Fifty years ago, I was invited to the baptism of a friend’s son in the old church of a Tuscan hamlet. It was Easter and lambing season. A Sardinian shepherd who tended the flocks of a local landowner came to pay homage to the new parents. He was a wild-looking man with tangled hair whose harsh dialect was difficult to understand. Among us was a beautiful fifteen-year-old daughter of an artist, and the Shepherd thought of her for such a taste that he asked for her hand. The girl’s father politely refused and the shepherd, to show that he had no grudges, offered us a lamb for our paschal dinner. My friends were penniless bohemians, so the gift was welcome. But there was one condition: we had to witness the slaughter of the lamb.
The blood sacrifice took place after the baptism. That morning the baby’s godfather, an expatriate writer, had caused a stir in the church, as none of the villagers, mostly farmers, had ever seen a black person in person. Some tried to touch his hands, to see if the color would rub off; there was a feeling of dread among them, as if one of the mages had come to visit them. Towards the end of the ceremony, the time has come for the godparents to “renounce Satan and. . . all his seductions of sin and evil. The Godfather had been brought up in a pious community, and he entered into the spirit of that community. His own experience of malice had taught him, as he wrote, that life “is not moral.” Yet he stood gravely before the baptismal font and swore: “Rinuncio. “
I thought of these scenes last spring when I started reading three new translations of Purgatory, published to coincide with the seven hundredth anniversary of Dante’s death, at fifty-six, in September 1321. The speech of the hamlet had prepared my ear for the language of the poet. “Di che potenza vieni? ”an old farmer had asked the godfather,“ What power do you come from? Purgatory, like the other two hymns in what Dante called his “sacred” epic, Hell and Heaven, takes place during the week of Easter in 1300. At Song I, the pilgrim and his cicerone, Virgil, come out of Hell and arrive at the mountain “of this second kingdom where the human spirit is purged to become worthy of Heaven. Dante’s body, again clothed in his flesh, inspires wonder among the shadows because he casts a shadow.They assail him with questions: where does he come from?
Dante has been a good companion in the pandemic, a dark wood whose escape route remains uncertain. The plagues he describes are still there: sectarian violence, and the greed for power that corrupts a regime. His medieval theology is no great consolation to a modern unbeliever, yet his art and truths seem more necessary than ever: this greater love for others is an antidote to the barbarities of the world, that evil can be understood like a sin against love, and that a soul cannot hope to dispel its anguish without probing it first.
An underground world where spirits migrate after death has always been part of the imagination of mankind. Almost all cultures, including the oldest ones, have a name: Diyu, Naraka, Sheol, Tartarus, Hades. But there is no purgatory in the Bible, neither in Protestantism, nor in Eastern Orthodoxy. In current Catholic dogma, it is a state of being rather than a real kingdom between Hell and Heaven: an inner fire in the consciousness of sinners which refines their impurities.
The concept of Purgatory was relatively new when Dante was born; it spread in the 12th century, perhaps among French theologians. This invention of a liminal space where sinners who had repented but still had work to do on their souls was a great consolation for the faithful. It was also a boon for the Church. By the end of the Middle Ages, you could shorten your detention for years, centuries, even millennia by paying a large sum to a “forgiver,” like Chaucer’s Pilgrim. A popular song captured the cynicism that this practice inspired: “As soon as a coin in the safe rings / The soul of purgatory springs forth”.
Before Dante, however, the notion of Purgatory was a wasteland awaiting a visionary developer. His plan is an invention of exquisite specificity. A ziggurat-shaped mountain surrounded by seven terraces, one for each of the cardinal sins, rises from the sea in the southern hemisphere, facing the globe of Jerusalem, with earthly paradise at its top. According to Dante, this mountain was formed by the impact of Satan’s fall on Earth. Her descendants caused grief to the children of Eve, to those “seductions of sin and evil” which every godfather and godmother must renounce. But he also created a staircase to heaven.
Dante’s conception of Purgatory looks remarkably like a training camp surrounded by nature. Its terrain is intimidating, more like an alp than a Tuscan hill. Each of the rugged terraces is a setting for group therapy, where supernatural counselors dispense harsh love. Their charges are sinners, but not incorrigible: they all embraced Jesus as their savior. But, before they die, they hurt others and themselves, so their minds need to be re-educated. They will move to Heaven on Earth, and finally to Heaven, after the time it takes for them to transcend their mortal flaws by possessing them.
