Purgatorio 20 continues the treatment of the fifth terrace. Attached is an outline of the novel way in which Dante arranges the narrative elements of this terrace, interweaving the encounters with souls with the other narrative building blocks stipulated for each vice. For a similar technique, see the interweaving of the ritual performance of the snake entering the valley of the princes with the encounters with Nino and Currado in Purgatorio 8.
Purgatorio 20 features an opening imprecation upon the lupa, the very she-wolf that in Inferno 1 prevented Dante from progressing and necessitated his trip to the otherworld:
Maladetta sie tu, antica lupa, che più che tutte l’altre bestie hai preda per la tua fame sanza fine cupa! (Purg. 20.10-12)
May you be damned, o ancient wolf, whose power can claim more prey than all the other beasts— your hungering is deep and never-ending!
As in Inferno 1, the lupa here is characterized in terms of never-ending “hunger”: greed that can never be placated, never be satisfied. In Purgatorio 20 we are in a position to see what we could not see as clearly in Inferno 1, namely that the lupa is a composite of all negative desire, all cupiditas.
In The Undivine Comedy (p. 110) I begin to make a case that I developed further in the essay “Guittone’s Ora parrà, Dante’s Doglia mi reca, and the Commedia’s Anatomy of Desire,” noting the conflation of Ulysses and the she-wolf into a mature ideology of desire that differs from the Convivio’s in blurring the treatise’s sharp distinction between material and intellectual cupidity:
Dante’s mature conviction that the desire for knowledge can become immoderate in ways that render it not so different from other forms of immoderate desire leads him to invoke Ulysses at the threshold of the sins of incontinence, in Purgatorio 19, in the first half of a canto whose second half is devoted precisely to avarice, whose ledge the travelers have reached. Indeed, the linking of material and intellectual cupidity is further highlighted by the juxtaposition of Ulysses, in Purgatorio 19, and the she-wolf, cursed in Purgatorio 20 in the same language used for the avaro maladetto of the canzone Doglia mi reca: “Maladetta sie tu, antica lupa” (Cursed be you, ancient wolf [Purg. 20.10]). (“Guittone’s Ora parrà, Dante’s Doglia mi reca, and the Commedia’s Anatomy of Desire,” p. 67)
I end “Guittone’s Ora parrà, Dante’s Doglia mi reca, and the Commedia’s Anatomy of Desire” by positing “Dante’s last great figural node for excess desire: la lupa/Ulysses” (p. 69).
The juxtaposing of the lupa of Purgatorio 20 with the serena of Purgatorio 19 testifies to Dante’s willful braiding together of different strands of concupiscence, different kinds of “hunger”: spiritual and physical craving interwoven in a tight skein of misleading and misplaced desire.
We remember that in Purgatorio 19 Dante encounters the soul of a pope, Adrian V, who speaks of his former avarice as an overweening ambition to reach the highest rung on the ladder of temporal power and ambition, the papacy.
In Purgatorio 20 the purview of avarice again includes great power and status. Moving from the highest rung of the ecclesiastical ladder to the highest rung of secular power, the canto takes aim at the French ruling dynasty.
The specter of avarice that haunts the highest echelons of spiritual life is thus revealed to have corrupted the highest echelons of temporal life as well. Purgatorio 20 condemns the French royal family, root and branch, not just as individual “Filippi e Luigi” (verse 50) but as a dynasty:
Chiamato fui di là Ugo Ciappetta; di me son nati i Filippi e i Luigi per cui novellamente è Francia retta. (Purg. 20.49-51)
The name I bore beyond was Hugh Capet: of me were born the Louises and Philips by whom France has been ruled most recently.
The topic of heredity was discussed vis-à-vis the princes in Purgatorio 8, where Dante made the strong statement that virtue cannot be passed from father to son, but is infused by God. And yet vice seems to have been passed from father to son quite handily in the case of French royalty. In fact, Hugh Capet uses the metaphor of a tree—redolent of genealogy—to characterize himself as the root of the “evil plant” that “overshadows” all the Christian lands:
Io fui radice de la mala pianta che la terra cristiana tutta aduggia, sì che buon frutto rado se ne schianta. (Purg. 20.43-45)
I was the root of the obnoxious plant that overshadows all the Christian lands, so that fine fruit can rarely rise from them.
Interestingly, in Dante’s analysis, the turn toward evil came with the temptations of “the giant dowry of Provence” (“la gran dota provenzale” ):
Mentre che la gran dota provenzale al sangue mio non tolse la vergogna, poco valea, ma pur non facea male. (Purg. 20.61-63)
Until the giant dowry of Provence removed all sense of shame within my house, my line was not worth much, but did no wrong.
The literal dowry that accompanied, most likely, Beatrice daughter of Ramon Berenguer IV count of Provence, when she married Charles I of Anjou in 1245, reminds us of the similarly noxious effects of the metaphorical “dowry” that Pope Sylvester gave to Constantine and all subsequent popes (see Inferno 19). Great earthly goods corrupt.
Purgatorio 20 is dense with history. A notorious historical issue in this canto is Dante’s charge that the French King Philip the Fair (Filippo il Bello) is responsible for the murder of Pope Boniface VIII. Despite Dante’s savage attacks on Boniface VIII in the Inferno (in Inferno 19, where he finds a way to damn Boniface to the bolgia of simony although he was still alive in 1300, and again in Inferno 27), he does not exculpate the French monarch. Boniface VIII was the vicar of Christ (Purg. 20.87), and Dante holds Philip responsible for an action that is tantamount to an attack on Christ himself.
The canto includes lots of history that has never been “excavated” by critics, thickly layered into terzina after terzina. Thus, Pieter Vanhove was able to write a beautiful paper on the Battle of Golden Spurs, submerged in the “thick textuality” of Purgatorio 20.46-48.
It is interesting to consider that Dante’s attack on the French monarchy stresses genealogy and the passing of rule of France from one ruler to the next over many centuries. Although Dante libels the founder of the Capetian dynasty as the son of a butcher in Paris (Purg. 20.52), his sense of a dynasty that extends from 987, when Hugh’s son became King of France, to the present time, is palpable.
I wonder if Dante’s scorn and dislike for the French royal house is tinged with a foreboding sense of the history that would unfold over the successive centuries. The French dynasty, for all its corruption, led to a unified nation-state—in other words, to everything that Italy did not achieve. Was Dante’s intense scorn for the current rulers of France as expressed in Purgatorio 20 in some way connected to an insight that the French had achieved what Italy had not achieved? After all, unity is the highest of political values for Dante. Italy is “serva Italia”—“abject Italy” in Purgatorio 6.76—because Italy was ruled by many warring dynasties and factions that were unable to found a unified nation.
Purgatorio 20 is framed by avarice in its most crushing form: the apostrophe to the maladetta lupa in verses 10-12 leads to the apostrophe to avarizia in verses 82-84. Apostrophe is a rhetorical trope that we associate with Dante’s most intense political invectives (for instance, in Inferno 19 and Purgatorio 6); we note here the presence of other rhetorical tropes that we have seen in similar invectives, such as anaphora and the use of sarcasm.
At the end of Purgatorio 20 there is an earthquake that is the prelude to the next episode: an extraordinary episode that spans Purgatorio 21 and 22.