Sordello is deeply honored to meet the great Virgil. As the shadows of dusk begin to fall, he leads both pilgrims to a splendid valley where they will spend the night among the many kings there whom he will point out.
When Sordello and my Virgil had happily embraced each other many times, Sordello stepped back and asked: “Who are you?”After reading his long and ranting apostrophe against Italy in the previous canto, Dante seems to start this canto–almost tongue-in-cheek–as though nothing had happened, except that the stranger … Continue reading
My master replied, “Before worthy souls were enabled by God’s grace to climb this holy mountain, I had died and was buried by the Emperor Augustus in Naples. I am Virgil. The only fault that keeps me from Heaven is that I did not possess the faith that saves one.”Virgil compresses a lot of information as he identifies himself to Sordello. He died in 19BC in Brindisi (an Adriatic port city about half-way down the heel of Italy’s “boot”). According to the … Continue reading
Sordello seemed completely surprised, thinking first that this was incredible, then wondering if it might not be so. In a moment, though, he bowed his head and with great reverence embraced Virgil again. “O glory of the Latin race!” he exclaimed. “Your words, beyond compare, are the glory of our tongue! How is it that I should merit the privilege of this sight? If you feel that I am worth speaking with, please tell me, how have you come up from Hell, and if so, what part?”If the reader has followed this canticle on the emotional level, there is a great deal of joy, affection, care, happiness, respect, and love to be found here. And these qualities will continue to … Continue reading
“I have traveled through all the circles of that woeful realm,” Virgil told him. “Power from Heaven revealed this path to me, and I come here by virtue of that grace. I did not sin that I should be in such a place, only my lack of faith prevents me from seeing the great Sun that you seek here. Too late did I come to know Him.We recall this information from Cantos 2 and 4 of the Inferno, noting at the same time the subtle differences in how Virgil relates it here, particularly the absence of any mention of Beatrice and … Continue reading In that kingdom of darkness where I come from, there is a place where those like me reside, not in torment, but always with hopeless sighs. Innocent souls who were stolen by death before they were baptized live there, too, in company with those of us who were not clothed with the three holy virtues,Faith, Hope, and Love. but lived blameless lives nonetheless.What Virgil describes here is fundamentally what we see in Canto 4 of the Inferno but without his numerous references to the “Who’s Who” of antiquity. Both descriptions taken together, however, … Continue reading
Now tell me, if you know, and are permitted to reveal it, how we can find the quickest path to that place where Purgatory truly begins?”Once again, taking the lead as Dante’s guide, Virgil wants to know where they will find the path to continue their climb upward…something he intended to do quite a while ago–or so it seems. … Continue reading
“To answer your question,” Sordello replied, “we are not bound to one place here. We can move up this mountain and around it. I’ll be happy to act as your guide as far up as I’m allowed to go.That we are still in Ante-Purgatory is implied in Sordello’s reply here, and we learn that the souls on this part of the Mountain have a certain freedom to move around–but there is a boundary. … Continue reading
However, note how dusk is approaching. It is a rule of this place that climbing upward is forbidden after dark. So, let us find ourselves a comfortable resting place. There, over to the right, you can see another group of souls. Let me take you over there because I think you will enjoy their company.”The reminder that dusk is approaching connects us to an earlier scene where it was first noted that the sun had moved behind the Mountain. Also, Dante’s shadow had disappeared (resulting, it would … Continue reading
“Explain what you meant a moment ago,” Virgil asked him. “If a soul wished to climb upward at night, would he be stopped, or not be able to move?”
“Look at this,” said Sordello as he drew a line along the ground. “After sunset you could not take a single step beyond this point. Nothing actually stops us from moving upward except the darkness, which disables our will to climb. On the other hand, when it’s dark, we’re free to move downward and about the mountain as we wish.”Sordello is a good teacher: he draws a line on the ground to illustrate his explanation. The insightful reader will see almost immediately that Dante has in mind here a deeper spiritual meaning to … Continue reading
I could see that Virgil was quite amazed at this and he said to Sordello, “Well, then, if we can’t continue to climb, please lead us to where you said we can find some comfortable rest.”
Not long after we started walking, I saw a small hollow or valley ahead of us, just like you might see on earth. Catching sight of that same place, Sordello said: “Let’s go over to that valley. We can rest there until tomorrow morning.”
