Having moved on from the prideful sinners with their weighty burdens, Dante and Virgil continue along the first terrace. Just as the walls had been carved with scenes of great humility, so now the ground beneath their feet was carved with scenes of tragic pride. They meet the angel of humility, who removes the first “P” from Dante’s forehead, and they climb to the next terrace.
We moved along like oxen yoked together, that burdened soul and I, as long as my dear teacher permitted. But soon, he said: “It’s time for us to move on and leave that soul to pursue his penance with all his might.”
Though I stood up straight now, my thoughts were still bowed down and humbled. I was happy to follow in Virgil’s footsteps, and both of us felt lighter than we were earlier. My guide said: “Now look down at your feet as you walk along here. What you see in the stone there will be good for you.”Oderisi and Dante have continued their conversation–perhaps about other souls the artist would have pointed out. Dante is humbly bent over as he talks with the artist and he uses an apt image of a … Continue reading
As we walked along, our path was covered with more of those remarkably real carvings like the ones we had seen on the walls. Seeing these, I was reminded of tombs set into church floors with memorials of the dead carved into them–a sight that might move a pious person to tears.Stopping to consider deeply each of the amazing carvings on the mountain-wall, then walking with and among the proud sinners–these experiences have had a positive effect on Dante. While he was … Continue reading Before we begin to walk over the carvings showing the ruinous effects of pride, let us observe the art of Dante the Poet as he cleverly arranges the next thirteen tercets (lines 25-63) as an acrostic … Continue reading There on one side, I saw Lucifer, God’s most beautiful creation, fall from Heaven like a thunder bolt. On the other side, I saw the giant, Briareus, struck dead by Jove’s lightning. Then I saw Thymbraeus, with Pallas and Mars armed and close to him–all looking down at the scattered bodies of the fallen Giants. Moving onward, there was Nimrod near his great tower, bewildered as he stood looking at those who joined his bold project to reach Heaven at Shinar.Lucifer (see Inferno 34) is said to have been the highest of the angels, and in his pride thought he could surpass God himself. Briareus, a kind of pagan counterpart of Lucifer, was one of the Giants … Continue reading
Ah, sad Niobe. I saw your grief as you wept such bitter tears from your effigy there in the road. There you stood amid those slain bodies–your seven sons and your seven daughters! I saw you there, O Saul, dead–pierced through by the sword you were falling on. That place where you ended your days has lain parched ever since. O brazen Arachne! There you were, already turning into a spider, creeping upon the tattered fragments of your own art. Rehoboam, you menacing coward! There you were rushing away in your chariot, though no one bothered to chase you.Niobe’s is a sad tale of overweening pride and mockery of the gods. She mocked the worship of Latona, the concubine of Jupiter because she had only a son and a daughter, whereas Niobe had seven of … Continue reading
Further on, there was Alcmaeon in that living stone murdering his mother to honor a promise made to his father. And there was Sennacherib, his sons killing him as he prayed to his gods. I saw that vengeful mother, Tomyris, who defeated Cyrus, and after dispatching him, said: “You spilled my son’s blood. Now, drink your own!”The story of Alcmaeon and his vain mother, Eriphyle, is found in the Thebaid of Statius (II:265-305 and IV:187-212). More than anything else, Eriphyle wanted a necklace made by Vulcan for the goddess … Continue reading
There were even more such scenes. I saw the defeated Assyrians fleeing after Holofernes’ murder. And left there, were the mutilated remains of his headless corpse. Finally, on that sculptured roadway I saw the city of Troy reduced to ashes–nothing left of her who was once so proud.The story of Holofernes, a general in the army of the Assyrian king, Nebuchadnezzar, is found in the Book of Judith, chapters 8-15. This biblical story–well worth reading–may be an entertaining … Continue reading)
As I moved from scene to scene, I marveled at the ultimate mastery of the artist who could produce such images. The dead were truly dead, and those who lived were very much alive. No one who might have witnessed these scenes themselves could have seen them more truly than I who walked on them–with my head bent low. But, no! Raise up your haughty faces, you proud children of Eve! Never look down to see the evil path you walk on.The Poet makes an amazing claim here. The carvings are so real to him that the actual eyewitnesses of the original events could not have seen or experienced them more clearly. The artist, of course, … Continue reading
