As they continue to climb, Dante and Virgil encounter a group of souls who died violent deaths. Like petitioners at court, they surround Dante and ask to be remembered.
I had already moved on from those lazy spirits, following Virgil, when one of them pointed toward me and cried out: “Look there! That one climbing behind the other blocks the sunlight. He must still be alive!”
I turned around when I heard this and saw those spirits staring at me with wonder – me and the shadow I cast.With these opening lines, it seems that we’re not quite finished with Canto 4. What we might have expected almost immediately when Dante encountered Belacqua doesn’t happen until the Pilgrims are … Continue reading
“What are you looking at?” Virgil asked me. “Why are you taking your time? Who cares if they’re whispering about you? Let them talk, but keep up with me. Be like a tower, strong against the winds. The man whose mind is weakened by distractions loses sight of his goals.” All I could say–shamefaced–was: “Very well…I’m coming now.”As for Dante, he’s still distracted as he turns around to see the lazy souls pointing and staring at him, although the text doesn’t say that he actually stopped. Dante the Pilgrim is a celebrity … Continue reading
But as we continued upward, I saw another group of souls crossing the slope ahead of us. They were singing the Miserere in alternating verses. When they saw me, however, and saw how no light passed through my human form, their pious chanting changed to a long “Ohhhh!”
Like messengers, I suppose, two of them broke away from the group and came running toward us, asking: “Please tell us who you are.”
Virgil answered them: “Go back and tell the rest of your company that this man is truly alive – flesh and blood. I suspect all of you were stunned by his appearance and because he casts a shadow. But now you know, and you would do well to honor him.”Unlike the lazy souls below them, these souls are moving in an orderly fashion just above where Dante and Virgil are climbing. For the second time, we hear the souls singing–a feature of Purgatory … Continue reading
I don’t think I ever saw a meteor flash across the sky, or a bolt of lightning fly so quickly out of the sky, as those two flew back to their companions. In a moment, the whole group turned around and ran toward us like a mob.
“Look at this crowd rushing toward us!” said Virgil. “Each one will have some favor to ask of you. Listen to them kindly, but keep moving as you do.”As I noted above, Virgil sanctioned this “distraction,” but note how he also insists that Dante keep moving as they’re being mobbed by the crowd of souls. Once again, the energy here contrasts … Continue reading
“O happy soul!” they cried out to me. “You there, on your way to blessedness and still wearing your body. Please stop, if only for a moment, to see if you know any of us here so you can bring back news of us. Oh, please, pause for just a bit. You see, all of us here died a violent death. Until our last moments we were sinners, but at the very end the light of Heaven filled us. Repenting and forgiving, we died at peace with God, Who filled us with a holy longing for Himself alone.”What amazing lines, and how good of Virgil to insure that Dante heard them! Bringing back news of these souls is a foretaste of their later request for prayers, which we already know have a positive … Continue reading
Replying to their pleas, I said: “Though I see each of you, I’m afraid I don’t recognize anyone. But hear me, O holy souls, destined for Heaven, if there is something I can do for you, please tell me. I promise you this by the peace that I go searching for as I follow my guide and master from world to world.”Throughout this canto, Dante’s words are as gracious as those of the souls who speak to him. He seems to be fully in tune with the spirit of this place. Three times so far in the Purgatorio, the … Continue reading
And one of them spoke up immediately: “Thank you, but you need not make an oath. We all know that you will be true to your word unless some power should move against your will. So, speaking first, if I may, let me ask that if you should ever find yourself between Romagna and the Kingdom of Naples, I beg you to ask the people of Fano to pray for me so that I may soon begin the penitence my sins deserve. I was born there, but I was mortally wounded near Padua, where I thought I would be safe. Azzo of Este had me done in – hating me beyond all reason! They captured me at Oriaco. If I had gone toward Mira, I would still be alive. But, savagely wounded, I fled into the swamps and became entangled among the reeds. There I fell and watched my life seep from my veins.”This first speaker does not identify himself, but from his story and the places he names we know that he was Jacopo del Cassero (1260-1298) whom Dante may have known because they both participated in … Continue reading
After this sad story, another spirit spoke to me, saying: “May your holy desire to climb this mountain be fulfilled, and I hope you can help me fulfill my own desire. I am Buonconte from Montefeltro, and, you see, no one there cares for me – not even my wife, Giovanna, which causes me great shame among this company I keep.”
