Ante-Purgatory (Cantos I - IX)

Ante-Purgatory, as we have seen, was largely Dante’s invention. Here all the souls have been guilty of some sort of negligence; they must wait for an allotted spell of time before being given access to Purgatory itself.

Canto I

Dante-poeta invokes the Muses, asking his ‘dead poetry’ to rise again. Dante and Virgil find themselves on the shore of the island of Purgatory, and it is dawn; Dantesees four stars which have not been seen by any living people other than Adam and Eve. He then notices Cato, an old man with a long beard and white hair. (We learn later in the canto that this is Marcus Porcius Cato (95 BC-46BC), who committed suicide when the Roman Republic was superseded by the Empire.) Cato appears bewildered to find that Dante and Virgil have been able to leave Hell and reach the island of Purgatory. Virgil makes Dante kneel down, and he explains to Cato that his mission has been authorised by God. Cato agrees to let the pair through, and asks Virgil to wrap a reed around Dante, and to wash his face. Cato disappears; Virgil washes Dante’s face, and picks a reed to wrap around him; in the same place on the ground where the first reed had grown, suddenly another identical reed springs up.

The canto can be divided into four sections:

  • the evocation of the Muses, and the description of the scene (1-30).
  • Cato’s challenge to Virgil and Dante (31-48).
  • Virgil’s response, and Cato’s instructions to Virgil (49-108).
  • Virgil’s washing of Dante’s face and the picking of the reed (109-136).

Discussion point: Cato

Cato is a particularly complex figure here. It is extraordinary that he is not damned to Hell, that he finds himself in the realm of the saved in Ante-Purgatory, and indeed, has some sort of jurisdiction over Purgatory (‘venite a le mie grotte’, my cliffs, he says in line 48). He is a pagan, and it is never stated in the poem that he actually converted to Christianity; moreover, he committed suicide- which in itself would have been enough to have him condemned to Hell (as in the case of the suicides of Inferno XIII). It is therefore very surprising to find Cato in the Purgatorio; and the surprise forces us to ask ourselves why Dante should have chosen to place him here.

Many of the earliest commentators on the Commedia suggested that Cato was simply a symbol of virtue. However, it is rare for Dante to ignore the historical background of a particular figure in the Commedia (so Virgil should not be seen, simply, as a ‘symbol’ of human reason: whatever he ‘represents’, he was also for Dante a real person who lived and died in a specific time and place).

  • Cato was described by Dante in the Monarchia as being ‘the most stern guardian of liberty’, whose suicide was a ‘sacrifice’, made ‘in order to set the world afire with love of freedom’ (2, v, 15). Dante goes on to quote Cicero, who had said that Cato possessed ‘an austerity beyond belief’, and because of this, his suicide was an expression of his goodness, rather than a moral weakness (2, v, 17).  
  • In the Convivio, Dante says that Cato saw himself as living not for himself, but for his citizens and for the entire world; in this he was an ideal citizen.
  • Dante’s view of providential history implies that Cato’s importance is not just as a moral figure, but also in providing the necessary love of liberty.  
  • The Roman poet Lucan (AD 39-65) had said in his epic poem Pharsalia that Cato sacrificed himself as a scapegoat, in order to spare Rome civil war (II, 306-13).
  • Cato’s self-sacrifice was often seen by medieval scholars as being similar to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.
  • Cato was also seen as being a Moses-like figure, because like Moses, he was associated with the law (according to Dante, Moses had been rescued from Limbo in the Harrowing of Hell).  

Another important aspect of the canto is the element of ritual, which arises when Virgil washes Dante’s face and girds him with a reed. In some ways, this resembles the entry of the individual into the Church-and into the community- in baptism (which was seen as a sort of cleansing, in just the terms Cato uses here). It is also noticeable that, at the moment when the poem suggests that it is possible for Cato, the unbaptised pagan suicide, to be saved, Cato emphasises the importance of this ritual in progressing through Purgatory.

Further listening: download a short lecture, by Matthew Treherne (University of Leeds), on this canto, at: Key Moments in the Commedia 2: Purgatorio I, 70-75 

Canto II

The sun continues to rise, and Dante and Virgil are by the shore, standing still. A bright light comes towards them, moving extremely quickly; Virgil orders Dante to kneel. Dante sees that the bright light is in fact an angel, guiding a boat full of souls, who are all singing a psalm in unison (Psalm 113). The angel makes the sign of the cross, and disappears. The souls, who look confused and unfamiliar with the place where they find themselves, ask Virgil and Dante for directions. Virgil responds that they too are new to the place; meanwhile the souls notice that Dante is in fact a living person. They crowd round him, and one of them comes forward to greet him. Dante reaches out to embrace him, and finds himself unable to do so; when the shade speaks, Dante recognises him by his voice. It is Casella. Dante asks him how it is that he is only now arriving here; Casella explains that there is a delay. Dante asks him to sing a song, provided that memory still functions properly in Purgatory. Casella begins to sing a canzone of Dante’s, ‘Amor che nella mente mi ragiona’, which Dante had included in the Convivio.  

