Exchange and Communication, Commerce and Language in the Comedy

The Political Vision of the Divine Comedy by Joan Ferrante

Chapter 06, “Exchange and Communication, Commerce and Language in the Comedy”

ALTHOUGH Dante seems to be primarily concerned in his poem with the leaders of the church and the major secular governments in Italy and Europe, men who can move their institutions towards the ideal universal government, his audience would have included many from the commercial world, some of whom were also in a strong position to influence international politics. It is therefore not surprising that Dante should speak to them in the technical language of finance and trade and that he should be concerned with financial activities throughout his poem. He accepts commerce as an essential part of life in a complex society, as a basic form of exchange, like language, though vulnerable to the same kinds of abuses and in need of the same kinds of control. It seems fitting to conclude this study of Dante’s political vision with a survey of his views on commerce and language as they appear in the Comedy.

Dante’s connection with the commercial world was personal. He was the son of a banker or money-changer, the brother-in-law of a moneylender; he himself engaged in some business and was a member of a guild, the “Arte dei medici e degli speziali,” primarily involved with drugs and spices, though he probably joined the guild to further his political career. [01] Commerce and literature were not mutually exclusive in Florence; the best known contemporary chroniclers, Dino Compagni and Giovanni Villani, the men who mediate most directly between their society and later generations, were merchants, not to mention the Venetian merchant and travel-writer Marco Polo. Letters by merchants in the Datini archives, dating from the later fourteenth century, reveal not only an interest in books, but a particular interest in the Divine Comedy. Datini himself, who had many books and was in frequent contact with booksellers, cites Livy, Valerio, Seneca, and Boethius, and argues in his letters about philosophy and divine justice, as well as the law.[02] A notary writing to Datini cites Dante twelve times in his letters, obviously expecting his correspondent to recognize the source; other merchants request copies of parts of the Comedy or cite Dante, in one case the very apt passage from Hell 27 about taking in the sails at an age when one should give up the life of trade.

We know that Dante reached this audience, and we can assume that he was speaking, at least in part, to them. That their response to his poem might have been expected to play a part in giving reality to his vision is suggested by the role merchants and bankers played in the contemporary world. Italian merchants were involved in international trade from an early date; they not only bought and sold goods, they also bought raw materials, like wool and silk, manufactured or refined them, and sold the products. In 1159 there were enough Italian merchants at the Champagne fairs to organize themselves and their money-exchanges under a captain; official exchanges were established in port cities by 1200 to facilitate maritime commerce. The wide variety of currencies (virtually every city or lord, not only in Italy but even in France and Germany, had its own coins) made monetary exchange difficult, but the practice of paper transactions, keeping accounts of purchases and sales to be settled at a later date in a specified currency, enabled merchants to extend credit, to receive deposits to be drawn on or transferred, and to use those deposits for investments.[03] In the case of the larger merchant-banking houses, the amount of money held was often substantial and was drawn on not only by other merchants for commercial ventures, but also by kings and popes and cities to finance governments and armies. Banking companies served as agents to collect papal taxes, which brought money into Italy, allowing Italian banks to balance their foreign currency payments and facilitating Italian trade.

The most striking feature of Italian banking and trade in this period is its scope; companies employed large numbers of people and established agents in different cities throughout Europe. The Bardi of Florence had warehouses, offices, and staff in ten Italian cities from Genoa and Venice to Palermo and Bari, as well as in Avignon, Barcelona, Bruges, Cyprus, Constantinople, Jerusalem, London, Majorca, Marseilles, Paris, Rhodes, Seville, and Tunis.[04] Commercial ships traveled the Mediterranean from one end to the other, not to speak of the Danube, the Black Sea, the Atlantic, and the North Sea. A company from Lucca sent agents as far as Greenland to collect papal tithes; in 1292 five of the top six taxpayers in Paris were Italian merchants. Italians were involved in some way in the affairs of virtually all the countries and major cities of Europe In England, Italian companies financed English troops against France and Scotland, obtained royal concessions to silver mines, served as royal collectors in local counties, and ran public exchanges and customs in major ports. The Ricc[i]ardi were a part of the English government, paying out fees for service to the crown, collecting taxes, controlling customs and money exchange and recoinage; the list of their debtors included many government officials, earls, archbishops, bishops, abbots, revealing the extent of their involvement in the entire country.[05]

For Italy’s merchant-bankers, the whole civilized world was a potential or actual market, an imperfect foreshadowing of the united world Dante would like to see for all men. Like religion, commerce linked northern Italy with the rest of Europe and made the Italian cities sensitive to all the vagaries of international politics. It gave their wealthy citizens considerable influence in the world, but it also left them vulnerable to events they could not control. Princes often refused to pay their debts or called in huge sums on short notice, and many large companies failed as a result. The Ricciardi of Lucca, for example, were caught between two belligerents, Philip IV of France and Edward I of England, financing both sides of the war in Gascony. When Edward and the pope, Boniface VIII, both recalled large deposits, the Ricciardi were unable to raise either sum; Edward seized their assets in England, Philip arrested their representatives in France, and Boniface refused to help them retrieve their money until it was too late to save them. As one house failed, another took over, but the number of major failures of Tuscan companies while Dante was writing the Comedy cannot have failed to impress him.[06]

In the major cities of northern Italy, the world in which Dante lived, commerce dominated. Guilds loomed large in local politics, merchant-bankers ran communes. In Florence, political power in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries was almost exclusively in the hands of great banking, commercial, and industrial families; the three major guilds, of wool (Arte della Lana), cloth (Calimala), and banking (Cambio), made up 71 percent of the priorate.[07] Distinctions between the rich bourgeoisie and the nobility were not sharply made in the commercial cities; indeed, nobles often joined with rich merchants to form new urban patriciates, and members of large families were as likely to look to business to make their fortunes as they might elsewhere to the church or the military.[08] Partnerships originally formed for individual enterprises were replaced by standing companies, usually made up of brothers or other members of the same family, sometimes of families connected by marriage, which pooled capital to increase their trade and profits and to minimize their risks and losses. Families were political as well as economic forces in cities like Florence. Dante felt the negative effects of the interrelation of politics and economics when he was accused of barratry, the misuse of public funds, a common charge made by a victorious faction against its defeated rivals, which often resulted, as in Dante’s case, in the confiscation of property. The sentence against Dante was renewed in 1315, condemning him and his sons to death and destruction of their goods and giving any who met him license to offend him in person or goods.[09]

Dante’s attitude towards commerce is essentially a moderate one, accepting it as a fact of life, a potential benefit to society, as long as it serves the common good and does not harm the community in order to advance individuals. He presents the distribution of wealth as the result of divine providence in the passage on fortune (Hell 7) and justifies craft and manufacture hence, implicitly, trade in his description of art as the daughter of nature and granddaughter of God (Hell 11).[10] The importance he accords both to personal property and to a stable currency is manifest in his treatment of their abuses; he discusses in some detail a variety of economic and monetary sins, not just greed, but plunder, squandering, usury, fraudulent buying and selling of different kinds of goods, theft, and counterfeiting. Each one appears in a separate section of Hell, and several are attacked in Purgatory and Paradise as well. He employs the technical language of commerce literally, in connection with the abuses, and metaphorically, applying it to spiritual treasures and moral debts.[11] The technical language and commercial details would have been a particularly effective means of reaching the members of the audience attuned to them and would presumably have added a whole other sphere of application to Dante’s message, as this chapter will show. The metaphorical use of the same language seems to be Dante’s way of countering “corporal usury,” which is forbidden, with “spiritual usury,” which multiplies the benefits of God’s gifts, a distinction made by canonists and theologians.[12]

Dependent as Europe was on the activities of merchant bankers and international commerce, it was by no means consistently in favor of them. The ancient prejudice against merchants, which assumed that the search for profit always involved greed and fraud, was still alive, but there were moves towards accommodating commerce in medieval theology and law, both canon and civil.[13] I will very briefly survey those areas most relevant to Dante’s concerns in the Comedy, giving the dominant views on the major issues reflected in Dante’s attitudes. The concept of trade for profit was still being argued, whether it was fully moral to make a profit on a sale, and, if so, how much, and whether one could legitimately recover any more than the original sum on a loan, and, if so, under what circumstances. The key to the first question was the “just price” and what components could be calculated in establishing it; the key to the second was the charge of usury, at what point it could be applied. Medieval thinking, in theology as well as in law, went well beyond Aristotle’s views in these matters. Aristotle had acknowledged the importance of private property and the need for money in the functioning of the state, but he condemned retail trading as unnatural and usury as worst of all. The same mistrust of merchants and their work is found in Peter Lombard’s Sentences, where he says that soldiers or merchants unwilling to give up their professions should not be received as penitents because they could not exercise those professions without sin (4, d.16, q.4, a.2). But the major thirteenth-century commentators on the Sentences, Albert, Aquinas, and Bonaventure, modify his position considerably. They recognize that countries are not necessarily more self-sufficient than individuals and must rely on the services of those who can procure supplies for them, that in a complex society one cannot always buy directly from the producers.[14]

In the Summa Theologiae Aquinas takes a moderate stand on commercial activity: he defends the concept of private property as conducive to efficiency, order, and peace in the state (2.2ae, q.66) and includes among sins of commutative justice attacks on others’ possessions and persons (2.2ae, 2.64). He discusses both sales and loans as voluntary commutations (q.77 and q.78), condemning the sale of something for more than its just price as fraud (q.77, a.l); money was instituted to measure value, and the price must be the equivalent of the value, even if the law punishes only an excessive discrepancy.[15] But Thomas does not demand full disclosure by the seller as long as he does not actively deceive the buyer; that is, the seller does not have to state an obvious fault in the object for sale, nor does he have to inform the buyer of other sellers who can offer a lower price. In opposition to Aristotle, Thomas even allows a moderate profit (moderatum lucrum), not as an end, but as payment for labor or to accommodate changed circumstances. In a letter to James of Viterbo, Thomas acknowledges not only that price can change with different places or times and can be affected by risk, by labor, and expense, but also that a sale on credit is not necessarily usurious, that it can be useful for the common good of merchants as long as it does not involve fraud.[16] The line between credit sales and usury is a thin one. In the discussion on usury (q.78), Thomas states the main arguments against profit on loans: that money is meant to be consumed in use, so one cannot sell both it and its use; since ownership is not transferred in a loan, the borrower assumes the risk, so the seller has no claim to compensation.[17] In the De Malo, Thomas notes that positive law permits some usury for the common good of the multitude rather than incur greater harm (q.13, a.4, r.6); he makes an interesting distinction between the usurer who lends what is his and may hope for amicable recompense, and the simoniac who gives what is Christ’s for a reward, whereas he should hope only for the honor of Christ and the utility of the church. There are other passages in the Summa which are not directly concerned with usury but imply a positive view of investment and profit, for instance, criticism of the servant’s pusillanimity for burying money rather than trading with it (2.2ae, q.133), and praise of large expenditure for great works as part of the virtue of magnificence q.134.[18]

Aquinas’s views on usury and just price seem fairly moderate for a theologian, since theologians tend to have more rigid views than canon or civil lawyers, but Remigio dei Girolami, Dante’s contemporary and fellow Florentine, is even more accommodating. Remigio recognizes the need to stimulate sales and avoid losses, real or possible, and accepts the desire for profit and the competitive nature of trade. He also justifies a limited usury if necessary to develop business, by increasing the price of sale for late payment to the one who lent the money, provided he is a business rival, as simply a way of getting back what was unjustly taken. Remigio recognizes the importance of credit sales for commerce and the importance of commerce for the city or kingdom. Although he condemns usury and the evil effects of greed, Remigio counts among the seven special gifts God gave Florence the abundance of money, noble coinage, the wool industry, skill in manufacture of arms, and vigorous building.[19] It seems safe to say that commerce was so important a part of public life in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries that even theologians accepted it and contented themselves with limiting its excesses. Innocent IV did, however, point out the danger that if usury were permitted, the rich would put their money into usurious loans rather than into agriculture.[20]

In law the attitudes were even more tolerant. Having a tradition of free bargaining to establish price in Roman law, which outlawed only excesses of more than 50 percent either way, medieval civil law accepted an agreed price as just except in the case of enormous discrepancy between it and true value; a judge could determine the just price, but monopolies were not permitted to fix prices (Baldwin, JP, 17-29). Canon law accepted resale at a profit if it was caused by necessity, if the goods were improved, or if labor or expense were involved. The canonist and theologian Huguccio permits even a cleric to resell at a higher price, as long as it is the just price, and to profit from his craft in order to maintain himself. Twelfthcentury decretals accepted the sale of goods on credit at a higher price than what was in effect at the time of the contract if there was any doubt as to the value of goods at the time; by the thirteenth century, risk was accepted as part of the cost in a sale, though not in a loan. Loans present a special problem. They were supposed to benefit from another’s need; the word for loan, mutuum, was interpreted as meaning a transfer of ownership, what is mine (meum) becomes yours (tuum).[21] If the lender expects not only a return of the goods (object or money) but something more, he is selling time, since money is consumed by its use and cannot bear fruit; the borrower has assumed all the risk, since he must replace the loan even if he loses it. As Noonan points out (Scholastic Analysis of Usury, 81), a strict application of these theories would have involved the better part of Siena and Florence in the practice of usury. In fact, the Fourth Lateran Council, 1215, condemned Jews who extorted “heavy and immoderate usuries,” “graves et immoderatas usuras,” or Christians who associated with Jews who failed to make restitution for such, giving rise to the question whether moderate usury was acceptable.[22] Cino da Pistoia, Dante’s friend and fellow poet, who was also a lawyer, says in his commentary on the Codex that canon law permits usury as interest (interesse) either because of delay in payment or of the utility the purchaser enjoyed from retaining the object, but forbids usury from a loan contract unless loss is sustained.[23]

The fact that civil law seemed to permit usury (by virtue of regulations to control the extent of it) further complicated the issue. Garrani lists more than a dozen Italian communes whose statutes controlled the rates of interest in the thirteenth century: Pisa, Milano, Verona, Bologna, Viterbo, Parma, Vicenza, Como, Torino, Casale, Ivrea, Moncalieri, Val Trompia (Il pensiero di Dante, 84). The Council of Vienna (1311-12) attacked the problem by declaring that civic officials offend God when they permit usury in their statutes and should be excommunicated (McLaughlin, “Canonists on Usury,” 1.84, 2.10). Of course, the cities themselves raised money by forced loans on which they might pay annual dividends, but this was not considered usury because the loan was forced and the lender could not demand a refund, and because the town made a gain from the capital it was refunding in dividends. There were any number of ways devised to avoid the charge of usury. McLaughlin, citing Hostiensis, Summa de usuris, gives thirteen of them; they include various modes of temporary transfer of property, with the fruits of the property serving as the interest, compensation for damages of various kinds, selling at a higher price than the current worth in anticipation of higher value at a later date (vendens sub dubio), gifts freely offered by the debtor (gratia dans), labor, which may be compensated, and direct usury from heretics and infidels, which some justify as a way of bringing them into the fold.[24] It is significant that cambium “money-changing,” is not listed among the evasive devices, nor is it mentioned by the canons which condemn sales on credit, although most commentators assume it should be (Noonan, Scholastic Analysis of Usury, 180). Ptolemy of Lucca seems to defend profit in money-changing, noting that money is not necessarily a fixed measure; that is, that money used for exchange is different “in species” from money used as a measure, but he does not develop the argument (Noonan, 182). Money-changers were distinguished from moneylenders by their public functions; official exchanges existed at fairs, ports, and in major commercial centers. Raymond deRoover suggests that exchange was the origin of banking, noting that by 1200 exchanges were being made in Genoa by paper rather than by hand.[25] But the changers charged interest, which they covered in the rates of exchange. Money would be lent in one place and currency to come due in others, though it would in fact be repaid in the first, treated as a double exchange; in some contracts the middle step was omitted, making it clear that the transaction was a ruse. The exchange, despite the profit, was not technically usury because it involved not a loan but a commutation of moneys, although Hostiensis saw the danger of the concealed loan (deRoover, Business, Banking, 203). Money-changers also received moneys on deposit, which they would transfer by request from one account to another, allow to be overdrawn, or invest for a return.

