The last terrace of Purgatory is the terrace of lust. Lust, we learned in Hell, is a sin of incontinence in its Aristotelian sense, meaning excess desire. The sins of upper Hell, as Virgilio tells us in Inferno 11, are sins of incontinence: the word technical term “incontenenza” is used in the outline of the moral structure of Hell in Inferno 11 for the sins punished above the gate of Dis. In Purgatorio 17 Dante uses a vernacular paraphrase for incontinence when he refers to the vices of the top three terraces of Purgatory as characterized by “too much vigor”: “troppo di vigore” (Purg. 17.96).
Lust is a sin of excess desire. The corollary, often forgotten, is that desire in moderated form is not sinful.
This philosophical background is worth rehearsing because Purgatorio 26 is one of Dante’s more radical and astonishing canti, for the simple reason that Dante features on this terrace not one but two distinct groups of lustful souls. One group is purging excessive heterosexual desire; Dante calls this “hermaphrodite”, desire for the other sex. The second group is purging excessive homosexual desire: technically, same-sex desire, but Dante’s examples of Caesar and Sodom do not suggest the presence of women in this group.
The commentary tradition does not do nearly enough to help readers understand that Dante’s inclusion of sodomites among those purging their lust in Purgatory is truly progressive and unconventional. Thankfully, Chiavacci Leonardi is clear, as many commentators still are not, that one group of souls on the final terrace of the mountain is heterosexual and the other homosexual: “La seconda schiera è dunque composta da sodomiti, che a differenza dell’Inferno, dove stanno tra i violenti contro natura, sono qui posti tra i lussuriosi, data la diversa suddivisione delle colpe (i vizi capitali) propria del secondo regno” (The second line of souls is therefore composed of sodomites: unlike in Inferno, where the sodomites are among the violent against nature, here the sodomites are placed among the lustful, given the divergent subdivision of sin [here based on the capital vices] proper to the second realm). However, it is not possible to grasp Dante’s progressive stance if we only state what he does, and fail to contextualize in such a way as to make visible how what he does often diverges markedly from what his contemporaries do.
In moving from the sin (action) that is punished in hell to the vice (underlying impulse) that is cleansed in purgatory, Dante decides to include homosexuality — which in Hell is not a form of lust, but a sin of violence against nature — as a form of lust, alongside heterosexuality.
Although it is technically correct to say, as Chiavacci Leonardi does, that the group of sodomites is placed among the lustful because of Purgatory’s organizational template, which is based on the seven capital vices, Chiavacci Leonardi’s syntax, which suggests that the presence of the sodomites is a passive result of the change in organizational template from Hell to Purgatory, is misleading. Just as no one would have been up in arms had Dante not put saved pagans of classical antiquity in his Paradise, or Muslim sages in his classicized Limbo, there would have been no outcry had he not put saved sodomites on the terrace of lust in his Purgatory.
In fact, no one among Dante’s contemporaries would have noticed the omission of homosexuals from the saved space of Purgatory. The challenge of Purgatorio 26 is what it includes, not what it excludes: the inclusion of a second group of souls identified with Caesar hearing himself called “Regina” (Queen) when he paraded in triumph through Rome (Purg. 26.77-78) and who in penance call out “Sòddoma” as they move through the purging flames of the terrace of lust (Purg. 26.79).
Dante went counter to his culture in all the ideological choices I have been discussing: the choice of putting adult virtuous pagans in Limbo, the choice of putting saved pagans in Paradise, and the choice of exploiting the organizational template of Purgatory to showcase the idea that homosexuals can be saved.
Contemporary treatments of the sin of lussuria encompass only the idea of heterosexual lust as a lussuria that can be regulated so that the soul can be saved. I know of no other treatment, written or visual, that opens itself to the idea and indeed the “reality” (in the fiction of the Commedia) of saved sodomites.
Dante could have precluded any discussion of saved homosexuals by simply ignoring homosexuality outside of Inferno. His decision not to do so has far-reaching implications. As Joseph Pequigney wrote in the first sentence of his important 1991 essay on sodomy in the Commedia (it is worth noting that the two essays that spearheaded reevaluation of Dante’s handling of non-normative sexuality, Pequigney’s and Boswell’s, both came from scholars outside the field): “The representation of sodomy in the Divine Comedy is fuller, more complicated, less consistent, more heterodox, profounder, and more important than the commentary has yet made known.”
The presence of a second group of souls on Purgatory’s terrace of lust, and the textual confirmations that the second group is composed of homosexuals, tells Dante’s reader that lust — excess desire — is the impulse underlying any form of sexuality, normative or non-normative. The same impulse underlies heterosexual lust and homosexual lust: this is an unconventional thought, which not even in the twenty-first century has been fully absorbed by human societies.
Moreover, if we tease out the logic of the Aristotelian idea of incontinence, we can see that Dante’s commitment to placing sodomy in Purgatory leads him to accept a dangerous symmetry. The definition of incontinence means that the impulse that leads to lussuria is not sinful when it is controlled and moderated. Extending this logic to homosexual lust would imply not just that one can repent of homosexual lust and be saved, but also that limited and moderated homosexual behavior is not sinful.
