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Dante compares himself to the winner of a dice game, who gets all the attention while the loser sulks in solitude. The penitents lavish him with attention, tapping his shoulders, tugging at him, all asking to be remembered.
Amongst the crowd, Dante recognizes such luminaries as Benincasa da Laterina, Federigo Novello, Gano of Pisa, Count Orso, and Pier de la Brosse.
Dante notes that he soon struggles free of all these grabby people, people who pray for others’ prayers. Clever, no?
Then he realizes something and addresses Virgil. Dante remarks that “in one passage” (by which he means a passage in Virgil’s Aeneid), Virgil denies the power of prayer to “bend the rule of Heaven,” but these souls in Purgatory seem to do exactly what Virgil refutes as untrue. So what’s the deal?
Virgil answers that he’s talking only about pagan souls, whose “prayers [are] without a passageway to God.” Christian prayers, he asserts, are indeed effective. To further convince him, Virgil tells Dante to wait until he meets Beatrice, who’ll defend him.
At the mention of Beatrice, Dante perks up and urges Virgil to get a move on. Not because he’s hankering for Beatrice, of course, but because it’s getting late.
Virgil responds that they’ll climb as far as possible during the day, but Dante can’t expect them to make so much progress so quickly. They can’t possibly climb to the top before the sun sets.
At that moment they see a soul seated alone and they rush towards him to get directions.
The soul says nothing, though, but only watches them as a lion would. Creepy.
Instead of telling them where to go, the mysterious soul asks them who they are and where they’re from.
When Virgil says “Mantua,” the penitent’s attitude completely changes. He stands up, identifies himself as Sordello of Mantua, and promptly hugs Virgil.
At this point, Dante launches into a scathing invective against Italy, calling his native country first a ship without a helmsman and secondly a whore. Ouch!
He looks admiringly on Sordello, who can—just by mentioning his hometown—wish such goodwill on his fellow citizen, while the Italians can find no such inner peace. Instead, they wage war among themselves.
He then goes into a long metaphor comparing Italy to a horse. Historical figures like Emperor Justinian have come along to “mend your bridle,” but Dante concludes this is useless since “the saddle’s empty.” In other words, Italy has yet to find a good leader.
Dante rants on against Italy, but adds the Church to the metaphor of the horse. He scolds the Church for not allowing Caesar to sit in Italy’s saddle, but instead controlling the bit themselves. In short, the Church has made Italy its plaything and allowed it to roam free, lawless and wild.
Now he’s on rampage. Dante continues, reprimanding Albert I of Austria for ignoring Italy during his reign and for failing to quell its internal strife. He summons him to come and see the results of his reign.
Then, Dante uncharacteristically shows pity for the Ghibellines (his rival faction) by lamenting both Guelph and Ghibelline nobility together. Had a proper emperor ruled Italy, he would’ve reconciled the two parties and brought peace to the country.
Dante then turns his eyes towards God and asks why He is letting this misfortune continue in Italy.
Finally, Dante turns to his own city. He ironically “exempts” Florence from his insults. But his tone goes something like, “while other cities ignore justice, Florence… talks about it. Good for you! Where other countries simply don’t make laws, Florence… changes hers every week! Congratulations!”
And he ends by calling Florence a sick woman. Lovely.