Wednesday, 20 February 2013

At the foot of the Mountain

Dante & Virgil at the foot of the Mountain
Engraving by Gustave Doré

" To course o'er more kindly waters now
   my talent's little vessel lifts her sails,
   that leaves behind a sea so cruel;

  And of that second kingdom will I sing,
   wherein the human spirit doth purge,
   becoming worthy of ascent to
   Heaven... "

Dante Alighieri may have endured Hell, quite literally, and all its horrors and chills, but the journey was not complete. It seemed an age since that night he had walked the dark forest path, midway through life, but adventure lay far ahead yet. The terrible retribution suffered by the souls of the damned was but a part of the hand dealt by God to man when the hour of reckoning comes...

Bursting forth from the dank and unforgiving realm of Lucifer's gaol, it was with a deep breath that Dante greeted the cool air again. Noxious fumes and at once stifling heat and piercing freeze was cast aside, replaced by a serener ambience. Stars punctuated the night sky, as both Dante and his guide and master, the mighty Virgil, found themselves at the root of a mountain more vast than any that towered over the world of still breathing men. Down and down in Inferno had they travelled, yet here in the Midworld, the only path lay up. This was Purgatory, neither damnation nor salvation, Heaven nor Hell, here nor there. Here dwell man and woman alike after death, awaiting judgement. Noble yet flawed in life, here they atone for their earthly sins, before they are welcomed in Heaven above. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here, the Gate of Hell had declared. Yet here in Purgatory, it is hope which lifts the spirits of all. For all here will one day enter Heaven, when their sentence is served.

The Death of Cato
Painting by Pierre Bouillon
With a start our pilgrim was made aware of a presence at his side. "Who are ? Ye who counter the blind river, have fled away from the eternal prison?", the stranger barked. None before had broken out of the dark abyss, since when had the damned been cast upon the root of the penitent Mount? "Who guided you?" he demanded. To Dante's rescue, silver tongued Virgil came. "A Lady from Heaven descended, at whose prayers I aided this one with my company", the poet declared. Beckoning at his companion, he argued that as he was not yet among the ranks of the dead, he was not subject to the ancient laws of the afterworld, and he sought only liberty. It was then that Virgil, spying a bloodied wound on the stranger's chest, that he recognised the man. A fellow Roman of yore, there stood before them Cato, staunch enemy of Caesar and Republican to the bitter end, who took his own life at Utica when his designs came to naught, and the Republic of the Romans breathed its last. Virgil informed Cato that Dante lived with hope to see his beloved Beatrice again, high in the Kingdom of Light. The hardened expression on their interrogator softened at once, moved with memories of the Marcia he once knew. "Marcia so pleasing was unto mine eyes whilst on the other side I dwelled...", he reminisced. "Now that she dwells beyond the evil river, she can no longer move me..." he lamented. Go forth, he commanded, and dally not under the command of the Lord. 'Do not return this way, and follow the rising Sun', his last words were. Dante looked at the path ahead. Steep indeed it was. Looking back, Cato's spirit was no more.

The Arrival of the Waiting
Engraving by Gustave Doré
Dawn had broken, and already the Sun had crested the horizon of the endless ocean. Through the haze Mars glowed a burning red, when suddenly a light flashed across the surf, heading to the base of the Mountain. A whiteness, blinding with brilliance, pierced the waves, and Virgil called to Dante "Make haste, make haste to bow the knew! Behold the Angel of God!". The radiance grew, and the craft beached upon Purgatory's shore. "In exitu Israel de Aegypto!", the Heavenly host cried, and from the boat a throng of souls emerged, recently hurled headlong from their earthly bodies. Around in incredulity and puzzlement they gazed. Spotting the two poets not far from they, the spirits rushed to embrace them. "If ye know, show us the way to go unto the mountain", one among them called out to Dante. "Ye believe perchance that we have knowledge of this place, but we are strangers even as yourselves", Virgil retorted. Downcast, one among them suddenly noticed the rising and falling of Dante's chest, and realisation dawned upon his breathless face. Pallid with amazement, they saw that he was still alive, and rejoiced. One moved forward to throw his arms around our pilgrim, but nay, it was not to be. Moved by the kind reception, Dante moved to embrace him too, but only through air did his arms pass. Three times they tried, but hope lay not there. Several among the shades recognise Dante, they were once men of Florence too. The one who would embrace revealed himself as Casella, a friend in life of our poet. Long had he dwelled in the middleworld, and into merry song he burst, flexing the mighty voice he once prized in life. A tear rolled down Dante's cheek at the memories relived, before a growling voice shattered the serenity. Cato spurred them on, urging them not to delay, for nightfall would be coming soon. So with fresh vigour did the ethereal party disband, and higher did they climb.

The path ahead seemed a gruelling one indeed, so steep was the embankment. Dante stuck close to his master, fearful that any slip would send him to the ranks of all around. The blood red rays of the Sun grew dazzling now, as the light flooded over the crags in the mountain. Marvelling at the old poet's agility, Dante suddenly noticed that Virgil cast no shadow in the blazing sun. "Dost thou not think me with thee, and that I guide thee?" Virgil remarked, noticing his anguish. All all too painful reminder it was for Dante, that his newfound friend and master was in fact dead. Since his mortal body long ago vanished, no more could his spirit cast a shadow, in Naples now are his last remains. "Marvel not at it more than at the Heavens", Virgil soothed the distraught Dante, for "insane is he who hopeth that our reason can traverse the illimitable way". Painfully aware that there would come a time when they  must part ways, Dante struggled on up, up and up the endless cliff. Scarcely, it seemed, could any being unequipped with wings ascend it, yet with determination did those two prevail.

