University Of Texas At Austin
new window for a closeup of Sordello new window for a closeup of Valley Of The Rulers new window for a closeup of Angels and Serpent new window for a closeup of First Night In Purgatory new window for a closeup of Dream Of Eagle new window for a closeup of Angel At The Gate new window for a closeup of Dante Marked With Seven Ps Valley Of Rulers Image
Notes:
 
Sordello. Canto 6.58-75;
Angels and Serpent. Canto 8.19-39, 97-108;
Angel at the Gate. Canto 9.76-132;
Virtues. Cantos 1.22-39, 7.34-6, 8.88-93;
Dream of Eagle and Ganymede. Canto 9.19-33
 
Gallery
 
Audio
 
Study Questions
 
Home
 

 
Bookmark and Share
Notes
 
Sordello. Canto 6.58-75
 
Sordello Icon  Sordello Icon  Sordello Icon
 
Like Virgil, Sordello is a poet from Mantua (a city in northern Italy) but he is from the Middle Ages (13th century, a generation or two before Dante) not the period of the Roman empire. Following a series of scandals (e.g., the alleged abduction of a nobleman's wife), Sordello left Italy and passed through various courts in Spain, France, and Provence. In 1241 he found stable residence at the court of Raymond Berenger, Count of Provence. Here Sordello worked in various administrative capacities until, having attained knighthood, he returned to Italy, where he died sometime around 1269. Sordello wrote poems in Provençal, including one on courtly virtue and another contrasting the good qualities of a dead nobleman with the deficiencies of contemporary European rulers.
 
Virgil and Dante see Sordello seated off by himself, like a lion at rest attentively eyeing the travelers as they approach. He is proud and dignified but very affectionate with Virgil when he learns they are from the same city. The love shown between Sordello and Virgil because of their common homeland triggers a long authorial diatribe against the violence, corruption, and lack of effective leadership up and down the Italian peninsular in Dante's time (6.76-151). Sordello accompanies Dante and Virgil to the Valley of Rulers in the Ante-Purgatory.
 
Back to top.
 
Angels and Serpent. Canto 8.19-39, 97-108
 
Angels And Serpent Icon  Angels And Serpent Icon  Angels And Serpent Icon
 
For the second time in the Divine Comedy, Dante throws down the gauntlet by challenging us to peer beneath (or through) the "veil" of his text and figure out the "true" meaning of what is happening (8.19-21). In the first instance, occurring at a location in the poem and journey (cantos 8-9 at the threshold of Lower Hell) symmetrical to the current episode, this allegorical truth likely involved the arrival and assistance of a heavenly messenger who bore a certain resemblance to both Christ and Hermes-Mercury.
 
The purgatorial scene, involving angels and a serpent, takes place as Dante and Virgil--led by Sordello--are observing and mingling with rulers in the valley. The action unfolds like a little show performed each evening for the benefit of the souls. Although it is a dramatic event for the visiting Dante (the only one still alive, he is understandably frightened), no one else displays great concern. Two angels--one from each side of the valley--descend and take defensive positions overlooking the valley. They are dressed in green (with green wings), have blonde features (their faces are so bright Dante can't make them out in detail), and each carries a sword that is aflame (red) but with no tip. White, green, and red are the colors of the three theological virtues: faith, hope, charity. The angels are awaiting the arrival of the serpent (devil), who finally appears among the grass and flowers as a small snake periodically turning around to lick its back; the angels quickly descend, drive off the overmatched snake, and return to their perches above the valley. Sordello says the angels "both come from Mary's bosom" (8.37).
 
The two hymns sung by the spirits in the valley may offer clues to the allegorical meaning of the scene. Dante first hears the shades singing "Salve, Regina" (7.82-3), a prayer to the Virgin Mary:
 
Hail, Queen of mercy, our life, sweetness and hope, hail! Moaning and crying, we sigh to you; exiled children of Eve, we call to you from this valley of tears. Come, therefore, our Advocate, turn those merciful eyes of yours on us and reveal to us, after this exile, Jesus the blessed fruit of your womb, O merciful, O tender, O sweet Mary.
 
The spirits sing the second hymn, "Te lucis ante," just before the angels arrive and take positions to guard the valley (8.13-18):
 
Creator of all things, before the end of light, we beg you to guard and protect us with your usual compassion. Let the dreams and fantasies of night retreat; repress our enemy lest our bodies be defiled. Grant this, almighty Father, through Jesus Christ the Lord who rules with you and the Holy Spirit forever.
 
Back to top.
 
Angel at the Gate. Canto 9.76-132
 
Dream of Eagle Icon  Angel At The Gate Icon  Angel At The Gate Icon  Angel At The Gate Icon  Dante Marked With Seven Ps Icon
 
This angel, overwhelmingly bright, is seated above three steps leading to the entrance-way (a gate) to the first terrace of Purgatory proper. His role is similar to that often associated with Saint Peter in the popular imagination. In one hand the angel holds a sword, which he uses to carve seven P's--one for each of the seven deadly sins, peccatum (or possibly the punishments, poenae, for these sins)--in Dante's forehead. The angel wears an ash-colored robe, from which he draws the two keys, one gold and one silver, he received from Peter to unlock the gate. These are the "keys of the kingdom of heaven" given to Peter by Jesus (Matt. 16:18-19). The angel's feet are planted on the top step, which is bright red (like blood); the middle step is cracked and dark in color; the bottom step is made of white marble, so pure that it reflects images. The steps, from bottom to top, appear to represent three stages of penance: recognition of one's sins, heartfelt contrition, and satisfaction.
 
