Dante Summary Part 2: Purgatorio
Dante, writing in the early 1300s, understood that the world was a globe. He believed that the Southern Hemisphere was mostly made up of a huge ocean, except for the mountain of Purgatory rising up towards the sky. On the top of the mountain was the Garden of Eden, and the second part of Dante’s journey is all about his experiences climbing the mountain. The prize at the top of the mountain is a reunion with Beatrice, and the redemption of his soul.
Dante descends to Hell on Good Friday and emerges on the morning of Easter Sunday, having travelled with Virgil through the centre of the earth. Now he must ascend the mountain of Purgatorio armed with his new understanding of what is at stake. When Virgil and Dante enter the main part of Purgatory, they must climb by a spiralling path up the seven terraces where souls are purged to be ready for Paradise. Purgatory is a place built upon hope: the souls are assured of a place in Heaven someday and they understand the error of their ways, so they submit willingly and joyfully to the torments that will cure their souls. The sun – representative of God’s light – is a constant presence as they climb up towards it, so that the time is often laboriously told by the sun and whenever it sets the characters can physically go no further until it returns.
Love being the root of every virtue and every evil, it is their loves which must be cured here, and the terraces represent the Seven Cardinal Sins. In each case, the torments fit the misdeed. In Hell, Dante was an observer; now he is a participant, suffering for his own sinfulness as he is prepared for Paradise, and on each terrace, the way ahead seems easier and less wearisome than before. The sun makes Dante cast a shadow, fascinating the repentants. Here, Virgil is no longer the guide: he has never been here before, and is now simply a wise travelling companion. On each terrace, examples are provided by angels of people who escaped the vice and of those who did not and suffered for it; the examples are always paired – one from classical tradition for every one from Christian or Biblical tradition.
Arrival at the foot of the mountain
Dante and Virgil emerge into the fading night. They encounter Cato, a noble figure who serves as a sort of gatekeeper for the threshold of Purgatory. Following Cato’s instructions, Virgil washes Dante’s face with the morning dew, to cleanse the filth of everything he saw in Hell. Virgil also plucks a reed from the rushes, for Dante to wear as a belt. (He lost his own belt in Hell – see Inferno XVI).
An angel ferries a shipload of souls to the shore near Dante and Virgil. One of them is Casella, a friend of Dante’s, and Dante tries to embrace him but cannot because – unlike the souls in Hell – his body is insubstantial. Dante and Casella are joyfully reunited, and Virgil, Dante and the souls listen to a beautiful song sung by Casella – until Cato rebukes them for dawdling and they all hurry towards the mountain of Purgatory.
The Late Repenters
As morning arrives, Dante is taken aback to see that he is the only one with a shadow. As he and Virgil wonder how to begin the ascent of the sheer mountain of Purgatory, they spot a group of souls and ask for directions. One of the souls is particularly helpful: he is Manfred, an enemy of the Church who managed to repent of his sins just before death. Because he was excommunicated at the time, he is one of the Contumacious (rebellious), who must wait thirty years for every year they spent outside the Church before they can begin their own ascent.
Dante and Virgil find the narrow entrance to the path up the mountain, and they make the long and tiring ascent. They pause on a ledge to discuss how their perspective on the heavens is changed by being in the southern hemisphere. Further along the ledge, they discover a group of indolent souls, who were too slothful in life to be granted access onto the terraces of Purgatory until they have waited an appropriate length of time.
As they keep going, Dante’s shadow continues to fascinate the shades they encounter. The next group is made up of those who only repented at the last minute, and therefore – like the excommunicate and the lethargic – are not yet permitted to enter Purgatory. The most vivid story is told by Buonconte Montefeltro, son of Guido da Montefeltro (Inferno XXVII): his body was never found after his army was defeated at the Battle of Campaldino in 1289. Dante had been fighting on the other side in this battle, and he listens with interest to the story of Buonconte’s ultimate fate, narrowly escaping Hell by his last-minute penitence.
