Purgatorio 20 ends with an earthquake. A soul appears who explains that the causes of the earthquake are metaphysical, not physical, since this place is “free” of physical perturbations:
Libero è qui da ogne alterazione: di quel che ’l ciel da sé in sé riceve esser ci puote, e non d'altro, cagione. (Purg. 21.43-45)
This place is free from every perturbation: what heaven from itself and in itself receives may serve as cause here—no thing else.
The earth trembles to indicate that a soul has been freed from the discipline of purgation and may ascend to heaven:
Tremaci quando alcuna anima monda sentesi, sì che surga o che si mova per salir sù; e tal grido seconda. (Purg. 21.58-60)
for it only trembles here when some soul feels it’s cleansed, so that it rises or stirs to climb on high; and that shout follows.
The adjective “libero”, used twice in the explanation of the mountain, in Purgatorio 21.43, “Libero è qui da ogne alterazione”, and in 21.62, “tutto libero a mutar convento”, takes us back to Purgatorio 1, where Virgilio defines the quest to climb purgatory as a search for liberty:
libertà va cercando, ch’è sì cara, come sa chi per lei vita rifiuta. (Purg. 1.71-72)
he goes in search of liberty—so precious, as he who gives his life for it must know.
There follows the new soul’s explanation of who he is: he is a Roman epic poet named Statius (“Stazio”), and he wrote the epic poem Thebaid: a Latin epic in twelve books, like the Aeneid, and written in dactylic hexameter, also like the Aeneid. Publius Papinius Statius was born circa 45 CE, in Naples, and died circa 96 CE, in Naples. The title Thebaid means “story of Thebes” as Aeneid means “story of Aeneas”; the Thebaid is in many respects modeled on the Aeneid.
Statius, like Lucan, lived later than Vergil and Ovid; neither he nor Lucan are considered “great” poets to us moderns in the way that Vergil and Ovid are. However, they were considered great in the Middle Ages, and you will remember that Dante includes Lucan in the “bella scola” of classical poets whom he meets in Limbo (Inferno 4.90), a group that consists of Homer, Vergil, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan. In fact, from the standpoint of an educated contemporary of Dante’s, the obvious omission in Inferno 4’s roster of classical poets is Statius.
It turns out that Dante was saving Statius for a purpose, one that is as unconventional and shocking as the purpose to which he puts Cato. Although a pagan and a suicide, Dante’s Cato is the guardian of purgatory. We recall that in Purgatorio 1 it is to Cato that Virgilio pleads for Dante, making the case “libertà va cercando” that is cited above. Similarly, Dante revises history to imagine that the historical Statius was a convert to Christianity, and then he features Statius—or better “his” Statius, namely Stazio—as the very soul who happens to complete his purgation at the same time that Dante Alighieri happens to be climbing up this mountain in April 1300.
Dante-pilgrim is climbing up the mountain with none other than Virgilio as his guide and mentor, and so we see that Dante-poet has engineered a meeting to occur between Stazio and Virgilio. Were it not for the special task of guiding the pilgrim, Virgilio would of course be in Limbo and unable to meet Stazio or any other saved soul.
The really interesting point here is that, while we have no reason to believe that the real Statius—the historical Statius—had converted to Christianity, we do have his testament of admiration for Vergil. The historical Statius wrote something about his great predecessor Vergil that has come down to posterity. He acknowledges his debt to Vergil and to the Aeneid at the end of the Thebaid. Remarkably (I can think of no other example of a poet who ends his greatest work by praising another poet), Statius ends his epic Thebaid by paying tribute to Vergil’s Aeneid:
vive, precor; nec tu divinam Aeneida tempta, sed longe sequere et vestigia semper adora. mox, tibi si quis adhuc praetendit nubila livor occidet, et meriti post me referentur honores.
So thrive, I pray, but do not envy the divine Aeneid. Follow well back. Always adore her traces. If any envy clouds you, it will fade; When I am gone, due honor will be paid. (Thebaid 12.816-819, Charles Stanley Ross, trans.)
The events in Purgatorio 21 are deeply inspired by the above passage at the end of Statius’ Thebaid. Inspired by the historical Statius’ actual adoration (“semper adora”) of the “divine Aeneid”, Dante invents the marvelous scene of friendship between two poets who never knew each other on earth. In real life, the younger poet worshiped the poetry of the elder poet, but he never knew the man. Dante uses his imagination (we remember the apostrophe to the imaginativa or imagination at the beginning of Purgatorio 17) to vault over these unnecessary barriers to love and communication.
