Dante and Virgil arrive at the second terrace where they witness the punishment of the envious. Dante has a conversation with Sapia, a sinner from Siena.
As we reached the top of the stairs, we saw that there was a second ledge cut into the mountain that brings healing to all who climb it. Just like the terrace below us, this one also circled around the mountain, though being higher it made a sharper curve.
As we looked from one side to the other, there was no one about, and there were no carvings, either. Everything was bare, everything the same livid color. “If we just wait for someone to come and give us directions,” Virgil said, “we’re liable to waste more time.” So, he looked up at the sun to get his bearings, and then made a right turn. As he did so, he prayed: “O sweet light, whose rays are the object of my trust, this road is new to us and we need your guidance. You bring light and warmth to our world; and unless there is reason for it, that light should always be enough to show us along the right path.”We are beginning to see a pattern that will be repeated throughout the rest of this Canticle: there are concentric ledges or terraces cut into the Mountain of Purgatory – a mountain that heals. … Continue reading
We had already walked about a mile along that terrace – and rather quickly, too, because we were now eager pilgrims – when spirits, who could be heard but not seen, came flying toward us inviting us courteously to the table of love. Vinum non habent called the first voice as it flew past us, its echo fading behind it. And almost immediately a second voice cried out: “I am Orestes!” as it flew by.
“Oh, Father,” I said, “whose voices are these we hear?” And no sooner had I asked that question than a third spirit flew by calling out: “Love those who have wronged you!”
Then Virgil answered me: “On this terrace envious sinners are punished with a whip – its cords made with words of love. And before we reach the stairs you will hear their sin reined in with opposite words. Look carefully there against the cliff and you will see some envious souls sitting there.”Although Virgil has not been here before, he deduces by reason and by what he sees (virtually nothing) and hears (exhortations to charity), that he and Dante have arrived at the Terrace of Envy. Once … Continue reading
Straining hard to see them, I made out a large group of souls dressed in garments that matched the color of the stone wall behind them. As we came closer to them I could hear the Litany of the Saints: “Mary, pray for us. Michael, Peter, all Saints.” I can’t imagine anyone so hard-hearted as not to be moved by pity at what I saw next. When I was close enough to see what their actual penance was, bitter tears flowed from my eyes. Their clothes were made of coarse sackcloth and, sitting against the stone wall, each of them laid their heads on another one’s shoulder. I was reminded of the poor who sit at church doors and beg for food on days of pardon – one leaning his head on another’s to make people feel pity for them, not only by their sad cries, but even more by how they looked.We still do not know exactly what the punishment of the envious sinners is, and Dante is clever to build anticipation of that knowledge by slowly adding details as he perceives them himself. If we … Continue reading
But, just as the blind cannot see, so with the souls sitting there in front of me. Heaven’s light could not be seen by them because their eyelids were sewn shut with iron threads! They were like baby falcons whose eyes are stitched closed in order to tame them. And staring at them as I did while we passed by, I felt uneasy because they couldn’t stare back. So, I turned to Virgil who knew what I was about to ask, but didn’t wait. “Of course, you can speak with them,” he said, “but don’t spend too much time.”At last, we discover the punishment meted out to these envious sinners. The thought of it is gruesome, and must have been so for Dante, though he makes no mention of his reaction, except that he felt … Continue reading
Well, there we were, Virgil walking along the edge of that terrace, where one could fall off because there was no railing, me in the middle, and those begging sinners against the wall, whose tears leaked out through those terrible seams. I said to them: “O blinded souls, whose only desire will surely come to pass when you see God, may His healing grace cleanse away the sin that prevents you from seeing rightly and so purify your memories, I would be most grateful to know if someone among you is, perhaps, Italian. I might be able to help them.”Note how Dante is taken good care of by his mentor, as Virgil takes the most dangerous position along the edge of the terrace. This same care has been shown throughout the Poem so far. At the same … Continue reading
“Brother,” a sinner further on replied, “we are all citizens of the one true city above. Are you, rather, asking if one of us was Italian?” As I moved toward that voice to find the one who spoke, I saw a soul with a look of expectation, the chin was raised, searching here and there, as the blind tend to do.This is clever. As noted above, the souls don’t know that Dante is alive because they can’t see him. On the other hand, he seems to have forgotten that fact as well, and it’s one of the souls … Continue reading
I then replied: “O spirit, practicing the discipline that will allow you to rise upward, if it was you who just spoke to me, please tell me who you are or where you are from.”