Well, I had been so preoccupied with those marvelous carvings that I didn’t realize we had walked quite a ways around the mountain–as the sun’s position now told us–when the ever-watchful Virgil said, “It’s already noon, now. Have done with your deep ponderings about this place. Look at the angel over there. Show reverence in your face and behavior as we approach, so he will be pleased to point the way upward. Just imagine: you will never see this day again!”The Pilgrims arrived at the Terrace of Pride on Easter Monday at about 10:00am, so they have spent two hours with the wall and floor carvings. So preoccupied was he with the amazing artworks, Dante … Continue reading
Along our journey, I had become accustomed to Virgil’s warnings about not wasting time, so his words now were quite clear. The angel approached us, clothed in white, his face radiating such shining beauty that he looked like the morning star. Spreading his arms and wings out wide, he said: “Come. The stairs you seek are close by. From now on, your climb will be easier.” O human race, born to fly upward to Heaven, why do so few respond to the angel’s invitation? Instead, you fall backward at a mere gust of wind!Dante structures the Purgatorio so that he and Virgil encounter an angel at the end of each terrace who shows them the way upward to the next one. For the first time, the Pilgrim can actually look at … Continue reading
That brilliant creature led us to stairs that were cut into the rock. And as I passed by him, he brushed my forehead with his wings and promised that my journey upward would be safe. Seeing the steps, I was reminded of the climb to the church of San Miniato on the mountaintop beyond the Rubaconte bridge, and how the steep ascent was eased by steps cut into the rock–back then one could trust weights and measures. And here it was the same. Steps had been cut into the rock face of the mountain to make the climb easier, though it was still narrow and perilous.Lots of things seem to happen at once here. We haven’t been reminded of the seven Ps carved on Dante’s forehead until now. Bringing Dante and Virgil to the stairway, and with a brush of his … Continue reading
As we approached the steps, I heard the song Beati pauperes spiritu! chanted so beautifully, I could never describe it. Ah! What a difference between this place and Hell! Here there is music, there, shrieking!So much goes on so quickly as this canto comes to an end. As the two travelers are being escorted to the stairs by the Angel of Humility, not only is the first P erased from Dante’s forehead, he … Continue reading
And as we climbed those holy steps, and already feeling myself lighter than down below, I said to Virgil, “Master, this climb seems to much easier than before. I feel as if some weight has been taken off of me.” He answered: “When the remaining “P’s” on your forehead have been removed as the first one has–they already seem to be fading–you will be filled with such holy desire that you won’t even feel the path as you walk, so happy will you be to climb.”With the first P removed by the Angel of Humility, Dante remarks that he already feels lighter (even though he’s climbing a steep stairway). I suspect this is more of a spiritual sensation than a … Continue reading
Then, of course, I did what any self-conscious person might do: thinking that he’s got something on his head that people are staring at, he feels around for what he himself can’t see. Just so, I ran my fingers carefully across my forehead and felt only six “P’s.” Virgil smiled broadly when he saw me doing this.This tongue-in-cheek moment brings the canto to a close. Talking about feeling lighter and Virgil affirming the disappearance of the first P from his forehead, now Dante, as anyone would do, reaches … Continue reading
Ecclesiastes 1:2-11: 2 Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!3 What profit have we from all the toil which we toil at under the sun?4 One generation departs and another generation … Continue reading
Notes & Commentary
|↑1||Oderisi and Dante have continued their conversation–perhaps about other souls the artist would have pointed out. Dante is humbly bent over as he talks with the artist and he uses an apt image of a yoke of oxen to describe what they must have looked like. Oxen, as we know, are very strong creatures and they tend to move slowly as they pull great weights behind them–Oderisi with his burden of stone, Dante bent over in empathy, both of them yoked together in conversation. On a positive note, though, and fitting with the context of Purgatory, we read in the Gospel of St. Matthew that Jesus tells his followers: “Come to me, all you who labor, and are burdened, and I will refresh you. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me, because I am meek and humble of heart: and you shall find rest for your souls.” (11:28-30).
