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Perhaps the greatest single poem ever written, The Divine Comedy presents Dante Alighieri’s all-encompassing vision of the three realms of Christian afterlife. Joyfully anticipating heaven, Purgatorio continues the poet’s journey from the darkness of Hell to the divine light of Paradise.
Beginning with Dante’s liberation from the Inferno, part two of The Divine Comedy follows the poet as he and the Roman poet Virgil struggle up the steep terraces of the earthly island-mountain called Purgatory, miraculously created as a result of Lucifer’s storied fall. As he travels through the first seven levelseach representing one of the seven deadly sinsDante observes the sinners who are waiting for their release into Paradise. Each echelon teaches a new lesson about human healing and growth, on earth as well as in the spiritual world. As he journeys upward, level by level, Dante gradually changes into a wiser, braver, and better man. Only when he has learned from each of these stations will he finally be allowed to ascend to the gateway to Heaven: the Garden of Eden.
Perhaps Dante’s most brilliant, imaginative creation, Purgatorio is an enthralling allegory of sin, redemption, and ultimate enlightenment.
Julia Conaway Bondanella is Professor of Italian at Indiana University. She has served as President of the National Collegiate Honors Council and as Assistant Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Her publications include a book on Petrarch, The Cassell Dictionary of Italian Literature, and translations of Italian classics by Benvenuto Cellini, Niccolò Machiavelli, and Giorgio Vasari.
Peter Bondanella is Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature and Italian at Indiana University and has been President of the American Association for Italian Studies. His publications include a number of translations of Italian classics, books on Italian Renaissance literature, and studies of Italian cinema. His latest book is Hollywood Italians: Dagos, Palookas, Romeos, Wise Guys, and Sopranos, a history of how Italian Americans have been depicted in Hollywood.
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From Peter Bondanella and Julia Conaway Bondanella’s Introduction to Purgatorio
Dante’s Inferno colorfully exposes the nature of sin and damnation in his depiction of wicked souls whose failure to repent and whose choices in life have determined their punishments. The damned are eager for punishment and never ask to be released from it. Purgatorio shows saved and hopeful souls enduring the harsh punishments that purify them and prepare them for Paradise. They, too, are eager to serve their time as quickly as possible and to enter Paradise. Paradiso reveals the nature and beauty of virtue and goodness and how the human soul can ascend, slowly gaining an understanding of the divine. All three canticles provide lessons for the spiritually needy Pilgrim, who is both Dante himself and Everyman. Through his allegory, Dante ties together the many meanings of the poem. He states in his letter to Cangrande della Scala that his subject “taken in its literal sense, is the state of souls after death.” He also adds that “if the work is taken allegorically, its subject is how man by the exercise of his free will justly merits reward or punishment.”
Dante never mindlessly parrots theology or literary tradition. His Divine Comedy is filled with his own creative synthesis of theology, philosophy, history, literary, and artistic tradition, as well as his own idiosyncratic views and opinions, including his political aspirations. A number of his ideas, themes, poetic images, and characters appear in more than one of the three canticles. Among the numerous links between the three realms to which souls travel after death is the image of the stars that ends each of the three canticles. The stars raise the Pilgrim’s eyes—and those of the reader—toward the heavens and carry with them a reminder of the perfect order of creation and of the perfection of God’s every decision. Christianity’s system of divine justice, based on the conception of a universe perfectly ordered by its Creator, takes inspiration from the Old Testament as well as from pagan philosophers and such writers as Plato, Cicero, and Virgil. They all conceived of other worlds in which punishments would be proportionate to the crimes and rewards proportionate to good deeds. Dante’s poem draws on a vast range of sources and themes, but he transforms them into a gripping adventure in the Other World and a poem of transcendent beauty.
In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the regions of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise are linked spatially, geographically, cosmologically, poetically, and thematically. The science of Dante’s day followed the Ptolemaic system of the universe in astronomy and Aristotle’s teachings on physics and biology. In designing his Other World, Dante draws on the Ptolemaic-Aristotelian cosmology of the spheres as well as upon the symbolic number three. The universe was organized into nine concentric spheres, which reflected circular orbits of seven “planets” (the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn), the heaven of the fixed stars, and the Primum Mobile, beyond which was the Empyrean, or Heaven, and God. Earth was at the center of the universe, with the Sun revolving around it along with the Moon and planets. Hell was thought to be in the center of Earth, which was farthest from the Empyrean. A great chain of being extended from gross matter, animals, and humanity on Earth, through the heavens, to the nine orders of the angels, and then to God in the Empyrean.
This cosmology serves as a template for organizing the three canticles, each of which is divided into nine circular, or spherical, spaces. Underlying the nine circular regions in each of the three realms is a tripartite division. In Hell, the tripartite division is based on Dante’s classification of sins, for which he is indebted to Aristotle and Cicero. In Purgatory, this structure rests upon three separate regions: Antepurgatory, Purgatory, and the Garden of Eden. In Paradise, the combination of the universal order of the spheres, the heavenly rose, and the orders of angels creates a similar spatial effect.
Dante’s three realms of the Afterlife generally reflect traditional medieval thinking on astronomy and science, but the poet is also capable of enriching this tradition with his own ideas to enliven his picture of the Other World. Hell and Purgatory are both places of punishment and expiation. In Hell, those entering are warned to abandon all hope, because punishments are eternal. Even worse than the incredibly original and grotesque physical punishments Dante invents for his sinners in Hell is the eternal loss of communion with God that is enjoyed by the blessed. The miscreants of Hell do not qualify for the purifying penalties of Purgatory, where souls who do not die in mortal sin suffer temporary but painful expiation before receiving their blissful reward in Paradise. The penitent sinners in Purgatory qualify for heaven, but they must be improved before going there through the purifying penalties for their sins.
Punishments are not eternal in Dante’s Purgatory. Hope motivates the penitents to “do their time,” because they know that eventually they will attain the greatest possible reward, the vision of God and the communion of the saints. In this sense, Purgatory is even more tightly linked to Paradise: Sinners in both these realms are saved. From this knowledge, the souls undergoing the process of purgation in Dante’s “second realm” gain both hope and strength. Since these souls are eager to endure the punishments they know they deserve, they are often reluctant to spend too much time talking to the Pilgrim, because every minute they remain with him delays their ascent to blessedness. Nonetheless, some sinners ask the Pilgrim to remember them when he returns to Earth, so that family members, clerics, or friends might pray for them and reduce the length of time they must suffer.