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3. The Bliss and Abyss of Freedom: Hope, Personhood and Particularity1

© Vittorio Montemaggi, CC BY 4.0

Vittorio Montemaggi

The first image that came to mind when I started to work on the lecture on which this chapter is based was that of a handstand: in Italian, fare la verticale (literally: ‘perform the vertical’) means to perform a handstand. While I did not attempt to deliver the lecture in this position, I ask you to imagine that it was, in fact, delivered in that way – for the image will be able to communicate to you more successfully than anything else a few crucial aspects of what is at stake in undertaking this vertical reading of Inferno iii, Purgatorio iii and Paradiso iii. I suspect that the request to imagine a handstand may generate a mix of surprise, excitement and suspense. These, I think, are very appropriate states of being for engaging in a vertical reading of the Commedia. For the format proposes something that is much needed yet also novel and striking: this new mode of systematically journeying through Dante’s text opens up genuinely fresh and fruitful perspectives on the Commedia. It generates, furthermore, suspense. As surprising and exciting as the journey we are undertaking may be, we are yet to discover where exactly it will lead, or how our relationship with the Commedia will be transformed by the adventure.

The image of the handstand, moreover, compellingly raises the question of verticality itself. This is very appropriate for discussing the Threes. As we shall see, these are cantos that, especially if read in the light of Paradiso iii, invite us to think about verticality and its theological implications. More generally, the image of the handstand directly suggests that the vertical reading we are embarking upon is about the subversion of expectation. All three cantos, in one way or another, foreground the need for expectations and assumptions to be modified to permit progress on the journey towards God. This is true both of the pilgrim Dante himself, and of what the text demands of us as readers. In fact, in this reading, I shall intentionally blur the distinction between the two.

I am conscious of the possible limitations that such forms of interpretation may have. I wish to proceed in this way, however, to convey all the more immediately the sense of journeying and transformation that is a fundamental aspect of Dante’s project, and thereby also a sense of active journeying on our part as we progress on the vertical reading project. I am not suggesting we need necessarily adopt the particular theological framework presented to us by Dante as the form our own transformation can take. But I do think we are missing a vital aspect of Dante’s text if we do not give ourselves opportunities to engage with a constructive sense of the transformative impact it might have on our aesthetic, intellectual, ethical, theological and even spiritual sensibilities. In this vein, my reading will end with a link to a short piece of music that was written almost seven centuries after the Commedia (and that bears only an indirect connection to Dante’s text), but that beautifully embodies, I believe, some of the ideas I will be engaging with. I hope that this musical accompaniment to the present reading will sharpen our sense that journeying vertically through Dante’s Commedia is not simply a detached cerebral venture but a fully embodied one.

Before embarking on my reading of the Threes, allow me to express gratitude for work whose influence pervades the present essay. I am grateful to Heather Webb, for ongoing and illuminating conversation on the importance of posture and of the interplay between individual and communal in Dante’s narrative;2 and to George Corbett for illuminating and ongoing conversation on Dante’s understanding of salvation and on the relationship between reading the Commedia and listening to music, especially music that is not directly connected to Dante’s poem.3 I am also grateful to Robin Kirkpatrick, whose translation of the Commedia will accompany us on the present reading, and whose commentary on the poem offers the deepest available reflection on the theological dynamics of Dante’s understanding of freedom.4 It is, indeed, from Kirkpatrick that I first learned to appreciate just how transformative Dante’s understanding of freedom can be.

As clearly suggested by my title, freedom is the overarching theme I have chosen for my vertical reading of the Threes. It is in and through the question of freedom that verticality and the re-orientation of expectation emerge as subjects in our cantos. What this means, as we shall see, is that these cantos focus on personhood, particularity and hope. Indeed, if we take our cantos in their narrative order, we immediately find a rather stark statement concerning hope and what appears to be the ultimate lack of freedom.

Per me si va ne la città dolente,
per me si va ne l’etterno dolore,
per me si va tra la perduta gente.

Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore;
fecemi la divina podestate,
la somma sapïenza e ‘l primo amore.

Dinanzi a me non fuor cose create
se non etterne, e io etterna duro.
Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate. (Inf., iii. 1-9)

[Through me you go to the grief-wracked city.
Through me to everlasting pain you go.
Through me you go and pass among lost souls.

Justice inspired my exalted Creator.
I am a creature of the Holiest Power,
of Wisdom in the Highest and of Primal Love.

Nothing till I was made was made, only
eternal beings. And I endure eternally.
Surrender as you enter every hope you have.]

Entering Hell, we are told, coincides with the abandonment of hope.5 This would seem to make sense, especially as it might be seen to conform to assumptions we might have of Hell as the place that, by definition, is without freedom. There is no hope because there is no freedom. To be in Hell, in this view, is to be deprived of freedom as a result of our shortcomings: the ultimate imposition of divine authority on the recalcitrant human self, the self which in its freedom decides not to follow the divine Word.

