Purgatory | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Purgatory | Canto 12 | Summary



Dante follows closely behind Virgil as the two make their way through the first level of Purgatory. On the floor are carved several biblical and mythical scenes, each illustrating the dangers of pride. Marveling at the vividness of the carvings, Dante admonishes his readers against repeating the grim example of these prideful personages. A white-robed angel appears and beckons the two travelers to an upward slope, while invisible voices sing "Beati pauperes": "Blessed are the poor [in spirit]." Brushing Dante's brow with his wing, the angel removes one of the seven Ps etched there in Canto 9.


The carvings mentioned in this chapter can be obscure in their subject matter to a modern reader. The first story of Lucifer, flung down from Heaven for rebelling against God, has given rise to many modern retellings, including John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667) and Dante's own account in the Inferno. Subsequent panels depict stories from Greek myth, including Zeus's suppression of the Titans, prideful giants who were the parents of the Olympians; and Apollo's punishment of Niobe, a mother who haughtily claimed to have more children than Apollo's own mother. The final Greco-Roman example is the fall of Troy, depicted as "humbled and ... vile" after its former majesty.

Above and beyond its sheer display of learning, this canto includes one of the most elaborate passages of verse in the entire poem. From line 25 to line 63, each terzina (three-lined stanza) begins with a repeated phrase: four stanzas each begin with the word "Vedea," another four begin with "O," and a final four begin with "Mostrava." Translator Robin Kirkpatrick renders these phrases as "Mark this," "Ah!", and "Now ... shown" respectively, calling attention to the acrostic embedded in the first letters. Since the letters V and U were interchangeable in the writing system of Dante's day, the original Italian corresponds to "UOM," or "uomo," meaning "man." This is fitting, as "man" (in the now-dated sense of "humankind") is the creature whose moral and intellectual natures are scrutinized throughout the Divine Comedy.
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