Back to top.
 
Virtues. Cantos 1.22-39, 7.34-6, 8.88-93
 
Theological Virtues Icon 
 
When Virgil describes to Sordello his position in the afterlife (assigned to Limbo, the first circle of Hell), he says he resides among those who while "not clothed in the three holy virtues" did in fact follow the other virtues (7.34-6). These "other virtues" are the four cardinal virtues, also known as the moral or classical virtues: fortitude, temperance, justice, and prudence. Their place in medieval Christian thought, based on such classical authorities as Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, was established by Ambrose and, later, Thomas Aquinas. The three holy (or theological virtues) are faith, hope, and charity. They were first listed as a group by the apostle Paul (1 Cor. 13:13). The stars seen in Purgatory are likely meant to symbolize the virtues: Dante initially sees four stars that illuminate Cato's face (1.22-39), and he now learns that their position in the sky has been taken by three other stars (8.88-93).
 
Back to top.
 
Dream of Eagle and Ganymede. Canto 9.19-33
 
Dream of Eagle and Ganymede Icon  Dream of Eagle and Ganymede Icon  St Lucy Carrying Dante Icon
 
As he is carried in his sleep by St. Lucy to the threshold of Purgatory proper (9.49-63), Dante identifies with Ganymede and dreams he is hunted by a powerful eagle that snatches him up to the heavenly sphere of fire. Ganymede was a young Trojan prince, known for his beauty, abducted by Jupiter--in the form of an eagle--to serve forever as the god's cupbearer in Olympus. Virgil provides an animated depiction of the scene: "The royal boy, with javelin gives keen chase--he is panting--tiring running stags; and Jove's swift armor-bearer sweeps him up from Ida in his talons; and the boy's old guardians in vain implore the stars; the savage barking of the dogs disturbs the skies" (Aen. 5.252-7). Ovid's version (Met. 10.155-61), presented by Orpheus as an example of Jupiter's power, highlights an erotic dimension to the story often contained in Greek and Roman accounts:
 
The king of the gods was once fired with love for Phrygian Ganymede, and when that happened Jupiter found another shape preferable to his own. Wishing to turn himself into a bird, he nonetheless scorned to change into any save that which can carry his thunderbolts. Then without delay, beating the air on borrowed pinions, he snatched away the shepherd of Ilium, who even now mixes the wine cups, and supplies Jove with nectar, to the annoyance of Juno.
 
Ganymede was thus viewed as a symbol of male sexual love, particularly between a boy and a mature man, in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The word catamite, derived from a Latin form of Ganymede, indicates a boy who has a sexual relationship with a man.
 
[The double s sound repeated in Dante's verses is an example of onomatopoeia: the hissing words suggest the presence of fire, the sensation of which is so strong it causes the dreaming Dante to awaken:
 
Loading the player...

 
Poi mi parea che, poi rotata un poco
terribil come folgor discendesse,
e me rapisse suso infino al foco.
 
Ivi parea che ella e io ardesse;
e sì lo 'ncendio imaginato cosse,
che convenne che 'l sonno si rompesse. (9.28-33)
 
Then it seemed that, after circling a bit,
Like lightning, terrifying, he swooped down,
And snatched me up, all the way to the fire.
 
There it seemed we both burned;
And this imagined fire was so hot
It ended the dream as I was awakened.

 
Back to top.
 
Audio
 
Loading the player...

 
"Ahi serva Italia, di dolore ostello" (6.76)
Oh enslaved Italy, abode of suffering
 
Loading the player...

 
"Aguzza qui, lettor, ben li occhi al vero" (8.19)
Fix your eyes here, reader, firmly on the truth
 
Back to top.
 
Study Questions
 
1. Consider Virgil's discussion of his (former) body and his eternal spiritual state in Limbo (3.16-45; 7.22-36) in relation to Manfred (3.118-45) and Sordello (6.61-75; 7.1-21). How might these encounters influence Dante's (and our) perception of Virgil?
 
2. Dante (once again) asks his reader to look under the "veil of his verses" to find deeper meaning (8.19-21): given what occurs after this passage, how might we interpret this meaning? How might this episode relate to the previous address to the reader in the Inferno, which occurred in a somewhat similar location both textually (9.61-3) and geographically (at the threshold to the city of Dis)? What are Dante--and we--supposed to learn from these challenges?
 
3. What significance might we draw from Dante's dream (9.19-33), in which he imagines himself to be Ganymede, a beautiful shepherd boy taken to Olympus by Jupiter--in the guise of an eagle--to be the god's servant / lover?
 
Back to top.
 
Back to Purgatory main page

 
Link to Liberal Arts ITS