If these are the expectations we are bringing with us upon entering Dante’s Hell, however, we need to be ready to revise them. This is already suggested by the fact that we are told that Hell is the creation not only of justice, power and wisdom, but also of love. This, as Denys Turner has recently pointed out in one of the sharpest and most compelling analyses available of the theology of Inferno, reveals the condition of Hell to be an unfolding of, rather than an imposition on, the freedom of its inhabitants. As Turner puts it:

[Dante’s Hell] is a place where sinners, by choice, inhabit their sins and live their lives structured by sin’s distorted perceptions of love. That love they have to reject, as being an invasion of some imagined personal space, independent of God, as a violation of their personal freedom and autonomy. But this self-deceived self-affirmation shows up in the refusal of the damned to accept that there can be any narrative other than their own, for they deny that there is, after all, any divina commedia. The damned all have their own stories to tell, and Inferno tells them. Each of them, from Francesca da Rimini to Ugolino, know that those stories which they each tell of their fates recount not just why they were sent there to hell in the first place – that is, their specific sin – but also why they are held there without term in a condition of sinfulness, for the grip of hell on them is but the grip with which they hold onto their stories, without which they cannot imagine for themselves an identity or reality. They need their stories, stories of their own telling, and they need the misrepresentations that those stories tell. Hell is but the condition consequent upon their ultimate refusal to abandon that need. Hell, then, is the condition not of those who have sinned, for many who have sinned more grievously than Francesca and Paolo are not in hell but in a place of Redemption in purgatory. Hell is the condition of those who do not repent of their stories, who refuse the offer of their revision by the divine love, and insist on living by means of the story that sin tells, the story of the attempt to achieve a self-made significance independently of the story of the divine love.6

Hell, in this view, is not the antithesis of freedom but the result of confusing freedom with choice,7 and of the pursuit of freedom as autonomy, a pursuit of freedom that through individualistic self-centredness entraps the self in its own limitation – a limitation necessarily deriving from the self’s not being self-sufficient but radically dependent on divine love as the very substance of its being.8 As we shall see, it is this very limitation that in Purgatorio and Paradiso will be presented as the genuine foundation of freedom and identity.

But let us reflect on Inferno iii a little while longer. Immediately after entering the gates of Hell – which we should note are open, unlike the ones that later will have to be opened for Dante and Virgil by a divine messenger9 – Dante meets the first group of human beings on his journey. Indeed the third canto of each cantica is the canto in which Dante meets the first group of human beings already inhabiting the realm of the afterlife he is visiting. In Inferno iii, Dante first becomes aware of the group’s presence through horrific and cacophonous sounds – an aural aspect of Dante’s text that we should keep in mind as we proceed, given that Paradiso iii, the last canto on our vertical journey, ends in song. Of the infernal cacophony, Dante tells us:

Quivi sospiri, pianti e alti guai
risonavan per l’aere sanza stelle,
per ch’io al cominciar ne lagrimai.

Diverse lingue, orribili favelle,
parole di dolore, accenti d’ira,
voci alte e fioche, e suon di man con elle

facevano un tumulto, il qual s’aggira
sempre in quell’ aura sanza tempo tinta,
come la rena quando turbo spira. (Inf., iii. 22-30)

[Sighing, sobbing, moans and plaintive wailing
all echoed here through air where no star shone,
and I, as this began, began to weep.

Discordant tongues, harsh accents of horror,
tormented words, the twang of rage, strident
voices, the sound as well, of smacking hands,

together these all stirred a storm that swirled
for ever in the darkened air where no time was,
as sand swept up in breathing spires of wind.]

On hearing this noise, Dante questions Virgil as to its source. Dante calls Virgil ‘maestro’ – emphasizing his role as guiding teacher. Indeed, each of the four times that Dante directly addresses Virgil in this canto he begins in the same way: ‘Maestro’. This emphasis on the pilgrim’s need for guidance is important for our vertical reading because in our other cantos too we will see Dante being challenged to grow through having to negotiate different modes of perception and different ways of relating to those offering him guidance. Virgil responds to Dante’s question by explaining to him that the noise is produced by the indifferent, the crowd of those who failed to make any mark on the world or on their own selves, those who are in effect without identity. They frantically and purposelessly follow a blank banner and have no proper place either in Heaven or Hell. As Virgil says, they are envious of every other otherworldly condition and, ultimately, are not worthy of our consideration:

Questi non hanno speranza di morte,
e la lor cieca vita e’ tanto bassa
che ’nvidiosi son d’ogne altra sorte

Fama di loro il mondo esser non lassa;
misericordia e giustizia li sdegna:
non ragioniam di lor, ma guarda e passa. (Inf., iii. 46-51)

[These have no hope that death will ever come.
And so degraded is the life they lead
all look with envy on all other fates.

