Study Guide

Purgatorio Politics

By Dante Alighieri


he [Dante] goes in search of liberty – so precious,
as he who gives his life for it must know.
You know it – who, in Utica, found death
for freedom was not bitter, when you left
the garb that will be bright on the great day.
Eternal edicts are not broken for us;
this man’s alive, and I’m not bound by Minos…(Purg. I, 71-77)

Virgil tries to get Cato’s sympathy for Dante’s cause by pleading their common goal of freedom. Dante is attempting to find freedom for his soul – which means a pathway to Heaven – while Cato died for political freedom in Utica. It is for this ideal of political freedom that Cato earns his entry into Heaven, when “the garb [his body]…will be bright on the great day.” Author-Dante sets up political freedom as one aspect of an ideal society.

[Jacopo del Cassero]: “My home was Fano; but the piercing wounds
from which there poured the blood where my life lived –
those I received among Antenor’s sons,
there where I thought that I was most secure;
for he of Este, hating me far more
than justice warranted, had that deed done.
But had I fled instead toward Mira when
they overtook me at Oriaco, then
I should still be beyond, where men draw breath.
I hurried to the marsh. The mud, the reeds
entangled me; I fell. And there I saw
a pool, poured from my beings, form on the ground.” (Purg. V, 73-84)

Through the character of Jacopo del Cassero, author-Dante castigates Italy for its treachery. Jacopo, chief magistrate of Bologna, earned the jealousy and spite of Azzo VIII d’Este, who wanted that throne for himself. When Jacopo was traveling to Milan to take on another magistracy, Azzo deviously had him wounded and eventually killed. Here, Jacopo describes his desperate flight from his enemies towards Padua, the home of “Antenor’s sons,” where he “thought that [he] was most secure,” but where “he of Este […] had that deed done.” This implies that Antenor, a city named after the betrayer of Troy, betrayed Jacopo as well by plotting with Azzo to kill him. In general, Dante suggests that Italy is not as politically virtuous and unified as it once was.

But those who are alive within you [Italy] now
can’t live without their warring – even those
whom one same wall and one same moat enclose
gnaw at each other. Squalid Italy,
search round your shores and then look inland – see
if any part of you delight in peace. (Purg. VI, 82-87)

In his famous invective against Italy, Dante criticizes his country for its disunity. The entire population of Italy, it seems, is “warring.” These wars – all petty political squabbles – keep Italy from uniting to form a great nation or from tackling greater issues like the corruption of the Church.

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.

[Guido del Duca]: “This is Rinieri, this is he – the glory,
the honor of the house of Balcoli;
but no one has inherited his worth.
It’s not his kin alone, between the Po
and mountains, and the Reno and the coast,
who’ve lost the truth’s grave good and lost the good
of gentle living, too; those lands are full
of poisoned stumps; but now, however much
one were to cultivate, it is too late.” (Purg. XIV, 88-96)

Dante nurtures an opinion that considers older times more virtuous than more current times. Thus, he claims, the house of Rinieri, despite starting out well (with “the glory, the honor of the house of Balcoli”), has “lost the good of gentle living.” Rinieri’s descendants, then, have not “inherited his worth.” Here, the sin of envy has spread from one noble family into the peasantry and even into the land itself, which is “full of poisoned stumps.” The idea that a bad monarchy might bring about a reciprocal wasteland (where the land is no longer fertile) is a common one in medieval literature.

[Marco Lombardo]: “Thus, if the present world has gone astray,
in you is the cause, in you it’s to be sought;
and now I’ll serve as your true exegete.” (Purg. XVI, 82-84)

Marco Lombardo blames the political corruption of man on man himself, for God has given him the free will and an intelligent mind with which to avoid such moral depravity. This bolsters Dante’s idea that people need a strong ruler and laws to curb people’s selfish tendencies.

[Marco Lombardo]: “Therefore, one needed law to serve as curb;
a ruler, too, was needed, one who could
discern at least the tower of the true city.
The laws exist, but who applies them now?
No one – the shepherd who precedes his flock
can chew the cud but does not have cleft hooves;
and thus the people, who can see their guide
snatch only at that good for which they feel
some greed, would feed on that and seek no further.
Misrule, you see, has caused the world to be
malevolent; the cause is clearly not
celestial forces – they do not corrupt.
For Rome, which made the world good, used to have
two suns; and they made visible two paths –
the world’s path and the pathway that is God’s.
Each has eclipsed the other; now the sword
has joined the shepherd’s crook; the two together
must of necessity result in evil,
because, so joined, one need not fear the other:
and if you doubt me, watch the fruit and flower,
for every plant is known by what it seeds.” (Purg. XVI, 94-114)

Dante criticizes the political corruption of his times, which have allowed self-serving popes to be elected into office. These popes do “not have cleft hooves,” meaning they do not see the crucial importance of maintaining the “cleft” between church and state, by which the one always checks the other and they reciprocally keep each other in line. Instead, society has allowed “the sword [to] join the shepherd’s crook,” so that the boundaries between state and church are blurred; the Church can often be bought by the wealth of princes and other politicians. This “must of necessity result in evil, because, so joined, one need not fear the other.” By Dante’s reasoning, a country must be ruled by a virtuous king to keep the whole population virtuous. But, this “misrule” by the combined church and state “has caused the world to be malevolent” and the laws to be discarded. Man is wrong in blaming the heavens for this corruption, for “celestial forces […] do not corrupt”; they have only themselves to blame.

[Marco Lombardo]: “You can conclude: the Church of Rome confounds
two powers in itself; into the filth,
it falls and fouls itself and its new burden.” (Purg. XVI, 127-129)

The popes, who represent “the Church of Rome,” by allowing themselves to be bribed by nobles and princes with their own political agendas, deflect the Church from its duty of maintaining virtue.

[Hugh Capet]: “I found the reins that ruled the kingdom tight
within my hands, and I held so much new-
gained power and possessed so many friends
that, to the widowed crown, my own son’s head
was elevated, and from him began
the consecrated bones of all those kings.
Until the giant dowry of Provence
removed all sense of shame within my house,
my line was not worth much, but did no wrong.
There its rapine began with lies and force;
and then it seized – that it might make amends –
Ponthieu and Normandy and Gascony.” (Purg. XX, 55-66)

The “widowed crown” refers to King Louis V’s inability to produce an heir, resulting in Hugh Capet’s seizure of the throne. Hugh claims his family (the Capetians) ruled justly until “the giant dowry of Provence” – a marriage between the Capetian family and the ruling dynasty of Provence – allowed the Capetians to gain influence in Provence, another province in France. Out of spite, Philip IV the Fair (from the Capetian line) seized “Ponthieu and Normandy and Gascony,” beginning a long series of spats with the Church that ultimately ended with Philip’s seizing of the papacy and his moving it from Rome to Avignon. Here, Hugh Capet blames the families of Provence for the eventual corruption of the Capetian line, but it is not clear that Dante agrees with him.