Dante, Virgil and the other souls are rapt; and suddenly Cato reappears, telling the souls to stop being lazy. The souls run off, as do Dante and Virgil.

This canto can be divided into three sections:

  • the sunrise, and the arrival of the boat (1-75)
  • the introduction of Casella, and his song (76-119)
  • Cato’s rebuke and the dispersal of the souls (119-133).

Discussion point: Casella

Casella’s song has long been a source of controversy. Some scholars see it as providing a positive model for Dante, whereas others see it as being a dangerous distraction. You might wish to take into account the following issues: (a) the reaction of Dante-personaggio to events on his journey is not necessarily a guide to the views of Dante-poeta (as was the case, say, with Dante’s sympathy for Francesca, in Inferno V); (b) the vehemence of Cato’s rebuke, given that for Dante, as we have seen, Cato was such an important and authoritative figure; (c) the fact that Casella sings asetting of one of Dante’s own poems; (d) the fact that the reader might be being invited to draw a comparison between two types of song: the psalm being sung by the souls arriving on the shore of Purgatory, and Casella’s song.

Canto III

Virgil hurries Dante along; Dante realises that only he is casting a shadow. Virgil explains how it is that souls in the afterlife can experience physical feelings, even without the body. They arrive at the foot of the mountain, which is extremely steep. As Virgil considers the best way to climb the mountain, Dante glimpses a group of souls who are proceeding slowly towards them. (These, we learn later, are the excommunicated.) Dante and Virgil move towards the souls, who shrink back as they approach them. When Virgil asks them the best way to proceed, some of the souls gradually break away from the group; when they see that Dante is casting a shadow, they pull back. Virgil tells them that what they can see is in fact a human body, and reassures them. One of them asks Dante whether he recognises him, and sees a blond, noble man, his head injured. Dante does not recognise him; the soul shows Dante a wound, and tells him that he is Manfred. Manfred describes his death, which occurred following his excommunication.  

The canto can be divided into three major sections:

  • Dante and Virgil setting off, and discussing bodily sensation in the afterlife (1-54)
  • the encounter with the souls of the excommunicated (55-102)
  • the encounter with Manfred, and his account of his death (103-145).

Discussion point: community and church

This canto, which presents the excommunicated, enriches our understanding of the importance Dante attaches to the Church. To begin with, it deals with the souls of those who have been excluded from the Church. (We have had a hint of the need for inclusion in the Church by the baptism-like ritual in Canto I.) Those who have been excommunicated must wait outside Purgatory-proper for thirty times the length that they were outside the Church. They are excluded from Purgatory-proper, in other words, just as they were excluded from the Church.

But in other ways, Dante has them behave rather like church members. At the end of the canto, Manfred says that ‘qui per quei di là molto s’avanza’ (‘here through those back there we advance a lot’ (145)): he is referring to the belief that prayers said on earth for the dead could speed the progress of the dead in Purgatory. They are described in quite vivid terms as being like little sheep, ‘pecorelle’ (79-87), in a flock – terms which were associated in the Bible with the followers of Christ.  

This is an example of an important idea that will return frequently in the Purgatorio: that the souls form a close community.

Discussion point: Christ-like action in Purgatory

A further important model is put forward in this canto. When Manfred introduces himself to Dante, he does so by displaying a wound on his chest. This echoes very strongly moments in the Bible when Christ shows his wounds to his disciples after he has risen from the tomb, which proved that the same body which was killed has also been resurrected. Take, for instance, this passage in John 20.24-27:

"Now Thomas, one of the disciples, was not with the other disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord!’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it’. A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.’" 

Often in Purgatory we find that the souls make themselves Christ-like in their suffering. This is related to a very important idea: that it is by imitating Christ -whether in his suffering, or his humility, or his goodness -that one can achieve salvation.

