Canto 12: Art Draws Man Deeper into Truth

the-basilica-of-san-miniatoBy Bill Cook

I often think of Purgatorio 12 when I am in Florence. My favorite church there is San Miniato al Monte which, as the name suggests, is on a hill overlooking Florence. Last summer I climbed the ancient stairs that lead from the city wall to San Miniato. It is to those stairs that Dante refers to at the end of Purgatorio 12 when he climbs from the terrace of Pride to that of Envy. I can tell you that it is a tough climb, but Dante realizes that his climb is easier than he expected because he has just lost one “P” on his forehead that had weighed him down.

Pride is of course the first of the seven terraces of Purgatory, and it is the most serious sin. Someone suggested that every sin is pride plus something else. Thus lust, for example, could be seen as a desire for other human bodies combined with pride that suggests that if I want it, I am somehow entitled to it. Augustine in his Confessions explains that pride is the notion that the universe is all about me. I can do and have what I want, but no one else has the same right because his/her purpose for being is to entertain and obey me. Dante later tells us that should he come to the mount of Purgatory after his death, he will be spending a long time on the terrace of pride.

In Purgatorio 12, the sins of pride seen on the floor of the first terrace by the bent-over shades are some of the greatest stories ever told. We see Lucifer, the bearer of light, being cast into the most profound darkness because he dared to challenge God, not being content with being #2 in heaven. The mention of Nimrod’s great work [lines 34-36] brings our thought to the futile attempt to build the Tower of Babel, which would reach into God’s heaven. The best known of the classical examples is the fall of Troy, a story we have encountered before in Inferno 26-27 in the retelling of the Ulysses story.

In Purgatorio 10-12, Dante, along with the souls there bearing the heavy stones, learns about some of the greatest sins of pride as well as great acts of its opposite, humility. The means by which he learns these negative and positive lessons is art, i.e. sculptures of stories found in classical myth and the Bible. Dante uses the art around him in Tuscany in all parts of the Commedia. In Inferno and Paradiso, he primarily alludes to art that is not naturalistic. However, in Purgatorio 10-12, the art that Dante the Poet creates for us readers is as realistic as possible.

In fact, in Purgatorio 11, Dante the Pilgrim discusses contemporary art with a manuscript illuminator and mentions the two most famous Florentine artists of his life time, Cimabue (d. 1302) and Giotto (d. 1337). He points out that already in 1300, when the poem is set, the fame of Cimabue’s art has been superseded by the more realistic style of Giotto. Millions of visitors to Florence understand what Dante means when they walk into room 2 of the Uffizi gallery and see large Madonna and Child paintings by the two artists next to one another. Giotto’s Madonna has a believable body while Cimabue’s is a more or less flat image.

Dante is not rejecting art that is less natural because, for example, the Paradiso makes great use of the great 6th century mosaics in Ravenna, where he wrote the last part of the Commedia and where he is buried. What I think he is doing is suggesting that naturalistic art has a more immediate and more powerful impact on our moral thought than other kinds of art. And this is not only true of the visual arts. It is true in literature, which is why Dante the poet writes such beautifully vivid poetry and creates such memorable personal encounters. Yet he does this in a formal poetic form. This is his equivalent of creating such realistic art out of stone and, by mentioning Giotto, in two dimensional paintings of three-dimensional beings.

The exaggerated images of good and evil that make us fear sin and cling to the good in the Romanesque style fit Dante’s needs in the Inferno, and the sparkling mosaics of the early Christian period like those of Ravenna allow Dante to speak about a light-filled and dazzling paradise. Yet, it is the new visual art of Dante’s Florence that is most useful in dealing with moral cleansing and spiritual growth, which is the focus of the Purgatorio. Understanding this helps us also to understand Dante the Poet’s style because the entire poem, not just one part of it, is about moral clarity and personal conversion.

Dr. William Cook taught history for 42 years, retiring in 2012 with the rank of Distinguished Teaching Professor of History. A specialist in medieval history, he has taught a course on Dante’s Commedia alone and with his colleague Ron Herzman. Bill has written several books and about 50 articles as well as more than 900 columns for the Livingston County News. He has established the Bill Cook Foundation (www.billcookfoundation.org), which provides educational opportunities for some of the world’s poorest children.

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