Is Virgil Naked? Clothing in Dante’s Commedia

Thomas Rendall


Dante’s poem presents the humiliation of nakedness as part of the punishment of the souls in hell. But what about those in purgatory and limbo, and what about Virgil himself? Although most readers cannot imagine a naked Virgil, Dante gives only a hint of the state of clothing of the souls in limbo, and none at all concerning that of the souls in purgatory. Silence on this point was not an option for visual artists, however, and a survey of illuminations of the Commedia reveals some significant difficulties the poet’s reticence is able to avoid. It is suggested that Dante’s silence concerning the theologically expected nakedness of the souls in purgatory and limbo, including Virgil, is probably due to a reluctance to draw attention to what would otherwise be an awkward similarity between these generally positive figures and the souls of the damned. Dante-pilgrim as a living man is repeatedly described as clothed, but he is also repeatedly mistaken by those in hell as a soul newly arrived for punishment. Consideration of this contradiction reveals Dante’s preference for dramatic effect over logical consistency in presenting what he claims to have been an actual journey.

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