This canto begins with some of the Commedia’s most obscure and prophetic diction, again written under the sign of the Apocalpyse. When John of Patmos wrote the Apocalpyse he used the figure of the “magna meretrix” (“great whore”) as a way of representing Rome and the corruption of the Roman Empire. In other words, the text was politically motivated, and allegory was used as a covert but powerful way of resisting the evils of the Roman Empire. The Apocalpyse was used for similar political purposes in the Middle Ages, but the medieval target was not the defunct Roman Empire but the Roman Church.
Dante was not the first to use the whore of the Apocalpyse to signify the Church; by using this imagery he shows his willingness to engage some of the most radical and anti-ecclesiastical writings then in circulation. These rebellious theologians were mainly “Spiritual Franciscans,” the super-zealous reformist wing of the Franciscan order that was persecuted and eventually driven out of Italy by the papacy and the established Church.
In the prophecy of Purgatorio 33 Beatrice provides an obscure gloss to the whore and the giant who close off the tableaux vivants of the previous canto. The core of her prophecy (Purgatorio 33.37-45) alludes to the coming of a secular ruler (the heir of the eagle, see verses 37-38) who will kill the prostitute and the giant:
Non sarà tutto tempo sanza reda l’aguglia che lasciò le penne al carro, per che divenne mostro e poscia preda; ch’io veggio certamente, e però il narro, a darne tempo già stelle propinque, secure d’ogn’intoppo e d’ogni sbarro, nel quale un cinquecento diece e cinque, messo di Dio, anciderà la fuia con quel gigante che con lei delinque. (Purg. 33.37-45)
The eagle that had left its plumes within the chariot, which then became a monster and then a prey, will not forever be without an heir; for I can plainly see, and thus I tell it: stars already close at hand, which can’t be blocked or checked, will bring a time in which, dispatched by God, a Five Hundred and Ten and Five will slay the whore together with that giant who sins with her.
Very famous and mysterious is the verse in which Beatrice refers to the coming savior as a “cinquecento dieci e cinque” (Purg. 33.43). Many over the centuries have tried to decipher the 500, 10, and 5! The interpretation that has gained most traction is the one that substitutes Roman numerals—D for 500, X for 10, and V for 5—and then scrambles them to spell: DVX or DUX, the Latin for “leader”.
Beatrice also thematizes prophecy as a narrative genre, one that is bound up with necessary obscurity:
E forse che la mia narrazion buia, qual Temi e Sfinge, men ti persuade, perch'a lor modo lo ’ntelletto attuia... (Purg. 33.46-48)
And what I tell, as dark as Sphinx and Themis, may leave you less convinced because—like these— it tires the intellect with quandaries...
Beatrice shows quite a lot of awareness of the power of narrative in this passage: she uses the word “narrazion” in Purgatorio 33.46—a hapax in the Commedia—to refer to her own discourse, putting the poet in the position of narrating her narration. Purgatorio 33’s lexicon is saturated with metapoetic terminology: besides the poem’s only use of narrazione and one of seven uses of narrare, it is one of few cantos in which segnare is used twice, and the only canto in Inferno or Purgatorio in which scrivere occurs more than once (in fact it is used thrice).
Beatrice instructs Dante that when he returns to earth it will be his job to write down the visions that he has seen while in the earthly paradise:
Tu nota; e sì come da me son porte, così queste parole segna a’ vivi del viver ch’è un correre a la morte. (Purg. 33.52-54)
Take note; and even as I speak these words, do you transmit them in your turn to those who live the life that is a race to death.
Dante’s obligation to write what he has seen requires him to pay particular attention to what occurred to the tree (“pianta” of Purg. 33.56). Beatrice glosses the tree, saying that it represents “la giustizia di Dio, ne l’interdetto” (Purg. 33.71): literally, God’s justice in his interdict. In other words, God had placed an interdict on humanity, had marked the point that humanity was not allowed to trespass; when we trespassed nonetheless, what resulted was God’s justice.
We recall that the griffin is praised by all in attendance around the chariot in Purgatorio 32 because it resists eating of the tree, resists the temptation of knowledge, and refuses to challenge God’s interdict. The tree is glossed in Purgatorio 33 precisely in terms of the limits it represents, the obedience it exacts, and the consequent justice of the punishment meted to those who transgress.
The insufficiency of Dante’s understanding is also a topic of discussion (Purg. 33.85-90). He doesn’t remember ever having been estranged from Beatrice, and Beatrice explains that this is because he has already drunk of Lethe and thereby forgotten his transgressions.
The drinking of Lethe in fact occurs in the latter part of Purgatorio 31; after Beatrice accuses Dante of deviating from her and he has confessed (Purgatorio 30-31), she instructs Matelda to bathe him in the river of forgetfulness (Purg. 31.94 and following).
At this point Dante begins the wrap-up of purgatory: the two rivers Eunoè and Lethe are compared to the Tigris and Euphrates and Matelda—now named for the first and only time in Purgatorio 33.119—functions as a kind of priestess responsible for taking Dante and Stazio to bathe in Eunoè.
Dante reminds us that Stazio is still present for the last time in Purgatorio 33.134; since Dante-pilgrim’s experience is unique, Stazio serves as a very important marker for what a “regular” saved soul would do in Eden. After a final purgatorial address to us, the readers, the cantica concludes with verses that describes Dante as:
rifatto sì come piante novelle rinnovellate di novella fronda, puro e disposto a salire alle stelle. (Purg. 33.143-45)
remade, as new trees are renewed when they bring forth new boughs, I was pure and prepared to climb unto the stars.
The pilgrim is “puro” because he is cleansed of vice, the disposition to sin, and he is “disposto” because his will—the part of us that disposes or not to do something—has been made willing and ready. He is prepared for the final leg of his journey.