A snake in Paradise
In canto 7, Dante was still too distracted by the political issues brought up in canto 6 to focus on the actual landscape of the so-called “vale of princes”. But now that he’s had his rant, we finally get a better look at this mesmerising precursor to the Earthly Paradise which we will see at the end of Purgatorio.
Canto 8 opens with an image of sailors on a journey away from home, a theme that we are at this point more than familiar with both because of the fictional journey Dante the pilgrim- character is on and also because of real-life Dante’s exile.
But this opening sentiment of longing for home could be interpreted as a longing for the Kingdom of God. All the souls of Purgatory are on a long journey towards Paradise and, as will be revealed at the end of Purgatorio, humanity’s ultimate goal is to “return” to God and the state of holiness that was intended for it before Adam and Eve’s fall from grace.
And in fact, the first penitent that catches Dante’s attention stands up to sing a hymn to the coming darkness, with his eyes fixed upon the orient “as though to say to God: ‘For nothing else I care’”.
We already saw in canto 1 that earthly attachments are entirely left behind here when Cato admonished Virgil for trying to use his wife to gain Cato’s favour. Now we are explicitly told that the souls here only care about their safe and triumphant return to heaven.
The hymn sung in this canto - you will have noticed there’s a different one for every group of penitents - is ‘Te lucis ante’, the verses of which express the souls’ faith that God will look over and protect them during the coming night.
What could possibly happen during the night is revealed in the next verses, where we are told that three resplendent angels fly across the horizon and into the vale of princes, each holding a burning sword.
They are here because every night a serpent enters the vale, presumably to attack (or tempt) the penitents and it’s the angels’ job to banish it.
This is a pretty thinly veiled piece of religious theatre that harks back at the episode of temptation in the Garden of Eden. Even the flaming blades of the angels are reminiscent of the one that the angels wielded as he was expelling Adam and Eve from Eden.
But an important detail here is that the swords of the angels are blunt as if to say that the danger is actually rather small. The colour, too - green which symbolises hope - is reassuring of the fact that these souls are safe. God has welcomed them to the path of salvation; all they have to do is keep going.
That being said, there’s definitely a theme of betrayal in this canto, which Dante punctuates through the use of snake imagery.
In the previous cantos we saw this theme presented in the wider context of Italian politics. When writing about the penitents who had met their end violently, I wrote about how Dante depicts Italy as a tapestry of treacherous deaths and betrayals.
Now, he tackles the topic of disloyalty on a more intimate level.
After Sordello explains that the angels have arrived “from Mary’s breast” to protect the souls in the vale of princes, Dante joins the crowd and one of them quickly recognises him.
We’re told that the man is “judge Nino”, more specifically Nino Visconti, who was actually the grandson of Count Ugolino (via one of his daughters). You will remember Ugolino from Inferno 33 where he told the story of how he watched his children starve to death after his enemies imprisoned all of them in a tower.
Nino’s betrayal comes from his wife, who after his death abandoned his “Gallurian cockerel” for the viper of Milan - meaning she remarried, thus joining the Milanese Visconti clan, whose family emblem was the viper.
The female name that Nino actually mentions, though, is that of Giovanna, his daughter. This could be because he feel genuine affection for her and might worry about her fate in some other man’s house. But it’s more likely that he recognises her as the only person likely to still pray for him and therefore ease his way through Purgatory, which as we’ve already established, is the only thing the penitents care about.
The canto ends with another character, Currado Malaspina marquis of Villafranca, who was also a real historical figure and as it happens, his family were one of Dante’s patrons. He stayed with them for a time in 1306 and they even chose them to represent them in a peace negotiation with a bishop from a neighbouring region.
Dante takes advantage of the setting - the idyllic vale of princes - to describe what the ideal nobleman’s court should look like, which is no doubt based on his real political and civil views. But he’s also pretty obviously seizing the opportunity to flatter his benefactors.