Purgatorio 20 ends with an earthquake. At the beginning of Purgatorio 21, a soul appears along the path, introduced with a flourish: “Ed ecco” (And behold [Purg. 21.7]). This soul is presented by way of a citation of the Gospel of Luke. “Just as Luke writes” — “sì come ne scrive Luca” (Purg. 21.7) — so writes the narrator of the Commedia, modeling the encounter he is about to describe on Luke’s description of the two disciples who meet the resurrected Christ on the road to Emmaus. Thus Dante’s simile compares the newcomer to the resurrected Christ: just as “Christ appeared to the two along the way, having risen from his burial cave” (“Cristo apparve a’ due ch’erano in via, / già surto fuor de la sepulcral buca” [Purg. 21.8-9]), so “a shade appeared to us” (“ci apparve un’ombra” [Purg. 21.10]).
As we shall see, this shade is compared to the newly risen Christ because he has just finished the process of purgation and is now therefore “resurrected” — reborn — in pure and Christ-like form. Indeed, the earthquake is the marker that a soul has completed the discipline of the Mountain. We note, moreover, that we are only at the fifth terrace, and we infer that a soul can complete purgation at whatever point on Mount Purgatory corresponds to his internal template: what vices required purgation and for how long?
We remember that Dante-pilgrim tells Guido del Duca, whom he meets on the terrace of envy, that he does not expect to spend much time there, but instead will be confined at length on the terrace of pride. While he does not linger on any terrace above the fifth, the newly reborn soul will pass through each of the seven terraces, for he will accompany Dante and Virgilio from this point on. And in due course we shall learn the template of vices that kept this soul on Mount Purgatory for over a millennium.
Having explained that they come from Hell and that Dante is still alive, Virgilio queries the unnamed soul regarding the earthquake and its causes. This place is “free” of all physical alterations, hence the causes of the earthquake are metaphysical, not physical:
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.
In the same way that the process of purgation results in our faculty of will being made “free from every alteration” — “Libero è qui da ogne alterazione” (This place is free from every perturbation [Purg. 21.43]) —, so the mountain itself, above the gate of Purgatory, is free of all meteorological alteration. Above the gate of Purgatory, above the realm of the elements, there is no weather, no “alteration” caused by rain or snow or wind. Therefore the earthquake has no natural cause. Rather, the earth trembles to indicate that a soul has been liberated from the discipline of purgation and is now free to 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 this explanation of the earthquake, first with respect to the mountain, which is “libero . . . da ogne alterazione” (free from every perturbation [Purg. 21.43]), and then with respect to the purged soul, who is now “tutto libero a mutar convento” (fully free to change its dwelling place [Purg. 21.62]), looks forward to the time when Virgilio tells Dante that “libero, dritto e sano è tuo arbitrio” (your will is free, erect, and whole [Purg. 27.140]). The adjective libero also takes us back to the beginning of the purgatorial journey, where Virgilio defines the quest to climb Mount Purgatory as a search for liberty, using the noun “libertà”:
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.
Let us now turn to the identity of the soul who appears in the aftermath of the earthquake. 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, whom we will call 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 historical 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 “divine 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” is a command: always adore) of the “divine Aeneid” — “divinam Aeneida” —, 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, given that he was born sixty-four years after Vergil died. The historical Vergil died in 19 BCE and the historical Statius was not born until 45 CE.
Dante uses his imagination (we remember the poet”s great apostrophe to his imaginativa or imaginative faculty, which he also calls his fantasia, at the beginning of Purgatorio 17) to vault over these unnecessary barriers to love and communication.
The scene in Purgatorio 21 is a Dantean tour de force: a scene of recognition between two great poets who did not know each other on earth. Throughout Purgatorio 21, until the canto’s concluding scene, neither Roman poet knows who the other is. In Dante’s invention, his Stazio, newly freed from purgation, explains that he is a Roman and a poet and that he drew his poetic nourishment from the Aeneid, a text he calls his “mamma” and his “nutrice” (mother and nurse). We have to picture the scene: Stazio is conversing with two unknowns, explaining his identity, an explanation that in his view requires information about his love and admiration for the Aeneid and for its author.
