Dante continues talking with souls who died violently. Later, he asks Virgil about the power of prayer. Soon, they meet Sordello, and Dante makes a long tirade against Italy.
As we moved along, I was thinking of a game of dice: when it’s over, the loser often stays behind and sadly replays his throws–perhaps learning from his mistakes. The winner, on the other hand, leaves surrounded by a crowd, all hopeful of some recognition–and even a hand-out. That man was me–surrounded by the crowd of begging souls–trying to listen to each request and making promises as I did so. This image of the Medieval dice game of Zara has generated commentaries over the centuries that point in many different directions of meaning. Dante clearly imagines himself as the winner surrounded … Continue reading
In this way, I met the judge from Arrezo who was murdered in revenge by Ghin di Tacco, followed by the one who drowned in the Arno. Another begging soul was Federigo Novello, killed in battle; and another was the Pisan lawyer, Farinata, murdered by Count Ugolono. His father urged his family not to take revenge. I also saw Count Orso, murdered by his cousin; and the soul of Pierre de la Brosse, falsely accused by his master’s wife–Mary of Brabant–and hanged. Still alive, she would do well to repent while she can. Otherwise, Hell awaits her!Having already heard the stories of Jacopo, Buonconte, and Pia in the previous canto, Dante mentions six more in that crowd of souls seeking remembrance and prayers from their families and friends in … Continue reading
I finally freed myself from that crowd of souls who prayed only that others would pray for them, and thus speed them on toward Heaven. And I asked my dear Virgil: “Do I recall correctly that in your great epic you deny the power of prayer to change the will of Heaven? If that’s the case, do all these souls here hope in vain, or do I fail to understand what you wrote?”
“No,” he replied. “I meant exactly what I wrote. But if you think about this more deeply, you’ll see that, in fact, these souls’ hopes are not in vain. What you need to understand is that the Justice of God is in no way lessened if their fervent love cancels the debt of their sins. The words of mine you refer to apply only to those in Hell, who cannot be helped by prayers because their souls are shut off from God eternally. My advice is that you wait until you meet Beatrice. She will illuminate you on the true nature of prayer when you stand in the beauty of her smile at the top of this mountain.”At last, the Pilgrims have moved beyond the needy crowd of souls who begged only for prayers from their families and friends still in the world. Perhaps it was the incessant pleas for just one … Continue reading
Hearing him speak thus, I told him: “Let’s go quickly, then, my dear guide. My fatigue has left me. But look there! The mountain now casts a shadow.”
“Yes, I see it,” he replied. “But as long as we have light we’ll proceed as far up as possible. However, things here are not the way you think they are. Don’t worry. You’ll see the sun again before we reach the top, and your own shadow will return. Now, look at that soul over there by himself. He sees us, and I’m sure he’ll show us the quickest way to go.”Dante’s fatigue has left him–probably because he’s been focused on the tragic stories and requests we heard in the previous canto. And with the mention of his beloved Beatrice, he is eager to … Continue reading
And so, we started walking toward him. How regal and aloof you appeared, O Lombard soul.Someone from Lombardy, a region in north central Italy bordering on the Alps in the north, the Po along its southern border, including the city of Milan to the west, and close to Verona in the east. How majestic and dignified. Without a word he watched us approach as though he were a crouching lion guarding his realm. Virgil, though, went right up to him and asked for directions about the ascent. But the soul ignored his question. He seemed more interested in who we were and where we were born. So Virgil told him he was born at Mantua.A city about 30 miles to the southwest of Verona, in the southeastern part of Lombardy.
