Dante’s Purgatory: Canto 6 Retelling — Prepurgatory — Sordello

Chapter 6: Prepurgatory — Sordello (Purgatory)

Think of the ending of a game of dice. The loser stays behind, replaying each throw of the dice in his mind, suddenly aware that he should not have played the game.

The winner walks away with many newfound friends, all congratulating him on his good fortune and all hoping for a portion of that good fortune. Most of the newfound friends block his exit except for the fortunate few to whom he gives a coin. To the others he gives promises and eventually is able to depart.

So Dante was surrounded by souls requesting to be remembered in the Land of the Living so that they would be prayed for and be able to more quickly climb the Mountain of Purgatory, the task that God had set for them.

As Dante was surrounded, souls spoke to him and told him who they are. Although he had not recognized these souls, they were well known enough that he had heard of them.

Dante saw Benincasa of Laterina here. As a judge in the city of Arezzo, Benincasa gave the brother of the notorious bandit Ghino di Tacco the death sentence. Beincasa became a judge in Rome, and to get revenge for his brother’s death, Ghino disguised himself and burst into Benincasa’s courtroom in Rome, cut off Benincasa’s head, and escaped with it.

Dante also saw here Pierre de la Brosse of Turenne, who was accused by Mary of Brabant, the second wife of Philip III of France, of having corresponded with King Alfonso X of Castile, Philip’s enemy, with whom he was warring. Mary caused forged correspondence to be created, and in 1278, Pierre was hanged, thus dying of violence like the other saved souls in this group.

Eventually, Dante and Virgil were able to free themselves from this group of souls and continue climbing upward.

Dante, however, was puzzled. He said to Virgil, “I have read, I believe, in your Aeneid, that prayers cannot bend the will of Heaven. Aeneas, who came from defeated Troy to Italy to become an important ancestor of the Roman people, went with the Sybil, a prophetess, to the Underworld. On the shore across from the Underworld they saw Palinurus, the pilot of Aeneas’ ship, who had drowned. Palinurus’ body had not been found and buried, and until it had a funeral, or a hundred years had passed, Chiron the ferryman would not allow him to cross the river and reach the Underworld. Palinurus hoped that Aeneas would pray to his mother, the goddess Venus, for permission to take him across with them to the Underworld. The Sybil who guides Aeneas through the Underworld replied to Palinurus, ‘What hopes delude you, wretched soul? Do you think that, thus unburied, you will cross the river and view the Furies and infernal gods, and visit, without burial, the dark abodes? You must wait for your proper time to enter the Underworld. Fate, and the dooming gods, are deaf to prayer.’

“Is it possible that I am misunderstanding the meaning of this passage?”

Virgil replied, “What I wrote there is true, but it does not mean that these souls on the Mountain of Purgatory are wrong when they tell you that prayers will hasten their progress up the Mountain of Purgatory.

“Love can wipe clean the debts that these saved souls owe. The prayers of the pure are heard in Paradise.

“The passage from my Aeneid that you quoted refers to a different kind of prayer, a kind of prayer that is not heard in Paradise. The prayers of those who will be damned are not heard in Paradise.

“But soon another will make the meaning of what I say clearer. You know that other: Beatrice, whom you loved and love. You will see her at the top of this mountain. You will see that she is blessed and smiling.”

Dante said, “Let’s pick up the pace. I am eager to see Beatrice. Before, I was tired, but now I am refreshed and eager to travel quickly. Time is passing. It is afternoon now, as I can see by the shadow of this mountain. I am not casting a shadow now. I am in shade.”

Virgil replied, “As long as we have daylight, we will climb, but climbing will take time, and we will not do it in one day. But look, a solitary saved soul is ahead. We can ask him what is the best place to climb upward.”

Dante and Virgil approached the soul, who quietly and warily watched them.

Virgil spoke to him and asked which was the best way to climb upward, but the soul ignored the question and instead asked from which city they had come in the Land of the Living.

Virgil began his answer, “Mantua ….”

The soul did not wait for the rest of the answer. He jumped up and said, “My name is Sordello, and I am from the same city,” and he embraced Virgil.

Dante the Pilgrim reflected, This kind of friendly, happy embrace did not happen in the Inferno. I saw no loving hugs in the Inferno. This soul is happy to meet a person who is from his city. He regards its citizens as his friends. Such was not the case when I met Farinata in the Inferno. Farinata, who is from my own city, Florence, regarded me only as a person who could give him information and as a person whom he could triumph over by telling me bad news. Farinata revels in destructive factionalism, and I fell into the trap of dueling verbally with him. Farinata pointed out that he had scattered my party twice, and I pointed out that my party had returned to Florence but that Farinata’s family had not. Our arguing with each other was easy to do, since he is a Ghibelline and I am a Guelf. Unless I can refrain from the destructive factionalism that destroys cities and countries, I can end up in the Inferno like Farinata.

Dante the Poet was seized with a cold fury: Italy, you are the land of bad factionalism. You are divided, not united, and you lack a good political leader. This soul and Virgil know no factionalism but instead rejoice in being citizens of the same city. But in Italy, civil war reigns even inside one city, as well as city against city and region against region. Is any part of Italy truly at peace?

Justinian repaired the Roman law, which is one of the wonders of the world, but that does no good because no one is around to enforce it. Why isn’t the Holy Roman Emperor — Albert I of Hapsburg, Germany — around? In part, because Pope Boniface VIII doesn’t want him around. In a much better world, a good Holy Roman Emperor would enforce the secular law and a good Pope would handle religious matters. The two would work together instead of opposing each other. But Albert I of Hapsburg ignores Italy, which has factionalism between such families as the Capulets and the Montagues. Instead of coming to Italy, the Holy Roman Emperor stays north, and peace is there but not in Italy.

Law is enormously important in society. It lets people know what they can and cannot do legally. If the laws were not written down, people would find it difficult to know when they were breaking the law. Florence and other places are chaotic because of constantly changing laws. When the Ghibellines kick out the Guelfs, they make new laws. When the Guelfs kick out the Ghibellines, they make new laws. With political power changing hands so quickly and so often, it is very difficult to make plans. In order for people to respect law, it has to stay law for a while. If it changes frequently, people won’t know what is legal and what is illegal.

Italy lacks good leaders. It has fools who call themselves leaders.

Florence, my own city, you should be but are not exempt from my criticism. Other cities have citizens who think about what needs to be done and how to go about doing it. First they think, and then they do. But the citizens of Florence speak first and never think. They say, but they never do. Other cities have citizens who think twice before running for political office in order to make sure that they are worthy of serving the public and can do the job well. But the citizens of Florence eagerly run for political office without being competent enough to serve the public. And Florence, you are a model of inconsistency. With the bad factionalism in Florence, one political group seizes power, and then a different political group seizes power. Laws passed in October are overturned in November. Citizens who would like to obey the laws cannot because the laws change so frequently. And a citizen who does an action that is legal in October can be accused of breaking the law later because the legal action that they performed in October is illegal in November. They can be accused of breaking the law even when they don’t do that action in November and did it only in October. And not only the laws and politicians change. So do the currency and customs.

Though your citizens should lie in luxury, it is as if they are lying in a hospital bed.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce

This is an excerpt from Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Retelling in Prose by David Bruce, available here:

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