by Dante Alighieri
In A Nutshell
Hey, do you want to read a love story that will make Romeo and Juliet look like child's play (which it, um, kind of is) and will make Saw look like a gentle film about woodworking (which it definitely is not)?
Welcome to Purgatorio, the epic poem that combines true l'amour and torture (in the name of purification, naturally).
Published sometime in the year 1307-08, Purgatorio relates the second part of poet/narrator Dante Alighieri's depiction of his fictional journey through the divine realms. Having told of his experiences in Hell in Inferno, Dante now relates his experiences cleansing himself in Purgatory as he prepares to visit Heaven.
As a text, Purgatorio has always played second fiddle to the far more violent and bitter Inferno. However, Purgatorio introduces an important topic largely ignored in Inferno—Dante’s childhood love for a woman named Beatrice.
Most historical sources have determined that Dante first met Beatrice when he was nine years old and she eight. He immediately fell in love. Though unrequited, Dante’s love for her continued to blossom, and he obsessively composed poems in Beatrice's honor, often in the courtly love tradition popular in 13th Century Florence. The two eventually went on to marry different people.
Beatrice’s death at the age of twenty-four threw Dante into despair. Only after her death did he commit himself to religious studies. So, one might say with some accuracy that Beatrice was indirectly responsible for the creation of the famous Divine Comedy.
A recurring character in Dante’s works, Beatrice is heavily featured in La Vita Nuova, an autobiographical poem with a famous first line inspired by a dream about Beatrice. Beatrice goes on to appears in Purgatorio as an angelic figure who will guide Dante through Heaven.
Of course, it Purgatorio isn't just a vehicle for Dante's long-dead love interest to rear her beautiful head. It's also about the crazy stuff that goes down in purgatory, where every sin results in an equal and opposite punishment.
You might read Purgatorio if you need a new reason to stop being slothful or avaricious... or just because (like most of us) you have a voyeuristic side and really want to see what happens to gluttonous people in the hereafter. We're asking for a friend, here: will this second pint of Phish Food condemn us to purgatorial starvation?
Why Should I Care?
Of course, as the writer of the Divine Comedy, Dante was interested in covering more than just Hell. Most people stop at Hell because (a) most Literature teachers don't assign any reading past the Inferno and (b) Hell seems to have a lot more going on than the other places. But Purgatorio is a beast of its own. While Inferno features Dante traipsing around after Virgil and trying not to step on the burnt, frozen, and lacerated bodies of condemned sinners, Purgatorio gives us another side of the afterlife: love.
Yes, friends. Though he's better known for his literary trip down under, Dante's also famous for the love he bore for Beatrice, the object of his lifelong affection. Thoughts of her are what keep our hero going through the trials of tribulations through Purgatory and, by the end of the book, Beatrice has replaced Virgil as Dante's guide into Heaven.
Sure, we get a heapin' helpin' of the seven deadly sins in this book, but we finally get an element in the afterlife that had been missing in the Divine Comedy up to now. It's that little, but key, ingredient that, for a great many, makes life worth living. You might have read about "love everlasting" on a Hallmark card, but here's a documented case that's displayed in all its poetic beauty.
Now, doesn't that sound marginally better than a trip to Hell?