After reaching something of a plateau, the two stopped; Dante for breath and Virgil for thought. Then, there on the left, another array of souls approached. As sheep they flocked, for those at the rear seemed oblivious to the matter around them, only following those in front. Timidly holding their heads low, they skulked forward, until the lead spirit, "modest in face and dignified in gait", spotted the shadow cast by Dante's form. With a start he jumped, and so too did his fellows behind, though they knew not why. "Without your asking, I confess to you this is a human body you see", Virgil called to them. By mandate of Heaven had they come this far, and the spirits bowed in recognition, beckoning the way forth.

King Manfred
Image take from the Chronicle
of Giovanni Villani
As they turned to move, however, a soft voice sounded behind. "Whoe'er thou art, thus going turn thine eyes, consider well if e'er thoun saw me in the other world". Intrigued, Dante spun around, to a haunting sight. A fair man stood yonder, with kindly face and blonde hair, one of his eyebrows split by some blow of war. His bearing was noble, no serf this was. Humbly, Dante admitted that he knew the man not. Smiling, the figure revealed the ghastly wound upon his chest, flecked with blood. "I am Manfred, grandson of the Empress Costanza; therefore, when thou returnest, I beseech thee, go to my daughter fair, the mother of Siciliy's honour and Aragon's, and the truth tell her, if aught else be told". Dante, who knew Manfred's tale well, was overcome with reverence. Fifty years earlier, Manfred, son of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, faithfully obeyed his father's will in Southern Italy. It was a time when strife between the Empire and the Papacy was at its zenith, and the territorial extent of the Holy Roman Empire seemed well on its way to reclaiming the glory of its ancient namesake. At 18, his father died and rebellion was raised in the southern domains. Energetic and enthusiastic, Manfred crushed the rebellion in Naples. But Pope Innocent IV, spying an opportunity with the death of his nemesis, Frederick Stupor Mundi, demanded the surrender of Sicily from Imperial hands, intending to gift it to the son of King Henry III of England. Manfred, disgusted by the Vicar of Christ's earthly corruption, refused. Retribution arrived swiftly, a bull of excommunication. He was now a spiritual outlaw, shunned by the Catholic Church, and forbidden from entering Heaven. This was a sentence that made death seem trifling. The Pope deplored his daring to rule beyond papal permission, and his willingness to form alliances with Muslims, and raised arms against young Manfred. But the Imperial Prince was an able leader, and crushed the armies of the Papal States. Not long after, he was hailed by the Sicilians as their saviour and King. Triumphant, Manfred declared his candidacy for his father's throne, that of Holy Roman Emperor itself. The new Pope Alexander IV declared excommunication once again, rallying war against the precocious Prince. Charles of Anjou heard the Pope's call, and marched on Sicily. The two sides met at Benevento, and battle was joined. Outnumbered and overwhelmed, the Imperial forces were broken, but never would Manfred abandon the field. Alone did the Sicilian King hurl himself against the Angevin line, and with great honour his life did wane. Not content with his mere death, the Pope ordered the remains to be dug up and thrown out of the territory of the Papal States.

"Horrible my iniquities had been", Manfred bemoaned, "but infinite goodness hath such ample arms, that is receives whatever turns to it". In his final moments on the field of war, the Emperor's son had prayed to the Almighty for forgiveness. By divine law, those penitent at death, but outside the grace of the Church, must dwell here in Purgatory for thirty times the duration of their time of sin before they are permitted to move on. Serving this time now was Manfred, along with others excommunicated in recent times, and desperate to feel Heaven's light was he. But greater hope remained, for the Almighty had decreed that should any on the earthly plain mourn and pray for the spirit, hastened would his time in Purgatory be.

                                        " See now if thou hast power to make me happy,
                                             By making known unto my good Costanza
                                             How thou hast seen me, and this ban beside... "
                                                   - KING MANFRED'S PLEA

It was then that Dante, so moved by Manfred's tale, realised he had lost track of time, as the day was far advanced now. Something sadder than Inferno seemed at work here. Whereas in the Infernal Pit, men wicked at heart were condemned, here were ordinary, good people, robbed of Heaven's light, sadly delayed from the Judgement. Resenting the interference of the Pope in temporal affairs, and that Italy had never been right since a Caesar had sat upon his rightful throne, Dante was consumed with melancholy. With a start, a nearby soul exclaimed the discovery of the path to the Mountain above. The road grew on, and time could not be wasted. Weirder and more wonderful adventures lay beyond neither here nor there...

United Kingdom

Penguin Classics
Purgatorio (Penguin Classics)
(A translation which retains much of the poetic meter, with good illustrations and notes, as well as the original Italian alongside the English)

Oxford World's Classics
The Divine Comedy (Oxford World's Classics)
(A combined translation of all three parts of the Divine Comedy; the Inferno, the Purgatorio and the Paradisio, all in a highly accessible style)

United States

Penguin Classics
The Divine Comedy, Part 2: Purgatory (Penguin Classics) (v. 2)
(A translation which retains much of the poetic meter, with good illustrations and notes, as well as the original Italian alongside the English)

Oxford World's Classics
The Divine Comedy (Oxford World's Classics)
(A combined translation of all three parts of the Divine Comedy; the Inferno, the Purgatorio and the Paradisio, all in a highly accessible style)

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