The terrace of lust begins in the concluding section of Purgatorio 25 (“E già venuto all’ultima tortura” [Purg. 25.109]), where the examples of chastity are cried out by the souls. The examples of chastity include, in the first position as always, the Virgin Mary, along with her classical counterpart in virginal divinity: the goddess Diana. To these two examples of absolute chastity, complete virginity and purity, the souls add the example of men and women who are not absolutely chaste, but who live in chaste marriages:
indi donne gridavano e mariti che fuor casti come virtute e matrimonio imponne. (Purg. 25.133-35)
and they praised aloud those wives and husbands who were chaste, as virtue and as matrimony mandate.
In my opinion, it is extremely important that Dante praises as examples of chastity those “wives and husbands who were chaste, / as virtue and as matrimony mandate” (Purg. 25.133-35). From these verses we can extrapolate the virtue assigned by Dante to normative marriage, far from the idealizations and denigrations of courtly love:
While I am not suggesting that Dante is a Protestant author avant la lettre
who celebrates married love at length, I do take issue with the view that
the absence of conspicuous happy married couples indicates Dante’s lack
of sponsorship of normative heterosexual human sexuality within a marriage
contract, which includes affection, as signaled for instance by the
verse “Da poi che Carlo tuo, bella Clemenza” (Par. 9.1). With genial
concision Dante includes marital love in the heaven of Venus, apostrophizing
the wife of Charles Martel with respect to what Dante had learned
from “your Charles” and loading the possessive adjective in “Carlo tuo”
with marital affection. (“Only Historicize,” p. 52)
I suggest that the examples of chastity from the end of Purgatorio 25 can be arranged — along with the example of heterosexual lust presented in Purgatorio 26, Pasiphaë — on a spectrum that runs from a divine extreme of purity to a bestial extreme of impurity. In between these two extremes we can place the chaste husbands and wives cited at the end of Purgatorio 25. I will come back to this idea shortly, but we must first consider Dante’s choice of Pasiphaë as his example of heterosexual lust.
Pasiphaë is the Cretan queen who persuaded Daedalus to make her a wooden cow that she could inhabit in order to have sex with a bull. She became an emblem of grotesque bestiality and of the shocking excesses of female sexuality. Ovid in Ars Amatoria 1.295 describes Pasiphaë thus: “Pasiphae fieri gaudebat adultera tauri” (Pasiphaë took pleasure in becoming an adulteress with a bull).
There is a strong emphasis on bestiality in the Pasiphaë myth, and this is an emphasis preserved in the Commedia, where the Cretan queen is presented as the example of the vice of lust in its “hermaphrodite” form:
Nostro peccato fu ermafrodito; ma perché non servammo umana legge, seguendo come bestie l’appetito, in obbrobrio di noi, per noi si legge, quando partinci, il nome di colei che s’imbestiò ne le ’mbestiate schegge. (Purg. 26.82-87)
Our sin was with the other sex; but since we did not keep the bounds of human law, but served our appetites like beasts, when we part from the other ranks, we then repeat, to our disgrace, the name of one who, in the bestial planks, became herself a beast.
Bestiality in the invocation of Pasiphaë (“bestie”, “s’imbestiò”, “’mbestiate”) is contrasted with the “umana legge” (human law [Purg. 26.83]) that is not always preserved and suggests a spectrum of sexuality: Mary and Diana are examples of a “divine law”, Pasiphaë of a “bestial law”, while “human law” is upheld by the chaste husbands and wives who preserve marriage and society. A chart at the end of this Introduction outlines the spectrum.
In sum, Dante defies expectations in two key ways in his construction of human sexuality:
- He reclassifies homosexuality as he moves from Hell, where it is a sin of violence against nature in Inferno 15-16, to Purgatory, where it is a form of lust and therefore of incontinence. In this way homosexuality becomes a variant of human sexual behavior, akin to heterosexuality. As a form of human sexuality, it can be excessive, and hence require purgation; the implication is that it can also be not excessive. Here Dante appears tolerant and progressive from a modern perspective.
- He criminalizes heterosexual excess much more than homosexual excess, by using the example of Pasiphaë and her bestial lust for a bull. Here Dante seems far from tolerant and progressive, since he particularly penalizes female sexuality.
Finally, the canto presents two very famous lyric poets who are purging themselves on the terrace of lust: the Italian Guido Guinizzelli and the Occitan troubadour Arnaut Daniel, who concludes Purgatorio 26 by speaking in his own language. See the chart at the end of the Commento on Purgatorio 24 for more information on these poets.
In the lyric historiography of Purgatorio 24 Dante gives us the names of three poets who do not pertain in any way to the new style, who were held back by a “knot” that kept them from attaining true fellowship with love in their poetry: Giacomo da Lentini, Guittone d’Arezzo, and Bonagiunta da Lucca. In Purgatorio 26 Dante adds to his historiography the names of poets who precede him but who are praiseworthy and, indeed, anticipate the new style. Dante calls the Bolognese poet Guido Guinizzelli, of the generation before his, “my father”: “padre / mio” (Purg. 26.97-98).
He also takes another opportunity to denigrate Guittone d’Arezzo, in tones that indicate greater personal irritation than was apparent in Purgatorio 24.
The words at the end of Purgatorio 26, spoken by Arnaut Daniel in an Italianate Occitan, constitute the longest insertion of a language other than Italian into the Commedia. Arnaut’s speech is in effect a tremendous tribute offered by Dante to the Occitan origins of the courtly love lyric — a tradition whose latest manifestation, we have recently learned, is Dante’s own dolce stil novo.
 Anna Maria Chiavacci Leonardi, commentator, Dante Alighieri, Commedia, vol. 2, Purgatorio (Milano: Mondadori, 1994), p. 772.