Pitying him, I asked; “Was it the violence of battle, or just chance, that your body was never found after the Battle of Campaldino?”
He replied: “Below the Casentino region flows the Archiano, which has its origins in the Apennines near the convent of the monks. Further down, it joins the Arno, and it was there I fled with my throat cut, spilling out my life’s blood on the plain. By then, I was blind and unable to speak. But with my last gasp I uttered the name of Mary and died. Believe me when I tell you this–and tell it to every living soul: As I died, an angel came and lifted me up. But a devil from Hell shrieked out: ‘O heavenly spirit, why do you rob what belongs to me? Ha! You may get his soul–won by a cheap tear! But I have other plans for the ruined body he leaves behind.’This very different story follows quickly upon the previous one so that we get the sense of urgency that motivates this group of souls to begin their purgation as soon as possible. The speaker here … Continue reading Interestingly enough, and for the superb soldier that he was, Buonconte’s story tells us hardly a thing about the battle–one of the greatest in Italy’s medieval history. However, he definitely … Continue reading
“You know that cool air rises into the clouds and falls back to earth as rain. That evil spirit joined intelligence to his malice and caused a dense fog from Pratomagno to the Apennines. Then he filled the sky with thick clouds and heavy rain. The deluge quickly soaked the ground and flooded the whole area with great torrents of water rushing everywhere. Raging over its banks, the Archiano swept my dead body down into the Arno, loosening my arms from the cross I had made across my chest as I died. Dragged along in that final violence, the river’s bottom and its debris became my shroud.”And now for the devil’s revenge. As a complement to the spiritual/supernatural drama we witnessed with Buonconte’s death, we are presented with a nature drama that, meteorologically, is quite … Continue reading
“Oh, please!” begged a third spirit who came forward. “Please, when you return from your journey here, please have the kindness to remember me. My name is Pia. My life began at Siena, and Maremma is where my husband ended it.”That there is no intervening narration between the wild description of Buonconte’s death and the ever-so-brief plea of Pia that ends this canto again puts before the reader the urgency of these … Continue reading
Notes & Commentary
|↑1||With these opening lines, it seems that we’re not quite finished with Canto 4. What we might have expected almost immediately when Dante encountered Belacqua doesn’t happen until the Pilgrims are already on their way–Dante is recognized as being alive. Of course, one has to allow for the fact that they were all in the shade at the time. Yet, this recognition plays the role of a very late, last, and lazy rant from the indolent souls we encountered at the end of the previous canto. They were so lazy, it wasn’t until Dante and Virgil were gone that they recognized what was the most spectacular thing about the meeting of Dante and Belacqua: Dante was alive! Musa, in his commentary, suggests that the spirits who see that Dante is alive might be from a different group, who were more alert and attentive than the one we met. Recall that those lazy ones were so prostrate in their indolence that they could barely move. Singleton, on the other hand, suggests that, given Dante’s position relative to the sun, his shadow may have been directly behind him and not noticed at first.
Some commentators, by the way, take note of the fact that Dante seems to see the souls pointing at him before he actually turns around and sees them. Does his status in the afterlife give him a kind of inner sight, or insight? What Virgil will call him to do is precisely this–to look inward and follow the path to your goal.
