|NUMBER 3||FALL 1988|
In this canto there appear to be none of those cruces on which contemporary criticism often fastens as basic for the understanding of the poem's deeper meaning. It nevertheless contains some of the most vivid episodes of the journey, especially in its second part, involving the stories of three memorable characters.
As is characteristic of the whole cantica, and is especially evident in the first cantos, we find that the three souls we meet here are, by the very definition of their realm, in a liminal state between two forms of existence, the earthly and the celestial. They are gradually shedding the prejudices and passions that had made them cling to the illusory goods of their earthly existence, and getting ready, through their painful purgation, for the permanent bliss to come. We shall see how, by the very progression that distinguishes them among themselves, the three main characters are increasingly detached from the worldly values and increasingly ready for the final step.
In one of the more recent «lecturae» Giambattista Salinari (1969, 311 and 313f) finds that this canto is marked by a high degree of lyricism, considering the progression of the three generic ingredients of the whole poem, namely the descriptive (or epic), the dramatic, and the lyric. He also stresses here the particularly conspicuous presence of what he calls the three types of «contrappunto» in which Dante excels, namely the «horizontal» (when contrasting episodes are juxtaposed for the sake of variation and emphasis), the «vertical» (when over several characters the same situation or theme is developed through rising tonalities), and finally the «stylistic» (when in the same episode the epic or narrative element is expressed through elegiac description, the dramatic through dialogue, and the lyric through monologue). This is, in short exposition, an interesting analytic point that concerns a striking yet little noticed feature of Dante's method of composition, and which this writer has attempted to define and analyze under the term of «dialectic composition».
The structure of Purgatorio V leans, as it were, backward and forward, tying in with the conclusion of the episode of the lazy in the preceding canto and then concluding the episode of the violently slain, who properly occupy this canto, in the following canto, when the same group continues to crowd around Dante in order to secure prayers on their behalf from the living. This flowing of cantos into one another, though not exceptional, is particularly typical of this canto as well as of the whole group II-VIII of Purgatorio, namely that of the Antepurgatory, which the poet seems to have conceived as a rather tight subunit. In turn, this tying in with contiguous portions of the poem is achieved in a way that heightens the logical coherence of the narrative, since at the beginning of the canto it rests on the souls' discovering that Dante is alive (he alone casts a shadow: vv. 4-6: «Ve' che non par che luca / lo raggio da sinistra a quel di sotto, / e come vivo par che si conduca!», cries out one of the souls), and this realization gives them a chance to obtain, through his intercession when he is back in the earthly world, the prayers that can shorten their stay in Purgatory.
Dante had been surprisingly recognized as being alive before, even in the immediately preceding canto, but also in the Inferno (e.g. VIII 84f: «Chi è costui che sanza morte / va per lo regno de la morta gente?»; then by Farinata: «O Tosco che per la città del foco / vivo ten vai», X 22f; and again by Chiron among the Centaurs: «Siete voi accorti / che quel di retro move ciò ch'el tocca?», XII 80f, etc.), and this occurrence is a most efficient device for that effect of realism so uniquely produced by Dante's narrative method. Indeed both the theme of this discovery and that of the subsequent request for prayers, which have been brought to focus by critics, especially Hatzfeld, are not unique to this canto, but they are here more insistently repeated, so that they become, as is usual in Dante, one of the several themes that give each section of his poem a close inner consistency, rich in motivations and in tightly interlaced threads, narrative and argumentative. This recognition of Dante as a creature still of the earthly world goes together with the most pervasive feature of the whole canto, namely the insistent begging of Dante to obtain prayers for the souls of his interlocutors once he has returned to earth, in order to shorten their stay in Purgatory.
