Malebolge (Cantos XVIII - XXX)
This section works through cantos XVIII to XXX of Inferno. Please use the links at the bottom of the page to move from canto to canto.
Canto XVIII is the first of thirteen cantos dedicated to the eighth circle of Hell. In this circle are punished people who used fraud against those with whom they had no special bond of trust (simple fraud). Dante names the eighth circle of Hell 'Malebolge', which could roughly be translated as 'evil-sacks'. This name reflects the structure of the circle, which is made up of ten concentric ditches ('bolge'). Each ditch is lower than the previous one, and all the ditches are linked to each other by a number of bridges. Each ditch contains a different group (or groups) of sinners. The first ditch, or 'bolgia', contains the panders and seducers.
The two groups of sinners walk round the circle in opposite directions. They are naked and punished by being whipped violently by demons. Amongst the panders Dante recognises and speaks to Venedico Caccianemico, member of a powerful Guelph family of Bologna, who was said to have talked his sister Ghisolabella into satisfying the sexual desires of the 'Marchese'. Amongst the seducers Virgil points out Jason, leader of the Argonauts, who on the island of Lemnos tricked Hypsipyle - seducing her, making her pregnant and then abandoning her - and who later also seduced Medea, daughter of the king of Colchis. The second bolgia contains the flatterers, who are punished by being suffocated in a ditch which is covered in, and stinking of, excrement. Amongst the flatterers Dante recognises Alessio Interminelli of Lucca (of whom very little is known), and Virgil then points out the prostitute Thais, whose flattering exaggerations are made to end the canto.
Canto XVIII can be divided into five sections:
- description of 'Malebolge' (1-21)
- description of the punishment of the panders and seducers (22-39)
- Venedico Caccianemico (40-66)
- Jason (67-99)
- the 'bolgia' of the flatterers - Alessio Interminelli and Thais (100-136).
Discussion point: Jason
The figure of Jason is a very significant one in the Commedia. Jason, according to Classical myth, led the Argonauts on an expedition to the island of Colchis to retrieve the Golden Fleece, which they succeed in doing after Jason was able to complete a number of incredible tasks. The Argonauts' expedition was believed in the Middle Ages to be man's first journey by sea. Dante importantly refers again to Jason and the Argonauts in Paradiso II and XXXIII, drawing a parallel between the incredible and novel nature of the journey represented by the Commedia and the incredible and novel nature of Jason's tasks and expedition. Consider also the way line 91 strongly recalls Inferno II, 67. In Inferno II, 'parola ornata' was associated with Virgil and his poetry, and had been presented as something that may rescue Dante from the dark wood; here in Inferno XVIII, Jason's 'parole ornate' are emblematic of a treacherous misuse of language.
Inferno XIX is an extremely striking canto, both in terms of the ideas expressed and of the language and images used to express them. This canto deals with the punishment of simony - the buying or selling of church privileges, benefices or authority. Each sinner is punished by being stuck head down on top of other sinners in one of the many holes found on the ground of the bolgia. The feet of the sinner stick out of the hole, their soles on fire. The sinner will remain in this position until he is pushed fully into the hole by the next soul assigned to it. The soul Dante speaks to is that of Pope Nicholas III, of the Orsinis, who during his papacy (1277-1280) used simony to increase the power and riches of his family. When addressed by Dante, Nicholas mistakes him for Pope Boniface VIII (1294-1303) (this implies that Dante believed that Boniface too was destined to be punished in the third bolgia). Nicholas tells Dante that Pope Clement V (1305-1314) will also be punished in the third bolgia. Through Nicholas' misunderstanding regarding Dante's identity, and through Nicholas' words about Clement V, Dante manages to 'place' in Hell both his arch-enemy (who was still alive at the time Dante's journey is set) and the Pope alive at the time he is writing! Dante responds to Nicholas' words with a fervent invective against the corruption of the Church, accusing the corrupt popes of acting against Christ's own instructions and of idolatry - of worshipping money and riches, instead of God.
Canto XIX can be divided into three sections:
- lament against simony; description of the third bolgia and the punishment of the simoniacs (1-30)
- encounter with Nicholas III (31-87)
- invective against the corruption of the papacy (88-133).