Following a winding path that wasn’t too steep, we arrived at a point along that valley’s rim where it began to slope downward.In this final and highest place in Ante-Purgatory Dante prepares us for a memorable close to the pilgrims’ first day on the Mountain. The scene he sets in this valley is not unlike a theater where … Continue reading Imagine, if you will, luminous gems beyond price–emeralds, sapphires, rubies, diamonds, gold, silver, amethysts. See the brilliance of colors in sunlit meadows and imagine how the grass and flowers and trees in this valley outshone all those on earth. Not only had Nature painted such a landscape before us, but imagine, also, all the sweet aromas here blended into one exotic new perfume.The reader will already know that the Garden of Eden sits atop the Mountain of Purgatory. Appealing directly to our imagination, Dante’s description of the valley here is but a foretaste of what we … Continue reading
Amid such magnificence I heard the Salve Regina intoned, and as that music rose from this valley of splendor I began to see many souls seated upon the grass, only now becoming visible below us. Sordello gently broke in, saying: “Please wait until the sun has set before you ask me to bring you down among that company of souls. It will be much easier to see all of them from up here than if we go among them now.There is an almost magical quality to this scene. Dante began visually with an almost Edenic vision of Nature that appealed to the eyes. Then we smelled the perfume of all the blooming flowers. As … Continue reading
“I can identify many of them for you from here. That one seated higher than the rest was the Emperor Rudolf of Hapsburg. If he has the look of one who left much undone, it is he who had the power to heal the strife in Italy and did not. She will suffer for many years to come.The nine souls/princes Sordello will point out are seated in order of their rank–all of them guilty of negligence. The Emperor Rudolf of Hapsburg (the only Emperor in the group) was born in 1218, … Continue reading The one next to him who seems to offer comfort was Ottokar. As a child he was more respected than his grown son, Wenceslaus, who gives himself over to lust and idleness.This is Ottokar II, King of Bohemia from 1253 to 1278, the year he was, in fact, killed in battle by Rudolf. He was a tyrannical ruler and, again, a surprise to be found here rather immersed in the … Continue reading
“The one there with the flat nose, talking closely with that gracious-looking one nearby, disgraced France, marred her lily by retreating from battle, and died of the plague in flight. He strikes his breast as a sign of repentance while the other lays his cheek against his palm and sighs. Father and father-in-law of the “Plague of France,” they now grieve over his vicious reign.The flat-nosed sinner here is Philip III of France (also known as “The Bold” and “The Snubnose”). The son of Louis IX, he was born in 1245, died in 1285, and was King from 1270-1285. When … Continue reading
“Singing in tune together, the sturdy one there next to that soul with the large nose was filled with every good. Unfortunately, his son, seated behind him, only reigned for a short time. Otherwise he would have had a longer time to show his father’s virtue. Sadly, this was not the case with his younger brothers, James and Frederick, who rule their father’s kingdom, but not with his virtue.Note first how these souls are singing together in harmony – the work of Purgatory. Sadly, their relationships with each other were just the opposite when they were alive. The … Continue reading
“It is not always the case that virtue rises through the trunk and nourishes all the branches. It is a gift from God and all we can do is ask Him for it.Here is the “moral of the story,” as it were, and Dante will raise this issue again later in this Canticle. In the Convivio (4:20 5-7), he lays down the principle on which Sordello bases his … Continue reading Everything I’m saying applies both to the one with the flat nose and his son, Peter, who sings along with him now but who also ruled without his father’s virtue. And as much as this son was less virtuous than his father, so much more can the Empress Constance tell of her husband’s virtue than can Margaret of Burgundy or Beatrice tell of Provence of theirs.Keeping in mind what Dante has stated above, Sordello/Dante finishes by saying that James and Frederick, the degenerate sons of Pedro III, were as much a disgrace (less noble) to him as was Charles … Continue reading
“Over there, sitting alone, you can see England’s Henry III. Having lived a simple life, his branches bore the fruit of his virtue.Henry III (1216-1272), a pious man who lived a simple life, ruled England from 1226-1272. Dante calls him the “king of the simple life.” Ciardi offers a simple perspective on his presence here in … Continue reading Finally, the soul there who sits on the ground looking up at all of them was the Marquis William of Montferrat. His defeat at Alessandria left him to die in ignominy.Montferrat was a small territory in the Piedmont (northwestern) region of Italy, west of the Duchy of Milan and northwest of the Republic of Genoa. William VII (1240-1292) was the Marquis of … Continue reading
Notes & Commentary
|↑1||After reading his long and ranting apostrophe against Italy in the previous canto, Dante seems to start this canto–almost tongue-in-cheek–as though nothing had happened, except that the stranger they met along the way turned out to be Sordello. When he discovered that he and Virgil were both from the same city–Mantua–they embraced affectionately. And now, we take up from there.
