Meditations on the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri

Inferno Cantos XXII-XXVIII

A. S. Kline © Copyright 2002 All Rights Reserved

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Contents


Meditation XXII: Inferno Canto XXII

MedXXII:1 Ciampolo and the Quarrel: Inferno Canto XXII:1

More military reference regarding Malacoda’s foul signal, and then the poets walk on by the boiling ditch, watching the sinners like dolphins arching from the depths, like frogs squatting in the shallows. A profusion of animal comparisons: Ciampolo of Navarre, is hauled out like an otter, Ciriatto the demon has a tusk like a boar’s, Ciampolo is the mouse among evil cats. Ciampolo mentions two of Sardinia’s corrupt rulers, Gomita and Zanche, and implies that there are plenty of Tuscans in the ditch’s dark embrace, and then we see scheming, lying and treachery at work. Dante illustrates the nature of the Demons and the sinners, by this little incident of Ciampolo’s flight. Bird similes follow now, ducks and hawks. And Dante neatly ties the incident together with the final quarrel and fight of the Demons.

Once more he has caught the tone of burlesque with his theatrical demons and his mock comic sinner, cleverly evoking the feel of organised corruption, its trickery, concealment, malice and treachery, cloaked by a stagey air of farce and comedy, a thin veneer over the violence and vindictiveness. A world of superficial loyalties and internecine warfare. Dante’s disdain for his own accusers is apparent, coupled with an equal fear of that underlying corruption of State and Office that the barrators and bribe-takers represent. The examples cited may be from Lucca and Sardinia, but Dante is aiming at Florence, with a mockery that, as he admits in the next Canto, is designed to hurt and ridicule the Demons, while it inadvertently arouses his own fear of reprisal.


Meditation XXIII: Inferno Canto XXIII

MedXXIII:1 The Hypocrites: Inferno Canto XXIII:1

The Poets continue, ‘like minor friars’ walking in line. Dante refers then to a version of an Aesop’s fable, that is similar to the recent quarrel of the Demons and their pursuit of Ciampolo. Dante fears being chased by the same Demons, like hounds after a hare. Virgil responds with a simile of mirror glass to express his empathy with Dante’s feelings and thoughts, picks Dante up like a mother with her child, and runs faster than the water in a mill-race, carrying him like a son, and leaving the Demons, the guardians of the fifth moat behind, powerless to leave their place in Hell.

Here in the sixth ditch are the hypocrites, shrouded with external bright gilding, but leaden inside. Catalano and Loderingo, two of the infamous ‘Jovial Friars’, who added to, rather than alleviating, the corruption of Florence, identify themselves, allowing Dante a thrust at the evils of his native city.

The poets then come upon Caiaphas, Annas and the rest of the Jewish Council who renounced Christ, while making a pretence to the greater good of the people in doing so. Their behaviour was therefore cloaked with specious self-justification, while betraying an innocent individual, one of their own people, to Roman punishment. A political, and perhaps a politic action, but not to Dante’s mind a moral one. This is an interesting example of the continuing tension in Western thought between the rights of the individual and the benefit to the majority. Dante no doubt considered the Florentines hypocritical in bringing about his own banishment, since Dante himself was innocent of the charges against him, and no doubt the justification used for the exile of both Black and White elements from the city, was indeed the greater good of the majority. He perhaps considered that he himself had been ‘martyred’ for the ‘good’ of Florence, and makes this indirect connection to Christ’s suffering, indicating the path of those who chose, as he felt he himself had done, the correct moral course of action. Dante points the connection further by indicating that Caiaphas is ‘in eternal exile’.

Catalano confirms that Malacoda has deliberately misled them, and emphasises the lying nature of the sinful. By emphasising deceit and fraud, Dante weaves together here the incident with the Demons, the reference to the lying Florentines who exiled him on trumped-up charges, and the ‘betrayal’ of Christ, so linking his own journey in life, and in the Vision, to Christ’s journey through the world.


Meditation XXIV: Inferno Canto XXIV

MedXXIV:1 Virgil’s Exhortation: Inferno Canto XXIV:1

The Canto begins with a beautiful simile, of the winter scene and hope regained, with its evidence of Dante’s dependence on Virgil as his mystic guide (and with a veiled reference to Virgil in the crin sotto of the Italian text which echoes Virgil’s crinitus Apollo, Aeneid IX 638) and Virgil then carries Dante to the top of the broken causeway. The structure of Malebolge, with its concentric valleys, descending to the central well, is skilfully touched on.