It is a very significant canto within the context of the Commedia as a whole, focusing, as no other canto of the poem so extensively does, on that which for Dante was the primary cause for the moral degeneration of society: the corruption of the papacy.
Discussion point: language and style in Inferno XIX
The canto is dominated by religious language and imagery. These are primarily used in a sarcastic manner, so as to reflect the misuse of the authority of the Church which Dante bitterly criticises in the canto.
The first thing to note is the boldness with which Dante openly criticises the actions of no fewer than three popes. This boldness is particularly evident in the image of lines 49-51, in which Dante compares the sinners he is speaking with to cruel assassins. The reference to Boniface VIII is particularly significant. Boniface (already mentioned in Inferno VI, 69) was pope at the time Dante's journey is set, and it was with his help that the Black Guelphs of Florence were able to exile Dante and other prominent members of the White Guelph faction. In lines 55-57 he is accused of betraying and tormenting the Church insofar as he was intent on satisfying his hunger for worldly riches. Also very striking is the boldness with which in lines 91-93 Dante criticises the corruption of the popes by directly quoting the words of Christ (from Matthew 16, 18-19). Although the words and deeds of Christ are often recalled or alluded to in the poem, they are very rarely quoted directly; and it is significant that one of these instances should be in the context of Dante's bitterly reminding Nicholas of Christ's original instructions to Peter, the first pope.
The following passage from Acts 2, describes the moment in which the apostles first received the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the moment which, according to Christian tradition, marks the full beginning of the Church's mission in the world. It is the moment in which the apostles fully receive the Holy Spirit. The power imparted by the Holy Spirit on the apostles at Pentecost is believed to be the power on which ecclesiastical authority rests. As we have seen, this is the very power which is said to be abused by acts of simony.
"When the day of Pentecost had come, they [the apostles] were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability."
(Acts 2, 1-4)
The fourth bolgia contains the souls of the soothsayers. They are punished by having their bodies twisted, their heads facing backwards, so that they can only look over their shoulders and not in the direction in which they are moving. They walk slowly, utter no words, and weep. The first sinners to be pointed out by Virgil are Amphiarus, Teiresias and Arruns. He then points out Manto, another ancient seer; this prompts a digression regarding the story of the founding of Mantua, Virgil’s native city. Dante then asks Virgil to name other sinners – the canto ends with Virgil pointing out a number of other seers, this time including not only Classical but also medieval figures.
Canto XX can be divided into four sections:
- description of the punishment of the soothsayers (1–30)
- Amphiarus, Teiresias, Arruns (31–51)
- Manto and the founding of Mantua (52–102)
- other soothsayers (103–130).
Discussion point: Dante's sympathy?
One of the most important features of this canto is the way in which it consciously highlights the poetic nature of Dante’s text: the canto opens with detailed reference to the poetic composition and structure of the Commedia (lines 1–3). Consider how this may be related to the subject of the canto. The sinners in this bolgia are punished for being as presumptuous as to wish to obtain, through their arts, a privileged view of what lies hidden in the mind of God (the ‘giudicio divin’ of line 30). This is something not altogether different from what Dante is attempting to do in writing his poem. On the basis of this, some commentators have suggested that the distress showed by Dante at what he witnesses in the fourth bolgia (19–26) should be seen also as an indication of a particularly strong empathy on Dante’s part with the sinners. What do you think?
Dante and Virgil move into the fifth bolgia, in which the barrators are punished by being submerged in the boiling pitch with which the bolgia is filled. A ‘barrator’ for Dante is someone who is guilty of corruption in the exercise of a public office. The term was also used in Dante’s day more broadly to refer to anyone who made a living out of fraud and trickery.
The bolgia is guarded by a group of devils named Malebranche. This name could be translated as ‘evil-clutches’, and is clearly modelled on the name of the eighth circle of Hell itself. One of these devils is seen throwing the soul of a barrator from Lucca into the pitch. While Dante fears being attacked by the devils, Virgil is confident he can negotiate with them a safe passage through the bolgia, and addresses Malacoda (‘eviltail’), spokes-devil for the group, in terms not altogether different from those used with Charon and Minos earlier on. Malacoda promises Virgil a safe passage through the bolgia and orders ten devils to escort him and Dante to where they can cross over to the next ditch.
