- the theology of Purgatory: relatively unscripted compared to the theology of Hell and the theology of Paradise
- Dante enjoys carte blanche to invent his Purgatory: the very idea of Purgatory as a mountain is Dante’s
- “la religïone / de la montagna” (Purg. 21.41-2): the rules and regulations, the “administration” of Purgatory — all are Dante’s to invent
- Dante narrates his version of the “birth of Purgatory” at the end of Inferno 34, verses 112-26, where he connects the formation of the mountain of Purgatory to the fall of Lucifer
- the travelers find themselves on the seashore looking out at a sapphire sea: a world of light and beauty takes the place of the “mar sì crudele” (cruel sea [Purg. 1.3]) on which the poet’s ship has sailed thus far
- threads of loss are interwoven with threads of beauty to create the new fabric of Purgatorio: the quest for freedom of the will requires setting aside mortal goods, even the most beautiful and worthy
- this is the place where all souls, preparing for blessedness, are working to become “new” again: innocent as at birth, innocent as the human race in the Garden of Eden
- the one living man who tried to reach Purgatory before Dante: the Ulysses theme carried into Purgatorio 1
- Cato of Utica, guardian of Purgatory, and the implications of a saved pagan for Virgilio
- the Then of Damnation and the Now of Salvation
To begin our discussion of Purgatorio, we begin by introducing the importance of the theology of Purgatory. As historian Jacques Le Goff notes in his book The Birth of Purgatory (English translation, U. of Chicago Press, 1984), Purgatory as a concept was, in Dante’s time, of much more recent vintage than Hell or Paradise, both of which have ancient origins.
The relatively unscripted theology of Purgatory is a theme to which I will return frequently in my Commento on Purgatorio. The very idea of Purgatory as a mountain is Dante’s own invention, let alone all the rules and regulations that Dante invents to structure the experience of those dwelling on the mountain.
We could refer to these rules and regulations, which collectively organize Purgatory as an ”administrative unit”—much like a vast monastic order—with Dante’s phrase “la religïone / de la montagna” (Purg. 21.41-2).
Vis-à-vis the relatively uncodified second realm, Dante enjoyed an ideological freedom that offered virtual carte blanche for his inventive and creative genius. In The Undivine Comedy, I discuss Dante’s creation of the space of Antepurgatory (a space that embraces Purgatorio 1 to 9) as an example of Dante’s love of difference, which the unscripted second realm allows him free rein to explore:
Vis-à-vis the uncodified second realm, in particular, Dante enjoys an ideological freedom that gives him carte blanche for the creation of difference and the consequent blurring of distinction. He exploits this freedom to the hilt in the creation of Antepurgatory: as an authorially invented space for which there is absolutely no constraining theological precedent, Dante’s Antepurgatory has generated sustained critical bewilderment, with regard, for instance, to its geographical extension (should it include the banks of the Tiber?) and its moral taxonomy (should its four types of sinners all be considered negligent?). The solitary and unplaceable figure of Sordello (scholars have debated whether he should be grouped with those who died violently or with the princes in the Valley) is emblematic of the ambiguities raised by this liminal space.
We are confused by Dante’s love of difference, by his cultivation of the new: students must frequently be reminded that the souls of Antepurgatory are indeed saved, while critics succumb to the temptation to make the distinction between Antepurgatory and Purgatory too hard and fast, too rigidly black and white. (Peter Armour, for instance, makes too much of the “negative, waiting world of Antepurgatory,” as distinct from the positive world of Purgatory proper.) It is easy to conceive of these differences as more clearcut than Dante makes them, picking up suggestions that Dante does not fail to offer, such as Vergil’s request to be directed “là dove purgatorio ha dritto inizio” (there where Purgatory has its true beginning [Purg. 7.39]). By the same token, much emphasis is placed on the transition from Antepurgatory to Purgatory: the hinges of the door resound, the angel warns the pilgrim not to look back. But all the souls in Antepurgatory, without exception, will eventually pass this way, so that what we have is another instance of Dante’s art of gradation: to create his newest new beginning, his newest “dritto inizio,” the poet must institute difference, must draw a line between what was and what is to come—the new.
