Meditations on the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri

Inferno Cantos XXIX-XXXIV

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

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Meditation XXIX: Inferno Canto XXIX

MedXXIX:1 Geri de Bello: Inferno Canto XXIX:1

Dante weeps with pity. And there is something darker, and more deadly, about that previous Canto than those before it. It is as if the colour, and individuality and worth still present elsewhere in the Inferno ceases in the ninth chasm. Here is all the bloodshed, and wasteful cruelty of the earth, and of its history. The deadly weight of all those circles of Hell is felt here, pressing us onwards towards the central pit, and the Ninth Circle. The violence is intensified, the treachery, and deceit of war and civil strife is endemic. Here the troublemakers congregate, those who for whatever cause, real or spurious, bring death and evil into the world. This is no good place, and Dante’s pity is almost rebuked by Virgil. The moon is under their feet, at the nadir, this is no place for feelings and emotions. The valley is twenty-two miles in circumference implying a distance to the centre of the central well of three and half miles (and hinting at the 22/7 value of pi), but much less than that to reach its rim. There are only five hours left before the Poets will leave Hell, and Virgil urges Dante on.

But Dante had noticed Geri de Bello, his own relative, unavenged in an ongoing blood feud with the Sacchetti, and therefore hostile to Dante, who Dante therefore pities more since Geri is still lost in desire for revenge. We may take it Dante was in favour of settling the feud peacefully which in fact went unresolved until much later, with further bloodshed. Virgil too noticed Geri and saw him depart. So Dante has brought us in the previous Canto from the wider circles of war and strife, to Florence, to poetry, and now ultimately to his own family, gradually personalising and localising the mischief of conflict, circling in, revealing its ubiquity, and its nearness to all us human beings. Malicious deceit is all around us, severing the human bond, divorcing ourselves from ourselves, splitting the human community. From the single Individual must flow the desire for peace, and a corresponding intolerance of all those who sow violent discord.

MedXXIX:2 The Alchemists: Inferno Canto XXIX:37

Again Dante takes pity on the pain. We remind ourselves again that while there is no pity within the Divine execution, the ‘infallible justice’ of the Inferno, there is within Dante, and therefore within the greater Divine Plan. The good feel pity, human sympathy, empathy, the root of creative, nurturing morality. Therefore it is right to say that Pity is the motif of the Inferno, strange as that may sound: the pity is in the Poet. And the Christian Dante is more moved than the pagan Virgil. Dante likens this place to a vast hospital. Here, the diseased ant-heap of the falsifiers is a mirror of the wretchedness and misery of a sick world.

Here is Griffolino of Arezzo, an alchemist, burned alive by Albero of Siena, which allows Dante a jibe at the vanity of the Sienese (and in passing the French). Capocchio a second alchemist, also burned at Siena, echoes Dante’s effort, and lists as examples four members of the Sienese Brigata Spendereccia, the Spendthrift Brigade, a club of wealthy Sienese who squandered their money on riotous living. Siena therefore joins the list of cities which Dante has drawn examples from on his way through the Inferno.

Meditation XXX: Inferno Canto XXX

MedXXX:1 A World of Lies: Inferno Canto XXX:1

The rabid spirit of Gianni Schicci, who carried out an impersonation to falsify a will, fixes on Capocchio, and Dante draws a parallel with the maddened king Athamas, and the crazed Hecuba. And a second demented spirit here is Myrrha, who disguised herself to enter her father’s bed.

Like a fevered patient, Adam of Brescia, the coiner, tells his tale, mentioning the Conti Guidi, who induced him to sin, but themselves escaped punishment. He tells us that this chasm the tenth has half the circumference of the ninth chasm, at eleven miles, and is half a mile across. So we can calculate the narrowing down of the eighth circle to the central well that drops to the Ninth, and feel the graded constriction of this level, and the nearness of its gullet.