Canto XXI can be divided into four sections:
description of the bolgia (1–45)
first description of the actions of the Malebranche towards the sinners (46–57)
conversation between Virgil and Malacoda (58–117)
description of the group of devils assigned to the ‘protection’ of Dante and Virgil (118–139).
Discussion point: poetry and comedy
The canto opens, as the previous one had done, with a reference to the poetic nature of Dante’s text, which is referred to in line 2 as a ‘comedìa’. The term ‘comedìa’ (also used at the end of Canto XVI) clearly contrasts the expression ‘alta tragedìa’ used in Inferno XX, 113 to refer to Virgil’s Aeneid. This points to the fact that while Virgil’s poetry may have been a very important source of inspiration for Dante, Dante wishes the work he is writing to be of a different kind from Virgil’s high style. Indeed, in Canto XXI we move from the tragic and solemn tone of Canto XX to languages and images of a comic, farcical and grotesque character.
Dante-personaggio and Virgil begin to move through the bolgia escorted by the group of ten devils assigned to them by Malacoda. As they proceed, a sinner is seen emerging from the pitch and is grabbed by one of the devils. While the sinner (Ciampòlo of Navarre) is being held down Virgil speaks to him. Ciampòlo names friar Gomita and Michele Zanche as other sinners punished in the bolgia. He also says that the bolgia isf ull of people from Tuscany and Lombardy, the regions of Italy from where Dante and Virgil come. The final part of the canto is dominated by the escape of Ciampòlo from the clutches of the devils, and by the fight which ensues between Alichin and Calcabrina.
Canto XXII can be divided into three sections:
- description of the devils and of the sinners emerging from the ditch (1–30)
- conversation with Ciampòlo of Navarre (31–90)
- Ciampòlo’s escape and fight amongst the devils (91–151).
The canto opens with a description of Dante’s amazement at the extraordinary nature of the signal adopted by the devils for communication – the fart (recall the end of Canto XXI). The military references with which the canto opens are meant to evoke the battle of Campaldino, in which the Florentines – Dante amongst them – had defeated the army from Arezzo. This reference is no mere coincidence, especially if related to the reference which had been made in Canto XXI (lines 94–96) to the Florentine assault on the castle of Caprona, in which Dante also took part. These reminders of Dante’s contribution to the success of two important Florentine military campaigns could be seen as a subtle way for Dante to counter the accusations of treachery toward the city which had been laid against him (in the accusations which led to Dante’s exile, Dante was, amongst other things, accused of being a barrator.)
The canto opens with Dante reflecting on the devilish fight he has just witnessed, and with Dante’s and Virgil’s close escape from being clutched by one of the devils of Malebranche. They escape by moving down into the next bolgia, in which the hypocrites are punished by having to wear habits that – although attractively colourful on the outside – are actually made of lead on the inside, and therefore extremely painful to carry. Dante and Virgil talk to two friars from Bologna, Catalano and Loderingo, belonging to a military order popularly known as ‘frati godenti’ (‘rejoicing friars’) In the sixth bolgia Dante also sees the punishment of Caiphas and all the members of the council which condemned Jesus to death. These are punished by being pegged to the ground in the same position in which Jesus was crucified, and by having the rest of the sinners walk over them. A further aspect of their punishment is that they are able to tell the weight of those walking over them before they are actually stepped upon. At the end of the canto Dante and Virgil find out that all the bridges over the sixth bolgia were destroyed by the earthquake following Jesus’s death.
See also Inferno XXI, 109–114.
Canto XXIII can be divided into five sections:
- Dante’s and Virgil’s escape from the devils of Malebranche (1–57)
- description of the sixth bolgia (58–72)
- encounter with Catalano and Loderingo (73–108)
- Caiphas (109–126)
- recognition that all the bridges over the sixth bolgia are destroyed (127–148).
Discussion point: narrative detail in Canto XXIII
Great emphasis is given in lines 37–51 to the care and selflessness with which Virgil carries Dante down to the sixth bolgia, as a mother would her son. How does Dante convey this? Take time to enjoy the detail of the imagery.