The canto has two major parts of almost equal length. The first (vv. 1-63) begins with a preamble, occupied by the twice repeated, surprised discovery of a living wayfarer in their midst (vv. 4-6 and 25-27), together with Virgil's admonition to Dante not to let himself be distracted and slowed down by such incidents. Virgil's rebuke to Dante for being too ready to listen to the souls' entreaties to the point of delaying his journey upward on the way to Grace (vv. 10-18) has been much discussed by the critics. The incident is perhaps to be understood as a moral lesson of a general nature that Virgil, solicitous but stern fatherly guide, chooses to enter at this precise point, after the repeated interruptions caused mainly by Casella, Manfredi, and Belacqua, the first of which had already given occasion to Cato's rebuke. We have then the major portion (vv. 64-136), itself in turn subdivided into the three discretely juxtaposed personal episodes of Iacopo del Cassero, Bonconte da Montefeltro, and Pia.
Dante's attitude toward the souls contrasts sharply with that in Hell. Whereas in Hell his treatment of the damned had become less and less empathetic and compassionate (as it had been, e.g., with Francesca and Brunetto) and more and more in harmony with the severity of the divine judgment, here we go from a high degree of human sympathy, even toward the faults of character (as is still the case with Belacqua), to that higher degree of admiration and reverence that we shall witness at the end of the purgatorial journey. In the particular case of Bonconte, Dante's compassionate interest in the fate of a former enemy marks his own moral and psychological progress toward the blessed forgiveness of Paradise.
As to the souls' personal attributes, we notice that they distinguish themselves from those we had encountered in Hell by the fact that, instead of being frozen in their sinful features, they display an increasing propensity to divest themselves of their more mortal characteristics, which they are in the gradual process of transcending until they will be completely purified and cleansed of their mortal dregs. In this process of purification they are still subjected to a certain form of «contrappasso». Whereas Belacqua is still the lazy character he had been throughout his life, the violently slain of the present canto show from the beginning an unusual degree of speed, which reminds us of their active lives. Characteristically, the messengers sent 'running' to inquire about Dante return, with the surprising news of his being alive, 'with the speed of lightning' (vv. 17-40), whereupon the whole group rushes toward Dante and Virgil (sanza freno, v. 42).
The souls of the new group, that of the dead by violence who repented only on point of death, hence died without last rites, appropriately go around the terrace singing the «Miserere», the canonical prayer for God's mercy and the cleansing of guilt (Psalm 51, or 50 in the Vulgate). A key word pertaining to their state and specifically to their moral condition on point of death is the perdonando of v. 55 («pentendo e perdonando»). They ended their lives repenting of their life-long sins and forgiving their enemies __ this latter being a necessary condition of true repentance. We shall have to keep this forgiveness in mind, for it will affect the tone and substance of their narratives, in all explicit or implied details.
The first character we now meet is Iacopo del Cassero (b. ca. 1260), member of an ancient noble family from Fano and one-time Florentine ally who had been podestà of Rimini in 1294 and of Bologna in 1296-7. He had vigorously defended Bologna's independence from the machinations of the ambitious Marquis of Ferrara, Azzo VIII of Este (1293-1308), even to the point of spreading defamatory rumors about the latter's personal life. The marquis vowed revenge and had Iacopo murdered by his henchmen in 1298 while Iacopo was journeying just outside the Este territory, on his way to the new office of podestà of Milan.
The motif of the blood in Iacopo's story is heightened almost to the status of a Leitmotif by a repetition that frames the whole episode, since it appears both in the initial lines (78f: «li profondi fori / ond'uscì 'l sangue in sul qual io sedea») and as a closing brushstroke («e lì vid'io / de le mie vene farsi in terra laco», vv. 83f), thus becoming a sort of obsessive accompaniment of his recollection of the facts. Several critics, Grabher and Puppo among them, have underlined this sense of surprise at the separation of the soul from the body, this pervasive feeling of the actual occurrence of death that is typical of the present group of souls, as expressed here, first, by the visual separation of the soul and the vital spirits in which it was supposed to reside __ typically, and traditionally, the blood __ from the remainder of the body. The most striking detail here is precisely the closing image of Iacopo watching his life element, his blood, leaving his body and forming a red pool around him. This plastic image expresses all the surprise and horror that is one of the pervasive themes of the whole canto. Bonconte will also linger, in his own story, on the moment of dying, and Pia, in a uniquely personal reference, will refer to her end as an «unmaking» of her body (disfecemi Maremma).
