954) 651. Mythography, and moralized stories such as those in the Gesta Romanorum, of course, supply copious medieval examples of explicit Christ figures.

  2. Dante Studies 1: Commedia, Elements of Structure (Cambridge, Mass. 1954) 57.

  3. For the analogue that Griselda offers to Mary, see Francis Lee Utley, ‘Five Genres in the Clerk's Tale,Chaucer Review 6 (1972) 217-26, and his review of scholarship on the subject nn. 55-58. For Fair White, see James I. Wimsatt, ‘The Apotheosis of Blanche in The Book of the Duchess,Journal of English and Germanic Philology 66 (1967) 26-44.

  4. E. V. Gordon, ed. Pearl (Oxford 1953) lines 761-64. The call is drawn from Cant. 4.7-8: ‘Thou art all fair, O my love, and there is not a spot in thee. Come from Libanus, my spouse, come from Libanus, come: thou shalt be crowned.’ For the prominence of these verses in the legends and medieval liturgy of the Assumption, and some uses of them in secular analogues to the Assumption drama, see my essay, ‘Chaucer and the Canticle of Canticles,’ in Chaucer the Love Poet, ed. Jerome Mitchell and William Provost (Athens, Ga. 1973) 69-71, 75-77, 84-85. For the use of Canticles in Assumption liturgy, see also M. Jugie, A.A., ‘Assomption de la Sainte Vierge,’ Maria, ed. Hubert du Manoir (Paris 1949) I 646; Georges Frenaud, O.S.B., ‘Marie et l’Église d’après les liturgies latines du VIIe au XIe siècle,’ Marie et l’Église (Paris 1951) I 54-58; and Dom B. Capelle, O.S.B., ‘La liturgie Mariale en occident,’ Maria I 224-25, 236. Friedrich Ohly, Hohelied-Studien: Grundzüge einer Geschichte der Hoheliedauslegung des Abendlandes bis um 1200 (Wiesbaden 1958) 126-27, notes that most of the extensive Marian exegesis of Canticles develops from its employment in Marian liturgy. In accord with this development, Cant. 4.7-8 (the model for Christ's call to the Pearl Maiden) appears throughout Assumption literature as Christ's summons to Mary. It is the text for Assumption sermons by Hugh of St. Victor (PL 177.1209-22); St. Bonaventure, Opera omnia (Quaracchi 1901) IX 699-700; and Jacobus de Voragine, Sermones de Sanctis (Venice 1497) ‘In Assumptione sermo iii.’ Among exegetes who dilate on the relevance of the verses to the Assumption are Honorius of Autun, Sigillum Beatae Mariae (PL 172.506-07); William of Newburgh, Explanatio sacri epithalamii in matrem sponsi (Spicilegium Friburgense 6; Fribourg 1960) 189-93; Thomas the Cistercian, In Cantica Canticorum (PL 206.430); Alan of Lille, Elucidatio in Cantica Canticorum (PL 210.80); and Denis the Carthusian, Opera (Montreuil 1898) VII 382-84. See also Guillaume de Deguileville, ‘Opus super Cantica Canticorum,’ AH 48.382 sts. 20-23; and ‘Veni coronaberis,’ Religious Lyrics of the XVthCentury, ed. Carleton Brown (Oxford 1938) 65-67. It is significant for the Assumption analogy in Pearl that the narrator's dream takes place ‘In Augoste in a hyȝ seysoun’ (line 39), no doubt Assumption tide.

  5. Guido Cavalcanti Rime, ed. Guido Favati (Documenti di filologia 1; Milan 1957) 136.

  6. Cant. 3.6, 6.9, 8.5. The prominence of these ‘Quae est ista’ verses in Assumption literature stems in the first place from Paschasius Radbertus' letter on the Assumption (9th c.), long ascribed to Jerome, ed. (PL 30.126-47) as ‘Epistola IX, ad Paulam et Eustochium’; also ed. Albert Ripsberger, Der Pseudo-Hieronymus-Brief IX ‘Cogitis me’ (Freiburg 1962). Here Radbertus imputes the first two of the verses to the admiring angels and applies other language of Canticles to the Assumption drama. Subsequently, the liturgy for the Assumption and Nativity of the Virgin came to include large parts of this epistle and took up its uses of Canticles, with all three ‘Quae est ista’ exclamations being incorporated. The third, ‘Who is she who comes up from the desert, flowing with delights, leaning upon her beloved’ (8.5), in its application to the Assumption story offers a particularly neat parallel to Cavalcanti's poem wherein the lady enters accompanied by Love. Cf., for instance, the comment on 8.5 by Hugh of St. Cher, Opera omnia in Vetus et Novum Testamentum (Venice 1732) III fol. 136v: ‘De B. Virgine potest exponi, cujus ascensionem, sive assumptionem in coelum de deserto mundi hujus Angeli mirabantur intantum ut quaererent, [Quae est ista, etc.] … haec autem innixa super Dilectum nunciatur non causa infirmitatis, sed ostensione summae familiaritatis: cui ipse Christus est Pater, Sponsus, Filius, et Dilectus.’ For similar commentary on this verse, see Bernard of Clairvaux, Opera (Sermones 2), edd. J. Leclerq and H. Rochais (Rome 1968) V 274; Thomas the Cistercian (PL 206.793-804); Alan of Lille (PL 210.105); Phillip of Harvengt, In Cantica Canticorum (PL 203.478-79); and Denis the Carthusian, ed. cit. VII 445. Assumption sermons based on this text include William of Auvergne, Registrum sermonum Wilhelmi Parisiensis (Tübingen 1499) Sermon 81; Isaac de Stella, Sermones (PL 194.1866-70); Jacobus de Voragine, ed. cit. ‘In Assumptione sermo v’; and Jean de la Rochelle, Eleven Marian Sermons (Franciscan Institute Publications, Text Series 12; St. Bonaventure, N.Y. 1961) 42-49.

  7. From the fourth century the Fathers agreed that the Incarnation took place at the Annunciation; see Yrjö Hirn, The Sacred Shrine (1909; rpt. Boston 1957) 294-96. Lilies became part of representations of the Annunciation in the thirteenth century; see David M. Robb, ‘The Iconography of the Annunciation in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries,’ Art Bulletin 18 (1936) 482. According to Louis Réau, Iconographie de l’art chrétien (Paris 1957) II 2.183, it was only at the beginning of the fourteenth century that the lily replaced the scepter in the hand of the angel. Réau remarks that the substitution was made at Florence, a fact perhaps significant for Dante's lilies in Purg. 29 and 30. It is interesting, too, that, as Réau states, Sienese artists militantly retained the angel's olive branch from earlier tradition in the face of the changed Florentine practice. This is exemplified most notably in the Annunciation of Simone Martini (early fourteenth century) now in the Uffizi; but the gorgeous vase of lilies in the center of Simone's representation surely evidences that he had no antipathy to the flower's presence.

    The lilies as well as the candlesticks in Dante's presentation probably draw major symbolic meaning from Isaiah 11.1-3, a celebrated prophecy of the Incarnation. In 11.1 Isaiah predicts that ‘there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall arise out of his root’; interpreters almost invariably found the Virgin to be the rod (‘virga’ with word-play on ‘virgo’) and Christ to be the flower. The glosses identifying Christ as the flower customarily adduced Cant. 2.1: ‘I am the flower of the field and the lily of the valley’; e.g. Rupert of Deutz, De Trinitate et operibus eius (PL 167.1319) states, ‘Virgam de radice Jesse sanctam Mariam virginem intelligimus … et florem, Dominum Salvatorem qui dicit in Cant. “Ego flos campi, et lilium convallium.”’ Similar associations of Isaiah 11 with Cant. 2 are made in Isaiah commentaries of Hervé de Bourg-Dieu, In Isaiam (PL 181.140); Hugh of St. Cher, ed. cit. IV 30r; and Aegidius romanus, in St. Thomas Aquinas, Opera omnia (Paris 1876) XVIII 741. Phillip of Harvengt (PL 203.281) conversely adduces Isaiah 11 in explaining Cant. 2. It seems, then, that through its conventional association with Canticles the flower in Isaiah, representing Christ, became identified with the lily. It may be noted that the lily of Cant. 2, the ‘lilium convallium,’ was not distinguished from other lilies till the sixteenth century (See Oxford English Dictionary s.v. ‘lily’ 2); to medieval exegetes ‘convallium’ conveyed a moral rather than a botanic significance, as with Rabanus Maurus, De universo (PL 111.366): ‘Vallis humiles in corde significat, de qua in Cantica canticorum vox Christi loquitur dicens (Cant. II): Ego flos campi et lilium convallium.’ Thus, the lilies in many Annunciation representations and those that crown Dante's elders probably symbolize Christ. For lilies and the Isaian prophecy, see further Gertrud Schiller, Iconography of Christian Art, trans. Janet Seligman (New York 1970) I 15 (Tree of Jesse), 51 (Annunciation). It is quite apt that each elder in Purg. has a lily, since the subject matter of each Old Testament book, in medieval exegetical terms, is the Incarnation.

    Dante's candlesticks are drawn from the ‘seven lamps burning before the throne, which are the seven spirits of God’ (Apoc. 4.4-5); these ‘spirits of God’ traditionally were related to the enumeration found in Isaiah 11.2-3, which follows immediately the ‘rod of Jesse’ prediction: ‘And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: the spirit of wisdom, and of understanding, the spirit of counsel, and of fortitude, the spirit of knowledge, and of godliness. And he shall be filled with the spirit of the fear of the Lord.’ Dante's biblical source here is well-known, but what has not been recognized is how the streams of light from the candlesticks, stretching over the elders with their lily crowns, fit into a symbolic Incarnation drama. The depiction in Purg. agrees quite well with the picture presented by Rupert of Deutz, In Apocalypsim (PL 169.910), glossing Apoc. 4: ‘Prima lampas spiritus sapientiae est. Secunda spiritus intellectus et deinde per ordinem caeteri spiritus, sic ut in propheta dispositi leguntur, super unum florem requiescentes.’ The symbolic lights rest over the flower, token of Christ incarnate. Among other commentators who associate the lamps of Apoc. 4 with standard exegesis of Isaiah 11.1-3 as a prophecy of the Incarnation are Remi of Auxerre (?; pseudo-Haimo), In Isaiam (PL 116.779); and Hugh of St. Cher, ed. cit. IV 30r.

  8. Quotations of the Comedy herein are from Dante Alighieri: The Divine Comedy, ed. Charles S. Singleton (Bollingen Series 80; Princeton 1970-75) 3 vols. in 6. I also refer frequently to the notes of this edition and sometimes utilize phraseology of the translation presented. Though on some points in this paper I disagree with Professor Singleton, his work clearly underlies in essential ways my approach to the Comedy.

  9. Note to Purg. 29.86-87.

  10. The concept of the one who is addressed being blessed ‘in etterno’ also seems much more appropriate to Mary than to Beatrice in her own person. ‘In etterno’ may echo Prov. 8.23, ‘Ab aeterno ordinata sum, et ex antiquis antequam terra fieret,’ which early became part of Marian liturgy (Capelle, Maria I 236-37), and was applied to Mary by exegetes. Thus Richard of St. Lawrence, De laudibus Beatae Mariae, in B. Alberti Magni … opera omnia, edd. August and Emily Borgnet (Paris 1898) XXXVI 372, glosses the verse, ‘Maria honorata est a Deo. Quia ab aeterno predestinata et electa. … Ideo de ipsa canitur: “Elegit eam Deus, et praeelegit eam.”’ See also Marian commentary on this verse by Rupert of Deutz, PL 169.867; and Albertus Magnus, ed. cit. (1898) XXXVII 393. In his note to Purg. 31.107-08, Singleton suggests that Prov. 8.23 is evoked when the cardinal virtues state that before Beatrice descended to the world they were ordained (‘ordinate’) as her handmaids. Such reference, he finds, is relevant to the development of Beatrice as Sapientia, but Marian figuration may also be present.

