Reading Dante’s Purgatory While the World Hangs in the Balance

Fifty years ago, I was a guest at the baptism of a friend’s son in the ancient church of a Tuscan hamlet. It was Easter, and lambing season. A Sardinian shepherd who tended the flocks of a local landowner came to pay his respects to the new parents. He was a wild-looking man with matted hair whose harsh dialect was hard to understand. Among our party was a beauty of fifteen, an artist’s daughter, and the shepherd took such a fancy to her that he asked for her hand. The girl’s father politely declined, and the shepherd, to show that he had no hard feelings, offered us a lamb for our Paschal dinner. My friends were penniless bohemians, so the gift was welcome. It came, however, with a condition: we had to watch the lamb being slaughtered.

The blood sacrifice took place after the baptism. That morning, the baby’s godfather, an expatriate writer, had caused a stir in the church, since none of the villagers, most of them farmers, had ever seen a Black man in person. Some tried to touch his hands, to see if the color would rub off; there was a sense of awe among them, as if one of the Magi had come to visit. Toward the end of the ceremony, the moment came for the sponsors to “renounce Satan and . . . all his seductions of sin and evil.” The godfather had been raised in a pious community, and he entered into the spirit of this one. His own experience of malevolence had taught him, as he wrote, that life “is not moral.” Yet he stood gravely at the font and vowed, “Rinuncio.”

I thought of those scenes last spring when I began reading three new translations of Purgatory, being published to coincide with the seven-hundredth anniversary of Dante’s death, at fifty-six, in September of 1321. The speech of the hamlet had primed my ear for the poet’s tongue. “Di che potenza vieni?” an old farmer had asked the godfather: “From what power dost thou come?” Purgatory, like the other two canticles of what Dante called his “sacred” epic, Inferno and Paradise, takes place during Easter week in 1300. In Canto I, the pilgrim and his cicerone, Virgil, emerge from Hell and arrive at the mountain “of that second kingdom where the human spirit purges itself to become worthy of Heaven.” Dante’s body, still clad in its flesh, inspires marvel among the shades because it casts a shadow. They mob him with questions: From where has he come?

Dante was a good companion for the pandemic, a dark wood from which the escape route remains uncertain. The plagues he describes are still with us: of sectarian violence, and of the greed for power that corrupts a regime. His medieval theology isn’t much consolation to a modern nonbeliever, yet his art and its truths feel more necessary than ever: that greater love for others is an antidote to the world’s barbarities, that evil may be understood as a sin against love, and that a soul can’t hope to dispel its anguish without first plumbing it.

An underworld where spirits migrate after death has always been part of humankind’s imagination. Nearly every culture, including the most ancient, has a name for it: Diyu, Naraka, Sheol, Tartarus, Hades. But there is no Purgatory in the Bible, or in Protestantism, or in Eastern Orthodoxy. In current Catholic dogma, it is a state of being rather than an actual realm between Hell and Heaven: an inner fire in the conscience of sinners that refines their impurities.

The concept of Purgatory was relatively new when Dante was born; it came into currency in the twelfth century, perhaps among French theologians. This invention of a liminal space where sinners who had repented but still had work to do on their souls was a great consolation to the faithful. It was also a boon for the Church. By the late Middle Ages, you could shorten your detention by years, centuries, or even millennia by paying a hefty sum to a “pardoner,” like Chaucer’s pilgrim. A popular ditty captured the cynicism this practice inspired: “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings / The soul from Purgatory springs.”

Before Dante, though, the notion of Purgatory was an empty lot waiting for a visionary developer. His blueprint is an invention of exquisite specificity. A ziggurat-like mountain ringed with seven terraces, one for each of the cardinal sins, rises from the sea in the Southern Hemisphere, opposite the globe from Jerusalem, with the Earthly Paradise at its summit. According to Dante, this mountain was formed by the impact of Satan’s fall to Earth. His descent brought grief to the children of Eve—those “seductions of sin and evil” that every godparent must renounce. But it also created a stairway to Heaven.

Dante’s conception of Purgatory is remarkably like a wilderness boot camp. Its terrain is forbidding—more like an alp than like a Tuscan hillside. Each of the rugged terraces is a setting for group therapy, where supernatural counsellors dispense tough love. Their charges are sinners, yet not incorrigibles: they all embraced Jesus as their savior. But, before dying, they harmed others and themselves, so their spirits need reëducation. They will graduate to the Earthly Paradise, and eventually to Heaven, after however much time it takes them to transcend their mortal failings by owning them.

For many students of Dante, Purgatory is the Divine Comedy’s central canticle poetically, philosophically, and psychologically. It is, as one of its best translators, the poet W. S. Merwin, noted, the only one that “happens on the earth, as our lives do. . . . Here the times of day recur with all the sensations and associations that the hours bring with them, the hours of the world we are living as we read.” And here, too, he reflects, there is “hope, as it is experienced nowhere else in the poem, for there is none in Hell, and Paradise is fulfillment itself.”