Hearing that, the soul who earlier seemed so aloof rose quickly and came toward him. “O fellow Mantuan! I am Sordello from your own city.” And they embraced with great affection.Dante takes his time before he has this mysterious Lombard identify himself as Sordello. Why he is here by himself we aren’t told, but he has a regal and solemn bearing reminiscent of some of the … Continue reading
Now, look at yourself, Italy!Here begins the longest apostrophe in the entire Poem. The contrast with the previous embrace of two countrymen is spectacular! The action of the Poem stops and the rest of this canto will be filled … Continue reading Enslaved, grief-stricken, storm-tossed like a ship without a pilot.In this case, the ship is the empire and the pilot the emperor. You’re no queen among provinces but a shameful brothel! Look how loving that noble spirit was when he heard the name of his city. Look how he welcomed his kinsman. You, on the other hand, O Italy, you know nothing but war. Worse than that, even those who live in the same cities tear at each other’s throats!One of the chief responsibilities of good government is the safety and protection of its citizens. Dante certainly had in mind the almost unceasing civil strife between Guelfs and Ghibellines in … Continue reading Wretched country! Look up and down your coasts, look into the depths of your heart. Is there any part of you that lives in peace? The saddle of state is empty now,The “state” Dante refers to is the Holy Roman Empire which straddled both sides of the Alps. Unfortunately, while it was governed from the north, it wasn’t since Frederick II that any Emperor … Continue reading so who cares if the emperor Justinian fixed the reins with his laws!Justinian is famous for updating and systematizing the old code of Roman law. Your shame would have been less if he had left you as you were.
And you priests of God’s holy Church, stay out of that saddle! Let Caesar ride as he should. Since you’ve presumed to grab the reins of state into your own hands, look how this beast runs wild without a rider’s spurs to guide her.One is reminded here of Jesus’ words in St. Luke’s Gospel (20:25): “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Already in the Inferno and yet … Continue reading
You, Albert of Hapsburg,Emperor from 1298 until his assassination in 1308. you who should have sat aloft in that saddle as emperor, abandoned it and left Italy wild and ungoverned.Ungoverned by the emperor; ravaged by lords and barons who were allied to the imperial court which did nothing to stop them. May a severe judgement fall down upon your house and terrify your heir!Henry VII was the emperor until 1313. It’s not clear whether Dante was still writing here as though it was the year 1300. If he momentarily stepped out of that year and into the present for the … Continue reading All this has come to pass because you and your fatherRudolf I were so greedy for wealth. Look how you’ve allowed the garden of your Empire to become a wasteland! Come down here below the Alps, you worthless wretch, to see our old families ruined in strife–the Cappelletti, the Monaldi, the Montecchi; see the Filippeschi now fearing the same fate.Dante used these four family names as examples of the major warring Ghibelline and Guelf factions. The Montecchi were Ghibelline leaders of Verona; the Cappelletti Guelf faction in Cremona. Perhaps … Continue reading
Come here, you coward, and care for your suffering noblemen. Heal their wounds. See the wretchedness of Santafiora, hear the mourning in Rome–she is a widow bereft who cries out night and day: “Why is my Caesar not here with me? Why have you abandoned me?” And see how we love each other because of all you’ve done for us! If you don’t feel an ounce of pity for what you’ve caused, then at least come and enjoy the shame you richly deserve!Dante’s high sarcasm is palpable here as he pummels the emperor Albert for his cowardice. Santafiora was a small county in the Sienese Maremma (southern Tuscany). Until Dante’s time, … Continue reading
O Jove crucified on earth to save us all! Do You no longer care about our plight? Or is our present misery some part of Your plan for ultimate good that we are incapable of understanding? Every city in Italy is filled with its share of tyrants, and any fool who wants to can call himself a new Marcellus.The invocation of a pagan god here might sound strange to us, but the name of Christ is used only in the Paradiso. Several times in the Poem Dante uses Jove as a reference to the Christian God. The … Continue reading Florence, my dear Florence! How delighted you must be to follow my tirade here because your citizens are so innocent! Those whose hearts are just think before they make judgments. For your citizens, justice is merely a word.This reference to Florence which, after having read the Inferno, we are more than likely to accept as true, brings this great apostrophe toward its bitter and ironic end. The words, “Florence, my … Continue reading Sensible people might think twice if offered a public office. You accept before you’re even asked! “I’ll make the sacrifice,” you say.An example of the political self-promotion and hypocrisy that had infected Florence. So, rejoice in your goodness–rich, wise, and peaceful as you are. Nevertheless, I speak the truth. Ancient Athens and Lacedaemon, known for their laws and civility, had hardly a hint of disorder–compared to you! The laws you make in October are in tatters by mid-November.