  11. Consideration of the medieval literature of Canticles compels such a conclusion. I find virtually no support for Singleton's conjecture, in the note to Purg. 30.11-12, that the sponsa signified in the elder's call is Sapientia. The standard treatment of the Canticles tradition up to 1200 is Ohly's Hohclied-Studien. Helmut Riedlinger, Die Makellosigkeit der Kirche in den lateinischen Hoheliedkommentaren des Mittelalters (Beiträge zur Geschichte der Philosophie und Theologie des Mittelalters 38 Heft 3; Münster i.W. 1958), provides a useful survey of exegesis to 1500. See also Rosemarie Herde, Das Hohelied in der lateinischen Literatur des Mittelalters bis zum 12. Jahrhundert (Münchener Beiträge zur Mediävistik und Renaissance-Forschung 3; Spoleto 1968), extracted from Studi medievali 3e series, 8 (1967) 957-1073. Though before the twelfth century there were no Marian exegeses of the whole of Canticles, by Dante's time they had become common. Of course the three standard readings were not mutually exclusive since the soul is part of the Church, and Mary can typify either the individual perfected soul or the Church.

  12. Likewise, the cry of the angels at this point, ‘Benedictus qui venis’ (30.19), in recalling Psalm 117.26 is particularly appropriate as a signal of the first coming, the Incarnation. The standard medieval interpretation of this Psalm, which originates with Cassiodorus, sees it explicitly as the fifth psalm of the Psalter concerning the ‘primo adventu,’ with ‘Benedictus qui venit’ (26) introducing its fourth part, ‘gaudens de adventu Christi’ (Glossa ordinaria [PL 113.1039, 1041, citing Cassiodorus]). For Cassiodorus' statement see Expositio in Psalterium (PL 70.827, 833); and for others who follow his analysis, generally word for word, see Anselm of Laon (pseudo-Haymo), Explanatio in Psalmos (PL 116.596, 600); Honorius of Autun (pseudo-Gerhoh), Commentarium in Psalmos (PL 194.723); and Peter Lombard, Commentarium in Psalmos (PL 191.1033, 1039). Denis the Carthusian, ed. cit. VII 534, adduces the authority of Jerome in associating the psalm with the first coming: ‘Secundum Hieronymum, psalmus iste de Christi primo adventu manifeste conscriptus est.’ St. Bonaventure, ed. cit. IX 685, likewise finds Incarnation significance in Psalm 117 when in preaching on the Annunciation he associates the angel's ‘Benedictus fructus ventris tui’ with the psalm's ‘Benedictus qui venit’; Denis the Carthusian, commenting on Luke 1, ed. cit. XI 391, makes the same connection.

  13. Dominic Unger, ‘Did St. John See the Virgin Mary in Glory?’ Catholic Biblical Quarterly 11 (1949) 249, states, ‘Scholers have long recognized [the woman clothed with the sun] as the central vision of the book.’

  14. For the early artistic representations, see Unger, ‘Did St. John See the Virgin Mary in Glory?’ Catholic Biblical Quarterly 12 (1950) 297-99. In earlier installments of the article, 11 (1949) 257-62, 392-405, Unger surveys the copious medieval Marian exegesis of the woman of the Apocalypse. Bernard J. LeFrois, S.V.D., The Woman Clothed with the Sun (Rome 1954) 38-61, also reviews the Marian interpretations of patristic times. The whole tradition of Apoc. 12 exegesis in the Middle Ages is cursorily summarized in Pierre Prigent, Apocalypse XII: Histoire de l’exégèse (Tübingen 1959) 3-54.

  15. Signum magnum apparuit in coelo. Glossa: id est, in ecclesia: mulier amicta sole, id est Maria Christo, quia induit Christum, qui eam illuminat’ (ed. cit. XXXVII 438-439). Another interpretation of Apoc. 12.1 attributed to Albert, which perhaps is by Nicholas of Gorran (see Nicole Marzac, Richard Rolle de Hampole: Tractatus super Apocalypsim [Paris 1968] 190), applies the verse to the Incarnation, with once more the woman as the Virgin and heaven as the Church (ed. cit. [1899] XXXVIII 654).

  16. ‘Nempe vellus est medium inter rorem et arcam, mulier inter solem et lunam, Maria inter Christum et Ecclesiam constituta” (ed. cit. V 265); cf. Bernard's similar statement, p. 264, envisioning Mary as the woman who transmits the sun's light to the Church, again seen as the moon. Unger 11 (1949) 397, notes that this sermon of Bernard's ‘set the pace for practically all other writers [on Apoc. 12.1] after him,’ parts of it being incorporated into the liturgy. Richard of St. Victor, Explicatio in Canticum (PL 196.517), also sees the woman as Mary, the sun as Christ, and the moon as the Church. St. Bonaventure, ‘De Assumptione vi,’ ed. cit. IX 700-01, like Albert interprets heaven as the Church in which Mary stands clothed with Christ the sun.

  17. ‘Quantam invenisti gratiam apud eum! In te manet, et tu in eo; et vestis eum, et vestiris ab eo. Vestis eum substantia, et vestit ille te suae gloriae maiestatis. Vestis nube solem, et sole ipsa vestiris’ (ed. cit. V 266).

  18. I refer to the cloud (‘nuvola’) of flowers in which Beatrice appears, shading the sun, in Purg. 30.28.

  19. See Singleton's note to Purg. 30.121-23.

  20. Also probably relevant to the sapiential aspect of Beatrice's character is the description of Wisdom in Prov. 8.23, which, as remarked in n. 10 above, is perhaps part of the reference of Purg. 29.86-87 and Purg. 31.107-08, and was commonly applied to Mary.

  21. See Wimsatt, Journal of English and Germanic Philology 66 (1967) 39-40, for discussion of the Marian tradition of Wisdom 7.26, including references to Albertus Magnus, Phillip of Harvengt, and Richard of St. Lawrence. Wisdom 7.29 is the text for St. Bonaventure's second sermon on the Assumption, ed. cit. IX 691-93, in which commentary on 7.26 is prominent. For further comment and references see Heinrich Schwarz, ‘The Mirror in Art,’ Art Quarterly 15 (1952) 97-103; and ‘The Mirror of the Artist and the Mirror of the Devout,’ in Studies in the History of Art Dedicated to William E. Suida (London 1959) 90-105.

  22. As Singleton states in his note, ‘These are strong words, for they exclude all creatures, even the angels.’ The words indeed aptly apply to the reflection of Christ in Beatrice's smile, which only God himself can wholly appreciate.

  23. For Marian interpretations of this verse see n. 4 above.

  24. The pseudo-Melito is edited in Konstantin von Tischendorff, Apocalypses Apocryphae (1866; rpt. Hildesheim 1966) 125-35; trans. M. R. James, The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford 1960) 209-16. The Incarnation-Assumption analogy in the legends and its influence on interpretation is discussed in Heinrich Lausberg, ‘Zur literarischen Gestaltung der Transitus Beatae Mariae,’ Historisches Jahrbuch 72 (1953) 32-33.

  25. ‘Ut quid enim ea hodie in ecclesiis Christi lectio evangelica recitatur, in qua mulier benedicta in mulieribus excepisse intelligitur Salvatorem? Credo ut haec quam celebramus, ex illa susceptione aliquatenus aestimetur, immo ut, iuxta illius inaestimabilem gloriam, inaestimabilis cognoscatur et ista. … Felicia prorsus oscula labiis impressa lactentis, cul virgineo mater applaudebat in gremio! Verum numquid non feliciora censibimus, quae ab ore sedentis in dexteram Patris hodie in beata salutatione suscepit, cum ascenderet ad thronum gloriae, epithalamium canens et dicens: Osculetur me osculo oris sui? Christi generationem, Mariae assumptionem quis enarrabit?’ (ed. cit. V 230-31).

  26. Gaudebunt, inquam, intuentes illud singulare diadema, quod in die solemnitatis et laetitiae, in die assumptionis et gloriae, dilectissimae genetrici Christus impressit, memorans illud diadema quo eum illa in die desponsationis coronaverat’ (Amadée de Lausanne, Huit homélies mariales, ed. G. Bavaud [Sources chrétiennes 72; Paris 1960] 220. The two Canticles texts brought to bear here are 3.11 and 4.8. St. Bernard, ed. cit. V 266, also finds an exchange of crowns; he sees the sun clothing of Apoc. 12.1 as representing the crown Christ gave Mary at the Assumption in exchange for the crown (a human body) she gave him, as announced in Cant. 3.11.

  27. ‘ “In diademata quo coronavit eum mater sua,” id est mortali carne qua circumdedit eum mater sua’ (Honorius of Autun, Sigillum [PL 172.506]). Cf. also Hugh of St. Cher, ed. cit. II fol. 122v; and Denis the Carthusian, ed. cit. VII 355, 363.

  28. One clear expression of the association in art is found in a portal of La Charité-sur-Loire at Sainte Croix, where on a tympanum Christ in a mandorla receives Mary, while in the lintel relief directly below, the various stages of the Incarnation are depicted; photo in Adolf Katzenellenbogen, The Sculptural Program of Chartres Cathedral (Baltimore 1959) plate 13. The retable of St. Wolfgang, as described by Réau, Iconographie II 2.625, depicts Mary on her knees before God the Father, who crowns her simultaneously with the entrance of Christ into her womb. The association also seems implicit in the manifold depictions of Mary as θεοτόó[ ][b.Xi ]οζ, Mother of God, in which she, crowned and enthroned, holds the infant Christ.

  29. Anna B. Jameson, Legends of the Madonna as Represented in the Fine Arts (London 1890) 180, states, ‘In general, the palm is given to the angel who announces the death of Mary. In one or two instances only, I have seen the palm given to the angel Gabriel, as in a predella by Angelico; for which, however, the painter had the authority of Dante, or Dante some authority earlier still.’ Dante's authority, one may surmise—and Fra Angelico's also—is the tradition which binds together the Annunciation and Assumption. On palms in medieval representations of the Annunciation, see also Schiller, Iconography I 40, 47, 51.

  30. For the griffin as sponsus, see Singleton's notes to Purg. 29.113, 114.

Philip R. Berk (essay date 1979)

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Last Updated on January 18, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5591

SOURCE: “Shadows on the Mount of Purgatory,” Dante Studies, Vol. XCVII, 1979: pp. 47-63.

[In the following essay, Berk explains the significance of the Pilgrim's shadow, and examines Dante's poetic techniques in utilizing the shadow motif.]