All the souls on these lower slopes keep begging Dante to remind their living relatives to pray for them, as this intercession will speed their entry into Purgatory. Dante wants to understand whether intercession works; Virgil assures him that it does, but says he will have to wait for Beatrice to explain it properly. They encounter the noble figure of Sordello, a Mantuan poet. Sordello’s contrast with the ruin of contemporary Italy causes Dante to rant about Italy’s woes, attacking Florence in particular with vicious irony. Dante thinks Italy desperately needs the return of an Emperor. In Purgatorio there is more time to think about political problems like this, and political and religious discussions become more common – especially now Dante has seen what is at stake for people who go astray from God.
Virgil and Sordello converse. Sordello surprises Virgil by saying that they will need to rest for the night, as it is useless to try to ascend without the light of the sun, which represents God. Leading them to a place where they can sleep, Sordello takes the travellers to a beautiful valley where the Negligent Rulers are gathered: kings whose earthly ambitions got in the way of their focus on God.
Evening is falling, and two guardian angels arrive to protect the valley from snakes which emerge at night. Entering the valley, Dante encounters a friend, Nino Visconti, grandson of Count Ugolino (Inferno XXXIII). He also talks to a man called Conrad Malaspina.
Dante dreams that he is carried heavenward by an eagle with golden feathers. Burned by the heavens, he awakes and finds himself at the gate of Purgatory. Virgil tells him that St Lucy appeared while he was sleeping and carried him here. Dante supplicates the guardian of the gate, who carves seven marks in the shape of the letter P on his forehead. Then Dante is sent forward, and he and Virgil cross the threshold into Purgatory.
Purgatory of Spiritual Sinfulness
Virgil and Dante climb up to the First Terrace, where Pride is to be purged. The sheer cliff beside the terrace is decorated with remarkable marble carvings providing examples of humility: the Virgin Mary at the moment of the Annunciation, King David from the Hebrew tradition and Emperor Trajan from the classical tradition. Then the two travellers see the penitents approaching, suffering on the ground in order to cleanse their souls of pride.
The penitents are singing the Lord’s Prayer as they crawl along, weighed down by boulders that press their faces into the ground. Dante learns the identities of three Italians, and they warn him of the folly of earthly pride in the face of the inevitability of future obscurity. Dante, a proud man himself, heeds their warning.
On the ground beneath their feet, Virgil and Dante gaze at a series of powerful images of pride being brought low in classical and Biblical tradition. They reach the path up from the Terrace of Pride, and an angel lets them pass, brushing its wings against Dante’s face. After this encounter, Dante discovers that his body is much less weary, and Virgil points out that one of the seven P’s has been removed from his forehead: he has been cleansed of Pride.
On the Second Terrace, Envy is purged. Voices in the air quote instances of kindness by Mary as well as a classical and Biblical example. The Envious, in life consumed by rivalry and malice towards other people, are grouped together wearing sack cloths, and their eyelids are knitted shut. They help each other round the path, learning the concept of universal unity and fellowship. Dante talks to a woman called Sapia, who once gloated when she saw her townsfolk and nephew defeated in battle.
Guido del Duca, a nobleman from Romagna, is keen to talk to Dante. Dante is embarrassed to admit to where he is from, and Guido, realising he is a Tuscan, launches a stinging tirade against the citizens along the banks of the Arno. Guido follows this up with an equally emotional rant against Romagna. Moving on, Dante and Virgil hear a classical and a Biblical example of the envious brought low.
As evening approaches, a dazzling angel appears and permits Dante passage to the next stairway, removing another P from his brow. Thinking about the Envious, Dante asks Virgil about love, grace and deliverance. Virgil explains that the more divine love is shared, the more it multiplies – a principle underpinning everything Dante will learn in Paradise. They reach the Third Terrace, for the Wrathful. Dante experiences three visions of gentleness – the Virgin Mary finding young Jesus at the Temple; Pisistratus of Athens refusing his wife’s wish to kill a man who had kissed their daughter; and St Stephen calmly accepting his fate as the first Christian martyr as he is stoned to death. As the two travellers hurry on, a black smoke appears and envelops them.