You live in continual upheaval–constantly changing your laws, your customs, your currency, your public offices, even your citizens!Athens and Lacedaemon (Sparta) set a standard for law and good order for the rest of the Western world, so much so that even the emperor Justinian praised their civic stability in his Institutes … Continue reading Truly, I say this to you: you’re like a woman who is dreadfully ill, and her soft bed gives her no comfort as she rolls about to escape her pain!Will Florence ever recover from the disease that afflicts it? Will Italy? One can imagine the number of times these questions have been asked and answered over the last 700 years, each generation … Continue reading
Notes & Commentary
|↑1||This image of the Medieval dice game of Zara has generated commentaries over the centuries that point in many different directions of meaning. Dante clearly imagines himself as the winner surrounded by hangers-on hoping for a handout. Moving back into the reality of the situation, this makes sense when we see him surrounded by petitioners asking for prayers and remembrance because he’s alive and will obviously return to the world once his journey has come to an end, In a sense, recalling that he has promised the souls that he will do this, that makes all of them winners to a certain degree. At the same time, this experience cannot be lost on the living Dante or the living readers, for that matter, who have heard sobering stories of violence, sudden death and, presumably, narrow escape from Hell. The message here is much the same as it was all through the Inferno: turn from evil and clean up your life. I am reminded of a sobering epitaph I’ve seen in my many travels in Italy: “You are what I once was. I am what you will be.”
There are other points of view, however. Hollander notes Frankel’s view that since Dante focuses on the loser first, is he, perhaps, thinking of Virgil who, through no fault of his own, was born before the Christian era and, in spite of his good life, is consigned to Limbo for all eternity? I’m not inclined to agree with this interpretation or any interpretation that names the loser here as Virgil because I think it’s reading of too much into the text. Virgil is a sobering figure, but that’s also his role. The fact that he hasn’t been to Purgatory is definitely a handicap, and yet he still plays well the role of Dante’s guide and mentor. We haven’t come that far yet from the Inferno which is filled with losers who feed for eternity on their guilt and remorse, “sadly replaying their throws,” but never “learning from their mistakes”? The eternal sighing of the souls in Limbo also comes to mind.
I think we have to be careful not to go too far from the game of chance–in which there are always winners and losers. After all that Dante (and Virgil) has seen in Hell and so far in Purgatory, it has to strike him rather soberly, as it should us the readers, that life itself is a gamble. Musa pursues this point of view in his commentary. There seem to be chance happenings that have led Dante and Virgil to where they are at the moment. He points to the seemingly chance meeting with Cato when they arrive; the chance meeting with the souls who point the way up the mountain; and, perhaps most fascinating is what seems to be the “seemingly haphazard design of divine justice.” He writes: “…surely the reader must have shared the Pilgrim’s wonder at the seemingly chance distribution of God’s grace to the souls in Ante-purgatory. Are Manfred, Buonconte, and the others long in sinning but brief in repenting here by anything more compelling than a throw of the dice? As for Virgil, who lived a moral life that lacked only faith through no fault of his own, he lived virtuously yet died to Limbo, while the souls he sees here lived sinfully and at the last moment won eternal life.”
I wonder, however, if the real loser here is Italy. It won’t be too much of a “spoiler” to note for the first-time reader that in a moment Dante is going to launch into a ranting apostrophe against Italy–as a matter of fact it consume most of this canto. Dante is such a wonderful artist that he never gives us a clue here that he’s going to do this. Yet in hindsight it seems to make perfect sense.
|↑2||Having already heard the stories of Jacopo, Buonconte, and Pia in the previous canto, Dante mentions six more in that crowd of souls seeking remembrance and prayers from their families and friends in the world.
The first of these six is Benincasa da Laterina, the Aretine judge murdered by Ghino di Tacco of Siena. Benincasa passed a sentence of death on Ghino’s brother for highway robbery, and soon after this he was appointed as a judge at the Papal court of Boniface VIII in Rome. Ghino followed him there, burst into the court room, attacked him, beheaded him, and escaped. According to Bocaccio (Decameron X,ii),Ghino, who had been exiled from Siena and became a highwayman himself, later changed his life and became a noble character.
The second reference here is not named, but most commentators identify him by moving backward from his drowning in the Arno. Apparently he was Guccio de’Tarlati di Pietramala. According to Hollander, he was a Ghibelline from Arezzo, and was either part of a group that attacked the Bostoli Guelfs at their castle in Arezzo, or he was fleeing from a counterattack by the Bostoli – the text can be read both ways. One way or another, it seems that his horse ran uncontrolled into the Arno where he was drowned. Some suggest he may have drowned following either the battles of Campaldino or Montaperti.
