Canto 14 brings an entirely new opening style to the poem. The first six verses are a sliver of a conversation between two people who haven’t been introduced and who will remain unnamed for the first half of the canto.
The topic of conversation? Dante.
As Dante and Virgil continue their journey through the second terrace, Dante hears a man ask his neighbour if he knows who is “circling around our Hill before death’s given him the right to fly?”
The reply, considerably more measured, is that the first penitent should ask, but do so gently and respectfully, so as to ensure Dante’s goodwill.
In case you’ve forgotten which sin is being purged on this mountain terrace, the slightly territorial, and even jealous tone of the first should give you a clue. The question of Dante’s identity is punctuated by a sense of envy coming from the speaker who notes that Dante is still able to open and close his eyes at will (unlike the envious whose eyes have been sewn shut).
When the penitent finally addresses himself to Dante, he does so by confessing that everyone on the terrace “marvels at the grace” that God has shown Dante in allowing him to undertake this journey while “still fixed in mortal limb”.
But despite being the subject of jealousy for his privileged spiritual status, Dante is hesitant to reveal his identity.
As is ashamed to simply say “I’m from Florence and my name is Dante”, he places his origin through one of his classic euphemisms, saying that he comes from the bank of the one river that runs through Tuscany (meaning Arno). He also adds that it would be pointless to say his name because his name is at this point in time meaningless since he is yet to achieve anything.
But the acute critical sense typical of the envious doesn’t let this attempt at modesty slide and the first speaker asks the question that has been on our minds since we started reading this poem: why would Dante insist on using all these complicated ways of describing a place instead of just saying its name??
My answer is somewhere between “to show off” and “to piss us off”, but to the envious penitent, the fact that Dante doesn’t explicitly name his place of origin must mean that he is ashamed to come from such a corrupt land.
At this point begins a lengthy diatribe against Florence, and Tuscany more generally, as a place whose name should die, followed by everyone in it.
Tuscans, he says, flee virtue as if it were a snake - that’s how “pierced by wickedness” a place Tuscany is. The whole place is populated by people so changed in nature that you’d think they eat on Circe’s pastures, he says, which is a polite way of calling them pigs.
Swine, in fact, reside at the source of the river. As the valley moves south, the still unnamed penitent categorises the inhabitants of the various Tuscan cities into mongrel dogs, then wolves and foxes (probably in reference to astute Sienese, whom we know Dante hates).
The speaker reveals here that his neighbour’s nephew is “a hunter” of the aforementioned “wolf packs”, at which point the man’s demeanor changes from interest in Dante’s story to shame.
Seeing this, Dante asks them who they are, and the first speaker finally and reluctantly introduces himself and his companion. The man whose rant we’ve listened to thus far is Guido del Duca, a Ghibelline nobleman from Bretinoro in Romagna. The second man is Rinieri dei Paolucci da Calboli, Guelph leader of Romagna.
Rinieri’s nephew is not named directly, but scholars have identified him as Fulcieri dei Paolucci da Calboli who was a Guelf supporter of the papal cause and who was thought to have persecuted, tortured, and killed White Guelphs of Dante’s party.
Confronted by his nephew’s actions, Dante tells us that Rinieri’s face clouds and grows sad, a detail which gives us to understand that with the knowledge of the afterlife, anyone would recognise Dante and his arty’s cause as sitting on the right side of history.
But Rinieri’s reaction also suggests that purgation is more a matter of mental and spiritual pain, rather than physical pain, as was the case with the punishments of hell.
What follows is a list of names of fathers and sons and nephews and their failings and wrongdoings, many of which may have been of some interest to Dante’s contemporary readers, but which have very little relevance to us today.
Guido continues his diatribe against contemporary lords and politicians by underlining the great courtly virtue of past generations in contrast to the ways that *people nowadays* conduct themselves in society.
But he takes his critique a step further from your usual “back in my day” discourse, by saying that it’s a good thing that some of these aristocrats are dying without heirs. In his view, when virtue fails it is better for the whole of humanity to cease existing. Ok, Thanos.
Towards the end of the canto Guido seems to gain some self-awareness. He ends his lengthy rant and invites Dante to continue on the happy path he has been called to walk. At this point, Dante expresses confidence that he and Virgil are on the right path, because the two men, listening to their steps keep silent, as if acquiescing to the direction they’re moving in.
This suggests a degree of selflessness and goodwill from the two penitents that contrasts the envy in Guido’s tone at the beginning of the canto, as if to illustrate the capacity for change for the better that the sinners of Purgatory possess.
The last part of the canto picks up speed again.
A figure breaks onto the scene crying out that whoever captures it will murder them. These are the words that Cain (so we could assume it was Cain himself who ran), who murdered his brother Abel out of envy, uttered after God cursed him.
Before anyone can say anything, another thunder breaks the silence and another figure appears. This time, the person introduces themselves as Aglauros, who was turned to stone by Mercury when she tried to stand between him and her sister Herse whom he loved.
In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the story goes that Aglauros was envious of Herse and the feelings she inspired in the god, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a modern reading of the myth suggesting that in fact, Aglauros was trying to protect her sister from the creepy advances of an immortal creature.
Watching the two souls run off, Virgil invites Dante to pay no heed to these examples of envy and instead focus his gaze on the sky.