Yet the deep meaning of the episode, which corresponds to that of the others of this canto, is one of meek acceptance or at least forgiveness toward the violence suffered. Even while Iacopo does not refrain from the just charge that his murderer, Azzo VIII, exceeded all bounds in his revenge, he does recognize that he had provoked his enemy to anger with his own gravi offese (v. 72, presumably referring to his vicious rumors against the lord of Ferrara). Perhaps the reference to Azzo as simply quel da Esti betrays Dante's own irritation at the behavior of that lord, who as Florence's ally had helped to persecute the Guelph exiles. Likewise, his calling the Paduans «Antenori» (v. 75: from the archtraitor Antenor, Padua's mythic founder) may contain an implication of treacherous attitudes, since he had called «Antenora» the infernal region of political betrayers of country or party.
The next character is Bonconte da Montefeltro (ca. 1250/55-1289), son of that famous condottiere Guido we remember from Inferno XXVII, and himself, as an active military man, deeply involved first in the strife between Guelphs and Ghibellines within the commune of Arezzo, then in the military encounters between the Ghibelline Arezzo and both the Sienese and, later, the Florentines, and finally a Ghibelline participant in the battle fought at Campaldino on June 11, 1289, by the Aretines against Guelph Florence, in which Dante himself had participated as a horseman («feditore a cavallo»). Line 88 with which he identifies himself, «Io fui di Montefeltro, io son Bonconte», will be echoed in the later «Cesare fui e son Giustiniano» (Par. VI 10), and may be similarly explained by the principle that titles of social and human privilege do not hold in the other world, like that of count (of Montefeltro), emperor, or even pope (cf. Inf. XXXIII 13: «Io fui conte Ugolino», and Adrian V in Purg. XIX 99: «Scias quod ego fui successor Petri»).
Dante asks Bonconte to disclose how his body had mysteriously disappeared from the battlefield. In the way he tells his story Bonconte too shows a detachment from the emotional involvement of the battle, but his narrative marks a poetic step forward in that it is more vivid and dramatic than that of Iacopo, not because of greater personal attachment to the affairs of the world, but on account of a new factor that intervenes at this point, and that gives Bonconte's end the dimensions of an event invested with cosmic and theological meanings of the highest order. He will tell how the devil, angry at having lost a soul which he had taken for granted, took revenge on the body by causing a storm that swept it into the Arno and covered it with debris. (Dante's own recollection of the weather conditions on the day of the battle is confirmed in Dino Compagni's Cronica I 10.)
The motif of the blood, a plastic visualization of the violent end of these characters, ties Bonconte's story to that of Iacopo. Bonconte staggers away from the battlefield mortally struck with a deep wound in his throat; fleeing on foot he leaves a long trace of blood on the ground until he reaches the point where the Archiano joins the Arno: «forato ne la gola, / fuggendo a piede e sanguinando il piano» (vv. 98f). Incidentally we observe here that, differently from Hell, where the souls were «deprived of the present», in that they were without knowledge of present events on earth, here in Purgatory, for example, Bonconte knows that his family has forgotten him («Giovanna o altri non ha di me cura», v. 89). At the same time, the living are placed by divine will in an inherent bond with the souls of the dead insofar as, by their prayers, they can shorten their sufferings in Purgatory.
