Regeneration and Degeneration in Dante’s Purgatorio

Deborah Parker (University of Virginia)

Dante Notes / August 12, 2020

Terms such as purification, restoration, renewal, rebirth, and regeneration pervade discussions of Dante’s Purgatorio.[1] The poet emphasizes the importance of these themes at the beginning and end of the canticle, proclaiming in the opening lines “qui la morta poesì resurga” (Purg.1.8) and declaring himself, in the final verses, “rifatto come sì piante novelle / rinovellate di novella fronda” (Purg.33.143-44). Purgatory is the realm of restoration for those souls who died in a state of grace but who still need to be purified of the debt of temporal punishment which is due. These souls, “fortunate tutte quante” (Purg.2.74), happily share their stories with the pilgrim, smile upon seeing him, and rejoice in the fraternity which reigns on the mountain. At the same time, there is a countervailing force which tempers the many references to purification. Between Casella’s exuberant greeting of Dante on the shores of Purgatory and Arnaut Daniel’s anticipation of the completion of his purgation, many of the souls with whom the pilgrim speaks address the decline of humanity. In telling their stories, the penitents allude to the dissipation of family members and the tumultuous state of Italy. The co-existence of narratives of renewal and decline raises questions. What are the effects of the juxtaposition of these two tendencies? What patterns emerge if we align these two themes? Is the restoration of humanity only possible in the afterlife? A closer look at this dichotomy illuminates the poetics of the Purgatorio—this most original and human of Dante’s three realms of the afterlife.

We can begin to address these questions by recalling the core tenets of Dante’s political vision. In Purgatorio 16, the very center of the poem, Marco Lombardo explains that God ordained that there would be two figural suns to ensure the world’s good, the emperor to rule over the temporal sphere and the pope to preside over the spiritual one.[2]

Soleva Roma, che ’l buon mondo feo,
due soli aver, che l’una e l’altra strada
fecean vedere, e del mondo e di Deo.

L’un l’altro ha spento; ed è giunta la spada
col pasturale, e l’un con l’altro insieme
per viva forza mal convien che vada; (Purg.16.106-110)

Earthly happiness is dependent on good government and a universal monarch.[3] The papacy, however, has usurped rule over the temporal realm. As Marco goes on to elaborate a few lines later, imperial governance in Italy collapsed with the demise of the Swabian empire: “In sul paese ch’Adice e Po riga, / solea valore e cortesia trovasi, / prima che Federigo avesse briga” (Purg.16.115-117). Dante delineates the deleterious effects of the imperial vacancy following Frederick II’s death throughout the second canticle. Critics have long noted how the pilgrim’s exchanges with Sordello, Guido del Duca, Marco Lombardo and Hugh Capet explore different aspects of moral and political decay. While the discussion of degeneration in these cantos is prominent, there are other passages which address the subject in other, more subtle ways. Viewed collectively, they show how extensive the erosion of social mores has become and how formidable the impediments to earthly happiness. Ultimately, attention to the way in which Dante interweaves the themes of regeneration and degeneration raises doubts about the attainability of earthly happiness.

Statistically, instances of a negative perspective on the state of the world outnumber positive ones, even in this most hope-filled realm. Roughly two thirds of the historical figures with whom the pilgrim speaks refer to the blighted state of earthly existence in some capacity, whether as calamities resulting from political strife, corrupt leadership, degenerate descendants, broken family bonds, or lost feudal values. [4] Only one category of Purgatorial souls, artists and poets, do not refer to family members or political calamities and I shall address them at the end of this essay. The majority of the souls devote between one third and half of their stories to a consideration of the status of the world. At times, the number of lines decrying the corrupt state of the world exceeds those delineating a soul’s former life. Guido del Duca, Hugh Capet and Marco Lombardo provide scant notices on their past lives, focusing almost entirely on the decadent state of Italy and France. In some exchanges, we see the juxtaposition of renewal and degeneration explicitly. For example, the pilgrim addresses Marco Lombardo as “O creatura che ti mondi / per tornar bella a colui che ti fece” (Purg. 16.31-32) before the courtier embarks on an explanation of the source of evil in the universe. Similarly, Forese Donati ‘risanctifies’ himself (“si rifà santa” Purg.23.66), while acknowledging how his wife’s prayers have shortened considerably the duration of his penance. At the same time, a note of degeneration emerges in his condemnation of his nefarious brother Corso and the wantonness of contemporary Florentine women. Renewal for the saved is assured, but widespread depravity make its attainment elusive for the living.

