Purgatory | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Purgatory | Canto 16 | Summary



Engulfed by smoke, Dante and Virgil continue their circuit of the third terrace of Purgatory. As they walk on, they hear souls chanting "Agnus Dei" ("Lamb of God") in unison. These souls, Virgil explains, are "working free" the "knot" of anger. Asked by an unseen soul to explain his purpose in Purgatory, Dante turns to speak to Marco Lombardo, a northern Italian figure about whom little is known.

After establishing his credentials, Dante asks Marco why the world is so cruel and sinful; Marco replies with a long sermon on the nature of free will. The gist is that although God and various celestial influences may help to shape human personalities, humans are ultimately still responsible for their choices. Marco blames the world's present corrupt state on a combination of weak wills and bad leadership, the latter exemplified by greedy, power-hungry popes. He concedes that a few "old ones"—elderly Italian statesmen—still live to serve as a reminder of a past era of nobility and virtue.


The "Agnus Dei" is a chant which remains a part of the Catholic Mass and would have been familiar in this context to readers of Dante's time. The significance of its appearance on this terrace is at least twofold. On the one hand, the image of the "Lamb of God" depicts Christ as an unblemished lamb, submitting himself to be sacrificed. In chanting the Agnus Dei, the penitents are thus expressing their desire to emulate the meekness and nonviolence of Jesus. The chant also proceeds to name Jesus as the one who takes away the world's sins and to implore him for mercy and peace. These two qualities, mercy especially, are ones whose need is keenly felt by the reformed but suffering souls in Purgatory.

The three "old ones" Marco identifies serve as another example of the deteriorationism espoused by so many penitent souls. Like his purgatorial cellmates in earlier cantos, Marco believes the world is not only a bad place, but getting worse with each passing generation. The three men so named are Currado da Palazzo, Gherardo da Camino (born c. 1240), and Guido da Castello (c. 1235–c. 1316), three locally prominent northern Italians. Their names and careers, however, are less important to the poem's overall themes than is their shared status as reminders of bygone virtue. All three, says Marco, serve as a living rebuke to the folly and greed of younger generations.

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