An interesting note: in the previous canto, when Dante and Virgil came upon Sordello, both of the pilgrims were in the shade because the sun had moved behind the Mountain, and Dante’s usual “give-away”–his shadow–didn’t appear. Sordello probably thought they were both shades. Add to this the fact that it was Virgil who initiated the conversation with Sordello, which led to the revelation of their mutual beginnings. While the “you” in Sordello’s question is plural in the Italian, the attention here is focused mainly on the two Mantuans. And as the reader will notice, Dante won’t be mentioned in this canto, with the exception of an inclusive “us” by Virgil. In her commentary, Dorothy Sayers has it all laid out for us. She writes: “ Note how carefully and cunningly the poet prepares his effects over some 290 lines so that he may keep Virgil in the foreground at this point and reserve the revelation that Dante is alive (which would here be an anticlimax) for Canto 8:59, where he can make good dramatic use of it.”
|↑2||Virgil compresses a lot of information as he identifies himself to Sordello. He died in 19BC in Brindisi (an Adriatic port city about half-way down the heel of Italy’s “boot”). According to the major source in Dante’s time (most likely the fourth-century grammarian Donatus), Virgil accompanied Augustus from Greece back to Brindisi and died there shortly afterward. Having expressed a desire to be buried in Naples, that became his final resting place at the order of Augustus. His epitaph reads: “Mantua gave me birth; Calabria took me away; and now Parthenope (ancient Naples) holds me: I sang of pastures, fields, and kings.” If the reader has read Canto 4 of the Inferno (4:37-42), he/she will recognize an echo here of Virgil’s explanation to Dante of why he is in Limbo: he was not among the elect at the time of the “Harrowing of Hell.” In the Christian tradition, this is an event that took place between the death and resurrection of Christ, where he descended into Limbo and released all the (elect) souls who were held captive there since the time of Adam. Recall the almost identical lines of Virgil in Limbo (Inferno 4:37-42).|
|↑3||If the reader has followed this canticle on the emotional level, there is a great deal of joy, affection, care, happiness, respect, and love to be found here. And these qualities will continue to illuminate the rest of the Poem. Dante the Poet enjoys building a scene like this one with words. Learning that Virgil is the Virgil, Sordello is taken aback at first and then lays his wonder against a growing suspicion. But the doubt flies off quickly and there is more embracing and exclamations of affection. One can be certain that Sordollo’s declaration is clearly in line with Dante’s own feelings about Virgil, and this is as much Dante the Poet speaking as it is Sordello. The humility that follows the high praise is an echo of a wonderful scene in the Gospel when a Roman centurion, whose son was ill, stopped Jesus at the doorstep and said, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come into my home…” (Matthew 8:8).
Sordello’s identification of Virgil as the “glory” of the Latin race is high praise indeed, and complements this excited and affectionate reunion. Virgil stands so high above the great Roman literary figures, not only for his poetry, but particularly for his epic on the founding of Rome, the Aeneid. It might border on exaggeration, but Virgil’s Latin became the father of all the Romance languages, and Sordello’s mention of the “Latin race” is a later (later than Virgil) reference to the various “romance” languages and their speakers throughout Europe. (Sordello, by the way, wrote in Provençal.) Virgil was obviously a literary giant for Dante, who chose him to be his mentor and guide through two of the three parts of this Poem. More than this, Dante’s almost photographic knowledge of Virgil’s epic shows up continually in quotes and references throughout the Comedy. And , as already noted, Sordello’s effusive praise is definitely an opportunity for Dante the Poet to voice his own praise.
