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 I discuss in the essay “Amicus eius: Dante and the Semantics of Friendship” (see Coordinated Reading).
Friendship is celebrated in the beautiful sonnet that Dante addresses to his primo amico Guido Cavalcanti, Guido, i’ vorrei che tu e Lapo ed io (see the commentary on this poem 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 from poets whom Dante knew 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 manages to pack 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 vituperative sonnets are a far cry from the affection shown between Dante and Forese in the episode of Purgatorio 23. Indeed, we consider the episode 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 previously, in 1296.
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 Dante makes the vastly divergent “spiritual accounting” of Purgatory apparent to the reader by juxtaposing the cases of Stazio and Forese. Stazio died in 96 CE, leaving 1204 years to account for between his death and his release from purgation in 1300. 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]). Ante-Purgatory is the place where time is restored for time because the time of waiting on the lower slopes of the mountain is compensation for time that was wasted or wrongly spent on earth.
Although technically the verse “dove tempo per tempo si ristora” refers to Ante-Purgatory, it is a perfect emblem for the entire experience of Purgatory. Yes, there are punishments specific to each of the seven terraces. But all of the terraces — all of the mountain — exists in time, just like earth. Ultimately, Purgatory is a temporal experience. As Forese says to Dante in the next canto: “’l tempo è caro / in questo regno” (time is dear in this realm [Purg. 24.91-92]).
Time is the fundamental currency of Purgatory. Purgatory is about “doing time”. Saved souls “do time” in Purgatory as a form of therapy on the will, which is thereby made “free, straight, and whole” (Purg. 27.140). One could imagine a spiritual thumbprint for Purgatory, as individual as a material thumbprint. Or perhaps imagine a spiritual passport, stamped by angels as the soul passes from one region of the mountain to the next. This spiritual passport marks all the regions in which the soul spent time, thereby distilling a soul’s spiritual reckoning. The reckoning consists of the increments of time that the soul “restored” or “paid back” in Purgatory.
Our Purgatorial passport — the passport that is our identity, the distillation of who we are — is based on the formula: how much and where. How much time was spent and where was it spent.
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 (vis-à-vis Beatrice d’Este) and in Purgatorio 19 (vis-à-vis the siren): in Purgatorio 23 we find the diatribe against 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.
Only a canto away, and yet now we are 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.”
Verse 116 offers us “an exquisite instance of Dante’s ability to conjure poignancy and intimacy through pronouns” (“Amicus eius: Dante and the Semantics of Friendship,” p. 64), which I describe thus:
Introduced by the pronouns in the straightforward “Per ch’io a lui,” we come to the extraordinary verse “qual fosti meco, e qual io teco fui,” where there are two balanced clauses (qual/qual) on either side of the caesura and where the pronouns and identity-activating verbs “fosti” and “fui” are chiastically arranged (fosti/meco/teco/fui) so that they mirror and complete each other. Here, too, the pronoun plus preposition contractions “meco” and “teco” are brought into full nostalgic focus by the balanced passato remoto forms of essere. In “qual fosti meco, e qual io teco fui,” we have reached the apex of Dante’s pronominal art. (“Amicus eius: Dante and the Semantics of Friendship,” p. 64)
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 Florentine canzone Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore and baptizes it the exemplar of his revolutionary “sweet new style”.