"Dante and Virgil," Camille Corot

For the first set of readings, read Purgatorio Cantos I-II. These serve to introduce some of the major themes of Purgatorio: keep an eye out for things like memory, desire, trial, and hope. It will be helpful to us to remember a few preliminary notes that I will review for you now.

Let us spend some time recalling what Dante (“the pilgrim”) has endured so far. When we first encounter him at the beginning of Inferno, the pilgrim is lost in a dark wood and in fear for his life – his eternal life as well as his mortal one. A shade appears to help him, and this shade turns out to be the great Roman poet, Virgil, whom Dante deeply admires. Virgil says that he has been sent by someone in Heaven to rescue the pilgrim, but the journey will be difficult: they must traverse through the depths of Hell, into Purgatory, and then finally he will be able to see his intercessor in Heaven. This intercessor is Beatrice, Dante’s great love, who died some years ago to his immense devastation. Beatrice is now his saintly advocate, and she sends him on this perilous journey to intervene for his sake. Having finished the descent through Hell with his guide, Virgil, the pilgrim and his poetic escort now stand at the beginning of Purgatory. Thus Purgatorio opens.

Purgatory is an island upon which there is an immense mountain to be climbed by the souls that populate it. According to the legend at work here, the island of Purgatory was formed when Satan was cast down from Heaven. Satan fell to the earth, forming the pit of Hell deep within, and the displaced earth forced out from the impact emerged on the other side as the island of Purgatory. Just so we all know, Dante is fully aware that the earth is round (as this fun little video explains). His understanding of the universe is based heavily on the idea of the music of the spheres, and the poetic structure of the cosmos is closely interwoven with its spherical harmony. That is to say, the entire universe is beautiful, ordered, and harmonic. We will talk about this more as we begin to read Purgatorio.


The Divine Comedy is available for free online. The link I have provided allows you to choose the volume (Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso), the canto, and the lines as well as the translation (called “edition”). I recommend the edition labeled “Mandelbaum,” as it is the easiest to read, even though it is not in fact Mandelbaum’s famous translation (which is very difficult). If you want to buy a copy of Dante’s work, I would suggest one called The Portable Dante published by Penguin Classics. It is a good, readable translation.