            Dante’s use of a common metaphor to address regeneration and degeneration underscores the extent to which the two subjects are entwined. Figural uses of plants express both the decline of feudal families and geographical regions. The first instance of this conspicuous metaphor typifies its function in the poem’s thematic economy, at once aligning the power of nature with that of ritual. Virgil plucks the reed of a bulrush, girds Dante’s waist with it to symbolize the humility with which he will ascend the mountain of Purgatory, and another rush springs up at once to replace the now ceremonial object (“ché qual elli scelse / l’umile pianta, cotal si rinacque” Purg.1.134-5). This figural language links successive scenes and encounters. In the Earthly Paradise Matelda explains how a formative power in the atmosphere nourishes the wondrous variety of plants and flowers found in this divine wood (Purg.28.85-114). In Ante-Purgatory, Sordello identifies nine rulers in the Valley of the Princes whose sons lack the probity of their fathers. Spanning six different territories, and ranging in rank from emperor to marquis, these rulers reflect on their neglectful rule and the wantonness, sloth, weakness, and cowardice of their sons. Sordello employs the language of regeneration to lament the results of Rudolph I’s neglect of Italy: had the emperor assumed the imperial seat in Rome, he could have healed the “piaghe c’hanno Italia morta / sì che tardi per altri si ricria” [my emphasis] (Purg.6.95-96). As Sordello goes on to opine, “Rade volte resurge per li rami / l’umana probitate” (Purg.7.121-22). A few lines later he deploys a vegetative metaphor again—“Tant’è del seme suo minor la pianta” (Purg.7.127) to highlight the inferiority of the rulers’ sons. Elsewhere in Purgatory, other penitents provide additional supporting examples. Guido del Duca declares that the “valore” (Purg.14.90) of his worthy companion, Rinieri da Calboili, has not been transmitted to his successors. Guido del Duca does not simply denounce Fulcieri da Calboli’s (Rinieri’s grandson) bloodthirstiness, he describes Tuscany as a region inhabited by predatory rulers, all figured as savage beasts, and the Romagna as a deforested wasteland inhospitable to valorous men such as Bernardin di Fosco in yet another plant analogy--“verga gentil di picciola gramigna” (Purg.14.102). Fulcieri’s barbarity reduces Florence to a “trista selva,” one which cannot hope to reforest itself (“si rinselva” Purg.14.64-66) even in a thousand years.

Dore - Negligent Rulers - 051129c_012.jpg

Dante looks upon the negligent rulers. Gustave Doré, The Vision of Purgatory and Paradise by Dante Alighieri (London and New York: Cassell, Petter, and Galpin [1868?]. (Source: World of Dante)

Two cantos later Marco Lombardo deploys a plant comparison to illustrate degeneration in Lombardy, now full of “venenosi sterpi” (Purg.14.95). Ruled by tyrants, Lombardy cannot extirpate the evil which has taken root (“sì che tardi / per coltivare omai verrebber meno” Purg.14.96). Moreover, the trajectory is ever downward. If Sordello declares that negligent rulers spawn decadent sons, Guido del Duca identifies another obstacle to regeneration.  Noble families such as the Traversari and Anastagi, not to mention those who ruled justly over regions such as Bretinoro and Bagnacavallo, have died out without issue.[5] Those who could have transmitted probity are extinct. The use of plant analogies to symbolize decadent dynasties culminates in Hugh Capet’s identification of himself as the “radice de la mala pianta” (Purg.20.42), the ancestor of a line of French kings whose abominable deeds have darkened all Christendom. Successive generations of Capetian and Angevin kings are blighted branches born of poisoned roots. The plant analogies show family relations as well as narrate a decline.