The world allows no glory to their name.
Mercy and Justice alike despise them.
Let us not speak of them. Look, then pass on.]

In fact, Dante does recognize some of them, most famously ‘colui che fece per viltade il gran rifiuto’. Much has been written about how we might identify who this person actually is, the two most likely contenders being Pontius Pilate and Pope Celestine V. The most important thing about Dante’s way of telling us he identified someone, however, is that this identification amounts to no identification at all. It amounts, simply, to a general definition of the ignavi, those who refuse to make anything of themselves, those who reject the divine gift of free will and the possibility of individual identity.

As they move forward on their journey, Dante and Virgil next see those who do not fall into the rather numerous group of the indifferent. This is a privileged moment for reflecting on the theological dynamics of Inferno. For what we are told about this second group that we meet in Inferno iii applies also to all those we will meet later in Hell. And what is most significant about this description in light of this essay’s theme is that these human beings move towards their infernal abode of their own accord. They might be swearing and cursing God or the day they were born, as Dante tells us they do, and some of them might be proceeding more slowly than required, but they all move forward spurred by divine justice acting within them in such a way as to turn their fear into desire. As Virgil says,

quelli che muoion ne l’ira di Dio
tutti convengon qui d’ogne paese;
e pronti sono a trapassar lo rio,

ché la divina giustizia li sprona,
sì che la tema si volve in disio.
(Inf., iii. 121-126)

[[All those…] who perish in the wrath of God,
meet on this shore, wherever they were born.
And they are eager to be shipped across.

Justice of God so spurs them all ahead
that fear in them becomes that sharp desire.]

We might be tempted here to think that the divine justice Dante is referring to is some external force acting upon them, but this would run counter to the rather more subtle psychological picture Dante is presenting. Yes, we are told that the infernal guardian Charon violently shepherds the damned and reminds them of what we had seen written on the gates of Hell – of the need to abandon hope. But the divine justice which Virgil points out to Dante as the primary motivating force of the newly damned comes from within; it is a form of self-knowledge whereby the damned seem to recognize the appropriateness of their current journey, its faithfulness to the life they chose for themselves, preferring their story to love’s story. Indeed, none of the sinners we meet in Inferno is actually found protesting against the divine justice of their present predicament. Many blame other human beings for their fate, others are either directly or indirectly defiant towards God, but on close scrutiny none of the sinners are presented as actually deeming their predicament unjust.

One way of reading the journey through Hell, then, is as a journey towards self-knowledge, an ever-deeper plunge into the justice of the condemnation of the darker possibilities inherent in our being, those aspects of our selves that are expressions of our isolating presumption to be self-sufficient and to live at the expense of others and of God.

From this perspective, the next thing to note about Inferno iii is the first use in the Commedia of a formula that will become familiar. In challenging Charon to let them pass, Virgil says,

[…] Caron, non ti crucciare
vuolsi così colà dove si puote
ciò che si vuole, e più non dimandare.
(Inf., iii. 94-96)

[Charon […] don’t torment yourself.
For this is willed where all is possible
that is willed there. And so demand no more.]

Once again, we would seem to be presented with an instance of the imposition of God’s will over something external to it. And, once again, the picture is nonetheless more complicated than this. First of all, the reference is not to God but to the Empyrean, the transcendent ‘place’ of perfect freedom where will coincides with power, and power – as we will see in Paradiso iii – coincides with love. We have here a first way in which our cantos raise the question of verticality itself. Dante’s journey, like Hell itself, depends on love and, therefore, on the Empyrean – which is nothing other than the perfect unfolding of love on which the universe depends. It follows, then, that his journey depends on its own point of arrival, on that to which Dante’s vertical journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise is leading. Its end is its beginning. Whilst instinctively we might feel that the primary thrust of Dante’s journey is from and through earth to Heaven, its even more fundamental thrust is from Heaven to earth. Without divine love there would be no journey. What we have here, in other words, is a narrative analogue to the mystery of creation. Any movement towards God is only possible as a manifestation of the love by which God brings into existence and sustains all that is and all that can move towards God.

With all this in mind, let us turn to Purgatorio iii. Virgil’s words to Cato in Purgatorio i have reminded the reader that Dante’s journey is, indeed, a journey towards freedom.10 As Purgatorio iii makes clear, however, Dante now needs to negotiate anew what this might mean; he needs to learn anew how to travel in his new surroundings. This is not, initially, an easy thing to do. Dante is terrified at seeing only one shadow on the ground before him and thinks he has been abandoned by Virgil. This leads Virgil to explain that while not united with their earthly flesh, otherworldly souls do nonetheless inform and enliven an aerial body that allows the human person to continue to exist even between death and the Resurrection. How this is possible is a mystery, Virgil says, as mysterious as that of the Trinity. But, Virgil specifies, this is a mystery that human beings can enter into through the Incarnation, or, as Virgil puts it, through the fact that Mary gave birth:

Ora, se innanzi a me nulla s’aombra,
non ti maravigliar più che d’i cieli
che l’uno a l’altro raggio non ingombra.