Though Virgilio died long before Stazio was born, it turns out that he has heard of Stazio, and heard of his love. We will return to the grand Dantean act of imagination that makes this knowledge possible.
Stazio now 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 just 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 governor of Mount Purgatory, Cato. Cato had rebuked souls newly arrived in Purgatory for daring to dally while they listen to a song, a beautiful earthly creation that should no longer claim their attention. As souls in Purgatory, they have only one task: they should be running up the mountain, running toward blessedness!
And yet here Dante imagines that a heaven-bound soul, a soul no longer bound to Purgatory, acknowledges an earthly love that he has not relinquished and to which he still clings. And he further imagines that this soul volunteers the information that this earthly love is such that, if offered the opportunity to fulfill it, it would cause him to tarry in Purgatory despite the lure of Paradise. 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 of love. He unpacks with minute attention to detail the 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. Now Dante-pilgrim is stuck! He is 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. 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, instead of desisting, Stazio stresses in his response that love burns hot within him: “l’amor ch’a te mi scalda” (how much love burns in me for you [Purg. 21.134]). We note that the verb “scalda” is in the present tense. This saved soul, who has just finished the arduous work of purging himself, a task that has required almost a millennium in his case, still feels ardent love for a fellow human being and fellow poet.
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, another Roman poet. This occurred 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, Juvenal (Juvenal was a bit younger than Statius, having been born between 50 and 60 CE) and knew him, 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 Francesca’s language in Inferno 5; her credo about necessary reciprocation in love here receives an important caveat. If (and only if) love is kindled by virtue, then it must always kindle a reciprocal love in return: “Amore, / acceso di virtù, sempre altro accese” (Love that is kindled by virtue always kindles love in another [Purg. 22.10-11]).
Here Dante plays in bono with the possibilities of the afterlife, happily conjuring a go-between to kindle in Virgilio a reciprocal love for his poetic successor, Statius — a poetic successor who, as we saw, did truly and historically adore and reverence his great precursor.
In Hell, we remember that Dante similarly found a way to play in malo with the possibilities of manipulating the afterlife, engineering the pre-damnation of Pope Boniface VIII by having his papal precursor Nicholas III mistake Dante for Boniface (see Inferno 19).
The love of Stazio for Virgilio, now reciprocated by Virgilio for Stazio, is amicitia, friendship. Friendship is a subset of love in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and in Cicero’s treatise on friendship, De Amicitia, which was based on Aristotle’s Ethics. Dante was deeply conversant with both philosophical texts, and is profoundly attuned to Cicero’s definition of a friend as alter idem — another self (see my essay “Amicus eius: Dante and the Semantics of Friendship”, in Coordinated Reading).
In the next canto, Virgilio will speak to Stazio “as a friend”, twice repeating the phrase “come amico”: “Ma dimmi, e come amico mi perdona / se troppa sicurtà m’allarga il freno, / e come amico omai meco ragiona” (But tell me, and, as friend, forgive me if / excessive candor lets my reins relax, / and, as a friend, exchange your words with me [Purg. 22.19-21]). The encounter between Virgilio and Stazio is, inter alia, an extraordinary paean to friendship as a love that surmounts all divisions to create unity: “Dante transforms the historical Statius’ tribute to the Aeneid at the end of the Thebaid into the love of his fictional Stazio for his Virgilio, a love that lasts beyond the grave and the Christian dispensation” (“Amicus eius: Dante and the Semantics of Friendship”, p. 65).
This canto offers a key installment in Dante’s lifelong meditation on friendship, which begins with the sonnet Guido, i’ vorrei and the references in the Vita Nuova to his “primo amico”, Guido Cavalcanti. Dante’s own perfect friendship with Guido Cavalcanti, as conjured in the magnificent sonnet Guido i’ vorrei, foundered on their personal, poetic, and social differences. Here he imagines two poets who are able to carry their friendship past all difference.