One of the first things we should notice as we enter Dante's Purgatory is how different in texture and tone this is from hell.
Sweet color of oriental sapphire,
hovering in the calm and peaceful aspect
of intervening air, pure to the horizon,
pleased my eyes once more
as soon as I had left the morbid air t
that had afflicted both my chest and eyes.
The fair planet that emboldens love,
smiling, lit up the east,
veiling the Fishes in her train.
I turned to the right and, fixing my attention
on the other pole, I saw four stars
not seen but by those first on earth.
The very sky seemed to rejoice
in their bright glittering. O widowed
region of the north, denied that sight! (Pur, I, 13-27)
(Quotes are taken from the Hollander and Hollander translation.)
We have color, we have light; we have stars and calm and peace. The planet of love smiles; the sky rejoices. When Cato approaches, “the rays of those four holy stars/adorned his face with so much light/he seemed to shine with the brightness of the sun” (37-39). The guardian of purgatory—if you could consider him a guardian, he seems more of a glorified usher—is a venerable old man, not some demonic creature with a whip or other instrument of torture. He doesn’t condemn or harass the pilgrims. He essential asks how they got there. He doesn’t assume some sort of trespassing but wonders if the divine laws have been altered, and once Virgil explains the situation he accepts it without assuming deception. He treats them with dignity.
Unlike the dark, claustrophobic passages of hell, purgatory has space and sight. The sun shines. There is a constant reference to the sun’s position. Time is very important in purgatory—it is a temporal place—and the sun’s position in the sky is a cue to the pilgrim’s as to the time of day. Also as they go up the corkscrew path, the sun shifts position as they circle, either in front of them or behind. They have sight to the horizon, out into the ocean, what must be a lovely view. Look at this lovely passage toward the end of Canto I:
Dawn was overtaking the darkness of the hour,
which fled before it, and I saw and knew
the distant trembling of the sea.
We went along the lonely plain,
like someone who has lost the way
and thinks he strays until he finds the road.
When we came to a place where the dew
can hold its own against the sun
because it is protected by a breeze,
my master spread his hands
gently upon the grass. (I. 115-125)
There is dew, there is a breeze, there is grass. Perhaps we take these things for granted, but after traversing hell, these are sweetness on the lips. At the end of the canto, notice when Virgil pulls out a reed to use as a belt to adjust Dante’s tunic (134-6), another reed instantaneously grows in its place. And so there is also fertility. By the way that reminds me of how things grow in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia, which represents heaven in his fictional series, The Chronicles of Narnia. I bet he got the idea from here.
In addition to the natural loveliness, there is song in purgatory. Remember in hell the only musical note was supposed to be the demon’s fart. In purgatory the penitents sing psalms and hymns. Coming off the boat the souls in Canto II, they sing 'In exitu Isräel de Aegypto' “with one voice.” That’s the combined Psalms 114 and 115 in modern bibles, Psalm 113 in the Vulgate of Dante’s day. In every section of purgatory, there is at least one psalm, and the one Dante selects accentuates the theme of that canto. In Canto V, the section where the penitents are those who have been saved by being repentant just before their violent death, the souls sing the Miserere, Psalm 51 (50 in the Vulgate), “Have mercy on me, O God.” Later on in the Purgatorio, there will also be art work, so purgatory is a place of beauty. But note, the songs and the art are there for the therapy of the penitents. They all work toward the training of the soul toward virtue.
Which brings us to the humorous scene in Canto II where off the boat of newly arrived penitents is Dante’s friend Casella. After trying to hug each other—which they can’t do because one is a spirit and one has a body—Dante asks Casella to sing for him like old times. Apparently Casella has a beautiful singing voice, and he holds Dante and the other penitents around them spell bound with a secular song. But despite the beauty of the song, Cato pops out of nowhere to chastise them. He calls them “laggards,” procrastinating when they should be focused on making progress toward their purgation. So while a secular song may not be taboo, it is not productive toward one’s soul.
But notice also what song Casella chooses. He sets to song a poem that Dante the author wrote outside of the Divine Comedy. As I said in one of my commentaries on Inferno, modern metafiction has nothing on Dante. But why does Casella pick that song? Besides the philosophic implications, which I won’t get into here, he picks it out of kindness. He picks it because Dante is his friend and he wants to please him. Here too then is another contrast to hell. The spirits in purgatory care for each other, pray for each other, act kindly to each other. In hell, souls were either irritated with other souls or even feasted on the pain of other souls. In purgatory, souls offer each other help and kindly touch.
Another thing I’d like to bring up are the various characters that Dante and Virgil encounter in these first five cantos. These characters and their situations I think provide insight to the Purgatrio.
Let’s start with Cato, the venerable old man who is the guardian of Purgatory. Marcus Porcius Cato (95 BC to 46 BC), also known as Cato of Utica or Cato the Younger. He was the great opponent to Julius Caesar and did everything humanly possible to prevent Caesar from becoming a dictator. Ultimately, rather than live under Caesar’s dictatorship, he committed suicide as a public statement against tyranny. The question that has beguiled critics is what a pagan, who committed suicide no less, is doing in purgatory, a region for saved souls? That he is the very first soul the pilgrims encounter is a statement that God is not constrained to the letter of the law if there is a valid reason. (There has to be reason behind it, or God would be just an impulsive sovereign rather than a loving father.) So what is the reason that Cato is there and in charge? First, Dante considers him one of the most virtuous men to ever have lived. The four stars that shine off is face in Purgatorio represent the four cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, courage, and justice. These come from the classical world, and Christianity would later add three more—faith, hope, and charity—to form the seven virtues. The process of purgatory is to form these virtues into the soul if one did not form them in life. Cato was a great example of the four in life.