The question of precedence is a difficult matter to establish or settle, but it may be that Dante, in the repeated dramatic use of the pilgrim's cast shadow in the Purgatorio, was the first artist of magnitude in painting as well as in literature to represent the phenomenon of cast shadows since antiquity. Art historians appear to be in disagreement about dating the first cast shadows in the pictorial arts. Erwin Panofsky holds that it was the Brothers Limbourg in the first years of the fifteenth century who rediscovered cast shadows, while Frederick Hartt observes: “With very few exceptions, cast shadows do not appear in painting until the Quattrocento, yet we can hardly imagine that Trecento painters were unaware of shadows.”1 Millard Meiss is more candid and specific about the dilemma:

Our knowledge of even so basic a development as that of cast shadows in incomplete. They were present as residual forms, inherited from antiquity, in Byzantine painting, appearing frequently on buildings. A striking example … is a fragment of a mosaic in the Torre Pisana of the Palazzo ex-Reale in Palermo. Around 1300 Italian painters—Roman or connected with Rome—began to see a relationship between these traditional patterns and actual visual phenomena. Small but unmistakable shadows were introduced into the later frescoes of the Life of St. Francis in Assisi, and in the Arena Chapel Giotto painted even a face in deep shade. Francesco Traini introduced three architectural shadows in his triptych of 1344-1345 in Pisa.2

If one may hazard so broad a generalization, in medieval literature prior to Dante, shadow is confined to the topos of the shade cast by a tree or wall, more a tactile sensation than a visual one.3 Jean de Meun does write in the Roman de la Rose (vv. 4753 ff., ed. Lecoy) of the earth's shadow in the eclipse of the moon, but this belongs to an astronomical tradition rather than a humanistic one; the reference is remote and academic, transmitted more than it is freshly experienced, while in Jean Renart's Lai de l’ombre, the ombre of the title refers not to a cast shadow, but a reflection in a well. One looks in vain before Dante for the dramatic, albeit comic, use of cast shadow that one finds, say, at the conclusion of Ovid's Amores I, viii, where the eavesdropping lover's presence is betrayed by his own shadow: “vox erat in cursu, cum me mea prodidit umbra …”4

The pilgrim first sees his shadow at the outset of Canto III of the Purgatorio. The newly arrived penitents of the Ante-Purgatory have just scattered upon the chastisement of Cato, indignant that they have succumbed to the blandishments of Casella's song. The pilgrim stays even closer than before to Virgil, who is stung by remorse at his own unreliability as a moral guide. The pilgrim then casts his eyes down before him and observes with terror that he can see only one shadow in front of him. What he takes to be Virgil's abandonment is revealed to be his first recognition of a more general feature of the Other World, that the souls of the dead cast no shadows, and that it is the pilgrim's shadow which is here the exception. Nor, Virgil admonishes him, should the pilgrim marvel at this supernatural phenomenon, for if all events were reducible to rational explanation then there would have been no need for the Christian faith and the mysteries that it teaches.

          Lo sol, che dietro fiammeggiava roggio,
rotto m’era dinanzi a la figura,
ch’avëa in me de’ suoi raggi l’appoggio.
          Io mi volsi dallato con paura
d’essere abbandonato, quand’ io vidi
solo dinanzi a me la terra oscura;
          e ’l mio conforto: “Perché pur
a dir mi cominciò tutto rivolto;
“non credi tu me teco e ch’io ti guidi?
          Vespero è già colà dov’ è
lo corpo dentro al quale io facea ombra;
Napoli l’ha, e da Brandizio è tolto.
          Ora, se innanzi a me nulla s’aombra,
non ti maravigliar più che d’i cieli
che l’uno a l’altro raggio non ingombra.
          A sofferir tormenti, caldi e geli
simili corpi la Virtù dispone
che, come fa, non vuol ch’a noi si sveli.”

(Purg. III, 16-33)

Paradoxically, the drama of this moment hinges less on the poet's depiction of the pilgrim's cast shadow than on the miraculous absence of Virgil's shadow. That is to say, no sooner does Dante succeed in representing natural phenomena than he transcends his achievement to direct our attention to the ultimate ends of his poem, which do not lie in the transcription of physical reality but in the revelation of the ultimate spiritual nature of reality. It is as if the revolutionary naturalistic achievement in rendering cast shadows were but the by-product of the supernatural perspective that could envisage a world beyond the limits and clearly seen contingencies of the terrestrial one. Dante sees so well because he sees so much more.5

There is a peculiar pathos to Virgil's disquisition on faith, since he as a pagan born before the Redemption is himself excluded from the body of the Church. This sense of inclusion and exclusion as the underlying motif here has been excellently analyzed by Walter Binni in his reading of Canto III.6 To the pathos of Virgil's plight is joined the irony that he who speaks so well of the theoretical limits of reason is pragmatically incapable of guiding the pilgrim up the mountain. In this regard Purgatorio III might be said to constitute an anti-Limbo, an explicit criticism of the very souls who were honored in Canto IV of the Inferno, but who are now seen in the superior perspective of Revelation.

Virgil's inability to scale the mountain is not overcome until he encounters the group of penitents moving slowly around its base. Since the contrast between the isolated and perplexed figures of the pilgrim and his guide on the one hand and the large band of penitents on the other is fundamental to this canto, it may not be pure happenstance that the numerically central verse of the canto (v. 73) contains Virgil's joyous greeting of the penitents: “O ben finiti, o già spiriti eletti.” This is the verse by which the smaller group communicates with the larger; the verse, that is, that links the individual to the corporate body.

The extended simile which compares the timid movement within the larger group to a flock of sheep conveys the guileless simplicity of the penitents by its unusual parataxis, and particularly by the repeated use of the conjunction “e.” It presents a strong formal contrast to the mature rigor and complexity of Virgil's diatribe, although, ironically, the descriptive verses 44-45 which conclude Virgil's rebuke subside in exhaustion into the simplicity of the sermo humilis. Now it is no longer the pilgrim who marvels at the absence of Virgil's shadow, but the flock of the elect who gape in naive astonishment at the pilgrim's shadow:

          Come color dinanzi vider rotta
la luce in terra dal mio destro canto,
sì che l’ombra era da me a la grotta,
          restaro, e trasser sé in dietro alquanto,
e tutti li altri che venieno appresso,
non sappiendo ’l perché, fenno altrettanto.
          “Sanza vostra domanda io vi confesso
che questo è corpo uman che voi vedete;
per che ’l lume del sole in terra è fesso.
          Non vi maravigliate, ma credete
che non sanza virtù che da ciel vegna
cerchi di soverchiar questa parete”.
          Così ’l maestro; e quella gente degna
“Tornate”, disse, “intrate innanzi dunque”.
coi dossi de le man faccendo insegna.

(VV. 88-102)

With great subtlety, Dante transfers the pilgrim's initial wonder at the miraculous absence of Virgil's shadow into a convincing astonishment on the part of the penitents at the commonplace event of the living pilgrim casting a shadow in the sun. It is no ordinary event when we consider where we are and what miraculous interventions have brought the pilgrim to Purgatory. Here the pilgrim's shadow becomes the sign, not of his mortality, as it is for the poets and the Bible, but of his vitality, of his solid and fleshly presence in the Other World. This is made abundantly clear by Virgil's brief discourse to the penitents which elicits the simple directions he needs in order to ascend the mountain.

It is a supreme irony that Virgil, who is cast no more heroically in the Commedia than here, should be dependent upon a sheeplike flock of penitents for guidance, but this conforms to the central truth of the canto, that the wisdom of the Church, adhered to through faith, is superior, by virtue of its accumulated experience, to the knowledge of any single man, no matter how talented or conscientious.

The throng of the excommunicate turns out not to be faceless, however. From it emerges the dashing figure of Manfred drawn in the highest individual and heroic relief. One may smile at Manfred's need of recognition, however much he otherwise shares the communal fate of the gente degna. There is an even greater irony in the pilgrim's inability to recognize him despite his exceptional handsomeness and his distinctive wounds. Manfred must in fact disclose his identity at the same time that he bares the wound on his chest. Here it is altogether appropriate that Manfred should, as a token of his submissiveness, define himself not as the son of his ambitious and amoral father, now found in the Inferno (X, 119) among the heretics, but at the outset as grandson of Constance (Purg. III, 113; Par. III, 109 ff.) and finally as father of another, living Constance (Purg. III, 115 and 143). In so doing, Manfred defines the moral condition of Purgatory not as another Hell, but as a region between Earth and Paradise.

Manfred vividly describes how, although having died excommunicate after a life of horrible sins, he repented his waywardness in his last moments and thereby found salvation. This intimate drama undoes the Chruch's historical censure of Manfred through Dante's envisaging of a spiritual progress seen only by God. For in this canto Dante dramatizes both the individual soul's need of the Church's institutional wisdom and experience and, as well, the limits of that institutional wisdom insofar as the Church is a human institution and can err unwittingly.7

This careful distinction is symbolized in the canto in Dante's handling of the pilgrim's shadow. The shadow cast by the pilgrim is a reminder of his bodily presence, miraculous in this place, but a sign as well that a living man is compounded of flesh and spirit both. Insofar as man is not pure spirit, insofar as there are physical limits to his being, man requires institutions to whose authority he must submit. Even so, as man is not purely corporeal, that is, insofar as a spirit does not cast a shadow, human institutions, no matter how divinely sanctioned, have their own corporeal limits, and do not see so far nor so keenly as God whose judgment of individual salvation transcends that of His human ministers. The pilgrim's shadow stands for both the sanction and the limit of the Church's authority.

Moreover, the presence of the pilgrim's opaque flesh in a world of diaphanous spirit offers an analogue to the Incarnation, the central mystery of the Christian faith to which Virgil refers in his rebuke. More specifically, the pilgrim's otherness, his living among the dead, bears analogy to Christ's Resurrection and appearance to the disciples, that is, His bearing the wounds of His death among the living. There is in the canto a distinct analogy between the pilgrim's shadow and Manfred's wounds, for twice (VV. 17, 88) in describing the pilgrim's shadow Dante refers to the sunlight as rotto, and this is echoed in Manfred's description of his wounds: “Poscia ch’io ebbi rotta la persona/ di due punte mortali” (VV. 118-119).8 Both shadow and wounds are the means by which the pilgrim and Manfred reveal themselves, just as Christ reveals Himself to the disciples after the Resurrection by His wounds. The parallel between Manfred and the Risen Christ of Luke 24: 39 and John 20:20, 27 has been remarked by Binni,9 but the injunction of the latter passage (John 20:27) to a faith transcending doubt—“noli esse incredulus, sed fidelis”—is closer in spirit to Virgil's correction of the pilgrim's apprehensiveness after he fails to see Virgil's shadow.

The pilgrim's shadow occurs a second time in Canto V of the Purgatorio, but unlike the thoughtful, concessive opening of the third canto and its play of individual against group, institution against ultimate truth, there is an immediacy and abruptness to the presentation of the pilgrim's shadow here which is in keeping with the theme of violent death cutting off the life of the penitents of the last hour. Ironically, it is not those per forza morti who first see the pilgrim's shadow, but the lethargic, who typically make their tardy discovery just as the pilgrim is leaving their group:

          Io era già da quell’ ombre partito,
e seguitava l’orme del mio duca,
quando di retro a me, drizzando ’l dito,
          una gridò: “Ve’ che non par che
lo raggio da sinistra a quel di sotto,
e come vivo par che si conduca!”
          Li occhi rivolsi al suon di questo motto,
e vidile guardar per maraviglia
pur me, pur me, e ’l lume ch’era rotto.
          “Perché l’animo tuo tanto s’impiglia”,
disse ’l maestro, “che l’andare allenti,
che ti fa ciò che quivi si pispiglia?
          E ’ntanto per la costa di traverso
venivan genti innanzi a noi un poco,
cantando ‘Miserere’ a
verso a verso.
          Quando s’accorser ch’i’ non dava
per lo mio corpo al trapassar d’i raggi,
mutar lor canto in un “oh!” lungo e roco;
          e due di loro, in forma di messaggi,
corsero incontr’ a noi e dimandarne:
“Di vostra condizion fatene saggi”.
          E’l mio maestro: “Voi potete andarne
e ritrarre a color che vi mandaro
che ’l corpo di costui è vera carne.
          Se per veder la sua ombra restaro,
com’ io avviso, assai è lor risposto:
faccianli onore, ed esser può lor caro”.