The woman replied: “I was from Siena, and like everyone here, I weep for my sins and mend my wicked life, begging God to come to us soon. My name was Sapia, but I was not wise. What I loved more than anything else was seeing another person in grief. If you find this hard to believe, let me tell you how far I was willing to go. When I was old, my city was fighting a battle near Colle. I prayed to God for what He had already decided: we were defeated. And as I watched the enemy chase our soldiers from the field, I was filled with such a powerful feeling of joy that, shamelessly, I looked up to the heavens and shouted at God: ‘I have no fear of You now!’ I was the foolish bird that comes back in the middle of winter.One suspects that the Pilgrim got more than he bargained for when this soul responds to his query. It elicits a chatty, transparent, confessional response that comes from a Sienese woman who seems … Continue reading
“I did not repent until I was close to death, and even then penance would have had little effect on God’s forgiveness, were it not for Pier Pettinaio who, in his charity, felt sorry for me and remembered me in his prayers. But tell me, now, who are you – with your eyes not sown, I suspect – coming here to make your inquiries, and breathing as you speak?”One might wonder at this point why Sapia is not in Hell. Though she repented at the end of her life, and even left a bequest in her will to support a local hospice for pilgrims, she realizes now that … Continue reading
“I will probably suffer as you do one day,” I told her, “but only for a short time, because I’m not given to sinning with my eyes and looking with envy on others. My fear is that I will spend more time carrying heavy weights with the souls below.”This is a remarkable admission for Dante, particularly because there’s a certain humility in it that prevents him from saying he’s better than everyone else. At times in the Paradiso, he’s … Continue reading
She then asked me: “Who brought you here among us if you plan to return below?”
“This man here,” I told her, pointing to Virgil. “You see, I am alive. And if you wish, O chosen soul, I will be happy to do anything for you when I return among the living.”Because she is confused, there is more to Sapia’s question than meets the eye. Her probing is reminiscent of Cato’s questions when the two Pilgrims emerged from Hell. We know that blind people … Continue reading
On hearing this, she cried out: “Blessed be God! What a miracle! And how He must love you so dearly. Oh, yes. Please pray for me once in a while. And even more than that, if you ever travel in Tuscany, please find my family and restore my good name among them. Right now they follow those who foolishly dream of a seaport at Talamone. More will be lost in that venture than in the search for the River Diana. Though the so-called admirals will lose the most.”Sapia’s exclamations of gratitude obviously point to the fact that she has been positively affected by the punishment she has endured for her envy. Earlier, she virtually made herself equal to God … Continue reading
Notes & Commentary
|↑1||We are beginning to see a pattern that will be repeated throughout the rest of this Canticle: there are concentric ledges or terraces cut into the Mountain of Purgatory – a mountain that heals. The higher up we go, the distance around each terrace will be shorter.
Right away, it’s clear from Dante’s observations, that this ledge is completely different from the one below it. There is really nothing to be seen in terms of landscape or geographical features. It’s all of the same bare, livid-colored rock. Definitely no carvings. The color “livid” seems to have many definitions from pale and ashen to reddish to black and blue. The Latin livious curiously, includes all these definitions. The Latin verb livere means to be bluish, and the word livius or lividus can mean “jealous,” or “envious.” The best image is that of a bruise, and we will soon see why this color is appropriate for this terrace.