But what about the suicide? Doesn’t that prevent him from being saved? Inferno had a section in circle seven set aside for suicides. But Cato didn’t commit suicide out of despair. In essence he did it as a statement of resistance. He did it as a virtuous act. I don’t think the Church makes such a distinction, but Dante does here. Notice when Virgil speaks to him about Dante’s journey, he frames it in terms of freedom: “May if please you to welcome his arrival,/since he’s in search of liberty, which is so dear, as he well knows who gives his life for it” (I. 70-72). Virgil is appealing to Cato to give Dante a break because, like Cato who gave his life for freedom—not just his personal freedom, but that of his countrymen—Dante is searching for freedom too. Recall what the newly arriving souls are singing in Canto II: 'In exitu Isräel de Aegypto' a song of freedom from Egyptian slavery. Another way to look at purgatory is as a journey from the human bondage of sin to the freedom of a perfected soul, a virtuous soul. And while Cato didn’t have the grace of Christianity to achieve the three Christian virtues, he did perfect his sol to the four cardinal virtues. He will not get to Paradise, but he is a worthy guardian of purgatory’s shores.
Another fascinating and insightful character in these early cantos is Manfred, the excommunicated son of the emperor Frederick II (who was briefly identified in hell) and appointed governing lord in southern Italy. You can read about the political details in the notes, but what is important is that he died on the battlefield and everyone thought he was damned in hell because of a lifetime of grave sins. Manfred speaks of what happened:
'After my body was riven
by two mortal blows, I turned
in tears to Him who freely pardons.
Horrible were my sins,
but Infinite Goodness with wide-open arms
receives whoever turns to it.
'If the pastor of Cosenza, sent by Clement
on the hunt to take me down,
had read that page in God with greater care,
'my body's bones would still be sheltered
at the head of the bridge near Benevento
under the cairn of heavy stones. (III. 118-129)
Though excommunicated and having lived a lifetime of “horrible” sins, at the moment of death he turned to Christ, “Infinnite Goodness,” who received him with open arms. While excommunication delays purgation—we are told that for every year excommunicated a soul will have to spend thirty in ante-purgatory—it does not damn one. The human heart’s embrace of Christ is still the governing factor. [Side note. My name of Manny is not short for Manuel as some tend to think. It’s actually short for Manfredi, which is what is in Dante’s Italian. Manfredi is the Italian version of the Germanic/English Manfred. This is probably the only place in literature where I have found my name. Also, that city of Benevento where Manfred dies is not far from the little town where my family is from. I’ve actually been to Benevento. As you can imagine, I have a soft spot for this character.]
Another character that provides insight is Buonconte da Montefeltro in Canto V. We met his father, Guido da Montefeltro in Canto XXVII of Inferno as one of the false councilors. I think at the time in my commentaries I said I would hold off providing any analysis of his condition because it makes a nice comparison and contrast with his son. So let’s look at them both now. Guido was a Ghibelline ruler who was a devious commander and shrewd in a Machiavellian way. Toward the end of his life, knowing he had lived a life of sin, he entered a friary and became a Franciscan in order to make up for his sins. But Pope Boniface faced with a difficult battle in the siege of Palistrina asked Guido for advice. Guido gave him some Machiavellian council with the provision the pope would absolve him of that sin. The pope absolved him. At his death Guido tells us in hell that St. Francis of Assisi came to take his soul to heaven, but a devil’s angel came with greater rights, and so Guido was bound to hell.
His son Buonconte was also a devious ruler and military strategist. He fought and died a violent death at the Battle of Campaldino, a battle Dante himself was supposed to have participated in for the opposite side. Buonconte’s body was never found, and when asked how he ended so far from the battlefield, Buonconte describes his last hours:
'Ah,' he replied, 'at Casentino's border
runs a stream called Archiano
that springs above the Hermitage among the Apennines.
'To where its name is lost I made my way,
wounded in the throat, fleeing on foot,
and dripping blood across the plain.
'There I lost sight and speech.
I ended on the name of Mary and there I fell,
and only my flesh remained. (V. 94-102)
So we have an almost parallel situation between father and son, but the difference is that at the moment of death Buonconte murmurs the name of the Blessed Mother and is saved. Guido tried to sly over God, but his heart wasn’t sincerely penitent, and so was doomed to hell. Buonconte with an arrow in his throat, so he couldn’t even speak, sincerely appealed to Mary with just the bare minimum of mumbling on the lips, was saved. And to continue the parallels further, Bunconte tells of two angels, one good and one evil, also coming for his soul, but this time the good angel has the winning rights.
As with Manfred, here we again see how a sincere last moment of contrition alters the nature of salvation. There is one other thing here that’s worth pointing out, and that is the cross textural integration within the Divine Comedy. The Montefeltros cross texturally exchange themes between the two canticas. That’s one example. Here’s another. At the end of Canto V we meet a humble lady named Pia who we know almost nothing about except that she too was killed and repented at the moment of death, killed by her husband. Wait a second, didn’t we meet a lady in Canto V of the Inferno who was also murdered by her husband? Yes, we heard the love story of Francesca and Paulo, where Francesca’s husband caught them in infidelity and murdered them. Francesca’s heart was hardened toward her sin, but Pia apparently was contrite. The cross textural integration isn’t always as obvious as this or corresponds from numerical canto to the same numerical canto, but it is there between the canticas. The cross textural integration involves characters, themes, theology, poetry, history, and everything Dante is using to tell this story. Such incredible virtuosity of storytelling is one of several reasons I consider this the greatest work in all of literature.