Note how some of the narrative detail may be seen to reflect the nature of the sin of hypocrisy. For example, line 72 may be seen to suggest that when talking to a hypocrite one can actually never be sure of the true intentions of the person one is talking to. The portrayal of the friars in lines 76–93 also suggests this. The eagerness of the friars to meet Dante is counterbalanced by an emphasis on their ‘private’ assessment of the situation prior to their actual conversation with the Florentine pilgrim.
The canto opens with an extended simile with which Dante describes his feelings at seeing Virgil’s distress at having made a mistake (described at the end of the last canto). Dante and Virgil make the difficult climb up to the seventh bolgia, which contains those guilty of theft. It is filled with snakes, and the sinners have to move naked between these, in a constant state of fear, and with no chance of finding shelter from the reptiles. With the middle part of their body, the snakes knot themselves to the hands of the sinners, blocking them behind the sinners’ backs; they then tie themselves even more firmly to the sinners by forming another knot with head and tail on the other side of the sinners’ torsos. Dante and Virgil also see a sinner who is pierced by a snake below the neck, reduced to ashes, and then comes to life again. The sinner is Vanni Fucci, citizen of Pistoia, punished with the thieves for having stolen the precious treasure of the chapel of St James in Pistoia. In order to upset Dante, Vanni Fucci tells him of the future defeat of the White Guelphs at the hands of the Blacks.
Canto XXIV can be divided into four sections:
- Dante’s reaction to Virgil’s discomfort (1–63)
- general description of the seventh bolgia (64–96)
- Vanni Fucci’s metamorphosis (97–120)
- Vanni Fucci and his prophecy (121–151).
Take time to note the physical detail with which the punishments of the sinners are described in lines 91–120. This canto and the next one are dominated by images of physical metamorphoses.
The encounter with Vanni Fucci is one of the most psychologically violent in the Inferno. He defines himself, with no apparent regret, as a beast rather than a man – notice in this respect how the enjambement at the end of line 126 allows the word ‘bestia’ to be emphasised at the beginning of the next line. Vanni Fucci takes pleasure in gratuitously causing grief to Dante by prophesying events relating to the defeat of the White Guelphs. Note the violent and tempestuous nature of the images of the prophecy. Also note how at the beginning of Canto XXV Vanni Fucci shows himself to be defiant towards God by gesturing obscenely towards him. This is a gesture of unparalleled violence and vulgarity in the Commedia, surpassing in daring even the words of Capaneus (Inferno XIV, 51–60 and Inferno XXV, 13–15).
Canto XXV opens with Vanni Fucci’s obscene gesture towards God, and with his punishment which follows from this. This prompts Dante-poeta’s invective against Pistoia. In Canto XXV we find that guarding the seventh bolgia is the centaur Cacus, separated from the other centaurs (which we had met in Canto XII) because of his theft of four bulls and four cows from Hercules, by whom he was then killed. The canto is then dominated by Dante’s witnessing the horrific metamorphoses of three Florentine thieves: Agnello dei Brunelleschi, Buoso Donati, and Francesco Cavalcanti. We are also told that Cianfa Donati and Puccio dei Galigai (‘Sciancato’) are also part of this Florentine group.
Canto XXV could be divided into four sections:
Vanni Fucci’s obscene gesture and punishment; invective against Pistoia (1–15)
- The metamorphosis of Agnel (34–78)
- The metamorphosis of Buoso and Francesco (79–151).
Discussion point: Metamorphoses
The narrative of Canto XXV is dominated by the metamorphoses of lines 34–151. Dante himself boasts, in lines 94–102, that in his ability to portray transformations he can put to shame the great Classical poets. The description of these metamorphoses is worth studying carefully.
The text tells us that there is something essentially perverse about the metamorphoses we witness. For example, some of the elements of the description of the first metamorphosis seem to suggest that it could be seen as an infernal parody of the Incarnation – lines 69 and lines 70–72. Even the name ‘Agnel’ could be seen to recall the figure of Christ, the ‘lamb (agnel) of God’. In this infernal parody of the Incarnation, human nature is not bound to the divine (as it could be, for Dante, if human beings loved God and each other) but to the bestial (as it is, for Dante, if human beings turn against each other for the acquisition of earthly things). So, while Dante-poeta boasts about his poetic skill, he also wishes to warn his readers not to be so seduced by the virtuosity of his poetry as to neglect the moral message the text wishes to convey.
