Study Guide

Purgatorio Purgatory Canto VII (Ante-Purgatory: the Valley of the Rulers)

By Dante Alighieri

Purgatory Canto VII (Ante-Purgatory: the Valley of the Rulers)

  • Following Dante’s rant about Italy, Sordello introduces himself to our two pilgrims. He then subtly asks Virgil who he is.
  • Virgil, in his fancy but humble way, explains who he is and that he is a sinner.
  • At which point, Sordello drops to his knees, kowtows to the Roman poet, and asks where Virgil came from… Hell or elsewhere? Great question.
  • Virgil answers that he is indeed from Hell but that God is allowing him to move beyond Hell and into Purgatory, where he usually could not enter. Also, he’s not really bad because he lives in Limbo, not the real Hell. Here, Virgil stresses, live the pagans who died before Christ and thus couldn’t observe the three holy virtues (faith, hope, and charity), but who followed all the other virtues. In other words, he's (mostly) a good boy.
  • Having said enough about himself, Virgil asks Sordello to point them to the path that would take them most easily to the entry to Mount Purgatory.
  • Sordello, being a nice guy, decides to guide them. But not yet. It’s nighttime and the rule in Purgatory is that no one can travel at night. Something about the evil of darkness and so forth.
  • Sordello invites them to sleep with his people.
  • Virgil’s curiosity has been piqued. Why can’t we climb at night?
  • Sordello patiently explains. The darkness apparently saps people of their will and they cannot physically climb higher. They can go downwards and rest, but not upwards. Interesting…
  • Bedtime doesn’t sound too bad, and Virgil agrees to go sleep with Sordello.
  • Sordello leads them to a spot in the valley that’s so bright with the color of grass and flowers that it surpasses such beauties as “gold and fine silver, cochineal, white lead, / and Indian lychnite.” In fact, it’s so pretty that Dante describes nature as a painter.
  • Picnicking on this lovely spot are a bunch of penitent souls. They’re so perfect that they’re singing a hymn, “Salve, Regina.” Which translates to “Hail, Queen.”
  • Sordello asserts that this spot has the best view of the valley and that here Dante and Virgil can do some sight-seeing in case they get bored.
  • Sordello points out the highest-seated penitent and identifies him as Emperor Rudolph, who is the only one not singing. Sordello laments that this is the one monarch who could’ve restored Italy to glory (but obviously didn’t).
  • Beside him is Ottokar II, who (Sordello says) is much better than his lazy son, Wenceslaus.
  • The “small-nosed man” nearby is Philip III, a disgrace to France because he lost a big battle. Dante, in attempting to poetically describe this defeat, calls it “deflowering the lily” (because France’s symbol is the lily), which sounds vaguely sexual.
  • Philip’s friend—who is resting his head on his hand—is Henry I ("the Fat"). Obviously not interested in the evening prayers.
  • Back to Philip. Sordello quite rudely calls him the “father-in-law of the pest of France,” this pest being Philip IV, who supported making Clement V the pope. Quick history lesson: this resulted in the Pope being abducted from Rome.
  • Then there is the masculine duo of Charles of Anjou, who has a “nose so manly,” and Pedro III of Aragon. Sordello’s point is that they’re singing in harmony while on earth they were bitter rivals over the throne.
  • Seated behind them is Pedro, Pedro III’s youngest son, who might’ve brought virtue to the throne had he succeeded in gaining it. But now, Sordello laments, the throne belongs to nasty old James and Frederick.
  • Then Sordello launches into a general complaint that so few kings have sons worthy of their legacy.
  • Sordello continues. Only Henry III of England, “who led the simple life,” had a worthy son.
  • Finally, the ruler seated lowest in the valley is William the Marquis, whose son brought on war between Monferrato and Canavese.
  • Sordello ends his extensive catalogue of the Valley of Rulers.