When Virgil interrupts them, telling Dante it’s time to move on, Dante calls him his dolce pedagogo, his sweet teacher. Pedagogo is a hapax–a word occurring only once in a body of work and, according to Hollander, this is one of the first appearances of the word in Italian vernacular. One recalls that Dante is often called the father of modern Italian. Technically, in Greece pedagogues were slaves who took the children to school and generally kept an eye on them. In Dante’s time, however, pedagogues were teachers, and Virgil is and has been his beloved teacher all throughout their journey. While the slow pace of the sinners (and Dante with them) calls for patience, Virgil has certainly shown patience with his charge. Standing upright now, though still humble in thought, Dante is happy to follow along with, and at, his master’s pace. That he feels lighter is most likely his way of saying that the “weight” of sin (pride) has lessened in him while on this terrace. Nevertheless, there is still more for him to learn.
|↑2||Stopping to consider deeply each of the amazing carvings on the mountain-wall, then walking with and among the proud sinners–these experiences have had a positive effect on Dante. While he was conversing with Oderisi, though, he was most likely looking to the side, so he didn’t notice what was underneath him. Now, Virgil tells him, there is more to be seen and learned when he looks down at the ground they’re walking on–more life-like carvings. For a moment, seeing these carvings is a sober reminder to the pilgrim of the tombs of famous people one finds set into the floors of great churches and cathedrals. He must have seen them in Florence and elsewhere in his travels. And sober these carvings are. Seeing them, he says, one might think of the afterlife, the fragility of this life, and be spurred to a life of virtue. And if the virtue of humility was exemplified by the reality of the artwork on the wall, now we will experience “for real,” as it were, the sin of pride in many of its famous and tragic manifestations. If the wall art was the “whip” to keep the proud sinners mindful of their need for humility, the floor art is the “rein” to cure their pride with examples of its tragic effects. The sinners view them with their heads bent low–a posture of humility|
|↑3||Before we begin to walk over the carvings showing the ruinous effects of pride, let us observe the art of Dante the Poet as he cleverly arranges the next thirteen tercets (lines 25-63) as an acrostic with the words vedea (I saw), O (Oh), and mostrava (it showed), to produce the letters UUUU (25,28,31,34), OOOO (37,40,43,46), MMMM (49,52,55,58), U (61) O (62) M (63) (U substituted for V), which condenses to the Italian word uom or man. Furthermore, he alternates between biblical and mythological characters from carving to carving:
Lines 25-Lucifer; 28-Briareus; 31-Timbreus, Pallas, Mars; and 34-Nimrod.
Lines 37-Niobe; 40-Saul; 43-Arachne; and 46-Rehoboam.
Lines 49-Eriphyle; 52-Sennacherib; 55-Thamyris; and 58-Holofernes.
Apparently, this acrostic was only noticed for the first time by Antonio Medin in 1898. Ciardi sums up by noting in his commentary: “This elaborate structure is clearly intended to show not only that Pride is the first and heaviest of man’s sins, but that it is so characteristic of him that Pride and Man are practically synonymous.”
|↑4||Lucifer (see Inferno 34) is said to have been the highest of the angels, and in his pride thought he could surpass God himself. Briareus, a kind of pagan counterpart of Lucifer, was one of the Giants who in his pride challenged the gods and was killed by a bolt of lightning. In Canto 31 of the Inferno, where Dante and Virgil encountered the Giants, Dante wanted to see Briareus but Virgil showed him other Giants instead. Apollo was sometimes called Thymbraeus because of his temple in Thymbra. Pallas was Athena/Minerva. Together with Mars they are pictured here witnessing the defeat and death of the Giants. Nimrod is named in the Book of Genesis (11:1-9) as the builder of the Tower of Babel at Shinar. Seeing that humans were thinking they could climb to heaven, God confused their languages and the project stopped. (See also Inferno 31 where Dante and Virgil encounter him babbling nonsense. Nimrod is a biblical counterpart to Thymbraeus, Pallas, and Mars. Nimrod befuddled at the failure of his project; Apollo, Pallas, and Mars left staring mutely at the death and destruction of the Giants.|
|↑5||Niobe’s is a sad tale of overweening pride and mockery of the gods. She mocked the worship of Latona, the concubine of Jupiter because she had only a son and a daughter, whereas Niobe had seven of each! Her son and daughter, Apollo and Diana, took their bows and Apollo killed each of Niobe’s sons. Then Diana killed each of her daughters. Weeping, Niobe turned to stone–and the stone still weeps. Ovid recounts the story in his Metamorphoses (VI:206-312).