(Purg. V, 1-12, 22-36)

It is the same shadow which is seen in front of the pilgrim by the penitents who have died a violent death, and from both viewpoints the shadow is less a cause for naive astonishment than a distraction to the penitents, and thus serves to characterize their over-dependency on the things of this world. The penitents are surprised by the shadow as they were surprised by death. But if the shadow is a distraction from their spiritual goal, it equally reaffirms the link between the Other World and the world of the living. As the troop dispatches a smaller number from its ranks to be messenger to the larger body, so the pilgrim's shadow bears witness to the pilgrim's ability to serve as messenger between the penitents of Purgatory and the prayers of their kin or friends on earth. Like the body, the shadow is unimportant in itself except insofar as it is symbolic of the link day's departure previously, that is, in terms of the disappearance of shadow: “le tenebre fuggian da tutti lati,/ e’l sonno mio con esse;” (VV. 112-113).

In terms of sheer poetic technique, one can only marvel how Dante rings the changes on the shadow motif.10 It is no less a measure of Dante's art that the last glimpse of the pilgrim's shadow as the third and final night on Purgatory falls should be the sight of the shadow's disappearance. For with the elimination of the P's on the pilgrim's forehead and his ascent heavenward, we might suppose a gradual shedding of fleshly ways, a progressive disincarnation, despite the prevailing fiction of the poem, that it is in possession of his earthly body that the pilgrim visits the Other World. It will be the last time that the pilgrim sees his actual shadow, the witness to his corporeality, in the ascent to the Beatific Vision. By such literary tact, Dante prepares us for Pauline equivocation (II Cor. 12: 2) whether it was in body or in mind that he ascended to the Empyrean:

          S’i’ era sol di me quel che creasti
novellamente, amor che ’l ciel governi,
tu ’l sai, che col tuo lume mi levasti.

(Par. I, 73-75)

Whereas the standard literary commonplace associated shadow, or rather shade, with relief from the sun's rays, in the Purgatorio, cast shadow is accompanied by painful image of mortal wounds (Canto III), repeated and violent bloodletting (Canto V), and intense fire (Canto XXVI). The fourth appearance of the shadow offers a moment of well-earned repose after the pilgrim has accomplished his trials. Nevertheless, Dante finds a means of introducing the idiosyncratic note of violence and bloodshed in Canto XXVII's opening which tells the hour by the antipodal recollection of Jerusalem as the locus of the Crucifixion, albeit this image is more obviously proleptic of the pilgrim's passage through the fire:

          Sì come quando i primi raggi vibra
là dove il suo fattor lo sangue sparse,
cadendo Ibero sotto l’alta Libra,
          e l’onde in Gange da nona rïarse,
sì stava il sole; onde ’l giorno sen giva,
come l’angel di Dio lieto ci apparse.

(Purg. XXVII, 1-6)

Above and beyond, therefore, the technical realistic and painterly handling of the episodes of the cast shadow, there is a persistent tendency in the canticle to associate the shadow cast by the pilgrim with the wounds received by Christ on the Cross and with the related episodes of Christ's appearance after the Resurrection to the disciples. If we can infer that Dante, through these repeated associations, intended to establish the conceit of the equivalence of shadow and wound, and more particularly the wounds suffered by Christ, then the purgatorial ascent would in yet another detail embody the principle of the imitatio Dei enunciated by St. Paul in Galatians 6: 17, “ego enim stigmata Domini Iesu in corpore meo porto,” and re-enacted by St. Francis. By rights, however, we might expect Dante to mention the pilgrim's shadow not four but five times, since that is the traditional number of the Blessed Wounds which were widely venerated in Italy in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.11 Dante, who celebrates the miracle of St. Francis' stigmata in Paradiso XI, was aware of this devotional tradition, even if his allusions to it are characterized by understatement. In Purgatorio XV, 80-81, he refers to the five remaining P's of the seven implanted on the pilgrim's forehead as “le cinque piaghe,/ che si richiudon per esser dolente.”

The very disposition of the four shadows seen so far, twice in the liminal regions of Ante-Purgatory and twice in the uppermost region of Purgatory itself suggests the pairing of the wounds of the Crucified at the extremities of His limbs. This pattern is punctuated by the two references in the canticle to the shadow cast by the Mount of Purgatory itself; the first at VI, 51, the second at XXVIII, 12, that is, closely following each of the paired appearances of the shadow cast by the pilgrim. The Mount of Purgatory and the canticle itself would then correspond to the Body of the Suffering Redeemer, and the placing of the shadows a deliberate reminder, by means of the pilgrim's corporeal resistance, of the Stigmata that testify to the humanity of Christ in His Passion and the divinity of Christ in His Resurrection, marks at once of frailty and miracle, suffering and triumph.12

The spear wound in Christ's flank, unlike four wounds of Christ's hands and feet, is a posthumous wound, yet the most vivid, issuing forth blood and water, and the most significant in its fulfillment of scriptural prophecy:

Unus militum lancea latus eius aperuit, et continuo exivit sanguis et aqua. Et qui vidit, testimonium perhibuit: et verum est testimonium eius. Et ille scit quia vera dicit: ut et vos credatis. Facta sunt enim haec ut Scriptura impleretur: Os non comminuetis ex eo. Et iterum alia Scriptura dicit: Videbunt in quem transfixerunt.

(John 19: 34-37)

One might therefore expect that the shadow that signifies l’ultimo sigillo, the spear wound in Christ's side, would be substantially different from the shadows that correspond to the wounds of Christ's limbs. Were Dante bound simply to the physical location of the spear wound, we should expect it to precede the wound-shadows of Cantos XXVI and XXVII, but aside from that central reference to the cinque piaghe in Canto XV, we find nothing of the sort. We may assume then that the chronological and spiritual factors set forth in John 19 weighed more heavily in Dante's completion of the symbolic pattern. Proceeding on this assumption then, I think that it is not difficult to detect the passage that provides us with the fifth shadow, one that can be understood as the equivalent of the lance wound in Christ's side.

The passage occurs in Canto XXX of the Purgatorio; it is possibly the most intimate yet richly symbolic moment in the Commedia. Beatrice, having just warned the pilgrim not to weep at Virgil's departure, since he must weep for another sword—“ché pianger ti conven per altra spada” (V. 57)—that is, not for Virgil but for himself,13 reveals herself to the pilgrim whom she now names for the first and only time in the poem and rebukes him for daring to approach the mountain where man is happy. The pilgrim then casts his eyes down in shame and sees not his shadow, but his reflection in the stream that flows from the fountain of the Terrestrial Paradise. We may recall here that umbra in Latin is also synonymous with imago and simulacrum, a reflected image. This act of self-reflection induces in the pilgrim a profound contrition, which the compunction of Virgil, rebuked by Cato, just prior to the first appearance of Dante's shadow (Purg. III, 7 ff.) was but a dim foreshadowing. Although Beatrice maintains her severity in the face of the pilgrim's discomfort, the Virtues who are here handmaidens intone the initial verses of the Psalm, In te, Domine, speravi, and the pilgrim named Dante, no longer an everyman, but fully himself, torn between Beatrice's rebuke and the nymphs' psalmody, between judgment and pity, bursts into tears and sighs of contrition:

          Sì come neve tra le vive travi
per lo dosso d’Italia si congela,
soffiata e stretta da li venti schiavi,
          poi, liquefatta, in sé stessa trapela,
pur che la terra che perde ombra spiri,
sì che par foco fonder la candela;
          così fui sanza lagrime e sospiri
anzi ’l cantar di quei che notan sempre
dietro a le note de li etterni giri;
          ma poi che ’ntesi ne le dolci tempre
lor compatire a me, par che se detto
avesser: ‘Donna, perché sì lo stempre?’,
          lo gel che m’era intorno al cor ristretto,
spirito e acqua fessi, e con angoscia
de la bocca e de li occhi uscì del petto.

(Purg. XXX, 85-99)

The expression of this moto spiritale, this metastasis of the greatest intensity, is achieved through a sequence of metaphors and similes of the broadest range: a childhood recollection, a vast inner landscape at once spatial and temporal, a melting candle, the linking of the psalmody to the music of the spheres, the frozen heart. Each of these images has a long history in the literary or Biblical tradition and each picks up motifs that run throughout the imagistic fabric of the Commedia.14 As the pilgrim responds to the singing of the hand-maidens and his soul is brought at last into tempered harmony with the music of the spheres and the seasonal passage from winter to spring, the old year to the new, so in the very issuing forth of the visible sign of his inward change from sin to grace, the language modulates from the naturalistic “così fue sanza lagrime e sospiri” to the elemental and sacramental simplicity of “lo gel … spirito e acqua fessi.” Yet it is the brief phrase, “pur che la terra che perde ombra spiri,” which is most relevant to our present concern, for it offers a final, fleeting glimpse of the last vestiges of shadow which are cast, albeit metaphorically, not by the pilgrim's body, but by his soul.

The evanescence of this image should not disconcert us if we reflect on the diminishing progression with which Dante has presented the pilgrim's shadow and, too, the already tenuous description of the disappearing shadow in Canto XXVII. The shadow of the pilgrim's body and of the unrepentant sinfulness in his soul must of necessity disappear before he is fit to ascend to Paradise. One can similarly understand the theological role of the image of the child rebuked by its mother, one of the frequent allusions to childhood in this and neighboring cantos, for the pilgrim must become as innocent as a child—“sicut parvuli” (Matt. 18: 3)—before he can see the kingdom of heaven. The moment of contrition is as much a rebirth into spiritual purity as it is a death to sin and the old man, and the sighs and tears that finally do issue forth from the pilgrim as “spirito e acqua” serve to baptize the pilgrim's reborn soul. “Consepulti enim sumus cum illo per baptismum in mortem: ut quomodo Christus surrexit a mortuis per gloriam Patris, ita et nos in novitate vitae ambulemus.” So St. Paul sounded the paradoxes of death-in-birth and birth-in-death in Romans 6: 4. It has gone apparently unnoticed that one of the Biblical texts that the pilgrim is reliving at this moment is the response of Christ to Nicodemus in the Fourth Gospel:

Nisi quis renatus fuerit ex aqua, et Spiritu sancto, non potest introire in regnum Dei. Quod natum est ex carne, caro est: et quod natum est ex spiritu, spiritus est. Non mireris quia dixi tibi: oportet vos nasci denuo. Spiritus ubi vult spirat, et vocem eius audis, sed nescis unde veniat, aut quo vadat: sic est omnis qui natus est ex spiritu.

(John 3: 5-8)

Here are found the images that underlie Dante's account of the pilgrim's contrition, the return to a metaphorical childhood, the simultaneous presence of water and spirit, the wind as a metaphor of the action of grace through the Holy Spirit. As St. Augustine explains in his commentary on John 3: 8: “Nemo videt Spiritum: et quomodo audimus vocem spiritus? Sonat Psalmus, vox est Spiritus; sonat Evangelium, vox est Spiritus; sonat sermo divinus, vox est Spiritus.”15

Simultaneous with the pilgrim's regeneration in the Spirit is his dying to the flesh, for there is a persuasive analogy between the spirit and water issuing forth from the pilgrim's eyes and mouth and the water and blood issuing forth from Christ's side in John 19: 34, particularly if we collocate the important doctrinal statement of the Trinity in I John 5: 7-8, which is traditionally associated with John 19:

Quoniam tres sunt, qui testimonium dant in caelo: Pater, Verbum, et Spiritus sanctus: et hi tres unum sunt. Et tres sunt, qui testimonium dant in terra: Spiritus, et aqua, et sanguis: et hi tres unum sunt.

