Canto 11: Moving Toward True Humility

Dante Purgatory ProundBy Nora Hamerman

“O vanity of human powers, / how briefly lasts the crowning green of glory, / unless an age of darkness follows!” [lines 91-93] These words set the stage to untangle the moral knot that Dante proposes in his account of the Terrace of Pride. We learned in the previous canto, with the help of divinely carved relief sculptures, that true humility is the antidote to sinful pride.

But is pride always sinful? Pride was thought of positively by the ancient Roman pagans. Can it be redeemed in some way and coexist with Christian humility? Dante weighs in on this issue. His conclusion suggests the modern ideal of the necessity of progress that inspired the Renaissance in the succeeding centuries.

In the opening 24 lines of this canto, Dante sets to verse the Our Father, expanding and modifying this most hallowed and universal of Christian prayers to fit the souls of the Proud here atoning the most grievous of sins. Although the Rosary had not yet taken its modern form—that would happen nearly two centuries later—it is striking that the “Hail Mary” is quoted in part in the early lines of Canto 10 as the pilgrims enter Purgatory proper. And now the “Our Father” follows. It’s as if we’ve been given our penance by the priest in the sacrament of confession.

Let’s look at how Dante expands on the Our Father to evoke the virtue of Mercy. “And, as we forgive those who have wronged us, / do you forgive us in your loving kindness— / measure us not as we deserve.” [lines 16-18] The word translated here as “loving kindness” is benigno [line 18]. This adjective refers to God’s kindness or mercy. The theme of mercy continues as the Proud ask, “Do not put to proof our powers, / which yield so lightly to the ancient foe, / but deliver us from him who tempts them. / This last petition, our dear Lord, is made / not for ourselves—for there is no need— / but for the ones whom we have left behind.” [lines 19-24] By this the penitents mean those who are still living and are—like us pilgrims and like the pilgrim Dante—still subject to temptation.

Virgil then stops to ask for directions, and we meet two penitent sinners. The first is Omberto Aldobrandeschi, whose ancestral name almost fills an entire line of the poem, but who humbly suggests that perhaps the pilgrims have not heard of his powerful family. His is the sin of pride in one’s birth. The second sinner we meet is atoning for pride in one’s talent. He is an artist whose work has never been identified, but his field was manuscript illumination—the hand-painted illustrations for books that were made for wealthy patrons before the era of printing. His name is Oderisi. Dante says to him, in compliment, “…aren’t you Oderisi, the honor of Gubbio, and of that art that is called illumination in Paris?” [lines 79-81] Practicing the virtue of humility on this terrace of Pride, Oderisi is quick to respond, “Brother, …the pages smile brighter / from the brush of Franco of Bologna. / The honor is all his now—and only mine in part.” [lines 82-84]

We see here how the device of visual arts as a way of making conversion possible continues in this canto. In Canto 10, it was sculpture. In Canto 11, it’s painting. We see this especially with some famous artists cited by Oderisi. Cimabue, the giant of large-scale late Gothic painting in Florence, was thought to reign supreme, until Giotto took his place. (Dante knew Giotto in Florence, and would have encountered him again in 1307 when he painted his masterpiece, the frescoes of the lives of Christ and Mary in the Arena Chapel in Padua.)

But then we switch to Italian poetry. Oderisi tells us that one Guido has been surpassed by another Guido. The first Guido is Guido Guinicelli, a poet from Bologna whom Dante admired. The second Guido is Guido Cavalcanti, a Florentine and once Dante’s closest friend. Perhaps, Oderisi continues, one has been born who will “drive one and then the other from the nest” of the public’s admiration [line 99]. Most commentators assume that this third poet is Dante himself, and it seems ironic, at first, that here in the circle of Pride, where Dante stoops to participate in the painful penance of these men, that the pride of being the best poet of his generation surges in him.

How can we understand this seeming pride on Dante’s part? Christian Humility does not mean we deny our gifts or that we shrink from striving to excel, even to “beat the other team.” It means, Dante implies, that we are always open to new knowledge, as the Blessed Virgin Mary in the previous canto was open to the unexpected and surely frightening announcement that she would become the Mother of God. It means that Pride, a positive virtue in the ancient world and yet a sin for Christians, can have two different meanings and that Dante imagines it “baptized” as it were by the higher purpose of spurring us on to contribute to the progress of humanity. It’s all right, he suggests, to enjoy the crowning green of glory as long as we do not want a dark age to follow it.

The closing lines of the canto bring us back to Italian politics in the years just before 1300 and the still burning memory of the slaughters that took place between Florentine Guelphs and Sienese Ghibellines. Omberto points out that among the penitents on this terrace we find the Sienese political and military leader Provenzan Salvani. Salvani was a particularly bloodthirsty and arrogant leader in his lifetime, but at the end, when King Charles of Anjou held one of his compatriots for ransom, he humbled himself to beg in the Campo (the central public square of Siena) to raise the funds to release his friend. It was this act of mercy that allowed Salvani to swallow his pride, and sped him soon after death to begin his purgation on the way to Heaven.

Mrs. Nora Hamerman is a free-lance writer who frequently contributes to the Arlington Catholic Herald and is a presenter on the Divine Comedy for Adult Ed. at St. John the Beloved, McLean, VA, and at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

Posted in Purgatorio

Leave a Reply