In Purgatorio 30 Dante intertwines in a textual double helix the arrival of one beloved and the departure of another. He fashions his plot such that his heart’s desire arrives at the same narrative juncture in which his mentor and guide, alternately father and mother, vanishes.
In his work Vita Nuova, written circa 1292-1293, two years after Beatrice’s death in 1290, Dante tells of how he fell in love with her at the age of nine. Now, in 1300, at the top of Mount Purgatory, he prepares to meet her again. He realizes she has arrived when he “recognizes the signs of the ancient flame” (Purg. 30.48). When that feeling occurs, the first thing that Dante wants to do is to share that occurrence with his sweet father, Virgilio. But when he turns to speak to Virgilio, there is emptiness — his sweet father is not there.
Stunningly, Dante records in direct discourse the words he would have spoken to Virgilio had Virgilio still been next to him:
volsimi a la sinistra col respitto col quale il fantolin corre a la mamma quando ha paura o quando elli è afflitto, per dicere a Virgilio: ‘Men che dramma di sangue m’è rimaso che non tremi: conosco i segni de l’antica fiamma’. (Purg. 30.43-48)
I turned around and to my left—just as a little child, afraid or in distress, will hurry to his mother—anxiously, to say to Virgil: “I am left with less than one drop of my blood that does not tremble: I recognize the signs of the old flame.”
As I wrote in “Does Dante Hope for Vergil’s Salvation?” (p. 157):
Dante thus inscribes his sweet father indelibly into the very syntax that tells us he is gone. Because of its will to force us to live its lesson of loss, to experience the shock of bereavement for ourselves, to feel it as the death of a beloved parent whose presence is still palpable, the text works at cross-purposes to itself, achieving the same kind of dialectical “living” textuality that, for instance, confounds us by both celebrating Ulysses and damning him. In this case, while the content denotes an absence, the form works to make a presence — with the words that are addressed to one who cannot hear them, with the appropriation of Dido’s verse from the Aeneid, and with the incantatory invocations of a repeated name: “Ma Virgilio n’avea lasciati scemi / di sé, Virgilio dolcissimo patre, / Virgilio a cui per mia salute die’mi’” (But Vergil had left us deprived of himself, Vergil, most sweet father, Vergil, to whom I gave myself for my salvation) (Purg. 30.49–51).
In a passage studded with the name “Virgilio” and written in language taken from Vergil’s own texts, Virgilio now “leaves us deprived of himself” (Purg. 30.49). In this passage of Virgilio’s departure, Dante makes his beloved guide and mentor present in two ways: through the inscription of the words he would have said to him had he been present (cited above), and in the use of the language of the Aeneid. In this passage of Virgilio’s departure, Dante engages in both verbatim citation of the Aeneid and in translation of the Aeneid.
As part of the crescendo to the arrival of Beatrice, in the description of the angelic choirs who welcome the Florentine avatar of divinity, Dante inscribes verse 883 of Aeneid 6 verbatim into his text, with the addition of the particle “oh”: “Manibus, oh, date lilia plenis” (Give lilies with full hands [Purg. 30.21]). In Book 6 of the Aeneid this is a verse of poignant tribute offered by the shade of Anchises to Marcellus, a hero who will die young.
Most movingly, as part of the scene of recognition, when he realizes that the figure in the chariot is Beatrice, Dante plucks Dido’s verse of reawakened passion from Aeneid 4: “adgnosco veteris vestigia flammae” (Aen. 4.23). Dante translates this verse into Italian and inserts it into his narrative as a marker of his own ancient passion that has never died: “conosco i segni dell’antica fiamma” (I recognize the signs of the old flame [Purg. 30.48]).
We note a key ideological difference between the Latin verse and the Italian translation, not evident in the language and completely dependent on an understanding of context. Dido’s “adgnosco veteris vestigia flammae” refers to her recognition, in herself and directed toward Aeneas, of an impulse to love that she had felt before in her life (hence “ancient”); it is the same impulse that had once caused her to love her now dead husband Sychaeus. The “ancient flame” is thus in the Aeneid a transferable feeling: one that Dido had felt for Sychaeus and that she now transfers to Aeneas.
When Dante uses the words spoken by Dido to indicate his recognition of Beatrice, he is referring not to the recognition of a old feeling that he now transfers to a new person, but to the recognition of the same feeling for the same person.