Dante holds onto Virgil and the two of them make their way through the pitch blackness. They encounter a penitent called Marco, and in conversation Marco alludes to the grim state of the world. Dante – struck by the harsh words of Guido and Marco about contemporary Italy – asks why this is the case and whether it is because of the will of Heaven. Marco says it is not: God has given everyone the means to come to Grace, but He has also granted them free will. Since people tend towards folly, they need to be shepherded to God by the “two suns,” the twin powers of the Pope and the Emperor. The Papacy and the Empire are meant to work together to provide spiritual and earthly guidance for the people – but this has got badly out of kilter. The Emperors are failing to fulfil their obligations to Italy, and the Popes have seized earthly power, with disastrous consequences. The travellers reach the far end of the black smoke, and Marco turns back.
Love and Avarice
Dante sees visions of the wrathful brought low. Then another dazzling angel sends him and Virgil up the next stairway, removing a third P from Dante’s forehead. At the top of the next stairway, on the Fourth Terrace where Slothfulness is purged, they are forced to rest because of nightfall. Virgil explains some of the workings of love, and how it leads to all virtues and all sins. This underpins the entire order of Purgatory’s terraces. The lower three tiers are for those who loved themselves at the expense of their neighbours – Pride, Envy and Wrathfulness. The fourth tier is for those whose love was not sufficiently strong: the Slothful. The higher three tiers are for excessive love for worldly things, at the expense of godly concerns: Avarice, Gluttony and Lust.
Virgil explains some of the workings of love to Dante: humans naturally love, but the gift of free will means that they can direct this love and must ensure that they love properly and appropriately. This is as much as Virgil’s reason can tell Dante; the rest concerns faith and grace, so Dante must wait for Beatrice. Some of the slothful penitents hurry past through the darkness, gripped with zeal, and Dante hears examples of both zeal and those brought low by slothfulness. Then he falls asleep.
Dante dreams of a siren that comes to tempt him, and in the dream Virgil has to reveal its true, horrible nature. Shaken, Dante wakes up and goes with Virgil up past another angel to the Fifth Terrace, where Avarice is purged. Here the penitents lie face-down, prostrate and weeping. A Pope, Adrian V, speaks to Dante.
During the daytime, the spirits here quote examples of generosity, and at night they recite the fall of great names undone by their avarice. Dante learns this from a spirit who turns out to be Hugh Capet, founder of the French royal line. Hugh Capet is disgusted by the evils of his descendants, who are enemies of both the Papacy and the Empire. The King of France, Philip IV, is hated by Dante and will soon install his own Pope in Rome; Philip’s brother Charles will in a couple of years be responsible for Dante’s exile from Florence. At this point, the mountain shakes violently and a cry of rejoicing goes up, filling Dante with wonder and curiosity.
Statius, the Freed Soul
Dante and Virgil are joined on the road by Statius, a Roman poet. He has just completed his penance, and drawn his desires into alignment with his fundamental will to be reunited with God. Every soul that attains perfection and is ready to enter Paradise is a cause for cosmic celebration – so Statius’s redemption is what caused the mountain to tremble at the end of the previous Canto. Statius happens to talk about how inspired he was by Virgil, and is delighted to discover that he is talking to his great hero.
Statius says he was on the Fifth Terrace not because he was avaricious but because of the opposite vice – prodigality – because opposites are punished on the same tier as each other. He tells the story of how an apparent prophecy about Christ in Virgil’s Eclogues was what inspired him to investigate Christianity, eventually joining the young religion. However, his outward show of paganism meant that he spent a long time on the Terrace of Slothfulness. The three poets reach the Sixth Terrace, which punishes Gluttony, and they are met with a tree smelling of fruit and water, and classical and Biblical examples of temperance.
The penitent Gluttons pass the three poets, now emaciated from the tempting smells of the tree. One of them is Forese Donati, an old crony of Dante’s – thanks to their respective experiences in the afterlife, both have had their characters improved since Forese’s death parted them five years earlier.