Still curious, however, we note Sordello’s deference to Virgil (“if you think I’m worth talking to,” as it were) who wants to know how his famous countryman came out of Hell. Recall Cato’s harsh interrogation back in Canto 1. As Musa notes in his commentary, “Evidently, when Sordello heard the electrifying words, ‘I am Virgil,’ he must have stopped listening to the important information that followed.” And, of course, Dante the Poet has planted this little “defect” in the text on purpose!
|↑4||We recall this information from Cantos 2 and 4 of the Inferno, noting at the same time the subtle differences in how Virgil relates it here, particularly the absence of any mention of Beatrice and his heavenly commission to be Dante’s guide. This continues the front stage interaction between the two Mantuans, with Dante still in the background, but attentive enough to take in and report to us all that he sees and hears. As we know from Canto 4 of the Inferno, Virgil is in Hell/Limbo through no fault of his own. He tells Sordello, “I did not sin….” There is no other place in Hell where a soul could make that claim except in Limbo–one of the reasons why the Poet sets it apart from the rest of the damned. Notice also Virgil’s vocabulary–he speaks of “Power from Heaven,” and “grace,” and “the great Sun.” All of this, added to what he will claim in a moment, gives the reader pause to think more about an issue that has plagued readers of the Commedia for centuries: whether Virgil will be saved. His plaintive explanation, “Too late did I come to know Him,” elicits a haunting sadness–as for someone who misses the last opportunity to be with a dying loved-one.|
|↑5||Faith, Hope, and Love.|
|↑6||What Virgil describes here is fundamentally what we see in Canto 4 of the Inferno but without his numerous references to the “Who’s Who” of antiquity. Both descriptions taken together, however, give us an excellent picture of Dante’s conception of Limbo. As a theologian, he is very clearly in line with the Church’s teaching at the time, that outside of the Church there was no salvation, a concept that, in modern times, has been stated much more positively in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “‘Outside the Church there is no salvation’ means, if put in positive terms, that ‘all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body’, and it ‘is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church’”(846-848). Dante is also clearly in line with what the Church taught about the sacrament of Baptism at that time–that it is the doorway to salvation.
The Catholic Church’s teaching on Limbo changed in the 1990s with no mention of it in the updated Catechism. A2007 theological commission of the Vatican, in a long document entitled, “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized,” lays out various new perspectives that bring together the work of social scientists, theologians, psychologists, and historians, highlighting the principle that God desires the salvation of everyone.
|↑7||Once again, taking the lead as Dante’s guide, Virgil wants to know where they will find the path to continue their climb upward…something he intended to do quite a while ago–or so it seems. It’s curious that in previous cantos the souls were willing to tell the travelers where the path was, while here there seems to be a subtle air of mystery: “if…you are permitted to reveal it,” Why not just ask outright? One can only assume that Dante the Poet is most likely intent on moving the action forward, particularly since Virgil’s query about where Purgatory “truly begins” is a signal that more explanation from Sordello will be forthcoming. Let’s see.|
|↑8||That we are still in Ante-Purgatory is implied in Sordello’s reply here, and we learn that the souls on this part of the Mountain have a certain freedom to move around–but there is a boundary. This ability to move around is another echo of Virgil’s Aeneid (VI:673f). Aeneas and the Sibyl, nearing the Elysian Fields, ask the ancient poet Musaeus where they will find Aeneas’ father, Anchises. He answers: “None of us have a fixed abode: we live in the shadowy woods,and make couches of river-banks, and inhabit fresh-water meadows.” The image here will make more sense as Sordello’s “tour” progresses toward the upper boundary of Ante-Purgatory.
Then, obviously happy to have Virgil and Dante as company, Sordello assumes Virgil’s role as their guide. First, however, he is going to explain a law that governs the souls’ ascent up the Mountain.
|↑9||The reminder that dusk is approaching connects us to an earlier scene where it was first noted that the sun had moved behind the Mountain. Also, Dante’s shadow had disappeared (resulting, it would seem, in his being ignored by Sordello). The “rule” itself–no climbing upward after dark–seems almost an afterthought to Sordello. His chief interest, as their temporary guide, is in their comfort and enjoyment. Plus, they will see and learn about a different group of souls. The Poet, of course, is not going to let matters rest here. He may be ignored by Sordello, but he is still ever so attentive to all that is going on around him. And on the spiritual level, Sordello’s invitation to remain for the evening echoes the invitation of the disciples of Jesus on the road to Emmaus late in the afternoon on the day of the resurrection: “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over” (Lk. 24:29).|
|↑10||Sordello is a good teacher: he draws a line on the ground to illustrate his explanation. The insightful reader will see almost immediately that Dante has in mind here a deeper spiritual meaning to what Sordello explained. In his commentary, John Ciardi offers a fine way to understand this allegory. “The center of the allegory here is clearly in the fact that the Sun [which is implied here] symbolizes Divine Illumination. Note that Dante [in Virgil’s words] underlines this idea by referring to God several lines above as ‘the great Sun.’ Thus the primary meanings of the allegory may be clearly enough stated: first, that one cannot achieve true repentance and purification except in the sight of God (light of the Sun); second, that one has no difficulty in backsliding (going down the mountain) once he is out of God’s sight (darkness); and third, that once out of sight of God/Sun one simply cannot find within himself the will to climb.”