The episode of the seventh bolgia ends, at the beginning of Canto XXVI, with a short but powerful invective against Florence, prompted by Dante’s encounter with the Florentine thieves in the previous canto. Virgil and Dante then proceed to cross the bridge over the eighth bolgia in which those who gave fraudulent counsel are punished.
The bolgia presents itself to Dante and Virgil as full of flames as on a summer’s evening a valley presents itself full of fireflies to the farmer that tends it. Each flame contains one of the sinners, and reminds Dante of the flame in which, according to the Bible, the prophet Elijah was seen by the prophet Elishah being carried away. Almost immediately, Dante attention is caught by a double-tongued flame. In it are punished together Ulysses and Diomedes, two Greek heroes, whose fraudulent scheming played an important role in the victory of the Greeks over Troy. The last part of the canto is dedicated to the story of Ulysses’ final journey. Having left the island of Circe, on his long journey back home from Troy, Ulysses had been overwhelmed by a burning desire to gain knowledge of the world and of the vices and worth of men. This desire was even stronger than his love for his son, father and wife. He thus decided to journey throughout all the lands framing the Mediterranean Sea. On reaching the Pillars of Hercules, with lofty words he convinced his men to sail past them into the uninhabited part of the world. They sailed for five months until they came into sight of the Mountain of Purgatory, at which point they were shipwrecked and drowned.
Canto XXVI could be divided into four sections:
- invective against Florence (1–12)
- description of the bolgia of the fraudulent counsellors (13–48)
- the flame of Ulysses and Diomedes (49–84)
- Ulysses’ account of his final journey (85–142).
Discussion point: ways of interpreting Ulysses
Few cantos of the Commedia have generated as much scholarly interest as Inferno XXVI. The lofty words with which Ulysses convinces his men to sail beyond the Pillars of Hercules are among the most well-known of the entire poem. Yet they are also some of the most problematic. Taken on their own, they seem to be a noble and righteous statement regarding human nature: humans are meant to pursue virtue and knowledge. In the context of Ulysses’ speech, however, their noble and righteous character cannot be taken for granted. Indeed, the scholarly debate concerning the figure of Ulysses has largely centred on whether or not Dante presents his motives for sailing past the Pillars of Hercules in pursuit of truth as morally good, or blame-worthy.
According to some commentators, while Ulysses may be placed in Hell for his fraudulent military scheming, the Greek hero’s speech in Inferno XXVI is meant by Dante to be read as a positive statement regarding human pursuit of knowledge, virtue and truth. Indeed, some commentators say, lines 118–20 may be seen to express the motives underlying the composition of the Commedia itself.
According to other scholars, however, Ulysses’ speech displays many signs of his moral failings. These include the wish to gain knowledge even beyond the limits pertaining to human nature, and his neglect of his responsibilities as father, son, husband and king. Moreover, as we shall see in Inferno XXVII, 79–81, Dante believed that when a man reached old age he should dedicate himself not, as Ulysses does, to acquiring new worldly experiences, but to leading a peaceful life and to contemplating God. On the grounds of these observations, therefore, a number of scholars suggest that Ulysses’ speech might not in the end be as noble and righteous as it looks.
Canto XXVII is entirely dedicated to the encounter between Dante and Guido da Montefeltro, a Ghibelline famous for his leadership and astuteness in military affairs. Dante’s encounter with Guido is characterised by the bestial sounds which Guido’s voice produces through the flame before it is able to reach the flame’s tip and be heard as human language. Before identifying himself Guido wishes to know the present political situation of the Romagna, his native region. After Dante has answered, Guido identifies himself and says that he is willing to tell his story because he believes Dante and Virgil to be damned souls who would not be able to return to the world and diminish his fame.
