Divine Comedy: Purgatorio

Divine Comedy: Purgatorio Summary and Analysis of Canto IX-XII


As the ninth canto begins, the “concubine of old Tithonus / fresh from her doting lover’s arms, was glowing white at the window of the east.” This Aurora, rather than dawn, seems to be a sign of the coming moon. Like Adam, Dante is overcome with sleep. Near “the verge of morning,” Dante has a dream that an eagle comes to him and, as Jove did to Ganymede, sweeps down and picks him up. It carries him up near the sun, and as it becomes unbearably hot, Dante wakes up to the morning sun on his eyelids. Virgil is there; they are at the gate of Purgatory, he explains, and St. Lucy was the eagle who just carried him there, sleeping.

Again Dante addresses his readers, explaining that he is “raising / the level of [his] subject here.” They see what looks like a gap in a wall, but Dante quickly realizes it is a gate. There are three steps leading to it and an angel hovering about the third. The angels ask why they are there, and Virgil explains that Beatrice has asked them. Accepting the answer, the angel tells them to ascend. The first step is “of clear white marble, so polished” that Dante can see himself in it. The next is a deep and cracked-looking purple. The third is blood red. At the top, Dante supplicates himself, beating his breast and begging for mercy. The angel traces “seven P’s” on his forehead, begins to open the door with a pair of gold and silver keys, and says, “Enter, but I warn you / he who looks back must then return outside.” The sacred doors open, the hinges creak like the treasury doors of ancient Rome; from inside, Dante hears singing like that in which “the words / are sometimes clear and sometimes lost.”

Now in Purgatory proper, Dante and Virgil navigate a narrow path, described as a “needle’s eye.” Suddenly they reach a high wall, stretching three times their height above them. The wall is made of “white marble”; it is “carved with so much art / that Polycletus and Nature’s very self / would there be put to shame.” Dante’s attention first sticks to a carving of Gabriel and Mary, in which the angel is depicted announcing Jesus’ coming birth. Virgil prods Dante to look at other carvings. Moving past Virgil, Dante observes King David “the humble psalmist,” dancing and singing by a cart and oxen. Above him, his wife Michal scornfully looks down. Dante writes that these figures are so artful that they “made one sense argue ‘No’ / and the other: ‘Yes, they sing.’” Beyond them is an image of the virtuous Roman Emperor Trajan, who seems to converse with the widow before him.

As Dante enjoys “the sight / of images of such humility,” Virgil redirects his attention to a group of souls moving towards them. Dante asks that the reader “not … fall away / from good intentions when you hear / the way God wills the debt be paid.” We quickly learn why. Dante, at first, cannot recognize the souls as human, but a closer inspection reveals what he thought were moving rocks are actually souls “bent beneath… stones.” The contorted figures beat their breasts. Dante calls on “vainglorious Christians,” asking if they do not remember that “we are born as worms / though able to transform into angel butterflies / that unimpeded soar to justice?” The canto ends with a simile comparing their bodies to a corbel carved to look like “a crouching figure, / its knees pushed up against its chest.” He writes, “that unreal depiction may arouse / in him who sees it real distress…”

The prideful are now penitent, chanting the lord’s prayer under their burdens. When they finish the prayer, Virgil asks them for direction. They offer to guide them, and as they walk to the stairs, a few offer their names and stories. The first is Omberto Aldobrandesco, who was head of a Ghibelline family. The next is Oderisi d’Agobbio, an Italian artist who created illuminated manuscripts. Rather than praise himself, Oderisi criticizes the vanity and instability of fame, showing how quickly artistic renown moves from one popular artist to another. Subtly, he seems to be warning Dante against artistic pride. Next to him is Provenzan Salvani, who Oderisi says has had his time of punishment reduced by acting as a beggar in the marketplace.

