Purgatorio Purgatory Canto XI (First Terrace: the Prideful) Summary
Despite the stones on their backs, the penitents praise God. This canto opens with the penitents praying for God to please give them His blessing and daily manna so that they may come into His kingdom. They then collectively forgive everyone who’s ever wronged God and ask that He set them free from evil, as well as their brothers who are still alive.
The prideful penitents lug their burdens around the first terrace as they sing this prayer.
Suddenly, author-Dante (as the poet and narrator) steps in, voicing a strong opinion. He expresses gratitude to the penitents for praying for those still alive (like him), then insists that we (probably all mankind) should pray for them so that they can eventually reach Heaven.
Virgil voices what Dante is thinking, but puts it in more practical terms. He agrees to pray for the Prideful penitents if they will show him and Dante the easiest way up the mountain, adding in a whisper that Dante – because he still has a body – isn’t quite as athletically gifted in climbing as the bodiless souls.
One of the souls, lost in the crowd, answers. He urges our pilgrims to come with him to the right-hand path, where even a live person can climb.
He goes on, wishing aloud that he could raise his eyes (his face is forced down by the weights, remember?) to see Dante’s face and beg for his prayers. We learn that the speaker is Tuscan and that his father is Guiglielmo Aldobrandesco, apparently a great man. So great that the speaker takes excessive pride in his family; he was really pompous in life.
He names himself as Omberto and laments that his arrogance has not only brought pain to him, and to his whole family.
But Omberto admits that here he bears the burden that he refused to shoulder on earth.
Dante informs us that during this whole speech, he’s been in the posture of the prideful, bent over and facing the ground. Hmmm, we wonder why. This nevertheless allows Omberto – also in this position – to twist his head around and catch a glimpse of Dante’s face.
At this, Dante cries out in recognition; the man is Oderisi, the superstar illuminator! Which is akin to meeting Stan Lee. Yes indeed, medieval people loved their comic books too. Except that theirs were more like illustrated versions of the Bible.
Oderisi, obviously pleased that he’s so famous, quickly shows how far he’s come as prideful penitent. He insists that his colleague Franco Bolognese was the better painter.
Oderisi regrets being so proud during his lifetime because he’s paying the price here. He rants against mankind in general for its pride, because those acclaimed at a certain time can never stay great forever.
As an example, Oderisi cites his fellow artists: Cimabue, whose glory gave way to Giotto’s, whose glory gave way to Guido’s. Then, as if we didn’t get it, he characterizes human glory as a fickle wind that’s always changing its course. Our pride is nothing in comparison to God’s power, he claims.
Still on his soapbox, Oderisi points out the guy in front of him and whispers to Dante that this man was once the pride of Siena. Apparently, he won a big battle against the Ghibellines in Florence.
But now, Oderisi asserts, his glory has gone from the green of flourishing grass to a withered brown brought on by the sun’s rays. OK, we get it: human greatness is fleeting.
Dante is now dying to know who this Ghibelline hater is. He tells Oderisi that his words have inspired great humility in him, but please tell who is this man of whom you speak?
Oderisi answers: his name is Provenzan Salvani and he’s amongst the prideful because he reached too far in trying to conquer all of Siena.
We figure Provenzan must’ve died recently because Dante asks how he reached the first terrace so quickly, especially if the penitents have to spend the length of their whole lifetime praying before they can enter Purgatory proper.
Oderisi gives us the answer. At the height of his power, Provenzan suddenly stopped acting like a pompous jerk and humbled himself for a cause he believed in. In an attempt to free his buddy from Charles of Anjou’s prison, Provenzan raised the ransom money by begging on the streets. Now that’s humility.
Suddenly Oderisi throws in a prophecy, predicting that Dante will understand his words more fully when he witnesses his “neighbor’s acts,” which will free him from ante-Purgatory.