A sofferir tormenti, caldi e geli
simili corpi la Virtù dispone
che, come fa, non vol ch’a noi si sveli.

Matto è chi spera che nostra ragione
possa trascorrer la infinita via
che tiene una sustanza in tre persone.

State contenti, umana gente, al quia;
ché, se potuto aveste veder tutto,
mestier non era parturir Maria. (Purg., iii. 28-39)

[If nothing now is shadowed at my feet,
don’t wonder any more than when the rays
the heavens project don’t block each other out.

To suffer torments both of heat and chill,
the Utmost Power gives bodies, fit for that,
not wishing how it does to be revealed.

It’s madness if we hope that rational minds
should ever follow to its end the road
that one true being in three persons takes.

Content yourselves with quia, human kind.
Had you been able to see everything,
Mary need not have laboured to give birth.]

The fact that Dante the poet simply has Virgil refer to Mary’s giving birth while not referring to the name of her child is significant, for it could be seen to suggest that the mystery of the Incarnation is not only vital for human beings as relating specifically to the historical Jesus but also as relating to every individual human person, whose way to divinization, according to Dante, lies precisely in becoming Christ-like.

At stake in Virgil’s words to Dante about the embodiedness of otherworldly souls is also his own role as guide. After the lines just quoted, Virgil further reminds Dante that the mysteries he is speaking of transcend human reason, and this reminds us that, especially now that we are in Purgatory, a realm that is new even for Virgil himself, Virgil is not the perfect guide. This is not in itself a problem for the progress of our protagonists. It does, however, require a different mode of journeying, one that is more collaborative, communal. This in turn raises the question of whether there might be something in the journey for Virgil too, whether he too will learn something and whether that might somehow affect his relationship with the divine. Analysis of this question clearly transcends the confines of our present reading.11 It is nonetheless important to raise it here, because it can enhance our sense of just how significant the question of authority is as explored from the opening of Purgatorio iii.

In Purgatorio iii, the dynamics of the journey change first of all between Dante and Virgil themselves. Indeed, it is on Dante’s initiative that the two begin to move in the right direction after Virgil remains silent upon ending his speech concerning the limitation of human reason. Addressing Virgil once again as ‘maestro’, Dante encourages him to look up and ahead, where a group of penitents can be seen coming towards them. This new encounter in turn broadens and deepens communal possibilities.

But not without initial hesitation. On first seeing Dante and Virgil, the penitent souls – those who have died under excommunication – huddle up against the mountain rock, and it is only upon Virgil’s formal request for directions that they begin cautiously to approach, an action that is described with some of the most beautiful poetry of the Commedia:

Come le pecorelle escon del chiuso
a una, a due, a tre, e l’altre stanno
timidette, atterrando l’occhio e ’l muso,

e ciò che fa la prima, e l’altre fanno,
addossandosi a lei, s’ella s’arresta,
semplici e quete, e lo ’mperché non sanno:

sì vid’ io muovere a venir la testa
di quella mandria fortunata allotta,
pudica in faccia e ne l’andare onesta. (Purg., iii. 79-87)

[As silly sheep come edging from their fold,
one, two and three, the rest all standing there
timidly turning earthwards eyes and snouts,

to do exactly what the first one does,
huddling against her if she hesitates,
quiet and meek, not knowing why they do,

so, too, I now saw moving out to me
the forward markers of that happy flock,
modest in look and dignified in walk.]

But then once again they hesitate. Just as Dante was taken aback at not seeing Virgil’s shadow next to his, so the penitent are taken aback at seeing Dante in his mortal body. Virgil attempts to reassure them by pointing out, first, that yes, they should believe that this is a mortal body they see before them and, second, that Dante is here in Purgatory with his mortal body because his journey is guided by heavenly virtue:

Sanza vostra domanda io vi confesso
che questo è corpo uman che voi vedete;
per che ’l lume del sole in terra è fesso.

Non vi maravigliate, ma credete
che non sanza virtù che dal ciel vegna
cerchi di soverchiar questa parete. (Purg., iii. 94-99)

[You need not ask. I freely will confess
that what you see are truly human limbs.
That’s why the sunlight on the earth is split.

Don’t wonder at the sight but just believe
that, not without some virtue from the skies,
does he attempt to overcome this wall.]