Virgil then exhorts Dante to free himself from sloth and exert himself for fame. Here is a recognition of the shortness of life, and its ephemeral nature, combined with the Classical thought that fame outlasts the individual life, and with the Christian, and ancient, separation of spirit from the body. It is a curious mixing of ancient and Christian thought that carries on into the Italian Renaissance, but sits strangely sometimes alongside the concept of Christian humility and the path to spiritual salvation, where fame is surely an obstacle on the way. Most of the individuals selected by Dante to illustrate his Commedia are world famous, or known in his epoch, while Dante does not comment on the arbitrary nature of fame, or its frequent lack of alignment with worth. Here instead he echoes strongly the calls to eternity made by the Roman poets, Horace, Propertius and Ovid in particular.

Down below, in the seventh moat, are the thieves, among the snakes. Here is a pit of mutation and transformation, where forms are stolen and re-stolen. A serpent strikes at Vanni Fucci, the Pistoian church-robber, and he is consumed, faster than individual letters are written, before rising from the ashes like a phoenix. Vindictively he prophesies the defeat of the Whites, Dante’s party at that time, by the Blacks in 1302 (see this note) and foresees the expulsion of the Blacks from Pistoia in 1301, and the subsequent expulsion of the Whites from Florence, and the re-taking of Pistoia, by the Blacks in 1306. As in the previous few Cantos, Dante’s mind is filled with Florence and politics at this point in the Inferno.


Meditation XXV: Inferno Canto XXV

MedXXV:1 The Serpent Transformations: Inferno Canto XXV:1

Vanni Fucci is gripped by snakes, as he shows his hatred of God, and is pursued by Cacus the thieving monster (Dante makes him a centaur) of mythology, killed by Hercules, protector of the site of Rome. Vanni Fucci is prouder and more arrogant than Capaneus or Farinata. Dante does not explicitly treat the punishment of pride in the Inferno: there is no circle for the proud, since pride is associated with the whole of Hell, being Lucifer’s sin for which he fell from Heaven. So we find various individual examples of pride and arrogance throughout the Inferno.

Two incidents of metamorphosis, to rival Ovid and Lucan follow, where serpent and human pairs (of Florentine nobles, noted as thieves) merge (Cianfa Donati and Agnello Brunelleschi) and exchange forms (Buoso Donati and Francesco Cavalcanti) in an endless cycle. Forms are therefore stolen and re-stolen. Dante relishes the descriptions, and enlivens the verse with apt use of similes.


Meditation XXVI: Inferno Canto XXVI

MedXXVI:1 Ulysses and Classical Striving: Inferno Canto XXVI:1

Dante, in time present, rams home his condemnation of Florence, with irony: the city is becoming famous throughout Hell, having supplied its citizens to all parts of the Inferno: the city of Dis and his native city are analogous, mirroring each other. In the time past of the Vision, the five thieves mentioned were all Florentines, and Florence will pay for its sins in time future. Dante yet again subtly claims his place as a prophet in the line of prophets, and therefore rightfully allowed to make his journey.

Dante was and is saddened by the punishments, his pity is invoked, and his intellect reined back towards virtue. The eighth chasm of the evil counsellors gleams with flames like summer fireflies, each like the vanishing fire of Elijah’s chariot. Dante mentions Elijah and Elisha, true prophets, perhaps to emphasise the prophecy about Florence’s punishment implicit in his opening lines of the Canto, and he links the theme of theft to that of evil counsel by the way the flames ‘steal’ sinners away secretly within their core, and by his choice of Ulysses and Diomed as the first of the evil counsellors, since they were also the thieves who stole the Palladium, the statue of Pallas Athene, from its sanctuary in Troy.

They were Greeks, and opposed to the Trojans, from whom came Aeneas, Rome, and Dante’s own Italian language, his ‘Trojan words’. Ulysses’ crime of devising the Trojan Horse was an attack on Troy, and therefore in Dante’s terms, an attack on the Roman Empire. Virgil questions the two spirits, to expand Dante’s and his own knowledge, and it is Ulysses who replies.

Inventing a new version of Ulysses’s fate, Dante uses him, the archetypal wanderer and exemplar of human intelligence, to illustrate the ancients search for truth and worth. Sailing West out of the Classical Mediterranean world he and his crew entered the encircling Ocean, turning south, reaching the southern hemisphere, and in a voyage of five months or so, reaching a Mountain which is clearly the Mount of Purgatory, diametrically opposite Jerusalem (i.e. in the as yet unknown Southern Pacific). But in sight of that Mountain of Christian purgation of sin, the Classical world, represented by Ulysses, founders and, falling short, is submerged, physically, and spiritually. The Earthly Paradise is not attainable by the unaided efforts of human enquiry and knowledge. The Pagan world remains inferior to the Christian one. A Dante who wandered in exile, leaving behind family and city, pursuing virtue and intellectual understanding, a Medieval Ulysses, ultimately moved towards faith and divine grace as necessary to complete the journey of the spirit. Human philosophy is inadequate without divine philosophy, and in the end both must be illuminated from above. Ulysses therefore joins Farinata, and Brunetto: men of worth and intellect, who nevertheless could not be redeemed by intellect alone.


