by Dante Alighieri
Purgatorio Politics Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Canto, Line). We used Allen Mandelbaum's translation.
What use was there in a Justinian’s
mending your [Italy’s] bridle, when the saddle’s empty?
Indeed, were there no reins, your shame were less.
Ah you – who if you understood what God
ordained, would then attend to things devout
and in the saddle surely would allow
Caesar to sit – see how this beast turns fierce
because there are no spurs that would correct it,
since you have laid your hands upon the bit!
O German Albert, you who have abandoned
that steed become recalcitrant and savage,
you who should ride astride its saddlebows –
upon your blood may the just judgment of
the stars descend with signs so strange and plain
that your successor has to feel its terror!
For both you and your father, in your greed
for lands that lay more close at hand, allowed
the garden of the Empire to be gutted. (Purg. VI, 88-105)
The cure for Italy’s corruption, Dante believes, is a just emperor, metaphorically illustrated here as a rider for Italy’s “empty saddle.” Emperor Justinian “mend[ed the] bridle” by codifying Roman laws, thus directing the ways in which an emperor could control Italy, but these laws are useless if Italy has no emperor. Given free rein, the steed of Italy has “become recalcitrant and savage,” roaming wherever it pleases and bucking whichever laws it wants. “Ah you” is directed at the Church, whose lust for political power has blinded it to “things devout” and, out of envy, has kept anyone from taking the throne. Dante lambastes the “German Albert” I for being more concerned with expanding the empire (“greed for lands that lay more close at hand”) than for quelling the strife in Italy. He considers Italy the “garden of the Empire” because the heart of the Church, the Vatican, dwells in Rome and marks the place where the Holy Roman Emperors are crowned. This entire passage shows Dante’s belief that communities of people (countries) need governance by a virtuous ruler. In other words, people are too selfish to direct their own communities well and require external checks to flourish.
My Florence, you indeed may be content
that this digression would leave you exempt:
your people’s strivings spare you this lament.
Others have justice in their hearts, and thought
is slow to let it fly off from their bow;
but your folk keep it ready – on their lips.
Others refuse the weight of public service;
whereas your people – eagerly – respond,
even unasked, and shout: “I’ll take it on.”
You might be happy now, for you have cause!
You with your riches, peace, judiciousness!
If I speak truly, facts won’t prove me wrong. (Purg. VI, 127-138)
In this satirical passage, Dante criticizes his hometown of Florence for its undeserved reputation. Instead of “having justice in their hearts,” Florentines only have it “on their lips”; in other words, their professed virtue is insincere. The “weight of public service” here seems to mean political office, a cesspool of dirty money. Thus, Florentine citizens “eagerly […] shout: ‘I’ll take it on’” not out of the goodness of their hearts, but out of greed for the wealth to be gained. Dante’s heavy sarcasm here reveals just how much contempt he has for his corrupt city. Its depravity, he suggests, stems from its politics, stained by its self-serving nature.
[Oderisi of Gubbio]: …“Provenzan Salvani,”
he answered, “here because – presumptuously
he thought his grip could master all Siena.
So he has gone, and so he goes, with no
rest since his death; this is the penalty
exacted from those who – there – overreached.” (Purg. XI, 121-126)
The reason given for Provenzan Salvani’s time in Purgatory is his presumption that “his grip could master all Siena.” By “overreach[ing]” past the boundaries of his human ability, Salvani is punished. Pride is the vice that pushes an individual to reach for political power, to desire political control over others for purely selfish reasons.