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

Purgatorio 22


Pagan Texts As Agents of Salvation—and Aristotle, Again

Coordinated Reading: Dante’s Poets, pp. 256-69; “Only Historicize,” pp. 46-47; “Aristotle’s Mezzo, Courtly Misura, and Dante’s Canzone Le dolci rime: Humanism, Ethics, and Social Anxiety,” in Dante and the Greeks, ed. Jan Ziolkowski (Cambridge: Harvard U. Press, 2014), pp. 163-79.

Of the two canti devoted to the encounter with Stazio, Purgatorio 21 is perhaps the more emotional and personal, ending with the poignant revelation of Virgilio to Stazio. Purgatorio 22 on the other hand builds on Purgatorio 21 to create the iron-clad vise of a painful paradox: we witness a superior human being who is not saved, and who guides others (less superior on the human scale of values) to salvation.

There are two documents included here. One is the diagram “Thematic/Structural Chiasmus,” in which I try to visualize how Dante locks us into his paradox around the two axes that are articulated in Stazio’s great tribute: “Per te poeta fui, per te cristiano” (Through you I was a poet and, through you, a Christian [Purg. 22.73]).

The structural chiasmus around which Dante-poet models the Virgilio-Stazio interaction is reminiscent of the narrative chiasmus that unfolds in the depiction of the character Virgilio, who is the more loved by the pilgrim as he is revealed to be flawed by the poet.

The thematic and structural chiasmus that undergirds the Virgilio-Stazio interaction is composed of two axes: one axis is that of poetry and human greatness (“per te poeta fui”), and the other axis is that of belief and religious conviction (“per te cristiano”). In his commentary Benvenuto da Imola writes: “but whether he [Statius] was a Christian, or whether he was not, I care little, since subtly and by necessity the poet feigns this because of the many issues he could not treat without a Christian poet, as will appear in canto XXV and elsewhere.” I cite Benvenuto in Dante’s Poets, and then add:

In this remarkable passage Benvenuto goes, as he so often does, to what I believe is the heart of the matter, which is that Dante’s fiction at this point requires a figure just like Statius. In fact, Dante needs a foil to Vergil, a role for which the Christianized Statius is carefully tailored, as the character who can best bring out the ambivalence of Vergil’s situation: whereas Statius the epic poet is Vergil’s inferior, his disciple, the Statius who became Christian is Vergil’s superior, his teacher.(Dante’s Poets, p. 258)

The second document that I attach is “Dante’s Vergil”; here I list the various ways in which Vergilian intertexts are used in the drama of Purgatorio 22 and throughout the Commedia, ranging from allusion to translation to verbatim citation. Please refer to this document for the details of the textual issues that I will outline broadly in this note.

Purgatorio 22 is deeply invested in classical culture, indeed in the salvific effects of classical culture. Before we get to the details of the Stazio problematic, let us note that classical culture—Aristotle in fact—is present from the outset of the canto. Aristotle provides our cultural frame of reference from the moment we learn that this is not the terrace of simply avarice, as per the Christian scheme of the seven capital vices, but that it is the terrace of avarice and prodigality.

The decision to make this the terrace of avarice and prodigality, following the model of the analogous circle in hell (see Inferno 7), shows that Dante’s commitment to Aristotelian ethics is profound. It is already stunning that in Inferno 11 he tells us that hell is organized according to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics; now in purgatory he continues to show his fascination with the Aristotelian idea of virtue as not an extreme but a mean.

We can see Dante playing with two ethical systems—the Aristotelian ternary system and the Christian binary system—and think of this as a profound instance of his cultural hybridity. The Christian system of the seven capital vices is now contaminated by another system, whereby virtue is the golden mean between the two sinful extremes of avarice and prodigality.

Instead of referring to Aristotelian “incontenenza” in Purgatorio, Dante uses the vernacular equivalent, which is “dismisura” in Purgatorio 22.35. Even though the Aristotelian term “incontenenza” is used only in Inferno 11, never in Purgatorio, the sins classified in Purgatorio 17 as belonging to the category of love pursued with too much vigor (“con troppo di vigore”) are the very sins of incontinence that we saw in hell:

lust = circle 2 of hell (Inferno 5)

gluttony = circle 3 of hell (Inferno 6)

avarice/prodigality = circle 4 of hell (Inferno 7)

In Purgatorio we find the same categories, in inverted order (instead of descending with the gravitational pull of sin from less bad to more bad, we are ascending away from “gravity” toward lightness and “levitation”):

avarice/prodigality = terrace 5 of purgatory

gluttony = terrace 6 of purgatory

lust = terrace 7 of purgatory

In essence, Purgatorio 22 pivots around two questions posed by Virgilio to Stazio, both of which elicit a pagan text as a reply. In the case of the Fourth Eclogue, the pagan text is coordinated with biblical texts, making the Statius episode “a high-density meditation on both biblical and classical textual transmission” (“Only Historicize,” p. 46).

First Virgilio wonders how Stazio, a poet of great wisdom, could have sinned of avarice. Stazio is amused at the very idea: avarice was too far removed from him! Stazio explains that his sin was prodigality, and that he was saved from damnation as a prodigal by a passage in Aeneid 3, which he cites. This passage in Aeneid 3 (for which see the attached document “Dante’s Vergil”) taught Stazio that prodigality is as much a sin as avarice. The interpretation of the citation is arduous and has generated controversy for centuries, mostly because many scholars were reluctant to think in terms of a deliberate mistranslation. I think there is no doubt that Dante deliberately mistranslates the Aeneid, in order to turn it to providential ends. In other words, here we have an example of Dantean providential mistranslation.

The second question is: how did Stazio convert to Christianity? How did he not end up in Limbo, with the rafts of classical poets named later in this canto? (In effect, Purgatorio 22 is an alter-Limbo, an addendum to Inferno 4.) The answer comes in the form of another citation from another of Vergil’s texts: Stazio recites in Italian the verses from Vergil’s Fourth Eclogue that were held in the Middle Ages to be prophetic of the coming of Christ. Here we have not a providential mistranslation but a correct translation of a Vergilian text.

In Dante’s account, therefore, damned Virgilio saved Stazio in two ways and both times through the medium of a text. He saved him from being damned for prodigality through Aeneid 3. Virgilio also saved Stazio, through his Fourth Eclogue, from the default damnation that would have overtaken him even if he had been completely virtuous but pagan (like Virgilio himself). Virgilio not only made a poet of Stazio, he also made him a Christian: “per te poeta fui, per te cristiano” (Purg. 22.73).

With respect to these Vergilian texts and their salvific effects we should add the following distinction: the construal of Aeneid 3 as a warning against prodigality is entirely Dante’s invention, requiring mistranslation, while the belief in the Fourth Eclogue as a prophecy of the birth of Christ was widely diffused.

Moreover, Dante coordinates the effects of the Fourth Eclogue with the transmission of the Gospels:

Statius explains his conversion to Christ by pointing to the consonance he experienced between Vergil’s Fourth Eclogue and the newly disseminated words of the apostles: in contrast to the man on the banks of the Indus, he experienced the true faith because it was “seminata / per li messaggi dell’etterno regno” (Purg. 22.77–78)”. (“Only Historicize,” p. 47)

This distinction is analogous to the varieties of Dante’s saved pagans: while the salvation of Cato and Stazio, for instance, is entirely Dante’s invention, the salvation of the Emperor Trajan, whom we will find blessed in Dante’s heaven of justice (and for whom see the third bas-relief in Purgatorio 10) was a widely circulated legend. It was believed that Gregory the Great prayed for the soul of Trajan and brought him back to life long enough for him to convert to Christianity so that he could die the second time a Christian. In this way, Dante uses popular culture to lend credibility to his wilder imaginings. Or rather: popular culture was just as wild as Dante’s wilder imaginings!

The travelers, who are now three rather than two, because Stazio has become one of their number (see Dante’s Poets for the story of how the epithets that have been used heretofore exclusively for Virgilio, like “poeta”, are now used for Stazio as well), reach the terrace of gluttony. Here they encounter a strange tree from which a voice recites the examples of temperance. Purgatorio 22, a canto that is saturated in classical textuality and culture, ends by reaffirming cultural hybridity. The golden age of classical antiquity, when acorns were delicious, is aligned with the experience of John the Baptist in the wilderness, when the saint nourished himself on locusts, “as, in the Gospel, is made plain to you”: “quanto per lo Vangelio v’è aperto” (Purg. 22.154).



Recommended Citation

Barolini, Teodolinda. "Purgatorio 22 : Pagan Texts As Agents of Salvation—and Aristotle, Again." Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. Center for Digital Research and Scholarship. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2015.

Coordinated Reading