Canto IV

The travellers follow the souls, and find themselves at a narrow passageway through which Dante and Virgil pass; the climb is steep, and Dante struggles to keep up with Virgil. When they pause on a ledge, Dante is astonished to find that the sun is in the opposite place from that expected; Virgil explains why this is. While they are talking, a voice interrupts, and Dante and Virgil realise that there is a large boulder to the left of them, with souls sitting lazily in the shade of the rock. These are the souls of the negligent. One of them speaks to Dante lazily, which makes Dante smile: he recognises him as Belacqua, who seems to have been a lute-maker with whom Dante had a close friendship. (Early commentators on the Commedia claim that in life Dante had joked with Belacqua about his idleness.) The negligent are those who waited too long in life to turn to moral virtue. Dante asks Belacqua why it is that he should be behaving so lazily; and Belacqua explains that he is obliged to wait here in Ante-purgatory the same length of time that he lived on earth. Virgil, who has played no part in the conversation (indeed his presence has not even been acknowledged by Belacqua) then hurries Dante along.  

The canto can be divided into two sections:

  • the discovery of the passageway, the climb, and Virgil’s explanation for the position of the sun (1-96)
  • the conversation with Belacqua, and Virgil’s request to Dante that he hurry along (97-139).

Dante and Virgil’s climb is marked by difficulty. Notice the narrowness of the gap through which they pass, and the vivid way in which Dante relates it to countryside life (19-24).

Discussion point: the position of the sun

Why is Dante surprised to find the sun shining to the left of him and Virgil? You will probably need to use notes or commentaries to make sense of Virgil’s explanation and Dante’s response (61-87), as it is dense with unfamiliar astronomical references (it is related to the position of Mount Purgatory in relation to Jerusalem.) 

Further listening: download a short lecture, by Matthew Treherne (University of Leeds), relating to this canto at: Key Moments in the Commedia 4: Purgatorio IV, 19-30

Canto V

Dante and Virgil are continuing on their way, when a soul behind Dante points out to his companions that Dante is a living person. Virgil urges Dante onwards, and they come across souls coming towards them, singing Miserere. When they notice that Dante’s body does not allow the light to pass through it, they call out in surprise, and the souls come running towards Dante and Virgil. These are the souls of those who were killed violently, and who repented in the last moments of their lives. Three of them speak out to say who they are. First, Iacopo del Cassero (d. 1298) gives the story of his death. Then Buonconte of Montefeltro (a Ghibelline knight d. 1289) speaks out, and tells the story of his death, the circumstances in which he repented, and the battle which ensued - between an angel from heaven and a devil from Hell- for his soul. Finally, a woman called Pia, who was born in Siena and died in the Maremma asks Dante to remember him when he returns to the world.

The canto can be divided into five sections:

  • Dante and Virgil continue on their journey, interrupted twice by souls noticing that Dante is a living person (1-45)
  • the arrival of the violently killed (46-63)
  • Iacopo del Cassero (64-84)
  • Buonconte da Montefeltro (85-129)
  • Pia (130-136).  

Discussion point: Buonconte

Buonconte da Montefeltro is the son of Guido da Montefeltro, whom Dante encountered in Inferno XXVII. There are some important parallels. The account of their death is emphasised, and the struggle over their souls. Look once again at Inferno XXVII. What are the major differences and similarities? Whenever there are parallels between incidents or characters in the Inferno and the Purgatorio, we should ask ourselves whether Dante is using them to try to tell us something. Why is Buonconte saved, whereas Guido is damned? Are there differences in their personalities?

Discussion point: narrative details

Enjoy some of the moments in this canto: Dante’s embarrassment when Virgil tells him to concentrate on his journey (20-21); the sudden inarticulacy of the souls when they realise that Dante is still in his earthly body (25-27). The brevity of Pia’s speech seems to add to its poignancy: it seems a modest appeal, compared with the others in this canto. The phrase ‘Siena me fé, disfecemi Maremma’ (134) [‘Siena made me, unmade by Maremma’] is a fine example of Dante’s economy of expression: it captures a life-story in a single line, and the caesura in the line seems to match the moment of turnaround in her fortune. TS Eliot adapted it to describe an early twentieth-century woman’s experience of violence in The Wasteland, using the geography of London: ‘Highbury bore me. Richmond and Kew/Undid me’ (293-4).