In John’s Gospel Jesus says: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (8:12). And in chapter 12:35 he says: “The light will be among you only a little while. Walk while you have the light, so that darkness may not overcome you. Whoever walks in the dark does not know where he is going.”
With all of this in mind, there is nothing sinful or immoral here about wandering down the mountainside. We need to remember that everyone in Purgatory is already saved, and with that in mind, who would want regress and go downward!
|↑11||In this final and highest place in Ante-Purgatory Dante prepares us for a memorable close to the pilgrims’ first day on the Mountain. The scene he sets in this valley is not unlike a theater where Sordello seats them, front row center, on the first balcony, affording them the best view of the drama that will soon unfold.|
|↑12||The reader will already know that the Garden of Eden sits atop the Mountain of Purgatory. Appealing directly to our imagination, Dante’s description of the valley here is but a foretaste of what we will see there at the end of this Canticle. Apart from the pre-sunrise spectacle that welcomed Dante and Virgil to Purgatory at the start of Canto 1, the rest of the scenery so far has been rather nondescript. But, almost as a celebration of a milestone in their journey, the Poet offers this visual prelude to what we will soon see.
In these few lovely sentences Dante has created what was called a plazer–an ancient literary “moment” when a poet stops to give the reader a list of beautiful things to contemplate. In his commentary, Musa notes: “Among all the descriptions in classical or medieval literature of the locus amoenus [a place–like Eden–of idealized beauty], this is unique. The beautiful colors of the grass and flowers are praised, but in such a way that what we see is not grass and flowers but precious stones, metals, dyes and pigments, the sheen of exotic colorings such as one might find in frescoes, miniature paintings, or stained glass windows–products or raw materials of craftsmen and of the fine arts.”
|↑13||There is an almost magical quality to this scene. Dante began visually with an almost Edenic vision of Nature that appealed to the eyes. Then we smelled the perfume of all the blooming flowers. As this continues, the chanting of music now rises out of the valley, appealing to our ears. Only at this point do the souls in the valley become dimly visible, and Dante doesn’t describe them. (Since these were souls who deferred their conversion in favor of affairs of state and civic responsibilities, it is appropriate that they appear at the end of the day as darkness falls.) In the midst of this interplay between sight and smell and sound rises the beautiful prayer to the Virgin Mary that brings the Church’s daily prayers to a close.
The official daily prayer of the Church is called the Divine Office, the Liturgy of the Hours, or the Breviary. It is divided into eight parts throughout each day as a way to sanctify in holy readings and songs the entire life of the Church and its members. In monasteries it is generally chanted, but it is also prayed daily by priests and members of religious orders who recite it in an abbreviated form. In the monastic tradition that Dante and his contemporaries would have known, the Liturgy of the Hours began in the middle of the night (2 or 3am) with Matins. And then, in order, Lauds (5 or 6am), Prime (approx. 7am), Tierce (approx. 9am), Sext (approx. noon), None (approx. 3pm), Vespers ( approx. 6pm), and Compline (approx 8pm). Following the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, parts of the Office were conflated and/or abbreviated.
The Salve Regina, is sung every evening at the end of Compline. It is an anonymous Medieval composition and was in general use by Dante’s time. Note how the words to this prayer are particularly apt for the souls in Purgatory:
“Hail, holy Queen, mother of mercy, Hail our life, our sweetness, and our hope. To you we cry, poor banished children of Eve; to you we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears. Turn, then, most gracious advocate, your eyes of mercy toward us; and after this, our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of your womb, Jesus. O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.”
On the spiritual level, Dante obviously wants the reader to join the souls here in meditating on the state of their own souls at the end of this first amazing day. Why pray to Mary? Since the beginning of Christianity, the mother of Jesus has played an important role in the Church. When, as he was dying on the cross, Jesus bequeathed her to his beloved disciple John, he offered into the safe-keeping of all Christians a powerful and “gracious advocate,” a mother who would for all time speak on our behalf to her Son.