Now we see Potiphar and Sinon, false accuser and false witness, and Adam and Sinon quarrel, Dante avidly listening, so that Virgil has to reprove him ironically, Dante showing his shame, Virgil condemning the vulgar desire that makes us spectators of vileness. Lying, falseness, mendacity, the corruption of the world: the grand hospital is left behind.

Meditation XXXI: Inferno Canto XXXI

MedXXXI:1 The Giants: Inferno Canto XXXI:1

Virgil’s words like Achilles’ spear both wound and heal Dante, and moving on towards the central well he hears a horn, louder than Roland’s. Dante is associating this horn-cry at the mouth of the Ninth Circle, which is adverse to spiritual good, with the infidel attack on Christendom. The Poets are nearing the Giants who guard the threshold to the pit, and Dante likens their shapes to the towers of Montereggione near Siena.

Dante reminds us that for him misuse of the mind, of free will, is the greatest evil, the Giants representing here power joined to malice, the tyranny of misapplied strength, since it was they who in mythology attacked the heavens, and mankind. And against power combined with malice there is no defence for the decent human being. Evil pulls us down into its mire.

First is Nimrod, the mighty hunter of the Bible, who created the tower of Babel, and corrupted language. His head is as large as the bronze cone at Saint Peter’s (seven to eight feet) and the rest of him in proportion. Next is Ephialtes, another monster of pride, the besetting sin of the Inferno, who attacked the gods, and then Antaeus, the Libyan giant who wrestled with Hercules, and who is unchained since he was absent from the battle with the gods. His North African origin allows Dante a reference to the defeat of Carthage by Scipio: the defeat by Hercules, protector of Rome, of his enemy mirrored in Scipio’s defeat of Hannibal, enemy of Rome, at Zama. (Hercules, in Virgil’s Aeneid, saved the people of Evander, Aeneas’s ally and distant kin, on the site of the future Rome, by destroying Cacus. The same passage in Virgil, Aeneid VIII:108-384, mentions Geryon, another enemy destroyed by Hercules. So Hercules is a Roman protector, and his enemies are enemies of Rome. This explains Dante’s employment of limited elements of the Hercules myth, and the selection of Geryon, Cacus and Antaeus as figures in the Inferno.)

Virgil reminds Antaeus that Dante can bring him renewed recognition by refreshing his memory on earth. Antaeus lifts the Poets, bending down from above over Dante like the leaning tower at Bologna, the Carisenda, and places the Poets in the Caïna, the first of the four rings of the Ninth Circle, given over to the traitors against their own kin. He then raises himself again like a mast raised in a boat. There is a delightful symbolic irony in Antaeus an ancient enemy of Hercules and therefore indirectly of Rome, now lifting and aiding Virgil, the exemplar poet of Imperial Rome, and Dante its contemporary champion, as there was when Geryon carried out a similar action.

Meditation XXXII: Inferno Canto XXXII

MedXXXII:1 The Caïna: Inferno Canto XXXII:1

Dante reflects on his inability to find suitable words to ‘squeeze out the juice’ of his imagination: he needs a language without warmth or nurture, and asks the aid of the Muses. Under his feet is the frozen lake of Cocytus, which calls up a spate of similes, icy rivers and mountains, and the sad shadows like frogs at the margin.

The pit, of which this is the first ring, Caïna, named after the Biblical Cain who slew his brother Abel, holds those whose treachery broke the special bonds of trust, not merely those of society, but of family, country, friendship and allegiance. Betrayal destroys trust, as doubt destroys faith. As perverse pride, mistrust, and doubt break the bonds of faith, so un-faith is revealed in treachery, envy and malicious desire. Trust engenders faith, while doubt erodes it. Faith is mirrored in trust. Doubt is echoed by treachery. So that the opposite of that faith and trust and goodwill which is the highest Paradise, is that malice, doubt and treachery which is deepest Hell. For intellectual therefore as well as personal and emotional reasons, Dante’s Inferno is structured to place treachery below violence and fraud, deeper, and nearer to Satan. Dante’s Hell is graded in accordance with the descent from faith, the pagans may have beliefs but are denied Christianity, the incontinent trust but in the wrong things, the violent place no trust in the intellect, the deceitful have no faith in each other, but the treacherous turn from faith to un-faith, to its opposite. While our own secular gradations might be driven by the degree of harm inflicted on the person, from crimes against wealth and property to physical and mental hurt, from violence and abuse to the taking of life, and are entwined about by freedoms and rights, Dante is driven to organise his Hell by the severity of offences against free will and against trust, since trust, or Faith, and the right use of free will are the paths to his God.