Virgil’s impatience obviously stems from their not seeing any souls from whom they can ask directions, and from there being nothing outstanding to draw their attention to. However, several significant things stem from this impatience of his. He looks up at the sun (which always represents God) and gets his bearings. As a result, he turns right – always the right direction to turn in Purgatory. Recall from the previous canto that when he and Dante first encountered the Angel of Humility it was noontime, so we are not too far past that mid-day point. And then Virgil the pagan actually prays for guidance. Remember that he has not been to Purgatory before this. Also, this is the only time in the poem that Virgil prays. But, is he actually praying to the Christian God, or to the sun itself, or to reason, wisdom, light, love, or virtue? Over the centuries, commentators have wrestled over this and offered different interpretations. Some have suggested that since the sun represents God, Virgil follows God’s (the sun’s) guidance. Or, Virgil offers a prayer to the Christian God for guidance and grace. Some suggest that Virgil uses the sun as a metaphor for light and guidance – particularly since he, like Dante, has not been in Purgatory before. Some opine that the sun represents Reason and Virgil’s moving to follow the sun is his (and Dante’s) following the light of reason. And some suggest that the sun is simply the sun, and that Virgil is being pragmatic and following it’s movement. Throughout Purgatory, light plays an important part – certainly the light of God’s grace, which empowers the repenting souls to persevere in the work of their purgation. Light enables movement. In the dark, there is no movement.
As for the prayer itself, note that before Virgil asks for the sun’s guidance, he expresses the fact that he already trusts it to lead him and Dante on their way. Notice that he says the road is “new to us,” not “me.” The truism – “You bring light and warmth to our world…” – is almost unnecessary, except that he seems to want to make the broadest possible prayer by then including room for some unspoken reason(s) why the sun (God?) might not want to light and warm us. Some would say that makes no sense because, as Virgil concludes, the light of the sun (whether spiritual or literal) is always there should we need it. In the end, he has already made a right turn – the right turn to make – and his hope is that, in this barren place seemingly devoid of any sign of life, the light (physical or spiritual) will enable to see what they need to see here. And “seeing,” we will soon discover, is what this canto is all about.
|↑2||Although Virgil has not been here before, he deduces by reason and by what he sees (virtually nothing) and hears (exhortations to charity), that he and Dante have arrived at the Terrace of Envy. Once they start moving off to the right, invisible voices fly over them calling out the whip of the sinners’ punishment which consists of three brief phrases, each of which opens onto a larger story of generosity and love, virtues directly opposite the sin of envy. Thus, “…cords made with words of love,” inviting the envious sinners – and the Pilgrims – to the table of love. The Eucharistic imagery here is significant. It is often referred to as the “heavenly banquet” where those invited eat “the bread of angels.” The invisible exhortations act as continual reminders of the invitation of Christ. In John 6:51 we read: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” Furthermore, the Church teaches that, in addition to the Sacraments of Reconciliation (Confession) and Anointing of the Sick, the Eucharist is also a sacrament of healing that cleanses us from sin (Catechism of the Catholic Faith, 1394).
“Vinum non habent”: “They have no wine.” First of all, a reminder that part of the structure of the seven terraces is that the first whip is always an event that involves Jesus’ mother, Mary. So we recall from the terrace below that the first of the great carvings on the wall was a scene of the Annunciation. The scene evoked here is from the Gospel of St. John and the Wedding Feast at Cana in Galilee (2:1-10). Jesus and his mother are at a wedding party and the wine runs out. Mary quietly brings this to Jesus’ attention and he changes the water into wine. It is the Virgin Mary’s loving charity and concern for their happiness that saves the hosts from embarrassment, and this is the example for the sinners here.
“I am Orestes”: As the first voice flies past the Pilgrims and trails off, they hear another one. This one evokes a story of a great friendship where the friends are willing to die that the other might live. Dante probably came across this story in Cicero’s De amicitia (VII, 24) or his De finibus (V, xxii, 63). It’s the story of Orestes (son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra) and his friend Pylades and their exchange of identities. (There are variants of this story in Greek literature.) Orestes killed his mother to avenge the death of his father, whom she murdered. He was condemned to death, but Pylades claimed that he was Orestes. But Orestes could not allow his friend to make such a sacrifice and came forward with his true identity. Although this is a story from pagan literature, Dante most likely has in mind the statement of Jesus in St. John’s Gospel (15:12f): “My commandment is this: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” The whip is clear. For the envious, the ultimate act of virtue would be to die for a friend, to give up what one holds most dear.
Hearing these two invisible exclamations one after the other, and before Virgil can answer Dante’s question about them, a third voice flies overhead calling out a statement of Jesus recorded in St. Matthew’s Gospel (5:43f): “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”
John Ciardi brings the message of the three voices together in his commentary here: “So, the third lesson in love, not only to love others, and to love friends, but to love those who offer injury.” Love others: “They have no wine.” Love friends: “I am Orestes.” Love those who would harm you: “Love your enemies.” And only now does Virgil reveal that this terrace is where the sin of envy is purged – but with a whip made from cords of love. And at the same time, he informs his pupil that they will hear opposite statements (the rein of envy) just before they leave this terrace.
|↑3||We still do not know exactly what the punishment of the envious sinners is, and Dante is clever to build anticipation of that knowledge by slowly adding details as he perceives them himself. If we consider how visual and engaging the carvings were on the previous terrace, the contrast between these two terraces becomes clear with Dante’s straining to see the envious sinners. Everything here is of the same color and nothing really stands out. Virgil himself seems to have just caught sight of the sinners as he points out where they are. Recall that everything on this terrace is a livid color: the ground, the wall of the mountainside, and the sinners’ clothing. This is clever on the poet’s part because the envious here blend into their surroundings and there’s no distinction between them. In life, distinctions were important to them. Even their features seem to be blurred or muted – quite a contrast to the brilliant carvings on the terrace below.
As the two get closer, Dante hears the envious praying the long and beautiful Litany of the Saints (Dante gives only a few lines here). Even though these were, to varying degrees, grave sinners, here they pray to the Saints for help. In Hell, they would be shrieking curses. The fact that they pray is both evidence of and a sign of their spiritual progress. And, of course, those to whom they pray were not tainted by the sin of envy. Again, notice that Mary is the first Saint invoked. We observed earlier how orderly and harmonious was the singing in Purgatory. Note how the Litany here is inclusive as was the Lord’s Prayer at the beginning of canto 10. The sinners pray “for us,” not “for me.”
Seeing all of this, Dante is so moved to pity that he cries. Excusing himself, perhaps, he tells us that he can’t imagine anyone who would not feel pity. Of course, these sinners were people who weren’t given to pity. Recall how, in the Inferno, Dante gradually hardened in his reaction to the damned souls he encountered. Here, Dante’s pity is both good for him (us) and for the sinners. In addition to their uniform clothing, the envious sinners are all sitting with their backs against the mountainside, leaning against each other, heads on each other’s shoulders, looking like beggars gathered at church doors on feast days seeking alms – and, he notes, making a good show of it! But not here. The last thing an envious person would want is someone pitying them. And the image of support in their leaning on each other is quite the opposite of what these souls would have done when alive. Yet, even as they pray for each other, there is an uncharacteristically communal sense to what they’re doing. Yet all of this is wonderfully choreographed, or orchestrated, by Dante to heighten the reality of the Poem which, he assures us, is absolutely real!
Remarking on Dante’s observation about the “coarse sackcloth,” John Ciardi offers a realistic, and somewhat humorous, image of what is worn by the sinners which, in itself, must have been quite punishing:
“Even today peasants wear haircloth capes in heavy weather, but in the Middle Ages, and beyond, haircloth was worn against the skin as a penance, and to discipline the flesh. Such hair shirts were not only intolerably itchy; they actually rubbed the flesh open causing running sores. In an age, moreover, that was very slightly given to soap and water, such hair shirts offered an attractive habitat to all sorts of bodily vermin that were certain to increase the odor of sanctity, even to the point of the gangrenous. I am told, and have no wish to verify, that hair shirts are still worn today by some penitential and unventilated souls.”
|↑4||At last, we discover the punishment meted out to these envious sinners. The thought of it is gruesome, and must have been so for Dante, though he makes no mention of his reaction, except that he felt embarrassed staring at them. Now we can also understand why the invisible voices proclaiming the whip were oral and not visual, and it becomes clearer still that envy is a sin of the eyes. Blinded, these envious sinners experience a purgation that is more psychological or emotional than physical, purged both by what they hear and by their communal prayers.