These words once again foreground the double verticality of Dante’s journey – a journey of the earthly heavenwards that is only possible because of the prior journey earthwards of the heavenly. This time, however, the foregrounding of this double verticality resonates with significant Christological overtones. Virgil’s words equate recognition of Dante’s physical presence in Purgatory to a confession of faith which, coupled with the reference to heavenly virtue descending to earth, cannot but bring to mind, implicitly but strongly, the incarnation of the divine itself.

Even after this, the canto continues to resonate Christologically. In response to Virgil’s request, the penitents point Dante and Virgil in the right direction for beginning their ascent of the mountain. Then, one of the penitents seeks Dante’s recognition, and when Dante tells him he is unable to recognize him, his response is like Christ’s before Thomas: Manfred simply points to the wound on his chest:

Quand’ io mi fui umilmente disdetto
d’averlo visto mai, el disse: “Or vedi”;
e mostrommi una piaga a sommo ’l petto.

Poi sorridendo disse: “Io son Manfredi […]. (Purg., iii. 109-12)

[In all humility, I then denied
that I, till then, had seen him. ‘Look!’ he said,
and pointed out a wound high on his chest.

Then, smiling: ‘I am Manfred’, he declared […]]

At the same time that we begin to see the journey towards God taking on a more communal aspect, therefore, we are also invited to reflect on human identity and particularity in Christic terms. Instead of the abdication of self or the assertion of self that we found in Inferno iii, we find the beginning of the construction of self in, through or as Christ (or love). The story of Christ is the story of divine love made flesh; and it is as part of this story, according to Dante, that any individual story might properly be told. As part of love’s story even the worst of sinners can hope to be at one with God, even beyond what Manfred refers to as the shortsightedness of the institutional Church.12

Orribil furon li peccati miei;
ma la Bontà infinita ha sì gran braccia
che prende ciò che si rivolge a lei.


Per lor maledizion sì non si perde
che non possa tornar, l’etterno amore,
mentre che la speranza ha fior del verde. (Purg., iii. 121-23, 133-35)

[My sins and crimes were horrible to hear.
God, though, unendingly is good. His arms
enfold and grasp all those who turn to him.


No one, while hope shows any hint of green,
is lost beyond return to love eternal
merely because the Church has voiced its curse.]

The journey ahead is still long, however. And what we have here in Purgatorio iii is clearly an imperfect and ironic Christ-likeness. Yet the communal and Christological dimension of Purgatorio iii sets the stage for a different kind of journey than that of Inferno. In Purgatory, to move towards God is to recognize one’s limitations as the foundation for interpersonal encounter, and to recognize that one’s identity is not self-sufficient but rather the embodied and ever different particularization of a love we all share as the ground of our being.

In this respect, it is important to note that the canto ends with a further broadening out of community: we are told that it is possible for the penitents in Purgatory to make progress not only by their own efforts but also through the prayers of human beings who are still on the other side of death.13 This exchange of love creates a communal continuum between this world, the other world and God which enriches the double verticality spoken of earlier. Our journey towards God is possible not only on account of its dependence on God but also because of what we can do for each other, on this side of death, on the other side of death and in our relationships between the two.

It is through such a communal perspective that, for Dante, individual human beings can find perfect freedom. Freedom is thus seen not as a neutral capacity for choice possessed by the individual that exists prior to any choice in particular, whether it be the choice of goodness or of evil. Freedom is seen, rather, as the capacity to orient one’s being, communally, towards goodness. Such a capacity is not prior to choice but coincides with the choice of goodness. Failure to orient our being towards goodness is thus not a bad exercise of freedom, but a failure to be as free as we could be: a failure to partake in that transcendent reality in which what one wills perfectly coincides with what one can do.

To reflect further on Dante’s understanding of such transcendent reality, let us turn now to Paradiso iii, in which the kind of communal dynamics which begin to be traced in Purgatorio iii are explicitly defined as the essence of Paradise. The canto, once again, begins with a mistake on Dante’s part that foregrounds his need to learn anew how to travel in his new surroundings. Dante sees a number of faint human figures and deems them a reflection, so as soon as he recognizes that they are ready to speak to him he turns round, thinking that in this way he will see them face to face. He sees nothing, however, so turns in amazement to Beatrice, who has now replaced Virgil as Dante’s guide. Beatrice smiles at what she calls Dante’s still unsure footing in truth, benevolently referring to Dante’s mistake as childish. She then urges Dante to speak to the blessed and, like Virgil had done to the penitents of Purgatorio iii, uses words that equate interpersonal encounter with a profession of faith:14

‘Non ti meravigliar perch’io sorrida’,
mi disse, ’appresso il tuo pueril coto,
poi sopra ’l vero ancor lo piè non fida,

ma te rivolve, come suole, a vòto:
vere sustanze son ciò che tu vedi,
qui rilegate per manco di voto.

Però parla con esse e odi e credi;
ché la verace luce che lo appaga
da sé non lascia lor torcer li piedi.’ (Par., iii.25-33)

[‘You baby!’ she said, ‘Don’t worry or wonder,
to see me smile at all these ponderings.
Those feet are not yet steady on the ground of truth.

Your mind, from habit, turns round to a void.
And yet those beings that you see are true,
bound here below for vows they disavowed.

So speak to them. And hear and trust their words.
The light of truth that feeds them with its peace
will never let their feet be turned awry.’]

What happens next deepens some of the perspectives opened up in Purgatorio iii. The rest of Paradiso iii is taken up by Dante’s conversation with Piccarda, sister of one of Dante’s dearest friends, Forese Donati, whom Dante had met in Purgatorio xxiii.15 Piccarda, like all the blessed Dante sees in the Heaven of the Moon, appears to him there, on the lowest rung of Dante’s cosmic journey towards the Empyrean, because she failed to be faithful to the vows she had made in life. This prompts Dante’s apparently sensible question:

Ma dimmi: voi che siete qui felici,
disiderate voi più alto loco
per più vedere e per più farvi amici? (Par., iii. 64-66)

[But tell me this: you are so happy here,
have you no wish to gain some higher grade,
to see and be as friends to God still more?]

To which Piccarda responds with words which are among the better known and loved of the Commedia:

Frate, la nostra volontà quïeta
virtù di carità, che fa volerne
sol quel ch’avemo, e d’altro non ci asseta.

Se disïassimo esser più superne,
foran discordi li nostri disiri
dal voler di colui che qui ne cerne;

che vedrai non capere in questi giri,
s’essere in carità è qui necesse,
e se la sua natura ben rimiri.

Anzi è formale ad esto beato esse
tenersi dentro a la divina voglia,
per ch’una fansi nostre voglie stesse;

sì che, come noi sem di soglia in soglia
per questo regno, a tutto il regno piace
com’ a lo re che ’n suo voler ne ’nvoglia.

E ’n la sua volontade è nostra pace:
ell’ è quel mare al qual tutto si move
ciò ch’ella crïa o che natura face. (Par., iii. 70-87)

[Dear brother, we in will are brought to rest
by power of caritas that makes us will
no more than what we have, nor thirst for more.

Were our desire to be more highly placed,
all our desires would then be out of tune
with His, who knows and wills where we should be.

Yet discord in these spheres cannot occur – 
as you, if you reflect on this, will see – 
since charity is a priori here.

In formal terms, our being in beatitude
entails in-holding to the will of God,
our own wills thus made one with the divine.

In us, therefore, there is, throughout this realm,
a placing, rung to rung, delighting all
– our king as well in-willing us in will.

In His volition is the peace we have.
That is the sea to which all being moves,
be it what that creates or Nature blends.]

The answer Piccarda gives to Dante’s question concerning the hierarchical verticality of Heaven is that the blessed are perfectly happy (literally so!) in seeing just as much as is granted them to see by God, and that this is necessarily the case because the essence of heavenly being is charity; ‘carità’ means the love by which the will of each blessed is perfectly at one with that of God and that of all the other blessed. With great poetic skill and philosophical precision – note, for instance, the rhyme on ‘necesse’ and ‘esse’ – Dante thus beautifully articulates the dependence of human being on divine love.

Piccarda explains that to be in perfect peace is not only to see God but also to be at one with the will of God, in whom everything that is has its being. This means that to be in perfect peace is to be in charity, at one in love both with God and with all the other blessed. The hierarchical verticality that baffles the pilgrim is only baffling if due consideration is not given to the fact that to be in Heaven is to be in charity and in conformity to the will of God, one because of the other. This implies – as the pilgrim finds out for himself at the end of his journey – that to see God is to be at one with the love which God is.

In other words, the pilgrim’s doubt comes from an error in theological perspective – as a result of which proper attention is not given to the fact that, as the love which is the ground of all existence, God is not simply that to which all that exists moves (ll. 86 and 87). God is also that in which human existence can find its most perfect expression no matter ‘where’ one abides in relation to God (ll. 79-81 and 85). God is not some-thing there for human beings to see. God is that truth in seeing by which human beings recognize themselves as expressions of the love that grounds their being.

We should also remember that, like the rest of the blessed Dante will meet on his journey across the heavenly spheres towards the Empyrean, Piccarda does not abide in the Heaven in which she appears to Dante but in the Empyrean itself, beyond space and time. She might well be amongst those blessed who are ‘furthest’ away from God, but she is so in a realm in which distance has no spatial or temporal substance and in which perfection is ubiquitous. This is not specified as such in Paradiso iii (it will only be spelled out in Paradiso iv),16 but it is already implied in Piccarda’s words and in Dante’s response to them:

Chiaro mi fu allor come ogne dove
in cielo è paradiso,
etsi la grazia
del sommo ben d’un modo non vi piove.
(Par., iii. 88-90)

[Now it was clear. I saw that everywhere
in Paradise there’s Heaven, though grace may rain
in varied measure from the Highest Good.]