The Dante we meet in the first lines of Inferno is a middle-aged man who wakes after a night of terrors to find himself in the wilderness. How did he get there? The Republic of Florence was his crucible. He was born in 1265, under the sign of Gemini. According to a recent biographer, the Italian scholar Marco Santagata, he believed that his natal horoscope had destined him for glory as both a poet and a messiah who would save the world. There was little in his background to justify such grandiosity. Santagata calls Dante’s father, Alighiero, “a small-time moneylender.” His mother, Bella, came from a wealthier family. Both parents were respectable citizens, though not members of the élite. Their son’s pretensions to nobility weren’t warranted by his birth.

Dante was the youngest of his parents’ children, and he was possibly just a toddler when his mother died. His father died when Dante was about ten. The boy suffered from poor health and bad eyesight. The fits and visions that his works allude to may have been caused by epilepsy. Yet his intellect seems always to have been exceptional. However Dante was educated (likely in a plebeian public school, according to Santagata), he mastered Latin and became “a great epistolographer”—a composer of artful letters, official and private. When he waded into his city’s roiling politics, that talent anchored his career.

Florence was a hub of banking and the wool trade. By the late twelve-hundreds, two rival parties, the Guelfs and the Ghibellines, had been fighting for nearly a century to dominate its government. The Guelfs were allied with the Pope, the Ghibellines with the Holy Roman Emperor. In 1289, the Ghibellines were defeated in a decisive battle at Campaldino. But the victors then splintered into two factions—the White Guelfs, with whom Dante sided, and the Black Guelfs, his sworn enemies.

Dante fought in the cavalry at Campaldino, and war must have given him a foretaste of Hell. But then he went back to civilian life, becoming a nova in Florence’s literary firmament. He made princely friends who admired his poetry. Among them was another of Italy’s greatest poets, Guido Cavalcanti, although Dante wouldn’t spare his father from damnation for heresy.

By 1295, Dante had finished “Vita Nuova,” a stylized autobiography. Its author is a self-absorbed youth with the leisure to moon after an aloof woman. He knows he’s a genius and can’t help showing off. Passages of prose alternate with sonnets and canzoni on the theme of love, but the author doesn’t trust us to understand them. His didactic self-commentary has been hailed as the birth of metatextuality, though it also seems to mark the advent of mansplaining. The “Vita,” Dante tells us, in the penultimate chapter, is addressed to a female readership (one presumably unversed in poetics). “It is to the ladies that I speak,” he writes.

Several ladies elicit Dante’s gallantry in the “Vita,” but only one, Beatrice, inspires his adoration. Her probable model was Beatrice di Folco Portinari. Her father and husband were rich Florentine bankers; she died in her early twenties. Details of her life are scarce, and Dante doesn’t supply many. Their families may have been neighbors. Her father’s testament left her fifty florins. Dante claims that he was first smitten with Beatrice as a nine-year-old; she was a few months younger and dressed fetchingly in crimson. At that moment, he “began to tremble so violently that even the least pulses of my body were strangely affected.” He next catches sight of her at eighteen, now “dressed in pure white,” and when she greets him he feels he is experiencing “the very summit of bliss.” That night, he dreams of her asleep, “naked except for a crimson cloth,” in the arms of a “lordly man.” The man wakes her, holding a blazing heart—Dante’s—and compels her to eat it, which she does “unsurely.”

There are, regrettably, no more naked bodies or scenes of erotic cannibalism in the “Vita”—it’s all courtly love from here on. Dante chronicles his brief encounters with Beatrice on the street or in church (today, one might say that he stalked her), fainting with joy if she acknowledges him and plunging into depression after a snub. He mourns her untimely death abjectly. But not long afterward his head is turned by another lady, “gracious, beautiful, young, and wise.” Why not console himself, he reasons, “after so much tribulation”?

Cartoon by Kate Curtis

This “other woman” of the “Vita” was not the girl to whom Dante had been betrothed when he was not quite twelve, and whom he had married as a young man. His lawful wife was Gemma Donati. Her family was nobler and richer than the Alighieris, and they led the Black Guelfs. He mentions several of his wife’s relatives in the Comedy. (One, the virtuous Piccarda, whose odious brother tore her from a convent and forced her to marry, greets him in Paradise; another, Forese, a friend of his youth, is a glutton in Purgatory.) But he never acknowledged Gemma’s existence in any of his works. One would like to think that Dante ghosted her out of discretion—she was beholden to his persecutors. Perhaps, though, the rueful shade of Ulysses hits upon the real reason in Inferno:


Leave a Reply

This website uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you accept our use of cookies.