In the Middle Ages, falconry (the use of birds of prey to hunt small animals) was a sport with ancient roots almost exclusive to royalty and the aristocracy. While there were other ways of taming and training the birds, what Dante refers to involves a baby falcon, hawk, or other bird of prey taken as a chick. A thread of delicate waxed silk was sown through its lower eyelids (apparently painless) and drawn back over the bird’s head and tied. During training, the thread was gradually loosened allowing the bird to see more and more until it was used to its trainer/handler. Then it was removed altogether. Dante makes this worse by substituting iron thread instead of silk. But like the falcons, however, these envious souls are being “trained” by the invisible voices, by their prayers, and by their beggar-like camaraderie. And because envy is a sin of the eyes, their blindness weans them away from seeing what others have that they want. It also forces them to look inward and focus on what is necessary for their purgation. Furthermore, blindness makes one vulnerable to so many things the sighted can avoid. Yet, while no harm will come to them here, they are somehow rendered “vulnerable” to the good that comes by way of their introspection and the prayers of others.
Finally, we are accustomed to Virgil knowing what Dante has in mind, and here is another of those places. The ever-curious Dante wants to speak with the sinners – perhaps as a way to excuse his self-accused rudeness at staring at them. Before he can ask, Virgil encourages him to engage the sinners – but not to spend too much time. This is the second time Virgil has been concerned about time in this canto (the first was at the beginning).
|↑5||Note how Dante is taken good care of by his mentor, as Virgil takes the most dangerous position along the edge of the terrace. This same care has been shown throughout the Poem so far. At the same time, there is allegory at work here. Falling off the edge of the terrace would be like falling back into sin and error. Virgil, as Reason, keeps him from that danger.
We also learn for the first time that these envious sinners are weeping. Dante wept bitter tears when he first saw them, and now up close he sees that they, too, weep. While not as obvious as his participation in the punishment of the proud below by his bending over to talk with them, here, his tears are matched by those of the sinners. Of course, they can’t see his tears as he can see theirs. That these sinners’ eyes are sewn shut with iron thread is gruesome enough; more so when the Pilgrim refers to them as “terrible seams.” We readers feel the Poet’s descriptions here and participate along with him.
Dante’s address to the sinners is what is called in rhetorical terms a captatio benevolentiae, a kind of preface to a speech designed to elicit the good will of the audience, to develop a relationship. It is elegant, graceful, compassionate, respectful, and filled with goodness. It may be a bit over the top, but it’s so very different from their earlier ways of thinking. He simply wants to know if there are any Italians among them, but his preface to that question is lovely. And he wants to know because he feels he might be able to help them – most likely with his prayers, or asking their living relatives to pray for them. We’ve learned earlier how much good the prayers of the living can assist those here in Purgatory. At the same time, we know something about Dante that the sinners don’t know: he’s alive and can, in fact, help them.