The third soul is Federigo Novello, son of Guido Novello of the famous Conti Guidi of Romea (see Inf. 30:58ff). He was a Ghibelline, killed while helping the Aretine Tarlati in the attack by the Bostoli (see Guccio de’Tarlati just above).
The fourth is Farinata, a respected Pisan lawyer or judge and son of Marzucco degli Scornigiani. He was involved in many affairs of state within and out of Pisa until the rise of Count Ugolino da Gherardesca and Archbishop Ruggieri (see Inf. 33). By this time, Farinata had left civic life and joined the Franciscans. Either Ugolino or one of his sons murdered Farinata’s son. As a Franciscan monk, his noble civic reputation was enhanced by his peaceful and forgiving request to Ugolino for the body of his son, which Ugolino granted. Later, Farinata is said to have moved to the monastery of Santa Croce in Florence where Dante may have known him.
The fifth soul is Count Orso degli Alberti della Cerbaia. He is sadly memorable as being the unlike his father, Napoleone, and his uncle Alessandro, two notorious sinners buried in the ice of the traitors at the bottom of Hell. These two brothers killed each other in a fight over their inheritance. Count Orso was killed by his cousin, Alberto, son of Alessandro degli Alberti–possibly as a continuation of the feud between their fathers. Benvenuto says that the Count was murdered by being mauled by a bear at the hands of Alberto.
The sixth and final soul is Pierre de la Brosse (obviously not an Italian), chamberlain of Philip III of France, and falsely accused of treason by Queen Mary of Brabant. King Philip’s son and heir to the throne, Louis, died suddenly, and accusations were made that the queen was to blame because she wanted her son, the future Philip the Fair, to succeed to the throne. It seems that Pierre de la Brosse was among the accusers. He was soon arrested, imprisoned, tried, and hanged . There was considerable upset about the speed and secrecy surrounding the reasons for the execution. Some said Pierre took advantage of the queen’s virtue, others that he was in secret communication (letters apparently forged by the Queen) with Alphonso X, King of Castile. He and Philip were at war. Commentators note that Mary of Brabant died just a few months before Dante. Notice Dante’s warning at the end. One wonders whether she read his Purgatorio.
|↑3||At last, the Pilgrims have moved beyond the needy crowd of souls who begged only for prayers from their families and friends still in the world. Perhaps it was the incessant pleas for just one thing–prayers–that now causes Dante to consider more carefully all the promises he made to those poor souls: will he be able to keep them? And now that he is alone with Virgil, a doubt overcomes him as he recalls a passage from the Aeneid where Virgil seems to deny the power of prayer to change the will of God. In the Aeneid (VI, 337ff), Aeneas encounters the shade of his trusted helmsman Paulinurus as he travels through the Underworld, Paulinurus had fallen overboard, survived several days at sea, but was killed by natives when he finally washed ashore in Italy. Because his body lies unburied, be cannot cross the Styx and rest in peace, and he pleads with Aeneas that an exception might be made allowing him to cross over. But the Sibyl intervenes, saying: “From whence comes this wild longing of yours, Paulinurus? Do you think that you, though unburied, will see the Stygian waters and the Furies’ stern river and, uninvited, draw near the bank? Cease your dreaming that the decrees of heaven might be set aside by prayer.” This is a sobering statement if we keep in mind that Dante and Virgil have not met any soul so far who has told them that they moved to a higher level because of their loved ones’ prayers. Yet also keep in mind the Church’s teaching that prayers can and do assist the souls in Purgatory. Why on earth (no pun intended) would Dante the Poet spend so much time with these needy souls if he didn’t already firmly believe that prayers worked for them. Why would he amplify this for the consideration of his Christian readers? Surely, he himself prayed for the souls of his own family and friends who had died.
The first part of Dante’s question to Virgil opens the issue to greater clarity. “Do all these souls here hope in vain…?” Well, of course not! Hope is the great foundation of Purgatory. Without it, Purgatory would cease to exist–particularly because the hope of Purgatory is based on the promise of eternal life in Paradise. The lowest soul in Purgatory is guaranteed that promise. I believe that Dante has raised this question simply to remind us of this fact. He’s clearly spent all this time with otherwise hopeless sinners who are now heirs of this promise to make sure that we understand that salvation is freely offered no matter if we’re ready or not.