|↑2||As for Dante, he’s still distracted as he turns around to see the lazy souls pointing and staring at him, although the text doesn’t say that he actually stopped. Dante the Pilgrim is a celebrity in the afterlife as he moves along with his live body which draws attention to him almost everywhere he goes. Interestingly, it’s Virgil who recognizes that celebrity is a hindrance to the acquisition of virtue as he rather sharply questions Dante and encourages him to stand strong against this new distraction so he won’t lose sight of his goal. Dante, naturally, is shamed by Virgil’s rebuke, which is intended to counteract–at least for the moment–any slipping into pride on Dante’s part. Recall another tongue-lashing by Virgil–probably the worst one–when Dante was so engrossed by the nasty verbal battle between Sinon and Master Adam in canto 30 of the Inferno. All along, Virgil’s point has been that there is no time to waste, particularly since he has a heaven-sent commission to fulfill. One is reminded here of the story of Lot in the Book of Genesis, how he procrastinated instead of fleeing from Sodom; and worse, how his wife was turned to stone when she turned around. Nevertheless, a new and larger distraction is about to beset the Pilgrims.|
|↑3||Unlike the lazy souls below them, these souls are moving in an orderly fashion just above where Dante and Virgil are climbing. For the second time, we hear the souls singing–a feature of Purgatory that we will hear again and again as we climb the Mountain, with the exception of those below who were excommunicated or indolent. Note that the first group (in the boat of souls) sang together in unison, and this group sings the Miserere antiphonally, that is, in two groups, alternating back and forth with each verse as it has been done in monastery churches for centuries. The Miserere is the ancient name given to Psalm 51, coming from its first words, “Have mercy on me…” It’s the most important of what are known as The Seven Penitential Psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143), highlighting the themes of the mercy and forgiveness of God–a fitting hymn to summarize what happens here in Purgatory.
Psalm 51–The Miserere
Have mercy on me, God, in accord with your merciful love;
Once again, the souls here recognize that Dante is alive and two of them come running toward the Pilgrims to find out who they are. These souls were definitely not lazy! Virgil satisfies their curiosity, explaining that Dante is, indeed, alive, and sends them back to their group with an unusual request: they would do well to honor Dante–a lead-in to his willingness to solicit prayers for these souls when he returns from his journey. This “distraction,” sanctioned by Virgil, subtly approves the group of souls breaking ranks. It also leads to Dante being mobbed by them, but that is an opportunity for him to meet some significant characters and learn more about the nature of this place.
|↑4||As I noted above, Virgil sanctioned this “distraction,” but note how he also insists that Dante keep moving as they’re being mobbed by the crowd of souls. Once again, the energy here contrasts with the laziness in the previous canto.|
|↑5||What amazing lines, and how good of Virgil to insure that Dante heard them! Bringing back news of these souls is a foretaste of their later request for prayers, which we already know have a positive effect on the souls’ movement here in Purgatory. Such gracious language stands in high contrast to the language of Hell that was often crude and brutal. While the souls in Hell were frequently interested in being remembered, prayers on their behalf would be useless. This is a great moment of hope for these souls because they’ve encountered someone who can actually help them. Lest we forget, Purgatory is a temporal stopping-place. Heaven is guaranteed for everyone here.
Soon enough, we learn that all these souls died a violent death. Not only that, they freely admit that they were sinners till the very last moment of their lives when the infinite mercy of God broke through to them and they repented. This is cutting it close when we consider that no one knows when they will die. Though they tell Dante that they died at peace with God, the urgency of their requests manifests the good effect that Purgatory and the forgiving mercy of God already has on them: they want those they left behind to be assured that they have been saved. Note also the phrase “repenting and forgiving,” and how much this echoes the line in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” This is a subtle point and Dante might not have thought of it in these words, but what he (and the souls here) is suggesting that the mercy of God must be paid forward. When we are forgiven or shown mercy, we must do the same to others.
Spiritually speaking, Dante the theologian wants us to reflect on the fragility of life and to consider living our lives in such a way that we are prepared for death, even when it overtakes us without notice. I’m reminded of one of the most remarkable of Jesus’ parables–about the workers in the vineyard (Mt. 20:1-16). Those who came to work at the last minute were paid as much as those who worked all day. Or the parable of the great banquet (Lk. 14:15-24) where the servants are sent out to gather anyone they can find in the streets to come to the party. Or the parable of the lost son (Lk. 15:11-32). In another place Jesus told his followers, “I have come to save those who were lost” (Lk. 19:10). He told them, “I have not come to save the righteous, but sinners who are in need of repentance” (Lk. 5:32). The light of mercy even broke through to one of the two thieves who were executed with him. It is clear that Jesus strove to turn people’s thinking about the afterlife upside down. The souls mobbing Dante now know how much they are the eternal beneficiaries of his mercy.
