Purgatorio by Dante Alighieri, Translated by Mark Musa


Goodreads: Purgatorio
Series: Divine Comedy #2
Source: Purchased
Published: 1985


Having emerged from hell to see the stars, Virgil and Dante continue on through purgatory.  There Dante witnesses the souls who delight in the punishments that purify them and allow them to see the face of God.


I have always been a little disappointed that most people only read Dante’s Inferno because I think the books increase in beauty as they go along.  Furthermore, only reading the Inferno gives some readers the impression that Dante delights in gore and in sending people to hell.  Maybe he does a little–Pope Boniface VIII sure receives no mercy from him–but Dante is also interested in divine justice, free will, charity, and the glory of God.  It’s hard to receive a well-rounded understanding of Dante’s understanding of these concepts when readers are stuck feeling miffed that Dante is being oh-so-judgmental and damning them for things many readers wouldn’t even call a sin these days.

Reading Purgatorio can help reveal more about Dante’s beliefs, however, as it shows souls guilty of the same sins for which some are burning in hell–but the souls here are on their way to heaven.  The difference?  These souls repented before they died.  The souls in hell knew they were committing a mortal sin and separating themselves from God, but they did not care.  They, in Dante’s view, chose their own destiny.  The souls in purgatory chose differently, allowing for what I think is the most beautiful moment in the trilogy–Manfred’s smile.

Manfred, you see, was an apparently utterly horrible person who killed a few family members during his lifetime as he sought to gain political power.  Most people wouldn’t expect to see him on his way to heaven and possible a good many people wouldn’t want to see him going to heaven.  But divine mercy knows no bounds and Manfred, who was excommunicated by the Church, tells Dante that “The church’s curse is not the final word,/ for Everlasting Love may still return,/ if hope reveals the slightest hint of green” (Purg. III.133-35). Talk about a powerful moment.

This moment also reveals another aspect that makes Dante so lively, so complicated, so perplexing, so alive.  Even though I have met some readers who have cast Dante as a curmudgeonly and apparently stupid (I know, I know) follower of the Church who can’t think for himself but blindly follows whatever the Church says, Dante is actually always questioning his own faith.  He’s grappling with the same problems readers are.  If these sinners are so sympathetic, why are they in hell?  If this guy was saved, why wasn’t the other guy?  How can it be that my favorite poet ever, Virgil, is stuck in Limbo just because he has the misfortune to be born before Christ?  Is any of this fair?  I don’t understand.  It’s true that Dante ultimately tends to confirm the wisdom of the Church, even if he doesn’t understand it and even if he doesn’t seem to like it, but he isn’t blindly content with it.  And he’s confident enough to believe he can question his faith and that, if it’s true, it will stand up to the test.

So cast aside your preconceptions of who Dante is and what he wrote.  The complexity, daring, beauty, and imagination of his work may surprise you.

5 starsKrysta 64

4 thoughts on “Purgatorio by Dante Alighieri, Translated by Mark Musa

  1. Dennis Fleming says:

    Thank you for going beyond the Inferno. Too often it’s not the Divine Comedy but the Divine (mostly Hell, but some other stuff too). Someone (I want to say Croce, but who knows) described Hell as addressing the effects of sin and Purgatory as addressing its causes. The movement of the prose seems to be directed toward hope rather that lagging and drowning like in Hell.
    You’re right that some who should be damned are somehow saved. Cato, a pagan and a suicide,should be in the 7th circle. Yet he somehow greets the souls entering the path to heaven. Dante isn’t so much following dogma (i.e. the strictures of the Church) as much as the underlying Christianity. He was a white Guelph which means he supported the papacy, but limited its power to the spiritual. He recognized the Church had its sources of corruption and put a pope in hell who, though dead by the time of writing, was not dead at the time the story takes place.


    • Krysta says:

      I think it’s a shame most people only read Inferno, but I’m sure it’s mostly a time constraint, at least in university courses. When you can only fit eight books on the syllabus, you might not want three to be Dante, unless you’re teaching a Dante course. But Dante’s vision is really incomplete without all three books. I routinely see individuals who are disgusted at how mean and unfair Dante is because it’s difficult for them to see him working with the idea of free will when they only see damned souls. I have to keep reminding readers that you can commit sins of lust, treachery, etc. and still going to heaven–if you CHOOSE to. But first, Dante says, you must repent. Manfred is my favorite because he illustrates that principle so aptly. Terrible person in life by all accounts, but on his way to heaven in Dante’s poem.

      Ah, yes. Cato, Ripheus, etc. are all really challenging because they make Limbo seem even worse. If SOME people could be saved from Limbo even if they were unbaptized, why not all? Why must we leave Virgil behind at the end of Purgatorio?

      Ser Branca D’Oria, you mean? I don’t think he was a pope though there are a number of them in Circle VIII among the simonists. The prediction that Boniface VIII will join them gets me every time. We know you hate him, Dante, we know!


  2. Dennis Fleming says:

    You’re right. I was thinking of Fra Albergio and somehow conflating him with Boniface. It’s been a while since I read it. As for Cato, he was in purgatory which makes it all the more puzzling. My teacher, James Chiampi, always liked to point out how Virgil was limited in that he had only reason and perceptions of a fallen reality. While in hell he was free and easy, but in the realms of god he starts to bluster. His attempts to butter up Cato by appealing to his love of Marcia fails. Cato now has the vision of god’s reality and not the limited, fallen vision we see in hell. Still, he got there by committing suicide in the name of freedom. Weird.


    • Krysta says:

      Yes, Cato’s inclusion at the base of purgatory is also confusing for readers! Again it seems unfair that he should get to be there and not Virgil, whom we’ve spent time with and have come (presumably) to know and love, at least a little. I find Virgil’s fading away at the end of Purgatorio to be heart-wrenching each time.


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