I wonder if the second part of his question, “…or do I fail to understand what you wrote?”, is really a tongue-in-cheek “hook” intended to give him (through Virgil) an opportunity to show off that he understands the Aeneid perfectly well. Virgil knows this, but plays along as the Master reminding his literate student that the text is the final authority. It means what it reads. But, so as not to dampen his student’s enthusiasm in having asked the question–he’s a good teacher!–he urges Dante to think a little more deeply about his question and the answer will make itself clear. Obviously, the justice of God is not lessened by answering positively prayers that stem from love. One might consider the problem this way: the souls here in Purgatory, to one extent or another, allowed sin to blind them to God’s love. A debt (punishment? purgation?) is owed. But fervent, loving prayers offered on behalf of the sinners, cancels part of this debt. Perhaps what is being suggested for us to consider is that love is greater than justice? Or that justice might bend in the face of fervent love? These, I think, are the kinds of questions that Dante has to wait for Beatrice (who represents divine Revelation and the transcendent love of God) to answer. What Dante needs to be clear about now–and our sympathies for Virgil should be heightened here–is that Virgil, who by now clearly understands a great deal about the Christian tradition, tells Dante that he was referring to souls in Hell (ouch: like himself) whose prayers (if they were able to pray) cannot reach God. When Virgil wrote the Aeneid, of course, there was a very different conception of the afterlife, and it certainly did not include a Purgatory, though Elysium was a kind of heaven.
In the end, Dorothy Sayers has a wonderful way of making all this clear in her commentary: “Virgil explains that (a) when one person assumes another’s debt of restitution and pays it all off in one moment of burning charity, the divine Justice is not diminished, since all its demands are fulfilled: but that (b) in the case of Palinurus and Aeneas, who were heathens, neither the petitioner nor the mediator was qualified to utter that ‘prayer from a soul in grace’ which alone is effective. The delay in Ante-Purgatory being purely penal, it can be remitted when satisfaction is made by another.”
|↑4||Dante’s fatigue has left him–probably because he’s been focused on the tragic stories and requests we heard in the previous canto. And with the mention of his beloved Beatrice, he is eager to continue his journey.
All during the previous canto, the sun has continued to move without notice. Now that there seems to be a moment of calm, Dante observes the mountain’s mid-afternoon shadow growing. As a matter of fact, if they’re climbing on the eastern side of the mountain, the sun is moving to their right (north), they’re already in the shade, and Dante no longer casts a shadow. Virgil, probably reading Dante’s mind, sees that he’s thinking they don’t have much farther to go–this amplified by the mention of Beatrice. When he tells Dante that things are not what they seem, we needn’t expect a solution to some mystery. He’s simply telling him that the summit is at least another day away–Dante the Poet’s way of suggesting that the path of repentance and purgation is neither quick nor easy. The shadow, in fact, clouds Dante’s thinking. That said, however, a mystery soon confronts them in the person of a lone soul sitting not too far away and watching them. Remembering how the group of souls at the bottom of the Mountain showed them the way to start climbing, Virgil anticipates this soul will show them the way to continue upward.
|↑5||Someone from Lombardy, a region in north central Italy bordering on the Alps in the north, the Po along its southern border, including the city of Milan to the west, and close to Verona in the east.|
|↑6||A city about 30 miles to the southwest of Verona, in the southeastern part of Lombardy.|
|↑7||Dante takes his time before he has this mysterious Lombard identify himself as Sordello. Why he is here by himself we aren’t told, but he has a regal and solemn bearing reminiscent of some of the great souls Dante described when he and Virgil passed through Limbo. Dante describes him like a crouching lion, but Virgil approaches him without ceremony and asks for directions. Strangely enough, this soul ignores the question and, instead, probes Virgil about his origins. Learning that Virgil is from Mantua, everything changes. The soul almost jumps at Virgil and embraces him as a fellow Mantuan.
