Meditations on the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri

Inferno Cantos XV-XXI

A. S. Kline Authored by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2002, All Rights Reserved.

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Meditation XV: Inferno Canto XV

MedXV:1 Brunetto Latini: Inferno Canto XV:1

The Canto begins with an extended analogy, with the sea-walls of Belgium, one of Dante’s marvellous concrete details, followed by another pair of similes. Now our eyes are alert, bombarded with visual imaginings, ready for the moment of individual recognition as the baked visage of Brunetto Latini appears, Dante’s teacher, flawed by his sin of sodomy. Here is one of the wonderful brief portraits of the Inferno, one that again evokes Dante’s sympathy with the sinner. Always in those areas which in modern times secular society no longer regards as sinful or against nature, the passion of the lovers in the whirlwind, the pagans and un-baptised, and here the homosexuals, Dante’s instincts lead him to empathy, though his orthodoxy forces him to take the standard line.

Brunetto’s Tesoretto was a source book for the idea of an allegorical journey, beginning in a wood of error, and Brunetto himself was an exile, a wanderer, after Montaperti, visiting France and probably England. A political scientist too. A supporter of Dante’s political views it seems. From his Trésor, his prose encyclopedia written in French, comes the story of Florence’s founding by remnants of Roman legions (aristocratic proto-Blacks) and the villagers of Fiesole (proto-Whites), the beginning of the internal divisions. The Fiesolean strain, ungrateful and malignant, guilty of envy, pride, and avarice, the three sins Ciacco said were rife in Florence, will oppose Dante, according to Brunetto’s prophecy. Dante will be hungered for by both Whites and Blacks, and will revive the spirit of the ancient Empire. That elicits a touching tribute from Dante, and a promised acceptance of his fate, that Virgil notes. Brunetto previously mentions Dante following his star, meaning both his fate, and Beatrice, whom Dante now hopes to see, given Virgil’s previous promise.

Brunetto now points out other clerks and scholars guilty of his own crime, allowing Dante too an ironic reference to Boniface, the Pope in 1300, and the object of Dante’s scorn for his corruption of the Papal office, using one of his official titles, ‘the servant of God’s servants’, a pointed comment on Boniface’s actual behaviour.

Then in a delightful parting simile, Dante shows Brunetto, the teacher, running faster than the pupil, for the green cloth, the palio, at Verona, in the Lenten race, like ‘one of those who wins, not one who loses’, a wistful comment on one who to Dante must have indeed seemed in life one of the spiritual winners, but who in fact was a spiritual loser. Brunetto is the first of the vividly evoked individuals, but not the last, who point to the fallibility of human knowledge and intellect, to the reality that some of the greatest minds still deny themselves true salvation, by the misuse of free will.

Meditation XVI: Inferno Canto XVI

MedXVI:1 The Condition of Florence: Inferno Canto XVI:1

After the beautiful simile ending the previous canto, another naturalistic one opens this: Dante comparing the noise of the falling water to a hum of bees. Here are further Florentines, and it is the beehive of Florence, the ‘perverse city’ with its angry buzzing, that Dante wants to evoke in us. Dante is saddened once more, by his pity for the state in which the sodomites find themselves, which is also compassion for the state of Florence. The city of Dis reflects the city of Mars.

Courtesy is owed them, says Virgil the courteous: owed to these men betrayed by the flesh. And courtesy for Dante is still cortesia, the mark of nobility, of breeding, and of the conventions of courtly love, an intellectualisation, a way of formalising passion and reality so that life itself becomes form, and the afterlife equally becomes form. Courtesy is the harmony of the social mind, the communicator of respect, humility, and recognition.

The homosexual trio, in another probing graphic simile, like ‘wrestlers, naked and oiled’ seeking advantage before conflict, seemingly ashamed, caught in the rain of fire, of perverse passion, like their perverse city, are Rusticucci their spokesman, accompanied by Guido Guerra and Aldobrandi, two famous Guelphs who argued against the conflict that led to the Guelph disaster at Montaperti. Corresponding here to the Ghibelline wisdom and control of Farinata previously referred to. Sin is once more not a reason for blind condemnation. Worth can exist side by side with the errors of freewill. Dante is careful about this. It is what prevents the Inferno from becoming merely a deadly catalogue of torments in the manner of a De Sade. Value can shine even in these lower levels of hell, as here in the case of those who sinned against nature. We find noble warriors there, and men of learning, poets and philosophers. The misuse of Free will makes strange bed-fellows, concatenates history, and reveals the limits to human intellect, which can rise so high and yet in many cases is compatible with the fall into the Inferno.