A related development, which also served to procure profit without incurring the charge of usury, was the partnership (societas), in which two or more people pooled money and labor, and the risk, like the profits, was shared. Interest might be as high as 50 percent, but it was covered by payment in other currencies, or by the risk incurred, and is rarely mentioned by theological commentators. According to Lopez, interest on sea-loans was acceptable at first because of the risk involved, but was condemned as usury in the thirteenth century (Medieval Trade, 168). There is argument among scholars about the relative importance of the avoidance of usury and the pursuit of profit in the formation of commercial partnerships or companies, but there is no question that this is one of a wide variety of practices instituted in order to avoid the charge of usury, practices that seem clearly usurious by any strict interpretation. The fact is that commercial growth was in conflict with strict theological theory and the result, despite the attempts by moderate theologians to accommodate to some extent the needs of business, was widespread and ingenious subterfuge.

That Dante was aware of such practices is beyond doubt. He attacked the worst excesses in various subtle and direct ways in the Comedy. At the same time, he takes a moderate position on the question of commerce and accepts it as a necessary part of civilized life, while he deplores certain abuses as harmful to the common good.[26] The best indication of Dante’s attitude towards trade is his treatment of money. He is concerned with money as a basic instrument of exchange, an essential tool of society, very much in the way language is. Indeed, Dante often connects the abuse of language with the abuse of money: the first example of gibberish in Hell occurs in the section of the first economic sinners, the miser and prodigals, who attack each other with words as they did the providential order with riches; blasphemers, who defy God with words, are in the same division of the seventh circle as usurers; liars and counterfeiters are together in the last section of the eighth circle as the worst practitioners of fraud. The liar Sinon tells the counterfeiter Adam: “S’io dissi falso, e tu falsasti il conio” (30.115: “If I spoke false, you falsified the coin”).[27]

Money was invented to measure the value of objects in order to facilitate exchange: it gives numerical expression to the basic factor of human need, the universal measure of all exchang.[28] Currency expresses the natural standard of value. Coins based on numbers represent the value of objects, so that goods and services may be exchanged; words, based on letters, represent the essence of objects, so that knowledge and ideas may be exchanged. Both are essential tools of civilized life, and the higher the level of civilization, the more essential these tools become. As a social animal, man has to rely on his fellows to provide the necessities and the luxuries of life, but to procure them he has to be able to express his needs and to pay for them. Trade, like language, can be a force for unity: just as the Italian language, despite regional dialects, unites a country hopelessly divided politically, and Latin brings together the various countries of Europe, so a strong currency, like the florin and the trade that depends on it can bring together the most distant parts of the inhabited world; Benvenuto da Imola notes that the florin is the common coin, universally accepted, “valde communis moneta et universaliter expenditur per totum” (2.431). As cities and countries have different dialects and languages, they also have different currencies, but just as they can fix on a common language to facilitate communication, so they come to one or two reasonably stable currencies to facilitate trade. Indeed, cities in Italy as well as in Germany banded together in order to have one currency (Garrani, 11 pensiero di Dante, 115 If.).. Apart from the church, the only organizations with regular representatives throughout Italy and even Europe and the Middle East were the large commercial companies, who brought the various regions together by transporting news as well as goods. And the merchants who traveled throughout the world, unlike their fellows in the various separate states of Italy, were “Italians” united by both a community of interests and the hostility of their hosts.[29]

Money, like language, can be used for a variety of useful purposes, to buy and sell, to build, to finance government, support art and education, and help the indigent, but it can also be used to bribe and blackmail, to buy power and impede justice. Similarly, language can be used to explain and to teach, to control or correct, to encourage towards good, to amuse and comfort, but it can also be used to seduce and deceive, to lead astray and destroy. Both are susceptible to corruption and must be controlled, language by the rules of grammar, money by officially imposed standards of weight, material, and value. [30] The social and political damage that can be done by false documents or counterfeited coins is self-evident. Hell offers ample evidence of the evils of abuses of language and of money and of the connection between them: Hell itself is both a vast mouth (“l’ampia gola d’inferno,” Pg. 21.31-32) and the city of wealth, Dis; the feet of simoniacs, who sold the sacraments for gold and silver, are seen as grotesque tongues projecting from the “mouths” of baptismal fonts; the ditch of thieves is a “fierce throat,” and the principal thief defies God with his words.[31] When Dante goes through the gate of Purgatory, it reminds him of the Roman treasury despoiled by Caesar (9.133 ff.), but the treasures of Purgatory are the language of prayers, a currency by which the living can help “pay the debt” of the souls, and the language of poetry, the treasures shared by poets and offered by them to their audiences. In Paradise, where communication moves beyond language in new words and paradoxical concepts, symbols and music, the souls themselves are the treasures, the jewels, and financial imagery is used to express the highest kind of spiritual wealth.

Dante himself is both a poet and a merchant in the Comedy, using the beauty and force of his language to guide his audience. As poet, he serves as a messenger, an intermediary between God and man, besieged by his countrymen in the otherworld to take their messages home, like a merchant in foreign parts, and charged by heaven with an important message for his countrymen on earth. As merchant, he travels through the universe on the “ship of his wit” to acquire the most valuable goods available to man and bring them back to sell to his countrymen for their own good. He serves an important function for society, but he is also making a profit in the reputation he clearly expects to gain from the poem. His primary purpose is not self-enrichment, but if he is offered the poet’s crown by his native city, he will accept it. The same heavenly source disposes men to trade and to eloquence. The Ottimo, in his commentary on Fortune (Hell 7), makes the connection between eloquence and trade through the god Mercury, who was, he says, called ” Iddio d’eloquenza, perch ‘e Iddio dei mercatanti ,” the god of eloquence because he is the god of merchants, who know how to buy and sell softly (1.120-21). It is tantalizing to project this onto the heaven of Mercury in Paradise and suggest that that is where good merchants must be, among those active for honor and fame in the world. Well-known commentaries on classical mythology connect Mercury with business as well as with eloquence. Fulgentius interprets Mercury as Mercium curum, “concern with wares,” noting that every merchant might be called Mercury. He has winged feet because the feet of merchants move everywhere, as if winged; he has a staff with serpents because trade sometimes gives a kingdom, sometimes a wound; his head is covered with a helmet because business is always hidden. He is called Hermes, because ermeneuse is explanation, and explanation in words is necessary in business. He is a thief because there is no difference between the robbery and perjury of businessmen and of thieves.[32] In the commentary on the Aeneid attributed to Bernard Silvester, Mercury is both a star and eloquence; he is patron of robbery because he deceives the souls of listeners and controls merchants, since those selling goods further themselves with eloquence. He is the guardian of merchants (mercatorum cura) and activity of minds (mentions currus) because he reveals carefully contrived matters.

From the beginning of the poem, Dante uses financial imagery to describe his own journey and experience as well as the spiritual debts and treasures of the souls he sees, slowly replacing “corporal” with “spiritual” usury. When he is stopped by the wolf of avarice in the first canto, he feels like one “who would willingly acquire” (1.55: “che volontieri acquista”), but “when the time comes that makes him lose,” he weeps and is depressed, as if he had sought worldly gain too eagerly and lost. On the other hand, Beatrice, moved by the unselfish desire to save Dante, rushes eagerly to Virgil and describes her desire in similarly financial language: “al mondo non fur mai persone ratte/a far lor pro o a fuggir lor danno” (2.10910; “no one on earth was so swift to make a profit or to avoid a loss”). Dante asks Virgil later to find some “compensation” for the time they must rest so it will not be lost (11.13-15), treating knowledge as treasure to be stored up, an approach that becomes much more obvious in Purgatory and Paradise. For the most part, however, financial language in Hell is applied to sin and evil: as they approach the ninth section of fraud, Dante describes it as the “ditch in which those who acquire their load by dividing pay their fee” (27.135-36: “‘I fosso in che si paga il fio/a quei che scommettendo acquistan carco”). Hell is a great sack which holds the treasure of evil (7.17-18: “la dolente ripa/ che ‘I mal de l’universo tutto insacca”); a simoniac comments that on earth he put wealth, here he puts himself, in a purse (19.72: “su l’avere e qui me misi in borsa”); the weights born by the hypocrites “make their scales creak” (23.101-102: “li pesi fan . . . cigolar cannot be generous with this one”); and of Guido Guinizelli’s poems as something that makes even their ink precious (26.112-14: “li dolci detti vostri/ . . . faranno cari ancora i loro incostri”). Statius credits the Aeneid with giving his poetry all its value, “without it I would not have weighed a dram” (21.99: “sanz’ essa non fermai peso di dramma”), and claims that to have been alive when Virgil was, he would give a year more than he owed in exile, that is, he would increase his debt of penance, prodigal now of his love.[34] Dante counts what other poets teach him as intellectual pay: “tu m’appaghe, ” he wants to say to Virgil (15.82), and to Bonagiunta he does say “te e me col tuo parlare appaga” (24.42). Guido speaks of what Dante learns on his journey as cargo he is loading on his ship (26.7375: “de le nostre marche… esperienza imbarche”). Dante is consciously storing up this treasure from the beginning of Paradise (1.10-11: “quant’io del regno santo/ne la mia mente potei far tesoro”), but it is a heavy load under which he may tremble (23.64-66). Nonetheless, Dante is confident his boat is big enough to handle it (23.67-69). Dante has in fact come for the cargo with good money of his own: “assai bene e trascorsa/d’esta moneta gia la lega e’l peso” (24.83-84: “the alloy and weight of the coin have been well examined”) Peter says of Dante’s answers on faith, and then asks him if he has it in his purse (24.85). “I do, so shining and round that there is no doubt of its minting,” Dante answers (24.86-87: “Si ho, si lucida e si tonda,/che nel suo conio nulla mi s’inforsa”). (Cf. Hell 11.54, “quel che fidanza non imborsa.”) But even Dante does not have wealth enough in his words to describe the beauty of the Virgin (Pr.31.136-37: “e s’io avessi in dir tanta divizia/quanta ad imaginar”).

Dante is surrounded by spiritual treasures in Paradise, where God as supreme ruler establishes their value: “Qui veggion l’alte creature l’orma/de l’etterno valore, il qual e fine/al quale e fatta la toccata norma” (1.106-08: “here the high creatures see the stamp of the eternal value which is the end to which the mentioned rule was made”). His is the true light that pays all souls in full (3.32). Free will, the gift God “prizes” most, is the treasure sacrificed in a holy vow (5.19-29). Peter Lombard offered the church his Sentences as his “treasure” (10.108); Francis offered his followers unknown wealth, “ignota ricchezza” (11.82), a good cargo for whoever follows him (11.122-23: “per che qual segue lui … discerner puoi che buone merce carca”). Dominic and Faith gave each other a dowry of mutual salvation (12.63, “mutua salute,” perhaps a play on mutuum, “loan,” this being a true exchange). Dante speaks of Cacciaguida as “my treasure,” “il mio tesoro” (17.121); the heavens are very rich coffers filled with wealth (23:130-31: “quanta e l’uberta che si soffolce/in quelle arche ricchissime”, which Dante tries to assess (24.17-18: “de la sua ricchezza/mi facieno stimar”), wealth that is secure and without longing “oh sanza brama sicura ricchezza” (27.9). The souls in Paradise are jewels, 9.37, 10.71; topazes, 15.85, 30.76; rubies, 19.4.

The sense of inexhaustible wealth that pervades Paradise does not bring with it fiscal irresponsibility. Even here, there is an awareness of the enormous debt that has to be paid in order to make this wealth possible: original sin was a debt so great that man, although he had contracted it, could not pay by himself (7.97-98: “non potea l’uomo ne’ termini suoi/mai sodisfar”). Only God, who had created all, not for his own profit (29.13), but to share with others, could, in the person of Christ, satisfy it with his army, which “cost so much to rearm” (12.37-38: “I’essercito di Cristo, che si caro/costo a riarmar”). Eve’s palate cost the whole world (13.39: “a tutto ‘I mondo costa”), but Christ’s suffering “satisfied” the debt and “turned the scales” (13.41-42). Still the world forgets “how much blood it cost” to disseminate God’s word (29.91-92). Trajan, however, now knows “how much it costs” not to follow Christ (20.46-47), because he has been in Hell. In the midst of this perfect society, where all treasures are shared, there is a deep distress for the abuses on earth, distress that reminds us of the worst abuses of Hell. Some are political abuses, described in financial imagery, some are actual economic abuses. Charles Martel warns his brother, Robert, not to be driven by greed and stinginess to “overload his already laden boat, ” but to look to fighters who are not concerned with filling their own coffers (Pr. 8.76-84). The eagle of justice condemns both the king of Rascia, Stephen Urosh II, for counterfeiting Venetian coins (19.140-41), and the king of France, Philip IV, for filling his coffers by falsifying the coin (19.119: “falseggiando la moneta” and debasing his own coinage. Cunizza decries the impious pastor who trades in human lives” “the vat to receive the blood must be too large, and he who weighed it ounce by ounce very tired” (9.55-58). Cacciaguida laments the effects of commerce on his native city with a nostalgic recollection of the old Florence before the excessive display of wealth (15.103-05), before husbands deserted their wives to trade in France, (15.119-20)[35] and outsiders came in to the city to engage in money-changing and trade (16.61), before there was fraud in the salt customs (16.105) and appropriation of revenues for vacant sees (16.113-14), or before the “weight of felonies became so heavy some would have to be jettisoned from the ship” (16.94-96: “carca/ di nova fellonia di tanto peso/ che tosto fia iattura de la barca”), a reference to the troubles of a large banking family, the Cerchi.

Cacciaguida describes the corruption brought about by secular commercialism in his city, the heavenly kings point to earthly monarchs misusing their power over the currency to the harm of nations, but most of the figures in Paradise are concerned with economic corruption in the church. Indeed, even Cacciaguida describes Rome as the place where Christ is “traded” every day (17.51: “la dove Cristo tutto di si merca”); for Dante, the temple built by miracles and martyrdom has become a marketplace (18.122-23: “del comperare e vender dentro al templo/che si muro di segni e di martiri”), and the pope so cynically intent on the Baptist (the gold florin) that he has no thought for Peter or Paul (18.13336). Peter rages that the church which arose from his blood is used to acquire gold (27.40-42), that his figure seals false privileges which are being sold (27.52-53), that rapacious wolves masquerade as shepherds (27.55), and Cahorsines are preparing to drink the martyrs’ blood (27.58-59), to suck as much wealth as they can from it. Though this is a reference to Pope John XXII, Cahors is also synonymous with usury (cf. Hell 11.50). Beatrice says that unscrupulous clerics pay out money with no stamp, no official coinage (29.126: “pagando di moneta sanza conio”), in other words, that their pardons are counterfeit. But perhaps most damning of all, Benedict says that grave usura (“immoderate usury,” such as was condemned by the Fourth Lateran Council) is not so offensive to God as the church’s misuse of its funds (by monks in this case), which it has in keeping for God’s people (22.79-84). The church engages in the worst kind of fiscal corruption by appropriating and misusing funds it does not properly even possess, but only administers.

Dante uses the financial imagery to such an extent, both metaphorically and literally, not only because it is familiar to his audience, whom he wishes to entice away from their concern with material wealth towards spiritual treasures, but also because the world of commerce is essentially positive, for all its abuses. Like politics and religion, trade is essential to the well-being of man in society, as long as it is practiced with a sense of public responsibility and not exclusively for personal gain. In Hell, of course, all acquisition is selfish and to a greater or lesser extent antisocial. The cantica is dominated by greed, beginning in the first canto with the wolf, the most effective obstacle to man’s desire to climb the mountain of Purgatory. The monster who guards the first financial sin (avarice), a maladetto lupo, “cursed wolf,” is Pluto, identified by early commentators as the god of earthly wealth, Dispater (father of wealth, Dis, see the Ottimo 1.107-08, Guido, 136, Benvenuto, 1.243-44), or as the equivalent of Dis (Pietro, 97); Pluto is named for earth and called Dis because (divitiae, “riches,” are born from the earth.