Sordello was born at Goito, a few miles to the north of Mantua around the year 1200. He was a poet, became the most famous of the Italian troubadours, and was held in high regard by Dante. He lived a complex and adventurous life, and nowadays one might have read of him in society gossip columns or seen his face among the racks of sensational tabloids that populate check-out counters in supermarkets. The fact that he appears by himself suggests that he is not one of the late-repentant souls in this part of Ante-Purgatory who died a violent death, though he may have been simply a late-repentant. It is said that he died in Provence, and he is last mentioned in a document from 1269. What we will soon see, however, is that he will accompany Dante and Virgil through the next two cantos as an informative guide.
To say that Sordello had a checkered past is an understatement. And, perhaps, for this reason he fits here among the unrepentant. There were a few delicious scandals with women that he was involved in–some quite dangerous. There is a secret marriage with a lady of the Strasso family near Treviso which necessitated their fleeing that area. For a time after this he was attached to the notorious tyrant, Ezzelino III da Romano, whom Dante consigns to the river of boiling blood in Canto 12 of the Inferno. And it should not seem strange that Sordello formed an attachment with Ezzelino’s sister. Cunizza, which necessitated his flight from Treviso altogether. Cunizza, not to be outdone by her scandalous life with several husbands and lovers, will be found saved and sainted in Canto 9 of the Paradiso!
Throughout much of his life, Sordello was involved with political figures and their activities, and often his poetry reflected these associations. In Provence, Sordello became part of the court of Charles of Anjou and joined him when he took possession of the Kingdom of Sicily from Manfred, whom we have already met. Charles rewarded him with several fiefdoms. In his commentary, Singleton notes: “About the year 1240 he wrote a very fine planch (or song of lamentation) on the death of Blacatz, himself a poet and one of the barons of Count Raymond Berenger IV. In this poem the leading sovereigns and princes of Europe are exhorted to eat of the dead man’s heart, so that their courage may increase, and they be fired on to noble deeds. These verses may have indirectly inspired the patriotic outburst for which the appearance of Sordello is made the pretext…” Dorothy Sayers goes further in terms of placing Sordello in the Poem at this point. She writes: “Sordello in his lifetime was certainly no patriot: he was an expatriate, who had renounced even his own language and had fought against Italy under a French banner; this perhaps is why we find him so solitary and self-absorbed. The emotion stirred in him by the mere mention of his birthplace is for that very reason the more striking, and thus provokes Dante to his diatribe against Italy.”
|↑8||Here begins the longest apostrophe in the entire Poem. The contrast with the previous embrace of two countrymen is spectacular! The action of the Poem stops and the rest of this canto will be filled with seething invective. Seeing the down-to-earth and affectionate reunion of two countrymen, Dante suddenly steps out of the Poem in an extraordinary way and dramatically lambastes his country for the civil and moral poverty it has allowed itself to fall into. It’s as though that embrace unleashed a wild beast that ravages the rest of this canto as it has literally ravaged the country itself. By this time in the Poet’s life, he was living in exile, permanently scarred by political machinations the inept leadership of the Empire was incapable (unwilling?) of putting an end to. At various points throughout the rest of the Poem echoes of this apostrophe will be heard from the Poet and some of his characters. Emotionally overwrought as it is, this apostrophe presents a realistic summary/picture of Italy in Dante’s time. Sordello’s place here makes more sense now as Dante’s rhetorical bombast also echoes themes reflected in his literary predecessor’s poetic themes.|
|↑9||In this case, the ship is the empire and the pilot the emperor.|
|↑10||One of the chief responsibilities of good government is the safety and protection of its citizens. Dante certainly had in mind the almost unceasing civil strife between Guelfs and Ghibellines in scores of Italian cities, whose populations were plagued and decimated with the murderous chaos of their political wranglings. Note this passage from Dante’s letter to the Florentines (Epist. VI.5) who resisted the Emperor Henry VII: “But you, who transgress divine and human law, you whom a dire rapaciousness has readied you to be drawn into every crime,–does not the dread of the second death pursue you? For you first and alone, shunning the yoke of liberty, have murmured against the glory of the Roman prince, the king of the world and the minister of God, and on the plea of prescriptive right have refused the duty of the submission which you owed, and have rather risen up in the insanity of rebellion!”|