Saul preceded David as the first king of Israel. His story is told in the Bible in the First Book of Samuel. A miserable man and king, he died in battle at Mt. Gilboa. Badly wounded and surrounded by his enemies, he took his own life by falling on his sword.
Ovid again tells the story of Arachne in his Metamorphoses (VI:1-145). Skilled in the art of weaving, she proudly dared to challenge Minerva to a weaving contest and produced an amazing tapestry on which were depicted the love stories of the gods. Realizing that she could not produce a better entry, Minerva tore Arachne’s tapestry to pieces. Despairing and frightened, Arachne hanged herself, but Minerva turned the rope into a web, and Arachne into a spider.
Lastly, here, we have Rehoboam, a son of Solomon and the fourth king of Israel. His story is recounted in the Bible in 1 Kings 12:1-19. Sadly, he did not have the character of his grandfather, David, nor the wisdom of his father, Solomon. The people complained of their heavy taxes and asked Rehoboam to lighten them. Instead of listening to the advice of his older advisers who counseled him to lighten the burden, he listened to his younger peers who counseled just the opposite–which he did. As a result, the kingdom of Israel split in two. Rehoboam was not killed by the angry crowd of petitioners, but got away in time to make a cowardly escape back to Jerusalem.
|↑6||The story of Alcmaeon and his vain mother, Eriphyle, is found in the Thebaid of Statius (II:265-305 and IV:187-212). More than anything else, Eriphyle wanted a necklace made by Vulcan for the goddess Harmonia (a curse befell anyone else who wore it). Eriphyle’s husband, the seer Amphiaraus (see Inferno 20), knew through his magic arts that he would die in the war at Thebes and went into hiding. He made Eriphyle vow that she would never reveal this secret. But, bribed with the fatal necklace by Polynices, the ruler of Thebes, she revealed her secret. Realizing that he would, in fact, die in the battle, and knowing that his secret had been revealed, Amphiaraus extracted a promise from his son, Alcmaeon, that he would take vengeance on his mother for his father’s death. Needless to say, there are several sins depicted in this floor panel: Eriphyle’s unrelenting vanity, her acceptance of a bribe, her violation of the oath to her husband resulting in her husband’s death, and the matricide by Alcmaeon. While he doesn’t excuse these sins, Dante’s focus is on Eriphyle’s vanity for an object fashioned by a god (Vulcan) and worn by a goddess (Harmonia). Her vanity–a form of pride–led to insert herself into what belonged (literally) to the gods. And this led to her death.
The story of Sennacherib, king of Assyria, and Hezekiah, king of Judah is found in 2 Kings 18-19. Sennacherib’s pride in thinking he could destroy Israel, and his blasphemy against Yahweh resulted in the army of Israel routing the Assyrians (with Yahweh’s help, of course). The Assyrian king was not killed in the battle, but his two sons later murdered him while he was at prayer in his temple.
Dante most likely read the story of Tomyris and Cyrus in Paulus Orosius’s Historiae adversus paganos (II.vii.6). Tomyris was the queen of the Scythians when Cyrus the Great, king of the Persians, set out to do battle with them. He had earlier sought to unite their kingdoms through marriage, but Tomyris refused. Cyrus built a bridge across the river separating the two kingdoms. His army crossed it, and Tomyris sent a third of her army under the command of her son to engage him. Instead of preparing for battle, however, Cyrus’ soldiers prepared a great banquet and then left it. Arriving at the deserted enemy camp, Tomyris’ soldiers filled themselves with the food that had been left and drank great quantities of wine (which they were not used to). Cyrus returned with his army and slaughtered Tomyris’ soldiers, but captured her son. Unwilling to be used as a pawn between Cyrus and his mother, he killed himself. Later, Tomyris and her army were victorious over the Persians and Cyrus was killed in battle. Later, Tomyris, over-proud of her victory, had him decapitated, took his head and threw it into a bucket of human blood, telling the blood-thirsty emperor to drink his fill!