A final point: these souls tell Dante that they “died at peace with God, Who filled us with a holy longing for Himself alone.” The Poet is going to great lengths to impress upon the Pilgrim and his reader the inner workings of God’s merciful forgiveness. Here, as we see, it will extend to the very last moment of our lives, even if we die a violent death, even if we are sinners. He obviously has St. Augustine in mind, whose heartfelt hope in his Confessions echoes down through the ages: “You have made us for yourself O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” And long before Augustine, the Psalmist wrote: “Like a deer that longs for running streams, so my soul longs for you, my God” (Ps. 42).
|↑6||Throughout this canto, Dante’s words are as gracious as those of the souls who speak to him. He seems to be fully in tune with the spirit of this place. Three times so far in the Purgatorio, the theme of recognition has been highlighted: with Casella, with Manfred, and with Belacqua. This time, however, Dante doesn’t recognize any of these souls. But this is not a problem. Rather, it opens the opportunity for three very different souls to identify themselves and tell their stories, each of which serves to highlight the nature of Purgatory and this particular part of it called Ante-Purgatory.|
|↑7||This first speaker does not identify himself, but from his story and the places he names we know that he was Jacopo del Cassero (1260-1298) whom Dante may have known because they both participated in the Florentine Guelf campaign against Arezzo in 1288. Although Dante said he didn’t recognize any of the souls in this group, differences in time and circumstances between them may account for this. Jacopo was a well-known nobleman from the town of Fano on the Adriatic between Rimini in the north and Ancona in the south. He was the Podestà (the chief civil magistrate in Medieval Italian cities) of Rimini in 1294, of Bologna in 1296, and he was on his way to Milan to assume the same position in 1298 when he was assassinated by henchmen of Azzo VIII of Este (a town 20 miles southwest of Padua), a brutal megalomaniac whose schemes of expansion included Bologna where Jacopo was Podestà. Jacopo, of course, stood in the way. At the time of Jacopo’s death, Azzo was the lord of Ferrara, Modena and Reggio (cities that between them form a large swath of territory northeast and northwest of Bologna). Jacopo had apparently sailed to Venice and traveled toward Padua on his way to becoming Podestà of Milan when he was killed near Oriago, just west of Venice. Traveling this way most likely enabled him to avoid any of the territories of Azzo. Unfortunately, death caught up with him there in that swampy region. Note the element of chance: he tells Dante that if he had traveled to Mira, a town just a mile or two southwest of Oriago, on the way to Padua, he would still be alive. The people there would have protected him.
As for Azzo, given the remarkably wicked life he led, one might well imagine him in Hell. But Dante doesn’t mention him there specifically because he was still alive when Dante wrote the Inferno. He does, however, mention that he murdered his father, Obizzio, who suffers in the river of boiling blood in Canto 12.
And there is another, darker and more subtle, connection at work here as Dante fashions this story of treachery. Padua, according to legend, was founded by Antenor who betrayed the city of Troy to the Greeks. Recall that, at the bottom of Hell, the frozen lake of Cocytus is divided into four parts–one of them called Antenora, reserved for those who betrayed their country. It should be said, however, that the Antenori (Paduans), as I noted above, would most likely have protected Jacopo from the likes of Azzo and his assassins.