This is a crucial difference, indicating the extraordinary value that Dante places on constancy. In this he differs from others: within his own lyric tradition, he was the first to introduce, in the Vita Nuova, the requirement of fidelity to the beloved after death. This is a concept that had absolutely no real world correlative in the society and culture in which Dante lived, in which remarriage was enforced on widows of the upper classes.
How to situate the issue of the antica fiamma ith respect to the “plot” of the Dante/Beatrice story-line in the Earthly Paradise? Although Beatrice will reprove Dante for having transferred his desire to others after her death, the story of the Commedia is the story of a total re-commitment to her that is already evident in Inferno 2. So, by the time that Beatrice reproves Dante, in this canto, his infidelity has long been behind him.
From the above considerations derives the enormous charge built into the adjective antica/antico in the canti of the Earthly Paradise. This charge is on the one hand intensely elegiac: it evokes Eden, our ancient home, as in “selva antica” (ancient wood [Purg. 28.23]), a home that was lost to us by Eve, our “antica matre” (ancient mother [Purg. 30.52]).
But the charge of the adjective antica/antico in these canti is also intensely erotic and passionate. We have but to consider Purgatorio 30, which offers in a brief span both “d’antico amor sentì la gran potenza” (I felt the great power of ancient love [Purg. 30.39]) and “conosco i segni de l’antica fiamma” (I recognize the signs of the ancient flame [Purg. 30.48]). The erotic charge that Dante achieves is in part due to the fact that this is not recognition merely of a feeling but of a person.
Dante is recognizing a person and his love for that person at the same time, and in the same breath.
Let us turn now to analysis of the syntax of the words that register Virgilio’s departure: “Ma Virgilio n’avea lasciati scemi / di sé, Virgilio dolcissimo patre, / Virgilio a cui per mia salute die’mi” (But Vergil had left us deprived of himself, Vergil, most sweet father, Vergil, to whom I gave myself for my salvation [Purg. 30.49–51]). “Vergil had left us deprived of himself” makes Virgilio an actor, rather than acted upon. Similarly, the lexicon, whereby Virgilio does not depart, but deprives us of his presence, captures in no uncertain terms the enormity of this deprivation — of this great loss.
Beatrice now takes Virgilio’s place. It would be hard indeed to “like” her, given this staging of her arrival.
And then, on top of Virgilio’s disappearance, she turns out not to be the least bit “nice”, not at all the “bella donna” picking flowers of the (male) reader’s fantasy. A fantasy, moreover, that has been carefully cultivated by the author, who has paved the way, first in the dream of Purgatorio 27 and then in the fictive “reality” of Purgatorio 28, with the lovely ladies Lia and Matelda picking flowers in an utterly beautiful and sensual natural setting.
So we come to the question: what was Dante making when he made the figure of Beatrice? She is composite; many cultural and textual currents feed into her. She is complex. And, most of all, Beatrice is absolutely not consoling. Bracing, rather, as she regally states her name and challenges Dante to be happy:
«Guardaci ben! Ben son, ben son Beatrice. Come degnasti d’accedere al monte? non sapei tu che qui è l’uom felice?» (Purg. 30.73-75)
“Look here! For I am Beatrice, I am! How were you able to ascend the mountain? Did you not know that man is happy here?”
Eventually Beatrice too will receive the epithet “dolce” (sweet), although never in the superlative, as has Virgilio in this very passage: “Virgilio dolcissimo patre” (Virgilio most sweet father [Purg. 30.50]). Right away the codes that compose her are startlingly mixed. Beatrice is simultaneously all the following: the object of Dante’s intense and passionate love, as in “d’antico amor sentì la gran potenza” (I felt the mighty power of old love [Purg. 30.39]); an admiral encouraging his men on the ship he commands, in the simile that begins in Purgatorio 30.58; regal and disdainful, in verses 70-72; and a stern mother, in the simile of verse 79 , who displays harsh pity. Virgilio has been compared to a mother too, as recently as verse 44 in this very canto, but he was always a tender and kindly mother.