And, in fact, the cantos that mark the end of Antepurgatory—the end of the beginning of the purgatorial journey—demonstrate with peculiar clarity Dante’s art of highlighting, institutionalizing, and exploiting transition: while Purgatorio 8 marks the end of Antepurgatory, Purgatorio 9 embodies transition to Purgatory, and Purgatorio 10 provides the new beginning of Purgatory proper. The gradations thus expressed should not be hardened into absolute moral categories; for in fact they exist less by virtue of the moral order than by virtue of the needs of the narrative, itself a kind of macro-terza rima that conjoins (almost) every new beginning with the ending/beginning that precedes it. The exception is the ending constituted by Inferno 34 and the beginning constituted by Purgatorio 1, an ending and beginning that correspond to the only absolute difference in this world: the difference between damnation and salvation. The wonder is that Dante’s art of transition makes us believe in so many other differences along the way. (The Undivine Comedy, p. 34)
The pilgrim and his guide emerge from the long climb through the earth and Dante is greeted by “the gentle hue of oriental sapphire”: “Dolce color d’oriental zaffiro” (Purg. 1.13). The beautiful blue sky and the lilt of the verse tell us that everything has changed.
And it has changed. We have left behind ”dead poetry”—“la morta poesì” of verse 7, the poetry of the dead—and we have come to a place of life and love and light and laughter: “Lo bel pianeto che d’amar conforta / faceva tutto rider l’orïente” (The lovely planet that is patroness / of love made all the eastern heavens laugh [Purg. 1.19-20]).
We are on the shore of Mount Purgatory, in the uninhabited southern hemisphere. Though we do not yet know that the Garden of Eden is located at the top of this mountain, we now learn that when Dante looks up he sees four stars that have not been seen since Adam and Eve. The narrator makes the point that the “northern hemisphere” is “widowed” (“vedovo”), having been “deprived” (“privato”) of the sight of those stars: “oh settentrïonal vedovo sito, / poi che privato se’ di mirar quelle!” (o northern hemisphere, because you were / denied that sight, you are a widower! [Purg. 1.26-7]).
These adjectives, vedovo and privato, signal the theme of loss and privation that will haunt the beautiful music of Dante’s Purgatorio. The second realm offers saved souls the opportunity to work toward freedom: the freedom that Virgilio posits as the goal of Dante’s quest when he says “libertà va cercando” (he seeks freedom) in verse 71 of this canto. But the quest for moral freedom, for freedom of the will—the freedom to do exactly as one pleases because one’s will can no longer err—also carries with it the specter of loss, for the beautiful things of earth must be set aside.
To make the dialectical quest of Purgaorio more evidently dialectical, Dante-poet emphasizes the beauty of earthly life in this second canticle, devoted to a realm that is literally situated on the same earth that we live on. The souls on Mount Purgatory breathe the same air as the souls in Italy or Jerusalem, they exist in time like the souls in the inhabited part of the globe.
In the Purgatorio the poet sings and caresses the beautiful earthly things that we are leaving behind: from the beauty of the sea and shore of canto 1, to the beauty of poetry sung to music in canto 2, to the beauty of friendship and music and home. The Purgatorio is the part of Dante’s poem that tugs on the heartstrings with its nostalgia for forms of beauty and solidarity that are exquisitely human.
As we embark on Purgatorio, let us bear in mind the fundamental premise that, although Dante’s afterworld may give the appearance of being infinitely parsed and nuanced, it is ultimately a binary world: all souls are ultimately either saved or damned. The souls in Purgatorio are all saved. No one, without exception, whom we meet from Purgatorio 1 on is unsaved. All will eventually, at the Last Judgment, be among the blessed.
In The Undivine Comedy I discuss the ways in which Dante links Hell and Purgatory, helping us to “forget” that in fact the one absolute boundary in his universe is the one between damnation and salvation:
Within the system of orchestrated tensions that structures the Commedia’s narrative, Dante works to counter the theological pull that unites purgatory to paradise, finding narrative means to link purgatory to hell: both realms share a conical shape (in fact, Dante’s mythography of Inferno 34 institutes an intimate bond between the two, holding that purgatory was formed by the land that was excavated by Lucifer’s fall) and require similar but inverted modes of travel (spirals down and to the left in hell, up and to the right in purgatory); both share the presence of Vergil as guide and father. These features work to override the forces that should compel us to link purgatory and paradise to the exclusion of hell; they belong to the Commedia’s system of narrative stresses, a system of checks and balances intended to create a structure of balanced tensions. Balanced tension is achieved by excluding each of the three realms from a system that embraces the other two, so that each realm is the ”different” realm in one of three basic systems.