The pilgrim's shadow has led us to the innermost mystery of the Crucifixion as well as the paradoxes of the sacrament of penance.16 The culmination of the shadow motif in the Purgatorio consists in the casting of the pilgrim's reflection and the consequent disappearance of shadow and chill from the pilgrim's soul. “La terra che perde ombra” is a metaphor of that warmest, most illumined and responsive region of the pilgrim's heart, now open to the compassionate harmony of the Virtues and the harsh light of Beatrice's demand for self-inquiry. Here the wounding and healing process, death and regeneration are inextricably one as the pilgrim undergoes the first stage of penance and the inner baptism that precede the completion of his penance and his formal baptism from which he will emerge “puro e disposto a salire a le stelle.”


  1. Frederick Hartt, History of Italian Renaissance Art (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1974), p. 54. Hartt continues: “In a famous passage in the Inferno [sic] one of the damned asks who Dante is, since he casts a shadow (and the dead do not).” Erwin Panofsky's dating of the first cast shadows is found in his Early Netherlandish Painting (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1953), Vol. I, p. 66. The standard treatment of light and shadow imagery in Dante is Guido Di Pino, La Figurazione della Luce nella Divinia Commedia (Messina: D’Anna, 1962). See also the entry on “Ombra” in the Enciclopedia Dantesca.

  2. Millard Meiss, “Some Remarkable Early Shadows in a Rare Type of Threnos,” in Festschrift Ulrich Middeldorf, ed. by Antje Kosegarten and Peter Tigler, (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1968), Vol. I, p. 116. I am grateful to Prof. Bruce Cole for this reference. One may note that Traini's frescos appear to be otherwise indebted to Dante in their unusually schematic representation of Hell.

  3. See, for example, the entry “ombre” in Tobler-Lommatzsch, Altfranzösische Wörterbuch.

  4. Other classical uses of the cast shadow range from Virgil's elegiac note in Ecl. I, 83, Ovid's moralized landscape in Tristia I, ix, 11-14, Lucan's precise geographical observations in Pharsalia III, 247-248, to Statius's melodramatic use of Capaneus's shadow in Thebaid X, 872. In the antique pictorial tradition, both Quintilian (X, ii, 7) and Pliny (XXXV, v, 15) write of painters circumscribing the shadows cast by objects in sunlight.

  5. Virgil's attack on the limits of human reason is remarkably close to St. Augustine's criticism of the Platonists in Confessions VII, ix, 14: “Item legi ibi, quia uerbum, deus, non ex carne, non ex sanguine, non ex uoluntate uiri neque ex uoluntate carnis, sed ex deo natus est; sed quia uerbum caro factum est et habitavit in nobis, non ibi legi.” The intellectual odyssey of Book VII of the Confessions is permeated with the light imagery of the Fourth Gospel. In his attempts to envisage God as having extension in space, Augustine describes with his usual mastery the effect of light passing unimpeded through the air. See Confessions VII, i, 2. If Book VII of the Confessions was not the immediate catalyst for the plastic depiction of atmospheric phenomena conjoined with the theme of the insufficiency of human reason in matters of faith that is found in Purg. III, Augustine serves to illustrate the paradox that it is the prophet with his inner vision who is apt to be most painterly in his representation of the physical world.

  6. Walter Binni, “Il Canto III del Purgatorio,” in Letture Dantesche, ed. Giovanni Getto (Firenze: Sansoni, 1964), Vol II, pp. 725-745.

  7. One may compare the canto to Inferno XIX where Dante attacks simoniacal materialism, yet stresses, in keeping with the necessary corporeal element of the sacraments, the literalness and sheer physicality of salvific intervention (vv. 16 ff.; vv. 124 ff.).

  8. The similarity between wound and shadow is adumbrated in the remarkable recollection of Mordret, King Arthur's nephew (or son), in Inferno XXXII, 61-62: “quelli a cui fu rotto il petto e l’ombra/ con esso un colpo per la man d’Artù.” It was prophesied that the treacherous Mordret would be killed by Arthur by a wound so deep that light would pass through it: “il te ferra parmi le cors si durement que apres le cop passera li rais du soleill.” Le Livre de Lancelot del Lac in The Vulgate Version of the Arthurian Romances, ed. H. Oskar Sommer (Washington: The Carnegie Institution, 1912), Vol. V, p. 285. The prophecy comes true in La Mort le Roi Artus: “il met parmi le cors le fer de son glaiue. si dist lestoire quapres lestors del glaiue passa parmi la plaie vns rais de soleil si apartment que giflet le vit.” Ibid., Vol. VI, p. 377. While the Arthurian text mentions that the transpierced body allows light to pass through, it does not reckon, as Dante does, on the effect of this wound upon Mordret's shadow. The allusion to Mordret's unusual wound would, to anticipate our argument, constitute yet another antitype of the Crucifixion among the many that are to be found in the final cantos of the Inferno.

  9. Binni, op. cit., p. 737.

  10. Cf. Chaucer, who in the Introduction to The Man of Law's Tale (init.) gives us a bright morning shadow and the same moral injunctions to purposeful haste (vv. 19 ff.) that we find in Purg. V, while in the Prologue to The Parson's Tale (vv. 2 ff.) Chaucer depicts a late afternoon shadow, appropriate for a tale that is to be the last.

  11. See Dom Louis Gougaud, Dévotions et pratiques ascétiques du Moyen Age (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1925), pp. 78 ff.

  12. For the mountain itself as a figura Christi, see St. Augustine, Civ. Dei, XVIII, xxx.

  13. Dante would seem to follow St. Augustine's distinction: “flente Didonis mortem … non flente autem mortem suam,” in Confessions, I, xiii.

  14. Here let it suffice to cite Leo Spitzer, Classical and Christian Ideas of World Harmony (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1963), pp. 92 ff.

  15. St. Augustine, Tract. in Joan. Ev., XII, iii, 5.

  16. For the association of John 19 and I John 5, see St. Augustine, Contra Maximium, II, xxii, 3. The infernal counterpart of this imagery is found in Inf. XXXIV, 54. The crucial part played by the Virtues in eliciting the pilgrim's tears has its complement in a patristic and derivative pictorial tradition which has the four cardinal virtues drive the nails into the Cross. See Gertrud Schiller, Iconography of Christian Art, trans. by Janet Seligman (Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1972), Vol. II, pp. 137-140.

John A. Scott (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on January 18, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8343

SOURCE: “The Poem's Center (Purgatorio XII-XVIII)” in Dante's Political Purgatory, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996, pp. 144-57.

[In the following essay, Scott emphasizes the elements of Cantos XII to XVII that show Dante's political hopes and beliefs, particularly the idea that both political and spiritual spheres can harmoniously coexist on earth.]

Pride is at the root of all sin (Eccles. 10. 15), and the Pilgrim will soon declare how heavily this sin weighs down his soul (Purg. XIII. 136-38). Once more, the number three is in evidence, when Dante encounters Omberto Aldobrandeschi, Oderisi da Gubbio, and Provenzano Salvani in Canto XI. The first is an exemplum of overweening pride, typical of the feudal aristocracy. Omberto belonged to the powerful Aldobrandeschi clan, Counts of Santafiora and lords of the Sienese Maremma (cf. Purg. VI. 111). His hubris led to his death, when he took on an invincible number of adversaries:

          “L’antico sangue e l’opere
d’i miei maggior mi fer sí arrogante,
che, non pensando a la comune madre,
          ogn’ uomo ebbi in despetto tanto avante,
ch’io ne mori’, come i Sanesi sanno,
e sallo in Campagnatico ogne fante.”(1)

In fact, the same terrible sin stains the whole family and has led it to disaster (ll. 68-69)—a corollary added by the poet of the Comedy to his discussion of the true nature of nobility in Book IV of the Convivio. Pride in one's ancestral nobility (Omberto); pride in one's artistic genius (Oderisi); and pride in political success leading to humiliation and annihilation (Provenzano): such is the scope of the exempla chosen by the poet. Provenzano Salvani, after the Sienese victory of Montaperti (1260), had become the most powerful person in Siena: “he governed the whole city, and all the Ghibelline party in Tuscany was under his leadership, and he was full of presumption” (Villani, Cronica VIII. 31). His pride and ambition made him aspire to become Signore or dictator of Siena (ll. 122-23):

          “ed è qui perche fu presuntüoso
a recar Siena tutta a le sue mani.”(2)

The epithet “presuntuoso” stands for an excess of magnanimitas or ambition that spurs men on to attempt the impossible, bringing about their fall. At the same time, the exemplum of Provenzano's fate—his defeat and decapitation by the Florentines at the battle of Colle Val d’Elsa in 1269—should serve as a deterrent to those who would attempt to seize dictatorial power in the Tuscan communes.3

The political theme returns in Cantos XIV and XVI, the center not merely of the Purgatorio but of the whole poem. In Canto XIV Dante comes across two spirits on the Terrace of Envy. The pilgrim introduces himself as having been born on the banks of the River Arno, but the way he appears to conceal the river's name leads one of the souls (Guido del Duca: ll. 29-66) to launch into a fierce denunciation of the corruption that has taken hold of all the inhabitants of the Arno Valley. They behave as though they had been turned into beasts by the witch Circe. This initiates what is at first a regional lament (Canto XIV), but which soon broadens into a discourse on universal corruption in the contemporary world (Canto XVI).

Circe was known to Dante especially through the lines in Virgil's epic (Aen. VII. 19-20), where the sorceress was credited with the power of turning her former lovers into animals. The metamorphoses of the inhabitants of the Arno Valley are certainly inspired by Dante's outburst in the Convivio (II. vii. 3-4), where bestiality (“the mad bestiality” of Inf. XI. 82-83) is denounced as the condition encompassing men and women who abandon rational living: “when it is said that a man lives, this must be understood to mean that he uses his reason, which is the life specific to him and the activity of the noblest part of his being. Therefore, anyone who abandons reason and uses only his sensitive part, does not live as a man but as a beast; as that most excellent Boethius says: ‘He lives the life of an ass’” (my emphasis). Dante refers to a passage in Boethius' De Consolatione Philosophiae (IV. iii. 63-64), which contains the phrase Asinum vivit, applied, however, to those who are slow and stupid. In the same section (56-66), we read something close to the poet's purpose in Purgatorio XIV:

You cannot consider anyone transformed by vices to be a man. Does Avarice carry away the violent robber of other men's goods? You may say he is like a wolf [Lupi similem dixeris:: cf. Purg. XX. 10]. Is the angry and unquiet man [Ferox atque inquies] always quarrelling? You may compare him to a dog. Does the traitor rejoice at the success of his hidden intrigues? He is no better than a fox. … Is he immersed in filthy and unclean lusts? He is entangled in the pleasure of a stinking sow.4

Dante's readers must be struck by the fact that these are the beasts chosen by the poet to designate the inhabitants of the Casentino in the Upper Arno (Purg. XIV. 43-45: “foul swine”), Arezzo (ll. 46-48: “curs”), Florence (ll. 49-51: “wolves,” cf. Par. XXV. 6), and Pisa (ll. 53-54: “foxes”). We may note in passing that Dante has rearranged Boethius' list—possibly in order to remind his readers of the moral order of his Inferno (Lust-Violence-Fraud). Even the River Arno takes on bestial characteristics in the line: “and it scornfully turns away its snout from them” (l. 48). Thus the “royal river” of Purg. V. 122 has been supplanted by the “accursed and ill-fated ditch” of Purg. XIV. 51: the heart of Tuscany has been turned into a ditch of iniquity and corruption. Its inhabitants are truly like wild beasts in their rejection of a society organized on the basis of Justice and reason. The same imagery is evident at the close of the Monarchia (III. xv. 9), where we are told that God has instituted two goals for the human race; nevertheless, “human greed would cast them behind, if men—like horses—led astray by their own brutishness, were not held to the right path by ‘bit and rein.’ ”5 The absence of imperial authority in Italy is alluded to yet again in the lack of all peace and Justice, which spawns the prevailing wickedness that has brought down so many Italians to a bestial level.6

Guido del Duca, whose eyelids are sewn up on the Terrace of Envy, now employs the prophetic “I see” (Purg. XIV. 58) in his foretelling of the doom that is about to strike Florence—a bitterly ironic touch underlining his claim that what he says is revealed to him by none other than God Himself (l. 57, the “true spirit” corresponds to St. John's description of the Holy Spirit as “the Spirit of truth”: John 16. 13). It would be difficult to find more striking proof that the poet is concerned above all with the message he must impart “for the sake of the world that lives wickedly” (Purg. XXXII. 103), rather than a theological game in which his truths are reserved for Paradise. This latter view has gained ground recently especially in American Dante scholarship. Critics tend at times to turn the author of the Comedy into a medieval fundamentalist, such that everything placed in the mouth of a sinner in Hell (and even of the souls found in Purgatory) must be definition be erroneous. Professor Iliescu provides an example of this critical stance in claiming that all the souls in both the Inferno and the Purgatorio “reflect, in part or completely, only the worldly level of understanding. Even the answers given by Virgil are often partial and at times completely unsatisfactory.7 Instead, as we have seen in line 57, the poet claims that it is the Holy Spirit, God Himself, that allows the blinded soul to see the truth of what is about to be enacted on earth.