Camicion de’ Pazzi now gives the names of some of these frozen spirits, comparable with Mordred who fought his father Arthur, in legend. They are all Italian and close to home, the degli Alberti brothers who killed each other and caused an ensuing vendetta: Focaccia de’ Cancellieri who killed his kinsmen and started the feuds of the Whites and Blacks, Sassol Mascheroni who killed his kin for gain, and Camicion’s own relative Carlino who will, he prophesies, treacherously cause the death of many Whites.

MedXXXII:2 The Antenora: Inferno Canto XXXII:70

The Antenora, named after Antenor, a Trojan who betrayed Troy, holds those who were traitors to their country and cause. Again Dante chooses examples close to home. Bocca degli Alberti is here, a Ghibelline who fought with the Florentine Guelfs and betrayed them at Montaperti. Dante offers him recognition above in return for his name, but it is refused. And the lack of courtesy is matched by Dante’s roughness. Bocca’s identity is betrayed (a nice touch), and he in turn names Buoso de Duera, who was traitor to Manfred, Tesauro and Gianni who were turncoats, Ganelon who deceived Charlemagne, and betrayed Roland, and Tribaldello who betrayed members of his own party out of personal spite.

Finally here is Count Ugolino Gherardesca, whose story we are about to hear, gnawing the head of Ruggieri, as Tydeus gnawed at Melanippus in an incident from Statius. In the Antenora, there is anger and violence among the spirits, to match their betrayal, as though the worst sins intensify all sin. Dante again offers recognition in return for information.

Meditation XXXIII: Inferno Canto XXXIII

MedXXXIII:1 Count Ugolino: Inferno Canto XXXIII:1

Ugolino, the Pisan, spins his tale of Pisan treachery, adding that city to Dante’s list of Italian viper’s nests. Ugolino challenges Dante to do anything but show sorrow, and empathy, at the piteous nature of the childrens’ sufferings. Here in the depths of Hell is a dark and powerfully told story shot through nevertheless with the brightness of love, of the heart (however sinful) for its kin. Here Pity is evoked in the reader, that covert leit-motif of the whole Inferno. If Pride is Hell’s ubiquitous sin, Pity and sorrow is Dante’s Christian response to what we see and hear.

Ugolino’s own doubtful reputation and his own treacheries, for which he is in this circle, still do not justify the torture of innocents, which made Pisa shameful throughout the land. Dante himself curses Pisa, a strangely un-Christian curse since it presumably condemns innocent Pisans, and then offers no further comment on Ugolino’s tale. He leaves it to stand entire on its own feet. What else is there to say? That treachery and evil often involve the innocent, and bring sinless others within the shadowy net: that the evil force of the downward spiral curses all it touches? That a love counterbalanced by a hatred that gnaws our enemy’s skull is not in itself sufficient?

MedXXXIII:2 The Ptolomaea: Inferno Canto XXXIII:91

The treacherous against their friends and guests (as Ptolemy was who murdered Simon Maccabeus) are inverted in the crystal visors of their tears, here in the Ptolomaea, and blown on by the wind generated by Satan’s wings, as is all Cocytus. Alberigo Manfredi’s spirit is here, though his body is still alive on earth, and makes a request of Dante to clear the ice from his eyes: it is that Manfredi of Faenza who murdered his brother and nephew. And his is the not the only soul of the living dead that is down here. At another banquet Branca d’Oria, of Genoa, killed his father-in-law Michael Zanche whom we found in the Eighth Circle in the Malebranche-guarded ditch of the barrators. The murderers’ living bodies are left on earth, inhabited by demons, until physical death, such is the power of treachery, while the souls plunge down into the well of the Ninth Circle.