The attention accorded descendants and genealogies underscores one of the most singular features of Purgatory, namely the preponderance of family connections. Nowhere else in Dante’s afterlife do we find so many souls bound by blood or marriage.[6] Scrutiny of these connections reveals notable patterns. In addition to Sordello’s references to the sons of negligent rulers, other penitents allude to wives, daughters, nieces, and grandsons. Among the twenty-four historical figures with whom the pilgrim converses, more than half refer to family relations, either their own or those of others. Manfred mentions his grandmother and daughter, both named Costanza; Bonconte da Montefeltro alludes to Giovanna, either his wife or daughter; Nino Visconti to his wife Beatrice d’Este and daughter Giovanna, Omberto Aldobrandeschi to his father Guglielmo, Guido del Duca to Rinieri da Calboli’s grandson, Fulcieri, Marco Lombardo to Gaia, Gherardo da Camino’s daughter, the Abbot of San Zeno to Alberto della Scala’s illegitimate son, Pope Adrian V to his niece Alagia, Hugh Capet to his royal descendants, and Forese Donati to his wife Nella, sister Piccarda, and brother Corso. Unlike Cato, these souls have not put the world behind them.[7] When Virgil explains that he resides in Limbo where Cato’s wife Marcia also dwells, Cato informs him that Marcia pleased him while he was alive but “più mover non mi può” (Purg.1.89). Cato, has transcended the world. His unique status as the guardian of Purgatory sets him—and his lack of earthly preoccupations—apart from the penitents. His attitude towards the past represents an ideal against which other souls can be measured.

Botticelli - Hugh Capet - 051202c_020.jpg

Penance of Avaricious and Prodigal, meeting with Hugh Capet. Sandro Botticelli, Zeichnungen von Sandro Botticelli zu Dantes Göttlicher Komödie. Berlin: G. Grote, 1921. (Source: World of Dante)

The abundance of familial references underscores the connections between the Purgatorial souls and the living. They reinforce a sense of continuity and community, one in which women have a special role since they are crucial to maintaining family dynasties and their prayers help the penitent advance more quickly.[8] Yet not all the souls take comfort in the petitions of their relations. While Manfred, Adrian V, and Forese Donati speak warmly of their daughter, niece, and wife respectively, others sigh over the conduct of family members: Rinieri da Calboli decries his nephew’s savage butchery of Florentine Whites, the abbot of San Zeno Alberto della Scala’s scandalous installation of a crippled illegitimate son as the abbot’s successor, and Forese Donati his brother Corso’s treachery.[9]  Knowledge of collapsed family bonds tempers otherwise felicitous encounters: Nino’s indignation over Beatrice’s remarriage mitigates his joy over seeing Dante just as Bonconte’s recollection of his dramatic salvation is tempered by Giovanna’s neglect of him. The aspersions cast on Beatrice d’Este’s and Giovanna’s virtue and the other denunciations of degenerate family members, contribute to the narrative of decline. Among these lamentations, Dante’s tribute to the generosity and valor of the Malaspina family, who offered the poet refuge in Lunigiana during his exile, and Forese Donati’s recognition of the efficacy of Nella’s prayers, stand out as an exception.[10] Broken family bonds and corrupt relations reveal strains on the fabric of society at a deeper than merely matrimonial level.[11]

This pessimistic representation of humanity continues in the Earthly Paradise where Dante witnesses a series of outrages committed against a chariot representing the Church. These violent actions transform the “dificio santo” (Purg.32.142) into a grotesque multi-headed structure atop which a giant, representing Philip IV, cavorts with a prostitute, who symbolizes the degraded church. Can humanity be renewed in the wake of a corruption so profound that it erodes familial, civic and religious institutions? In her explanation of the chariot’s desecration, Beatrice assures Dante that the outrages will not go unaddressed as she predicts that a five hundred, ten and five will restore humanity (Purg.33.43-44). (Transposed to Roman numerals, DXV and rearranged to DVX, the numbers yield Latin for leader.) Her promise of an imperial deliverer, an heir to the eagle, echoes the prophecy of a redeemer in the veltro prophecy in Inf.1.101. Only an act of divine intervention will restore humankind.