|↑7||The story of Holofernes, a general in the army of the Assyrian king, Nebuchadnezzar, is found in the Book of Judith, chapters 8-15. This biblical story–well worth reading–may be an entertaining fiction, but it tells of how God saved his people through the seeming weakness of a woman in the face of power and pride. Holofernes and his army surrounded the Israelite city of Bethulia, mocking the God of Israel and starving it into surrender. But a respected and beautiful widow, Judith, called the elders together and told them her plan. Agreeing to the ruse she proposed, they helped her and her maid sneak out of the city unseen by the enemy. Glamorously dressed, Judith allowed herself to be captured and she was brought before Holofernes and his council for interrogation. He was beguiled by her and listened to her feigned betrayal of her people. Claiming that her fellow citizens were about to commit a sacrilege (eating forbidden foods) in order to survive, and that God would punish them with immediate defeat, she convinced Holofernes to bide his time. A few days passed. On the fourth night Holofernes, overcome with passion for Judith, had a private banquet prepared, intending to ravish her afterward. Consumed with his lust, he drank more wine than he had ever done in his life! Unfortunately, he fell into a deep sleep. Seizing her opportunity, Judith took his sword and cut his head off. She put it in her purse and left with her maid. When they were stopped, they reminded the guard that they were allowed to go off a short distance from the camp to pray. Instead, they re-entered the city with their prize. The next morning, Holofernes was found dead and Judith was gone. The camp was thrown into chaos, and when they made their way to the city to destroy it, they were met with Holofernes’ head hanging from the wall. Demoralized, the army of Holofernes was slaughtered by the Bethulians and others from all the surrounding towns. Note the connection between these last two stories: an arrogant king and a besotted general were cut down by scheming women.
The thirteenth story depicts the proud city of Troy in ruins and Dante again takes his cue from Virgil’s Aeneid (III:1-3): “After the gods had seen fit to destroy Asia’s power and Priam’s innocent people, and proud Ilium had fallen, and all of Neptune’s Troy breathed smoke from the soil….” The series of floor carvings that began with the fall of Lucifer is now summed up by this last one depicting the fall of Troy, “whose ruin was the great classical example of the fall of pride” (Sayers). In the last book of the Metamorphoses (XV:420-425), Ovid writes: “So we see times change, and these nations acquiring power and those declining. So Troy, that was so great in men and riches, who through ten years of war could give so freely of her blood, is humbled, and only reveals ancient ruins now, and, instead of wealth, the tombs of her ancestors.” An eloquent, but depressing, epitaph. In the end, pride brings nothing but ash! Ash to vain humans and ash to vain humans’ projects.
It might be fair to say that the fall of Troy began with an Olympian argument over beauty among three goddesses and the jealousy and revenge it unleashed. The abduction of Helen by Paris and the war it caused were the earthly counterpart. Vanity! Nevertheless, the Trojan war–lasting 10 years–was a watershed event in classical history and literature. Homer, Virgil, Ovid, and many others still provide long and vivid accounts with scores of heroes and villains, not to mention the interplay and interference of the gods. It was truly an event worthy of more than one epic, and what the age-old cliche says is not without significance here: “The higher you climb, the harder you fall.” In an extended sense, this saying applies to all the floor carvings Dante walked over. Even his walking over these images of pride is a way to reject the sin they stand for–part of the sinners’ healing and as he will tell us, part of his own healing, too.
(Take a moment to read the note at the end of this canto containing verses from Chapter 1 of the Book of Ecclesiastes.
|↑8||The Poet makes an amazing claim here. The carvings are so real to him that the actual eyewitnesses of the original events could not have seen or experienced them more clearly. The artist, of course, is God, and I think Dante wants to ask why wouldn’t anything God created not be real? On the other hand, in light of this, to what extent, and in what ways, are real artworks “real”? In Musa’s commentary at the start of the floor-carvings, he tells us: “Once again the comparison is between human art that imitates Nature and divine art from which Nature takes her mold. The entire terrace is covered with carved figures more exactly natural than any others, as if they were “idea” itself.”
