The Divine Comedy by Dante ALIGHIERI · Digital Dante Edition with Commento Baroliniano · MMXV ·   Columbia University

Purgatorio 14


Valley of the Beasts

Coordinated Reading: The Undivine Comedy, Chapter 6, “Re-Presenting What God Presented,” p. 136; Dante’s Poets, p. 47.

Purgatorio 14 begins dramatically, with an interrogative in direct discourse, as one spirit queries another. Later in the canto we learn their names; they are Guido del Duca and Rinieri da Calboli. They are wondering about the identity of the man who has come among them while still alive:

  «Chi è costui che ’l nostro monte cerchia
prima che morte li abbia dato il volo,
e apre li occhi a sua voglia e coverchia?». (Purg. 14.1-3)
  “Who is this man who, although death has yet
to grant him flight, can circle round our mountain,
and can, at will, open and shut his eyes?”

This opening “Chi è costui?”—“Who is this man?”—continues the theme of names and the withholding of names that we have been tracing since Purgatorio 11’s mystery poet who will chase the first and second Guido from the nest, the unnamed name at the core of the terrace of pride: “e forse è nato / che l’uno e l’altro caccerà dal nido” (Purg. 11.98-99). Oderisi told the pilgrim that all nominanza—glory, but literally the recognition brought to one’s name—is fleeting like the color of grass: “La vostra nominanza è color d’erba, / che viene e va” (Your glory wears the color of the grass that comes and goes [Purg. 11.115-16]). The pilgrim responds to Oderisi’s precept in a manner that is reticent, but hardly humble: he now declines to give his name to his interlocutors, because, he says, he is not yet famous enough! The pilgrim says:

  dirvi ch’i’ sia, saria parlare indarno,
ché ’l nome mio ancor molto non suona. (Purg. 14.20-21)
  to tell you who I am would be to speak
in vain—my name has not yet gained much fame.

Without saying his name, Dante indicates that he comes from the valley of the river Arno. The name of the Arno river is at first withheld, when Dante describes it as a “fiumicel” (little river [Purg. 14.17]), and then ostentatiously intuited by one of the souls in verse 24, and finally labeled a name that should perish in verse 30. The mention of the Arno river and its valley triggers a meditation on the corrupted cities that are situated along the Arno’s banks.

This is an account of human “decadence”: the inhabitants of each city on the shores of the Arno are presented as beasts. The Arno flows from the mountains of the Casentino region in the Appenines down, down down . . . until it empties into the sea at Pisa. In Dante’s telling, as the river falls, so do the inhabitants of the cities that line its banks become more degraded. Thus, the river begins among foul hogs in the mountains, and then descends to the snarling curs of Arezzo; the curs become wolves when the Arno reaches Florence, and ultimately, when the river comes to the end of its fall, the wolves are foxes, in Pisa.

Dante subscribed to a worldview current through the Renaissance, whereby there is a hierarchy of created beings that places humans in between angels (above) and beasts (below). Therefore, from a fourteenth-century perspective, to describe humans as beasts is to describe humans who have literally “fallen”—“decadence” derives from the verb cadere, to fall—from their prescribed place in the order of being.

Dante highlights the idea of a “falling” in his dramatic presentation of the corrupt valley of the Arno: “venendo giuso” (Purg. 14.46), “Vassi caggendo” (Purg. 14.49), and “Discesa poi” (Purg. 14.52) are all markers of the river’s falling flow. This passage is reminiscent of another allegory of human decadence, found in the parallel canto of Inferno: namely, the Old Man of Crete in Inferno 14.

The speaker in Purgatorio 14’s discourse on the Arno, Guido del Duca, moves into a prophetic mode, speaking of the future brutalities that will be committed against the Florentines by the nephew of his purgatorial companion, Rinieri da Calboli. Rinieri’s nephew is Fulcieri da Calboli. As podestà (chief magistrate) of Florence in 1303, Fulcieri da Calboli carried out persecutions against the enemies of the Blacks, who were newly come to power.

As a White, Dante was exiled in consequence of this same Black takeover; in fact, in this passage, Dante is speaking about the time that immediately succeeds his own exile in 1302. As the Bosco-Reggio commentary points out, Fulcieri da Calboli became podestà in Florence right after the magistrate who signed Dante’s own condemnation, whose name is Cante de’ Gabrielli da Gubbio.