It is interesting to note that such a perceptive and penetrating reader of Dante as John Ruskin (Modern Painters III, 1856, p. 252, also quoted by Longfellow in his translation of the Commedia) referred admiringly to the Bonconte episode with the words: «There is, I feel assured nothing else like it in all the range of poetry; a faint and harsh echo of it, only, exists in one Scottish ballad, 'The twa corbies'» (also well known in the English version «The three ravens»). Ruskin held Dante as a supreme example of the aptitude to describe the inner and outer world in the manner of the poets «of the first order», those, that is, who are capable of strong feelings and passions but can master them in their objective representation, in contrast to the poets «of the second order» who are subjectively swayed by their imaginations into quasi-literal renditions of the poetic metaphors (cf. «The Pathetic Fallacy», ibid., IV).
The cosmic principle and romantic drama of Bonconte's end contrast with the preceding visually constrained staticity of Iacopo's narrative and the ensuing peacefulness of Pia's psychological state, the whole sequence being marked by an admirable climax. I would not hesitate to suggest that there is no more eloquent precedent to the natural romantic furies to which such nineteenth-century fiction as Wuthering Heights has accustomed us. The devil's power to trigger such natural phenomena as storms was sanctioned by St. Thomas' Summa (I quaestio CXII, art. 2). As part of Bonconte's 'detached', objective attitude toward his end, it is also noteworthy that his dramatic telling of that supernaturally determined event is prefaced by an Aristotelian scientific-naturalistic explanation of the origin of rain (vv. 109-11).
The devil's refusal to accept the divine verdict underlines the seeming theological paradox of God's infinite mercy and willingness to save a soul even only for one final little tear, una lagrimetta (v. 107) and this contrasts with the fate of Bonconte's father Guido da Montefeltro, who, as shown in Inferno XXVII, lost his soul after a similar battle between St. Francis and the «black cherub» for one last, unrepented sin, even after years of full conversion as a Franciscan friar. Dante also stressed this theological principle in the episode of Manfredi (Purg. III), with the particular twist of warning against hasty judgment even in the face of a formal verdict of excommunication by the Church. In all these three cases Dante's message is that the true issue of human actions can only be determined by God, in spite of all appearances and against all human judgments, even when sanctioned by the loftiest institutions.
Critics have speculated about the possible sources of this powerful Dantesque scene, and without detracting from Dante's originality one can think of the many medieval battles over the soul of a deceased, which often hark back to the contest between Michael the archangel and the devil for the body of Moses in Jude's Epist. 9. But even the theological texts often mentioned this «common belief that angels and devils would come for the soul at death and would struggle for possession of it». St. Bonaventura, e.g., an authority well known to Dante, stresses this belief (both in his Comm. in Sent. Petri Lombardi, IV XX i, a. I, q. 5, and in his Sermones de Sanctis, cf. Singleton's commentary, pp. 103f). Furthermore, the struggle between the good and the bad angel over the soul at point of death can be likened not only to the fate of Bonconte's father Guido (with opposite outcome), but to Manfredi's episode.
The narrative proceeds by extremely realistic details: Iacopo had referred to the topographic site of his murder and to his profondi fori, Bonconte to his being forato ne la gola and, more importantly, to the precise details of the location of the battle and of his supernatural burial. By sharp contrast, Pia's story, which follows the epic tone of Iacopo's and the dramatic tone of Bonconte's with a new tone of elegy in a pianissimo timbre (the word is Bosco's), is intentionally sparing in all concrete details about her final outcome, leaving it to the reader (and a host of critics) to try to guess exactly how her life came to an end. Yet murdered she was, but the only one who knows how, she strongly hints, is her husband. This is a remarkable case of functionally poetic silence that expresses a clear indictment but without any involvement in anger or resentment. Her pianissimo is put all the more into relief by its following, by another most effective dialectic contrast, so suddenly upon the violent and noisy storm of Bonconte's end. Another contrasting feature is Pia's uniquely different way of asking for prayers, which is also a «constant» of this canto from beginning to end. After the «petulant» (Bosco) insistence of the crowding souls in the first part of the canto, after the courteous but explicit directness of Iacopo's and Bonconte's requests, Pia, alone among all the souls of Purgatory, subordinates her timid request to the expressed hope that Dante may get, first, the rest he will deserve and need at the end of such a strenuous journey: «Deh, quando tu sarai tornato al mondo, / e riposato de la lunga via», vv. 130f.