Hell is the “citta di Dite,” the city of wealth. Indeed, two thirds of the cantica, from canto eleven to the end, is devoted to sins which are “daughters of greed.” According to Aquinas, drawing on Gregory and with references to IsiDor√© and Aristotle, covetousness can be excessive in retaining or in receiving; when it involves action to acquire people’s goods by force, it is violence, when by deceit, it is fraud; if it uses simple words, it is falsehood, if it adds the confirmation of an oath, it is treachery, as seen in Judas, who betrayed Christ out of avarice.[36] The last three sections of Hell, described in cantos 12 to 34, are violence, fraud, and treachery. Violence is subdivided into three sections, depending on the object (neighbor, self, or God), but within each section, the sins against persons and possessions are punished together; they are of equal importance by virtue of their location. Thus tyrants and murderers are punished with despoilers, plunderers, and extortioners; suicides and wastrels are together in the second section, and in the third blasphemers, sodomites and usurers (those who attack God directly or in his “things”). Fraud is divided into ten separate categories, each of which involves illicit gains by fraudulent practice (see below); it is committed against one who trusts or one who “has no faith in his purse” (11.54: “quel che fidanza non imborsa”). Treachery, the last circle of Hell, is betrayal for wealth or worldly power; whoever betrays is “consumed at the center of the universe on which Wealth sits” (11.65-66).

This pattern is carefully laid out distinct from the rest of Hell in canto 11; the three sins are connected by their motivation, which is malice, and by their end, which is injury (injustice), and is accomplished either with force or fraud (11.22-24). Malice “acquires hatred in heaven,” an ironic contrast to the material goods acquired by its actions. The importance of possessions is revealed by Virgil in his definition of violence:

A Dio, a se, al prossimo si pone far forza, dico in loro e in lor cose,

nel prossimo . . . e nel suo avere

Puote omo avere in se man violenta e nei suoi beni;

who uses violence against God, himself, or his neighbor, in themselves and in their things

against his neighbors and his possessions

against himself and his own goods.


Speaking of the suicide and the wastrel, Virgil makes it clear that cutting oneself off from material substance is the equivalent of depriving oneself of life: “he repents without profit, who deprives himself of your world, gambles or wastes his substance” (11.42-44: “sanza pro si penta/qualunque priva se del vostro mondo,/biscazza e fonde la sua facultade”). But even more significant, after he has defined the three sins and given Dante a sense of what is found in the remaining circles of Hell, Virgil returns to usury and ends the whole discussion with fifteen lines on that particular sin (11.97-111), as if it were the key to all, and, in the sense that usury means making an illicit profit, it is. In Dante’s world, any financial activity might be called “usury” to discredit it.

At this point, in the light of Dante’s interest in financial terminology, it is appropriate to look at specific passages in which the economic aspect may shed light on the meaning of the episode, not by denying other meanings, but by adding another dimension to them. The canto of the misers and prodigals, the first economic sinners, opens with Pluto’s “Pape Satan,” words that have been variously explained or defended as gibberish. But the fact that Pape is the form in which the pope’s title appeared on papal coins minted by Boniface Vlll– DOMINI BO PAPE or DN BON PAPE–lends weight to the Pope Satan” reading.[37] By hoarding or recklessly spending, these souls, like the papacy on a larger scale, impeded the work of fortune, assigned by providence to oversee not only the distribution but also the transfer of worldly goods and power to individuals and nations. The concept of change is emphasized in the passage on fortune: “si spesso vien chi vicenda consegue” (7.90); “volve sua spera” (7.96); ” permutasse a tempo li ben vani” (7.79); “le sue permutazion non hanno triegue” (7.88). The technical term for barter in a contract is permutacio (Baldwin, MPM, 1.267). The movement of the first economic sinners, the misers and prodigals, in opposing semicircles symbolizes their opposition to fortune by turning the wheel back on itself, but it also suggests their disruption of circulation in the market, an idea emphasized by the repetition of “circle”: “cosi tornavan per lo cerchio tetro” (7.31), “si volgea ciascun . . . per lo suo mezzo cerchio” (7.34-35), “quando vengono ai due punti del cerchio/ dove colpa contraria li dispaia” (7.44); perhaps in the clerical tonsures mentioned twice in the midst of these lines (7.39 and 7.46-47); and as Dante and Virgil leave the circle, “noi ricidemmo il cerchio” (7.100), “cosi girammo de la lorda pozza/grand’arco, tra la ripa secca e’l mezzo” (7.12:7-28: “so we went around a great arc of that filthy swamp between the dry bank and the slime”). Mezzo is perhaps a pun meaning both “slime” and the “mean,” which they ignore. If Dante is thinking of circulation, as seems likely, the inflated lips of Pluto (“quella infiata labbia”) may suggest inflation.[38]

The Ottimo, in his commentary on canto 7, goes into some detail on the workings of greed in virtually every class of society: prelates commit simony, lesser priests sell unmentionables (“cose che il tacer e bello”) to laymen, lay princes oppress their subjects with taxes and ransoms, occupiers of foreign cities and provinces rob and loot, as do knights in wars, judges give false sentences and false counsels for money, and merchants and artisans sell for more than things are worth or steal with defective weights, numbers, or measures; they sell on credit, a kind of usury, lend at interest, which is also usury, or buy early (1.110-11). Benvenuto also focuses on businessmen, interpreting the weights rolled by the sinners as the labors and cares of misers, whose bodies rarely rest, who rush around by land and sea, expose themselves to all kinds of dangers and discomforts, and whose souls are anxious even when the body rests (1.250).[39]

In chapter three, the political overtones of factionalism in the canto of the heretics were discussed, but there are economic overtones as well: first of all, the heretics singled out in canto 10 are Epicureans, who ignored the afterlife for the goods and pleasures of this world; second, heresy was often coupled with usury in law and criminal investigation. The Council of Vienna determined that secular officials who wrote, supported, or enforced statutes abetting usury should be excommunicated, and those who stubbornly affirmed that usury was not a sin be punished as heretics; investigation of heresy and usury was often in the hands of the same ecclesiastical officials, the Inquisition and the Frati Gaudenti.[40] Conversely, part of the punishment for heresy was the confiscation of property, which occurred in the posthumous condemnation of Farinata degli Uberti and his wife as heretics, nineteen years after their deaths, and resulted in the loss of all property to their sons and grandsons. The sentence of condemnation says nothing specific about their heresy, but goes into some detail on the goods to be confiscated and to be inventoried publicly within eight days and divided and sold so that the heirs could not recover the succession.[41] The Templars were also condemned for heresy at the instigation of Philip IV as a way of getting control of their vast wealth, which Dante alludes to rather critically (Pg. 20.91-93), but the Templars had engaged in moneylending, while there is no indication that Farinata was so involved. Cavalcanti, on the other hand, who lies beside Farinata among the heretics, comes from a family quite actively engaged in banking and commerce.[42] Dante may well be showing the obsessive pursuit of wealth and the anticivic loyalty to family (which in business also means the company) through Cavalcanti, who asks only about his son, as a counter and complement to Farinata’s obsession with political power and his anticivic loyalty to party. The selfish pursuits of wealth and power are equally destructive to the public good.[43]

Violence, as noted above, is a sin committed against possessions as well as persons. It involves misappropriation or misuse of property: the acquisition of others’ goods by force in the first section, the reckless squandering of one’s own substance in the second, and the abuse of God’s goods in the third, in that usury disrupts the providential distribution of wealth Dante seems to imply that one economic crime leads to another: one of the barrators in Hell is the son of a wastrel (22.5051); one of the wastrels, Jacopo da Sant’Andrea, inherited his wealth from his mother’s family, probably involved in usury, and after he squandered it, he tried to get some back by force and then by fraud. [44] Innocent IV made an obvious connection between squandering and usury when he expressed fear that Christians were squandering their possessions in order to pay usurers (McLaughlin, “Canonists on Usury,” 1.110). Two of the early commentators interpret the dogs that run after the wastrels as creditors (Pietro, 161, Benvenuto, 1.452), Benvenuto adding that creditors and their messengers persecute fleeing debtors and take parts of them (their possessions) when they catch them; it is perhaps not a coincidence that Dante’s usurers brush away the burning rain like dogs bitten by insects (17.50-51). The statue of the Veglio di Creta, representing the progressive corruption of man and the transfer of power and goods from one nation to another, appears in the last section of violence, among those who defy God directly: the blasphemers, who make an unnatural use of speech, the sodomites, an unnatural use of sex, and the usurers, an unnatural use of money. The statue of human and national corruption can also be read as an allegory of debased currency, the only whole part being the gold head, the crack beginning in the silver and getting worse in the copper and iron, just as the only currency that was likely to remain stable was gold, while silver, alloys with baser metals, and copper, were constantly debased (Lopez, Medieval Trade, 13-14, 145 ff.). The effect of such devaluation is felt by the whole nation.

Although sodomy would seem to have little to do with finance, Dante hints at a rather superficial and materialist attitude among the souls, primarily by the use of commercial language. In the encounter with Brunetto Latini, the dignity of the old poet and civil servant is diminished somewhat by the imagery from the garment industry: Brunetto squints at Dante like an old tailor threading his needle (15.21); he takes Dante by the hem (15.24) and says he will follow at his skirts (15.40); the three sodomites in the following canto recognize Dante by his clothes (16.8).[45] Brunetto says his group is lamenting their eternal losses, “etterni danni,” much as a small businessman might speak of his continual losses, and tells Dante to follow his star to a “glorious port,” meaning worldly (literary) success (15.55-56). Fortune is mentioned frequently in their conversation, meaning providence to Dante, but chance or personal success to Brunetto. Brunetto’s book is his “Treasure,” Tesoro, in which he hopes to achieve immortality of a limited kind, the only kind he can now aspire to, but it is clear that he thinks of literary fame as a worldly acquisition, not as a means of serving society and God. He speaks of the Florentines as a “gente avara, invidiosa e superba” (15.68), putting greed first, in contrast to Ciacco’s order (6.74), perhaps revealing Brunetto’s concerns as much as the city’s. Brunetto appears with and must rejoin a group of clerics and men of letters; the three sodomites in canto 16 are with statesmen, political figures, but they mention another, Guglielmo Borsiere, a pursemaker, who is with yet another group, presumably of tradesmen or businessmen. His disturbing report of the changes in Florence prompts them to ask Dante about the city and he responds with an attack on the pride and “dismisura” brought about by the “gente nuova e i subiti guadagni” (16.73: “new people and sudden earnings”), as if commerce were directly involved with the unnatural turn civic life was taking, a view that sets the scene for the last sin in the same section of violence.

The early commentators give a good deal of attention to usury and four of the five consulted point out that civil law permits it: Pietro notes that civil and canon law hold that a loan should be given without hope of gain, but that civil law inhibits usury in four counsels, in other words, by restricting it, permits it; Pietro also distinguishes between the mercator, the merchant or trader who sells what he has bought, and the foenerator, the lender or usurer who sells something given by God and expects to get it back (14142). The Ottimo gives the “emperors”‘ (Roman law) restrictions on usury by class, the highest percentage allowed to nobles, next to merchants, but he adds that canon law now prohibits usury (1.310). Guido da Pisa cites Aquinas (ST, 2.2ae, q.77) on the fact that civil law by allowing usury does not oblige men to sin (315 ff.), but he also points out that gratuitous gifts are permitted, as well as recompense for loss (319), and he includes selling dear and buying cheap under usury (320-21). Benvenuto, commenting on usury in canto 11, notes that civil law permits it, but that civil law is concerned only with men living peacefully together (1.379); in connection with the usurers themselves in canto 17, Benvenuto says there can be virtuous usurers, although it is rare to find any of great virtue, and reminds us that Dante puts the worst examples of any sin in Hell (1.571), from which one infers that there may be usurers in Purgatory or Paradise. He also cites the public service performed by the knights mentioned in this canto, who had great banks in large cities to subsidize the poor for the public good (1.574-75), and complains that usury has become more hidden than open, involving not only changers, merchants, and artisans, but also prelates, priests, and friars (1.575).

By placing usury in the circle of violence rather than in fraud, Dante seems to distinguish lending at a profit from fraudulent lending practices; he does not condemn all such profit under fraud (“in fraudem usurarum”) as the church did.[46] He does, of course, present the usurers after he has seen Gerione, the figure of fraud, which is reasonably taken to mean that he implies the fraudulent aspects of usury. But by having Gerione invade the section of the usurers, Dante may also be suggesting the usurious aspects of fraud, inviting us to consider the illicit profit making by the various types of fraudulent practice he describes. Benvenuto interprets Gerione as the three aspects of fraud, in word (the just face of a man, because speech is proper to human beings), in the thing (the body of diverse colors, as in all crafts and transactions), in the act (the venomous tail which stings, pierces, and infects); the beast crosses mountains because daily, by letters, a fraud invented in some transaction swiftly crosses seas and mountains and spreads to other, even distant, regions (1.559-60). Pietro says fraud is continually committed at a distance by letters and embassies (181). Garrani identifies Gerione with usurious contracts, which appear to be legal (the face), but contain a hidden, illicit profit (the tail) (II pensiero di Dante, 67).

Each section of fraud involves illicit profits, the first five by direct sales of what should not be sold, the last five by more subtle manipulations. The first bolgia contains seducers and pimps, those who sell their own or someone else’s body. Pimps “coin” women (as the devil comments, 18.66: “qui non son femmine da conio,” “here there are no women to coin”), turning them into marketable items.[47] Dante asks the soul he meets here, Venedico, what has brought him to such “pungent sauces,” “pungenti salse” (18.51); Benvenuto explains that in Bologna, where Venedico comes from, Salse is a place outside the city in which the bodies of desperate criminals, usurers, and other infamous people were thrown (2.11), and Venedico himself notes the greed of the Bolognese (18.63). The souls of the next section, the flatterers, sell the service of their tongue; Aquinas (ST, 2.2ae, q.78, a.2) holds that recompense can be by service or word as well as money, because these can also be given monetary value. Conner (“Inferno XVIII,” 98-99) points out that John of Salisbury, in the Policraticus,. 3, offers as the main type of flatterer one who is willing to sell his wife or a woman of his household to please someone else, for whom gain, not deceit, is the main object: “filia namque decentior, aut si quid alius in familia placeat ditiori, publica merx est. exposita quidem si emptorem inveniat,” “an attractive girl or if something else in the family pleases the rich man, it becomes a public commodity, if he can find a buyer” (italics mine). Dante seems to make a similar connection, since he concludes the section of flatterers with the words of a prostitute.

The imagery of prostitution recurs frequently in the third bolgia, among the simoniacs who sell God’s wife, the church, and God’s gifts, the sacraments, which were freely given and meant to be freely given. Here the money imagery is rampant: “voi rapaci/per oro e per argento” (19.3-4: “you who are greedy for gold and silver”); “fatto v’avete dio d’oro e d’argento” (19.112: “you made yourselves a god of gold and silver”); Nicholas says that on earth he put wealth, here he puts himself, in a purse (19.71), as if he were money, and Dante reminds him of the “ill-gotten money” (“mal tolta moneta”) he received to oppose Charles of Anjou (19.9899). There might even be a suggestion of coins in the physical description of the bolgia, a series of holes, all the same size and round, like the ones in San Giovanni; Dante is referring to the cathedral, but the saint’s name also evokes the florin in the Comedy. The souls have become a perversion of the coins they put in their purses, their feet instead of their heads giving the seal to their authenticity (their identity), because they had subverted God’s work for money.