Guido del Duca’s meditation moves from Tuscany to his home region of Romagna, and from a fiery prophetic mode into an elegiac mode, as he conjures the great noble casati of Romagna that have decayed or have disappeared. Notable in this section is the melancholy with which Guido del Duca conjures not just families that have withered, but families in which cortesia and onore no longer reign. The cortesia of past times brings out a nostalgic melancholy in Dante, but also the analytic insistence that virtue is not often passed on from parent to child. This is the theme of heredity, first raised in the Valley of the Princes (Purgatorio 8), whose inhabitants frequently embody Dante’s thesis that the courtly values of old are not sustained.

Here, on the terrace of envy, Guido del Duca is able to point to his comrade, Rinieri da Calboli, whose nephew disgraces himself through his butchery in Florence (“molti di vita e sé di pregio priva” depriving many of life, himself of honor [Purg. 14.63]), and to connect his friend directly and forcibly to the discourse about heredity:

  Questi è Rinier; questi è ’l pregio e l’onore
de la casa da Calboli, ove nullo
fatto s’è reda poi del suo valore. (Purg. 14.88-90)
  This is Rinieri, this is he—the glory, 
the honor of the house of Calboli;
but no one has inherited his worth.

Purgatorio 14 is a canto of a certain willed opacity, whose emblem could well be Dante’s refusal to give his name in verses 20-21. Another example is the dark and obscure prophetic language used by Guido del Duca in speaking of Florence. Yet another is the opaque language used by Guido del Duca on two additional occasions, one that will be recalled in Purgatorio 15 and the other in Purgatorio 16. The language of Purgatorio 14 thus “seeds” the next two canti.

Let us begin with the passage that is reprised in Purgatorio 15:

  Di mia semente cotal paglia mieto;
o gente umana, perché poni ’l core
là ’v’è mestier di consorte divieto? (Purg. 14.85-87)
  From what I’ve sown, this is the straw I reap:
o humankind, why do you set your hearts
there where our sharing cannot have a part?

These verses, where Guido del Duca gives a synthetic definition of envy, become part of the story, for it turns out that the pilgrim did not understand them. In the next canto Dante asks Virgilio to explain what Guido del Duca’s words mean:

  Che volse dir lo spirto di Romagna,
e ‘divieto’ e ‘consorte’ menzionando?  (Purg. 15.44-45)
  What did the spirit of Romagna mean
when he said, ‘Sharing cannot have a part’?

The pilgrim has certainly shown confusion to Virgilio before now, and has solicited explanations; he has also asked for his teacher’s feedback on comments that were unclear and threatening to him, like Farinata’s prophecy of his exile (Inferno 10). Here Dante-pilgrim goes so far as to cite verbatim from what was said to him by a soul, asking for a gloss of opaque and unclear words. Given that the pilgrim puts this question to his guide, and that Dante-poet thematizes the difficulty of the language in Purgatorio 14.86-87, we too will await Virgilio’s explanation.

The second instance of a structural and productive opacity in Guido del Duca’s discourse is less lexical (what do “divieto” and “consorte” mean?) and more conceptual. There is an either-or in the presentation of the vicious Arno valley: is the viciousness of the inhabitants the result of bad luck or bad habit? To pose this question, Guido del Duca describes the Arno valley as a place in which everyone flees virtue as though it were a snake, an enemy. They do this—and here is the part that will generate a need for clarification in Purgatorio 16—either because of the “ill fortune of the place” (“sventura / del luogo”) or because of the “evil habit” (“mal uso”) that goads them:

  vertù così per nimica si fuga
da tutti come biscia, o per sventura
del luogo, o per mal uso che li fruga... (Purg. 14.37-39)
  virtue is seen as serpent, and all flee
from it as if it were an enemy,
either because the site is ill-starred or
their evil custom goads them so...

The little subordinate either/or clause, expressed in passing in a verse and a half, poses the fundamental issue of free will. Does Dante expect us to fail to notice the subordinate clause that holds so much theological potential? Or have there been readers through the centuries in which these easily bypassed words have worked as they work on the pilgrim, who in Purgatorio 16 will express a profound need to address them? The problem they pose, between sventura (bad luck or bad fortune) and mal uso (bad habit) will come to a head in Purgatorio 16.

Recommended Citation

Barolini, Teodolinda. "Purgatorio 14 : Valley of the Beasts." Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. Center for Digital Research and Scholarship. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2015.

Coordinated Reading