What is real is that Dante has his head bowed down. This is the only way the carvings can be seen, and what comes to the eyes travels to the soul, and part of the Pilgrim’s own healing is his short apostrophe here against human pride. The upraised face is an old symbol of pride. The Latin word for pride is superbus, meaning both proud or excellent, from which we get the word “superb.” The Italian is superbia. The haughty, arrogant, uplifted face comes to mind with these words.
Dante’s mention of Eve here is also significant because, just as the first (and only sin) in heaven was Lucifer’s pride, so the first (but not last) sin on earth was the gullible pride that led Eve to think that, like Lucifer, she could be like God when she ate of the forbidden fruit. This mention of Eve comes at the end of the artworks Dante sees on this terrace. If we go back to the first artwork, we find Mary saying yes to the angel’s (God’s) invitation, thus bringing to an end the wages of Eve’s sin–death–which Mary’s son paid in full with his own death and resurrection. The prideful sinners are here, saved, though temporarily suffering, because of Mary’s son.
|↑9||The Pilgrims arrived at the Terrace of Pride on Easter Monday at about 10:00am, so they have spent two hours with the wall and floor carvings. So preoccupied was he with the amazing artworks, Dante lost track of time. Virgil brings him back from his ponderings to the present moment with a quote from his own Aeneid (VI:37) where the Sibyl tells Aeneas: “This moment does not itself call for such sight-seeing as this on your part…” As the Sibyl called Aeneas back to the moment at hand, Virgil does the same here, announcing the presence ahead of the Angel of Humility who will show them the way upward, and–like the mentor he is–reminding Dante to be reverent in his bearing.
That Dante will never see this day again sounds rather arch on Virgil’s part, but is simply his way of reminding him–again, like a good mentor–not to waste time. At the same time, Musa notes that the two actually spend less time on this terrace than all the others.
|↑10||Dante structures the Purgatorio so that he and Virgil encounter an angel at the end of each terrace who shows them the way upward to the next one. For the first time, the Pilgrim can actually look at the angel without being blinded. That the angel is as radiant as the morning star is reminiscent of his first encounter with an angel at dawn in Canto 2–the angel pilot of the ship of souls. Unlike the two angels we last saw in the Valley of the Kings, who were clad in green garments, this angel is clad in white. The angel at dawn wore garments that were ruddy in color, and those of the angel at the Gate were the color of ash. Hollander, in his commentary here, notes a detail we might miss: the morning star (Venus) is also called Lucifer (the bearer of light). This Angel of Humility is the opposite of the angel Lucifer (also the bearer of light–and proud of it!).
The angel’s widespread arms and outstretched wings are positively welcoming after the travelers viewed the thirteen dark scenes of pride. And his words recall how, much further down the Mountain, Virgil told Dante that the climb would get easier the higher they went.
At the same time, it is interesting to note that there has been a long argument among Dante scholars over whether the address to the human race is spoken by Dante or by the angel. Some translators lean one way, some lean the other. I tend to think it is Dante who speaks here because there is such a similarity between these lines and what he said toward the end of Canto 10 after first encountering the prideful sinners on this terrace:
The tone of this Canto 10 rebuke is harsh and blaming, whereas the one we have here is not as strong. Rather, there is a certain sadness implied that so many people don’t realize that they are destined for heaven and fall backward into sin so easily (a puff of wind can send us downward). In a sense, this is Dante’s “rein” both to the proud sinners and to us the readers.
|↑11||Lots of things seem to happen at once here. We haven’t been reminded of the seven Ps carved on Dante’s forehead until now. Bringing Dante and Virgil to the stairway, and with a brush of his wings, the Angel of Humility erases one of the marks of sin–obviously of pride. This stairway, cut into the steep mountainside which, he reminds us, is still dangerous, reminds him of the stairs leading to the beautiful basilica of San Miniato al Monte in Florence. Begun in 1013, it sits at the top of a hill–across the Arno–to the south. It offers spectacular views of the city. The rough stairs leading up from the Terrace of Pride probably remind Dante of the much older stairway that led up from the river. It’s a long climb, but nowadays the stairs are wide and the steps are spaced several feet from each other. The Rubaconte Bridge, the next bridge to the east of the famous Ponte Vecchio, was named after the Podestà Rubaconte da Mandello da Milano, who built it in 1237. It was destroyed by the Nazis in 1944 and reconstructed and renamed Ponte alle Grazie in 1957. Keep in mind that this is the first stairway in Purgatory. Steep, rough, and perilous as it may be, it will make for an easier ascent than the climbing the two Pilgrims have been doing from the start. Easier, that is, for Dante’s live body as opposed to Virgil who is a spirit.