|↑11||The “state” Dante refers to is the Holy Roman Empire which straddled both sides of the Alps. Unfortunately, while it was governed from the north, it wasn’t since Frederick II that any Emperor had taken an interest in Italy. In Dante’s eyes, a grave sin on the part of a ruler. In a more just world, as Dante saw it, the Emperor rode the horse of state while allowing it freedom here and restraint there. In his Monarchia, Dante claimed that people were most free when a noble king ruled them.|
|↑12||Justinian is famous for updating and systematizing the old code of Roman law.|
|↑13||One is reminded here of Jesus’ words in St. Luke’s Gospel (20:25): “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Already in the Inferno and yet to come in the rest of the Poem, Dante has and will denounce the Church for its abandonment of the Gospel, its worldliness, its grasping for power, and for its meddling in and attempts to usurp the authority of the state. He is consistent in insisting that the realm of the Church is the spiritual (see Matthew 18:36) and the realm of the state is the temporal. Mark Musa makes a clever observation here: “The horse analogy is particularly effective because of the way the poet himself rides his own image, filling the empty saddle with his indignation.”|
|↑14||Emperor from 1298 until his assassination in 1308.|
|↑15||Ungoverned by the emperor; ravaged by lords and barons who were allied to the imperial court which did nothing to stop them.|
|↑16||Henry VII was the emperor until 1313. It’s not clear whether Dante was still writing here as though it was the year 1300. If he momentarily stepped out of that year and into the present for the sake of this apostrophe, we might not know yet who this heir/successor is.|
|↑18||Dante used these four family names as examples of the major warring Ghibelline and Guelf factions. The Montecchi were Ghibelline leaders of Verona; the Cappelletti Guelf faction in Cremona. Perhaps the modern reader might recognize these two warring families as the Montagues and Capulets of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The Monaldi (Guelfs) battled against the Filippeschi (Ghibellines) for the control of Orvieto.
In his commentary, Charles Singleton suggests that there had been considerable debate among scholars about this part of Dante’s apostrophe until 1935 when the proper historical perspective was laid out by the medieval historian Fausto Ghisalberti: “In fact, toward the end of the thirteenth century, the struggle that was tearing apart northern Italy had taken on a different aspect. The factions were finished as such, and their program could be considered a failure. Montecchi and Cappelletti were by now nothing more than the names of the vanquished. Both, when they started out, had excited the hopes of the people and of the merchant bourgeoisie, which in turn were the forces behind the liberty and autonomy of the commune. But in the course of events, they allowed themselves to be drawn into the sphere of aristocratic interests; and when they realized they had subjugated themselves, it was too late . . . . And so, in about the year 1300, Dante could easily consider the colors of those factions quite erased from the political map of Lombardy. Thus he could say to Alberto Tedesco: “Come, you that have no care, and see Montecchi and Cappelletti, Monaldi and Filippeschi, those already wretched and these in dread”–sarcastically inviting him to take a trip, to view the effects of his reprehensible absence.”
|↑19||Dante’s high sarcasm is palpable here as he pummels the emperor Albert for his cowardice.
Santafiora was a small county in the Sienese Maremma (southern Tuscany). Until Dante’s time, it had been governed by the Aldobrandeschi, a family of powerful Ghibellines. But by 1300, it was ruled by the Sienese Guelfs.
The reference to Rome brings to mind the seat of the original empire, now long gone and squalid, but still the seat of Church and the papacy. Dante’s language here echoes the Lamentations of Jeremiah in the Hebrew Bible (1:1-2: “How solitary sits the city, once filled with people. She who was great among the nations is now like a widow. Once a princess among the provinces, now a toiling slave. She weeps incessantly in the night, her cheeks damp with tears. She has no one to comfort her from all her lovers; her friends have all betrayed her, and become her enemies.”
|↑20||The invocation of a pagan god here might sound strange to us, but the name of Christ is used only in the Paradiso. Several times in the Poem Dante uses Jove as a reference to the Christian God. The use of the name Jove makes for a subtle segue between the earlier reference to Rome, which was in Dante’s time a far cry from the seat of empire it was in its glory days. At the same time, there is a tinge of hope expressed here as we consider whether God has abandoned the city or whether its present dreadful state is part of God’s plan for something better that we mortals cannot understand. And the reference to Marcellus brings us back to Jove and ultimately to Rome.