Meditation XXVII: Inferno Canto XXVII

MedXXVII:1 The State of Romagna: Inferno Canto XXVII:1

The twin flame of Ulysses and Diomed, is followed by the courteous tongue of fire enclosing Guido da Montefeltro, Lord of Urbino in the Romagna. A famous leader of mercenary troops, he became a Fransciscan, but was brought from retirement by Boniface, and suggested a ruse to destroy the city of Palestrina, after the Pope had granted him the nonsense of prior absolution. His voice issues from the flame like the bellowing of the Sicilian bronze bull made for Phalaris of Sicily by Perillus, who became its first victim. And Guido’s immediate request is for news of his Romagna. How often the spirits in the Inferno ask about their place on earth, eager for news of their homeland, for recognition, and for remembrance.

Dante tells of the fortunes of key Romagna strongholds, one of which, Forlì, Guido himself was instrumental in fighting for, driving out the French papal forces.

MedXXVII:2 Corrupt Authority: Inferno Canto XXVII:58

Guido then tells his personal story, and it is Boniface at whom Dante is aiming, the evil Great Priest, Prince of the Pharisees, who has corrupted the Papal office. A deft reference to Pope Sylvester and Constantine, evokes remembrance of the Donation of Constantine, that forged document by which Constantine was supposed to have given the Papacy temporal power in the West. This fatal confusion of the material and spiritual spheres is echoed in Boniface’s political involvement and personal greed.

Guido conceded to corrupt authority, and preached a counsel of deceit and betrayal. Even his beloved Saint Francis could not save him from the Black Demon whose logic is seen to be impeccable. How can prior absolution be possible for an evil deed? Absolution can only be given after repentance, how then can one repent of the evil at the same time as one is still willing it in advance to occur? Dante’s irony is apparent, even the demons can apply logic. Intellect and reason are effective even in Hell. Guido’s reliance on corrupt Papal authority is as ineffective ultimately as Ulysses’ reliance on inadequate human knowledge and both were flawed by practising cunning and deceit. Human reason and authority are insufficient. Divine authority and understanding are beyond both. Subtly Dante contrasts Franciscan radical poverty, honesty, chastity and faith, which influenced him strongly, with the devalued Papal See.

Dante is perhaps acknowledging with Ulysses the inadequacy of his own intense search for truth prior to the revelations of the Vision, and recognising from Guido’s experiences the value of his own rebellion against corrupt Papal authority. Guido, the noble warrior, like Farinata, and Ulysses found human wisdom ultimately inadequate to grapple with spiritual and moral truth unaided.


Meditation XXVIII: Inferno Canto XXVIII

MedXXVIII:1 The Sowers of Discord: Inferno Canto XXVIII:1

Language and memory are inadequate for the task of description in this Infernal place. Dante repeats that formula elsewhere, both to emphasise how he has ‘passed beyond humanity’ and to gently impress on the reader the magnitude of his achievement. He is nothing if not self-aware as a poet. Here the schismatics, and the sowers of discord, are themselves severed and split. Dante likens the scene to the aftermath of famous battles, involving the interests of Rome and the Papacy. War is essential discord. Here is Mahomet, split like a wine-cask, placed not among the heretics, nor the false prophets, but among those who created division in the faith. And here is his brother-in-law, Ali, who in turn created schism within Islam itself.

Mahomet pauses to provide a prophecy about the fate of Father Dolcino, who was a heretic burnt at the stake in the 1307. Here too is Pier della Medecina, who asks to be remembered above, he who created discord in the Romagna, and he prophesies Malatestino Malatesta’s treachery against Cassero and Carignano of Fano. The absence of mention of this Maletesta’s fate in the Inferno may imply that Inferno was written before his fate was known and could be prophesied in turn: he was certainly alive at the time of the Vision.

Dante uses Pier’s plea for remembrance to question as to who another spirit is. It is Curio who urged on Caesar’s Civil War, and the march on Rome. And here too is Mosca de’ Lamberti, who through endorsing Buondelmonte’s murder was at the root of the factional strife in Florence. So Dante brings together sowers of discord in religious history, Roman history, wider Italy, and Florence itself. His examples support his preoccupations, and circle in towards the personal, ending with a poet. Here is the great Provencal noble and troubadour, Bertrand de Born, carrying his own severed head, somehow capable of existence despite being parted in body from his own intellect, who had created strife in the English monarchy, between Henry II and his son, as Ahithophel did in the Biblical case of David and his son Absalom. A fine and striking passage. Poetry and intellect are not enough, says Dante. Bertrand is condemned for his moral failings, great poet, and noble warrior, though he was. And are there not other under-currents too, of Provence and the Papacy severed from Rome, of the body of the Church severed from a truly spiritual head, of Church and State severed from their origins, of divided humanity?