As for Dante’s mention of weights and measures, this seems out of place here, as though he had a passing thought while he visualized San Miniato. Except that he’s thinking of trust and the “good old days” when one could trust that they weren’t being cheated by corrupt vendors or civil servants. A famous scandal erupted in Dante’s time (1283) when it was discovered that salt (which was taxed) was being falsely measured by Durante de’Chiaramonte, who controlled the salt tax office. Another scandal involving corrupt administrators broke out in 1299 when Niccola Acciaiuoli and Baldo d’Aguglione, along with the infamous podestà, Monfiorito da Coderta da Treviso, a close ally of Corso Donati (an enemy of Dante’s; destined for Hell, according to his brother, Forese, whom we will meet in Canto 23), colluded to destroy evidence of a fraudulent transaction in the public records which involved them. All of this flies through Dante’s head, as it were, during his comparison of the steep stairs leading up from the Terrace of Pride and the stairs leading up to San Miniato.
|↑12||So much goes on so quickly as this canto comes to an end. As the two travelers are being escorted to the stairs by the Angel of Humility, not only is the first P erased from Dante’s forehead, he sees the stairs cut into the rock face of the Mountain and is reminded of the rough stairs leading up the hillside to the basilica of San Miniato in Florence. Then he is reminded of past times (when he was younger) when the city administration was honest and just. Now at the stairs, he hears singing beyond his ability to describe it. This is a ritual that will be repeated on each of the terraces above. Voices are singing this first of the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3): “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.” How appropriate for this Terrace where the Proud are redeemed. St. Augustine, so revered by Dante, writes on this verse in his On the Sermon on the Mount:|
“Here, therefore, the poor in spirit are rightly understood as the humble and the God-fearing, that is to say, those who do not have an inflated spirit. And it would be entirely unfitting for blessedness to take its beginning from any other source, since it is to reach the summit of wisdom, for “the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord” (Eccl. 1:16; Ps. 111:10), and on the other hand, pride is described as “the beginning of all sin” [Eccl. 10: 13]. Let the proud, therefore, strive after the kingdoms of the earth, and love them. But, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’”
Hearing this wonderful music, Dante makes a very significant comparison between Purgatory and Hell: here they sing, there they shriek!
|↑13||With the first P removed by the Angel of Humility, Dante remarks that he already feels lighter (even though he’s climbing a steep stairway). I suspect this is more of a spiritual sensation than a physical one. The weight of this great sin–first among the deadly sins and the one that easily leads to others–has been lessened by what he has seen and experienced here. What has also been removed is the sight of the proud sinners so heavily burdened with the weights they carry that bends them down toward the ground. Looking at Dante’s forehead, Virgil sees the good effect that Dante’s experience has had because, as he tells him, the rest of the Ps also seem to have faded somewhat.|
|↑14||This tongue-in-cheek moment brings the canto to a close. Talking about feeling lighter and Virgil affirming the disappearance of the first P from his forehead, now Dante, as anyone would do, reaches up to feel for himself that the P is really gone. One can almost feel the remaining marks as Dante counts them.|
|↑15||2 Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!|
3 What profit have we from all the toil which we toil at under the sun?
4 One generation departs and another generation comes, but the world forever stays.
5 The sun rises and the sun sets; then it presses on to the place where it rises.
6 Shifting south, then north, back and forth shifts the wind, constantly shifting its course.
7 All rivers flow to the sea, yet never does the sea become full. To the place where they flow, the rivers continue to flow.
8 All things are wearisome, too wearisome for words. The eye is not satisfied by seeing nor has the ear enough of hearing.
9 What has been, that will be; what has been done, that will be done. Nothing is new under the sun!
10 Even the thing of which we say, “See, this is new!” has already existed in the ages that preceded us.
11There is no remembrance of past generations; nor will future generations be remembered by those who come after them.