In keeping with the gracious language that marks this canto, Jacopo assures Dante that they all know he will keep his promise to do anything he can to help them. All he wants–what they all want–is that Dante ask the people of Fano to pray for him. Prayers, we already know, will assist the souls in Purgatory by shortening their time there. Admitting that he deserves punishment for his sins, he simply wants to begin it. His death was both sudden and violent, but, as he describes it, there was obviously time at the end to cast himself onto the saving mercy of God and ask for forgiveness–which also meant forgiveness of Azzo. And while Dante paints a rather innocent-looking figure of Jacopo, one of the earliest commentators on the Comedy, Jacopo della Lana, painted a very different one in which our Jacopo here abused his enemy on several occasions. Della Lana writes: “He was not satisfied with doing things to hurt the friends of the marquis [Azzo], but he would continually indulge in vulgar vilification of him, saying he had slept with his stepmother, that he was the son of a washerwoman, that he was evil and cowardly. His tongue never tired of abusing him. These words and deeds caused such great hatred in the marquis, that he had him killed.”
|↑8||This very different story follows quickly upon the previous one so that we get the sense of urgency that motivates this group of souls to begin their purgation as soon as possible. The speaker here identifies himself as Buonconte da Montefeltro, and like Jacopo before him, his request is couched in gracious language. And yet, there is a great sadness to his story because no one in his hometown, including his wife, seems to remember or care about him which causes him great embarrassment. Like others before him, though he doesn’t say so directly, he, too, wants prayers that will speed him on his way to penitence in Purgatory proper.
Before commenting further, it’s important to note that Buonconte–here in Purgatory–is the son of Guido da Montefeltro whom we met in Inferno 27. Both father and son have rather twisted stories, and both have similar endings, but with different results. Guido appeared to Dante and Virgil in the Inferno as a rather whimpering soul wrapped in a tongue of flame after Ulysses narrated the amazing story of his final voyage. He had been a famed military strategist, but later in life, he gave up his former ways and became a Franciscan monk. This might have saved him if it hadn’t been for Pope Boniface VIII (Dante’s nemesis), who wanted to destroy the city of Palestrina in the foothills just to the east of Rome. Coming to the now-monk Guido, Boniface wanted a successful strategy that would give him victory. Despite Guido’s refusal, the evil pope got his way by promising him absolution before he committed the sin. This was his downfall.
Returning to Buonconte, Dante pities his situation and asks a curious question that leads to a fascinating answer. Dante wants to know why his body was never found after the famous Battle of Campaldino where the Guelfs slaughtered the opposing Ghibelline forces. Dante, in fact, was a Florentine cavalryman in that battle. Though Buonconte was the Captain of the defeated Aretine army, and he and Dante would have been enemies, here in Purgatory, there is no rancor between them, only curiosity and a gracious willingness to help. The quick answer to Dante’s question is that Buonconte’s body lies somewhere at the bottom of the Arno. The whole story, of course, is an invention of Dante’s. But there is fascinating drama before we get there.
|↑9||Interestingly enough, and for the superb soldier that he was, Buonconte’s story tells us hardly a thing about the battle–one of the greatest in Italy’s medieval history. However, he definitely wants to make sure we know where he died by giving us a series of geographical locations, a kind of X marks the spot, all of which situate the Battle of Campaldino, the Casentino region, the stream of Archiano (which has its source near the famous monastery at Camaldoli), and the Arno river in the mountainous region to the east and southeast of Florence and north of Arezzo, generally in the area of Poppi (about 25 miles east of Florence). With his throat cut, he somehow made his way from the battlefield to where the Archiano joins the Arno. Though his body had never been recovered, and no one knew exactly where he died, Buonconte knows. Moments from death, blind and unable to speak, he repented murmuring the name of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and died. This is “cutting it close,” to use a modern phrase. In his commentary, Musa makes this moment wonderfully clear: “The instant of his repenting (speaking the name of Mary) is simultaneous with his death, a mystical experience that is both a sundering and a union.” It’s clear that what Dante is telling us is that so great is the merciful forgiveness of God that the very instant of one’s death can also be the very instant of one’s repentance. This gives added significance to the second part of the Hail Mary prayer: “Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.” Dante would not have known this second, petitionary part of the prayer because it didn’t come into common use until the Council of Trent (1545-63). However, it did appear before that in the writings of Girolamo Savonarola, the (in)famous Florentine monk, in 1495. One can only imagine where Dante would have placed him in his Commedia.