Taking the long view of this scene, we note again that Dante has borrowed from a lovely scene in Virgil’s Aeneid as he begins to describe this last section of Ante-Purgatory called The Valley of the Princes (Anchises is speaking to Aeneas and the Sibyl):
“‘But climb this ridge, if your hearts-wish so inclines, and I will soon set you on an easy path.’ He spoke and went on before them, and showed them the bright plains below: then they left the mountain heights. But deep in a green valley his father Anchises was surveying the spirits enclosed there, destined for the light above….” (VI:675-81).
And, finally, it should be noted that there is a reason for Sordello’s request that the pilgrims not ask to be taken down among the souls in the valley. It is not dark yet. Recalling the rule he stated earlier, it is always possible to move upward while there is light; but not down (though he doesn’t say this). When it’s dark, however, they can go down into the valley because, remember, they are perched above it in the “balcony.” And, anyway, the best view is from up here.
|↑14||The nine souls/princes Sordello will point out are seated in order of their rank–all of them guilty of negligence. The Emperor Rudolf of Hapsburg (the only Emperor in the group) was born in 1218, died in 1291 (when Dante was 26), and was crowned Emperor in 1273. He and his son Albert bear most of the blame for the political chaos in Italy that Dante so fervently hoped would soon end with peace. On occasion, Dante surprises us with his characters, and this is one of those places. Given the social and political disaster in Italy at the time, one might be hard-pressed to imagine them among the saved. On the other hand, look at Manfred and Buonconte in the previous cantos. At least, as we continue, we will see that Rudolf is grieving.|
|↑15||This is Ottokar II, King of Bohemia from 1253 to 1278, the year he was, in fact, killed in battle by Rudolf. He was a tyrannical ruler and, again, a surprise to be found here rather immersed in the river of boiling blood in Canto 12 of the Inferno. But Ciardi suggests another perspective in his commentary: “[Dante’s] object in placing him here seems to be to show the reconciliation of enemies after true repentance and forgiveness.” As for Wenceslaus, who is not named among this group, he is probably flying around in the storms of passion we witnessed in Canto 5 of the Inferno, paying dearly for his numerous bedroom escapades and illegitimate children.|
|↑16||The flat-nosed sinner here is Philip III of France (also known as “The Bold” and “The Snubnose”). The son of Louis IX, he was born in 1245, died in 1285, and was King from 1270-1285. When Philip’s uncle, Charles of Anjou, lost Sicily to Pedro III of Aragon after the uprising known as the “Sicilian Vespers (1282),” Philip then declared war against Pedro. The end for Phillip came after his navy was defeated. He withdrew from battle and died of dysentery at Perpignan in southern France, thus disgracing France by marring its national symbol, the fleur de lis.
The soul who sighs is King Henry I of Navarre (also known as “The Fat”). He was born in 1268, reigned from 1270-1274, and died in 1314. He sighs over the misrule of his son-in-law Philip IV (“The Fair”), also known as the “Plague of France.” Philip III and Henry I are the father and father-in-law. Ciardi paints a damning picture of him in his commentary:
“Philip IV was for Dante the archetype of the evil ruler, in much the same way that Boniface VIII (whom Philip humiliated and drove to an early death) was the archetype of the evil Pope. Internally, Philip ruined whole provinces by his extortions and currency frauds. He systematically jailed Italian merchants (for ransom) on false charges, cruelly robbed the Jews, and suppressed the Knights Templars in order to confiscate their properties. Externally, he played a disastrous hand in Italian politics. Soon after he had eliminated Boniface VIII, he succeeded in placing one of his puppet cardinals on the Papal Throne as Clement V. Under Clement V the Papal Seat was transferred to Avignon.”
Dante refers to him several times in his Commedia, but never by name.
|↑17||Note first how these souls are singing together in harmony – the work of Purgatory. Sadly, their relationships with each other were just the opposite when they were alive.
The “sturdy” king here is Pedro III of Aragon (“The Great”; 1276-1285). He married Constance, the daughter of Manfred, King of Sicily (see canto 3), and claimed the crown of Sicily after the “Sicilian Vespers” revolt (1282).
The soul with the large nose is Charles I of Anjou, King of Naples and Sicily (1266-1285), deposed by Pedro III in 1285.
The son seated behind Pedro III is his oldest son, Alfonso III of Aragon (“The Magnificent”; 1265-1291). He reigned for only six years and left no heirs.
