One thing that should be pointed out is the thematic interconnectedness of cantos six, seven, and eight, all which contain Sordello as a supporting character. In canto six Virgil and Dante stumble upon Sordello who is sitting solitary. That he is solitary is odd and perhaps ironic given the theme of civic responsibility that is at the core of these three cantos but I do not think it was an accident as almost nothing in the Comedia is an accident. Virgil approaches him for directions:
He did not speak to us
but let us approach, watching us
as would a couching lion.
Nevertheless, Virgil drew up closer,
asking him to point us to the best ascent.
To this request he gave no answer
but asked about our country and condition.
My gentle guide began: 'Mantua--'
-and the shade, who had seemed so withdrawn,
leaped toward him from his place, saying:
'O Mantuan, I am Sordello of your city.'
And the two of them embraced. (VI. 67-75)
That he is compared to a lion suggests magnanimity, as most of the commentators note, but I think it also suggests a certain pride of place. Notice he doesn’t answer Virgil’s question but returns with a question of his own on a completely different subject. He asks from where they come, and not in respect to their journey as almost all ask, but from what country. He asks about the homeland because he is fixated on people’s homelands, and, as we will see, his own. Before Virgil is even able to finish the sentence—all he is able to get out is the name of his city, “Mantua”—and Sordello springs up and embraces him in an almost wild Italian burst of emotion, “O Mantuan, I am Sordello of your city.”
Who is this Sordello? He is a troubadour poet having died a just few years after the time Dante was born. He wrote of love as most troubadour poets but he also wrote of government and leadership, and I think that is why he is noted here. What’s interesting is that if you look at the details of his life he did not spend most of it in his home city of which he is so proud. He lived in Provence and other Italian cities, but Dante has him here portray the role of a patriot.
Then Dante the author goes onto his invective about Italian politics, contrasting the despicable infighting within each city-state and between the city states with Sordello’s simple love of one’s country.
Ah, Italy enslaved, abode of misery,
pilotless ship in a fierce tempest tossed,
no mistress over provinces but a harlot!
How eager was that noble soul,
only at the sweet name of his city,
to welcome there his fellow citizen!
Now your inhabitants are never free from war,
and those enclosed within a single wall and moat
are gnawing on each other. (VI. 74-84)
Here patriotism is portrayed as love of fellow citizen, and Dante honors it. It is not supercilious of others or exclusionary, but just as one has a special bond with one’s family members it is normal to have a special bond with one’s fellow countrymen. I won’t get into the details of Dante’s invective; just let it suffice that wretched infighting is a result of political selfishness, zealously taking advantage of other city’s problems, the interference of the papacy into secular matters, the lack of Justice, and a lack of a centralizing authority to create a unified country. In fact the one centralized authority that exists, the Holy Roman emperor, is situated outside Italy, has his own infighting to deal with in the German city-states, and has little interest in Italian problems.
All of this happens before Sordello even knows he is speaking with the great Latin poet Virgil. Once he learns of it, Sordello who is a poet himself falls to the ground in reverence. It is interesting that Dante delays this exchange between the two into the seventh Canto. If you remember from my overview during Inferno, there are three main themes to the Commedia. (1) The formation of Dante’s soul to be in harmony with God, achieved through the love of Beatrice. (2) The understanding of a proper political order, which is delineated best by the exactness of God’s justice in the afterlife. (3) The formation of a poetic work to reflect the beauty of God and His creation. Sordello, both political figure and poet, inherently addresses themes two and three. He takes the pilgrims into the Valley of the Princes, as it is sometimes called, and points out many of those rulers and administrators who in life were too busy with their governmental duties. So civic responsibility is qualified here. Yes, we have an obligation to our fellow citizens to support and govern properly, but it cannot be at the expense of shirking our duties to God. There needs to be a balance.
And then in Canto VIII we meet specific rulers and administrators that Dante is familiar with. The good judge, Nino Visconti. (Side note: I always associate Judge Nino with the Supreme Court Justice, Antonin Scalia, who I believe was called Nino by friends.) Like many of the other penitents in purgatory, he asks to have his family pray for him back on earth, but we also get this description:
'The viper that leads the Milanese afield
will hardly ornament her tomb as handsomely
as the cock of Gallura would have done.'