The Commedia works like an arch, sustained by stresses that are not resolved but held in check by equal and opposing forces. Although the third of these three narrative systems is, conceptually, the most tenuous, from a narrative perspective it is extremely effective, to the point that I think most naive readers naturally link the first two realms. (The Undivine Comedy, p. 162)
Here is the chart that I devised to illustrate the three narrative systems that Dante uses to create the balanced tensions of his narrative:
In line 1 we see that Hell is different from the other two realms in that it is the singular place of damnation. Again, the point is that the system is fundamentally binary: souls are damned and assigned to Hell or saved and assigned first to Purgatory and ultimately to Paradise.
In line 2 we see that Purgatory is different from the other two realms because it is the only non-eternal realm. It is not eternal because at the Last Judgment, when all souls will be allocated to either Hell or Paradise, Purgatory will cease to exist. Again, the point is that the system is fundamentally binary.
In line 3 we see Dante’s countervailing narrative strategy for binding Hell and Purgatory. Both realms are situated in or on earth. They are intimately linked because, according to the Dantean mythography of Inferno 34, Purgatory was created with the earth excavated by Lucifer’s fall, the fall that created Hell. Both realms are conical in shape, both are traversed in spirals: down and to the left in Hell, up and to the right in Purgatory.
Dante further binds these two realms by making them the locus of the most deeply human story of the Commedia, that of the love between him and his father-guide, Virgilio.
But none of these extremely strong bonds between Hell and Purgatory can offset the reality of the abyss between them. This is Dante’s point and it brings us back to the fundamental binary that structures his universe.
As we shall see, the abyss between damnation and salvation will be dramatized in this very canto in the words that Cato will speak to Virgilio: if you dwell on the other side of river Acheron, there is no point in evoking our shared past as great Romans or my wife Marcia. You are damned, while I am not.
* * *
Dante refers to Adam and Eve with the periphrasis the “la prima gente” (Purg. 1.24). They are the “first people”, the first inhabitants of earth:
I’ mi volsi a man destra, e puosi mente a l’altro polo, e vidi quattro stelle non viste mai fuor ch’a la prima gente. Goder pareva ’l ciel di lor fiammelle: oh settentrional vedovo sito, poi che privato se’ di mirar quelle! (Purg. 1.22-27)
Then I turned to the right, setting my mind upon the other pole, and saw four stars not seen before except by the first people. Heaven appeared to revel in their flames: o northern hemisphere, because you were denied that sight, you are a widower!
The firstness of Adam and Eve—their existential newness—speaks to an important purgatorial theme. This is the place where everyone is working on becoming new again.
Those who journey to the top of Mount Purgatory are engaged in a quest to purge themselves of sin. This is a process in which humans essentially return to a condition of first innocence, of existential newness.
Let us remember what Dante-narrator says of Ugolino’s children. Their youth—literally their “new age” or “newness”—makes them innocent: “Innocenti facea l’età novella” (Inf. 33.88). There are two adjectives in the verse just cited: “innocenti” and “novella”. In Purgatorio, we see that these two adjectives converge: as we work to become new again, returning to the place where humans were first new (the Garden of Eden), we also become newly innocent. At the end of Purgatorio the self is reborn and renewed, as is Dante: “rifatto sì come piante novelle / rinovellate di novella fronda” (remade, as new trees are renewed when they bring forth new boughs [Purg. 33.143-4]).
When Adam and Eve were new, they looked upon the stars that Dante sees now, the stars that are only visible in the uninhabited southern hemisphere. As we learned in Dante’s cosmological lesson at the end of Inferno 34 (one that retails information that is totally peculiar to Dante, completely invented by him), Lucifer’s fall from heaven excavated the cone of Hell. The place where Lucifer fell and hit the earth is the place where Christ lived and died, Jerusalem. Hell was consequently carved out under Jerusalem by Lucifer’s falling mass.
Dante goes further at the end of Inferno 34, accounting not only for the creation of Hell and Hell’s location but also for “the birth of Purgatory” and Purgatory’s location. Purgatory is a cone-shaped mountain that was created by the earth that was displaced by Lucifer’s fall. That displaced earth rose up on the other side of the globe from Jerusalem, exactly opposite to Jerusalem, and became Mount Purgatory.
Mount Purgatory is consequently in the middle of the uninhabited southern hemisphere. This is the description of the earth and its contours that emerges from the cosmological narrative related at the end of Inferno 34 and elaborated in Purgatorio 1.
The southern hemisphere is completely watery, containing only one land mass: Purgatory. No living human has touched the earth of Mount Purgatory since Adam and Eve left, although—as we shall see—one human navigated these waters and came close enough to these shores to be able to see an immensely tall mountain in the distance: “quando n’apparve una montagna, bruna/ per la distanza, e parvemi alta tanto / quanto veduta non avëa alcuna” (when there before us rose a mountain, dark / because of distance, and it seemed to me / the highest mountain I had ever seen [Inf. 26.133-5]).
As the above citation from Inferno 26 makes clear, the human who briefly and illicitly glimpsed the stars of the “other pole” is Ulysses. The phrase “altro polo” appears twice in Purgatorio 1. It appears first in Purgatorio 1.23 (“e puosi mente / a l’altro polo, e vidi quattro stelle”) and then it appears again a few verses later, where Dante specifies that “he turns a little toward the other pole”: “un poco me volgendo a l’altro polo” [Purg. 1.29]). These references to the “altro polo” echo Inferno 26.127, where we learn that Ulysses’ voyage took him to where all the stars of the “other pole” are visible: “Tutte le stelle già de l’altro polo / vedea la notte, e ’l nostro tanto basso, / che non surgëa fuor del marin suolo” (At night I now could see the other pole / and all its stars; the star of ours had fallen / and never rose above the plain of the ocean [Inf. 26.127-9]).
The connection between Ulysses and the shore of Purgatory that he does not reach is very strong here, since “l’altro polo” occurs only in Inferno 26, when Ulysses refers to his sighting of the other pole, and here, at the beginning of Purgatorio 1.
At the same time that Dante makes this strong connection through the repetition of “l’altro polo”, present only in these two canti, he also inserts an interesting disjunction, engineered by his syntax. While the stars of the other pole are “viste”—seen—by Adam and Eve in Purgatorio 1, technically Ulysses does not say “I saw the stars of the other pole” but “the night saw the stars of the other pole”: “Tutte le stelle già de l’altro polo / vedea la notte” (Inf. 26.127-8). In other words, “la notte” is the subject of the verb “vedea” in Inf. 26.128. Is it this syntactical loophole that allows Dante to say that the stars of the other pole have never been seen except by the first people, when Ulysses certainly indicates that he saw them?
At the end of Purgatorio 1 there is a confirming allusion to Ulysses that again uses the verb vedere to differentiate between who sees what — or, better, between who is allowed to see what. And, again, as in Inferno 26.128, the subject of the verb vedere is not a person but an inanimate part of the landscape that normally does not function as the subject of the verb “to see”. As in Inferno 26 it is the “night” that sees the stars of the other pole, here in Purgatorio 1 it is the “deserted shore” (“lito diserto” [Purg. 1.130]) of Purgatory that has “never yet seen its waters coursed by any man who subsequently had knowledge of journeying back again”: “Venimmo poi in sul lito diserto, / che mai non vide navicar sue acque / omo, che di tornar sia poscia esperto” (Purg. 1.131-32). Where Ulysses is concerned, the world itself and its component parts—the night, the shore—are the only witnesses to his grandeur, and to his failure.
In these verses Dante is reminding us that the one previous living human who navigated these waters, Ulysses, was not able to return. Literally, Dante writes that the experience of becoming esperto of the journey home—the “expertise” of the return—was not vouchsafed to him. The choice of the adjective ”esperto” in verse 132 is profound and calculated: Ulysses states in Inferno 26 that he burned with desire to become “del mondo esperto” (expert of the world [Inf. 26.98]).
The narrator has created two sets of beings with respect to the right and ability to reach Mount Purgatory: those who reach this shore while alive and those who reach this shore already dead.