Guido tells Dante and Virgil that after a life devoted to military leadership and fraud, he repented for all his sins and decided to end his life in a Franciscan monastery. Even at this late stage of his life, however, he was approached by Pope Boniface VIII, asking him for advice on how to defeat his Roman enemies, camped in a fortress at Palestrina. At first Guido refused to answer, worried that he might sin again. Boniface, however, tells him not to worry, because as pope he has the power to absolve his sin even before it is committed. Guido thus advises Boniface to trick his enemies by pretending to seek peace and by attacking them once they have left their fortress. When Guido dies, his soul is taken to Hell by a devil who reminds him that although he might have thought Boniface could have absolved him, this could not happen without his own repentance. Guido’s moral shortcomings are thus revealed, and he is sent to the eighth bolgia of the eighth circle of Hell.
Canto XXVII can be divided into three sections:
- appearance of Guido da Montefeltro and description of the flame’s bestial sounds (1–30)
- the political situation of the Romagna region (31–57)
- the story of Guido’s sin and damnation (58–136).
The story of Guido’s sin is inextricably linked, in Inferno XXVII, to the figure of Pope Boniface VIII, who we have already met in Canto XIX as one of the targets of Dante’s attack on the corruption of the papacy. You should, in this respect, read Inferno XXVII and XIX as complementary cantos. Take special note of line 103. At first sight, it would appear to be a straightforward statement of the spiritual power granted to the Pope by God. In the context of Boniface’s ‘drunken’ words, however, Boniface refers to his spiritual power so as to convince Guido to sin. Dante thus expresses the idea that, in Boniface’s hands, the spiritual authority granted to the Pope by God has become a political tool used for devious ends.
Canto XXVIII is dedicated to the ninth bolgia of the eighth circle, which contains those who through their actions caused schism and division between human beings. They are punished by having a section of their body cut or severed with a sword by a devil. As they walk round the circle, the wound is gradually healed. By the time they reach the devil once again, the wound is healed completely, but is reopened once again by the devil. Amongst those punished in this circle, Dante speaks to Mohammed(founder of Islam), Mosca dei Lamberti (a Florentine), Pier da Medicina (of whom very little is known) and Bertran de Born (a famous Provençal poet, renowned for his celebration in poetry of the tragic beauty of war, and also mentioned by Dante in De vulgari eloquentia II, ii, 9). Mohammed points out his cousin and first disciple Alì to Dante, and talks about Fra Dolcino, a northern Italian heretic; Pier da Medicina points out to Dante the presence in the circle of Malatestino da Rimini (who Dante had briefly spoken about in the previous canto) and Curio, a Roman tribune of the time of Julius Caesar. Mosca claims responsibility for having issued the order of murder which was to be the beginning of the civic strife which would divide the city of Florence between Black and White Guelphs. Bertran de Born is punished for having turned Henry, son of King Henry II of England, against his father.
Canto XXVIII can be divided into six sections:
- description of the bolgia (1–21)
- Mohammed, Alì and Fra Dolcino (22–63)
- Pier da Medicina (64–90)
- Curio (91–102)
- Mosca dei Lamberti (103–111)
- Betran de Born (112–142).
Dante’s decision to place Mohammed in Hell (as well as passages such as Inferno XXVII, 85–93) might well appear offensive to many modern readers, irrespective of their religious beliefs. Without attempting to justify Dante’s decision, one should nonetheless note how it relates to the Christianity of his day.
The first thing to note is that in Dante’s day Mohammed was not generally believed to be the founder of a new religion. He was believed, rather, to be a Christian priest who had abandoned the true Christian faith; and his attempt to gather followers through his preaching was thus seen as a cause of schism within Christianity itself. The next thing to note, in relation to Inferno XXIX, is that in Dante’s day Christianity and Islam were engaged in a number of wars against each other– in Sicily, Spain and the Middle East – which would have been seen by Christians ultimately as a result of the schism caused by Mohammed’s preaching.
One should also note that, alongside and despite all this, the culture of Dante’s day was also characterised by a fruitful dialogue between Islamic and Christian thinkers. Finally, it is extremely important to note that Dante’s decision to place Mohammed in the ninth bolgia does not stem from a prejudice against Islam as such, as much as his decision to place Curio in the ninth bolgia does not stem from a prejudice against paganism as such. Indeed in Limbo Dante recognises in Islamic philosophers and military leaders the same moral excellence he recognizes in pagan figures such as Virgil and Aristotle (see Inferno IV).