Dante is ‘eager to embrace’ these citizens of his city, men of stature, whose condition ‘stirred sadness, not contempt’, though fear of the flames (metaphorically fear of their sin also? Is there a sexual tension here beneath Dante’s words, remembering that we have just left his teacher Brunetto. Did he feel a homosexual pull that his will resisted at some time in his early life?) inhibits him. Fame is the concept that is teased at here: their fame guarantees them a place in the Commedia, and Dante’s fame is anticipated in Rusticucci’s courteous words. His prompting leads to Dante’s outburst against the ‘new men and sudden wealth’ that have created ‘pride and excess’ in Florence. And then away the sinners go, with legs like wings, these sodomites, these worthy men, who run forever through the fires of Hell.

MedXVI:2 Geryon’s approach: Inferno Canto XVI:88

They vanish as quickly as an Amen, and there follows one of Dante’s extended geographical river similes, to convey not only the sound of this water falling, but his wide knowledge of Italy’s fabric, the deeply-ingrained memory of wandering an exile’s road through his country, walking the miles, slowly studying the changing topography from the path, and also the downward plunge of their journey into Hell.

Now Virgil throws down a cord with which Dante had tried to catch the leopard (‘spotted’, is the natural description of its skin, within a few words of the ‘tainted’ water, both flawed) symbolising perhaps Florentine pride and excess. The poets are about to meet the unnatural usurers, after all, some of the new men with their sudden strange wealth, those who led Florence into that excess.

Dante pauses for some words of wisdom, before he turns to speak to the Reader, to us, and throw us a simile, of a man diving deep and returning from the depths having freed what was caught. Here are we, swimming in these depths, and here is Geryon, Fraud allegorised, rising with us.

Meditation XVII: Inferno Canto XVII

MedXVII:1 Geryon and Usury: Inferno Canto XVII:1

There follows a rich and colourful description of Geryon with the ‘face of an honest man’ but the body of deceit. His surface is a coloured arabesque of complexity, an infidel tapestry, carrying the multiple tracks of the embroidered lie, linked, by the Arachne reference, to the woven webs of the loom and the webs of the spider, designed for skilful representation and entrapment. A quick reference to grounded boats, aggressive German beavers, and the scorpion, ancient mythological enemy of Good, and Dante goes to find the usurers.

More colours under the falling fire and burning dust. The usurers are like dogs in summer and each usurer has a vivid money pouch. The earlier Canto XI:94 (a strangely placed passage) gave us the justification for their presence here. The coats of arms no longer decorate shields and banners of honour, now they only stamp bags of gold. The Florentine Ghelphs are there, represented by Gianfigliazze’s azure lion on golden-yellow, the Florentine Ghibellines by the Ubbriachi’s silver goose on red, and the Paduan usurers by the Scrovigni azure sow on silver. And they await the Paduan Vitaliano and the Florentine Buiamonte. Florence and Padua alike are under the spell of usury, that violation of the laws of natural or God-given increase.

Dante and Virgil mount Geryon’s back to descend, Dante like a man shaking with fever in his fear, but ashamed in the presence of his master. Once more Dante’s weakness, his Christian frailty is stressed, and the power of conscience and duty. Dante is heroic in his anti-heroism. Like a boat, like an eel, Geryon departs, and Dante feels fear as the mythical Phaethon and Icarus did, passing too near the fire. Yet again a hint perhaps that the flames of sodomy were once near him, no suggestion that he was part of that scene. Like a falcon Geryon lands, at the threshold of Malebolge and the eighth circle of the fraudulent: like an arrow he vanishes. There is irony in the fact of Geryon, enemy of Hercules, and therefore of ancient Rome, since Hercules was protector of Evander and Rome’s site (see Virgil Aeneid VIII 108 et al) carrying Virgil and Dante, the exemplar poet and the modern champion, of ancient Rome, on their journey.