Pia tells her story by making the Maremma the grammatical subject of her murder rather than the culprit who committed it, her husband: «Siena mi fe', disfecemi Maremma» (v. 134). Nor does she describe the manner of her violent death, in sharp contrast with the two preceding victims, even though the verb she uses, «disfecemi», implies more than enough of the violence that had occurred. Hatzfeld (p. 786) is one of the many critics who have insisted on Pia's «grazia femminile», a shining example of the «eterno femminino» in the sense of her aptitude to forgive, an aptitude which stands out by the relative, dramatic contrast with the preceding bloody descriptions of the manner of death, thus ending the whole canto on a high note of catharsis. The conclusive gentleness, generosity, and serene acceptance of her fate closes the canto in a way that echoes back on the other episodes as well. Her words are informed by a sad sense of loneliness: she does not even hope for anyone in particular to pray for her, and only hopes that Dante himself will be able to «remember» her. It is relevant to keep in mind that the image we receive of her personality effectively neutralizes and all but obliterates, by poetic means, our eventual afterthoughts concerning her possible culpability (since, after all, she is in Purgatory as a sinner to the end of her life) perhaps in her very relationship toward her husband (the legend did speculate on a possible adultery).
Ever since the earliest times the commentators have commonly surmised, without clear evidence, that Pia was from the Sienese Tolomei family, married to Nello della Pietra dei Pannocchieschi, podestà of Volterra and Lucca, who had her murdered either because of jealousy over her behavior or because he wanted to marry a Margherita Aldobrandeschi. Despite the absence of any records of a Pia either in Nello's well-documented family history or in the history of the Tolomei family, the fact remains that Dante never gratuitously invents characters, but draws them from history, chronicle, or, at least, myth. One rather sophisticated hypothesis (cf. Varanini in Enciclopedia Dantesca) has it that Pia was not a Tolomei but a Sienese Malavolti, married to a Tollo da Prata in Maremma, and that Nello, whom she never married, ordered the widowed Pia murdered, for unknown reasons. The legend of their marriage would have been formed later. In any event, since the traditional genealogy originates with the earliest commentators, it seems fair to assume that it was what Dante, correctly or not, believed to have happened.
Pia's position in the topography of the Commedia gives reason to assume a significant parallelism with the somewhat analogous female characters who appear toward the beginning of each cantica, namely Francesca (Inf. V) and Piccarda (Par. III). All three are unusually gentle toward Dante, all three had been the victims of their husbands, yet, when seen in succession, they mark an interesting and telling progression from Francesca's complete, tragically lasting involvement in human passion, to Pia's transcending her private affairs in a willful state of preparation for the final, total salvation of her soul, and lastly to Piccarda's having reached the complete identification with divine will, as expressed in the memorable line, «E 'n la sua volontade è nostra pace» (Par. III 85; cf. Ephesians II 14, «ipse enim est pax nostra»).
Frail Pia is, or at least appears to be, impotent vis-à-vis her lordly husband, yet she triumphs in the end through the force of her love, that transcends even the murderous cruelty of a husband who perhaps did not deserve her, but whom she vanquishes by still loving him. In her supreme charity of forgiveness, poetically heightened by the juxtaposition to the differently slanted contiguous stories, Pia marks a climax: she comes last because she is the closest to God as the most ready for total love. The dialectical contrast between this abruptly peaceful ending and the fury of the highly emotional, bloody, and tempestuous stories that immediately precede (vv. 64-129), is another example of Dante's unprecedented and uniquely effective method of arranging the parts of his poem by frequent variations in mood in the form of dialectically contrasting episodes, somewhat like the movements of a sonata (cf. Scaglione). This discreet, subdued ending suggestively closes a canto that had been so full of dramatic action.*
* A slightly shorter version of this paper is to appear in the forthcoming Lectura Dantis Californiana, vol II. I acknowledge the kind permission of the University of California Press for pre-publication of my essay.
