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Purgatorio, Canto V

Virgil and Dante walk on. When the penitents in Purgatory see that Dante is a real person, not a shade like themselves, they can’t stop chattering among themselves about him. The Pilgrim is distracted. His master says: “Keep up with me and let the people talk! Be like a solid tower whose brave height remains […]


Virgil and Dante walk on. When the penitents in Purgatory see that Dante is a real person, not a shade like themselves, they can’t stop chattering among themselves about him. The Pilgrim is distracted. His master says:

“Keep up with me and let the people talk!

Be like a solid tower whose brave height

remains unmoved by all the winds that blow;


the man who lets his thoughts be turned aside

by one thing or another, will lose sight

of his true goal, his mind sapped of its strength.”


What could I say except: “I’m coming now”?

I read this aloud to Julie just now, and said, “That reminds me of the sermon we heard today.”

“That’s what I was thinking,” she said.

Father Matthew’s sermon here at the end of the first week of Lent was about the importance of sticking with the ascetic struggle. Here are the notes I made right after church of the main points of the homily:

What did you expect when you come to church? Comfort? No — it’s the Cross. We come to say, “I am sick, I want to be healed.” We don’t come for words that tickle our ears. We come to be healed. We come to say, “You are God, I am not, please help me.” The Lenten struggle is hard for all of us, but don’t complain, don’t be distracted, and don’t give in to self-pity. Gird your loins for battle! Break the stone in your chest.  Follow me through our struggle together, as I follow Christ.

What could I say but, “I’m coming now”?

Seriously, today’s sermon made Virgil’s point: that if we are going to complete our mission, we cannot let ourselves be distracted. If people think we’re odd, well, let them talk. We have somewhere to be. We have someone to become.

In this canto, Virgil and Dante meet the souls in Ante-Purgatory of those who died a violent death,

… sinners to our final hour;

but then the light of Heaven lit our minds,


and penitent and pardoning, we left

that life at peace with God, Who left our hearts

with longing for the holy sight of Him.”

In Dante’s world, all action is caused by desire, which is to say, love. When we desire the wrong things, or desire the right things in the wrong way, we sin. The penitents of this canto desired to see the face of God — and that desire spurred them to repentance at the very last second, which is why they are not in Hell. Their love of God, however faint, was enough.

One of these penitents, Buonconte from Montefeltro, says to Dante, “Oh, may the desire/that draws you up the mountain be fulfilled;/and you, please help me satisfy my own.” Notice that word: desire. Dante desires to climb the mountain, which is to say, to see, ultimately, the face of God. He faces an arduous struggle, but his right desire spurs him on. If you’ve read the Inferno, you know that the damned loved their own wills more than God’s. The souls in Purgatory desired God imperfectly, but that they desired Him — loved Him — opened the floodgates of His mercy.

Mark Musa’s translation misses the mark in a key line. The original Dante reads like this:

Io fui di Montefeltro, io son Bonconte

The literal translation is: “I was of Montefeltro; I am Buonconte,” which is how the Hollanders translate it. Musa renders it, “I am Buonconte, once from Montefeltro.” This misses a critical nuance, I think. Buonconte is saying here that the place he’s from is not who he is — that is, that his identity is not bound to his city, as it was in his earthly life. Buonconte, who was a real person, died in the battle of Campaldino, a decisive moment in the war between the Ghibellines and the Guelphs, which convulsed Florence. Get this — Dante Alighieri fought in the same battle, on the side of the Guelphs, while Buonconte fought for the Ghibellines. In other words, these two men were mortal enemies in life, but here in Purgatory, they meet peaceably. Dante knows that Buonconte died at Campaldino, but he doesn’t reproach the shade as an enemy; rather, he asks what happened to him. Robert Hollander points out that Dante doesn’t show a bit of triumphalism in his meeting with the fallen enemy leader.

The point here: the past is past, and old allegiances, which meant everything in life, matter not here in Purgatory. The terrible passage through death, which Buonconte recounts in great detail, robbed him of all that gave him dignity in life (if you read Inferno, compare him to the arrogant Farinata, who doesn’t seem to realize that he’s in Hell. Buonconte is poor in spirit; “no one, not even Giovanna [his widow], cares for me.” The other shades so far petition Dante to remind their loved ones to pray for them, because the prayers of the living help the dead acquire the spiritual strength to go up the mountain. Poor Buonconte doesn’t even have that hope; all he can do is ask Dante to tell his story when he returns, so that someone, anyone, might pray for him. The message Dante sends to the reader is, “Do not forget your dead in your prayers.” Again, we see here in Purgatory what is totally absent in Hell: a sense of community among the penitent, and a sense among them too that the living are part of the community, called the “communion of saints” in the Creed.

Buonconte’s father, Guido da Montefeltro, is in Hell; Dante ran into him in Canto XXVII of Inferno. We may see in comparing the fates of this father and son that when it comes to determining one’s eternal destiny, we really are alone. True, our families, our cities, our social class, and all the things that make up our habitus contribute to or detract from our ability to choose well. But the choice is our own. We are responsible. We are not fated to follow in our fathers’ footsteps. We are free.

But we are unavoidable linked to one another. The architecture of the Commedia is such that the themes of the numbered cantos parallel. Canto V of Inferno has Dante meeting Francesca, the adulteress killed by her jealous husband. She fell into passion with her brother-in-law, Paolo, after they had been reading love poetry together — including some written by Dante himself. One lesson of that encounter is that our actions, whether we intend them to be or not, are connected to the fates of others, even perfect strangers. Dante and Buonconte really did fight against each other at Campaldino. Perhaps Dante the poet feels implicated in the death of Buonconte, and tells his story here as a kind of atonement, because of basic human compassion. It is moving to observe that reconciliation and solidarity rules Purgatory, versus the spite and an atomized existence that marks Hell.

The final penitent who greets Dante here, asking for prayers, is one of the most memorable characters of the entire poem, because Dante sketched an entire character, and a whole life, in only four lines:

“Oh, please remember me! I am called Pia.

Siena gave me life, Maremma death,

as he knows who began it when he put

his gem upon my finger, pledging faith.”

Think of it! This is as short as an epitaph, but it boils down the drama of this woman’s life to its essence. Her name was Pia, born in Siena, and died in Maremma as the result of a marriage or betrothal that started a series of events culminating in her murder. It reminds me of the Six-Word Novel  attributed, probably inaccurately, to Ernest Hemingway:

For sale: Baby shoes; never worn.



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