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Dante meets and angel and a friend
So, Dante’s on the beach of Antepurgatory, tired and a bit confused. He looks at the sky - morning is just about to break - grateful to find himself again under the light of day. His eyes fall on the horizon where a bright circle of light is getting bigger and bigger.
As the light gets closer, Virgil elbows him and tells him to kneel. We’re in the presence of an angel.
The description of the angel is not exactly groundbreaking for the modern reader: white feathery wings that break through the wind and grant the creature incredible speed, and it shines so bright that Dante has to avert his eyes. (an excuse that he will use again, famously when he comes face to face with God, to get out of describing things).
But the cool thing about the angel (at least to me) is that it’s sailing some kind of spectral boat filled with the souls of people who have been granted the chance to redeem themselves.
Unable to look directly at the boat, Dante tells us he can hear them and they’re all singing the first line of Psalm 114, which as it so happens, tells the story of the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt where they had been enslaved. The choice is not casual - the souls arriving in Purgatory are about to be delivered from sin.
You’re probably thinking: souls crossing a river on a boat? we’ve seen this before…
And you are correct. We saw that in Dante’s depiction of hell, there is a space called Anteinferno, which also had a beach, where souls lined up and waited for Charon to pick them up on his boat and ferry them over the river and into hell proper. Well, Antepurgatory serves a similar function.
In fact, all the souls rush out of the boat and spill onto the beach and while the angel doesn’t poke or swear at them as Charon did at the sinners, he doesn’t seem to care about them beyond ferrying them over either. The newly arrived have no idea where they need to go, so much so that they ask Dante and Virgil if they could point the way to the mountain.
Virgil explains that they’re not exactly locals and if they took a closer look, they could all see that Dante is actually still alive and (hopefully) just passing through. But before any of the souls can verbalise the surprise on all of their faces, one of them breaks from the crowd and jumps towards Dante with a gesture of recognition. Dante seems to recognise him too and tries to hug him. But his arms pass right through the man. So Dante tries again. And again.
The theme of the failed embrace is more or less lifted from the Aeneid, where Aeneas meets his father in the Underworld and wants to hug him, but can’t because the man is just a spirit. It’s an incredibly painful moment. Aeneas sees Anchises for the first time after so long and his heart fills with joy at this opportunity to be with his father again, only to be cruelly reminded that the man is dead. Despite this brief reunion, they can never be truly together again.
In Purgatorio, the sadness remains but only on Dante’s side. The man “gently” tells Dante to stop trying to hug him, but doesn’t seem incredibly heartbroken about it. I’ve always read this as a representation of the headspace of the souls in purgatory. As we already saw with Cato, purgatory is the place where the individual must leave behind all their earthly attachments if they want to move forward, towards God. This soul knows he can’t hold on to the affections of his previous life, so not being able to physically hold Dante is something he has come to terms with.
But who is this man that Dante is so affectionate towards?
Casella, as Dante eventually calls him, was a florentine musician and Dante’s friend, who in the jubilee year of 1300 (as he explains in the following verses) went to Rome on a pilgrimage of all churches of the city and gained a pardon from Pope Boniface VIII.
It’s important to note here that Dante still hated Pope Boniface with the same passion he did when he wrote Inferno. Nonetheless, he clearly still respects the Church as a vessel of God’s grace and redemption in the world, so the edicts of the Church still hold some power, even if some of its ministers are corrupt.
And since Casella was a musician in life, Dante asks him if he might delight him with a song to reinvigorate him after the terrible journey through hell.
So Casella sings one of Dante’s own poems, “Love that speaks reasons in mind to me” (Amor che nella mente mi ragiona).
It was first published in Dante’s book Convivio, where it speaks of the way in which the human mind can admire the wisdom of God by looking at Creation since only the highest form of intellect could create such a perfect thing.
This is another not-so-subtle hint at the fact that purgatory is the place where reason overpowers passion.
Speaking of which, as soon as he hears singing, Cato reappears to tell the souls off for lingering around to delight in song instead of continuing the arduous journey of expiation.
So off they flutter, Dante says, like a flock of doves after being scared off by something or other. And so Dante and Virgil set off again, towards the mountain.