Divine Comedy: Purgatorio

Divine Comedy: Purgatorio Summary and Analysis of Canto XIII-XVII


Dante and Virgil reach the next terrace. It is completely bare. They walk along it, uncertain of where to go. Virgil prays to the sun, asking for guidance, and after a mile of walking, a voice flies by, saying “Vinum non habent” (Latin for "they do not have wine"). Another says “I am Orestes.” Virgil realizes that this is the circle to punish envy; these voices seem to be examples of charity, and they act as “opposite notes” to envious dispositions. We learn why they are only voices: the envious are stuck to the terrace walls, bent in supplicant-like positions, with their eyes sewn shut with metal wire. Dante, realizing they can see only the light of the sun, calls out to them, asking if any are Italian. One corrects him, saying that “all of us are citizens / of the one true city.” Habitation on Earth is only temporary. The speaker was from Siena; she is Sapia. She watched with joy as her enemies were defeated in battle, but she repented at last. Dante offers to do something for her on Earth, and she asks that he restore her name among her family.

One of the penitents asks who it is who is able to see. Another responds, asking the first to question him. When they do, Dante only gives his birthplace, rather than his name. And even then, he only explains it by obliquely referring to the River Arno. The two spirits discuss the Arno, and one in particular describes the unvirtuous people living along the river. He describes the beasts which live along its banks: pigs, dogs, wolves, and foxes. The spirit prophecies that the other’s grandson will become a murderer. Dante asks for their names; they are Guido del Duca and Rinier Calboli. They lament the state of Italy, and Dante and Virgil move ahead. They hear the voices of Cain and Aglaurous. Virgil returns to the canto’s focus on the eyes, describing how God is like a falcon’s lure, ignored by humans who, like disobedient falcons, have their eyes sewn shut.

Walking further, Dante is overcome with a “great splendor.” Virgil explains that he should not be surprised if angels still blind him, although soon he’ll be able to bear their sight. With the angel’s help, they climb to the next terrace. At Dante’s request, Virgil explains that, unlike earthly possessions, divine love can be shared communally without reducing the amount for each individual. Dante prods further, and Virgil likens the love to light passed between mirrors: divine “Goodness” is only augmented the more people take part in it. Still, he says, Beatrice can explain further.

Suddenly, Dante is caught in an ecstatic vision. First he sees Mary gently talking to the young Jesus; next, Pisistratus, an Athenian, forgiving his daughter’s rapist; third, St. Stephen, being stoned to death while not becoming angered at those murdering him. Wakened from his strange vision, Dante responds to Virgil’s comment that he’s been walking “like a man overcome by wine…” Although Dante offers to explain the vision, Virgil has caught on that these things “were shown so [he] would not refuse / to open [his] heart to the waters of peace.” Smoke approaches as the canto ends.

The smoke is so dense that it forces Dante’s eyes closed. He walks “as the blind man walks,” guided by Virgil. Soon he hears voices singing the "Agnus Dei," and one asks who he is. The two begin to converse. Dante asks who the man is, and learns he was “a Lombard, known as Marco." Dante asks why the world is so “overgrown by evil,” and Marco explains that it has not happened by Divine will; only the free will of humans can be blamed. He continues, noting that “failed guidance” (by which he means failed governance, largely) is the source of the ills of Dante’s time. He criticizes the state of the Holy Roman Empire and the Church, and soon, Marco must turn away, unable to leave the smoke.

The light of the sun appears through the dissipating smoke, now “on the verge of setting.” Dante wonders what sets off the spark of imagination and explains it to the reader. He explains that even when we are not using our senses, divine light inspires us. He sees, like in the visions from Canto XV, various figures: Procne transformed into a bird; next, one scornfully dying on a cross; third, a girl “weeping bitterly.” After a bright light appears, an angel shows Dante the way upwards. Although he wants to see who is speaking to him, he still cannot bear the light. They climb to the next terrace and stop. Dante asks what kind of sinners this terrace contains, and Virgil responds obliquely, explaining that there are two kinds of love, the natural and the mental. The natural never errs, while the mental is born in humans and can err. These sinners, rather than have corrupt mental loves, were insufficiently zealous in pursuing natural love, which is to say the love of God.

Virgil asserts that ultimately all sins and virtues are manifestations of love, whether for evil or for good. Ending mysteriously, Virgil states that “excessive love which gives itself to that / is mourned above us in three circles. / Exactly how its parts are three I do not say, / so that you may consider for yourself.”


Although the Purgatorio may not be quite as full of sensational detail as Inferno is, it’s important to keep in mind the attention to detail Dante has given each terrace. Here, those who were envious of others’ possessions are forced to live on a bare terrace, with no pleasant art in sight. Even further, their contrapasso allows them to only see the light of God on their eyelids, rather than look on others in envy. This focus on the eyes also shows the extent to which Dante attends to different parts of the body, bringing to mind different sensations in his reader’s minds.

In Canto XIV, Dante continues to emphasize the envious penitents’ lack of sight. The narration makes it such that we, as readers, are also unable to see, because the canto is composed of almost exclusively dialogue, with little context description of the setting. In a way, readers are made to experience the penitent’s punishment, and we are immersed in the poem and in the difficult process of moving away from sin. This canto is also a great demonstration of how sensory Dante’s poetics are: rather than rest in abstractions and theology, Dante appeals to all of his reader’s senses to represent his spiritual journey.

In the fifteenth canto, Dante the poet calls attention to the way Dante the pilgrim is still quite positioned within his earthly body. This is made explicit when Virgil criticizes his lack of understanding of the communal character of ownership in Heaven, but it is also more subtly suggested across the canto. First, Dante’s inability to see the angel sets up his human limitation; his questions to Virgil, afterward, emphasize the fact that he is situated in his earthly body. Dante uses very specifically bodily diction, like being “starved for answers,” to show how even his intellectual life is described with bodily terms. This is not necessarily negative, as his craving is for knowledge about God, and yet we’re reminded that Beatrice will ultimately help him: “She will deliver [him] / entirely from this and every other craving.”

Canto XVI importantly expands and connects a number of the Purgatorio’s themes. It emphasizes the importance of human will in the decay of the world and the need for guidance to correct human will, and it then ties these two into Dante’s political concerns by criticizing the church’s and state’s failures as failures of guidance. Dante’s Commedia, which largely focuses on the development of Dante’s own personal willpower, also comes to suggest the wider social and political implications of attending to the will.

Dante’s initial visions make it clear that this most recent terrace has been to punish the wrathful; the blinding smoke is meant, perhaps, to symbolize the blinding heat of rage, and the penitents, in typical Dantean fashion, suffer a contrapasso punishment. Juxtaposed to the heat of wrath, this canto emphasizes another central theme of the Purgatorio: the prominence of love as a motivator. Virgil’s speech on love is one of the longest in the entire Commedia, suggesting its importance to the poem. Indeed, the centrality of love can be seen almost everywhere in the poem, especially when one considers how important Beatrice is to all three books. Even further, this canto is situated exactly in the middle of the Commedia; Virgil’s discussion is both structurally and thematically central.