The souls of the next two sections tamper with the providential plan in secular life. The false prophets sell another of God’s gifts, the ability to foresee the future, offering their services at a price to those who would use the knowledge to counter the course of providence. Among them are also the sorcerers, who make a pretence of controlling events by the practice of magic arts, leaving their proper work, their crafts of shoemaking or spinning, to tell fortunes and cast spells; like usurers they do not labor for their gains. Barrators sell the services of government, trading in the public trust. Their section begins with the description of boat repairs in the Venice Arzana, the city’s shipyards, the core of its vast maritime trade. The activity of these souls, however, was for a different kind of profit: Lucca is full of those who turn “no” into “yes” for money (21.42), taking bribes to subvert justice and order; when a new one turns up in Hell, literally upended in the pitch, a devil tells the souls there is no place for the Santo Volto here (21.48). The Santo Volto is the image of Christ on a wooden crucifix worshipped in the city, so this is usually taken as a blasphemous reference to the soul’s rear end, but since the Santo Volto also appeared in Lucca’s coins, the devil might well be saying “you can’t bribe your way out of this,” or “you can’t buy favors here.[48] This is a sin that pervades Italy: the bolgia holds Sardinians, Tuscans, and Lombards, along with a Navarrese, whose prank illustrates the nature of barratry. He offers to “make seven come for his one” (22.103: “per un ch’io son, ne faro venir sette”), which sounds very much like a conman’s offer of stupendous profits; instead, he disappears, absconds with the goods, so to speak, and leaves his victims fighting among themselves.

The first five sections of this circle involve fraud in that the sinners had no right to sell what they sold; they traded in noncommercial items. The last five sections involve a more subtle kind of fraud, the concealing or abetting of illicit profits or acquisitions. The first of these is hypocrisy, using the pretense of piety, the position afforded by a religious role, for profit. The Frati Gaudenti Dante meets in this section were sent to Florence to keep peace, but actually worked for one faction; it was also their function to stamp out heresy and repress usury. It was, in fact, common practice for religious orders to offer absolution for usury in return for gifts. Davidsohn gives a series of examples of usurers giving large sums as a token of their repentance, so they could be absolved in order to avoid posthumous accusations that would deprive their heirs of the inheritance.[49] In one case the same sum obtained remission for the sins of the man’s father and other relatives as well, in another the excuse for giving money to the monks was that the individual usury victims could no longer be identified, and the usurer got away with twenty pounds per year for twenty years to make up for illicit profits of five hundred pounds. Disputes among the Friars Minor led to accusations of giving absolution and promising burial in holy ground in order to get money, without proper evidence of repentance. Although Dante does not mention such actions specifically, he does have the hypocrites dressed in heavy monastic robes, like those worn by the Cluniacs, who were famous for the richness of their garments; the hypocrites’ robes, however, are gold outside and lead beneath, suggesting the false value they got and gave, and Dante refers to them as the very scales that weigh that value (23.102).

Theft is in some ways the most perplexing aspect of fraud, as Dante presents it. He devotes two full cantos to it, more than he gives to what would seem more important sins, like simony, hypocrisy, the dissemination of scandal and schism; he outdoes himself in the artistic treatment of it, rivaling Lucan and Ovid; and he is moved by his experience of it to violent attacks on Pistoia (25.10-12) and Florence (26.1-3).[50] All of this seems out of proportion to the crime of theft in its simplest form, even the theft of sacred objects. However, theft can also apply to more complicated acts than the surreptitious physical seizure of another’s goods. Usury is described as a form of theft by theological writers.[51] The Ottimo, in a long note on avarice as practiced by merchants and artisans, includes theft in sales by defective weights, numbers, and measure (1.111) and says that Mercury represents both businessmen and thieves. In other words, theft can also be the fraudulent appropriation of others’ goods by various means, including fraudulent contracts. The punishment Dante gives for theft is metamorphosis, the change of form, emphasized by his repetition of such words as muti, trasmuto, cambiar. When one soul watches the transformation of another, he says, “ome, Agnel, come ti muti” (25.68: “Oh, Agnel, how you change”), perhaps a pun on mutuum, the loan, which lies behind all these transformations but is never acknowledged. Commercial transactions were commutationes, and one important part of commerce was money-changing, cambio; indeed, one of the three major Florentine guilds was the Arte del Cambio. Since Dante considered a man’s property a part of himself, as he makes clear by his division of sins in the seventh circle, the exchange of property is a kind of metamorphosis, and the illicit exchange is suitably punished by an imposed metamorphosis of man and serpent. But since the serpents are also souls, there is, as in business, a continual shifting of the roles of victim and perpetrator. In line with Garrani’s suggestion that Gerione, the figure of fraud with the serpent body and human face, represents usurious contracts, I would like to suggest that it is in this bolgia, where serpents appear and are interchangeable with the souls, that Dante is dealing at one level with usurious contracts. Indeed, the thieves come the closest to embodying fraud, as figured by the monster with the face of a just man and the body of a serpent; thieves alternate, as fradulent businessmen must, between the appearance of a known human being and the reality of the dangerous beast. And just as businessmen prey on one another– sometimes the deceiver, sometimes the victim–so the souls alternate between the state of human victim and serpent attacker.

Fraudulent contracts are those made in order to avoid the prohibitions against usury. Beginning with the nature simile at the opening of canto 24, in which the simple peasant “sees” snow and later discovers it was hoarfrost, Dante sets the scene for deception. What one “sees” (reads) in a contract is not necessarily what one gets. The one centaur who is not with his fellows among the violent, Cacus, is here for the theft he fraudulently committed (25.29: “furto che frodolente fece”), in which he literally covered tracks so the crime would not be discovered; what fraudulent contracts do is cover the tracks figuratively. Since deception in contracts is practiced by the clever manipulation of written words, Dante emphasizes the abuse of words in speech and writing: the souls have difficulty speaking, with voices unfit to form words (24.65-66), Vanni Fucci defies God with his words in a manner more shocking than the blasphemer’s in canto 14 (25.3, 25.13-15); one soul burns faster than “o” or “i” is written (24.100-01), another mixes with the serpent as black with white on burning paper (25.64-66). Like well-written contracts, the serpents both bind the souls, preventing any attempt to free themselves, and also bite them, taking parts away, which Garrani interprets as an attack on their patrimony. Dante describes three kinds of metamorphosis, which might be read as three of the most popular kinds of contract made to avoid the charge of usury.[52] The first, in which the soul dissolves to dust and then returns to his former shape, suggests the false sales in which title to property is transferred for money, but only temporarily, with the lender receiving the fruits of the property as interest on his loan and eventually returning the property for the original sum. The second metamorphosis, the fusion of two beings, the serpent and the man, into a strange creature neither two nor one (25.69), suggests fake partnerships set up for one undertaking in order to mask a loan.[53] And the third, in which the serpent and the man exchange their shapes altogether but not permanently, suggests the exchange of money, the loan being set up in one currency to be paid in another, but actually paid in the first, with the interest buried in the double rate of exchange. Dante emphasizes the exchange, contrasting what he describes with what Ovid did using a series of suggestive words: “Ovidio … converte … non trasmuto … Ie forme/a cambiar lor matera” (25.97-102); “ciascun cambiava muso” (25.123); “si rispuosero a tai norme” (25.103: “they responded to such standards”); and they change the appearance of “excess matter” (troppa matera, 25.124-26). “Cosi vid’io la settima zavorra/ mutare e trasmutare” (25.142-43), Dante concludes, “so I saw the seventh ballast change and exchange,” using the word zavorra, “ballast,” drawn from shipping and meaning material of little value used primarily for weight, to describe the souls in the section.

Among the five Florentine thieves who undergo the changes, Dante sees four from the merchant-banking families of the Cavalcanti, Brunelleschi, and Donati. [54] The early commentators name the souls, but give no details about them, which suggests that they were not notorious thieves in the normal sense of the word, and since they did come from banking families, it seems reasonable to assume that their “theft” was of a more commercial nature. Even Vanni Fucci, who was a thief in the obvious sense, was the bastard son of a family involved in usurping others’ property and inheritance.[55] He himself was the head of a group of thieves and robbers who ambushed and killed, and so might be seen as a figure for the heads of commercial companies that committed their crimes more subtly. The canto which follows the thieves begins with a ringing attack on Florence, masked as praise for its worldwide prestige: “Godi, Fiorenza, poi che se’ si grande/ che per mare e per terra batti l’ali,/e per lo inferno tuo nome si spande” (26.13: “Rejoice Florence that you are so great that you beat your wings over sea and land and your name resounds through Hell”). It is commerce that gave Florence its importance on land and sea and, apparently, in Hell as well.

It has been suggested that the voyage Ulysses describes, which has no obvious classical source, was inspired by the disappearance of two Genoese brothers, merchants who sailed through the straits of Gibraltar in 1291 with two ships and merchandise, seeking a new route to India, and disappeared.[56] Marco Polo and his uncles, also merchants, returned from their long sojourn in China in 1295, a journey similarly undertaken to find new sources and new markets, with vast treasures which must have inspired many other such projects of long-distance travel. Dante may have been influenced by both events, the disappearance of the one and the return of the other with tales of strange lands and customs. In his time, only merchants in search of new markets or new sources of supply ventured as far into the unknown as Ulysses did. It does not seem far-fetched to assume that Ulysses, whose stated purpose of learning more of human vice and virtue is belied by the direction of his journey, represents in part the acquisitive man who continues even in old age to pursue wealth, new sources, new markets, no matter what the risk. This might well be the “folle volo,/ sempre acquistando dal lato mancino” (26.125-26: “the mad flight, always gaining (acquiring) on the left,” the wrong side). In that case, the fraudulent counsel Ulysses gives is not simply the theft of the Palladium or the wooden horse, but the encouragement to his companions, old and tired men, to continue the quest for wealth. It is an interesting coincidence that one of the merchants in Dante’s audience cites the lines by which Guido evokes Ulysses’ journey (27.80-81) to describe his own retirement from business, indicating that he, at least, made such an identification (Livi, Dall’archivio, 24).

What Guido da Montefeltro did was to advise the pope to take illicit advantage of his enemy, to seize his property by fraud. It is not irrelevant that the pope’s anger had been roused by the Colonna’s theft of papal treasure. Guido, an old operator, who was attempting to live a life of repentance for his sins, was drawn back into them by the pope’s promise of anticipatory absolution. This is rather reminiscent of the practice by suspected or accused usurers, abetted by greedy churchmen, of making periodic amends in order to continue to sin. There is, of course, no question of Guido’s being taken for a merchant himself–he is far too well-known a political figure. But he is a classic example of the conman conned, and his story of failed, because insincere, repentance might well have been intended to strike that segment of the audience most likely to engage in it. Are not businessmen the most likely objects of the devil’s simple lesson: you can’t be absolved unless you repent, and you can’t will and repent at the same time (27.11819)? One wonders if that is why Guido addresses Virgil with the curious remark: “tu . . . che parlavi mo lombardo” (27.1920: “you who were just speaking Lombard”), and why Virgil seems to be speaking a Lombard dialect instead of his Latin or Dante’s Italian. Lombard was the term foreigners used for commercial Italians (Sapori, Italian Merchant, 14). Dante may be implying that Virgil is being taken for a traveling merchant, in order to introduce the commercial note where it would not be expected. That might explain Virgil’s abrupt “Parla tu;/ questi e latino” (27.33: “You talk to this one, he’s Italian”).

The commercial note is retained in the next (ninth) section where, Dante says, “those who acquire their load by dividing pay their fee” (27.135-36: “si paga il fio/a quei che scommettendo acquistan carco”) for the sin that “costs so much” (29.21: “la colpa che .. . cotanto costa”). The eighth bolgia contains those who gave fraudulent counsel, enabling others to sin if they so chose; the ninth holds those who actively draw others into public sin (scandalo) and schism (scisma). Schism covers the act of sundering from one’s community, whether religious or political, scandal covers the act of drawing another into a serious sin (Aquinas, ST, 2.2ae, q.43). The word is regularly used in connection with usury, in discussing whether the borrower is to be held responsible for giving the lender the opportunity to sin (ST, 2.2ae, q.78, a.4). Aquinas argues that there is no active scandal on the part of the borrower, and that the usurer’s scandal is passive, that he takes the occasion to sin from the malice of his heart: “ipse autem usurarius sumit occasionem peccandi ex malitia cordis sui. Unde scandalum passivum est ex parte sua: non autem activum ex parte petentis mutuum.” Though “scandal” is not limited to this meaning, the word might well have such overtones for Dante’s audience. Guido da Pisa, commenting on usury in Dante, says the borrower gives the opportunity of lending, not of sinning, and cites Aquinas without naming him on active and passive scandal (323). The punishment for the sin of this section is defined by Bertran de Born as the contrapasso. Aquinas uses contrapassum in his discussion of retaliation and restitution, making it clear that contrapassum can only apply to commutative justice. He notes that money was invented to serve the same purpose, in order to provide proportionate commensuration to equate the passion to the action in exchanges (ST, 2.2ae, q.61, a.4): “et ideo oportet secundum quandam proportionatam commensurationem adaequare passionem actioni in commutationibus; ad quod inventa sunt numismata. Et sic contrapassum est commutativum iustum” Sapori equates Thomas’s use of contrapassum with “scambio,” the exchange in a commercial transaction after equivalent values have been established (Studi, 200). It is probable that Dante connects financial sinners on a large scale– important businessmen, as well as religious and political leaders–with this sin. Certainly their actions can be equally influential and destructive.

In the final section of fraud, Dante places those who falsify the most basic elements of human intercourse or exchange: identity, words, metals, and coins. The early commentators connect falsifiers of metals (alchemists) with counterfeiting. Pietro distinguishes three kinds of falsitas, two of them involving money: (1) in the thing itself, as in knowingly spending false money, or using some other false thing, or feigning something false in one’s person; (2) in a deed, as in fabricating false money or corrupting it with alchemy; or (3) in words, as in perjury (251). The Ottimo (1.495) defines alchemy as tampering with the material of money, the metals, as does Jacopo (1.453); Jacopo also says that Dante treats falsifiers of money in both canto 29 (the alchemists) and canto 30 (the counterfeiters), 1.452. The alchemists who disfigure themselves as they once disfigured metals talk about the wild spending of the Sienese (29.125 ff.); and the counterfeiters lie side by side with the perjurers, attacking each other with their fists and their words. The exchange between the counterfeiter Adam and the liar Sinon, reveals better than any other the connection between coins and words:

ADAM: . . . “Tu di’ ver di questo ma tu non fosti si ver testimonio la ‘ve del ver fosti a Troia richesto”

SINON: “S’io dissi falso, e tu falsasti il conio . . . e son qui per un fallo e tu per piu ch’alcun altro demonio”


“You speak the truth in this, but you weren’t such a true witness when you were asked for the truth at Troy.” “If I spoke false, you falsified the coin … I am here for one crime, you for more than any other demon.”

Both lied, one in words, the other in the manufacture of coins; both did enormous harm to the nations involved, Sinon’s lie about the wooden horse leading to the destruction of Troy, Adam’s counterfeiting [57] If each counterfeit coin is to be taken as a separate fault, Adam is indeed the worst sinner so far encountered. Garrani suggests that Adam’s swollen stomach represents monetary inflation swelling the market with false money, a problem known in the Middle Ages as morbus numericus or nummericus, a numerical or monetary disease, in which the increase of bad money without an increase of goods pushes prices higher and higher (II pensiero di Dante, 160, 165). Jacopo (1.469) interprets the soul’s hydropsy, resulting from undigested humors, as an allegory for the counterfeit coin, in which the absent carats that would make it genuine are sick and undigested. Counterfeiting is a serious attack on the economic and social order, the worst of economic sins, because it harms all strata of the population indiscriminately; it is an offense against the entire community. Benvenuto notes that falsifying money does serious harm to the common good of the republic (2.431: “cum omnis falsans pecuniam graviter delinquat contra commune commodum reipublicae”).

