Study Guide

Purgatorio Art and Culture

By Dante Alighieri

Art and Culture

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.

[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.

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.

Te lucis ante” issued from his lips
with such devotion and with notes so sweet
that I was moved to move beyond my mind.
And then the other spirits followed him –
devoutly, gently – through all of that hymn,
their eyes intent on the supernal spheres. (Purg. VIII, 13-18)

As the first of many songs, this hymn represents the best social use of art (in Dante’s perspective): the espousal of Christianity and praise of God. Translated from the Latin, this hymn reads, “Before the light of You,” although it’s often glossed as “Before the ending of the day.” In it, the singers ask God to protect them from any evil or tempting dreams, essentially guarding them against even the most unconscious kinds of sin. Because this hymn comes from the lips of the Late-Repentant, it could be a plea of continued vigilance.

There we had yet to let our feet advance
when I discovered that the bordering bank –
less sheer than banks of other terraces –
was of white marble and adorned with carvings
so accurate – not only Polycletus
but even Nature, there, would feel defeated.
The angel who reached earth with the decree
of that peace which, for many years, had been
invoked with tears, the peace that opened Heaven
after long interdict, appeared before us,
his gracious action carved with such precision –
he did not seem to be a silent image.
One could have sworn that he was saying, “Ave”;
for in that scene there was the effigy
of one who turned the key that had unlocked
the highest love; and in her stance there were
impressed these words, “Ecce ancilla Dei,”
precisely like a figure stamped in wax. (Purg. X, 28-45)

Purgatory often uses the visual arts as means of impressing its moral lessons on its penitents. Here, on the first terrace of the Prideful, carved right into the cliff side, sculptures abound that show images of Gentle souls – counterexamples to pride. The “angel […] with the decree of that peace” is Gabriel and the “one of turned the key that had unlocked the highest love” is the Virgin Mary accepting the Annunciation from God. The fleeting reference to nature in the first lines reinforces the idea of Nature (through God) as an artist. And the fact that these sculptures “did not seem to be […] silent image[s]” reveals just how incredible an artist God is in his ability to make lifeless stone seem alive.

“Oh,” I cried out, “are you not Oderisi,
glory of Gubbio, glory of that art
they call illumination now in Paris?”
“Brother,” he said, “the pages painted by
the brush of Franco Bolognese smile
more brightly: all the glory now is his;
mine, but a part. In truth I would have been
less gracious when I lived – so great was that
desire for eminence which drove my heart.
For such pride, here one pays the penalty;” (Purg. XI, 79-88)

When Dante meets a famous artist, the renowned illuminator immediately shows how deeply he has absorbed his lessons here in Purgatory. Instead of smugly acknowledging his fame, Oderisi humbly deflects the remark, claiming his colleague Franco Bolognese paints better than he. He is perhaps an exemplar that Dante strives to be, because, as a fellow artist, Dante has not yet purged himself of pride.

While we began to move in that direction,
Beati paupers spiritu” was sung
so sweetly – it can not be told in words.
How different were these entryways from those
of Hell! For here it is with song one enters;
down there, it is with savage lamentations. (Purg. XII, 109-114)

As Dante leaves the first terrace of the Prideful, he hears the Latin phrase that translates “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” a phrase from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. Interestingly, these Beatitudes (as they’re called) are set to music. Again, this deliberate manipulation of art directs praise towards God, reinforcing the Christian message and flaunting the best social use of art.

We climbed, already past that point; behind us,
we heard “Beati misericordes” sung
and then “Rejoice, you who have overcome.” (Purg. XV, 37-39)

The Beatitude sung here translates as “Blessed are the merciful.” Coming from the mouths of the Wrathful, this is especially merciful, particularly because the penitents are celebrating the overcoming of their vice.

But I heard voices, and each seemed to pray
unto the Lamb of God, who takes away
our sins, for peace and mercy. “Agnus Dei
was sung repeatedly as their exordium,
words sung in such a way – in unison –
that fullest concord seemed to be among them. (Purg. XVI, 16-21)

After the smoke of the Wrathful envelops Dante and Virgil, they hear the hymn "Agnus Dei" sung. The Latin translates to “Lamb of God.” That is it sung “repeatedly” and “in unison” is especially relevant given that the Wrathful are blind. The repetition of the verses and their singing in unison help them, perhaps, stay in step with one another when they cannot see each other. In addition, the unison style of singing expresses the “fullest concord,” in contrast to the discord they have sown in life with their divisive wrath.

…I sensed something
much like the motion of a wing, and wind
that beat against my face, and words: “Beati
pacifici
, those free of evil anger!” (Purg. XVII, 66-69)

As an angel purges Dante’s forehead of its third P at the exit of the third terrace of the Wrathful, Dante hears the seventh Beatitude set to song. It translates as “Blessed are the peaceful,” celebrating the purgation of wrath from the souls of the penitents. This is, of course, also an echo to commemorate Dante’s purgation.