Meditation XVIII: Inferno Canto XVIII

MedXVIII:1 The Structure of Malebolge: Inferno Canto XVIII:1

A medieval military landscape stretches below, ten concentric moats or ditches or fosses, dropping to the central well that leads to the ninth circle. And linking bridges, or causeways, run over the moats from where we stand to the central chasm where they join, like the spokes of an evil wheel. We are the rim: the well is the dark hub. This is Malebolge, the ‘malignant space’. Here are the ten rings of the fraudulent, those who practised deceit on others, but breaking only the natural bonds of trust. Having maliciously misused the mind and freewill they are below the violent of the seventh circle: having broken only natural bonds but not specific bonds of human and divine love and trust, they are above the traitors of the ninth circle. This architecture looms Piranesi-like behind us as we descend with the Poets. It is a rigid structure of concentric prisons, where the spirits are eternally trapped. Gradually as we read the dumb weight of it all, the granite stillness, begins to press down on us. The final part of the Inferno is deeply saddening and depressing, in its monotonous saga of pain and sin, as gradually the colourful, worthy individuals are left behind, and true wickedness, unrelieved by redeeming virtues is felt.

MedXVIII:2 The Pimps and Seducers: Inferno Canto XVIII:22

Here now are the naked sinners of the first moat, being stripped of their layers of deceit, and Dante slips in a colourful comparison to the bridge at Rome during the Jubilee, in that year of 1300 in which the Commedia is set. And a hint perhaps that the Jubilee crowd contained many such sinners! Here is the Bolognese, Caccianimico, who helped Obizzo II, Marquis d’Este to seduce his sister Ghisola. Dante singles out Bologna for his treatment, a city of panders, noted for its avarice.

Looking down from the bridge above into this first moat we see Jason, an ancient example of the deceitful lover, chosen perhaps because Hypsipyle and Medea, whom he deceived, in turn practised deceits, allowing Dante a neat encapsulation of trickery. Interestingly Virgil stresses the wisdom and courage with which Jason obtained the Golden Fleece, without any apparent irony. The common variant of the myth has Jason obtaining the Fleece with the help of Medea’s fraudulent magic.

MedXVIII:3 The Flatterers: Inferno Canto XVIII:100

On the crest of the causeway, as it crosses the second ditch, we look down into the sewer. Dante recognises one Luccan spirit, embedded there in the mire, because of the mire of flatteries he had perpetrated. Dante has little time for the yes-men, the corrupters of language, and adds Thais the courtesan as an ancient example of whorish abuse of the mother-tongue. The Poets progress to the third chasm and Dante prepares for his diatribe against corruption of the Papacy through simony, the selling of sacred offices.

Meditation XIX: Inferno Canto XIX

MedXIX:1 The Corrupt Papacy: Inferno Canto XIX:1

The Simonists are named from the followers of Simon Magus. Having filled the vacancies of holy offices with corrupt individuals to whom they sold them, or having purchased their own offices, they are now themselves slotted upside-down into holes in the rock. The rock is an inverted parody of the sacred rock of Peter and the Church. Dante adds in some local colour, an incident from his life when he broke the marble of one of the holes that surrounded the font in the Baptistery of Florence, in order to free a child. He denies having done it for any other sacrilegious reason, and uses this as a chance to exonerate himself. Then the poets descend into the chasm to inspect the worst of the sinners.

A quick analogy with a treacherous assassin trying to delay his imminent immolation, and a neat dig at Boniface the incumbent corrupt Pope at the time of the vision, who is expected shortly (1303), and we are in conversation with a representative individual, Pope Nicholas III of the Orsini family who gives us a swift prophetic view of Popes to follow. His torment will alter when Boniface arrives to replace him, having delayed twenty-three years, and then there will be another simonist Pope to follow, Clement, the Gascon who transferred the Papacy to Avignon, arriving within a further eleven years, to replace him in turn. Each will surpass the preceding sinner in their sinfulness. Boniface brought about the total corruption of the Rome Papacy and gave control of Florence to the French: Clement transferred the Papacy away from Rome. Both in Dante’s eyes were destructive of the Papacy itself, its rightful role as a spiritual but not temporal power, and its legacy as the Church of Peter in Rome.