And there will be so much more . . . biblical currents, lyric and stilnovist currents, the language of Boethius and other philosophical writers who brought the allegorical figure Lady Philosophy into their works as teacher and muse. Indeed, the reason that Dante’s Beatrice does not and cannot cohere into a palpable “character” as Virgilio does is that she is much more a mosaic of different cultural and scriptural traditions. This “pixelation” of the figure of Beatrice is deliberate on Dante’s part, a way of pointing to her transcendent and unknowable nature. She can no more be simply “nice” than the terrifying eagle of Dante’s dream in Purgatorio 9; like that eagle, she is a vehicle to the divine mysteries.
For more on the literary codes and traditions that flow into the figure of Beatrice, see my “Notes toward a Gendered History of Italian Literature, with a Discussion of Dante’s Beatrix Loquax”, the last chapter in Dante and the Origins of Italian Literary Culture. The point of my label Beatrix loquax, which I originally coined in The Undivine Comedy (see p. 303, note 36), is that this female figure is authoritatively loquacious, in defiance of her lyric origins.
Beatrice’s speechifying has put off the historically mostly male commentators of the Commedia. We note one critic’s claim that the ‘‘Beatrice [of the Vita Nuova] appears far more persuasive, enigmatic, explosive, than the recreated and cantankerous figure’’ of the Purgatorio (Robert Harrison, The Body of Beatrice, p. 19; see Coordinated Reading). To this we must reply that the ‘‘explosive’’ Beatrice of the Vita Nuova is silent, while the ‘‘cantankerous’’ Beatrice of the Commedia speaks.
Joan Ferrante illuminates Dante’s unorthodox handling of Beatrice in the Commedia, explaining that Dante puts her ‘‘in a role which is specifically forbidden to women by major theologians, as priest, as confessor and teacher of theology.’’ Ferrante continues: ‘‘It is a curious anomaly of Dante criticism that Beatrice is accepted as a symbol of theology by most critics, even as a Christ figure by some, and that she is also recognized by most as a real historical woman Dante knew, yet no one has questioned Dante’s use of a real woman, rather than an abstraction, to teach theology, in flagrant defiance of Paul’s injunction, frequently echoed in the thirteenth century, against women teaching’’ (see ‘‘Dante’s Beatrice,’’ cited in Coordinated Reading, p. 4).
The rest of Purgatorio 30 and a good part of Purgatorio 31 are taken up with Beatrice’s reproof of Dante. For what does she reprove him? She reprimands him for his past lack of constancy, his past straying, his past errancy. Her rebuke is the climax of the Augustinian message of the Purgatorio: keep your desire focused on the eternal (primary) good and do not be di-verted or de-viated — turned off the path — by transient goods, in other words by false earthly goods. Do not be turned by them, no matter how seductive or how captivating they may be. For indeed the false earthly goods may be as seductive and captivating and ultimately false as the dolce sirena who seduced Ulysses from his path in the dream of Purgatorio 19.
The cornerstone of Beatrice’s rebuke is formulated in a question that she poses to Dante, which we can paraphrase as follows: once you had lost the most beautiful of mortal beings, a being moreover that led you only toward the path of righteousness, why were you distracted by any subsequent and lesser mortal objects of desire? In a nutshell: if you had the best, why would you subsequently be seduced by less than the best?
The answer, of course, is that the most beautiful of mortal beings was no longer present. In other words, Beatrice died. And only after Beatrice died, as Dante recounts in the Vita Nuova, when in the wake of her death he is overcome by sadness and self-pity, does he respond to the attractions of another woman.
This explanation, compelling as it is in the “real world” as we know it, carries no weight with Beatrice.
Here is the core of her rebuke:
Alcun tempo il sostenni col mio volto: mostrando li occhi giovanetti a lui, meco il menava in dritta parte vòlto. Sì tosto come in su la soglia fui di mia seconda etade e mutai vita, questi si tolse a me, e diessi altrui. Quando di carne a spirto era salita e bellezza e virtù cresciuta m’era, fu’ io a lui men cara e men gradita; e volse i passi suoi per via non vera, imagini di ben seguendo false, che nulla promession rendono intera. (Purg. 30.121-32)
My countenance sustained him for a while; showing my youthful eyes to him, I led him with me toward the way of righteousness. As soon as I, upon the threshold of my second age, had changed my life, he took himself away from me and followed after another; when, from flesh to spirit, I had risen, and my goodness and my beauty had grown, I was less dear to him, less welcome: he turned his footsteps toward an untrue path; he followed counterfeits of goodness, which will never pay in full what they have promised.