Here is an opportunity for Dante to issue another un-Christian generic curse, and add Genoa to his list of corrupt cities.

Treachery then is also an absence of soul: the bond of trust and faith almost adds the soul of the other to one’s own, but treachery, its opposite, subtracts one’s own soul from the body. Here the double knot of kinship and hospitality is loosened, a double treachery.

Meditation XXXIV: Inferno Canto XXXIV

MedXXXIV:1 Satan: Inferno Canto XXXIV:1

In the Judecca, named for Judas the arch-traitor, the souls of the damned are frozen deep in the ice, and Dante has again reached a place where words are unable to describe his feelings of fear, and the Reader’s powers of imagination are invoked. Here Lucifer, the rebellious angel, banished from Heaven for his pride, his desire for the forbidden, his anticipation of the will of God, fell, and burying himself in the earth, creating Hell, threw up behind him the Mountain of Purgatory. His sin of pride pervades the Inferno, his banners (wings) advance in a parody of a Latin hymn by Fortunatus (6th century), Vexilla Regis prodeunt.

His red yellow and black faces signify the opposites of Love, Power and Wisdom, those forces that created the Gate of Hell, namely Hatred, Powerlessness and Ignorance. The draught of his wing-beats produces the three winds of lust, pride and avarice. Various similes are used to heighten the language, Satan is like a giant mill, greater than a giant in size, his black face dark as an Egyptian, his bat-like wings greater than a ship’s sails. He chews a sinner in each mouth, the three greatest traitors, to Empire and Religion. Brutus and Cassius the co-conspirators who assassinated Julius Caesar, hang there their faces outwards, Cassius in the yellow face of powerlessness, Brutus in the black left-hand (the Roman inauspicious side) face of Ignorance, and the worst of all, that Judas Iscariot who betrayed Christ, his face lost in Satan’s maw, within the red central face of hatred. Brutus’s filial relation to Caesar, and Caesar’s status as the founder of the Empire make his crime doubly treacherous. Treachery is here the precise antithesis of Trust, which is an aspect of Faith. The faithful trust in the Divine, as Dante here hides in the shelter of Virgil, who is the representative of the ancient Empire and the spiritual guide, while the treacherous abuse trust and break faith. The worst abuse of free will is treachery, since through it the intellect destroys the closest bond, of the highest worth, and renders its own salvation impossible.

MedXXXIV:2 The Exit From Hell: Inferno Canto XXXIV:70

Now it is evening in Hell, and Virgil, with Dante clasped to his neck, climbs down Satan’s pelt until swivelling round at the world’s centre, he clambers into a cave in the rock. The Poets are now ready to climb away from Hell. The journey through the Inferno has taken from Good Friday to approximately 7.30pm Saturday, but it is simultaneously 7.30am Sunday in Purgatory as Virgil informs Dante (on the opposite side of the earth from Jerusalem, and therefore twelve hours ahead) as the Poets prepare to begin their climb, by the channel cut by Lethe, the river of Forgetfulness, and it will take them the Sunday day and night to reach the foot of Purgatory on the morning of Easter Monday, so rising to the world of purgation on the auspicious day of Christ’s resurrection. Once more Virgil has special knowledge of the time of day, while Dante is confused. Virgil explains the topography. They have passed the earth’s centre, and are beneath the southern hemisphere, opposite Jerusalem, the scene of the Crucifixion. They are standing on a little sphere that forms the tip of the Judecca. Satan fell from Heaven into the earth beneath Jerusalem, and created the pit of Hell, while driving up the Mount of Purgatory on the earth’s surface beyond him, so that it projects upwards from the Southern Pacific Ocean (theoretically at 144deg 50min West, 31deg 47min South, in what is actually empty ocean). The channel of Lethe, that the Poets now follow upwards, descends from Purgatory, and stretches, like the pit of Hell in reverse, from the earth’s centre to its surface. Climbing for a day and a night, Virgil still leading, and Dante following, they reach the surface and see again the sky and the stars. The whole journey so far has taken three days.