The last line of Canto XXVIII is the only place in the Commedia in which the word ‘contrapasso’ appears. This word is generally used by commentators to refer to a general principle according to which, in the Inferno, the punishment fits the sin. For more on this, see the section on punishment in "Major Themes".
The canto opens with Dante distress at having seen a relative of his –Alighiero (‘Geri’) di Bello – in the ninth bolgia. Virgil tells Dante that he saw Geri shouting and pointing at Dante while Dante was talking to Bertran. Dante says that Geri was furious at him and all the Alighieris for still not having avenged his death. Dante and Virgil arrive in the last ditch of Malebolge, which contains the souls of forgers and counterfeiters. They are punished by being afflicted with illness and disease. Danteand Virgil see two sinners leaning against each other and suffering from leprosy. They are the alchemists Griffolino d’Arezzo and Capocchio, both of whom lived in Siena. The former was burned at the stake, accused of heresy by Alberto, protégé of the bishop of Siena. Griffolino had mockingly told Alberto that he knew how to fly and Alberto, who took him seriously, accused him of heresy because Griffolino would not teach him. Dante accuses the people of Siena of being extremely vain. Capocchio backs up Dante’s accusation by naming a number of Sienese people famous for their vanity and vain extravagance.
Canto XXIX can be divided into three sections:
- Geri del Bello (1–39)
- description of the tenth bolgia (40–72)
- Griffolino d’Arezzo and Capocchio of Siena; Griffolino’s story; the vanity of the Sienese (73–139).
The first part of the canto contains reflection on vendettas. In Dante’s day vendettas were not only common but an accepted part of the moral and legal code. Through the figure of Geri del Bello, however, Dante wants to question this practice. By constructing the narrative in such a way as not to have Dante speak directly to Geri del Bello, Dante seems to want to condemn the common practice of vendettas, which perpetuated civil strife and divisions.
The canto opens with the arrival on the scene of two souls suffering from rabies, furiously running through the bolgia and biting other sinners who they find on their way. Rabies is the punishment for falsifiers of identity. The two falsifiers of personhood Dante meets are Gianni Schicchi, a Florentine, and Myrrha, a mythological figure. The former was said to have taken the place of Buoso Donati (another Florentine of Dante’s day) on his death-bed so as to forge his will; the latter tricked her father into believing she was another woman so as to have sexual intercourse with him. The next sinner Dante-personaggio meets is Master Adam, counterfeiter of the Florentine florin. Those guilty of counterfeiting money are punished by being affected by dropsy. Adam points out to Dante two sinners guilty of counterfeiting words – i.e. tricking or betraying others through language – and punished by being afflicted by strong fever. They are the wife of Potiphar, who falsely accused Joseph in front of the Egyptian Pharaoh, and Sinon of Troy who talked the Trojans into taking the wooden horse within the city’s walls. The canto ends with a grotesquely comical fight between Adam and Sinon.
Canto XXX can be divided into four sections:
counterfeiters of personhood: Gianni Schicchi and Myrrha (1–45)
counterfeiters of money: Master Adam (46–90)
counterfeiters of words: Sinon and the wife of Potiphar (91–99)
fight between Adam and Sinon (100–148).
Discussion point: register and style
Note the different registers adopted in the episode of Master Adam. At first, Adam’s rhetoric is lofty – note for example the description of the ‘ruscelletti’ in lines 64–66. His words then quickly turn to anger and the wish for revenge against those who encouraged him to sin – lines 76–90. The episode finally moves into the lower poetic register of the grotesquely comical fight between Master Adam and Sinon – lines 100–29. As commentators have pointed out, this diversity of register could reflect Dante’s wish to present the figure of Adam as a man who moves from the dignity of his learning to the moral baseness of the use to which his learning is put.
© Vittorio Montemaggi, Matthew Treherne, Abi Rowson
This resource is a collaboration between the Leeds Centre for Dante Studies at the University of Leeds, and the Devers Program in Dante Studies at the University of Notre Dame