“I am,” she sang, “I am the pleasing siren,
who in midsea leads mariners astray –
there is so much delight in hearing me.
I turned aside Ulysses, although he
had longed to journey; who grows used to me
seldom departs – I satisfy him so.”
Her lips were not yet done when, there beside me,
a woman showed herself, alert and saintly,
to cast the siren into much confusion.
“O Virgil, Virgil, tell me: who is this?”
she asked most scornfully; and he came forward,
his eyes intent upon that honest one.
He seized the other, baring her in front,
tearing her clothes, and showing me her belly;
the stench that came from there awakened me. (Purg. XIX, 19-33)

The siren who uses her song to lure men to their deaths (as she tried to do with Ulysses) is a symbol of art used in its most sinful and malicious way. Not only does the siren have a wicked purpose in luring Dante, but she also uses her art dishonestly. This is the downside of art: where it can convey beauty and truth, art is inherently deceptive because it is not a true (but rather, stylized) representation of what is actually there. Virgil saves Dante from falling prey to this deceptive type of art by coming into his dream and stripping the siren to show Dante how wicked and deceptive she truly is.

When I was in the clearing, the fifth level,
my eyes discovered people there who wept,
lying upon the ground, all turned face down.
Adhaesit pavimento anima mea,”
I heard them say with sighs so deep that it
was hard to comprehend the words they spoke. (Purg. XIX, 70-75)

This prayer, sung by the Avaricious, translates as “My soul cleaves to the dust.” This is ironic because it describes the prostrate position in which Dante finds the Avaricious, “lying upon the ground, all turned face down.” Here, the art mimics the action, describing the punishment of the penitents.

Gloria in excelsis Deo,” they all cried –
so did I understand from those nearby,
whose shouted words were able to be heard.
Just like the shepherds who first heard that song,
we stood, but did not move, in expectation,
until the trembling stopped, the song was done. (Purg. XX, 136-141)

When the mountain trembles, signaling the complete purgation of one soul and his readiness for Heaven, all the penitents rejoice. Not surprisingly, they express their joy in song. This hymn that they sing translates to “Glory to God in the highest,” originally sung by the angels to announce the birth of Christ to the shepherds. Thus, we are supposed to equate the newly cleansed soul to baby Jesus – an image of ultimate purity.

[Statius]: “I had sufficient fame beyond,” that spirit
replied; “I bore the name that lasts the longest
and honors most – but faith was not yet mine.
So gentle was the spirit of my verse
that Rome drew me, son of Toulouse, to her
and there my brow deserved a crown of myrtle.
On earth my name is still remembered – Statius:
I sang of Thebes and then of great Achilles;
I fell along the way of that last labor.
The sparks that warmed me, the seeds of my ardor,
were from the holy fire – the same that gave
more than a thousand poets light and flame.
I speak of the Aeneid; when I wrote
verse, it was mother to me, it was nurse;
my work, without it, would not weigh an ounce.” (Purg. XXI, 85-99)

Here is the exemplar of useful art. Virgil’s Aeneid, a pagan work, inspired Statius so much that he turned to the faith of Christianity. Statius compares Virgil’s poetry to a “holy fire” that “warmed [him]” and gave him “seeds of ardor.” This latter comparison to “seeds” suggests that poetry, like plants, can produce a new generation of its art through inspiration.

And – there! – “Labi mea, Domine
was wept and sung and heard in such a manner
that it gave birth to both delight and sorrow. (Purg. XXIII, 10-12)

This hymn, sung on the sixth terrace by the Gluttonous, has the opening lines, “O, Lord, open thou my lips, and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.” This is especially appropriate because the Gluttonous used to open their mouths only to satisfy their physical hunger; now they give thanks to God with the same mouths, but reformed.

[Forese]: “But tell me if the man whom I see here
is he who brought the new rhymes forth, beginning:
Ladies who have intelligence of love.’”
I answered: “I am one who, when Love breathes
in me, takes note; what he, within, dictates,
I, in that way, without, would speak and shape.”
“O brother, now I see,” he said, “the knot
that kept the Notary, Guittone, and me
short of the sweet new manner that I hear.
I clearly see how your pens follow closely
behind him who dictates, and certainly
that did not happen with our pens; and he
who sets himself to ferreting profoundly
can find no other difference between
the two styles.” (Purg. XXIV, 49-63)

Donati Forese recognizes Dante purely by his art; as a fellow poet, he has deep knowledge of Dante’s style. Forese quotes the opening line of Dante’s “Vita Nuova” and Dante acknowledges that it’s his poem by confirming himself as a lyric love poet. Author-Dante sees his style of writing, known in Italian as the dolce stil novo (sweet new style), as superior to any other, including Forese’s. It is a testament to Dante’s pride that Forese is shown here admitting that Dante’s style is superior to his own. The names Forese mentions in conjunction with his – the Notary and Guittone – also exemplify an older school of poetry from which Dante breaks.