However, the mention of Marcellus here has led to divided opinions among commentators through the centuries. As it turns out, there were actually three consuls named Marcellus, all of whom were opponents of Caesar. Singleton lists them: (1) Marcus Claudius Marcellus, consul in 51 BC, who was pardoned by Caesar (46 BC) on the intercession of the senate, and was afterwards murdered by one of his own attendants in Greece; (2) Gaius Claudius Marcellus, brother of Marcus, consul in 49 BC, when the civil war broke out; and (3) Gaius Claudius Marcellus, first cousin of the preceding consul, who assumed the position in 50 BC. However, as Singleton notes, it is certainly to the first, Marcus Claudius Marcellus, that most commentators think Dante refers. In his Pharsalia (I, 313), Lucan mentions him, together with Cato and Pompey, as being among Caesar’s bitterest enemies. It seems that what Dante is suggesting here is that, because of lack of imperial control, Italian cities were filled with tyrants who usurped the emperor’s authority with impunity and, like fools, thought of themselves as a new Marcellus.
|↑21||This reference to Florence which, after having read the Inferno, we are more than likely to accept as true, brings this great apostrophe toward its bitter and ironic end. The words, “Florence, my dear Florence!” are an echo of the Poet’s words at the beginning of Canto 26 in the Inferno: “Be joyful, Florence, since you are so great that your outstretched wings beat over land and sea, and your name is spread throughout the realm of Hell!” And in his Convivio (IV, xxvii, he writes mournfully: “O my miserable, miserable homeland! What pity for you constrains me whenever I read or whenever I write anything that has to do with civil government!”|
As for Florentine “justice,” Ciardi captures it perfectly in his commentary here: “Others have justice sincerely at heart and are ready to defend the right by arms, but they deliberate carefully, as wise men should, and are slow to draw the bow. You, Florence, have the word ‘justice’ forever on your tongue and are forever ready to fire, but it is only the word you shoot, and from the tongue only, the deed never fulfilling the word.”
|↑22||An example of the political self-promotion and hypocrisy that had infected Florence.|
|↑23||Athens and Lacedaemon (Sparta) set a standard for law and good order for the rest of the Western world, so much so that even the emperor Justinian praised their civic stability in his Institutes (I:2.10). On the other hand, Florence, which touted itself as so advanced could hardly keep the laws they made for a month! On this point, some commentators also note a reference here to the constant shifting between political factions in Florence which Dante himself experienced, and which led to his exile.|
|↑24||Will Florence ever recover from the disease that afflicts it? Will Italy? One can imagine the number of times these questions have been asked and answered over the last 700 years, each generation adding a different perspective from its own experience. Much like Virgil, St. Augustine often provides a foundation for Dante’s ideas in his Comedy. Modern commentators are indebted to the scholarship of Charles H. Grandgent who found echoes of the Saint’s Confessions here at the end of this long apostrophe. This is from Book VI.16 of that work: “Woe to my proud soul, which hoped that if it fell away from You it would have something better! It turned and turned again upon its back and sides and belly, but all places were hard to it, for You alone are rest. Behold, You are present, and You deliver us from all wretched errors, and You put us on Your way, and You console us, and You say to us, ‘Run forward! I will bear you up, and I will bring you to the end, and there also will I bear you up!’”
We can see here how Augustine ends on a magnificent note of hope that connects directly to the whole project of Dante’s Purgatorio. From a theological perspective, one is mindful here of the doctrine of the Incarnation, which states (pardon my over-simplification) that God became human in the person of Jesus, and by virtue of that act, nothing before or afterward is foreign to God who, from the beginning, created us in his image and likeness. What Dante wants us to see in his Poem is that we are all destined for glory if we but use our free will to choose it–even at the very last moment of our lives. In Canto 5 of the Paradiso, Beatrice will tell Dante: “The greatest gift that our bounteous Lord bestowed as the Creator, in creating, the gift He cherishes the most, the one most like Himself, was freedom of the will. All creatures with intelligence, and they alone, were so endowed both then and now” (Musa). The eternal tragedy of the Inferno faces us with those who used this gift badly; the hope that energizes the Purgatorio tells us that the gift of free will activates the promise of eternal salvation for anyone who chooses it, even at the end of a badly used life; and the face-to-face encounter with God in the Paradiso allows us to gaze with perfect vision upon the One we have always looked like.