Dante’s Purgatory: Canto 11 Retelling — First Ledge — Aldobrandesco, Oderisi, Provenzan

Chapter 11: First Ledge — Aldobrandesco, Oderisi, Provenzan (Purgatory)

As the souls, burdened with heavy stones, slowly walked on the ledge, they prayed a version of the Lord’s Prayer that emphasizes humility:

“Our Father who is in Paradise, by choice, because You love the angels, whom You created before You created Humankind,

“May Humankind, your creation, regard Your name and Your power as holy to show our thanks to You.

“May Your kingdom come and bring us peace, for we cannot attain Your kingdom through our own efforts, but only as Your gift.

“As the angels obey Your will and sing ‘Hosannah,’ so may Humankind obey Your will.

“Give us this day our daily manna, as You gave manna to others who were in exile from the Holy Land. Without Your blessing, even those who are most eager to go forward will instead go backward.

“And forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us, although we do not deserve Your forgiveness.

“Although we want to be strong, we recognize that we are weak, and we pray for all Humankind that You lead them not into temptation and instead save them from the Evil One.

“This last request, God, we make not for ourselves, who are saved souls, but for those members of Humankind who are still alive on Earth.”

Dante the Poet thought, The prayers of these souls do good for the living, and the prayers of the living can do much good for the saved souls on the Mountain of Purgatory. Our prayers can help these souls wash away sins and ascend into Paradise more quickly.

These saved souls, who prayed both for themselves and for others, moved slowly toward Dante and Virgil. Some souls were burdened by heavier stones than other souls — they had been prouder, perhaps of family, talent, or power. They moved as slowly as a man moves in a nightmare when pursued by something or someone who induces panic.

Virgil said to the saved souls, “May justice tempered by mercy free you from the stones and the sins you carry so you may climb up the mountain and reach Paradise. Please do a good deed now. Please help us. Show us the path by which we may climb to the next ledge of the mountain. This man I am traveling with carries his own burden: the weight of his still-living flesh. Because of that, his progress up the mountain is slow.”

Someone answered, but because the souls were bent over by the weight they were carrying, Dante could not see their faces and so did not know which soul had spoken.

However, a soul said, “Walk along the ledge with us, and you will find a place up which you can climb the mountain. If I were not carrying so heavy a weight, I would look up and see if I recognize this still-living man. Perhaps I could move him to feel compassion for me.

“I was an Italian, and my father was a great Tuscan named Guglielmo Aldobrandeschi … but perhaps you have never heard of him.”

Dante thought, Everyone in Italy knows the name Guglielmo Aldobrandeso. This soul who spoke just now was feeling pride of family, but recognizing that, he has wisely attempted to regain his humility by stating that perhaps I may never have heard of his very famous father.

The saved soul continued, “I had pride of family. My lineage was ancient, and my ancestors had done notable deeds. I held people in disdain. Because of my disdain, I died. A much larger force besieged my castle. Because I held my enemy in such contempt, I did not surrender, but instead charged into the midst of them, killing many before I myself was killed.

“My name is Omberto. With my death, the power of my family passed on to other people. Because of the pride I had in my family, I now bear this weight on the first ledge of this mountain. I will bear this weight until I have purged my sin and made God happy.”

Dante had bent over to listen, and now another soul, also burdened with a stone, lifted his head — with difficulty — enough to look at him and recognize him.

The saved soul called to Dante, who recognized him and said, “You are Oderisi, the artist of Gubbio, who is expert in that art the French call ‘Illuminating.’ You create the artwork in illuminated — that is, illustrated — manuscripts.”

Oderisi replied, “Another artist is now better than me. Franco Bolognese illuminates manuscripts with more radiance than I ever did. I had honor, but he has much more honor. When I was alive, however, I would have hated to admit this. I wanted to be the best. I had pride in my talent, and now I carry this stone here. When I was still alive, I turned to God, and I was saved. If not for that, I would be in the Inferno.

“Excessive pride is a sin, and the products of one’s pride soon fade. Another artist comes along who is better. Cimabue was once the number-one painter, and now Giotto is known to be superior to him. Guido Guinizelli was once the number-one poet, and now Guido Cavalcanti is known to be superior to him. And perhaps the poet who will surpass Guido Cavalcanti has been born.”

Dante, who in the future surpassed Guido Cavalcanti, thought, I saw Guido Cavalcanti’s father in the Inferno. He was in the tomb with Farinata.

Oderisi continued, “Few people achieve lasting fame. For most people, earthly fame is like a gust of wind. Consider a person who dies in infancy and a person who dies of old age. One thousand years from now, both are likely to have exactly the same amount of Earthly fame: none. Suppose someone achieves a level of fame in which one is remembered for a thousand years. Compared to Eternity, what is a thousand years?”

Dante thought, Don’t write in order to be famous. You need to have a better reason when you write.

Oderisi continued, “Look at the soul just ahead. At one time everyone in Tuscany spoke about him, but now his name is barely mentioned even in Siena, the city he ruled. At one time, he had so much power that he could advocate that Florence be entirely destroyed. And Florence used to be proud, but now it is like a whore.

“Whatever fame you achieve on Earth will someday fade.”

Dante said, “Your words have made me less proud and more humble, but who is the person about whom you were speaking just now?”

Oderisi answered, “His name is Provenzan Salvani.”

Dante thought, Provenzan Salvani is Sienese, like Omberto Aldobrandesco. He is also a famous political figure. He and Farinata, who is in the Inferno, were the victors at the battle of Montaperti in 1260. Provenzan Salvani wanted to destroy Florence following the victory. Farinata, of course, did not want Florence destroyed because he wanted to rule the city. Farinata prevailed in the dispute.

Oderisi said, “Provenzan Salvani is here because he took pride in his political power. He has been here ever since he died.”

Dante said, “Provenzan Salvani delayed repentance until late in life. How was he able to begin climbing immediately? Most souls have to wait the amount of time that they had kept God waiting (unless aided by the sincere prayers of good people). Why didn’t God make Provenzan Salvani wait because Provenzan Salvani made God wait?”

Oderisi replied, “At the height of his power, Provenzan Salvani humbled himself. Charles of Anjou was holding one of Provenzan Salvani’s friends in prison. Charles declared that he would kill the friend unless the friend was ransomed for 10,000 gold florins. Provenzan Salvani got the money, although he had to beg for it in Siena’s marketplace. If anything is a sign of humility, begging is.”

Dante the Pilgrim thought, I can’t imagine Farinata begging. He is too proud. I saw him in the Inferno, and he looked like he was posing for a statue.

Oderisi continued, “Let me make a prophecy. Someday you, Dante, will learn the humility of begging.”

Dante the Poet thought, After I was exiled from Florence, I indeed had to beg for help from others.

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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