In Dante’s invention, his Stazio, newly freed from purgation, explains who he is and that he drew his poetic nourishment from the Aeneid, a text he calls his “mamma” and his “nutrice”, figuring himself as a suckling. We have to picture the scene: Stazio is conversing with two unknowns, explaining his identity, an identity that for him requires information about his love and admiration for the Aeneid and for its author. He adds that to have lived while Vergil was alive he would gladly spend another year in purgatory, a truly extraordinary and theologically implausible claim to come from a soul now freed from purgation and bound for heaven:
de l’Eneida dico, la qual mamma fummi e fummi nutrice poetando: sanz’essa non fermai peso di dramma. E per esser vivuto di là quando visse Virgilio, assentirei un sole più che non deggio al mio uscir di bando. (Purg. 21.97-102)
I speak of the Aeneid; when I wrote verse, it was mother to me, it was nurse; my work, without it, would not weigh an ounce. And to have lived on earth when Virgil lived— for that I would extend by one more year the time I owe before my exile’s end.
In this scene Dante-poet violates all the purgatorial rules posted at the outset of the journey by his character Cato: here a heaven-bound soul acknowledges an earthly love that he does not relinquish and to which he still clings. This is Dante at his most dialectical and most fulfilling.
In the same way that the character Stazio clings to his love for the author of the Aeneid, so the author of the Commedia clings to the affect and emotion evinced by the character Stazio. Dante-poet, so succinct and careful with his language, devotes the rest of Purgatorio 21, the 33 verses from lines 103-136, to dramatizing the reverberations of Stazio’s declaration at a minute level of personal interaction between the three men.
After hearing Stazio’s words, Virgilio turns to Dante-pilgrim with a warning to be silent—not to reveal that he is the very Virgilio whom Stazio would spend an added year in purgatory to meet:
Volser Virgilio a me queste parole con viso che, tacendo, disse “Taci”... (Purg. 21.103-04)
These words made Virgil turn to me, and as he turned, his face, through silence, said: “Be still”...
But Dante-pilgrim is unable to suppress the glimmerings of a smile, which causes Stazio to inquire as to the cause of the smile, and then Dante-pilgrim is stuck, caught between the requirement of Virgilio that he keep silent and the requirement of Stazio that he answer the question. Between loyalty and courtesy, the pilgrim does not know where to turn or how to manage this sticky bit of interpersonal negotiation, until his teacher and mentor, Virgilio, comes to his aid and releases him:
Or son io d’una parte e d’altra preso: l’una mi fa tacer, l’altra scongiura ch’io dica; ond’io sospiro, e sono inteso dal mio maestro, e «Non aver paura», mi dice, «di parlar; ma parla e digli quel ch’e’ dimanda con cotanta cura». (Purg. 21.115-20)
Now I am held by one side and the other: one keeps me still, the other conjures me to speak; but when, therefore, I sigh, my master knows why and tells me: “Do not be afraid to speak, but speak and answer what he has asked you to tell him with such earnestness.”
At this point the canto resolves into the very beautiful final verses (of this conclusion, I wrote in my Sapegno edition in July 1975: “This is the most beautiful episode in the Divina Commedia”). Stazio falls to his knees before Virgilio, and Virgilio tells him to rise, for both are shades—in other words, embraces and affect are a thing of the past. But, keeping this affect hot in his final words, the rejoinder from Stazio stresses the love that burns within him: “l’amor ch’a te mi scalda” (how much love burns in me for you [Purg. 21.134]).
This love will be elaborated further in Purgatorio 22, where Virgilio tells Stazio that he learned to reciprocate Stazio’s affection as a result of learning about it from Juvenal when Juvenal arrived in Limbo:
quando Virgilio incominciò: «Amore, acceso di virtù, sempre altro accese, pur che la fiamma sua paresse fore; onde da l'ora che tra noi discese nel limbo de lo ’nferno Giovenale, che la tua affezion mi fé palese, mia benvoglienza inverso te fu quale più strinse mai di non vista persona, sì ch’or mi parran corte queste scale. (Purg. 22.10-18)
Virgil began: “Love that is kindled by virtue, will, in another, find reply, as long as that love's flame appears without; so, from the time when Juvenal, descending among us, in Hell’s Limbo, had made plain the fondness that you felt for me, my own benevolence toward you has been much richer than any ever given to a person one has not seen; thus, now these stairs seem short.
In Dante’s vivifying imagination, a poet who lived in Statius’ own time and knew him—Juvenal—was the galeotto who carried to Limbo the news of the virtuous love of Stazio for the earlier poet, Virgilio. We note the echoes of Inferno 5, whose kindling love is here made virtuous in Purgatorio 21.10-11.
Here Dante plays in bono with the possibilities of the afterlife, happily conjuring a go-between to flame the love between Virgilio and his poetic successor. In hell, we remember that Dante similarly found a way to play in malo with these possibilities, finding a way to engineer the damnation of Boniface VIII (see Inferno 19).
The love of Stazio for Virgilio, reciprocated by Virgilio for Stazio, is friendship, a subset of love in Aristotle’s Ethics and Cicero’s De Amicitia, here burning bright as Dante’s imagination rekindles the affect of one ancient Roman poet for another.