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by Dante Alighieri

Purgatorio Art and Culture Quotes

How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Canto, Line). We used Allen Mandelbaum's translation.

Quote #1

But here, since I am yours, o holy Muses,
may this poem rise again from Hell’s dead realm;
and may Calliope rise somewhat here,
accompanying my singing with that music
whose power struck the poor Pierides
so forcefully that they despaired of pardon. (Purg. I, 7-12)

In his continuing nod to the Classical tradition, Dante invokes the Muses at the beginning of Purgatorio. Of course, in describing his situation he Christianizes it, asking that the Muses help “this poem rise again from Hell’s dead realm”; in a way, Dante is asking for the Muses to bring his poetry back to life after its stint in Hell. The Muses can't bring anyone back to life, though. Of the Classical deities, only Zeus, the king of the gods and analogous to the single Christian God, is capable of bringing someone back to life. So, Dante is equating the Muses with the Christian God, combining the Classical with the Christian.

Quote #2

[Dante to Casella]: And I: “If there’s no new law that denies
you memory or practice of the songs
of love that used to quiet all my longings,
then may it please you with those songs to solace
my soul somewhat; for – having journeyed here
together with my body – it is weary.”
Love that discourses to me in my mind
he then began to sing – and sang so sweetly
that I still hear that sweetness sound in me.
My master, I, and all that company
around the singer seemed so satisfied,
as if no other thing might touch our minds.
We all were motionless and fixed upon
the notes, when all at once the grave old man [Cato]
cried out: “what have we here, you laggard spirits?” (Purg. II, 106-121)

Here, Casella’s sweet singing so mesmerizes the company that they “all were motionless and fixed upon the notes.” In the context of Purgatory, music (and art in general) distracts souls from attending to their duties. Where art is an ennobling and welcome addition to mortal life, it seems to have no place in Purgatory. Cato reinforces this message by reprimanding the company for loitering while there’s work to be done.

Quote #3

Gold and fine silver, cochineal, white lead,
and Indian lychnite, highly polished, bright,
fresh emerald at the moment it is dampened,
if placed within that valley, all would be
defeated by the grass and flowers’ colors,
just as the lesser gives way to the greater.
And nature there not only was a painter,
but from the sweetness of a thousand odors,
she had derived an unknown, mingled scent.
Upon the green grass and the flowers, I
saw seated spirits singing “Salve, Regina”;
they were not visible from the outside. (Purg. VII, 73-84)

Dante’s first sight of the Valley of the Rulers, the last cornice in ante-Purgatory, is reminiscent of a painting in its vivid description of colors. Indeed, Dante invokes this idea of the artist with “nature [as] […] a painter.” As always, this metaphor has deeper religious meaning. As the Creator, God is often referred to as an artisan or craftsman. One of his creations is nature. So, this description of nature as “a painter” is a reference to God painting the known world.

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