There are two men who have journeyed to Purgatory in the flesh: these are first Ulysses and later Dante. Ulysses comes by sea (as it turns out that the dead souls also do), while Dante comes by land. Ulysses’ journey is unsanctioned, while Dante’s is sanctioned. Ulysses’ unsanctioned quest is doomed to fail, while Dante’s quest—willed by God as we learn in Inferno 2—succeeds. Dante is thus the only living human who has ever been privileged to arrive on (and therefore “see”) this shore.
The dead souls who journey to Purgatory journey by sea, like Ulysses. However, these souls, who come here licitly, will arrive by a different route. They come from the mouth of the river Tiber at Ostia, near the Vatican in Rome, as we will learn in the next canto.
* * *
The echo of Inferno 26’s “altro polo” in Purgatorio 1 reminds us of the Greek hero’s unsanctioned quest beyond the pillars of Hercules and prepares us for the spirited challenge that is issued to Dante and Virgilio by the bearded sage who is the guardian of the second realm. The patriarch (see the description of the “veglio” in Purg. 1.31-33) who guards Purgatory focuses on what he presumes to be the violation of the travelers’ arrival on these shores. He assumes that the travelers are escaped prisoners, damned folk who have come to this place in defiance of the “laws” of Hell:
«Chi siete voi che contro al cieco fiume fuggita avete la pregione etterna?», diss’el, movendo quelle oneste piume. «Chi v’ha guidati, o che vi fu lucerna, uscendo fuor de la profonda notte che sempre nera fa la valle inferna? Son le leggi d’abisso così rotte? o è mutato in ciel novo consiglio, che, dannati, venite a le mie grotte?». (Purg. 1.40-48)
“Who are you—who, against the hidden river, were able to escape the eternal prison?” he said, moving those venerable plumes. “Who was your guide? What served you both as lantern when, from the deep night that will always keep the hellish valley dark, you were set free? The laws of the abyss—have they been broken? Or has a new, a changed decree in Heaven let you, though damned, approach my rocky slopes?”
Virgilio’s reply begins “Da me non venni: / donna scese del ciel” (I do not come through my own self; a lady came down from heaven [Purg. 1.52-3]). In other words, Virgilio effectively shows the “passport” issued to him in Purgatorio 2 by Beatrice. He then explains the various features of this special journey: Dante, who is alive, was close to perdition “per la sua follia” (through his folly [Purg. 1. 59]) and Virgilio was sent to save him: “per lui campare” (for his deliverance [Purg. 1.62]). Moreover, the path to salvation required Virgilio to lead Dante through Hell and now through Purgatory, where he intends to show Dante the souls who purge themselves under the governance of this patriarch: “e ora intendo mostrar quelli spirti / che purgan sé sotto la tua balìa” (now I intend to show to him those spirits / who, in your care, are bent on expiation [Purg. 1.65-6]).
As verses 65-6 show, Virgilio knows who the identity of the soul to whom he is speaking. He knows enough of Purgatory to know under whose guardianship it is. Virgilio therefore tailors his request to his interrogator, declaring that Dante-pilgrim is on a quest for freedom analogous to the quest for which his interrogator gave up his life:
Or ti piaccia gradir la sua venuta: libertà va cercando, ch’è sì cara, come sa chi per lei vita rifiuta. (Purg. 1.70-72)
Now may it please you to approve his coming; he goes in search of liberty—so precious, as he who gives his life for it must know.
Virgilio here defines his interlocutor as one who gave up his life for freedom. How does Virgilio know that the person to whom he speaks gave his life for liberty? Apparently those in Limbo know that one who was once one of their own—Cato of Utica, a Roman and a pagan—is now the saved guardian of purgatory.
Cato of Utica committed suicide in Utica in 46 CE rather than submit to the dominion of Caesar. The choice of the identity of the guardian of Purgatory shows us Dante’s willingness to embrace complexity and nuance.
Here we see Dante save a pagan who killed himself rather than lose the freedoms of Republican Rome, freedoms that were lost when Caesar took absolute power. And yet, in the previous canto, Inferno 34, Dante damned as traitors those who killed Caesar. Therefore Brutus and Cassius are forever masticated in two of Lucifer’s three mouths.