Are there any exceptions to this desolate portrait of humanity? Amidst the many lamentations of decline, there is one group of penitents who offer hope of renewal on earth—artists and poets.[12] In Dante’s meetings with Sordello, Oderisi da Gubbio, Statius, Bonagiunta, Guido Gunizelli and Arnaut Daniel we see the regenerative power of the arts. Their narratives belie a different kind of filiation. Whether in the form of Oderisi’s praise of the beauty of Franco Bolognese’s illuminations; Sordello’s and Statius’s homages to Virgil; Bonagiunta’s admiration of Dante’s stilnovista lyrics; or Guido Gunizelli’s tribute to Arnaut’s mastery of Provençal, these practitioners of the arts honor one another’s achievements. Notwithstanding Guinizelli’s disparagement of the achievements of some vernacular poets (Purg.26.114-26), Dante’s encounters with these figures stand out for the productivity of the arts. A more symbolic familial relation is posited in these designations rather than a blood relation. In what amounts to elective designations of literary influence, Statius refers to Virgil’s Aeneid as his “mamma” and “nutrice” (Purg.21.97-98). Dante, upon meeting Guido Guinizzelli on the terrace of the Lustful, first refers to him metaphorically as a mother—the pilgrim seeks to embrace Guinizzelli just as Lycurgus’s two sons sought to embrace their mother after learning she had not been murdered—before designating the Bolognese poet as “il padre / mio e de li altri miei miglior” (Purg.26. 97-98). Finally, and most significantly, we have Dante’s culminating homage to Virgil as “dolcissimo patre” (Purg.30.50). It is the nature of the artistic tradition to renew itself. Every generation of artists increases the poetic capital, and in this respect, they provide an exception to the generational decline of feudal families and territories. Alone among the living, artists and poets renew themselves as they aspire to attain the distinction of literary and artistic forbears.

Purgatory is the realm of purification but the poetics of renewal are complicated. The way in which renewal is interspersed with degeneration has the effect of qualifying the former. Unlike the souls in Hell and Paradise, both eternal realms, the souls in Purgatory are still caught in the cycle of time. Connections abound in Purgatory where the sense of community is profound. The “eletti di Dio” (Purg.19.76) are invariably caught up in thoughts about the living on whom they are dependent for prayers. As they cleanse themselves to make themselves beautiful to return to their Maker, to paraphrase Marco Lombardo (Purg.16.31-33), they mourn the blighted state of humanity whose prospects for renewal are bleak. Yet there is one exception to this desolate portrayal of the world—the revivifying power of the arts. Moral regeneration takes place continuously in Purgatory, as it proceeds more fitfully and scarcely on earth.


I would like to thank Simone Marchesi for his observations on an earlier draft of this study. I’d also like to thank the students in my Spring 2020 class on Purgatory for the lively discussions. I would not have come up with the idea for this essay had I not taught the course.


[1] See, for example, Jeffrey T. Schnapp, “Introduction to Purgatorio,” Cambridge Campanion to Dante, ed. Rachel Jacoff (Cambridge: Cambridge, UP, 2007), 91-106 and the Introduction to The Divine Comedy of Dante AlighieriPurgatorio, translated by Robert M. Durling, Introduction and Notes by Ronald L. Martinez and Robert M. Durling (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004), 3-16.

[2] For recent discussions of how the Purgatorio passage differs from Dante’s treatment the subject in Book 3 of de Monarchia, see John A. Scott, Dante’s Political Purgatory (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, Press, 1996), 148-157 and Marco Santagata, Dante: The Story of His Life, trans. Richard Dixon (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2016), 284-87.

[3] See Convivio, IV v 4.

