Purgatorio [1]

The second canto of the poem takes the reader to a new world, where hope follows despair and sunlight follows darkness. As though reborn, man has left the abyss of eternal pain and is heading toward his homeland of eternal happiness.
However, this is place is not a final destination; it is a place to pass through. Here, time flows as it does on earth, and like earth, there is pain and suffering. Indeed, this is the place where man completes what he lacked in his earthly journey in order to “become worthy to ascend to heaven.”
Of the three realms, this second kingdom appears to be the newest in terms of invention—in its location and physical configuration, and in the spirit that pervades it. All in all, one can rightly say it is entirely Dante’s creation.

The mountain in Dante’s Purgatorio rises up from an island in the southern ocean, at the opposite pole from Jerusalem.  It rises high into the sphere of the moon, enveloped by the sun and with the verdant green of the earthly paradise at its peak. There are no demons here—they would be unthinkable in this environment. Instead, there are gentle (sweet) and luminous angels, a gentle sky, a gentle landscape; prayers, songs and chants coursing all over the mountain. Its inhabitants are meek and kindhearted; their words express deep repentance, sure hope, and a humble plea for help.
Thus, at one end of the terrestrial globe, there is Eden, the place of guilt; and at the opposite end, Jerusalem, the place of redemption, “where its Maker shed His blood” (Purgatorio XXVII, 2), as Dante phrases it. Deep below the mountain lies the place of eternal punishment, while the slopes of the mountain, rising toward the return of lost innocence, are the place of purification, where one finds the repentant sinners who have been saved from that death.
Throughout the Purgatorio there is an aura that is difficult to define, a kind of quiet enchantment, which captivates the reader from the beginning with the sweet explanation of the blue color of the sky. Every horror, every harshness is banished, from the visible forms in the environment, as well as from the souls, the words that are spoken, and from the poetic language itself. Even the definition of one’s character, so relevant in the Inferno and so morally indicative, here seems to soften and diminish. The human figure that stood proud in Hell—as embodied by Farinata—here bends and bows like a reed on the shores of Purgatory. He is made similar to a sheep, a dove, or a tame goat resting in the shade.
Recognizing the significance of this change and perceiving the spirit of the subtle aura that envelops everything, gives one the key to understanding Dante’s Purgatorio, through the profound beauty that sets it apart.
What distinguishes the damned in the Inferno from the saved in the Purgatorio—and thus creates the different spirits that characterize the two canticles—is not sin or its quality (there are even worse sinners in Purgatory than in Hell), or even virtue, which no one mentions here. Rather, it is something else; something that Dante calls “turning to God”, that is, the conversion of the heart. Thus, Manfred says in Purgatorio III, 122-123: “Goodness has arms so wide that It accepts / all those who would return, imploring It”; Oderisi says in Purgatorio XI, 89-90: “and I’d not be here yet, had it not been / that, while I still could sin, I turned to Him”; and Adrian V says in Purgatorio XIX, 106: “Alas! How tardy my conversion was”! Moreover, this is a fact that relates to the spirit and not to morality.

This is the essential point that characterizes all these souls, many of whom had been gravely sinful. Each of them had a moment, often their last, of abandoning themselves to God. We remember Buonconte: “and there, as I / had finished uttering the name of Mary, / I fell…” (Purgatorio V, 101-102); or Sapia: “I looked for peace with God at my life’s end” (Purgatorio XIII, 124-125). They had not been saved by their virtues, just as others had not been lost because of their sins.
Now this “turning to” or conversion—the term used in Christian theology—changes a man on the inside, and thus, the human figure appears very different in the second canticle than in the first. This change produces a certain quality in those souls, a character which seems to mark the whole of the Purgatorio. To try to define it, you might use the term Dante most often uses—“gentleness” (sweetness).
As Dante’s Purgatorio is gentle in its appearance, so too the mindset of its inhabitants is mild. None of them claim or demand rights. None of them consider themselves great or otherwise self-sufficient. Rather, they humbly request and pray for the help of others. Moreover, on the top of the mountain, in Eden, which is both a place and a symbol of human nature perfected, Dante, confused and bewildered, addresses Beatrice and makes his dramatic confession, sealed with a torrent of tears.

London, British Library, Yates Thompson Manuscript 36, 1444-1450 A detail of a miniature in folio 119 by Priamo della Quercia, from canto XXIX of the Purgatorio, showing the mystical procession, a complex allegory of the Church. (Source: http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/ILLUMIN.ASP?Size=mid&IllID=56714).

This is the moment that changes his life—and this is the unique secret of the Divine Comedy—Dante’s characters have spoken about the moment that changed their lives: Manfred and Buonconte have shed tears, and now it is Dante who sheds them. Therefore, as it was for them, so it is for him—the shedding of tears is the only price that God requires to enter His kingdom, in other words, man must make that inner change which takes him beyond himself, into the divine dimension, as will happen to Dante in canto I of the Paradiso.

[1] The content of this article is taken from: Dante Alighieri, Commedia, con il commento di Anna Maria Chiavacci Leonardi, Bologna, Zanichelli, 2001, La seconda cantica pp. I-IX.