Further listening: download a short lecture, by Matthew Treherne (University of Leeds), relating to this canto, at: Key Moments in the Commedia 5: Purgatorio V, 94-108

Canto VI

Dante and Virgil continue to walk on, being implored as they go by souls of the late repentant, who wish to have prayers said for them by their relatives on earth. Once they have left the group behind, Dante asks Virgil how it is that prayer can affect the progress of the souls, when Virgil had written that the gods’ will would not be moved by prayer. Virgil explains that when he had written those lines, human prayer could not reach God; Beatrice, he says, will explain all when Dante reaches her. Danteexpresses his eagerness to hurry on, and the pair come across Sordello, a troubadour poet of the mid-thirteenth century, who is crouching all alone, staring at them. When Virgil asks Sordello the best way to proceed, Sordello asks where they are from. No sooner has Virgil uttered the word ‘Mantova’ than Sordello leaps to embrace him as a fellow-citizen. Dante then enters into a lengthy and angry denunciation of Italy, Florence, and the Holy Roman Emperor, Albert of Hapsburg.

The canto can be divided into four major sections:

  • the continued requests from the souls of the late repentant to be remembered in prayers (1-24)
  • the discussion of the role of prayer in helping the souls of Ante-Purgatory (25-48)
  • Dante and Virgil’s desire to progress, and the encounter with Sordello (49-75)
  • the denunciation of Italy, Florence, and Albert (75-151).  

Discussion point: Dante's denunciation of Italy, Florence and Albert

The diatribe in lines 75-151 contains a number of references to people and places, which you will need to find out about using the notes to your edition of the text (and the Dante encyclopedia, if you have access to it).

The denunciation of Italy, the Emperor and Florence is a powerful statement of Dante’s view of the current state of Italy. In order to understand the section on Florence (127-151), it is important to bear in mind that Dante is speaking sarcastically at the start of it.

The canto might seem rather difficult, with the dense and difficult denunciation taking up so much of it, as well as Virgil’s explanation of the value of prayer. Three things in particular are worth noting. First, Dante asks Virgil to explain prayer because of the way in which the souls are crowding round him (1-12). This description is extraordinarily vivid, and a modern reader might think of how journalists and photographers crowd around the winner of a sporting event. (Dante doubtless enjoyed putting himself in the role of the popular winner). Second, there is the way Dante portrays the spontaneity of the encounter between Sordello and Virgil: Sordello’s affection for Mantua is so strong as to make him interrupt Virgil even before he has finished speaking. Finally, notice the poetic richness of Dante’s denunciation of Italy.

Canto VII

Virgil identifies himself to Sordello, who is amazed, and embraces him around the knees in a gesture of respect. He asks Virgil where he resides in Hell; Virgil describes Limbo to him. Virgil asks the best way to progress, and Sordello offers to guide the pair as far as he is able. He warns them that they will not be able to progress at all at night-time. They find their way to a path, and look down into a valley. They see souls singing the ‘Salve Regina’, and smell an unfamiliar scent of mixed flowers. Sordello points out some of the figures in the valley, who in life had been rulers.  

The canto can be divided into two sections:

  • the discussion between Sordello and Virgil (1-63)
  • the three characters looking down into the valley, Sordello pointing out the souls of the rulers (64-136).

Note whom Sordello does not name - the small nosed ruler (‘quel nasetto’ (103); the father and father-in-law of the plague of France (‘padre e suocero…del mal di Francia’ (109)); the muscular man (‘quell che par sì membruto’ (112)); the man with the masculine nose (‘colui dal maschio naso’ (113)).  

Discussion point: Sordello's description of the rulers

This canto continues the political theme of Canto VI. In what ways does Dante’s analysis in Canto VI of the political problems facing Italy relate to Sordello’s description of the rulers? Why do you think the emperor Rudolph is the first ruler mentioned by Sordello?

Discussion point: Salve Regina

The hymn sung in the valley is the ‘Salve Regina’, a hymn to the Virgin Mary (the Queen, or ‘Reginaí’).  

Below, the Latin version is given, followed by a translation into English. If you are interested in hearing how the hymns might have sounded when sung (and how Dante might expect his readers to imagine them), you can listen to performances of them on the web site of the Società Dantesca Italiana (www.danteonline.it).  

"Salve, Regina, mater misericordiae; vita dulcedo et spes nostra, salve, ad te clamamus, exsules filii Evae. Ad te suspiramus, gementes et flentes in hac lacrimarum valle. Eia ergo, advocata nostra, illos tuos misericordes oculos ad nos converte. Et Iesum, benedictum fructum ventris tui, nobis post hoc exsilium ostende. O clemens, o pia, o dulcis Virgo Maria."

[Hail, Queen, mother of mercies; life, sweetness, and our hope, hail, To you do we cry, exiled children of Eve. To you do we sigh, moaning and weeping in this vale of tears. Therefore, our advocate, those your merciful eyes turn to us. And Jesus, the blessed fruit of your womb, show to us after this exile. O clement, O holy, O sweet Virgin Mary.]  

Why might this hymn be appropriate to these souls?