What Adam counterfeited was the florin, the most important coin in European currency, whose value was authenticated by the stamped figure of John the Baptist, the “lega suggellata del Batista” (30.74). The importance of such a stamp in a world of myriad coins and separate currencies cannot be overestimated. The job of stamping coins was an important one and carried prestige; the names of masters of the mint (“maestri di zecca”) are preserved from the early fourteenth century in Florence, and Giovanni Villani is listed among them in 1316 (Corpus nummorum italicorum, vol. 12). Benvenuto goes into some detail about money, citing Aristotle on the invention of coins because barter was not efficient; coins were conceived as the measure of all things: they were made of gold and silver as the most perfect metals, light, and therefore portable, and round, because that is the perfect form (2.432-33). The counterfeiter has the last word among the sinners in the section because his deed is, in fact, the most antisocial, the most generally destructive to the public good, the hardest to undo. It is one of those stunning coincidences that his name should be Adam, so that his appearance here, towards the end of Hell, serves as a kind of parallel to the mention of Adam, the source of original sin, at the top of Purgatory and the appearance of Adam late in Paradise, where he discourses on the corruption of human speech, the other basic means of exchange between men on earth.[58]

In Purgatory, there is a shift from money as the standard of material value to spiritual goods, in which words serve at least partially as a substitute coin, in prayers through the first half of the cantica and poetry or the speech of poets through the second half. The realm itself is organized in terms of a commercial transaction, according to the requirements of commutative justice: sins are debts to justice that must be paid for in exact equivalents, measured in time, penance, or prayer.[59] The payment in time and penance is made directly by the sinner, the payment in prayer by others, whose love is acceptable currency towards the total, the first sign of a spiritual good replacing a more material value. The highest part of the mountain, the Earthly Paradise, is described as the arra, the pledge or guarantee which God, the highest good who made man good and for good, gave man of eternal peace and man lost by “default,” exchanging laughter and play for tears and suffering:

Lo sommo Ben . . . fe l’uom buono e a bene, e questo loco diede per arra a lui d’etterna pace. Per sua difalta qui dimoro poco; per sua difalta in pianto e in affanno cambio onesto riso e dolce gioco


In the second half of the cantica, after Dante has learned the lessons of spiritual wealth, which can be shared without loss (canto 15), of love and free will as the sources of human action (cantos 16-18), and of greed as the great obstacle (cantos 19 and 20), the poet is more and more driven by the thirst for knowledge to amass the treasure of words from other poets. The shift in his perspective begins with the discussion of forbidden sharing or partnership, divieto consorte, in which Virgil explains how spiritual treasures increase with sharing and continues with the lessons on desire and free will, with the help of Marco Lombardo.

Marco introduces himself by saying “Lombardo fui,” “I was a Lombard” (16.46), and he speaks later of an honorable man, Guido del Castello, who is best called “il semplice Lombardo,” “the honest Lombard” (16.126). We are presumably intended to see both of them as counters to the Lombard who is usurer to the world. Marco offers Dante knowledge, not money. He was a courtier, not a merchant, a guide to right action in others, what Dante is and what he would like to see his audience–merchants as well as rulers and churchmen–become. Heaven, Marco explains, initiates human movements, but man by his own choice determines his actions. The cause of corruption is in us, not in the planets. We are all driven by desire, by love, which can be directed at good or bad objects, the other side of the greed for wealth or power that drove the souls in Hell, but that love must be guided by reason in order to choose the right object. To help him make that choice, man needs the guidance of the church and the empire. After Marco has established the need for church and state as man’s two guides, Dante shows us the appointed guides, a pope and a royal house, distracted by greed; the royal house is not the empire, but the French monarchy, an effective obstacle to imperial power. The pope offers a simple example of greed corrected by accession to the richest office; the king, on the other hand, describes the terrible crimes to which greed drove his descendants (20.64 ff.): rapine by force and deceit, seizure of lands, murder of a prince and a holy man, betrayal of a city, selling of a daughter, the capture of a pope (Christ in his vicar), and the attack on a religious order (the Templars) to seize its vast wealth, “carrying their greedy sails into the temple” like a pirate ship (20.93: “portar nel Tempio le cupide vele”).

The French monarchy offers the most striking example of the excesses of greed, committed as they are on a national scale, but there are also references in Purgatory to the public greed of cities: Siena is ridiculed for its expensive and futile attempts to find a sea passage, either by dredging a canal to a port, or by discovering an underground river, all to increase its commercial scope; Florence takes on the burden of justice for all, as it would gladly take on any other cargo. The sense is of public responsibility, but the language suggests a sarcastic reference to its commercial enterprises: “many refuse the common load, but your people answer … ‘I’ll take it on [my ship]”‘ (6.133-35: “molti rifiutan lo commune incarco;/ma il popol tuo solicito risponde … ‘Io mi sobbarco!'”). And she continually changes her laws, money, offices, and customs to seize the advantage of the moment; again the language is suggestive, “quante volte … hai tu mutato, e rinovate membre” (6.145-47), recalling the transformations and renewal of limbs of the thieves in Hell.

Dante focuses on greed in a public context in Purgatory, since the only individual examples he presents are the French king, who speaks for his posterity, and the pope, who represents an ongoing problem of the papacy. At the same time, Dante suggests that greed is the most significant sin in Purgatory, as it was in Hell in its various manifestations, by giving it several cantos and a structure which differs from the other ledges (see chapter four). He sees all three of mankind’s guides on this ledge, the pope in canto 19, the king in canto 20, and a poet in 21 and 22. The poet’s sin is not greed, but prodigality, purged on the same ledge because it too involves excessive concern with and misuse of material wealth, but Dante does not seem to consider it equally harmful. Virgil asks Statius how avarice could find a place in a breast with so much wisdom (22.22-23), meaning, how could a disciple of mine . . . ? Statius is quick to explain that his sin was prodigality. Aquinas considers prodigality less serious than avarice, in part because the prodigal’s giving is of use to the many to whom he gives, while hoarding is of use to none (ST, 2,2ae, q.119, a.3). Statius wasted not only wealth, but also the far more valuable treasure of faith, which he kept hidden for some time after he acquired it. Nonetheless, he values the poetic word of Virgil (“without the Aeneid I would not have weighed a dram,” 21.99), and is therefore a suitable guide to Dante and his audience.

After the meeting with Statius, Dante meets only poets on the remaining ledges of Purgatory and treats his words and theirs as precious goods. He is ready to move to the most valuable riches of all, the joy and love and knowledge of Paradise and, most important, to bring them back to share with and, figuratively, sell to his audience. Paradise is a realm of treasure, there to be taken, the quantity limited only by the taker’s capacity. At the same time, it is pervaded by a sense of responsibility and right, a desire to keep the books of justice balanced. The good and bad deeds of men are recorded by number in God’s books like account books, “quel volume aperto/nel qual si scrivon tutti suoi dispregi . .. segnata con un i la sua bontate,/quando ‘l contrario segnera un emme” (19.113 ff.: “that open volume in which are written all their misdeeds … the good marked with an I (1), the opposite with an M (1,000)”). In the early cantos, the heavens of the Moon and Mercury, the concern is for keeping one’s word, paying and receiving what is due; in the other spheres, the focus shifts to concern for others, particularly corruption on earth where it has most effect, in the church, in the French monarchy, and in Florence, in religion, politics, and commerce.

The subject of discussion in the first heaven, the Moon, is the vow, the promise made directly to God and freely given. Dante uses the word voto, “vow,” for its play on “empty,” promises which lack the perfect commitment of the will and cannot be fulfilled. But, as suggested in chapter five, the examples Dante gives of political commitments indicate he is thinking in broader terms than the religious commitment; he seems also to have in mind promises made to man with God as witness, oaths. Moreover, the financial language used in discussing the promises and the satisfaction for them suggests that Dante intended his audience to extend the application of what he says not only to political, but also to commercial commitments. He describes the vow as a free sacrifice of free will, a gift from God only to intelligent creatures, a treasure which once given cannot be reclaimed (5.19-30). The value of the vow is that God and man both participate; it is a contract of mutual consent (5.26-27). “What then,” Beatrice asks, “could be given in compensation?” (5.31: “Dunque che render puossi per ristoroe”); “if you try to use what you have offered, you want to make a good job of ill-gotten gains” (5.32-33: “se credi bene usar quel c’hai offerto/di maltolletto vuo’ far buon lavoro”), an improper use of money, since what is consumed cannot be reused. A vow cannot be cancelled except by being paid, though the offering can be exchanged, bartered (5.50-51: “alcuna offerta/si permutasse”); that is, the species of payment may be substituted, not the amount, and not unless the value is greater than the original promised, not unless “the thing laid aside IS contained in the thing taken on as four in six” (5.5960). Dante’s query whether there is not some other way to make up the payment, “to satisfy with other goods, which will not weigh too lightly on the scales” (4.136-38), is rephrased by Beatrice in equally commercial language: “you want to know if you can pay enough with another service to secure yourself from suit for a failed vow” (5.13-15). What outweighs everything else in the scale cannot be made up by any other kind of payment (5.61-63: “quanlunque cosa tanto pesa/per suo valor che tragga ogne bilancia,/sodisfar non si puo con altra spesa”). That is why vows must be very carefully made, under the guidance of Scripture and the pastor of the church and without the pressure of “mala cupidigia”; worldly gain should not be allowed to influence the decision.

The sanctity of the given word, the promise made either directly to God or calling on God as a witness, is the major issue here. Even in commercial contracts, the solemn oath was often the basis of the agreement, and as such was to be honored, whether or not the contract was later found to be usurious; pressure might be put on the creditor to release the debtor, but if that failed, the obligation stood, a principle recognized by ecclesiastical as well as civil authority: a decretal of Pope Alexander III pronounced the paying of usury preferable to the breaking of an oath.[60] Beatrice stresses the importance of making a promise that one will be able to keep. Dante had asked in the previous canto how people could be held responsible for breaking their vows when external pressure was applied, how another’s violence could decrease the measure of my merit (4.21: “di meritar mi scema la misura”). Beatrice answers that the absolute will (voglia assoluta) does not consent to the loss (danno), except insofar as it is afraid of worse (4.109-10). But she has already explained that the will (volonta) does not allow itself to be forced, no matter what violence is used, if it does not in some way consent, and then it is no longer absolute (4.76-77). The legal points in establishing usury also depend on will, intention, and hope, voluntas, intentio, and spes; will and intention are important aspects of the financial as well as the theological question.

If the financial language throughout this section permits the reader to extend the issue of vows to oaths in commercial contracts, then Dante is arguing for truth and prudence in business as well as in religion and politics, for a careful consideration of one’s needs and resources weighed against the external situation before one commits oneself to any contract with God or man. Most of Dante’s audience would be more likely to make financial contracts than any other kind. The aspiring nuns in the Moon did not calculate their own weakness in the face of family pressure; political agreements are similarly made without sufficient consideration of extenuating circumstances and pressures, as commercial contracts may be made in moments of need or expectation, based more on wishful thinking than on realistic appraisals. In every case, the person who gives his/her word, is obligated to see it through, no matter what the cost. Dante puts the burden of responsibility for any kind of religious or social commitment, as he does for any kind of sin, on the one who undertakes it. This attitude seemed to underlie his treatment of usury in Hell, which he placed outside the circle of fraud, making the point that if the borrower freely agrees to the contract, he is not being deceived by the lender, even if he is overcharged. The message is to avoid taking on a commitment of any kind that one is unable properly to fulfill, but the commercial overtones give it particular force for much of Dante’s audience.

The souls in Mercury are also concerned with the discharge of responsibility and just deserts. Justinian, the emperor who speaks for the heaven, tells Dante that the happiness of its souls lies in the exact measure of their rewards with their merits, no more, no less: “Ma nel commensurar d’i nostri gaggi/col merto e parte di nostra letizia,/perche non li vedem minor ne maggi” (6.118-20). The soul he points out to Dante at the end of the canto, Romeo, had in fact given his lord a higher return, seven and five for ten, but when the lord demanded a reckoning, others made him appear to be wanting: “il mosser le parole biece/a dimandar ragione a questo giusto,/che li assegno sette e cinque per diece” (6.136-38). On earth he was badly paid (mal gradita, 6.129), but in heaven he has finally received what he deserves. Justinian took care in his own labors, the reform of the legal code, to be exact, to eliminate from the laws all excess or vanity (6.12), under the guidance of God. What remains, then, is presumably God’s will; that is, if Roman law differs from canon law, Dante apparently accepts the civil law as divinely ordained. If this is so, then usury, condemned in theology but permitted to some extent in civil law, is, as Garrani suggests (Il pensiero di Dante, 86), within God’s order, according to Dante. Justinian speaks of divine justice in the same precise and balanced terms: original sin had to be avenged, and that revenge was put into the hands of the highest secular authority, the Roman empire, but the revenge, too, had to be avenged; every act has its consequences, every deed must be repaid in kind or equivalent.

Viva giustizia, “living justice,” is the dominant note of Mercury, peopled by those who were active in the pursuit of honor and fame. That they include rulers and courtiers we know from the presence of Justinian and Romeo, but that they may include a variety of others is suggested by the lines that introduce Romeo: “different positions in our life render sweet harmony among these wheels” (6.12526). The early commentators agree that the souls here were active in wordly pursuits, even if it made them less fervent in divine love (Pietro, 594), but the pursuits were useful to the community (Ottimo, 3.172, cf. Jacopo, 3.106). The Ottimo discusses prudence as the relevant virtue that governs what is useful to ourselves and not harmful to our neighbors, guarding against vice in terms of flesh, wealth, or honor (3.110 ff.). In his discussion of fortune and the workings of the heavens in Hell 7, the Ottimo, following an old tradition, connects Mercury with eloquence and business, in that merchants use soft talk to sell and buy (1.12021). Mercury disposes to eloquence and wealth, though men must exert themselves to develop those gifts; one will never be a good speaker if he does not use his reason and intellect to converse with the wise and eloquent, nor will he be rich if he abstains from procuring wealth and merchandise (1.123). It seems reasonable to assume that the Ottimo includes merchants and businessmen among those active in the worldly life in Mercury. Dante names business, “civil negozio,” among the worldly pursuits in which men can lose themselves (Pr. 11.7), but since he also includes those who follow law and the priesthood and rulers who use force and cleverness, we must assume that he only condemns those who pursue the professions for the wrong reasons, not the occupations themselves. At the end of canto 8 in Paradise, when Charles Martel has shown that man must be a citizen, and that civil life requires different offices, he mentions Solon (the lawgiver), Xerxes (the soldier), Melchisedech (the priest), and “the one who, flying through the air, lost his son,” Daedalus, who exercised his ingenuity to achieve amazing feats but to the harm of his son. Daedalus seems to represent the intellectual, the artisan, perhaps also the merchant. He completes the picture of civic leadership, the lowest function in Dante’s civic order but nonetheless essential to its survival.