And Dante throws in a Biblical example. As Jason the high priest bribed Antiochus IV to grant him his holy office, so Philip IV of France will accept a bribe from Clement to achieve the same end. He follows up with Biblical examples of honesty, and then comments on Nicholas’s depriving Charles of Anjou of office, having been bribed by the Eastern Emperor Michael Paleologus. Dante’s diatribe then refers to the Donation of Constantine, that forged document that had Constantine ceding temporal power to the Church in Italy while transferring the Empire to the east. So Dante links back to his main theme, the desired separation of Church from Empire, with the Church overseeing spiritual and the Empire temporal matters, and the need for the corrupt Papacy to embrace a true spiritual path. The corrupt Papacy and the French are his demons. A purified Rome, seat of ancient virtue, of Empire and Early Church is his vision. Virgil is pleased. He then clasps Dante in his arms, ancient Rome symbolically clasping ancient Rome’s champion in modern times, and climbs to the arch over the fourth chasm.

Meditation XX: Inferno Canto XX

MedXX:1 Fraud by Magic and Superstition: Inferno Canto XX:1

The prophets and seers appear, heads twisted round in a parody of their supposed foresight, their tears bathing their backsides. And Dante weeps with pity at this image of contorted humanity. Virgil, the pagan, rebukes Dante the Christian. Does Dante intend that we agree with Virgil, compassion here is both useless and impious? Or does he intend us also to see the image of the weeping poet overlaid on it, like a ghostly negative, the Christian prompted to pity even by sinners? There is an ambiguity. Perhaps Dante never resolved completely in his own mind this conflict between orthodox acceptance of Church teaching, and the purer empathy exemplified by Christ.

A succession of mythical prophets and prophetesses follows (culled from Statius, Ovid, and Lucan) Amphiarus, Tiresias, Aruns, and Manto. The Manto episode allows Dante, through Virgil’s mouth, to celebrate Virgil’s birthplace Mantua, with an alternative version to Virgil’s own in the Aeneid. The geographical description is pleasant, and in passing Dante gives a moment from Mantua’s recent history, Casalodi’s expulsion from the city by Pinamonte. Then there are references to magicians and astrologers.

Dante closes the Canto with a reference to the full moon, indicating also the carefully planned chronology of the Inferno. Virgil is aware of Moon and star positions, here as in Cantos VII and XI, though presumably at this depth they can no longer see the stars and sky. How does Virgil know? Presumably by Divine grace.

Meditation XXI: Inferno Canto XXI

MedXXI:1 The Malebranche Demons: Inferno Canto XXI:1

An analogy with the Venetian Arsenal serves to point up the pitchy boiling darkness of the fifth chasm where the barrators, the sellers of public offices, are tormented. This was the crime falsely used among other things as a pretext for Dante’s own banishment from Florence (and the subsequent sentence of death on him in 1302, presumably if he returned), and there is an air of high burlesque about the whole episode, an ironic grimace on the writer’s face as he pens it. Clearly he could not here identify the episode of his own banishment since (in 1300 at the time of the Vision) it had not yet occurred, but the future is anticipated in his fear, the burlesque, and the farcical nature of the scenario.

The Malebranche, the ‘evil-clawed’, guardian demons of this ring, are malicious and violent liars, and so by implication were Dante’s own accusers. Dante also points the finger at the town of Lucca, famous for this corruption, Bonturo the worst of the Luccans being mocked here for denying it. The Black Demon hurls a Luccan into the sticky pitch, analogous to the concealed sticky darkness of barratry, its hidden behind-the-scenes corruption, and the others push the sinner down like the cook’s boys immersing hunks of meat.

Dante cowers behind a rock, so as not to be obvious (a mock salute to the trumped-up charges of 1301-2?), while the Demons rush at Virgil like dogs on a beggar. Virgil tells Malacoda their spokesman that Dante’s journey is willed above. The fearful Dante emerges (is this all merely mock-serious?) and it reminds him of the fear of the surrendering soldiery at Caprona, where he was present, in 1289, marching out under the eyes of the besieging Guelphs. This to point the personal nature of the encounter with the Demons, and its Florentine reference. Malacoda then deceives the poets, claiming the sixth arch is broken, and Dante gives a deft reference to Christ’s crucifixion, which supposedly rocked hell at noon, setting the time here as 7am on the Saturday following Good Friday.

A troop of ten comically named Demons peel off to police the ditch, and the poets go with them, Dante fearing treachery, while they signal rudely to their leader Malacoda on departing. Sinister humour. The farce of Florentine politics, its victims hurled down into the dark boiling river of death or exile.