The prayer is also filled with hope because Dante addresses the sinners’ deepest hope – which they know will one day come to pass: they will see God in the face. His reference to the cleansing properties of grace to cleanse memories and facilitate clear-sightedness is a veiled reference to the classical river of the Underworld, the Lethe, which erased all memory from the souls of the dead. Dante would have been well aware of its references in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Virgil’s Aeneid. Some scholars suggest this was the stream that Dante and Virgil saw in the cave as they climbed up out of Hell. It will make its appearance again in a wonderful way later in the Poem.
|↑6||This is clever. As noted above, the souls don’t know that Dante is alive because they can’t see him. On the other hand, he seems to have forgotten that fact as well, and it’s one of the souls who corrects him – twice. That this sinner (most likely speaking for all of them) already knows that their true homeland is in Paradise links this reply with Dante’s earlier statement – that they will surely see God. Moreover, being a particular nationality has no bearing on one’s true citizenship in Heaven (though the damned renounced it and the sinners here took their time claiming it). This marks a distinction between Ante-Purgatory, where we encountered sinners still concerned with their former lives, and Purgatory, where sinners focus on the real afterlife. Recall the affirming message of St. Paul in his Letter to the Ephesians (2:17-22):
“You are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone. Through him the whole structure is held together and grows into a temple sacred in the Lord; in him you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.”
Furthermore, calling Dante “brother” reinforces a sense of community among the sinners that includes Dante himself. And, as we will soon see, the soul responding to Dante knew quite a bit about politics and nationality – as did Dante himself – look where it got him!
|↑7||One suspects that the Pilgrim got more than he bargained for when this soul responds to his query. It elicits a chatty, transparent, confessional response that comes from a Sienese woman who seems well along the path to purification. Like the other envious souls here, she “mends” her soul with tears – a clever reminder that her eyes are sewn shut. Dante’s mention of her “discipline” is also a reminder that in Purgatory the souls willingly purge themselves.
Sapia was from an important Sienese family, the Salvani. She was married to Ghinaldo Saracini and was the aunt of Provenzan Salvani, the great tyrant of Siena whom Oderisi spoke about in canto 11. Her candor is refreshing as she plays on the Latin root of her name (sapiens = wisdom), suggesting that she wasn’t too smart during her lifetime, and her unabashed confession is breath-taking. We haven’t quite met a sinner like her who gives the details of her sins so strikingly. On the other hand, she knows that she’s saved and a detailed account of her treasonous envy will do her no harm. Ironically, in this place it’s actually rather good for her!
As for the foolish blackbird, Sapia was probably quoting a fable about the blackbird who, after a few days of mid-winter sunshine, foolishly thought spring had come and began to sing. The fact that she quotes this adage in reference to herself, however, shows that she is now humble enough to recognize the folly of her sin.
|↑8||One might wonder at this point why Sapia is not in Hell. Though she repented at the end of her life, and even left a bequest in her will to support a local hospice for pilgrims, she realizes now that it might not have been enough to save her – had it not been for Pier Pettinaio who prayed for her after she died. For all practical purposes, she should be in Ante-Purgatory, and surely she spent some time on the Terrace of Pride before coming to this one.
Early in his life, Pier Pettinaio (1189-1289) was a Sienese comb-seller (Pettinaio was not his family name, but his occupation. Pettine = comb). He was noted for his honesty and humility and later became a Franciscan monk, famous as a mystic and holy man who cared for the poor and the sick and worked many miracles among them. He was highly revered as a saint by the Sienese, who built a lovely tomb for him when he died. He was beatified in 1802.
Earlier, Sapia confessed to being less wise than she should have been, but in the end she’s definitely sharp enough to turn Dante’s earlier question back on him, suspecting that Dante is a visitor on this terrace, that he can see, and he can breathe. Ciardi’s comment here is fitting: “How the spirits managed to talk without breathing is a matter Dante would, of course, refer to God’s Will.”