What Guido “sees” is the actions of Fulcieri dei Calboli, who, as Podestà of Florence in 1303, persecuted the White Guelfs on behalf of the Blacks. Fulcieri is here portrayed as a ferocious hunter of the wolves inhabiting the “evil wood,” reminiscent of the “savage wood” of Inf. I. 1-7, where the pilgrim had found himself in mortal danger, thus indicating that Florence has been transformed into an infernal city.8 Fulcieri sells his victims' living flesh before butchering them, staining his own and his family's honor, and causing such an ecological disaster that the Florentine wood will not recover for a thousand years or more (ll. 61-66). As so often, Dante's personal experience as an exile is the basis for his proclamation of universal truths.

Guido del Duca's companion grieves at this prophecy. He is introduced in lines 88-90 as Rinieri dei Calboli, a leading Guelf from Romagna (Podestà of Faenza in 1247, of Parma in 1252, and of Ravenna in 1265), who was killed in battle in 1296. Rinieri had taken an active part in the struggles that plagued Romagna in the second half of the thirteenth century, and he had been defeated by Guido da Montefeltro in his first attempt to take possession of his native city of Forlí. Typical of the atmosphere of reconciliation in Purgatory—and the author's standpoint above both parties—is the neighborly concern shown for the sorrows afflicting Rinieri and his Guelf family by Guido, who had belonged to a noble Ghibelline family from Ravenna and who now weeps for the decadence of the “men of Romagna turned to bastards!” (l. 99). The topos Ubi sunt?, repeated over some twenty-seven lines, hammers home the theme that nowhere in Romagna are citizens of virtue to be found in 1300. Even a man who had opposed Frederick II's attempts to assert imperial authority over Faenza, Bernardin di Fosco, is praised as a “noble offshoot of a lowly plant” (l. 102)—although, as so often, we cannot be sure of the extent to which Dante was aware of the biographical details regarding this minor character.

On the other hand, the poet is merciless in his condemnation of the usurpation of Romagna by the Popes. Indeed, the praise of past virtue as exemplified in the lines that inspired Ariosto (ll. 109-10: “the ladies and the knight, the toils and the pastimes of old to which love and courtesy urged us”) emphasizes above all the corruption of the present, “where hearts have become so evil” (l. 111), thus anticipating the denunciation of papal temporal rule in Purgatorio XVI. The demarcation line is clear: it is set by the cession of the imperial territories to papal claims by Rudolph of Habsburg in 1278. This marked a cataclysmic change for the poet, who found living proof of the moral degeneration of his age in the betrayal of the traditional loyalties to the Empire, a betrayal that had brought about the bastardization of the whole region. Romagna, governed by tyrants with papal support, symbolizes the corruption of the two supreme spiritual and political authorities after the Popes extended their temporal power northward to the River Po.9

The coupling of “love and courtesy” in the virtuous Romagna of old is to be placed alongside the “valor and courtesy” traditionally found in northern Italy before the terrible conflict between the papacy and Frederick II, “before Frederick encountered opposition” (Purg. XVI. 115-17). Some recent critics have questioned the value of such terms as “honor” and “courtesy” in the context of the Comedy. They are in fact positive criteria for the appraisal of the contemporary scene, set off against the glorious and virtuous past. In the Vita Nuova (XLII. 3), God is Lord of Courtesy. In the Convivio, the word's etymology (from the virtuous courts of former times) is exploited in order to highlight society's corruption and decadence:

Courtesy and honesty are one and the same thing; and since the virtues and fine behavior were practiced at court in former times, just as their opposites rule there nowadays, this word was derived from the courts, and courtesy signified behavior at court. If this word were to be derived from present-day courts, especially those in Italy, it would signify nothing but baseness.10

Courtesy is thus synonymous with honesty, which in its turn is defined as the pursuit of truth and justice (Conv. IV. vi. 9).

In the Comedy, the epithet cortese (“courteous”) is applied first to God himself (Inf. II. 17), to Virgil and his solicitude for Dante's welfare (Inf. II. 134), and then, to the Angel at the Gate of Purgatory (Purg. IX. 92); only once is it used ironically (Par. IX. 58), but the last—like the first—occurrence in the poem refers to God's courtesy (Par. XV. 48). Just as significant is the fact that precisely in the canto under review, Heaven is alluded to as God's court:

          “E se Dio m’ha in sua grazia rinchiuso,
tanto che vuol ch’i’ veggia la sua corte
per modo tutto fuor del moderno uso,”(11)

At the very center of Hell, the pilgrim had been asked by a Florentine:

          “cortesia e
valor dí se dimora
ne la nostra città sí come suole,
o se del tutto se n’è gita fora;”(12)

Once again, we find the ascent from the particular to the universal: decadence in Florence at the center of Hell; halfway through Purgatory, decadence in central and northern Italy leading to the cause of universal corruption in 1300; and, in the middle of Paradiso, we find the exemplum of ancient Florence, the good city to whom the poet remained attached with every fiber of his being and which he held up as a glass mirroring contemporary vices and misgovernment.

In the sixteenth canto of Purgatorio, the two poets leave the Terrace of Envy and enter the terrace where the tendency to wrath and its effects are remedied. Unlike their discordant behavior on earth, the wrathful, although blinded by dense smog, are united and chant in total harmony the Agnus Dei (a symbol of Christ's mansuetude). The darkness makes it impossible for the spirits to see the pilgrim, a detail serving to emphasize the importance of speech in this whole episode: “our hearing will keep us united” (l. 36). Now, at the center of his poem, Dante meets a certain “Marco,” whom the early commentators identify merely as a well-known and virtuous courtier. Benvenuto da Imola was the first to indicate his native region as Lombardy (rather than Venice, as in Lana and L’Ottimo) from the statement “I was a Lombard” in line 46. In this and the next two lines, Marco tells us all we can possibly know about his life on earth, where he combined a knowledge of practical affairs with a love of virtue which no one now strives to achieve. Nevertheless, it seems likely that he was active at the court of Gherardo da Camino, de facto Lord of Treviso from 1283 to 1306—and one of the three old men in whom the virtuous past lives on as a reproof to the present (Purg. XVI. 121-40). In Convivio IV. xiv. 13 Dante had already praised Gherardo's nobility, although here the pilgrim asks who this “sage” was and thus seems almost to tempt Marco to anger.

Marco's praise of a leading Guelf, who was a colleague of the infamous Corso Donati, together with another Guelf noble, Corrado da Palazzo from Brescia (who had been Charles of Anjou's Podestà and Vicar in Florence in 1276 and Captain of the Guelf Party in 1277), should lead us to beware of attributing extreme Ghibellinism to Dante's Marco—as has been done, for example, by R. Montano, G. Giacalone, and N. Iliescu (the latter arraigning those “readers of the Comedy who still remain moved by the garrulity of the Ghibelline Marco Lombardo, in the infernal darkness of the terrace of anger”).13 For my part, I confess that I do not find Marco garrulous. On the contrary, I find his discourse extraordinarily concise and pungent, for in the space of half a canto (ll. 73-145) it deals with the most basic issues in Dante's Comedy: the importance of free ill; God's Justice in rewarding and punishing humanity; the creation of the human soul and its attractions to everything that reminds it of its origin in the source of all happiness and good; the consequent need for laws and a supreme temporal guide; the need for cooperation between the Empire and the Church; and the catastrophe that has ensued since “the one has extinguished the other” (l. 109) in combining temporal with spiritual power. Far from being garrulous, Marco covers an immense amount of ground in very few—about 500—words, and it would be difficult to find a better example of the poet's concision, or of his ability to combine politics (the need for humanity to be governed by the Emperor) with theology (the creation of the human soul directly by God).

Indeed, the idea that Dante in his Purgatorio set intellectual or doctrinal traps for his readers by creating characters who expressed falsehoods is a gross error of interpretation. Not only does it belittle the poet's purpose in writing his poem—the whole Comedy, not just the Paradiso—and his intention of opening his readers' eyes to the truth as willed by God, but it violates a fundamental law of Purgatory: namely, that souls are no longer capable of sinning (Purg. XXVI. 131-32; cf. XI. 19-24). The poet of the Comedy was above all concerned with stating the truth, a truth gradually and sequentially disclosed throughout the poem—as Virgil recognizes in Purg. XVIII. 46-48:

           … “Quanto ragion qui vede,
dir ti poss’io; da indi in là t’aspetta
pur a Beatrice, ch’è opra di fede.”(14)

The whole truth will only be learned in Paradise, but it will include the truths enunciated along the way; Marco Lombardo's message will be reiterated by none other than Beatrice herself:

          “Tu, perché non ti facci maraviglia,
pensa che ’n terra non è chi governi;
onde sí svïa l’umana famiglia.”(15)

Even so, as Hollander points out: “Numerically and doctrinally these three cantos [Purg. XVI-XVIII] are at the center of Purgatorio and of the entire Commedia.16

Indeed, as Marco takes over for the nonce from Virgil as Dante's mentor, his diagnosis of contemporary ills (arguably made after papal opposition to Henry VII's attempts to restore imperial authority in Italy) offers a fascinating series of flashbacks to Convivio IV and to the Epistles addressed by Dante to Henry and the rebellious Florentines (VI-VII). It also anticipates the doctrine to be worked out more fully in the Monarchia. I shall therefore examine in some detail Marco's analysis, which is prompted by the pilgrim's puzzlement at the cause of so much corruption, his doubt whether the fault lies in the evil and overwhelming influence of the stars or in a total corruption of human nature.

Marco immediately rejects the idea of astral determinism, since this would remove all justification for the punishment and reward of human behavior, and destroy the idea of God's Justice (ll. 70-72). It is true that the heavens do exert an influence on men's and women's inclinations (cf. Aquinas, S.Th. Nevertheless, human beings are endowed with the light of reason and free will, which is capable of withstanding all negative circumstances, if properly encouraged and nurtured. After denying that man's will was free within Love's “arena” in his sonnet to Cino, Io sono stato con Amore insieme, and in Epistle IV of c. 1307, Dante set out to redress the balance first at the beginning of the Comedy in his condemnation of Francesca (Inf. V), and then by placing this essential affirmation of the freedom of human will at the heart of his poem. The strongest recantation is to be found in the development of Marco's discourse on free will by Virgil in Purg. XVIII. 40-74. The political consequences of this conviction are illustrated not merely throughout the Comedy but also in the Epistle addressed to the Italian cardinals of 1314, in which the tragedy of the contemporary Church—its exile at Avignon and its subservience to the French crown—is not ascribed to “necessity,” as “certain astrologers and ignorant prophets declare,” but to the “ill use of your freedom of will.”17

Man is therefore responsible for the present state of the world gone astray; and Marco assures the pilgrim that he will be a faithful informer of the truth (l. 84). Following St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante asserts the creation of the human soul directly by God as a tabula rasa—except that, coming from the source of all happiness, it attempts to turn to whatever seems to offer pleasure and joy. From this theological disquisition (amplified in Purg. XXV. 37-78) the poet makes a surprising leap to the political consequences of the soul's instinctive attraction toward “secondary goods,” where it will become entangled “unless a guide or bridle rules its love” (l. 93).