For many students of Dante, Purgatory is the central hymn of the Divine Comedy poetically, philosophically and psychologically. He is, as one of his best translators, the poet WS Merwin, noted, the only one who “arrives to the earth, as our lives do. . . . Here, the hours of the day are reproduced with all the sensations and associations that the hours bring with them, the hours of the world that we live by reading. And here too, he reflects, there is “hope, as it is not experienced anywhere else in the poem, for there is none in hell, and heaven is the fulfillment itself. “.
The Dante we meet in the first few lines of Inferno is a middle-aged man who wakes up after a night of terrors to find himself in the desert. How did he get there? The Republic of Florence was its crucible. He was born in 1265, under the sign of Gemini. According to a recent biographer, the Italian scholar Marco Santagata, he believed his native horoscope had destined him to fame both as a poet and as a messiah who would save the world. There was not much in his past to justify such greatness. Santagata calls Dante’s father, Alighiero, “a petty loan shark”. His mother, Bella, came from a wealthier family. Both parents were respectable citizens, but not from the elite. Their son’s claims to nobility were not justified by his birth.
Dante was the youngest of his parents’ children, and he may have been just a toddler when his mother passed away. His father died when Dante was about ten years old. The boy suffered from poor health and poor eyesight. The seizures and visions his works allude to may have been caused by epilepsy. Yet his intelligence seems to have always been exceptional. However, Dante was educated (probably in a plebeian public school, according to Santagata), he mastered Latin and became “a great epistographer” – a composer of artful, official and private letters. When he embarked on the hectic politics of his city, this talent anchored his career.
Florence was a hub for banking and the wool trade. At the end of the Twelve Hundreds, two rival parties, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, had fought for nearly a century to dominate its government. The Guelphs were allied with the Pope, the Ghibellines with the Emperor of the Holy Empire. In 1289, the Ghibellines were defeated in a decisive battle at Campaldino. But the victors then split into two factions: the White Guelphs, with whom Dante took sides, and the Black Guelphs, his sworn enemies.
Dante fought in the cavalry at Campaldino, and the war must have given him a taste of hell. But then he returned to civilian life, becoming a nova in the literary firmament of Florence. He makes princely friends who admire his poetry. Among them was another of the greatest Italian poets, Guido Cavalcanti, although Dante did not spare his father damnation for heresy.
By 1295 Dante had completed “Vita Nuova”, a stylized autobiography. Its author is a young egocentric who has the leisure of the moon after a distant woman. He knows he’s a genius and can’t help but show off. Passages in prose alternate with sonnets and canzoni on the theme of love, but the author does not trust us to understand them. His didactic self-commentary has been hailed as the birth of metatextuality, although it also seems to mark the advent of mansplaining. The “Vita”, Dante tells us, in the penultimate chapter, is addressed to a female readership (presumably ignorant of poetics). “I speak to the ladies,” he wrote.
Several ladies arouse Dante’s gallantry in the “Vita”, but only one, Beatrice, inspires his adoration. His likely model was Beatrice di Folco Portinari. Her father and husband were wealthy Florentine bankers; she died in her early twenties. Details of his life are scarce and Dante does not provide much. Their families may have been neighbors. His father’s will left him fifty florins. Dante claims he first fell in love with Beatrice at the age of nine; she was a few months younger and dressed nicely in crimson. At that point, it “began to shake so violently that even the slightest heartbeat in my body was strangely affected.” He then sees her at eighteen, now “dressed in pure white”, and when she greets him, he feels that he is experiencing “the very height of happiness”. That night, he dreams of her asleep, “naked except for a crimson sheet”, in the arms of a “seigneurial man”. The man wakes her up, holding a flaming heart – Dante’s – and forcing her to eat it, which she does “uncertainly”.
There are, alas, no more naked bodies or scenes of erotic cannibalism in the “Vita” – it is now all courtly love. Dante recounts his brief encounters with Beatrice in the street or at church (today, you could say he harassed her), fainting with joy if she recognized him and plunging into depression after a snub. He mourns his untimely death abjectly. But soon after, her head is turned by another lady, “gracious, beautiful, young and wise”. Why not console himself, he reasoned, “after so many tribulations”?
This “other woman” of the “Vita” was not the girl to whom Dante had been betrothed when he was not quite twelve years old, and whom he had married in his youth. His rightful wife was Gemma Donati. His family was nobler and richer than the Alighieris, and they ruled the Black Guelphs. He mentions several of his wife’s relatives in the Comedy. (One, the virtuous Piccarda, whose odious brother tore her from a convent and forced her to marry, welcomes her to paradise; another, Forese, a friend of his youth, is a glutton Purgatory.) But he never acknowledged the existence of Gemma in any of his works. One would like to believe that Dante ghosted her out of discretion: she was indebted to her persecutors. Perhaps, however, the sad shadow of Odysseus strikes at the real reason in Inferno: