Robert Hollander
(Princeton University)
31 January 2002


  At Purgatorio 9.112 we learn that the warder of Purgatory has carved letters upon the protagonist's forehead. These seven P's, for peccata, evidently stand for the seven capital vices. For the derivation of these incised letters from a similar inscribing of the Hebrew letter tau, see Gian Roberto Sarolli ("Noterella biblica sui sette P.," Studi Danteschi 34 [1957]: 217-22), arguing for a source in Ezek. 9:2-6, where God commands a scribe to write that letter on the foreheads of all the inhabitants of Jerusalem who regret the abominations done in the city. In the following slaughter of the rest of the inhabitants, only Jeremiah and the other just Jerusalemites are preserved. (See also Apoc. 7:3, for the true believers who bear the sign of God on their foreheads, as well as Apoc. 13:16 and 20:4, where those who worship the Beast have his sign on theirs.)

  For some time now a debate among the commentators has involved the question of whether or not others on the mountain possess these P's (i.e., whether or not the P's on Dante's forehead are unique). Two differing reasons help us to be fairly certain that they are in fact unique to him, the first one positive: Dante is the sole visitor to Purgatory who climbs there in the flesh; his uniqueness thus has this further ceremonial sign. Second, and arguing from negative evidence, one may say that, since no other character is ever observed bearing these "stigmata," one may reasonably conclude that none has them. Indeed, we may imagine the various human scenes that the poet almost surely would have developed had he decided that others were similarly inscribed, with various characters on the mountain comparing P's with Dante, etc. Is this issue an instance of readers treating the text as though it were so completely real that they invent questions about the details it contains that its author would have ridiculed? Or does Dante expect us to wonder about this problem and to do enough detective work to solve it? That is perhaps an unanswerable question. Nonetheless, if only in the past 150 years, commentators have chosen to debate the issue, thus drawing us into their quarrel. From the evidence found in the poem, however, it seems reasonable to conclude only that Dante and Dante alone bears a P on his forehead {but see Fosca, at Purg. 12 in EBDSA}.

  That may seem, to some or even most, a sensible resolution of the issue. However, a later text, whether it was meant to or not, reopens the question, Purgatorio 21.22-24:

E 'l dottor mio: "Se tu riguardi a' segni
che questi porta e che l'angel profila,
ben vedrai che coi buon convien ch'e' regni."

  Virgil's remarks suggest to Statius that the (remaining three) P's on Dante's forehead indicate a special status, namely that he is bound for Glory--just as is Statius. But did Statius have these marks incised on his forehead? Had he, his last P would probably now be on the verge of erasure "offstage," between the end of this canto and the beginning of the next, Purgatorio 22, as is clear from its third verse, which describes the angel as "avendomi del viso un colpo raso." That verse, had Statius been part of the program, could have read "avendoci del viso un colpo raso." That it does not read thus does not prove that Statius (or any other "normal" penitent) did not bear the sign, but it does make the case of those who want to believe the P's to be general still more difficult. However, there is no reason to consider that Statius, or any other penitent not here in the flesh, has had his brow incised with P's. Nonetheless, this tercet offers the only potential support for those who would like to believe that the reader is meant to understand that all penitents have had their brows inscribed as Dante has, as is suggested by the commentators proposing this view who, in addition to mere assertion, have put forth only this detail as evidence for their opinion, necessarily so, one might add, since no other passage in the poem offers the slightest support for it.

  Our question has an interesting history. The early commentators simply did not notice a problem here or, if they did, were not interested in it and kept silent. And their silence probably supports the view that the angel's strokes were inflicted on Dante alone. Indeed, the question was perhaps not raised until Andreoli (1856) simply assumed that all bore these signs (references to Dante's commentators are to their texts as found in the Dartmouth Dante Project). Tozer (1901) was perhaps the first to make an apparently telling point: Dante's use of a present tense in the verb here (profila) would seem to indicate that the warder always, and even now, is making these marks upon the foreheads of penitents. Torraca (1905), unaware of this provocative observation, simply argues that, since there is never any indication that any of the penitents bear these signs, they must not do so. Michele Barbi (Problemi di critica dantesca [Florence: Sansoni, 1934]), p. 229, was possibly the first Italian to seize upon the problem posed by that present tense in arguing for a general inscription on all penitents. And Barbi's interpretation essentially swept the field, with the exception of Singleton's attempt (1973) to resuscitate Torraca's lonely argument (Pasquini/Quaglio [1982] also accept Torraca's view). Almost all twentieth-century commentators have been swayed by the authority of Barbi, including, at least initially, Siro Chimenz (1962), who at first accedes to the notion that all the penitents must have undergone the angel's writing. Chimenz, however, adds this precision: Dante's present tense would indicate a general practice, occurring even now, "unless here the present is possibly used in place of a past (profila: ha profilato, ha inciso), as occurs not a few times in the poem (see verse 11 [in this canto]; Inf. 16.68; 17.53; 18.42; etc. [this writer, however, does not agree that in these last three cases the present tense represents past action]), and thus may not indicate a general practice, referring rather to Dante alone." One wishes Chimenz had offered still other examples in place of his "etcetera"; nonetheless, the single surely valid case that he puts forward, occurring a mere dozen lines earlier in this very canto, has something in common with this example: it occurs as a rhyme word, as does this somewhat balky hapax, profila. The poet, back in the world, is describing the arrival of Statius while Dante and Virgil were "dal piè guardando la turba che giace" (Purg. 21.11). The crowd of penitents was lying at the feet of these two observers then, and not now. Since the only reasonable argument ever adduced to show that the poet wanted us to imagine the warder at the gate of Purgatory incising all who enter with the number of P's that their sins had earned them is the present tense of the verb profila, to know that Dante elsewhere (and not very far away), without causing amazed disturbance, has used a present tense in the rhyme position where he ought to have used a past, is of considerable help. We may have noted, as did Bosco/Reggio (1979), that these same souls had been noted as lying there with a past tense at Purgatorio 20.143: giacean, the same verb we find in the present tense here at v. 11. (For unrelated examples of verbs in the present being used to express past action, see Franca Brambilla Ageno, "Verbo, Sintassi, Tempi dell'indicativo, Presente," ED VI [1978], pp. 223b-224a.) And so it seems sensible to maintain that at no point in the poem is there any evidence that we are meant to believe that anyone but Dante wears these signs carved upon the forehead by the warder of Purgatory.

  It is important to remember the context of Virgil's response. Statius has simply assumed that what Virgil says of his own "exile" (vv. 16-18) applies to Dante and wants to know (vv. 19-21) how these two damned souls have come so high up the mountain. Virgil now separates his condemned self from Heaven-bound Dante by insisting on the best evidence he has: the remaining P's on his charge's brow that were put there by the warder down below. Had Virgil thought Statius had undergone the same experience when he entered Purgatory proper, would he not have referred to that now? Rather, he refers to those signs that underline Dante's unique status among the penitents, the extraordinary inscription that is shared by no one else, placed on his brow by God's amanuensis as the marks of one who will eventually be God's scribe (see Par. 10.27), written on him before he himself can come to write and must be content, for a time, with being God's scriven.