No better example of the indissoluble link between the poet's theology and his political thought could be found than this passage, in which Dante deduces the need for laws applied by a universal Emperor:

          “Esce di mano a lui che la vagheggia
           … l’anima semplicetta che sa nulla,
salvo che, mossa da lieto fattore,
volontier torna a ciò che la trastulla.
          Di picciol bene in pria sente sapore;
quivi s’inganna, e dietro ad esso corre,
se guida o fren non torce suo amore.
          Onde convenne legge per fren porre;
convenne rege aver, che discernesse
de la vera cittade almen la torre.”(18)

The metaphor of the “bridle” standing for the laws that must be applied by the Emperor has already been encountered in Purg. VI. 88, and it returns (as we have already seen) at the end of the Monarchia, where we are told that cupiditas—the love of earthly things—would destroy humanity, “if men, like horses, carried away by their bestiality, were not held in check and guided ‘with the bit and the reins’ ” (Mon. III. xv. 9)

As in Purgatorio VI, the scandalous state of anarchy on earth is declared to be all the more shameful inasmuch as God—through Justinian—has provided humanity with just laws: “The laws exist, but who applies them now?” (l. 97). No one, in fact, for the Pope—who usurps the Emperor's divinely appointed task as the executor of the Laws—is not qualified to dispense temporal justice:

“Nullo, però che ’l pastor che procede,
rugumar può, ma non ha l’unghie fesse;”(19)

Clearly, that we are not only at the mathematical center but also at the political heart of Dante's Comedy. Everyone agrees that the deep structure is clear: the poet's message is that the Pope has no right to wield power in the temporal sphere or to usurp the Emperor's role as executor legis, the executor of the law. In order to appreciate the centrality of the Emperor's role (and the extent of the condemnation implicit in Dante's description of Pope Clement V as “a lawless shepherd” in Inf. XIX. 83), we should do well to remember the essential truth that “to the medieval mind the law meant much more than to the modern world, penetrating as it did all aspects and interests of human life.”20 Moreover, the view of the Emperor as the sole lator legis et legis executor (Mon. I. xiii.7) may well be seen as Dante's response to Boniface VIII's supposed claim that he as supreme pontiff was well equipped to guard the laws of the empire.21

The biblical references and imagery of lines 98-99, however, are somewhat confusing. Commentators quote Leviticus 11. 3-8 and Deutoronomy 14. 7-8, referring to the law that declared that Jews were allowed to eat the flesh only of ruminants with a cloven hoof. Scholastic theologians offered allegorical interpretations of this non-Christian “law,” and St. Thomas explained that the cloven hoof signified among other things the ability to distinguish between good and evil (discretionem boni et mali), while ruminatio or chewing the cud was traditionally interpreted as the meditation on and correct interpretation of Holy Scripture.22 The former quality—to distinguish good from evil—would seem a strange omission in the qualifications for a Pope. However, Dante's son Pietro claimed that the cloven hoof (which the Pope does not possess) must be interpreted in the narrower sense of distinguishing and judging temporal as opposed to spiritual things. Benvenuto points out that the Pope in 1300, Boniface VIII, although an expert in scripture and Canon Law, confounded the spiritual and temporal realms.23

This is the core of Dante's rebuttal of the hierocratic case, which he later amplified in the third book of his Monarchia. The hierocrats' case had been built up throughout the thirteenth century, replacing the Gelasian principle of coexistence between the two powers that had dominated the political theology of the Middle Ages. That dualism had been based, as always, both on practical grounds—even at the height of its claims, the papacy could not simply ignore the realities of temporal power—and on Christ's statements that his kingdom was not of this world, so that it was the duty of a Christian to give unto Caesar the things that belonged to the Emperor and unto God the things that are God's (John 18. 36; Matthew 22. 21, Mark 12. 17). In practice, however, it was impossible to separate the things of Caesar from spiritual concerns to the satisfaction of both parties, and it has been rightly observed that “wherever the line of distinction between spiritual and temporal matters might have been drawn, for papal governmental ideology the distinction had not operational value.”24

In the decretal Novit (1204), a doctrinal floodgate had been opened by Innocent III's claim that the Pope had the right to judge in temporal affairs, ratione peccati, whenever and wherever sin was involved. At the end of the thirteenth century, the ideological struggle between Boniface VIII and Philip the Fair inspired the hierocrats to produce a veritable phalanx of documents, all purporting to prove that (as Cardinal Matteo of Acquaparta told the ambassadors of the French king in June 1302) the Pope held “a plenitude of power” and was thus “lord of all things temporal and spiritual (cf. Psalm 2. 1) … the pope can judge in every temporal matter ratione peccati. … Thus temporal jurisdiction belongs of right to the pope, who is vicar of Christ and of Peter.”25 This broadside prepared the way for Unam sanctam, promulgated by Boniface VIII on 18 November 1302, which (ironically enough, as events were soon to demonstrate) asserted that “the temporal authority [must be] subject to the spiritual power,” since “it is altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.” This confusion of the temporal with the spiritual authority was for the world-judge of the Comedy the “evil behavior … the cause which has made the world wicked” (Purg. XVI. 103-4), since Christ's flock on earth is constantly led astray by the sight of its spiritual guide wholly eaten up with desire for the false goods of this world, wealth, power, and carnal delights, “which can never fulfill their promises” (Purg. XXX. 132).

Instead, the dualist principle is reformulated in the strongest possible terms in Marco's harking back to the creation of a just and peaceful Christian society:

          “Soleva Roma, che ’l buon mondo
due soli aver, che l’una e l’altra strada
facean vedere, e del mondo e di Deo.”(26)

The astronomical absurdity due soli flies in the face of all scientific knowledge; moreover, it had been decried as an impossibility, contrary to nature, by Dante himself in his apostrophe to the rebellious Florentines: “shall there be one polity of Florence, and another of Rome? And why should not the Apostolic government be the object of a similar envy, so that, if the one twin of Delos [the moon] has her double in the heavens, the other [the sun] should have his likewise?”27 As in 1310 (Ep. V. x. 30), so in 1311 Dante still accepted the traditional interpretation (which had been used by Clement V in his letter to Henry VII of 26 July 1309) whereby the sun signified spiritual authority and the moon imperial power. That allegorical interpretation of God's creation of the two luminaria magna (Genesis 1. 16) Dante later rejected in Mon. III. iv. 16. By then, it had become all too obvious that such an interpretation readily lent itself to the hierocratic thesis “just as the moon … has no light save as she receives it from the sun, so neither has the temporal government any authority, except in so far as it receives this from the spiritual.”28

From this evidence, it seems clear that, after 1311, Dante decided to reject the sun-moon analogy, and in Mon. III. i. 5 he uses the biblical term duo luminaria magna (“two great luminaries”) when referring to the Empire and the papacy. We shall probably never know the exact moment of composition of Purgatorio XVI and Monarchia III. iv. I would, however, argue that the evidence available points to the likelihood that both passages were a reaction to the Pope's betrayal of the Emperor in 1312-1313 (Par. XXX. 133-44) and to such claims as those made by the Curia that the Pope, as Christ's vicar, possessed a plenitude of power to “institute, depose, correct … bind and suspend the imperial and royal power.”29 It is perhaps idle to speculate whether Dante was aware of the exaggerations to which the sun-moon analogy lent itself—for example, the nice calculations made by Hostiensis (Cardinal Henry of Susa) showing that “the sacerdotal dignity is seven thousand, six hundred and forty-four and a half times greater than the royal.”30 Instead, in the teeth of all scientific evidence but with forceful poetic imagery (an unusual combination in Dante), the poet claims that two suns governed Rome when the “good world” or society was created, whereas Rome is now “destitute of both lights” (Ep. XI. x. 21). Papal claims to absolute supremacy, renewed with catastrophic results for Henry VII's and Dante's hopes for a restoration of imperial power in Italy, in fact led the poet to return to the image he had used in regard to Henry in April 1311, when he had designated the Emperor as “our sun” (sol noster)—even as Manfred had referred to Frederick II as the “sun of the world” and as the Christ-like “Sun of Justice”31—in order, as Francesco Buti says quite simply, “not to make one inferior to the other.”32 In other words, the poet of the Comedy placed at the center of his poem an astronomical absurdity intended to redress the balance of power and thus eliminate the inferiority of the Empire-moon implied by the traditional equation. Even more significant is the fact (not usually emphasized) that Dante claims that the two suns must light up two paths for humanity, “both paths … the path of the world and the pathway to God,” a duality foreshadowing the notorious dualism of the closing chapter of his treatise on the Empire.

We may well ask: when was this balanced society created and when did it exist for Dante? Answers have varied enormously; from before Constantine to the time of Charlemagne. The evidence of the Comedy, however, points to one ideal moment of collaboration that produced the most beneficial results, when the Emperor Justinian was converted to the true faith by the Pope; and only with the Pope's spiritual help was Justinian able to carry out his divinely inspired mission to prune and codify the Roman laws, thus providing the perfect instrument for humanity's temporal happiness:

          “E prima ch’io a l’ovra
fossi attento,
una natura in Cristo esser, non piúe,
credea, e di tal fede era contento;
          ma ’l benedetto Agapito, che fue
sommo pastore, a la fede sincera
mi dirizzò con le parole sue.
          Io li credetti … 
          Tosto che con la Chiesa mossi i piedi,
a Dio per grazia piacque di spirarmi
l’alto lavoro, e tutto ’n lui mi diedi;”(33)

Admittedly, Justinian was not in Rome, as a result of Constantine's disastrous decision to move eastward “against Heaven's course” (Par. VI. 2), contrary to both the sun's diurnal movement westwards and to God's providential plan. Nevertheless, the just Emperor remained true to the ideal of Rome's imperial Justice.

In Purg. XVI. 109-14, the spiritual power has invaded the temporal realm and eclipsed the imperial sun, thus destroying the divinely instituted balance of power:

          “L’un l’altro ha spento;
ed è giunta la spada
col pasturale, e l’un con l’altro insieme
per viva forza mal convien che vada;
          però che, giunti, l’un l’altro
non teme:
se non mi credi, pon mente a la spiga,
ch’ogn’ erba si conosce per lo seme.”(34)

“Ye shall know them by their fruits … a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit” (Matthew 7. 16-7): northern Italy, which—before the internecine struggles of Frederick II with the papacy and the Communes—was the home of “valor and courtesy” (l. 116), has now in Purg. XVI. 127-29 become a den of thieves and scoundrels, an example of the universal corruption spread abroad by the Church of Rome:

          “Dí oggimai che la Chiesa di
per confondere in sé due reggimenti,
cade nel fango, e sé brutta e la soma.”(35)

The pilgrim acknowledges the truth of what he has just heard in line 130, adding that he now understands (ll. 131-32) “why the sons of Levi were excluded from the inheritance,” yet further proof of the poet's belief that the Church of Christ should be wedded to evangelical poverty. As Professor Ferrante has noted, Marco Lombardo's fundamental message of the need for co-operation between the autonomous spheres of imperial and papal jurisdiction was not only placed by Dante at the very center of his poem, but it was also located “in the section of wrath, because … anger properly directed towards evil and corruption is the source of all reform.”36 Moreover, as Edward Peters observes, we can now see that in the central canto of the Purgatorio (and of the whole poem) “The topic of earthly beatitude is … linked to the problem of human individuation and freedom in a remarkable discourse on political anthropology that has no equal anywhere else in medieval political thought.”37 Nowhere do we find a more forceful rebuttal of the idea that the political element is alien or hostile to Dante's poetic genius.