But this is not the end of the story, and Buonconte wants to make sure Dante believes him and will tell everyone–a not-so-subtle reminder that the Comedy is intended to be read as an account that is absolutely true! In that cross-over moment between life and death, Buonconte tells Dante, an angel came to bring his soul to heaven. And at the same moment a demon confronted the angel, insisting that Buonconte’s soul belonged to him in Hell. But seeing that his “prize” has been taken from him, the demon jeers that the angel “won” the contest by virtue of “a cheap tear,” which implies the sincerity of Buonconte’s repentance. The devil promises revenge: “Keep his soul,” he says, “ but watch what I’m going to do to his body!” This scene is important: though Buonconte insists that what happened is true, Dante foresees readers who might also jeer at the “cheap moment of grace” we have just witnessed. More than cheap, one might be inclined to say that it was a cheat! Yet, the Poet-theologian is so certain of his reading of the Gospel and its promise of salvation that he’s willing to risk the truth of his own work, which is, in itself, a kind of gospel. Manfred, Jacopo, and Buonconte are amazing examples of the hope that fuels the Purgatorio–and all saved at the last minute. Let us also be clear: by including these dramatic examples of last-minute conversions, Dante is in no way making “cheap” the life of virtue. Remember that we still have another canticle ahead of us–the Paradiso, virtue’s reward. But this is Purgatory, a place filled with sinners in the process of purification, and who clearly fit Jesus’ claim: “The Son of Man came to seek and to save those who are lost (Lk. 19:10).
Back-tracking for a moment, and though it is not mentioned directly in this canto, the ancient theme of the struggle between good and evil is implied in this canto. Readers of the Inferno canto 27 will recall, as I noted above, that Buonconte’s father, Guido, had a similar experience at his death. St. Francis came to take his soul to heaven, but a devil came and snatched it away from him, gloating over the false logic of the pope that Guido gave in to: you cannot be absolved in advance of committing a sin. A tragic irony that a master strategist should fall for such an illogical stratagem.
|↑10||And now for the devil’s revenge. As a complement to the spiritual/supernatural drama we witnessed with Buonconte’s death, we are presented with a nature drama that, meteorologically, is quite accurate. The devil who lost the “prize” of Buonconte’s soul to the angel stirred up a great storm. That demons could do this was popular belief at the time. A heavy fog filled the area where Buonconte died, followed by torrential rains that flooded the region. The stream of the Archiano overflowed its banks and carried his dead body off into the Arno. In this tumult, his arms that were crossed over his chest as he died – a last pious act to accompany his contrition–came loose as the river’s “final violence” flung him through the torrent and buried him along its bottom, making for him a shroud from its mud and debris. Note the watery ends for Manfred, Jacopo, and Buonconte. With their deaths comes an initiation (baptism?) into eternal life and the literal washing away of their sins.
Of note is Singleton’s reference here to what was common belief in the Middle Ages. He quotes from St. Bonaventure’s commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard (IV XX, i,a.1,q.5,resp.): “For we must believe that when the soul leaves the body, the good and the evil spirits stand by, one or more, and then a true sentence is passed; if the soul is judged to be good, he is led away to Heaven in the company of a good angel, or else to Purgatory, from which, after he has been cleansed, he will be led out by the same escort…; if, however, the soul is judged to be evil, he will be led by the devil into Hell.”
|↑11||That there is no intervening narration between the wild description of Buonconte’s death and the ever-so-brief plea of Pia that ends this canto again puts before the reader the urgency of these souls’ passionate hope for prayers so that they can begin their purgation. The plaintive, gentle nobility of Pia’s brief request makes it all the more memorable. Her whole life is summed up in just a few words. Hollander suggests that it reads like an epitaph. It appears that she may have had no family or friends to remember her because she simply asks Dante for this favor when he returns to the world. This adds to the pathos of her brief story, and Singleton notes here: “Tenderness, compassion, and a sense of sad loneliness impress these words of hers on every reader’s mind and heart.” Whether he intended it or not, there is a subtle connection between the fact that Buonconte’s body was never found and that we know next to nothing about this poor woman who was murdered by her husband. And at the same time, we can contrast the little she tells us about herself with the many details Manfred, Jacopo, and Bounconte gave us. She was born in Siena and at some point moved to the Maremma, a fearsome and dangerous swampy region on the western edge of Tuscany.