|↑9||This is a remarkable admission for Dante, particularly because there’s a certain humility in it that prevents him from saying he’s better than everyone else. At times in the Paradiso, he’s going to admit that the Poem is almost too much to bear – even for him. But the journey through Hell and this far up the Mountain of Purgatory has been effective in keeping him down to earth. Interestingly, in spite of being an exile, Dante suggests that he’s not really envious of anyone. If anything, it’s going to be pride that he’ll have to purge. With tongue in cheek, I note that several commentators quote a rather unflattering picture that Villani paints of him in his Cronica (IX,136): “This Dante, because of his learning, was somewhat presumptuous, haughty, and disdainful, and being rude, as philosophers are, knew not how to speak with the unlearned.”|
|↑10||Because she is confused, there is more to Sapia’s question than meets the eye. Her probing is reminiscent of Cato’s questions when the two Pilgrims emerged from Hell. We know that blind people often have other heightened senses that aren’t impaired, particularly their hearing. Sapia has already asked Dante who he is, having figured out that he can see and that he breathes (thus, he’s alive). And she most likely heard his footsteps, though she had no idea of Virgil’s presence until now because he makes no noise as a spirit, and he doesn’t speak. Dante has offered help (prayers, most likely), but she is still uncertain. Added to this is his vague prediction that he may spend time below – meaning on the Terrace of Pride. But how did he get here?
His response to Sapia’s request is cleverly stated. She can’t see, but he says, “You see…” She presumed that he was alive, he confirms it. And with this affirmation that he is, in fact, alive, he returns to the offer of help he made when he and Virgil first encountered these envious souls – when he returns to the world of the living, not to the Terrace of Pride.
|↑11||Sapia’s exclamations of gratitude obviously point to the fact that she has been positively affected by the punishment she has endured for her envy. Earlier, she virtually made herself equal to God when she shouted at Him. A blasphemy that might have merited Hell. But she recognizes in the living Dante both God’s love personified and His merciful power that someone living should come to visit her here in Purgatory and offer to help her. Stop to consider for a moment that distance we have traveled in this scene with Sapia – that she is on the Terrace of Envy, how she candidly confessed the almost savage extent of her sin throughout her lifetime, how she repented at the end and, now, how she recognizes the (miraculous) love and mercy of God manifested in Dante’s offer. She has come so far from the sin of envy that she actually asks Dante to pray for her! On the spiritual level, this canto clearly demonstrates the effects of sin and the workings of grace.
In addition to Dante’s prayers, Sapia’s realization of the special effect of grace that he represents leads her to task him with the restoration of her good name among her family. We have become used to sinners in both the Inferno and the Purgatorio being concerned about remembrances to the living. But this is extraordinary. Evidently, in spite of several works of charity in her later life, Sapia was not well-remembered.
The conclusion of this canto is an odd one. It seems that Sapia’s family were among the advocates of a Sienese public works project that would build a port for the Republic of Siena at the western city of Talamone on the Tyrrhenian Sea. This project would have greatly enhanced the economic prospects of the republic, which did not have a port, but it turned out to be more of a headache than a boon. Sapia’s request was most likely aimed at Dante steering her relatives away from such useless and foolish schemes. In a witty introduction to his commentary here, John Ciardi notes that this is “a complicated passage of local reference certainly put into Sapia’s mouth by Dante as a Florentine jibe at the ‘foolish’ Sienese. Dante (who fears the Ledge of Pride just below him) may have to carry his stone a bit further for his addiction to such touches, but his poem is certainly the livelier for them.”
As it turns out, the Sienese wanted to compete with the seafaring Republic of Genoa, and in 1303 they chose Talamone (about 80 miles south of Siena) as the place for their new port. In spite of considerable outlay for construction, the port might have become a reality except for the fact that, among other things, it was located in the area of a malarial swamp (the Maremma), and it kept silting up. The project was a fiasco like the other one Sapia mentions, the attempt to increase Siena’s water supply by digging for an underground river they named after the statue of Diana in the city’s marketplace. (Both projects came about as a result of an over-weaning civic pride, both ended on the rocks!)
Finally, Sapia’s mention of the losing “admirals” might be interpreted figuratively as those investors who spearheaded the failed projects, or more literally as port authorities, ship owners, or captains who lost their port. Robert Hollander’s commentary on this canto to a conclusion is worth considering: “…this sharp-tongued, witty, and self-understanding woman ends her words with charity for all who have chosen the true way, along with acerbic wit for those who are governed by foolishness and pride. If that sounds like a description of the poet who created her, so be it.”