Three violent deaths
Canto 5 opens with a reaction from yet another group of penitents who, having noticed that Dante has a shadow, express wonder at his presence in Ante-purgatory.
This time though, Dante describes a kind of self-consciousness at being gawked at in this way. It must be written all over his face, because Virgil immediately steps in with a word of encouragement, saying that Dante should not let these people’s “whisperings” get to him (the Italian word used is “bisbigli” and I wanted to single it out because what a great word!).
It’s unclear to me why Dante should be so bothered by everyone’s interest in him, since he never was in Inferno - I realise he was probably too terrified to pay attention - but he is.
Virgil’s speech here is very “haters gonna hate” in tone: he says Dante should let the penitents, “say their say” and that he needs to “stand straight, a mighty tower unwavering”.
As another group approaches, this time walking and singing psalm 51, Miserere, Virgil tells them that indeed, Dante is alive and that he will listen to them. To Dante himself, he says that although he has no choice but to listen to the souls who will come to “pester him for prayers”, he should keep going.
It becomes clear that in addition to being surprised by Dante’s presence in one of the realms of the afterlife, the penitents want something from him. This is reminiscent of Inferno, where multiple sinners ask Dante to keep their memory alive once he returns to the world of the living. The souls of Purgatorio aren’t entirely dissimilar.
It has already been explained that the prayers coming from the living relatives of a dead penitent can help them speed up the redemption process, so it makes sense that the souls would ambush Dante with their stories and requests.
But I also think that there’s the same deep desire for recognition and commemoration of one’s life that we saw with the souls of the sinners in hell.
The first soul to speak asks precisely for that: is there anyone here you’ve seen before? If so, bear news of them beyond.
The speaker is Jacopo di Uguccione del Cassero, from the town of Fano, near the Adriatic sea, who had allied himself to the Florentine Guelphs and was subsequently betrayed by them. He explains, in fact, that he was violently killed (like everyone in this group, by the way), by Antenorians and we know from Inferno, 32, that one of the sections in circle 9 is called Antenora.
Jacopo had fought with Dante in the battle of Campaldino in 1289, a battle in which the second soul to speak to Dante also took part, albeit on the opposing side.
This is Buonconte da Montefeltro, son of none other than Guido da Montefeltro, whom we met in Inferno 27. Like his father, Buonconte was a Ghibelline and after the battle of Campaldino, his body was never found. Buonconte explains that moments after his death, heavy rain began pouring and carried his body away, never to be seen again.
He also makes a touching remark, saying “Giovanna (his wife) does not pray for me. None cares.”, which brings me back to my earlier thought about the dead’s desire/need to be remembered. The way they speak about it makes me think of being forgotten as a second death.
The last person to speak introduces herself as La Pia - I know, a woman!!!
Interestingly (or maybe not at all, knowing Dante) the only other woman we’ve seen Dante speak to so far was also in canto 5, when he met Paolo and Francesca in the circle of lust.
Similarly to Francesca, Pia dei Tolomei was also murdered by her crusty husband.
The canto ends with the few short verses Dante allows her, in which he remembers the ring that sealed her marriage and her death.
Before I go, I want to make a small note on the subtle political undertone of this canto.
Through these three violent deaths, Dante paints a picture of thirteenth-century Italy as a place of treachery, dishonour and domestic violence. This is nothing new considering the constant critiques of various Italian cities that we’ve seen throughout Inferno.
What’s most interesting here is the subtlety of the critique. We don’t see Dante explicitly lash out at anyone, quite the contrary, he places Buonconte, the son of his political adversary, in a place of hope, which I think suggests a newfound maturity. Considering how partisan his portrayals of Ghibellines were in hell, it’s impossible not to read into this sudden change of heart.
Could it be that, although he is still alive, Dante is also purging, not sins, but the resentment towards all the people he felt contributed to his exile, which he held on to for so long?
I guess we’ll have to find out.