After the heavens of the Moon and Mercury, joy and love rather than justice dominate, but love often manifests itself in concern for life on earth. Each sphere, no matter how high, offers some attack on the corruption that results from greed. In Venus, Charles Martel speaks of the stinginess and greed of his brother, Robert, Cunizza of the priest’s betrayal of political refugees. In contrast, it is also in Venus that the fusion of beings through love is suggested in the verbs created from pronouns, for example, “s’io m’intuassi come tu t’inmii” (9.81), in which it is tantalizing to see a possible echo of the definition of mutuum, “loan,” what is “mine” becoming not just ‘ yours,” but “you.” In Hell, where there was also a possible pun on mutuum (25.68), the fusion of beings was violent and forced, whereas in heaven it is willed out of love and accomplished by language. In the Sun, where the treasured are Peter Lombard’s Sentences, Francis’s Poverty, and Dominic’s Faith, the object of attack is the worldliness of the papacy and the Franciscan and Dominican orders, in contrast to Dominic who did not ask to dispense two or three for six, nor for the fortune of the first vacancy, nor for the tithes that belong to God s poor (12.91-93). In Mars, Cacciaguida attacks the results of commercialism in Florence. In Jupiter, the rulers of the eagle condemn the currency abuses by contemporary kings. The figure of the eagle, which denounces those abuses, rises out of the M of earth (terram) in a rather stylized way, suggesting among other possibilities the eagle on the imperial coins of Frederick II and later of Manfred.[61] The M on Manfred’s coins, which resembled the eagle, often had globes 61 above and around the stems, like the lilies Dante describes nestling in his eagle. We know from Forese Donati’s reference to the aguglin in his sonnet 74a (line 4), that imperial coins were not uncommon in Dante’s Florence. Perhaps Dante is implying that even in its coins, the empire symbolized the ideal relation of political entities. In the highest heavens, we are told by Saint Benedict in Saturn, the realm of the contemplatives, that the abuses of church funds are worse offenses to God than grave usura, and in the Stars, where Dante displays the wealth of his faith, Peter delivers a stirring attack on the greed of the clergy who use the church to acquire gold (27.42) and to sell mendacious privileges (27.53). Beatrice extends the attack to general greed as they rise into the Primo Mobile, and before they leave it, she condemns the clergy’s failure to guide man, turning Scripture to their own purposes and selling pardons that have no value {“pagando di moneta sanza conlo,” 29.126), paying their congregations in counterfeit coin.

Heaven’s view is that secular and religious rulers use their positions to increase their own possessions, and pay their subjects with false coins and worthless paper. Only Dante seems to have real treasure to offer, the faith he carries “in his purse” (24.85) which was tested by Peter and found to be genuine currency (moneta) in its substance, its alloy (lega), and weight (peso), and the knowledge he has been offered on his journey which is the “payment” or “profit” he has gained from Virgil and Beatrice and others. He became more aware of the value of words in Purgatory as he learned the power of prayers and of poetry, and he returns from the journey to offer this treasure, the words of his poem, to his audience. If the church and the state fail in their divinely appointed function to guide mankind because of their greed and selfishness, it is left to the poet to use his tools, words, to teach and to attract men to the right way.

As money is essential to the exchange of goods and services, so language is essential to the exchange of ideas and information. As a social animal, man depends on both. But since both are products of man’s ingenuity, both are susceptible to corruption, and must be controlled. Rulers impose standards of value on their currency; men of letters set the standards for their language, grammarians the basic rules, poets the elegant style. In De vulgari eloquentia, writing in Latin, Dante defended the vulgari as more noble than Latin because it is natural to man, a divine gift, rather than artificial and manmade; whereas in the Convivio, writing in Italian, he called Latin more noble because it is controlled by rules, making it incorruptible. When Adam describes speech as a human creation (Pr. 26), reversing the view of De vulgari eloquentia, we think not only of its limitations, but also of its achievements, like the Comedy. Dante is aware that in a country like Italy, with no political unity, the Italian language in the hands- of educated writers can speak to all Italians. He presumably chooses to write his poem in Italian both because it can reach a wider audience in his native land and because he has greater freedom in his use of it. He helps to set its standards as he writes.

That heaven sees poets as ideal guides is clear from Beatrice’s choice of Virgil to lead Dante through Hell and Purgatory, because of his adorned and honorable words (parola ornata and parlar onesto, Hell 2.67, 113), and from heaven’s choice of Dante to carry its message (Pg. 33.52 ff., Pr. 17.124 ff.), “the sacred poem to which heaven and earth put their hands” (Pr. 25.1-2). Poets are the merchants of the true treasures, faith and knowledge. We are shown the power of poetry to move men to faith and morality in the influence of Virgil’s words on Statius, which opened his mind to Christianity and cured it of prodigality (Pg. 22.79-87 and 22.40-41). It is, of course, ironic that Statius derived messages from Virgil’s words which Virgil himself did not intend or recognize, but the point is that poets, pagan or Christian, can be God’s tools, as Dante offers himself to be God’s vessel (Pr. 1.14). Like any other public figures, poets can abuse their trust and gifts: Pier della Vigna, Brunetto Latini, Bertran de Born, used their words to mask the truth, to win worldly honor, to encourage to wrong. Poets can be limited in their perceptions, like the classical poets in Limbo who lacked faith, or the lyric poets in Purgatory who lack Dante’s religious and political mission; or they can, like Dante, offer their gifts to God’s service, as Folco, and David, and Bernard do in Paradise. It is not a coincidence that for his final vision, Dante turns to a man who was not only a theologian and a mystic, but also something of a poet.

Man needs speech because it is the only way he can effectively communicate with his fellows; animals, who operate on instinct, and angels, who have direct perception, do not need it. Only man has thoughts that his fellows cannot perceive except through his words. The positive function of speech as a civilizing, educational, and unifying force among men has a strong Roman and medieval tradition, but there is a powerful negative tradition as well; the Bible points up the dangers of speech, as do church fathers like Gregory and Augustine, for whom the highest form of speech is the “rhetoric of silence.”[62] Dante draws on both traditions in the Comedy, the negative in Hell, the positive in Purgatory and Paradise. In Hell, he reveals the dangers: the misuse of speech in order to deceive others, the lack of control over speech that leads men to betray themselves, and the total breakdown in communication because the source of language, reason, has cut itself off from God, the good of the intellect, “ben dell’intelletto,” and cannot therefore function properly. Speech in Hell is deceptive and divisive, an antisocial force. In Purgatory, on the other hand, it serves as a means of communication among men and between man and God, as a unifying force, drawing disparate elements together; it enables the souls to guide and comfort each other, to give information to Dante, and to send messages to their families. It is in every way a constructive force. The souls in Paradise do not need language to communicate; like the angels, they can perceive God’s and their fellows’ thoughts directly, but they speak in order to communicate with Dante and sometimes out of the sheer need to give voice to their feelings. In order to convey the sense of this realm, which transcends human expression in a perfect harmony of wills, Dante moves towards a new language, creating new words, combining contradictory images, treating separate languages as one, playing with sounds and repetition of words to suggest meanings not contained in the syntactical structure. But instead of creating confusion, he brings about a deeper understanding. The souls of Paradise are one in their love for God and their fellows and in their concern for man’s existence on earth, they are beyond the negative powers of speech, but the souls of Hell are prey to all of them. They are harassed by noises, laments, cries, howling, barking, all expressing pain or hostility, however incoherently. Some of the souls are impeded in their speech by their shapes (the tree-suicides and serpentthieves), some are submerged in rivers and gurgle their words. Many of the guardians of Hell do not speak; instead they twist their tails or blow horns, bark or shout gibberish, all apparently in parody of the angelic ability to communicate directly without words. When the souls speak, they curse God, their families, anything they can blame for their situation, or they defy God. They attack each other verbally (the misers and prodigals, the wrathful, usurers, falsifiers, and traitors) and Dante as well (in the prophecies of Farinata and Vanni Fucci).

Only rarely do the souls in Hell refuse to talk; more often than not, they attempt to manipulate words in order to benefit themselves or deceive others, but in fact they betray themselves and reveal the hidden dangers of a skillful use of language. Just as Semiramis had made her “libido licit in her law” in order to eliminate a major taboo with one letter, Francesca attempts to turn her selfindulgent affair into a tragic romance by playing with the cliches of courtly love, but she reveals the self-deception implicit in the lyric love tradition by her manipulation of the details of her story.[63] Pier della Vigna’s distorted syntax is an attempt to mask his perverted thinking, but instead reveals it, at the same time suggesting the emptiness in the rich, formal rhetoric of his own writing. Pier was a poet and rhetorician as well as a public official, famous for his style in Latin and Italian, poetry and prose, but here his style works against him. “You would have been more gentle if we were souls of serpents,” he chides Dante (13.38-39), but serpents do not have souls that outlive their bodies, so Pier is reversing the error he made in his own life when he killed himself as if his soul would not live after the body. His speech abounds in word and sound plays: “infiammo contra me … e li infiammati infiammar si Augusto/che i lieti onor tornaro in tristi lutti” (13.67-69: “enflamed against me . . . the enflamed so enflamed Augustus, that the happy honors became sad griefs”), culminating in “I ‘animo mio, per disdegnoso gusto, / credendo col morir fuggir disdegno,/ingiusto fece me contra me giusto” (13.70-72: “my soul, in contempt, believing it could flee contempt with death, made me unjust against my just self”). Both statements are attempts to justify himself, but reveal the truth he failed to see, that he abused the trust of his emperor by trying to control his heart, as he deserved the envy and anger of those he closed out, and that by committing his last act against the highest justice, he had made himself, though innocent of the crime he was accused of, ultimately guilty. By fleeing unjustified contempt, he incurred justified damnation. Ulysses, similarly, gives a heroic tone to his last voyage, but his words betray his failures as a husband, son, and father, and reveal the dangers to his people of persuasive rhetoric in an irresponsible leader. Ulysses speaks of the “owed love which should have made Penelope happy” (26.95-96): “il debito amore/lo qual dovea Penelope far lieta”), revealing in his choice of words an awareness of the duty he neglected, as he reveals the empty pretense of his desire to experience human vice and valor by the goal of his voyage, the “world without people.” Guido da Montefeltro speaks of his life in penance, but describes his sins with pride (27.74-78). He blames the pope for leading him back into sin, but his words reveal his awareness of the pope’s perfidy, the neglect of his office, the “proud fever,” and the “drunken words” (27.91-99).

Virgil, through all the abuses of language in Hell, remains as the standard for the proper use of speech: he corrects Dante when he is wrong, scolds him when he becomes too involved, encourages him when he is afraid. He controls the monsters by invoking the divine will that inspired the journey, though he is unable to control the devils in the same way, as if the classical poet had power over the creatures of classical myth, the creations of human imagination, but not over the fallen angels, whose sin is the worst extreme of his own, rebellion to God’s law (Hell 1.125). But there are times when even a receptive audience cannot be moved by the poet’s words, as Virgil explains to the suicide: if Dante could have believed what he saw in my verse, he would not have stretched out his hand to tear the branch (Hell 13.46 ff.). Here Virgil acknowledges the need for direct experience, but if Dante cannot believe his description, why should the audience believe Dante’s? I think Dante expected us not to believe the literal description, but wished to call attention to a significant difference between his scene and Virgil’s. Like the metamorphoses of the thieves (cantos 24 and 25), which derive from Ovid and Lucan, the voice from the bleeding tree has a different moral setting in Dante’s poem. His subjects suffer transformations they bring on themselves; the classical figures are more or less innocent victims of fate, inspiring sympathy and pathos rather than the horror and moral repulsion Dante intends. But Dante shares with his classical sources a power unique to poets among men–to give existence to the impossible. They can make the dead live and move and speak, they can turn men into trees and serpents, fly through the heavens, and pass beyond time and space. Their powers approach God’s, which is why they are so severely punished when they abuse them, like Pier della Vigna imprisoned in a tree, able to speak only when he is maimed, and Bertran de Born, who carries his severed head in his hand. Just as rulers alone are empowered to coin money, to establish a currency for their people, so poets have the power and the responsiblity to mold the language and to preserve its integrity.

Poets speak for their cultures, carrying messages across time as well as space: Virgil’s words opened Statius’s mind to the message of his Christian contemporaries; Virgil, Statius, Lucan, and Ovid all speak to Dante through their poetry. Poets converse in the Comedy in a way no other group can, beginning with the exchange between the classical figures and Dante in Limbo, and carrying on through the encounters of Purgatory, first with Sordello, then with Statius, and finally with Forese, Bonagiunta, Guido Guinizelli, and Arnaut Daniel. Though Dante describes the encounters as conversations, he implies that the real communication is through the poetry: “parlando cose che’l tacere e bello,/si com’era ‘I parlar cola dov’era” (Hell 4.104-05: “speaking of things it is sweet to be silent about as it was to speak of them there”); “ascoltava i lor sermoni,/ch’a poetar mi davano intelletto” (Pg. 22.128-29: “I listened to their [Virgil and Statius] words which gave me understanding of poetry”). Only with his nearcontemporaries does Dante record the conversation, in which he describes his own manner of writing, providing through Bonagiunta the name of the tradition in which he worked (the “Dolce stil nuovo”) and establishing through Guido the direct line of influence, from Arnaut to Guido to himself, rejecting Guiraut and Guittone. By his encounters with poets in the three realms, Dante traces his own poetic development and informs us of the tradition he expects to be placed in. By accepting the epic poets, Virgil and Statius, as guides, who accompany him part of the way, while the Iyric poets, however respected, are met and passed beyond because they are fixed in their positions, Dante tells us that he has gone beyond the Iyric tradition and become an epic poet. At the same time, by leaving the epic poets behind him in Purgatory (Statius must also rise to heaven but we do not see him there) and meeting in Paradise only those poets who devoted themselves to God, Folco (who began as a secular poet but became a monk and then a bishop, and was incidentally the son of a merchant), David, the supreme poet of the Old Testament, “the supreme singer of the supreme leader” (25.72: “sommo cantor del sommo duce”), and Bernard (to whom more poems were attributed then than now, but who is given the final prayer-poem to the Virgin at the beginning of canto 33), Dante labels himself a religious poet.

The words of poets speak to men across time and even across the boundaries of language. Dante moves towards one language in Purgatory, as he is moving towards a unified people under the empire, and he does it through poets: Sordello, the Italian poet who lived in France and wrote in Provencal, addresses the Latin poet, Virgil, as “gloria di Latin . . . per cui mostro cio che potea la lingua nostra” (Pg. 7.16-17: “glory of the Latins … through whom our language showed what it could do”), where “our” must include all romance languages as one with Latin; on the last ledge of Purgatory, the Italian poet Guido Guinizelli describes the Provencal Arnaut Daniel as “miglior fabbro del parlar materno” (Pg. 26.117: “a better craftsman of the maternal speech”), which means either that Provencal is the mother tongue for Iyric poets, or that Provencal and Italian are one, perhaps both. Dante then allows Arnaut to speak several lines in Provencal, fitting the words into the Italian meter and rhyme scheme, as he had done with lines from Latin hymns earlier in Purgatory, showing through his poetry how the languages can work together to convey one message. In Paradise he will use Latin words and phrases as though they were Italian and even fit a Latin and Hebrew passage into his rhyme scheme, suggesting the single unified tradition of Judeo-Christian culture.

The unifying force of language is emphasized in many ways in Purgatory: Dante, not as a poet, but simply as a traveler going back and forth between the realms of the dead and the living, or between Purgatory and Paradise, is sought out as a messenger to carry news and requests back to earth or up to God; from Beatrice and later Cacciaguida, we learn that Dante is also destined to carry God’s message to men. Like the merchant who moves between foreign lands and his own, carrying news and messages as well as orders and goods, Dante’s words are the only connection these souls can have with the living. Marco Lombardo, an honorable Lombard, seeking others’ good, not his own profit, a counter to the selfish merchant, guides Dante with his words when the fog robs them of any other kind of communication: “I’udir ci terra giunti,” he tells Dante (16.36: “the sound [hearing] will keep us together”) and Dante answers “tue parole fier le nostre scorte” (16.45: “your words will be our guides”). These lines occur in the middle of Purgatory (hence of the Comedy) and express the essence of the poet’s use of language throughout the poem.

Words also unite souls in a common expression of love and praise and desire, through hymns and prayers. The souls who approach the shore of Purgatory sing “In exitu Israel de Aegypto,” all together with one voice or one melody (2.47); even the negligent princes, who had failed to work for harmony on earth, sing “Salve Regina” together, harmonizing with each other in the song (7.11213, 125). The souls of the proud recite the Lord’s Prayer together (11.1 ff.), acknowledging their sins, forgiving others, and praying for the living, as one. Prayers are effective in moving divine justice, not because of their rhetorical effect or their beauty, but because they express and affirm a commitment of love or repentance. They represent the strength of the feeling, and it is the feeling that moves God, but the fact of the expression is also significant. Man must make the effort and acknowledge, even to himself, what he feels in order to achieve what he desires; that is why Dante must admit his sins in the Earthly Paradise, despite his earlier ritual confession to the angel at the gate of Purgatory, and why he must affirm his faith, hope, and charity in a public declaration in Paradise. In both cases, his audience (Beatrice and the apostles) knows what he feels, but his expression of the feeling is an affirmation and commitment as well as a willing communication of that feeling to others. Cacciaguida tells Dante that he knows his will and desire, but that Dante must give voice to them in order to better fulfill the holy love:

perche il sacro amore . . .