Although Oderisi urges Dante, able to move faster than crushed penitents, to continue on quickly, Dante notes that his “thoughts / remained bowed down and shrunken.” Still, Virgil and Dante move forward. Soon Virgil calls Dante’s attention to the floor below, where carvings like gravestones reveal examples of pride. The first shows Satan falling from Heaven. There is Briareus, the giants who attempted to topple Olympus, Nimrod, Arachne, Saul, Holofernes, and others. At last, Dante describes a carving of Troy in which is shown “how reduced and shamed” it became. Dante shifts into the second person, writing, “Wax proud then, go your way with head held high, / … and no, do not bend down your face / and so reflect upon your evil path!”

At this point, an angel approaches, showing the poets the way to the next terrace. The angel taps Dante on the forehead, and they ascend. Dante reflects that a weight has been lifted from him; Virgil notes that Dante’s “legs shall be so mastered by good will” when all of the “P”s on his forehead are erased. Amazed, Dante feels his head: only six “P”s remain.


In the ninth canto, simply ascending a set of stairs becomes rife with symbolism. Using direct address, Dante alerts us to pay attention. Importantly, his comment that he is “raising / the level of [his] subject” uses the Italian word matera, translated as “subject” here. But like the English word “material,” this word can mean both physical material and subject material. Dante is at once raising his material body to a higher place (physically ascending the stairs) and introducing more symbolic subject matter. As with much of the Purgatorio, the allegorical aspects are tightly linked to the narrative of Dante’s physical ascent.

But what kind of symbolism does Dante use in this canto? Although scholars do not unanimously agree, it seems likely that the stairs represent what John Hollander calls “the path to absolution,” which moves “from confession… to contrition… to satisfaction.” The first step, which is like a mirror, symbolizes confession, in which one can see one’s sins. The second, cracked and broken, shows Dante his broken state, as in contrition. The third and final step, red as blood, symbolizes Christ’s sacrifice for humanity and as such the sacrifice sinners must make to be forgiven.

While the tenth canto almost overflows with significant details, one of the most important aspects of the canto is the reintroduction of contrapasso into the Purgatorio. Contrapasso is an Italian word meaning “suffer in return” or “suffer the opposite,” and as in the Inferno, it structures the punishments given to souls, as Dante says, to pay their debts for their sins. These contrapasso punishments take the shape of creative, darkly comic, and often grotesque actions or transformations; here, those who were prideful in life are literally forced closer to the ground, humbled physically. (It is relevant that “humble” comes from the Latin humus, meaning “ground” or “dirt.”)

Another remarkable aspect of the canto is Dante’s attention to the use of art. The final simile, comparing the prideful’s contrapasso humbling to a statue, links to the statue imagery earlier in the canto. Just as Dante was caught in the pleasures of examples of humility, he shows the reader how “unreal” images of pain can cause their viewers “real distress.” Perhaps reflecting on his own imagined or “unreal” poem, Dante suggests the ways one’s emotional responses can be real and as such, really effective as moral or spiritual guidance (or perhaps, as a way to be pleased by what is good).

In Canto XI, we can see how Dante begins to use the stories of others to simultaneously comment on cultural and political figures and to give shape to his own spiritual journey. As he is guided from the terrace of the prideful, Dante is also subtly warned to not be prideful; each terrace acts allegorically to show Dante moving above each sin.

Canto XII begins with a bit of parallelism: where the first canto on the terrace of pride showed examples of humility, these carvings (notably set symbolically on the ground) give examples of pride. Across these three cantos, Dante has bookended the scenes on the terrace with good and bad examples, drawing the two forms of behavior into an instructive juxtaposition.

The final moments of this canto help us further elucidate Purgatorio’s large-scale allegory. Though it is unclear, at first, what the "P"s on Dante’s head represent, Virgil’s comment seems to suggest they stand for peccata, meaning sin. As such, each of the "P"s represents one of the seven deadly sins; by learning not to be prideful, Dante has had the sin of pride (and the weight of the sin’s wound) removed from his face.