Canto VIII

Evening is falling, and one of the souls stands, and begins to sing a hymn, the Te lucis ante. The other souls join in; then the souls look upwards, and two angels descend, carrying burning swords. Sordello explains that they have come to guard the valley against a serpent, and suggests that they should go into the valley and speak with some of the souls. Very soon afterwards, Dante realises that a soul is trying to recognise him, and that this is Nino Visconti. Nino asks Dante to tell his daughter Giovanna to pray for him. Dante notices three stars in the sky, which Virgil explains are in place of the four stars he had seen that morning. Then a snake arrives in the valley; the two angels fly towards it, and it escapes. Conrad Malaspina, whom Nino had called over to speak with Dante, asks if there is news of his region. Conrad prophesies, somewhat obliquely, Dante’s exile from Florence.

The canto can be divided into six sections:

  • the singing of the hymn (1-18)
  • the arrival of the angels, and Sordello’s explanation (19-42)
  • the descent into the valley, and the conversation with Nino Visconti (43-84)
  • Dante looks at the sky (85-93)
  • the snake arrives, and the angels scare it off (94-108)
  • the conversation with Conrad Malaspina, and his prophecy (109-139).  

Discussion point: Exile

Re-read the first six lines of the canto. How does Dante’s description of the time of day relate to the idea of exile?  

Recall that Dante’s fictional journey is taking place in 1300, before his exile in 1302, and long before the poem itself was written. This is why Conrad’s prophecy can be interpreted as predicting Dante’s exile. Note how Dante gives a brief account of the terrible state of Italian politics before Conrad agrees with him, and gives his prophecy. It is interesting and important that, through the voice of Conrad, Dante makes his own, personal exile into a demonstration of the truth of his views on politics.

Discussion point: address to the reader

There is an address to the reader in lines 19-22. What purpose is served by this? It seems to require the reader to interpret the truth within the poem. What truths do you think Dante wishes us to discover here?  

Canto IX

The moon rises, and Dante falls asleep. He has a dream of an eagle which hovers over him, then plucks him up to a fire. The idea of the heat is so vivid in his dream that he wakes up; he finds only Virgil with him. Virgil explains that they have reached Purgatory-proper. (Sordello has been left behind.) When Dante had been sleeping, St Lucy had come along to carry him on his way. Now that Dante is reassured, he and Virgil set off, and arrive at a door. The door has three steps, each of a different colour; a gate-keeper is sitting silently on the top step. Virgil explains that St Lucy had directed them towards the door. They ascend the three steps: one white, one dark purple, and one blood-red. Virgil asks Dante to request entry to Purgatory; Dante throws himself at his feet, and strikes his chest three times. The gate-keeper writes the letter P seven times on his forehead with his sword, and tells Dante to wash the wounds when he is in Purgatory. The gate-keeper opens the gate with two keys, and allows them in; the gate opens noisily, and Dante seems to hear voices singing the Te Deum laudamus.

This canto can be divided into three sections:

  • Dante falls asleep and dreams of the eagle (1-39)
  • Dante wakes and Virgil explains how St Lucy had carried him along in his sleep; they walk along towards the door of Purgatory (40-72)
  • the door of Purgatory, the ascent of the steps, the seven Ps, and the entry into Purgatory-proper (73-145).

We have encountered St Lucy indirectly once before in the Commedia: in Inferno II. She was one of the figures in heaven who convinced Beatrice to set in motion Dante-personaggio‘s journey. Her intervention here confirms her role in watching over Dante, and reminds us that Dante’s journey is willed in Heaven.  

Discussion point: the dream

Dante’s dream in Purgatorio IX - the first of three in the cantica - is extremely difficult to interpret. Can you think of any possible interpretations?

Discussion point: the entry to Purgatory proper

Similarly difficult to interpret are the three steps leading to the door of Purgatory (94-102). Various precise interpretations have been put forward. What exactly does Dante say about them? Recall Dante’s understanding of the history of mankind’s relationship with God. That had three major stages: humanity’s pure union with God in the Garden of Eden; the subsequent state of sin; the Incarnation, and Christ’s Crucifixion, which gave humanity the opportunity of leaving that state of sin. Could this be related to the description of the three steps?

How do you interpret the moment when Dante throws himself on the ground before the angel guarding the door of Purgatory, and the Ps inscribed on Dante’s forehead?  

© Vittorio Montemaggi, Matthew Treherne, Abi Rowson

This resource is a collaboration between the Leeds Centre for Dante Studies at the University of Leeds, and the Devers Program in Dante Studies at the University of Notre Dame