Purgatory consists of seven ledges or terraces carved into the rockface of the mountain, each of which is devoted to purging one of the seven capital vices: pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, lust. I call them “vices” rather than “sins” because, properly speaking, vices are the inclinations that lead to sins, which are specific actions rather than personality traits. Sin is punished in hell. Purgatory is the realm where souls who are saved purge themselves of the inclinations that caused the sins for which they repented, thus gaining admittance to this place and to this process.
In the Commento on Purgatorio 1 I discussed the fact that Purgatory was a relatively recent doctrinal acquisition compared to heaven and hell and therefore much less developed in theological and popular conception. As a result, Dante enjoyed great freedom in creating his Purgatory. We have already seen that he devotes the first nine canti of Purgatorio to a waiting area where souls who are not yet ready to begin the process of purgation on the seven terraces prepare themselves.
Once we reach the terraces of “Purgatory proper”, Dante has new inventions for us. He makes the experience of reading Purgatorio markedly different from the experience of reading Inferno by creating a uniform template that is imposed onto each of the seven terraces. The template involves examples of the virtue that corresponds to the vice being purged (these examples of virtue always begin with a story from the life of Mary, followed by biblical and classical vignettes), encounters with souls, examples of the vice being purged, and an angel who takes a “P” off the pilgrim’s brow at the end of each terrace and speeds him on his way:
We remember the straightforward quality of the first circles of Hell, with a canto assigned to each circle: one canto for Limbo (Inferno 4), one canto for lust (Inferno 5), and one canto for gluttony (Inferno 6). In the same way, on the first terrace of Purgatory the components of the template are arranged in the clearest possible way, one component to a canto: examples of the corresponding virtue (humility) in Purgatorio 10, encounters with souls in Purgatorio 11, and examples of the vice being purged (pride) in Purgatorio 12. Below is a chart of the structural components of Purgatorio 10-12.
As he moves on from the first terrace, Dante finds ways to create variatio around this fixed template, and thus to create a reading experience that is particular to Purgatorio. The repetition of the template confers a repetitive, ritualistic, and liturgical nature to the narration of Purgatorio, absent from the narration of Inferno. The anchoring effect of the repeated template is especially interesting and valuable in Purgatorio, the one cantica where everyone is on the move, thus adding a sense of reliability and steadiness to a domain that otherwise is all fluidity.
The travelers enter through the “porta / che ’l mal amor dell’anime disusa” (Purg. 10.1-2): literally, the “gate that dishabituates the evil love of souls”. On this verse, see the Commento on Purgatorio 13, which points forward to the discussion of “malo amor” in the Commento on Purgatorio 17.
Dante and Virgilio climb onto the first terrace of Purgatory, the terrace of pride, where they are confronted with marvelous artwork in the form of engravings sculpted into the mountain.
Much of the terrace of pride will consist of Dante’s descriptions of the artwork that he sees. These descriptions are lengthy ekphrases: ekphrasis is the rhetorical trope whereby one form of representation, such as poetry or verbal representation, reproduces another, in this case sculpted engravings. Ekphrasis is inherently metapoetic, in that it is a meditation on representation itself. The intensely metapoetic nature of the terrace of pride is analyzed at length in Chapter 6 of The Undivine Comedy; indeed, Purgatorio‘s terrace of pride is the only unit to receive a chapter to itself in a book that is in effect a metapoetic analysis of the Commedia. In Chapter 6, “Re-Presenting What God Presented: The Arachnean Art of the Terrace of Pride,” I consider the paradoxes inherent in putting oneself in the position of “re-presenting” God’s art in one’s human language. What does it mean for the poet to rival God as artifex in the context of a treatment of humility?
Onto the marble sides of the mountain are engraved three scenes, re-presented so wondrously that they seem not “re-presented” but “presented”: in other words, they seem not art but life. They are so lifelike that not only the greatest of classical sculptors, Polycletus, would have been defeated by their artistry, but nature herself would be put to scorn:
esser di marmo candido e addorno d’intagli sì, che non pur Policleto, ma la natura lì avrebbe scorno. (Purg. 10.31-33)
was of white marble and adorned with carvings so accurate — not only Polycletus but even Nature, there, would feel defeated.
Dante instructed us with respect to the ladder of mimesis/imitation at the end of Inferno 11, where we learned that God is Artifex, that nature imitates God, and that human art imitates nature. Therefore, Dante has told us indirectly that these engravings are God’s work, since only God is a superior artist to nature.
Dante comes back to defining the miraculous nature of the engravings later in Purgatorio 10, where he states explicitly that they are God’s handiwork, and gives them the wonderful label “visibile parlare” (Purg. 10.95). Dante has effectively come up with the idea of “moving pictures”, as we used to call cinema in its early days. These engravings are so lifelike that they are “visible speech”, because they make speech itself visible to the onlooker:
Colui che mai non vide cosa nova produsse esto visibile parlare, novello a noi perché qui non si trova. (Purg. 10.94-96)
This was the speech made visible by One within whose sight no thing is new — but we, who lack its likeness here, find novelty.
These engravings depict three examples of humility: the virtue that is the antithesis of the vice being purged on this terrace. The first example is from the life of Mary, and recounts the Annunciation; the second, also biblical, is the story of King David, “the humble psalmist” of Purg. 10.65, who dances before the Ark of the Covenant and scandalizes his proud wife; the third example is classical and recounts how the emperor Trajan is moved by the needs of a poor widow to interrupt his campaign. See The Undivine Comedy, pp. 123-26, for the narrative techniques used in representing these representations.
These examples spur the purging souls to emulate humility, and in this way — as announced in the canto’s second verse — the examples work to “dishabituate” the souls from the “evil love” of pride. How pride can be considered a perverted form of love is something we will learn in Purgatorio 17.
Toward the end of Purgatorio 10 the pilgrim sees shapes coming toward him bent over under grievous weights. These are the purging prideful. Now that we are in Purgatory proper each vice is punished not just by the duration of time that is spent purging it but also by a specific physical torment: the prideful souls on this terrace are bent over beneath heavy stones, whose weight is greater or lesser depending on the degree of pride to be purged.
Once more pride is connected to artistry, as the bent souls are compared to sculpted caryatids, stone figures on medieval cathedrals whose knees are drawn up to their chests (Purg. 10.130-32).