The Divine Comedy: Purgatory 2 The murder of Pia de’ Tolomei

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), Pia de' Tolomei (1868-80), oil on canvas, 104.7 × 120.6 cm, Spencer Museum of Art, Lawrence, KS. Wikimedia Commons.

Dante is being led by the ghost of Virgil up the steep crags at the foot of the island mountain of Purgatory. After negotiating their way around sheer cliffs, they come across a group of souls huddling under a large rock: these are the spirits of those who delayed their repentance until their very last minutes on earth.

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), The Late Repenters, Purgatorio Canto 4 verses 103-105 (c 1857), engraving, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

One them, Belacqua, tells Dante that they must spend another complete lifetime in Ante-purgatory on the lower parts of the mountain before they can pass out at the top. He had been a famously lazy friend of the poet in Florence, and shows no sign of changing his ways.

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), The Late Repenters, Purgatorio Canto 5 verses 22-24 (c 1857), engraving, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

They pass onward and upward, to meet another large group who made their peace with God shortly before dying violent deaths. Among them is Buonconte, a fearsome Ghibelline leader who disappeared in a battle in which Dante took part. He tells Dante that, dying of his wounds, he shed a tear of contrition and succumbed with the name of the Virgin Mary on his lips.

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), Buonconte da Montefeltro, Purgatorio Canto 5 verses 104-105 (c 1857), engraving, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

There followed a battle between a good angel and the Devil for his soul, which fortunately resulted in triumph for the former, and his admission to the slopes of Ante-purgatory.

The other victim of violence is La Pia, more fully Pia de’ Tolomei, the wife of a Tuscan leader of the Guelphs known as Nello, or Paganello de’ Pannocchieschi. She was by all accounts a wife of great virtue, but Nello wanted to marry a widowed countess, so had her murdered in great secrecy in 1295 when she was at her husband’s castle in Maremma.

This gives rise to her summary statement Siena mi fé, disfecemi Maremma (‘Siena made me, Maremma unmade me’). Her tragic story has inspired many paintings, particularly during the nineteenth century.

Eliseo Sala (1813–1879), Pia de’ Tolomei (1846), oil on canvas, 121 x 90 cm, Musei Civici di Arte e Storia, Brescia, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.
Stefano Ussi (1822–1901), Pia’ de Tolomei (c 1867), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), La Pia de’ Tolomei (study) (1868), chalk, 71.1 × 80.9 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), Pia de’ Tolomei (1868-80), oil on canvas, 104.7 × 120.6 cm, Spencer Museum of Art, Lawrence, KS. Wikimedia Commons.
Enrico Pollastrini (1817–1876), Nello at the Tomb of Pia de’ Tolomei (1851), oil on canvas, 147.5 x 189.5 cm, Galleria d’arte moderna di Firenze, Florence, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.
Gustave Doré (1832–1883), Pia, Purgatorio Canto 5 verses 133-134 (c 1857), engraving, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

The artists

Gustave Doré (1832–1883) was the leading French illustrator of the nineteenth century, whose paintings are still relatively unknown. Early in his career, he produced a complete set of seventy illustrations for translations of the Inferno, which were first published in 1857 and continue to be used. These were followed in 1867 by more illustrations for Purgatorio and Paradiso. This article looks at his paintings.

Enrico Pollastrini (1817–1876) was an Italian painter who was born in Livorno in the Dolomites, but became the first professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence. He appears to have painted mainly figurative and historical works.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882) was of Italian descent but born in London. In 1848, he co-founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and was a major figure in British painting until his early death in 1882. A published poet and author himself, many of his paintings were in response to literature, particularly the poems of John Keats. He had a succession of relationships with his models and muses, including Elizabeth Siddal, Fanny Cornforth, and William Morris’s wife Jane, and it was Jane Morris who was his model for the paintings shown above. His finished painting wasn’t exhibited at the Royal Academy until the year after Rossetti’s death, and was bought by FR Leyland.

Eliseo Sala (1813–1879) was an Italian painter who was born in Milan and studied in Brera. He was a renowned portraitist, and made history and genre paintings.

Stefano Ussi (1822–1901) was an Italian painter who studied under Enrico Pollastrini in his native Florence. In the 1850s he was a successful history painter, then around 1860 joined the Macchiaioli, a group of Italian pre-Impressionists. In 1869 he visited Egypt and became a noted Orientalist during the 1870s and 1880s.



Robin Kirkpatrick (trans) (2012) Dante, The Divine Comedy, Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso, Penguin Classics. ISBN 978 0 141 19749 4.
Richard Lansing (ed) (2000) The Dante Encyclopedia, Routledge. ISBN 978 0 415 87611 7.
Guy P Raffa (2009) The Complete Danteworlds, A Reader’s Guide to the Divine Comedy, Chicago UP. ISBN 978 0 2267 0270 4.
Prue Shaw (2014) Reading Dante, From Here to Eternity, Liveright. ISBN 978 1 63149 006 4.