The theme of ardent friendship, clearly expressed in the language of Virgilio to Stazio at the beginning of Purgatorio 22—“Ma dimmi, e come amico mi perdona . . . e come amico omai meco ragiona” (But tell me, and, as friend, forgive me, as a friend, exchange your words with me [Purg. 22.19-21])—continues in Purgatorio 23, modulated from the key of epic to that of lyric. The theme of friendship between poets is one to which Dante is drawn from his earliest youth, as we see in the beautiful sonnet of friendship addressed to his friend Guido Cavalcanti (friendship in the context of this sonnet is discussed in the introductory essay in Dante’s Lyric Poetry):
Guido, i’ vorrei che tu e Lapo ed io fossimo presi per incantamento e messi in un vasel, ch’ad ogni vento per mare andasse al voler vostro e mio; sì che fortuna od altro tempo rio non ci potesse dare impedimento, anzi, vivendo sempre in un talento, di stare insieme crescesse ’l disio. E monna Vanna e monna Lagia poi con quella ch’è sul numer de le trenta con noi ponesse il buono incantatore: e quivi ragionar sempre d’amore, e ciascuna di lor fosse contenta, sì come i’ credo che saremmo noi.
Guido, I wish that Lapo, you, and I were carried off by some enchanter’s spell and set upon a ship to sail the sea where every wind would favor our command, so neither thunderstorms nor cloudy skies might ever have the power to hold us back, but rather, cleaving to this single wish, that our desire to live as one would grow. And Lady Vanna were with Lady Lagia borne to us with her who’s number thirty by our good enchanter’s wizardry: to talk of love would be our sole pursuit, and each of them would find herself content, just as I think that we should likewise be. (trans. Richard Lansing)
In the Commedia the theme of friendship is transferred to poets whom Dante conjures in his imagination. Thus, Virgilio says in Purgatorio 22 that he grew to love Stazio, though he had never met him in life, due to the kind offices of the poet Juvenal, who came to Limbo and told Virgilio of Stazio’s affection (Purg. 22.10-18).
But the Commedia also features friends whom Dante truly knew in life, as we have seen from the episodes of Casella, Belacqua, Nino Visconti, and Oderisi da Gubbio. All of these contemporaries died recently, in sharp contrast to a figure like Stazio, who has spent hundreds of years purging his sins on the mountain.
Purgatorio 23 is dominated by the encounter with Forese Donati, a friend of Dante’s Florentine youth with whom he exchanged mutually insulting sonnets known as the “tenzone with Forese Donati”. Forese, a Florentine of a great magnate family, was the brother of Piccarda Donati and of Corso Donati, head of the Florentine Black party. As part of the autobiographical and historical density of the episode, we will learn the fates of both Forese’s siblings in the next canto. Forese died on 28 July 1296.
In their tenzone or sonnet exchange, Dante and Forese vituperate each other’s virility, financial prowess, and morals. In Dante’s first sonnet to Forese, he accuses his friend of leaving his wife cold in her bed all winter, while in the sonnet Bicci novel, figliuol di non so cui Dante characteristically packs an insult into each verse of the opening quatrain, which tells Forese that (1) he is a bastard, (2) his mother is dishonored, (3) he is a glutton, and (4) to support his gluttony he is a thief:
Bicci novel, figliuol di non so cui (s’i’ non ne domandasse monna Tessa), giù per la gola tanta roba hai messa ch’a forza ti convien tòrre l’altrui. (Bicci novel, 1-4)
Young Bicci, son of I don’t know who (short of asking my lady Tessa), you’ve stuffed so much down your gorge that you’re driven to take from others. (trans. Foster-Boyde)
These sonnets resonate with the episode of Purgatorio 23, which we consider to be palinodic with respect to the earlier exchange. Thus, in Purgatorio 23 Forese mentions his wife Nella by name, the very Nella whom Dante had insulted in his youthful sonnet. Now she is recalled by her husband with great affection (“la Nella mia” in Purg. 23.87), and with honor: Forese explains that it is thanks to Nella’s prayers on his behalf that he finds himself so far up the mountain—already on the sixth terrace—although he died only 4 years before.
This information is forthcoming in reply to Dante’s frankly surprised query as to how Forese can already have progressed so far. Dante expected to find his friend, he says, down there “where time is restored for time”, that is in ante-purgatory:
come se’ tu qua sù venuto ancora? Io ti credea trovar là giù di sotto dove tempo per tempo si ristora. (Purg. 23.82-84)
how have you come so quickly here? I thought to find you down below, where time must pay for time.
Consider how the vastly divergent “spiritual accounting” of purgatory is made apparent to the reader by juxtaposing the cases of Stazio and Forese. Stazio died in 96 AD, leaving 1204 years to account for between his death and his release from purgation. We are able to reconstruct the personal “reckoning” of Stazio’s spiritual ledger, and it reads like this:
“500 years and more” for prodigality, the terrace where we meet him (see Purg. 21.68)
“400 years and more” for sloth, for failure to acknowledge his conversion to Christianity (see Purg. 22.92-93)
~ 300 years miscellaneous left unspecified
We have seen that Dante-poet thematizes the issue of the time spent in purgatory by having Dante-pilgrim tell Forese that he expected to find him below, in ante-purgatory, “dove tempo per tempo si ristora” (where time is restored for time [Purg. 23.84]). Here the reference is to ante-purgatory as the place where the time spent sinning is compensated by equivalent periods of time that is spent waiting. But the verse “dove tempo per tempo si ristora”, although literally referring to ante-purgatory, is in fact a perfect emblem for the entire experience of purgatory, which is a temporal experience. It is the temporality of the purgatorial experience that is brought home to the reader by the juxtaposition of Stazio’s 1204 years with Forese’s 4 years and counting. Time is the currency by which a soul is measured in this realm.
Fittingly, given the lyric themes that are beginning to accrue (building up to the next canto’s poetic baptism of Dante’s own early poetry as belonging to a “sweet new style”), there are inspiring female presences in this canto: Nella, Forese’s widow, and Beatrice, named in Purgatorio 23.128. There are also “bad women”, in a continuation of the kind of binary we saw in Purgatorio 8 and in Purgatorio 19: in Purgatorio 23 we find the reference to the “sfacciate donne fiorentine” (immodest Florentine women) in verse 101, whom Forese attacks as worse than Saracen women in their corrupt and lascivious forms of (un)dress.
We are now in a far different world from the “second Limbo” (Dante’s Poets, p. 263) of Purgatorio 22!
This is the world of Florence, of Dante’s youth, of social life both in the sense of the customs of Florence (including issues of dress and sumptuary legislation) and of the brigata of young men we can extrapolate from Dante’s lyrics. This social life of young men is a theme running through my commentary Dante’s Lyric Poetry, along with what I call Dante’s “semantics of friendship”. Both this intimacy and this semantic program are present in this extraordinary terzina:
Per ch’io a lui: «Se tu riduci a mente qual fosti meco, e qual io teco fui, ancor fia grave il memorar presente.» (Purg. 23.115-17)
At this I said to him: “If you should call to mind what you have been with me and I with you, remembering now will still be heavy.”
Finally, as you read Purgatorio 24, bear in mind that the meeting with the Tuscan poet Bonagiunta da Lucca and the discussion of the dolce stil novo take place, in narrative terms, within the encounter with Forese, from whom Dante has not yet parted. Hence the Forese episode—this episode of a critical Florentine friendship second only, perhaps, to that with Guido Cavalcanti—literally frames the moment in Purgatorio 24 in which Dante cites his youthful poem Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore and baptizes it the exemplar of a “sweet new style”.