. . . s’adempia meglio, la voce tua sicura, balda e lieta suoni la volonta, suoni il disio, a che la mia risposta e gia decreta

so that sacred love . . .

…may better be fulfilled, let your voice, secure, bold, and happy, sound your will, sound your desire, to which my answer is already decreed.


Speech is the human creature’s means of expressing his existence and his joy in it. God, Dante tells us, created not for selfish needs, not to acquire goods for himself (Pr. 29.13: “non per aver a se di bene acquisto”), but so that his “splendor might be able, shining, to say ‘I exist'” (Pr. 29.14-15; “perche suo splenDor√©/potesse, risplendendo, dir ‘Subsisto'”). The expression of existence is the fullest experience of existence. Even though the souls in heaven do not need to speak to each other because they perceive each others’ thoughts directly, they do feel the need simply to express certain emotions. Cacciaguida’s affection for God, inspired by the presence of Dante, is beyond the comprehension of mortals, but it is “spoken” nonetheless:

“cose,/ch’io non lo intesi, si parlo profondo;/ … che il suo concetto/al segno d’i mortal si soprapuose” (Pr. 15.38-42: “things I did not understand, he spoke so profoundly . . . for his conception surpassed the sign of mortals”). The eagle in Jupiter praises divine grace in songs that can only be known by those who rejoice in heaven, “con canti quai si sa chi la su gaude” (19.39); the souls in Saturn announce divine vengeance in a cry “of such high sound that it cannot be imitated here” (21.140-41: “di si alto suono,/che non potrebbe qui assomigliarsi”), which Beatrice has to interpret for Dante.

In Paradise, a realm in which thought is mirrored in the divine mind before it is thought (15.61-63), human language must be as inadequate as it is superfluous. From the very beginning of the cantica to the very end, Dante emphasizes the inadequacy of human speech and memory to describe the divine vision: “vidi cose che ridire/ne sa ne puo chi di la su discende” (Pr. 1.5-6: “I saw things that one who descends from there has not the knowledge nor the ability to retell”); “da quinci innanzi il mio veder fu maggio/che il parlar mostra” (33.5556: “from then on, my sight was greater than speech shows”).[64] One reason language fails is that human speech, as Adam explains to Dante in canto 26, is the product of human reason, susceptible to the same limitations and the same kinds of corruption, with the same development and potential for corruption as another product of human reason, currency, unlimited expansion proportionally decreasing the value of both. Speech began pure and simple; the first word for God was the single vowel “I,” but soon it changed to “El” (26.133-36), and now there are myriad names in different tongues. Change in language is continuous; Adam points out that his own language was completely gone even before the tower of Babel, and Cacciaguida speaks in a dialect that differs from the one spoken five generations later in Dante’s Florence. This kind of change is natural and without moral overtones, but there are other abuses which hinder the ability of language to communicate, as Beatrice points out (29.82 ff.), faulty interpretations of others’ words, the willful distortion even of Scripture by learned commentators, the lies and fables of preachers who feed their flocks on wind for their own advantage, all contrasted to the simplicity and purity of Christ’s word and the teaching of the early apostles who relied on the Gospels. Forgetting what blood it “cost” to disseminate God’s words through the world (29.91-92), modern preachers hand out clever words and jokes, and false pardons, paying their audiences with counterfeit currency (29.126).

Dante also distorts language in Paradise, but in order to offer true value. He transcends the limitations of human language in order to convey an ideal beyond human experience. He goes further than metaphor, turning to other forms of language, to visual symbols, music, and to new poetic expression. From the sphere of the Sun on, Dante presents the souls within symbolic figures of circles, a cross, an eagle, a ladder, a garden, and finally the rose. The symbols convey their meaning without words, leaving us to work out their full significance.[65] That they rise beyond mere words is best illustrated by the eagle, the symbol of the Roman empire, God’s chosen instrument to administer justice on earth, which is formed from the last letter of the biblical phrase by the souls who, in their new form, are able to speak as one, with the voice of divine justice. That single voice, coming from all the great exponents of justice, shows the difference between divine justice, which is single and perfect, and human perceptions, which are incomplete and faulty.

Music in Paradise is usually beyond human comprehension, though the sweetness makes itself felt and draws Dante to it. The motions of the heavens create music (1.76-78), a harmony that evokes Dante’s desire; the souls echo that harmony in their song (Venus, 8.2930, Sun, 10.66, 145-48), which attracts Dante although he cannot grasp the words (Mars, 14.122-23, and Jupiter, 19.97-99, where he is told that eternal judgment is as incomprehensible to mortals as the eagle’s notes are to him). The sweetness and richness of sound increase as Dante rises: in the Stars, the music of an angel is such that the sweetest melody here would seem like a cloud breaking in thunder (23.97-99) and the song of a soul so divine that not even Dante’s imagination can recapture it (24.23-24).

But whether he is using symbols or music to suggest the deeper meaning and harmony of Paradise, it is only through Dante’s words that we can be aware of their existence. It is, finally, poetic language which conveys some sense of the ineffable. Dante is in control of his medium to such an extent that he can stretch it beyond its own limits in a variety of ways, by using Latin words, not as foreign phrases but within the Italian (the last rhyme of the poem is the Latin velle and the Italian stelle), by creating new words in Italian to suggest concepts that cannot otherwise be expressed (e.g., inciela, “inheavens,” becoming one with heaven, s’inluia, “inhims,” fusing two beings in one), by using repetition to suggest difference rather than similarity (“come in voce voce si discerne,” 8.17, where one voice is distinguished from the other) or identity where difference is expected (as with homonym rhymes in which the meaning is apparently different but actually the same, e.g., porti, “harbors” and “carries,” 1.112,114, where the force which “carries” is the “harbor” to which all must return), and by using paradoxical analogies (the moon is a cloud, a diamond, a pearl, and water).[66] In every case, the reader is forced to work beyond the surface words in order to arrive at the meaning, which is not so much concealed as imprisoned within the bonds of human language.

Through his poetic language, Dante provides his audience with abundant “spiritual usury” to counter the “corporal usury” of their world. He transcends the limitations of material values and goods as he moves through the Comedy by giving financial terms a metaphorical meaning, by turning the commercial perspective from profit and loss in money to gains in love and knowledge. Language provides the means to transform commercial thought, not by changing the words, but by changing the context and therefore the meaning. The treasure Dante offers the reader of the Comedy is not the face value of the individual words, which in themselves are true currency and amount to a substantial sum reckoned simply as poetry, but the meaning that lies beyond them, the moral, political, religious message of the ideal universal government whose stamp gives them authenticity and to whose enduring stability their value attests.


The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 01 Forese Donati, in the exchange of insulting sonnets with Dante, implies that Dante’s father was a moneylender (72a) and states that he was a moneychanger (74a), see Dante’s Lyric Poetry, ed. Kenelm Foster and Patrick Boyde, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1967) 2 vols.; given the tone of the insults, it is possible that the first is an exaggeration, but the second is likely. Giuseppe Garrani, n pensiero di Dante in tema di economia monetaria e creditizia (Palermo: Cassa di Risparmio,1965), 12, thinks he probably was a banker. Jeremy Catto, “Florence, Tuscany, and the World of Dante,” in The World of Dante, ed. Cecil Grayson (Oxford: Clarendon, 1980), notes that Dante’s sister married a moneylender and that Dante himself first appears in Florentine records in 1283 or 1284 as the owner of a debt, 8.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 02 See Enrico Bensa, Francesco di Marco da Prato (Milan: Treves, 1928), 63. Giovanni Livi, Dall’archivio di Francesco Datini (Florence: Lumachi, 1910) cites the letters mentioned here, see particularly 24.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 03 See Raymond deRoover, Business, Banking and Economic Thought in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe. ed. Julius Kirschner (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1974), 120 ff., on the development of accounting. Cf. Armando Sapori, The Italian Merchant in the Middle Ages, trans. Patricia Kennen (New York: Norton, 1970), 30.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 04 See Sapori, Italian Merchant, 51; the information in this paragraph is drawn from Sapori (also his Studi di storia economica medievale [Florence: Sansoni, 1946], 587 ff.), and Roberto Lopez, The Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages, 950-1350 (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1976).

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 05 Richard W. Kaeuper Bankers to the Crown, The Riccardi of Lucca and Edward I (Princeton: Princeton University, 1973), 83, 151; the list of debtors is given on 60 If.. The name is spelt with an i in Italian studies.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 07 0n Florence, see Marvin Becker, Florence in Transition, vol. 1, The Decline of the Commune (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins,1967), 17. Cf. Lopez, Commercial Revolution, 70: “Italian communes were essentially governments of, by, and for merchants.” See M. V. Clarke, The Medieval City-State (1926; reprint, Cambridge: Speculum Historiale, 1966), 120, on the development of political offices from guilds, and Daniel Waley, The Italian City-Republics (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969), 63, on elections by guilds. On Florentine bankers in local politics, see Gino Masi, “I Banchieri Fiorentini nella Vita Politica della citta sulla fine del Dugento,” Archivio giuridico ‘Filippo Serafini’ 105 (1931), 57-89, and “La Struttura sociale delle fazioni politiche fiorentine ai tempi di Dante,” Giornale dantesco 31 (1928), 3-28.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 08 See Sapori, Studi, 708; Roberto Lopez and Irving Raymond, Medieval Trade in the Mediterranean World (1955; reprint, New York: Columbia, 1961), 92, and Lopez, Commercial Revolution, 67. DeRoover, Business, Banking, 342, notes the unusual social mobility in north Italy because of trade. He cites examples of partnership formulae which begin “a nome di Dio, e guadangnio,” (“in the name of God and gain,” dated 1308), 71, and an entry in an account book, “Al nome di Dio, amen, di guadangno, e di buone venture ke Dio ci dea” (“In the name of God, amen, of gain, and of good fortune which God may give us,” 1253), 345. The move into commerce was widespread in north Italy and from an early date. 1. Capecchi and M. P. Puccinelli, “L’economia pistoiese ai tempi di Dante,” Bullettino storico pistoiese NS7 (1965) 171-83, point out that Pistoia developed artisans and trade rather than agriculture from the twelfth century, when it was small, because of its numerous ponds and canals, that the wealthier families went into banking, and that moneychangers held posts in the city government.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 09 Francesco Mazzoni, “Teoresi e prassi in Dante politico,” in Dante Alighieri, Monarchia, Epistole politiche (Turin: ERI, 1966), lix, cites the sentence against Dante. There seems to be no evidence that Dante was actually guilty of barratry, see Garrani, n pensiero di Dante, 89, fn. 139.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 10 Arte can refer to the work of an artist or artisan, of anyone who practices a profession or craft; arte is the official name used by guilds to signify the occupation, and Dante uses it in Convivio, 4.6.6, to mean whatever men do in their work, for example, “operazione od arte,” “l’arte di cavalleria.” In the Convivio, Dante lists three licit ways of acquiring wealth, of making money by craft or trade or service, “per arte o per mercatantia o per servigio meritante” (4.11.7), as opposed to theft and robbery. The focus in the Convivio, however, is on the negative aspects of wealth, the dangers of desiring and possessing it; even its distribution is attributed to random causes, whereas in the Comedy, Dante treats wealth as an important element in the workings of providence.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 11 Dante goes far beyond the simple metaphorical use of treasure, such as the Egyptian gold in Exodus that was interpreted as pagan learning to be put to Christian use in biblical exegesis. See Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana, 2.40 (60), and Glossa Ordinaria, for Ex. 3:22 and 12:35-36.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 12 John W. Baldwin, Masters, Princes and Merchants (Princeton: Princeton University, 1970), 2 vols., 1.271, hereafter cited as MPM.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 13 Baldwin, MPM, 1.262, notes that in ancient times when one wanted to insult a wanderer, like Ulysses, one called him a merchant, as Nausicaa’s father did.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 14 See deRoover, Business, Banking, 337, and John W. Baldwin, “The Medieval Theories of the Just Price,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society NS 49 (l959), 63-66 hereafter cited as JP. Bonaventure recognizes the necessity of an army to defend the faith, of trade so that lands can live (Commentum on Sentences of Peter Lombard, Commentum in quattuor libros Sententiarum Magistri Petri Lombardi, 4, d. 16, dub.l5), and admits that a merchant can act without sin if he does not practice deception; Aquinas says that those things without which the republic cannot be maintained are not vices, but ordered to virtue, provided the merchant acts without fraud and according to a licit contract (Commentary on Sentences of Peter Lombard 4, d.16, q.4, a.2). Giles of Rome De regimine principum 2.3.12, mentions five ways to acquire money, which include trade and transporting goods.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 15 See Francis A. Riehey, Character Control of Wealth according to SL Thomas Aquinas (Washington: Catholic University, 1940), E. VanRoey, “La monnaie d’apres St. Thomas d’Aquin,” Revue Neo-Scholastique 12 (1905), 2754, 207-38, for Aquinas on wealth and money; on monopoly and just price see Sapori, Studi “11 ‘Giusto Prezzo’ nella dottrina di San Tommaso e nella practica del suo tempo,” 189-227, Raymond deRoover, “La Doctrine scolastique in matiere de monopole et son application a la politique economique des communes italiennes,” in Studi in onore di Amintore Fanfani (Milan: Giuffre 1962), 6 vols., 1.151-79.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 16 See Ovidio Capitani, “La venditio ad terminum nella valutazione morale di S. Tommaso d’Aquino e di Remigio dei Girolami,” Bulletino dell’Istituto Storico Italiano per a Medio Evo 70 (1958), 229-363; cf. Alfred O’Rahilly “Notes on St. Thomas,” Irish Ecclesiastical Record 31 (1928), l59-68.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 17 Ownership does not change legitimately in usury any more than in fraud, theft, robbery, or simony, so all gain must be restored to the rightful owner according to canon law, Baldwin, MPM, 1.303.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 18 See Jacob Viner, Religious Thought and Economic Society (Durham: Duke, 1978), 63-64, who cites Richey, Character Control.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 19 See Charles Davis, “An Early Florentine Political Theorist: Fra Remigio dei Girolami” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 104 (1960), 667, and Capitani, “la venditio ad terminum,” 340 ff., for text and commentary of Determinatio utrum sit licitum vendere mercationes ad terminum.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 20 See John T. Noonan, The Scholastic Analysis of Usury (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University 1957), 49.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 21 On credit sales, see Baldwin, JP, 39-52, and Viner, Religious Thought, 8185. On loans, see Noonan, Scholastic Analysis of Usury, 39 and 48, citing Gratian and Bonaventure, and T. P. McLaughlin, “The Teaching of the Canonists on Usury in the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries,” Medieval Studies 1 (1939), 81147, and 2 (1940), 1-22, particularly 1.100; cf. Viner on usury, 85-99.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 22 See McLaughlin, “Canonists on Usury,” 1.99, and Benjamin N. Nelson, The Idea of Usury (Princeton: Princeton University, 1949), 16.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 23 McLaughlin, “Canonists on Usury,” 1.88-89; interest is technically distinct from usury as compensation for damages incurred from a loan, see Noonan, Scholastic Analysis of Usury, 106, and Baldwin, MPM, 1.282-86.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 24 McLaughlin, “Canonists on Usury,” 1.125 If.. Those in which the fruits of the property serve as interest are: feuda, the return of a fief to the church as security, in which the fruits may be enjoyed without being deducted from the debt as long as the vassal is freed from service during the same period; pro dote, property given to the bridegroom as security for a dowry that could not be paid, in which the fruits need not be deducted because a dowry is not always sufficient to support the burdens of matrimony and a dowry must be kept intact for the public good; stipendia cleri, clerics may take revenue of pledges placed with them for loans if they are ecclesiastical benefices they are recovering from laymen; venditio fructus, essentially a rent charge, the revenues of land sold for a limited period of time, allowed because of the uncertainty involved; lex commissoria by which the seller is allowed to regain possession for the same price, while the revenue goes to the purchaser. Compensation for damages includes: fidejussor, compensation to those who put up security for clerics in debt to merchants and were forced to pay damages; pretium post tempora solvens, late payment to cover possible damages; poena nec in fraudem, penalty for nonexecution of contract, as long as it is a penalty and not indemnification of the lender. Usury for heretics and infidels, cui velle jure nocere, is based on Ambrose, “ubi jus belli, ibi jus usurae,” where it is right to make war it is also right to make usury, but Hostiensis does not accept this because harm to another cannot be justified.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 25 See deRoover, “L’Evolution de la lettre de change, XlVe-XVIIIle s.,” Affaires et gens d’affaires, 4 (Paris: Colin 1953), 23-24, and Kirschner, “Raymond deRoover on Scholastic Economic Thought,” in de Roover, Business, Banking, 32.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 26 Both Sapori, Studi, 536, and Garrani, 11 pensiero di Dante, 68 ff., particularly 78, comment on Dante’s acceptance of commerce.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 27 In Purgatory,12.105, Dante couples corruption by words in official records (il quaderno) with corruption by money in customs and weights (la doga).