Dante talks with Forese, whose sister Piccarda is already in Heaven and whose brother, the faction leader Corso Donati, will soon be on his way to Hell. Then he talks about poetry with Bonagiunta, who asks him for the secret of his “dolce stil novo,” the sweet new style of Dante and the generation of poets he identifies with. Dante simply says that when he feels love, he takes note of his own feelings, and then accurately puts them on the page. The Gluttons speed ahead, and Dante, Virgil and Statius pass a second tree, where a voice cites examples of people undone by gluttony. Another dazzling angel removes a sixth P from Dante’s forehead and sends him up to the final terrace.
As they climb the stairs, Dante asks about the nature of the soul. Statius explains how, when a child is conceived, a soul is created by God, immortal and endowed with free will, and fuses with the faculties in the womb. The bodily faculties are thus joined with the higher faculties, and when the person dies, all of these faculties survive. An imprint of the body at the moment of death creates a shade, which causes the soul to continue to have organs and physical form. This explains the reason and the means for purgation of the sins of the flesh. Statius finishes as they arrive on the Seventh Terrace, filled with fire. The Lustful spirits within the fire cry out examples of chastity.
Dante, Statius and Virgil have to pass carefully between the flames and the drop at the edge of the terrace. Perceiving that he has a shadow, the souls in the fire are amazed. Dante finds himself talking to two poets who greatly influenced him – Guido Guinicelli and Arnaut Daniel.
An angel tells Dante that he must pass through the flames to continue. Dante is afraid and reluctant, only stepping forward when Virgil reminds him that the flames are all that stand between him and Beatrice. The agony of the fire purges Dante of Lust, and he sets off up the final stairway with Virgil and Statius. Night falls and, unable to go further, they sleep on the steps. Dante dreams of Leah, the wife of Jacob. The next morning they climb to the top of the stairs, and Virgil announces that his role as Dante’s guide is over. Dante’s will has been purified, and therefore he is ready to follow his heart without fear of going astray.
The Garden of Eden and the Arrival of Beatrice
Dante wanders in amazement into the enchanted forest at the top of Mount Purgatory, until he reaches a clear stream that blocks his path. On the far side is a beautiful woman who is picking flowers, like Leah in his dream. Her name, we later learn, is Matilda. Across the stream, Matilda explains to him the phenomena of this earthly paradise, which is the Garden of Eden and where Creation is still in its perfect, uncorrupted form. Its seeds blow on the winds to germinate across the world.
The poets follow Matilda along the banks of the river, until they come to the spectacle of a pageant representing Christianity in all the splendour of its revelation. Its heavily allegorical procession symbolises the writers of the Bible, the core Christian values, and the Church itself – the Church Militant, in glorious finery, shown as a chariot drawn by a majestic griffin. The extraordinary glory and power of the pageant nearly overwhelms Dante.
From the midst of the pageant, Beatrice emerges with her face veiled. His nerve failing, Dante looks to Virgil for support, but Virgil is gone. Beatrice addresses Dante, the moment which he has been longing for throughout Hell and Purgatory – but she begins with a harsh rebuke. She scolds him for falling into spiritual difficulties since her death. She needs him to truly repent of all the ways in which he went wrong, and Dante feels intensely conscious of his faults and starts weeping.
Dante repents and confesses as he weeps. His confession means he is ready to step into the river, Lethe, which washes away memory of earlier sin. Matilda leads him into it, baptises him, and leads him out on the far bank in front of Beatrice. He watches, filled with joy and love, as she unveils her face and reveals her radiance to him.
Dante and Statius join the pageant of the Church Militant, which beneath the Tree of Knowledge represents the harmony between Church and Empire. Dante falls asleep, and when he wakes up Beatrice tells him to watch what happens next and write about it when he returns to his earthly life. A series of disasters befall the chariot that represents the Church, and it is turned from a dignified chariot into a damaged monster.
Statius and Dante go with Beatrice and Matilda. Beatrice tells Dante that a deliverer will come to right these wrongs committed against the Church, and that he must spread the prophetic word. Dante struggles to take it all in, so Beatrice gets him to enter the river Eunoe. Eunoe reinforces one’s good memories, as its twin the river Lethe washes away remembrance of one’s sins. Thus fortified, Dante is ready to be shown the answers to all the holy mysteries.