The most significant lecturae of this canto are: Umberto Bosco, «Iacopo del Cassero __ Bonconte __ Pia» (1953), in Dante vicino (Caltanissetta: Sciascia, 1966), pp. 139-50; Carlo Grabher, «Il canto V del Purgatorio» (Firenze: Sansoni, 1942), repr. as «Iacopo del Cassero, Buonconte da Montefeltro e Pia de' Tolomei», in Antonino Pagliaro, ed., La Divina Commedia nella critica, II: Il Purgatorio (Messina-Firenze: D'Anna, 1965), pp. 142-153; Helmut A. Hatzfeld, «Il canto V del Purgatorio», in Giovanni Getto, ed., Letture dantesche, II (Firenze: Sansoni, 1962); Angelo Jacomuzzi, «Il canto V del Purgatorio», Lettere Italiane, XXVIII (1976), pp. 3-17; Nuove Letture Dantesche (Casa di Dante in Roma), III (Firenze: Le Monnier, 1969), pp. 311-331 (by Giambattista Salinari); Mario Puppo, «Canto V», in Lectura Dantis Scaligera: Purgatorio (Firenze: Le Monnier, 1963), repr. in Silvio Pasquazi, ed., Aggiornamenti di critica dantesca (Firenze: Le Monnier, 1972), pp. 439-45; Corrado Ricci, «Jacopo del Cassero, Buonconte e la Pia», in Ore ed ombre dantesche (Firenze: Le Monnier, 1921), pp. 249-83; Pasquale Vannucci, Il canto V del Purgatorio: Lectura Dantis Romana Torino: SEI, 1961); William Warren Vernon, Readings on the Purgatorio of Dante, chiefly based on the Commentary of Benvenuto da Imola, I (London: Macmillan, 1889, 3d ed.: ibid.: Methuen, 1907), pp. 149-184. __ Further analyses bearing on the canto can be found in the following: Vittorio Ugo Capone, «La nostalgia della Pia», Civiltà teologica e civiltà cortese (Roma: Istituto Editoriale del Mediterraneo, 1974); Francesco D'Ovidio, Studii sulla Divina Commedia (Milano-Palermo: Sandron, 1901), pp. 59-61; Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, trans. with a commentary by Ch. S. Singleton, Purgatorio, II (Princeton: UP, 1973); Dante Alighieri, La Divina Commedia, eds. U. Bosco and G. Reggio (Firenze: Le Monnier, 1982); Isidoro Del Lungo, «Dante e gli Estensi», Nuova Antologia, XVI (1887), pp. 549-77; Enciclopedia Dantesca (Roma: Istituto dell'Enciclopedia Italiana, 1970), ss. vv. «Del Cassero (Iacopo)» by Giovanni Fallani, «Montefeltro (Bonconte da)» by Giorgio Petrocchi, «Pia» by Giorgio Varanini, etc.; Aldo Scaglione, «Sonata Form and Structural Strategy in the Divina Commedia», Studies in the Italian Renaissance: Essays in Memory of A. B. Ferruolo, eds. G. P. Biasin, A. N. Mancini, & N. J. Perella (Naples: Società Editrice Napoletana, 1985), pp. 13-26; Francesco Tateo, «Senso morale...», Studi di letteratura italiana in onore di Calogero Colicchio, ed. V. Paladino (Messina: EDAS, 1983), pp. 35-61; Gianluigi Toja, «Buonconte da Montefeltro», Studi in onore di Alberto Chiari (Brescia: Paideia, 1973); William Warren Vernon, The Contrasts in Dante: A Lecture delivered at the University on 24th October 1906 (Manchester: UP, 1906).