MedXXXIV:3 A Coda to the Inferno

What have we learnt of the three threads that Dante began to wind together in the first Canto? Firstly that of his personal life: involving Florence and his exile from the city: Beatrice and his love for her: poetry and his practice of it. Secondly that of Florentine and Italian politics: the Papacy and the Empire, and his aspirations for both. Thirdly that of the intellectual and spiritual life: his own journey towards Christian truth: and the ethical and religious framework of that journey.

Of Beatrice we have learnt a little, following on from the story of his love for her in the Vita Nuova, and her death reported there. In Inferno she is the messenger, sent indirectly by the Virgin, to rescue Dante from spiritual disaster, through her plea to Virgil, and his intervention. There is a repeated promise that Dante will see her again at a later time: that she will guide him through Paradise and reveal his future to him. She represents Divine philosophy, the intellect guided by faith, beyond the human philosophy of Virgil that is derived only from human wisdom.

Of Dante’s personal political life in Florence and his subsequent exile, we have hints and prophecies. He does not reveal a great deal of personal history for a mix of reasons: for example because it was widely known to his audience: because it was immodest to focus on himself politically when his stance is that of Christian humility: and because it is not in fact the main objective of the Inferno. We hear that he has been present during military activities. We know his exile will take place.

Of his poetic life we catch a few glimpses: his troubadour influences, his friendship with Guido Cavalcanti, his Classical influences including Virgil, Lucan, Ovid, and Statius, and his knowledge of Homer. We are aware of the value he places on poetic fame, and of his ‘acceptance’ among the great poets in Limbo.

All of this is quite modest. Though the Inferno is about Dante’s journey, he himself is not the central subject of it, except indirectly in terms of his spiritual and intellectual response to it. He is a student setting out to learn, with his Master. His presence is in the poetry. His voice is what we hear. But the eyes are gazing elsewhere: the copyist is stealing glances, in memory, at the wider Universe, and sending us the corresponding messages and news about his mental travels. Only once or twice does he glance at the Reader, and address us directly.

Where the Purgatorio does in fact emphasise Dante’s personal journey, and the Paradiso the spiritual life, Inferno is very much about the political state of Italy and Florence. From the opening Cantos we become party to Dante’s strong views, and his intents: to reveal the corruption of the Papacy, the corruption of his City, the degradation of the Empire, and the degradation of Italy. His examples, the individuals who come to life in swift vignettes within his text, the references to battles and recent history, weave a pattern, lay out an Italian and Florentine reality, of factional in-fighting, of cross-border conflict, of a Papacy enmeshed in temporal affairs, of rulers with eyes to an annexation of Papal power, of dubious alignments and frail allegiances. His own thoughts go back to early Rome, the Empire and the Early Church. His model for the Empire is of a temporal power separated from spiritual matters, with Roman laws and virtues, central control based in Rome, and an authority in accord with active virtue. He hopes for a political saviour who will revitalise the Empire and re-establish its Roman roots. His model for the Church is conversely that of a purely spiritual authority, eschewing temporal power, its ideal more akin to the poverty of a Saint Francis, than the wealth, deceit and profligacy of the Papacy. His Florence is a corrupt city. Its citizens people its analogue, the city of Dis, and the Inferno generally. There are some noble souls, flawed by a single error, but in general the effect of Inferno is to question the soul of Florence, and to lay bare the poverty of Italian and European political thinking. The politics are military rather, an endless series of power struggles, event-driven forays into the worst kind of greed and short-term jockeying for position. The scene is littered with historical and ‘contemporary’ Medieval armies, mercenaries, factional armed groups, and marked by individual murders and vendettas. City after city is corrupt. Is there another Italy? It is hard to see it from the Inferno.