The significance of Piccarda’s words for our purposes lies in the way in which they allow us to continue reflecting on the question of divine will and of its relationship to the human journeying towards God. What Piccarda is saying is that the essence of Heaven is nothing other than the divine will, or love. There is ultimately no truth or reality outside of this. It is in this truth that human freedom and personhood are situated. The will in which all of the blessed are at one, then, is also the will guiding Dante’s journey which Virgil refers to in both Inferno iii and Purgatorio iii. It is a will in which individual human willing is perfected, not undermined. There is no competition here. God is not another being whose will human beings have to follow at the expense of their own; the divine will is what human beings can recognize themselves to be when they express the love which is (in) them.

Such divine potential can be fulfilled even in the light of severe shortcomings. We have seen that Dante thought this was possible for Manfred, and later on, in the cantos of the Heaven of Venus, we will be told that in Heaven sin is remembered not as sin but as part of the particular trajectory that brought the individual to God.17 Indeed, before entering Heaven, Dante tells us that human beings are immersed in the two rivers of the Earthly Paradise, one which erases the memory of sin as sin, the other which enhances the memory of goodness as goodness. From this perspective, the stories told in the second half of Paradiso iii about the lives of Piccarda and the Empress Constance are meant to be read not simply as records of failure but as examples of the way in which human failure is ultimately not an impediment on the journey towards divinization but an integral part of what makes us the particular human beings that we are and that can, on the basis of our particular identity, be divinized.18

The reference to the story of the Empress Constance, Manfred’s grandmother, also serves to enhance the sense of vertical relationship between Purgatorio iii and Paradiso iii. Through the family tie a sense both of community and of historical particularity is emphasized and contextualized in the deeper picture of the stories of Manfred’s and Constance’s relationship with God.19 To phrase all in this in terms of the question of verticality, what we see in Dante’s encounter with Piccarda is that notions of verticality as hierarchy ultimately dissolve in our relationship with God: there is only the blissful and harmonious communal interplay of individual particularities.

Which brings us to music. It is with music that Dante’s encounter with Piccarda ends. After speaking with Dante, Piccarda starts signing an Ave Maria, and in singing she disappears from Dante’s sight. It is of course extremely appropriate that it should be with an Ave Maria that the episode ends. For it is a prayer celebrating that particular exercise of human freedom – Mary’s ‘yes’ to the Incarnation – on which, according to Dante and as evidenced also in Purgatorio iii, the whole of salvation history turns.

Così parlommi, e poi cominciò ‘Ave,
Maria’ cantando, e cantnado vanìo
come per acqua cupa cosa grave.
(Par., iii.121-23)

[Those were her words to me. But then ‘Ave
’ began, singing. And, singing,
she went from sight, as weight sinks deep in water.]

Departing slightly from Dante’s text, we might also say that music – beautifully conveyed in the self-consciously rhythmic enjambment across 121-22 – is appropriate for this reading because it gives us fruitful tools for engaging non-verbally with the question of verticality. Take for instance something as simple as a C major chord. Played sequentially, the three notes might give us a strong sense of vertical directionality, but when the three notes are played together, the sense of vertical directionality dissolves through the harmonious fusion of the particularity of the three individual notes. Perhaps a chord captures something of the essence of Piccarda’s speech about the confluence of wills and particularity.

The musical chord could also help us think about the new practice of vertical reading that we are involved in. To what extent can three cantos read vertically across cantiche resonate with each other? More broadly, to what extent can the three cantiche themselves be seen to resonate with each other? What kind of harmony, if any, ultimately unites Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso?

Leaving these as open questions, I would like to conclude by suggesting that you listen to a piece of music that was constantly on my mind while preparing this essay and the lecture on which it is based. Written at the end of the nineteenth century, it is not a piece, or a kind of music, Dante could have had in mind when writing the Commedia. Neither is it a piece directly inspired by it. Its composer did write a choral version of the prayer to the Virgin of Paradiso xxxiii, which is often performed together with the piece that I would like us to share, itself an Ave Maria, the prayer sung by Piccarda on departing from Dante. But these, to my knowledge, are as direct as the links get between the music and Dante’s text.