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 28 Baldwin, JP, 74. See Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Intellectual and Manual Labor (London: Macmillan, 1978), for a discussion of the relation between commerce, particularly coinage, and abstract thinking; see also R. A. Shoaf, Dante, Chaucer, and the Currency of the Word (Norman: Pilgrim Books, (1983).

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 29 AII commercial Italians seem to have been called “Lombards” at first (Sapori, Italian Merchant, 14) and were persecuted as a group in France (ibid. 17-18); they banded together of ficially under a captain of Lombard and Tuscan merchants “Capitaneus mercatorum lombardorum et tuscanorum” in l278, and he negotiated for them with the French king; later they formed a socieq of Italian merchants, “Universitas mercatorum italicorum,” 1288 (ibid. 19). Garrani, n pensiero di Dante, 13, notes that these organizations were self-disciplinaq; he also mentions that commercial hmilies joined togehter in caravans in order to be safer in their travels. Italian companies that were fierce rivals at obtaining wool in England apparently shared ships to transport it (Kaeuper, Bankers to the Crouyn, 42). F. P. Luiso, “Su le tracce d’un usuraio fiorentino del s.XIII,” Archivio storico italiano NS 42 (1908), 3-44, cites a document of the Curia in 1294 in which Giovanni Gianfigliazzi promised in his own name and that of the merchants from Florence and Lombardy residing in Provence at the time to pay a sum in order to abolish or modify a royal decree on usuq, 24. When the king of England needed large sums, he could count on the Ricciardi to raise them from among the Italian banking communiq (Kaeuper, 301). In the Datini archives, letters about merchants in Spain mention the “detti Italiani” apropos of royal permissions and restrictions (Livi, Dall’archivo, 52).

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 30 Garrani, n pensiero di Dante, 139, mentions a particularly intriguing way of regularizing monetaq circulation, by the use of imaginaq money, which existed only as a standard against which real monies could be measured, the “Fiorino a Fiorino” in Florence, and the Sicilian “oncia.”

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 31 Counsellors of fraud, who teach others to gain power and wealth by deception, are also tongues, spurting from the “throat” of their bolgia, and the three worst traitors, those who sell out their benefactors, hang from the three mouths of Lucifer. This is the essence of Hell, turning the mouth, the instrument of communication through which reason speaks, into an organ of pure consumption.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 32 Fulgentius, Mitologiarum Liber 1, ed Rudolfus Helm (1898; reprint, Stuttgart: Teubner, 1970), chapter 18, and The Commentary on the First Six Books of the Aeneid, ed. J. W. and E. F. Jones (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1977), 4.222 ff.; the commentary was translated by E. G. Schreiber and T. E. Maresca (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1979). Mercury as eloquence was, of course, well established by Martianus Capella’s De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii. Thomas Aquinas connects trade with lying words, ST, 2.2ae, q.77, a.4: “difficiliter exuitur negotiator a peccatis labiorum.” There is an interesting analogue to Dante as poet and merchant in some versions of the Tristan story, in which the hero disguises himself in his wanderings both as a merchant and as a minstrel.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 33 Aquinas speaks of the expiation of sins in Purgatory in terms of debts, profit, and compensation, ST, Supp. 2.71, particularly a.4. Jacques Le Goff, La naissance du Purgatoire (Paris: Gallimard, 1981), notes the financial language in that passage, although he points out that the text was put together by Thomas’s disciples from his work. See also Jacques Le Goff, “The Usurer and Purgatory,” The Dawn of Modern Banking, Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, UCLA (New Haven: Yale University, 1979), 25-52, for connections between the concept of Purgatory (the salvation of sinners) and the development of capitalism.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 34 Cf. Matelda, who gives Dante more than she had promised, sure that it will be no less valued for that (28.137-38), i.e., one can be prodigal of learning as well as of love.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 35 Saint Francis was so named because his father, a merchant, was in France on business at the time of his birth.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 36 ST, 2.2ae, q.118, a.8: “avaritia est superfluus amor habendi divitias, in duobus excedit … in retinendo … in accipiendo…. Et sic in acquirendo aliena utitur quandoque quidem vi, quod pertinet ad violentias; quodoque autem dolor. Qui quidem si fiat in verbo, erit fallacia, quantum ad simplex verbum; periurium autem si addatur confirmatio iuramenti. Si autem dolus committatur in opere, sic, quantum ad res, erit fraus; quantum ad personas, proditio, ut patet de luda, qui ex avaritia prodidit Christum.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 37 The coins of the other popes in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries use PP, PAPA, sometimes PA, or PAP. Boniface’s are the only ones I could find with PAPE in this period (see Francesco Muntoni, Le monete dei Papi e degli Stati pontefici [Rome: P & P Santamaria, 1972] 1.24 ff.), though Leo VIII had one in the tenth century.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 38 Cf. Garrani on the counterfeiter’s swollen stomach, 11 pensiero di Dante, 160 Of.;; Garrani suggests that by condemning avarice, which takes money out of circulation, whereas loans put it in, Dante is distinguishing bankers from usurers who lend at excessive rates, 86.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 39 The restless movement of merchants in pursuit of gain is a classical topos adopted by the church fathers, Baldwin, MPM, 1.262.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 40 McLaughlin, “Canonists on Usury,” 2.10-11, and Marvin Becker, “Florentine Politics and the Diffusion of Heresy in the Trecento: A Socio-Economic Inquiry,” Speculum 34 (1959), 61, and Emilio Morpurgo, “I Prestatori di Danaro al tempo di Dante,” Dante e Padova (Padua: Prosperini, 1865), 193-233. According to Morpurgo, the mission of the Frati Gaudenti was to safeguard peace, wipe out heresies, defend ecclesiastical privileges and the claims of widows and orphans, and particularly to oversee the repression of usury. 216.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 41 See Niccolo Ottokar, “La condanna postuma di Farinata degli Uberti,” Archivio storico italiano 77 (1919),159 ff., for the text of the sentence; he notes that a year and a half after the posthumous trial of Farinata, Bruno degli Uberti was similarly condemned for heresy, posthumously, and his sons lost their inheritance, dispersing another substantial part of the Uberti family fortunes.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 42 According to Robert Davidsohn, Storia di Firenze, I primordi della civilta fiorentina Industria, arti, commercio e finanze (Italian trans. Giovanni Miccoli), 6.256, no one took part as frequently in the consulate of the Calimala guild as the Cavalcanti and indeed the wool industry also had a seat in their houses; on the importance of the Cavalcanti in commerce and banking, see Masi “Banchieri,” 61-62.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 43 There are various suggestive details in the canto which have financial overtones: the souls appear from the waist or chin up, as busts or heads, seen against the backdrop of their tomb covers, rather like the figures on coins, and Farinata does not move except for one slight raising of the eyebrow, like an engraved figure; Cavalcanti’s face is seen to the chin, mento, which rhymes with talento, “talent”, and spento, “spent.” (Talento means “desire” rather than the coin here, but that is not clear until the following line. 10.55-56.) Dante “reads Cavalcanti’s name” in his words and penalty (10.64-65) as one identifies the figure on a coin.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 44 See Enrico Salvagnini, “Jacopo da Sant’Andrea e i Feudatarj del Padovano,” Dante e Padova (Padua; Prosperini, 1865), 37-40 and 55.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 45 Saint Bernard compares himself to a tailor at the end of Paradise (32.140), but there it is a humility topos, revealing a willingness to work within the limits and material given by God. The sexual implications of the sodomites’ clothes imagery were discussed in chapter three.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 46 In civil law, fraud, dolus, is any cunning, deceit, or contrivance used to defraud, deceive, or cheat another; two kinds are specified, “dolus ex proposito,” intentional fraud, which nullifies a contract, and “dolus re ipsa,” which is by mistake and has no remedy in law (Baldwin, MPM, 1.264). The ten categories of fraud described in Dante’s eighth circle are all of the first kind.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 47 See Wayne Conner, “Inferno XVIII 66 (“femmine da conio”) and S1 (“pungenti salse”),” Italica 32 (1955), 95-103, for an analysis of various meanings of conio, the most obvious being “coin,” but with the other possibilities including the die or stamp used in making coins (with a possible obscene reading of women easily stamped), a measure for liquids (not applicable here), and deception (possible as a double-entendre).

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 48 See Corpus nummorum italicorum, vol. 11, Toscana (Zecche minori) (Rome: Cecchini; Milan: Hoetli,1929); vol. 12, Toscana (Firenze), cited below, was published in 1930.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 49 Storia di Firenze, 6.448-50. Davidsohn also notes that statutes of guilds, which were well-meaning attempts to control usury, served instead to cover it “hypocritically with a veil of piety,” 6.269. Cf. Morpurgo, “Prestatori di danaro,” 216.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 50 On the economic life of Pistoia, see Capecchi and Puccinelli, “L’economia pistoiese”; on the metamorphoses of cities, see above, chapter 3.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 51 Noonan, Scholastic Analysis of Usury, 17, cites Anselm of Canterbury Hugh of St. Victor, Peter Comnestor, and Peter Lombard; see also Nelson, Idea of Usury, 9; see McLaughlin, “Canonists on Usury,” 1.82, for similar treatment in commentaries on the Corpus juris canonici.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 52 The early commentators make distinctions among three kinds of theft in these cantos, assuming that each metamorphosis must represent a different one, but they do not specify contracts; Jacopo, however, defines thieves as those who fraudulently and secretly extort others’ goods through the subtlety of their wit (1.312). The connection between Dante’s theft and fraudulent business practices should be considered, whether or not one accepts the specific kinds of contract suggested here.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 53 Note the emphasis on numbers in this passage: “‘non se’ ne due ne uno.’/ Gia eran li due capi un divenuti,/quando n’apparver due figure miste/in una faccia, ov’eran due perduti./Fersi le braccia due di quattro liste” (25.69-73).

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 54 See Masi, “Struttura sociale,” 2425.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 55 Giovanni Rosadi, “11 canto XXIV dell’lnferno,” Lectura Dantis (Florence: Sansoni, 1917), 21-22.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 56 See Bruno Nardi, Dante e la cultura medievale (Bari: Larerza, 1949) 15354.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 57 Garrani,11 pensiero di Dante, 163 ff. On Adam and other abuses of coinage mentioned in the Comedy, see Flavio Valeriani, “La numismatica nella DivinaComedia,” Rivista Italiana di Numismatica 28 (l915), 197-220; he uses the continuing existence of certain coins as evidence for the extent of counterfeiting and circulation of bad coins. I am indebted to Alan Stahl of the American Numismatic Society for this reference.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 58 The last major sin of Hell, the betrayal of those to whom one is tied by specific bonds is less overtly social a sin in its victim than fraud, though it still has politico-social overtones. One would not expect to find the same suggestions of commerce in this circle, and one does not; nonetheless, money and possessions are a factor, at least as important a motivation in this circle as power. There are commercial elements, although Dante does not allude to them, behind the betrayal of Ugolino, which is connected with Pisa’s struggle against Florence and Lucca. His audience probably knew that one of the major problems between Pisa and Lucca was Pisa’s periodic counterfeiting of Luccan currency (Garrani, 118). Many of the betrayals alluded to in the ninth circle occur either to gain possessions or as the result of a bribe. Even in Satan’s mouth, the central figure, Judas, is one who committed the betrayal of Christ for money.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 59 Even in the calculation of the sin’s weight, however, unexpected values are applied: Bonconte, we learn in canto S. was saved despite his sins because of one little tear, “per una lagrimetta” (5.107), to the distinct annoyance of the devil.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 60 See McLaughlin, “Canonists on Usury,” 1.108 and 2.15-16, and Baldwin, MPM, 1.273. Not all contracts call God to witness, though partnerships usually do (see Lopez, Medieval Trade, for documents); but all call some public official, usually a notary, to witness, and all involve giving one’s word.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 61 See Rodolfo Spahr, Le Monete Siciliane dai Bizantini a Carlo I d’Angio Zurich: Association Internationale des Numismates Professionels,1976). Frederick 11 had coined a small quantity of a gold coin which recalled the ancient empire in its metal and minting, as well as its name, the Augustale (Valeriani, “La numismatica,” 202).

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 62 On Augustine, see Joseph A. Mazzeo, “St. Augustine’s Rhetoric of Silence,” Journal of the History of Ideas 23 (1962), 175-96. On the two traditions, see James J. Murphy, Rhetoric in the Middle Ages (Berkeley: University of California, 1974). Cf. my “The Relation of Speech to Sin in the Inferno,” Dante Studies 87 (1969), 33-46.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 63 She tells the story of her affair as though it were a brief encounter rather than a long duration, presenting herself and Paolo as young lovers, though they were middle-aged when they died; she also reverses the roles of the lover in the Lancelot-Guinevere kiss in order to suggest that Paolo is the active force in their affair, but his silent weeping belies her. Though she uses the lyric cliches, the real desires keep asserting themselves: “Amor, ch’al cor gentil ratto s’apprende,” a line which might have been written by Guido Guinizelli, is followed by “prese costui de la bella persona” (Hell S.100-01: “love that swiftly takes hold of a noble heart took him for my beautiful body”), revealing the physical aspect of the love. Similarly, “Amor, ch’a nullo amato amar perdona,” is quickly undercut by “mi prese del costui piacer si forte” (5.103-04: “Love that exempts no loved one from love, seized me for the strong pleasure [I took] in him”).

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 64 Cf. letter to Can Grande, sec. 29, in which Dante says he lacks the knowledge because he has forgotten and lacks the power because even if he remembers speech fails him: “for we perceive many things by the intellect for which language has no terms, as Plato indicates by his employment of metaphors; he perceived many things by the light of the intellect which his everyday language was inadequate to express.” Dante, too, finds ways to transcend the limitations of normal language.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 65 Dante progresses from the symbols in the Earthly Paradise, which are real objects with symbolic meaning, to metaphors in the early part of Paradise, and finally to symbolic figures; for instance, the garden in the Earthly Paradise is a real garden which represents the created universe in its prelapsarian state, souls in the first part of paradise are metaphorically “plants,” but in the sphere of the stars, Dante sees all the souls as flowers in the garden of the church triumphant and, in the Empyrean, as petals of a single rose.

The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 06: 66 For a more detailed study of the unusual technical devices in Paradise, see my “Words and Images in the Paradiso: Reflections of the Divine,” in Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Studies in the Italian Trecento In Honor of Charles S. Singleton, ed. Aldo S. Bernardo and Anthony L. Pellegrini (Binghamton: SUNY, 1983), 115-32.