As might be expected, the sparse information Pia gives leaves us with a mystery that has generated a great deal of commentary over the centuries. As with so many of his characters in the Comedy, Dante must have known–in this case–much more than he’s telling us, but he’s a consummate artist by what he leaves out. Here he seems to be more interested in poetry than history. And though it’s a very small one, Pia is the first woman to have a role in the Purgatorio–in this case showing how nimble Dante is in moving from dramatic, highly-descriptive stories to this one, utterly simple and unembellished–as the British are wont to say, “without as much as a by-your-leave.”
Pia, sometimes called La Pia, according to some early accounts was the daughter of Buonincontro Guastelloni. She may have been married twice; her first husband, Baldo di Ildobrandino de’Tolomei, having died, she married Nello della Pietra de’Pannocchieschi. He was apparently a jealous husband, the Guelf lord of the Castello della Pietra in the Maremma, and Captain of the Tuscan Guelfs. Having moved there at some point in their marriage, he is said to have accused her of adultery and had her thrown to her death down a cliff from the castle in 1295. (Whether or not Pia was an adulteress, note the connection between her and Francesca in Canto 5 of the Inferno. Both were murdered by their husbands.) Some say he wanted to marry Countess Margherita degli Aldobrandeschi, the wealthy widow of Guy de Montfort. Benvenuto da Imola writes about her death this way: “This soul was a certain noble lady of Siena of the family of the Tolomei, and she was the wife of a distinguished soldier, called Lord Nello de’ Pannocchieschi della Pietra, and he was powerful in the coastal area controlled by Siena. One day, while they were dining and she stood for a time at a window of the palace with her maid servants, a servant, at Nello’s bidding, took her by the feet and threw her out of the window, and she died on striking the ground.” By the way, there were other stories relating to Pia’s death: e.g., that she was brought to the Maremma where the disease-laden air (mal aria); that only her husband knew how she was killed. In the end, we do not know whether she was guilty, but like the three before her, her death was violent and came quickly. By this time, it’s not necessary for her to tell Dante that she repented. If we’ve followed the thread of his theology from Manfred through Buonconte, we must take it for granted. Does Dante need to tell us that, ultimately, no one knows the state of another person’s soul at death–no matter how terrible they were?
To be objective here, I want to include here a statement from Charles Singleton’s commentary on this passage that seems to cast Dante’s story in a different light. He quotes from an 1886 letter by Luciano Bianchi, Director of the Archives of Siena: “This Pia of the commentators was still alive in 1318–that is to say just three years before the death of Dante…it is certain that in 1318 she continued widow of Baldo Tolomei. Without doubt she was then well advanced in years; and the veritable Nello della Pietra, who was believed till now to be her husband and murderer, was dose upon seventy years old in the year 1318. They were both, therefore, past the age of love, jealousy, and romance. These and other facts will demonstrate that the widow of Baldo Tolomei was not the Pia whom Dante celebrated.” I must admit that I was taken aback when I first discovered this. Yet it’s fascinating that early commentators, like the noted Benvenuto, comment on Dante’s story but offer no other contrary information. Of course, they may not have known any existed. And I have to admit that, in my experience so far, Singleton is the only one who offers a different take on Dante’s story–with archival evidence to back it up. But, as I noted earlier, Dante knew more than he’s telling us here.
Two final points in hindsight: the speed of this canto contrasts wonderfully with the lethargy of the previous one–Dante exhausted from climbing and Belacqua virtually immobile, on the one hand, and three stories of violent death, two of which are embellished with quite a bit of detail, on the other. And then there’s the other-worldly nature of Purgatory that we seem to take for granted, yet the characters in this canto are, in each of their stories, also conscious of worldly locations, which might suggest that their time here in Ante-Purgatory is very much about forgetting the world so that they can focus on what lies ahead of them: Paradise.