Canto 12 is one of my favourites from Purgatorio. Incredibly well-paced, it has references to myth, symbolism, an angel, some Christian magic elements and even a smile from Virgil!
The opening quickly explains that after his conversations from the previous canto, Dante must now move along. As he and Virgil continue their journey, the latter tells him to turn his attention back to the carved marble mountainside to “pass the time”.
As if to create a contrast between the illuminator of manuscripts and his humble, marginal art, Dante begins a description of the marble mountainside again.
What he sees is a series of scenes on the theme of mankind’s fall from grace, beginning with Lucifer’s banishment from heaven and ending with the fall of Troy.
He sees a carving of the giant Briareus (remember him from Inferno 31), fallen before Zeus, Ares and Athena, who killed him after the giants took up arms against the Olympians.
He sees Nimrod, the kind who built the tower of Babel because he wanted to be like God.
He sees Niobe who boasted that she was better than Latona, Apollo and Diana’s mother because she had 14 children and Latona had only been able to produce two. Hearing of it, the two gods then murder all her children.
He sees Saul, the first king of Israel who fell on his sword after being defeated in the battle of Gilboa, where all three his sons were killed.
He sees Arachne, who was turned into a spider by Athena after she challenged the goddess to a tapestry-weaving competition.
He sees Rehoboam, king of Israel, who refused to lift the taxes imposed by his father, which caused the people to rise up against him and stone his general to death.
He sees Erpyle, who betrayed her husband for a necklace and was then murdered by the son.
He sees Sennacherib, king of Assyria, who was murdered by his sons,
He sees Thamyris, queen of the Scythians, who decapitated Cyrus II and flung his head in a container full of blood to avenge her son’s murder.
He finally sees Holofernes, general to Nebuchadnezzar, who was decapitated by Judith while besieging Bethulia.
The fund thing about this whole section is that there are 4 tercets starting with the letter V. 4 with the letter O and 4 with the letter M, spelling out the word VOM an abbreviation of uomo, which means man in Italian. And in fact, this section is a tragic summary of all mankind’s failures that originated in pride.
But this description is also another opportunity to mention the creative force and vitality behind a work created by divine will.
“The dead seemed dead, the living seemed alive”, he says in line 67.
This whole lap around the mountain still hasn’t brought them to the staircase leading up to the second terrace. But fear not - here comes and angel.
The angel of canto 12 is presented in stark contrast to the stern guardian of the gates of purgatory. Dressed all in white and incredibly helpful, the creature points the pilgrims to the staircase and then, turning around to fly off, brushes Dante’s forehead with its wings - a gesture that remains unexplained for several other verses.
Looking up at the point of crossing, Dante describes the staircase through a simile that refers to a real-life place in Tuscany - something we haven’t seen in a while. The staircase, he says, has the same slope as the steps that had once led from San Miniato into Florence.
Walking up the stairs, another hymn fills the space, this time Beati pauperes. For the first time, Dante brings our attention to the hymns by more than just mentioning them in passing. Here he tells us about it by contrasting it with the lamentations of hell, which is a rare reference to the previous realm.
As if to stress how different the journey through purgatory is, he also points out how easy it is to travel here, as opposed to hell. He is so surprised by the ease with which he is walking up the stairs that he feels compelled to ask what kind of magic makes it so easy to climb.
Virgil explains (and I use this term generously), that the closer the soul gets to heaven, the easier the road gets. He adds that as they make their way through a terrace one of the seven Ps that the angel carved on Dante’s forehead will disappear.
This is clearly symbolic of the process of purgation: each P stands for one of the seven capital sins and as Dante completes a terrace - and purges a sin - one letter will disappear.
The closing of the canto is very very silly.
Dante looks up at his forehead to see if one of the Ps has disappeared and realises that he can’t see, so he then touches his forehead with his hand and traces the remaining six scars.
Seeing this display of physical comedy, Virgil has no choice but to smile and the dumbass before him.