Purgatory | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Purgatory | Canto 7 | Summary



Sordello, the deceased Italian poet introduced in the previous canto, continues to converse with Virgil. He finally asks whom he is speaking with and is amazed to find himself face-to-face with Rome's most famous classical poet. Asked about his fate, Virgil describes himself as assigned to Limbo, the border region of Hell reserved for unbaptized children and virtuous non-Christians. Sordello urges the two travelers to rest for the night before resuming their ascent.

In a lush valley hollowed out from the "lap" of the mountain, Virgil and Dante encounter a camp of penitent souls singing the "Salve Regina," an antiphon (short line recited before or after a psalm) to the Virgin Mary. Sordello points out some of the notable dead, all of whom are kings and princes. Rudolph of Hapsburg (1218–91) and Ottokar II of Bohemia (c. 1230–78), enemies in life, have been reconciled in death. So have Philip III the Bold of France (1245–85) and Peter III of Aragon (1239–85), another pair of warring kings. Also included in the roundup of royals are Henry I of Navarre (c. 1210–74), Henry III of England (1207–72), and William VII, Marquess of Montferrat (c. 1240–92).


Virgil's position in the afterlife was established in the Inferno, but he now restates it for a new audience. Because only those who receive baptism can enter Heaven, Virgil is relegated to Limbo. By barring one of his cultural and intellectual heroes from eternal bliss, Dante sends a message about the distinction between reason and faith. Unaided reason, exemplified by Virgil, may lead one to a virtuous life, but for Dante, mere personal virtue is not enough. Divine revelation, in his Christian view, is necessary to lead human beings to final moral perfection.

The faith/reason dichotomy parallels the traditional Christian categorization of virtue into cardinal and theological types. The cardinal virtues—prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice—are mentioned in pre-Christian writings as the prerequisites for a good life. In medieval Christian thought they were viewed as attainable even without knowledge of God or communion with the Church. The theological virtues, in contrast—faith, hope, and charity—were considered to be inextricably linked to religion and to Christianity in particular. From Dante's perspective even a person as wise and cultivated as Virgil is morally incomplete without these virtues made possible by the coming of Christ.
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