He spoke these words, his face stamped
with a look of righteous indignation
that burns with proper measure in the heart. (VIII.79-84)
Notice his face is “stamped with righteous indignation,” a metaphor of stamping coins, which adds to the civic overtones of the character, and though indignant his heart burns with “proper measure,” the sort of balance of a good judge. It should be noted that Judge Nino is the grandson of Count Ugolino who we met in hell eating on the brains of Bishop Ruggiere, and of course there is an implied contrast to Ugalino as a political conspirator and Nino as an honest judge. And finally to cap off this sequence from Canto VI through VIII we come Corrado Malaspina, who their short exchange Dante exuberantly praises him and his family.
Oh,' I said to him, 'never have I been there,
in your country. But where do men dwell,
anywhere in Europe, that it is not renowned?
'The fame that crowns your house with honor
proclaims alike its lords and lands--
even those who have not been there know them,
'and, as I hope to go above, I swear to you
your honored race does not disgrace
the glory of its purse and of its sword.
'No matter how a wicked chief may warp the world,
privileged both by nature and by custom,
your race alone goes straight and scorns the evil path.' (VIII.121-132)
High honor indeed. So in these three cantos, Dante starts with simple patriotism, rants against the despicable Italian politics of his day, and ends with noble examples of how political figures should administer.
Here are some thoughts on Cantos IX through XI.
The entrance into purgatory proper occurs in the tenth canto, which parallels the entrance into the City of Dis in the tenth canto of Inferno. This again speaks to the high degree of integration within the work.
In Canto IX, when the pilgrims approach purgatory’s gate, they climb three steps, hewn out of various stones. I find the symbolism of these steps utterly fascinating. First off, they are the same as the three steps that led to the altar in most pre-Vatican II church arrangements. What do the three steps signify? I can’t find an answer to that but the logical one would be the Trinity. So Dante uses the same three steps to approach purgatory and as we see with the angel holding the keys, this is essentially the entrance to heaven. So what else can these steps signify in Dante? Hope, faith, and charity. Hell, purgatory, heaven. The first step is clear white, reflecting his image. Some can consider this signifying sin but white is also innocence. The second is dark and cracked, perhaps suggesting the man’s broken state. The third is blood red signifying Christ’s redemption. You can probably think of other things it can signify. It’s a powerful image.
Each of the terraces will have a similar format in that there will be three images that are to work into the penitent’s soul as conditioning for holiness. The one exception is the terrace of envy where the penitents are incapable of seeing, so there images are replaced with audio. I should have been more specific in my summary. The image from the New Testament is always from the live of the Blessed Mother. Here in the terrace of pride is the image of the Annunciation, where she humbly accepts God’s will.
The image from the secular world is a well-known story from the life of the emperor Trajan. Preparing to go to fight his Dacian War, he is stopped by a widow whose son has been murder and she appeals to him to bring the murderer to justice. He tries to put her off, but she says in her grief, what if you don’t return. Trajan is supposed to have said, “My duty [must] be perform'd, ere I move hence: So justice wills; and pity bids me stay.” The emperor at a moment of historical consequence, he is moved to compassion to fix an injustice of an almost insignificant person. Dante considers Trajan the ideal ruler, so ideal that he is the only pagan that will be in heaven, as we will eventually see.
That the artist Oderisi, artist of miniature illuminations, is the penitent Dante meets in the terrace of pride is wonderfully ironic. If an artist working in the smallest of scales can have such exuberant pride, what do artists working in large scale feel? Or for Dante, who is writing an epic covering the full scope of Goad and man, life and after life, sin and redemption, what exuberance of pride must he overcome? Pride is probably the sin that I personally feel is embedded in me the most. As an engineer, one accomplishes many things, creating things from scratch. Over time one’s ego gets inflated. Many times I have pictured myself in this terrace. I humbly pray that I can overcome my sin.