As, after the sad raging of Lycurgus,
two sons, finding their mother, had embraced her,
so I desired to do – but dared not to –
when I heard him [Guinizzelli] declare his name: the father
of me and of the others – those, my betters –
who ever used sweet, gracious rhymes of love. (Purg. XXVI, 94-99)

Dante considers Guinizzelli one of the fathers of his preferred style, the dolce stil novo. As such, Dante considers him the poetic “father of me and of the others […] who ever used sweet, gracious rhymes of love.” In claiming something like a familial link to Guinizzelli, Dante establishes an artistic pedigree for his poetry, not only humbling himself before Guinizzelli, but also preparing future generations of dolce stil novo poets to look to him as an icon.

He [the Angel of Chastity] stood along the edge, beyond the flames,
singing “Beati mundo corde” in
a voice that had more life than ours can claim. (Purg. XXVII, 7-9)

The Angel of Chastity sings the final Beatitude heard in Purgatory proper. It translates as “Blessed are the pure in heart.” This is especially fitting given Dante’s situation. He is about to pass through the final terrace of Purgatory, having the final P on his forehead removed, and thus be purified ("pure of heart") and prepared to see God.

A voice that sang beyond us was our guide;
and we, attentive to that voice, emerged
just at the point where it began to climb.
Venite, benedicti Patris mei,”
it sang within a light that overcame me:
I could not look at such intensity. (Purg. XXVII, 55-60)

As our heroes pass from Purgatory proper into the Earthly Paradise, the final angel welcomes them with the Latin song, “Come, ye blessed of my father” – which will be Jesus' words to the faithful at the Last Judgment. He urges them to come and “inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

…but they were not deflected with such force
as to disturb the little birds upon
the branches in the practice of their arts;
for to the leaves, with song, birds welcomed those
first hours of the morning joyously,
and leaves supplied the burden to their rhymes –
just like the wind that sounds from branch to branch
along the shore of Classe, through the pines
when Aeolus has set Sirocco loose. (Purg. XXVIII, 13-21)

Dante’s first impression of the Earthly Paradise is of harmonious music. Because the harmonies come from birdsong and the wind in the leaves, we're reminded of the concept of nature as an artist. It is as if God created this place as a sanctuary after the trials of Purgatory.

O Virgins, sacrosanct, if I have ever,
for your sake, suffered vigils, cold, and hunger,
great need makes me entreat my recompense.
Now Helicon must pour its fountains for me,
Urania must help me with her choir
to put in verses things hard to conceive. (Purg. XXIX, 37-42)

For the second time in Purgatorio, Dante invokes the Muses to help him complete his poetic task. This time, he wants their help in describing and accurately recording the procession that he sees in the forest, ending with Beatrice. The “Helicon” invoked here is the mountain home of the Muses where the wellsprings were thought to inspire poetry. Also “Urania” is the goddess of astronomy and all things celestial. It is appropriate that Dante invokes her because he is getting ready to describe something celestial: the procession from Heaven.

…and I could see the candle flames move forward,
leaving the air behind them colored like
the strokes a painter’s brush might have described,
so that the air above that retinue
was streaked with seven bands in every hue
of which the rainbow’s made and Delia’s girdle. (Purg. XXIX, 73-78)

Each of the seven candles in the candelabra leaves a streak of color – like “strokes [from] a painter’s brush” – in the air. The reference to a “painter” is again reminiscent of God the artist.

[Beatrice]: “Here you shall be – awhile – a visitor;
but you shall be with me – and without end –
Rome’s citizen, the Rome in which Christ is
Roman; and thus, to profit that world which
lives badly, watch the chariot steadfastly
and, when you have returned beyond, transcribe
what you have seen.” (Purg. XXXII, 100-106)

Here, Beatrice gives Dante his artistic mission: “Watch the chariot steadfastly / and, when you have returned beyond, transcribe / what you have seen.” This puts a new spin on all the prior text in the Divine Comedy: as a true account commissioned by Beatrice of the human afterlife. Beatrice charges Dante to compose his verse with truth so that his work may profit mortal men and perhaps inspire them to live virtuous lives.

If, reader, I had ampler space in which
to write, I’d sing – though incompletely – that
sweet draught for which my thirst was limitless;
but since all of the pages pre-disposed
for this, the second canticle, are full,
the curb of art will not let me continue. (Purg. XXXIII, 136-141)

Dante gives the readers an impression that his poetry is rigidly structured; he only has a certain number of “pages pre-disposed / for this, the second canticle” and can write no more once he has filled that quota. This reflects God’s ordered universe, where everything has a purpose. Dante reminds us, however, that his “thirst [is] limitless”; in other words, his desire to learn far surpasses the time and space he is allotted. But the “curb of art” requires that he end the second part of his narrative now.