Cato was a Roman patriot whose story is stirringly told in Lucan’s Pharsalia, the source for Dante’s reverence for Cato, a reverence that Dante had demonstrated in his philosophical treatise Convivio. Cato killed himself rather than allow himself to be subjected to Caesar. Dante has therefore a more liberal construction of suicide than we might have expected; he does not view self-sacrifice for the cause of political liberty as a form of wanton self-destruction.
In his address to Cato, Virgilio conflates the two quests for freedom: the political quest for which Cato sacrificed his life, and the moral quest pursued by Dante. Indeed, the moral and the political do not truly diverge, as all readers of Dante know. And so Cato of Utica’s decision to give up his life rather than to live un-free is a decision that resonates with the quest of the second realm, where souls work to become free of the vices that blind us morally and therefore also politically.
The identity of the guardian of Purgatory is shocking not only because he is a suicide, but most of all because he is a pagan. Indeed, the identity of the guardian of Purgatory creates shock waves that persist long after Purgatorio 1. The implications of the saved figure of Cato for how we construe Dante’s relationship with classical antiquity are huge: the presence of Cato here means that pagans can, exceptionally, be saved. This reality that has enormous and discomforting repercussions with respect to our friend Virgilio.
As discussed in the Introduction to Inferno 4, Virgilio specifically told Dante that those in Limbo are guilty only of not being baptized, through no fault of their own, simply because they lived before the birth of Christ. In Inferno 4, Virgilio is very clear that the souls in Limbo did not sin: “ch’ei non peccaro; e s’elli hanno mercedi, / non basta, perché non ebber battesmo” (they did not sin; and yet, though they have merits, / that’s not enough, because they lacked baptism [Inf. 4.34-5]). According to this account, the failure of these souls to worship Christ is due simply and only to their having lived prior to Christ’s birth: “dinanzi al cristianesmo” (before Christianity [Inf. 4.37]).
Now it turns out that someone who lived before the birth of Christ can be saved.
Nor is the difference between damned Virgilio and saved Cato presented in a subtle way. Virgilio seems to be believe that the special status of Limbo — harped upon in Inferno 4 — will redeem him in Cato’s eyes. He therefore notes that “Minos does not bind me” — “Minòs me non lega” (Purg. 1.77), indicating that he belongs to the first circle, the circle that precedes the monster Minos who consigns the damned to their infernal destinations. He goes so far as to specify that he belongs to the same circle as Cato’s wife, Marcia:
ma son del cerchio ove son li occhi casti di Marzia tua, che ’n vista ancor ti priega, o santo petto, che per tua la tegni
but I am from the circle where the chaste eyes of your Marcia are; and she still prays to you, o holy breast, to keep her as your own [Purg. 1.78-80].
He begs Cato to admit them to Purgatory for the love of Marcia: “per lo suo amore adunque a noi ti piega” (for her love, then, incline to us [Purg. 1.81]).
Cato harshly sweeps aside Virgilio’s very human attempts at establishing ties of friendship and solidarity as so much flattery. Marcia pleased him once — in the passato remoto — and at that time, when he was alive, he did whatever she wanted:
«Marzïa piacque tanto a li occhi miei mentre ch’i’ fu’ di là’,» diss’ elli allora, «che quante grazie volse da me, fei».
While I was there, within the other world, Marcia so pleased my eyes,” he then replied, “each kindness she required, I satisfied”. [Purg. 1.85-7].
But now — in the present tense — Marcia dwells on the other side of the evil river and therefore has no more power to move him, by the law established when he left Limbo:
Or che di là dal mal fiume dimora, più muover non mi può, per quella legge che fatta fu quando me n’usci’ fora
Now that she dwells beyond the evil river, she has no power to move me any longer, such was the law decreed when I was freed [Purg. 1.88-90].
That was then, the Then of Damnation; this is now, the Now of Salvation.
In the Now of Salvation, all that matters is the lady who descended from heaven. Everything else is flattery: “Ma se donna del ciel ti muove e regge, / come tu di’ , non c’è mestier lusinghe” (But if a lady come from Heaven speeds and helps you, as you say, / there is no need of flattery [Purg. 1.91-2]).
This is the Law, and for all the beauty of the sapphire sea and limpid air, we cannot but feel the painful consequences.