James and Frederick are Alfonso III’s younger brothers and the youngest sons of Pedro III. Neither of them matched their father in character and virtue. James II was King of Sicily and later King of Aragon. He died in 1327. Frederick II (1272-1337) was the King of Sicily from 1296-1327. When Alfonso died, James became king of Aragon and Frederick king of Sicily. Later, James gave Sicily to Charles II of Naples without consulting Frederick. The Sicilians backed Frederick as their king in war against Charles and James. James withdrew in 1299 leaving Frederick on his throne.
|↑18||Here is the “moral of the story,” as it were, and Dante will raise this issue again later in this Canticle. In the Convivio (4:20 5-7), he lays down the principle on which Sordello bases his presentation of the kings to Dante and Virgil: “…the divine grace [nobility] does not enter a race, that is, the family stock, but an individual; … family does not make nobility, though noble individuals may ennoble a family.” Often, we picture a family tree with the ancients or elders at the trunk and the rest of the family branching out from there, with the implication that traits rise up through the trunk to the branches. What Dante suggests is that this may be the case with some virtues or vices, but not all. Nobility, he claims, is conferred by God and not necessarily from our ancestors. One of my favorite “Dante aphorisms” comes from the Paradiso (16:7-9). There he writes: “Nobility, a mantle quick to shrink! / Unless we add to it from day to day, / time with its shears will trim off more and more.”|
|↑19||Keeping in mind what Dante has stated above, Sordello/Dante finishes by saying that James and Frederick, the degenerate sons of Pedro III, were as much a disgrace (less noble) to him as was Charles II to his father, Charles I. As much as Charles II was less virtuous than his father, the opposite can be said of the Empress Constance (the daughter of Manfred), whose husband was Pedro III. Constance can boast more of her husband’s virtue than Margaret of Burgundy and Beatrice of Provence, both of whom were married to Charles I of Anjou. If this seems confusing, I defer to Dorothy Sayers who remarks in her commentary, “Not, perhaps, one of Dante’s best efforts,” and Mark Musa who remarks in his commentary, “Of course, this makes no sense whatsoever.”|
|↑20||Henry III (1216-1272), a pious man who lived a simple life, ruled England from 1226-1272. Dante calls him the “king of the simple life.” Ciardi offers a simple perspective on his presence here in his commentary: “Henry is seated alone in part, perhaps, because he had no connection with the Holy Roman Empire, but much more importantly because he is unique in this company. Henry attended so many Masses daily that he never got around to governing his kingdom. His sin, therefore, could not have been neglect of God, but rather neglect of his divinely imposed duties to rule his kingdom well. His presence in this company adds an interesting dimension to Dante’s concept, for Henry’s sin is the reverse of the general pattern here.” Some commentators suggest that Henry is alone because of his modesty, and others that his “apartness” matches Sordello’s sitting alone when Dante and Virgil first encountered him in Canto 6. Unlike other kings here, Henry’s son, Edward I (1239-1307), was remarkable and truly noble. He ruled England from 1272-1307. His reform of English law earned him the title of “The English Justinian.”|
|↑21||Montferrat was a small territory in the Piedmont (northwestern) region of Italy, west of the Duchy of Milan and northwest of the Republic of Genoa. William VII (1240-1292) was the Marquis of Montferrat from 1253 until his death. His is a very sad story, and most likely due to his title and his small kingdom, he sits below the others in this group. Like Henry III he also sits apart from the rest. As a Ghibelline leader in both Piedmont and Lombardy, he sought to bring the disordered cities in that region under his control. At first he was successful, but his downfall came when he attacked the city of Alessandria (almost equidistant between Turin, Genoa, and Milan). He was captured and the citizens displayed and tortured him in a cage for more than a year until he died. His son, John I, attempted to avenge his death, but he and his kingdom (Montferrat) were routed by the Alessandrians.
With the story of William of Montferrat this canto comes to a rather melancholy end because, with one exception, we are introduced to a series of kings whose civil distractions and disasters took their focus away from God who graced and gifted them with the potential to be truly noble–which they seemed also to lose sight of. And yet all of them are saved and, like the others Dante introduces us to in Ante-Purgatory, the mercy of God overwhelms them in spite of their sins and spiritual laxity. Everyone we’ve met so far–and each in a different way–manifests one or more of the many facets of the hope that fuels all of Purgatory.