Purgatory | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Purgatory | Canto 32 | Summary



Dante gazes his fill of Beatrice, as if to make up for lost time, since she is so long dead on earth. The procession begun in Canto 29 now resumes its march, heading eastward toward the rising sun. Following the parade Dante arrives at the Tree of Knowledge, which has been stripped bare of its leaves. The gryphon stops and fastens the chariot to it, at which point the tree bursts back into life. After drowsing off for an unspecified period of time, Dante awakens to see Beatrice sitting at the foot of the tree, guarding the chariot with the help of the seven virtues.

A rapid succession of images follows. An eagle swoops down and rip off the tree's bark, leaves, and flowers then nearly knocks over the chariot. Next, a starving vixen (a female fox) leaps into the chariot and is chased off by Beatrice. The eagle returns and showers feathers on the chariot, after which a plaintive voice proclaims, "My little ship, what ill load weighs you down!" The earth opens to reveal a dragon, which strikes and damages the chariot with its tail before slithering away. Covering itself with the feathers, the chariot sprouts seven horned heads. Finally, two new characters appear: a giant and a harlot. The former whips the latter, evidently out of jealousy, when she casts a sultry glance at Dante. Finally, the giant unties the chariot-creature and leads it off into the woods.


This is another heavily symbolic episode, representing the history of the church up until Dante's time. The individual events are laid out in detail by Teodolinda Barolini, who describes the canto as "Dante's personal Apocalypse Now." In short, the eagle is Rome, the vixen represents heresy, and the dragon symbolizes Islam, which was widely blamed for helping to create a rift among the Christian faithful. Thus, in the early half of the vision, the Church (i.e., the chariot) is shown being persecuted, then supported, by Rome; being unsuccessfully tempted by heresies; and being damaged by schisms. The monster into which the chariot transforms is an embodiment of the capital sins, "feathered" by the wealth of Rome.

The final interlude with the giant and the harlot represents the Avignon Papacy—the 14th-century relocation of the papal court from Rome to Avignon, France, beginning in 1309. This was a dark period for Church unity—so dark, in fact, that it was sometimes referred to by contemporaries as the "Babylonian Captivity." Attempts to restore the papacy to Rome would create even greater troubles, though these took place decades after Dante's death.

The specific role of the harlot figure is, perhaps, more difficult to decipher. One possibility is that her promiscuity (Dante twice calls her a "whore") reflects the Church's own complicity in moving to Avignon. In this interpretation the giant is like an abusive and controlling pimp who gets his way through threats and intimidation. In any case Dante's feelings on the matter are clear: the Avignon Papacy is the latest in a string of disasters to befall the Church.

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