[4] Dante and Virgil speak with 24 historical figures in Purgatory, among them Cato, Casella, Manfred, Belacqua, Jacopo del Cassero, Bonconte da Montefeltro, La Pia, Sordello, Nino Visconti, Currado Malaspina, Omberto Aldobrandesco, Oderisi da Gubbio, Sapìa, Guido del Duca, Rinieri da Calboli, Marco Lombardo, Abbot of San Zeno, Adrian V, Hugh Capet, Statius, Forese Donati, Bonagiunta, Guido Guinizelli and Arnaut Daniel and Beatrice. This group excludes Matelda and Beatrice because the status of former is more mythic and latter does not reside in Purgatory. While possibly inspired in part by Countess Matilda of Canossa according to the early commentators, Matelda embodies the innocent happiness of Eden.

[5] Dante takes up the subject of fathers and sons again in Paradiso 8 where the pilgrim discusses heredity with Charles Martel who addresses the stellar influences on one’s character. The use of plant analogies, this time positively, in Par.15.89 when Cacciaguida refers to himself as Dante’s “radice.” On questions of heredity and degeneration in sixteenth canto of each canticle, see Manuele Gragnolati, “16. Politics of Desire,” Vertical Readings in Dante’s Comedy: Volume 2, ed. George Corbett and Heather Webb (Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2016), 101-26.

[6] There are connections between souls in hell but they are of a different order. Farinata and Cavalcanti are united by the marriage of their children and the barrator Michele Zanche is the father-in-law of the traitor Branca D’Oria. A number of damned souls have killed family members, notably those found in the Caina region of Cocytus. There we find Alessandro and Napoleone degli Alberti, Mordred, Vanni de’ Cancellieri and Sassol Mascheroni. Francesca relegates her husband to Caina. Guy de Monfort killed his cousin Henry of Cornwall. The pilgrim sees his relation, Geri del Bello, among the schismatics.

[7] See Manuele Gragnolati, Experiencing the Afterlife: Soul and Body in Dante and Medieval Culture (Notre Dame: Notre Dame UP, 2005), 151 on the enduring nature of earthly concerns for the penitent souls, especially those in Ante-Purgatory.

[8] Santagata, 230 comments on the importance of navigating the maze of direct and indirect family relationships and marriages but doesn’t go into what such investigations might reveal. He follows here similar observations made by Umberto Carpi, L’Inferno dei guelfi e I principi del Purgatorio (Milan: Franco Angeli, 2013).

[9] On how contemporaries viewed Beatrice d’Este’s remarriage, see my "Ideology and Cultural Practice: The Case of Dante's Treatment of Beatrice d'Este," Dante Studies 111 (1993):131-147.

[10] Santagata, 195-97 notes that this is one family that Dante does not disparage. Critics have long noted that the tenzone between Dante and Forese contain mocking references to Nella and that Forese’s praise of his wife in Purgatory constitutes a repudiation of this exchange. On this subject, see Fabian Alfie, Dante’s Tenzone with Forese: The Reprehension of Vice (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011).

[11]Many souls in Purgatory share connections, but they remain unvoiced. Examples include: Manfred’s daughter Costanza (Purg.3.15-17), wife of Pedro III (Purg.7.112-14); Federigo Novello was Manfred’s vicar (Purg.6.15); Emperor Rudolph I is the father of German Albert (Purg.6.97-105);  Charles I of Anjou (Purg.7.106-108) imprisoned a friend of Provenzan Salvani (Purg.11.133-38); Provenzan Salvani annexed the territories of Guglielmo Aldobrandeschi (Purg.11.59); Sapìa (Purg.13.109-129) was Provenzan Salvani’s aunt; Hugh Capet’s corrupt descendants include Charles I of Anjou, Charles II of Anjou, and Philip I; Currado da Pazzo was Charles of Anjou’s vicar in Northern Italy (Purg.16.124).These less prominent connections underscore further the closeness of the community of the saved.

[12] Before Dante Hugh of St. Victoire had written of the religious value of the arts in the Didascalicon. Hugh noted the valued of the mechanical arts (Didascalicon, I.5, 8), which included the crafts and building (Didascalicon, II.20-22), for the securing of human needs and the attainment of wisdom.