It is not the purpose of these Meditations to trace the complex history of events, details will be found in the index and notes to the translation, and in comments on the individual Cantos, but in fact the fine detail merely supports the main thrust of Dante’s critique, adding colour, but little new insight. In some respects the political protagonists are unimportant. Dante does not select Farinata or Guido da Montefeltro, to delve into the details of their careers, but to use them as examples, while tyrants, Kings, Emperors, Popes, generals, great political entities, and others, pass across Dante’s scene like shadows without strong personality, exemplifying the moral vacuum of power abused and misused. It is not power or rank or fame or historical importance per se that attracts Dante to individuals, or inspires him to use them as examples, but their moral failings, their local ‘colour’, their place in the history that is important to him, their ability to reveal nobler characteristics or invoke pity, their relevance to the ideas he wants to communicate, their meaningfulness to his contemporary readers.

Dante ceaselessly promotes his ideals. Firstly a Church re-established along the lines of the early Church, dedicated to the spiritual domain, and free of material wealth and power. He is therefore both a radical in the Franciscan sense, and a traditionalist in looking back towards the origins of Christianity. Secondly he envisages a rejuvenated Empire, dedicated to earthly virtues in the tradition of Early Rome and the Augustan Empire, and free of spiritual authority. Again he is traditionalist and yet subversive. He selects example after example to reinforce the worth of the early Church and Rome, and to denigrate the corruption of contemporary times.

As far as intellectual and spiritual life is concerned, Dante orchestrates the Inferno to reveal the sins of humanity, which are essentially abuses and misuses of the gift of free will. Failure to utilise the mind correctly is the great error. Pride is the universal underlying sin of perverse mankind. Dante is at pains to show that noble and intelligent men may still be flawed by arrogance, intellectual error, and weaknesses of the will, so that despite seeing the good, in a pagan sense, they fail to achieve true enlightenment and the road to redemption. Farinata, Brunetto Latini, Ulysses and Guido da Montefeltro are four of the greatest examples, and the encounter with each is a mixture of sadness and respect, recognition and condemnation. Without that respect for worth, the Inferno would lack the moral shading and subtlety that provides resonance to these meetings.

Dante spiritually is the humble Christian seeker after truth, following in his Master’s footsteps, modest, awkward, shame-faced, eager, fearful, yet brave in his questioning, and revealing in his references to fame, a self-consciousness of his role and a (dubious) pride in his poetic achievement. We will question later whether he fully met the challenge of his own personality in adopting the role of the humble seeker after truth: he is certainly conscious of internal conflict. The character he depicts, anti-heroic, modern, respectful, courteous with those who deserve courtesy, yet sensitive and apprehensive is charming and realistic. His shudderings, and his pity, his fear and his relationship with Virgil, all add to that atmosphere of risk and adventure, supported by affection and intelligence, that is the heart of the spiritual pilgrimage.

Beatrice is barely visible as yet, but we already know that Love is the promise and hope of the journey, and that Dante will meet with her again. Love is the redeeming religious power, and Beatrice is the noble lady, Divine philosophy. Philosophy is the mediator between God and Man, the medium through which faith is strengthened and Paradise revealed. Human Reason, and natural philosophy, embodied in Virgil, can take us so far, but no further. Reason and the right use of the mind are the factors that fulfil human potential and open up the path to spiritual achievement, but in themselves are not complete. Grace, divine intervention, a higher truth are required. And, in the spiritual core, the rational mind and the exercise of the intellect are nothing, if they do not form the basis for the theological virtues of pity and charity, hope and yearning, belief and faith. Beyond and above all is Love, the source of beauty, virtue and truth.

In Inferno Dante tried to show the limitations of human knowledge, wisdom, and intellect if they are flawed by moral failing, the errors of free will: if they are blind to the highest good. Amongst the worthless, the worthy are also trapped, in that stasis of Hell, sad failures, engendering Pity of naked human misery. The weight of failure is terrible. Dante’s fear is great. The charm of the expression, the beauty of the poetry, does not in the end palliate the deep spiritual cold of the pit. It is with a deep sense of relief that we leave Hell, along with the Poets, and see the stars again, those stars that conclude each of the three parts of the Commedia.