The piece I would like us to share is the Ave Maria by Giuseppe Verdi, collected as one of his Quattro pezzi sacri (the others being a Te Deum, a Stabat Mater and the Laudi alla Vergine Maria, based on Paradiso xxxiii).20 It is a striking piece that, in fruitful ways, invites us to think about questions of freedom, particularity, harmony and verticality. Verdi conceived of this Ave Maria as an ‘enigmatic scale harmonized for unaccompanied mixed choir of four voices’. Composed after the Requiem, it is a beautiful example of the composer’s mature style, and an expression of his renewed interest in the setting of religious texts. The piece was written in 1889 in response to the publication by music professor Aldo Crescentini in 1888 of an enigmatic scale, composed of unusual and strange intervals, which he challenged composers to harmonize.

Verdi’s response to the challenge is a piece divided into four sections, in each of which the enigmatic scale and the words Ave Maria are sung (first ascending then descending) by a different voice part – respectively, bass, alto, tenor and soprano. Each section, while contributing to a sophisticated overall unity, has its own distinctive character: four very different miniatures that share a splendid, subtle attention to the intimate interaction between the four voices.

Why might it be relevant to refer to this piece here? First there is the challenge: Verdi did not compose the piece entirely on his own initiative – it is his way of responding to material already in existence. Then there is the double verticality, spontaneously integral in the nature of a musical scale that is played both ascending and descending. Then there is the fact that this natural kind of verticality is made strange by the enigmatic intervals of the scale. To enjoy the piece we need to be ready for our expectation to be undermined as to what a scale is or should be. Then there is the fact that this verticality, at once natural and strange, is taken as the basis for four very different musical moments, each distinctive in its own right yet acquiring its full meaning in interaction with the others; just as throughout the piece each of the four voices finds its meaning in interacting with the other three. Finally, there is the fact that in, through and beyond all of these things, which we might or might not pick up on when listening to the piece, there is the singular beauty of the piece as a whole, our experience of which transcends our appreciation of any individual aspect of it.

I am not suggesting that Verdi’s Ave Maria provides us with a direct analogue to the reading of Dante’s poem I have proposed. I do feel, however, that it can resonate, and help enhance our engagement with, some of the central questions we have explored: questions that deal with difference in identity and identity in difference, with vertical movements and vertical movements made strange, and with the bearing all this might have on our understanding of texts such as the Ave Maria and the Commedia, which as suggested above invite us to consider love and freedom as the essence of our existence. Moreover, we can see the challenge posed by the enigmatic scale as a parallel to the invitation for us to take this vertical journey through the Commedia: a challenge to which each reading will respond differently, in the generation of a harmony we will be discovering, communally, over the next few years – with surprise, excitement and suspense.

1 The video of this lecture is available at the Cambridge Vertical Readings in Dante’s Comedy website,

The present text is very close in form to the lecture on which it is based. In preparing the lecture, I had the privilege of attending the first two vertical readings, and my experience of writing the lecture was inextricably tied to the conversations surrounding those, for which I am especially grateful to George Corbett, Matthew Treherne and Heather Webb.

2 See also and Heather Webb, ‘Postures of Penitence in Dante’s Purgatorio’, Dante Studies 131 (2013), 219-236.

3 See also George Corbett, Dante and Epicurus: A Dualistic Vision of Secular and Spiritual Fulfilment (Oxford: Legenda, 2013).

4 Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, trans. and comm. Robin Kirkpatrick, 3 vols (London: Penguin, 2006-2007).

5 It is important to note that ‘lasciate’ in Inf., iii. 9 can be read both as imperative and indicative.

6 Denys Turner, Julian of Norwich, Theologian (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011), 92.

7 See also David Burrell, Faith and Freedom: An Interfaith Perspective (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004).

8 See also Par., xxix, 13-18.

9 Inf., viii-ix.

10 Purg., i. 70-72.

11 This is one of the main questions I explore in Divinity Realized in Human Encounter: Reading Dante’s ‘Commedia’ As Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

12 Purg., iii. 126

13 Purg., iii. 142-45

14 Compare Purg., iii. 97 with Par., iii. 25 and iii. 31

15 In Purg., xxiii. 70-75, Forese voices the central character of the penitents’ conforming in Purgatory to the will and being of Christ. On the figure of Piccarda and her relationship with Forese, see also my ‘In Unknowability as Love: The Theology of Dante’s Commedia’, in Dante’s ‘Commedia’: Theology as Poetry, ed. by Vittorio Montemaggi and Matthew Treherne (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010), and ‘“E ’n la sua volontade è nostra pace”: Peace, Justice and the Trinity in Dante’s Commedia’, in War and Peace in Dante, ed. by John C. Barnes (Dublin: Four Courts Press, for the UCD Foundation for Italian Studies, 2015).

16 Par., iv. 37-48.

17 Par., ix. 103-08.

18 Par., iii. 97-120.

19 This, together with the reference to Mary’s motherhood in Purg., iii provides a marked contrast to Inf., iii. 103-05.

20 A recording of the piece can be found at the end of the video of the lecture on which the present essay is based. See