  1. Purg. XI. 61-66: “The ancient blood and the splendid deeds of my ancestors made me so arrogant that, forgetful of our common mother, I held all men in such excessive scorn that it brought about my death, as the people of Siena know and every child in Campagnatico knows.”

  2. Purg. XI. 122-23: “and he is here because in his presumption he aimed at bringing all Siena under his rule.”

  3. For the rise of despotism in the Italian Communes, see D. M. Bueno de Mesquita, “The Place of Despotism in Italian Politics,” in Europe in the Late Middle Ages (London, 1970), 301-31; J. Larner, Italy in the Age of Dante, 128-52; D. Waley, The Italian City-Republics (London, 1978), 128-40.

  4. Boethius, The Theological Tractates and The Consolation of Philosophy (Cambridge, Mass. and London, 1953), 319-21.

  5. Mon. III. xv. 9: “Has igitur conclusiones et media … humana cupiditas postergaret nisi homines, tanquam equi, sua bestialitate vagantes ‘in camo et freno’ [Psalm 31. 9] compescerentur in via.” As E. Peters observes: “Throughout much of the Commedia, bestiality is associated with civil discord, probably from the frequency of the image in Aristotelian sources and commentaries” (“Pars, Parte,” 116).

  6. “It was for the empire to supply this right ordering and governance. … To maintain peace and justice was its primary concern, as Frederick II had emphasized in 1235” (H. S. Offler, “Aspects of Government,” 226). For Dante, the essential link or bridge between society and politics is created by Justice: K. Hyde, “The Social and Political Ideal of the Comedy,” in Dante Readings, ed. E. Haywood (Dublin, 1987), 47-71.

  7. N. Iliescu, “The Roman Emperors in the Divine Comedy,” in Lectura Dantis Newberryana, ed. P. Cherchi and A. C. Mastrobuono (Evanston, Ill., 1988), 1: 4 (my emphasis); cf., however, J. A. Mazzeo, Mediaeval Cultural Tradition, 8: “Gravest among these [risks] is the simplification of the moral vision of the mediaeval period in order to imply that the men of that time were insensitive to moral paradox, to the antimonies present in any life of choice.”

  8. Since English translations mostly translate the trista selva of line 64 as “dismal wood,” “sad wood,” etc., I think it necessary to point out that trista in Dante can mean “evil, wicked” (as in Inf. XXX. 76-77: “l’anima trista / di Guido …”.). Bosco-Reggio (2: 244, n. 64) point to the ambiguity that is perforce lost in translation: “Il termine trista può voler dire ‘piena di malvagità’, ma anche ‘sventurata’ …”

  9. See A. Vasina, “Romagna,” ED IV, 1018.

  10. Conv. II. x. 8 (emphasis mine).

  11. Purg. XVI. 40-42: “And if God has so gathered me into His grace that he desires that I should see his court in a manner quite unknown to modern times.”

  12. Inf. XVI. 67-69: “tell [us] if courtesy and valor still dwell in our city as was their wont, or whether they have totally left it” (emphasis mine). Note the poet's use of the singular form and feminine agreement in the verbal clause, del tutto se n’è gita fora, to emphasize the fact that courtesy—cortesia—is the keyword.

  13. N. Iliescu, “The Roman Emperors in the Divine Comedy,” 14 (emphasis mine). It is interesting to note that Villani (Cronica VIII. 121) makes Marco the mouthpiece for God's anger in his supposed encounter with Ugolino, then Lord of Pisa: “The wise man [Marco] immediately answered him: ‘You are more likely to be struck down by misfortune than to be lord of Italy.’ And the Count, fearing Marco's words, said: ‘Why?’ And Marco answered: ‘Because the only thing you lack is God's wrath.’ ” Cf. Cronica, XIII. 74.

  14. “What reason can see here, I can impart; beyond that you must wait for Beatrice, for it is a matter concerning the Faith.”

  15. Par. XXVII. 139-41: “You—in order not to be amazed—must remember that on earth no one governs, and so the human family is led astray.”

  16. R. Hollander, Allegory, 139, with particular reference to C. S. Singleton's classic study, “The Poet's Number at the Center,” Modern Language Notes 80 (1965), 1-10.

  17. Ep. XI. iii. 4: “et, quod horribilius est, quod astronomi quidam et crude prophetantes necessarium asserunt quod, male usi libertate arbitrii, eligere maluistis.”

  18. Purg. XVI. 85-96: “There comes forth from the hand of Him who loves it before it exists, like a child that sports, now in tears and now with laughter, the simple little soul that knows nothing, except that—created by a joyful Maker—it turns readily toward whatever attracts it. At first it savors trivial goods; and there it is beguiled and runs after them, unless a guide or bridle rules its love. Hence it was necessary to impose the laws as a bridle; it was necessary to have a ruler able to discern at least the tower of the true city.”

  19. Purg. XVI. 98-99: “No one, because the shepherd who precedes his flock can chew the cud but does not have the cloven hoof.”

  20. A. M. Stickler, “Concerning the Political Theories of the Medieval Canonists,” Traditio 7 (1949-1951), 450. Cf. E. Peters, “The Frowning Pages,” 290 and 302: “law and justice were for Dante metaphysical concepts, intimately linked to ethics, and thus, when applied rightly and equitably by the legitimate earthly law-giver, the emperor, they became … a para-sacrament … no Roman lawyer had ever precisely placed imperial law within a cosmological framework as spacious and detailed as Dante's.”

  21. See M. Maccarrone, “La teoria ierocratica e il canto XVI del Purgatorio,Rivista di storia della Chiesa in Italia 4 (1950), 389, n. 114.

  22. S. Th.

  23. Petri Allegherii super Dantis ipsius genitoris Comediam Commentarium (Florence, 1845), 414; Benvenuto, 3: 441. André Pézard has pointed to a text by St Gregory the Great (Moralia I. xxix), in which we read that [the camel, as an example to the Pope] “has not a cloven hoof … nevertheless, it chews the cud, because by the right dispensation of temporal things it hopes to attain unto heavenly things” (Pézard, 1232, note 99).

  24. W. Ullmann, Medieval Political Thought, 105.

  25. J. A. Watt, Introduction to his translation of John of Paris, On Royal and Papal Power (Toronto, 1971), 25-26.

  26. Purg. XVI. 106-8: “Rome, which made the world good, used to have two suns, which lit up the two paths, the world's path and the pathway to God.”

  27. Ep. VI. ii. 8: “ut alia sit Florentina civilitas, alia sit Romana? Cur apostolice monarchie similiter invidere non libet, ut si Delia geminatur in celo, geminetur et Delius?” The idea of a monstrosity contra naturam was aided by the powerful reductionism of medieval thought (cf. Unam sanctam: “there is one body and one head of this one and only church, not two heads as though it were a monster”). Nevertheless, although Étienne Gilson states “no one had ever thought to say that God had created two suns” (Dante et la philosophie, 220), already in the eleventh century Cardinal Humbert had denounced those sycophants who, at times of imperial successes, set up “two suns” (B. Tierney, The Crisis of Church and State, 41).

  28. Mon. III. iv. 3: “Deinde arguunt quod, quemadmodum luna, que est luminare minus, non habet lucem nisi prout recipit a sole, sic nec regnum temporale auctoritatem habet nisi prout recipit a spirituali regimine.” See the pertinent observations made by G. Di Scipio (“Dante and Politics,” 268), when he relates the disconcerting image of two suns to Conv. IV. xvii. 9: “This notion of the two ‘felicitadi,’ contemplative and active life, which interestingly enough Dante applies in determining the position of the Hebrew women in Paradiso XXXII, is at the root of the whole theory on the political system, and in the words of Marco Lombardo ‘due soli,’ the Empire and the Church. …”

  29. “Christi vicarius habet plenitudinem potestatis … potestas pape Christi vicarii habet instituere, destituere, corrigere … ligare et suspendere potestatem imperialem et regalem. See J. Rivière, Le Problème de l’Église et de l’État au temps de Philippe le Bel (Louvain-Paris, 1926), 328-29, n. 2). For the significance and elaboration of the title vicarius Christi, see M. Maccarrone, “Vicarius Christi”: storia del titolo papale (Rome, 1952). For Dante's restrictions on the power of the Pope as vicarius Christi, see Mon. III. iii. 7 and vii. 4-6.

  30. B. Tierney, The Crisis of Church and State, 156.

  31. E. H. Kantorowicz, “Dante's ‘Two Suns’,” in Selected Studies (New York, 1965), 338: “Sol mundi is Frederick in the eyes of a South Italian poet [Orfinus of Lodi], whereas Manfred, Frederick's son, styles his father Sol mundi, auctor pacis, and even Sol Justitiae.

  32. Buti, 2: 381: “Due Soli aver; cioè due luci del mondo, come sono due luci in cielo; cioè lo papa e lo imperadore; ma notevilmente disse Soli, per non fare l’uno minore che l’altro …”

  33. Par. VI. 13-24: “And before I was engaged on that task, I believed that there was only one nature in Christ and no more, and I was satisfied with that belief; but blessed Agapetus, who was the supreme pastor, directed me to the true faith by his words. I believed him. … As soon as I moved my steps along the Church's path, it pleased God, of His grace, to inspire me with the high task, and I gave myself entirely to it.” See F. Mazzoni's fundamental essay: “Il canto VI del Paradiso,” in Paradiso: Letture degli anni 1979-’81 (Rome, 1989), 167-222.

  34. “The one has extinguished the other; and the sword has joined the shepherd's crook, and, joined together by unnatural force, they must perform badly; because, so joined together, the one does not fear the other: if you do not believe me, look at the fruit, for every plant is known by what it seeds.” M. De Rosa, “Prima che Federigo avesse briga,” Esperienze letterarie 13 (1988), 79-88, argues for a reciprocally destructive action (quoting Benvenuto, Landino, and Nardi), while interpreting line 117 “as a reference to Frederick II's attack against the Communes of northern Italy, rather than to the struggle between the Emperor and the Popes” (80).

  35. Purg. XVI. 127-29: “Proclaim henceforth that the Church of Rome, because she confounds two powers in herself, falls into the mire and befouls both herself and her burden.”

  36. J. Ferrante, The Political Vision, 231. I may add that the greatest example of righteous anger was given by Christ's expulsion of the moneychangers from the Temple (Mark 11. 17: “Is it not written, ‘My House shall be called of all nations the House of Prayer’? but you have turned it into a den of thieves”). On virtuous anger in the Comedy, see P. Boyde, Perception and passion in Dante's “Comedy” (Cambridge, 1993), especially 268-9 and 274. We may also note that here in Purg. XVI. 127 we find the only occurrence in the Comedy of the appellation “the Church of Rome” (cf. the eight occurrences of “Holy Church”)—as if to hammer home the paradox that it is the Church of Rome (consecrated by the blood of Saints Peter and Paul: Ep. XI. ii. 3; cf. Par. IX. 139-41, XXVII. 40-60), now in shameful exile at Avignon and in radical opposition to “that Rome of which Christ is a Roman” (Purg. XXX. 102) that leads Christ's flock astray.

  37. E. Peters, “Human Diversity and Civil Society in Paradiso VIII,” Dante Studies 109 (1991), 64.


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