The ideas expressed by Beatrice in the above passage are ones that Dante had begun to consider as the cornerstone of his personal ideology already in the youthful Vita Nuova (1292-1293). The novel perspective that he puts forward after Beatrice’s death can be synthesized thus: the death of one’s beloved does not free you to love another mortal beloved, but rather redirects your love away from all mortal things and to first principles.
The Vita Nuova’s point that the death of the beloved does not free one from constancy to that beloved is new to the courtly tradition. Beatrice tells the pilgrim that her death should have made her more dear to him, not less. By the same token, her death should not have rendered him less vulnerable to the seductions of the dolce sirena, to the seductions of the new objects of desire he met along the path of life. As Beatrice will put it in the next canto, once you had seen and lost the most beautiful of all earthly objects of desire, how could you ever desire another?
The crux of Beatrice’s rebuke here is very simple. She accuses Dante of turning away from her and giving himself to ”another”: “questi si tolse a me, e diessi altrui” (he took himself from me and gave himself to another [Purg. 30.126]). Her accusation embraces both elements of St. Thomas’s two elements of sin: both aversion, the turning away from the changeless good, and conversion, the disordered turning toward a changeable good.
Consider St. Thomas’s definition of sin, below, substituting Beatrice — God’s avatar — for the divine and changeless good:
1) “questi si tolse a me” corresponds to St. Thomas’s first element of sin: “aversion, the turning away from the changeless good” (“aversio ab incommutabili bono”);
2) “e diessi altrui” corresponds to St. Thomas’s second element of sin: “conversion, the disordered turning toward a changeable good” (“inordinata conversio ad commutabile bonum”).
See St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologia 1a2ae.87.4, in the Blackfriars edition, vol. 27 (1974): pp. 24–25; cited in “Medieval Multiculturalism and Dante’s Theology of Hell,” p. 112.
In her first appearance, in Purgatorio 30, Beatrice claims: “questi si tolse a me, e diessi altrui”: he took himself from me and gave himself to another. In Purgatorio 33, she will chide him for the fact that his will was once turned elsewhere: “colpa ne la tua voglia altrove attenta” (Purg. 33.99).
The Italian words altrui and altrove are both based in altro — other — and they both function in the Earthly Paradise as synthetic and powerful indicators of the seduction of the new. From Purgatorio 30 to Purgatorio 33, from altrui to altrove, Dante always makes the same point: errancy — turning away from Beatrice — is wrong. Constancy to Beatrice is right.
Thus the task that governs all Purgatorio — the need to redirect desire from temporary goods, no matter how good in themselves, to the one primary and eternal good — is here focused directly onto the pilgrim, who, in this way, now fully participates in purgation. Here, in the Earthly Paradise, his own life and life-choices are directly under assault. And, as we saw, the pilgrim participates in the process of loss and sublimation that provides the deep logic of the second realm, since he now suffers deprivation and loss, by giving up his beloved Virgilio.
Here, at the core of what I have termed the personal microcosmic history at the center of the macrocosmic history treated in these canti (see the diagram at the end of Purgatorio 28), Dante is rebuked by name. This moment constitutes the only occasion on which the name “Dante” is recorded in the Commedia, despite the fact that he is recognized by fellow Tuscans (not only by the Florentine Forese Donati, but also by the poet from Lucca, Bonagiunta).
We see that Dante is fully present as his historical self when Beatrice addresses him by name:
«Dante, perché Virgilio se ne vada, non pianger anco, non pianger ancora; ché pianger ti conven per altra spada.» (Purg. 30.55-57)
“Dante, though Virgil's leaving you, do not yet weep, do not weep yet; you'll need your tears for what another sword must yet inflict.”
In The Undivine Comedy I write that Purgatorio 28-33 “tie up all the narrative strings generated thus far in the poem and provide an overwhelming sense of nexus and completion, most forcefully by staging the chiasmic scene of Vergil’s departure and Beatrice’s arrival” (pp. 162-63).
At this nodal point, the three key dramatis personae of this great drama are named and powerfully intersect: Virgilio, Beatrice, and — on this one and only occasion — Dante.