The Divine Comedy by Dante ALIGHIERI · Digital Dante Edition with Commento Baroliniano · MMXV ·   Columbia University

Inferno 12



Dante’s Poets, pp. 208-9; “Dante and Francesca da Rimini: Realpolitik, Romance, Gender,” 2000, rpt. Dante and the Origins of Italian Literary Culture, pp. 304-32; “Only Historicize: History, Material Culture (Food, Clothes, Books), and the Future of Dante Studies,” Dante Studies, 127 (2009): 37-54, esp. pp. 48-49; John Larner, Italy in the Age of Dante and Petrarch (1216–1380) (London and New York: Longman, 1980), esp. Chapter 7.
  • the ruine are caused by Christ’s Harrowing of Hell and function as Christological signposts scattered through the infernal landscape
  • a new installment in the Virgilio narrative
  • more information on the virtual bodies of the souls
  • the concept of tirannia: in reference not only to tyrants of antiquity but as part of an ongoing political analysis of forms of governance on the Italian peninsula (see Inferno 27 and Monarchia)

Inferno 12 begins with a difficult climb down a steep and mountainous rockface, which became passable, albeit tortuous, as the result of an alpine landslide. On the edge of the cliff there is a monster from classical mythology which guards the way down to the seventh circle: the Minotaur, “l’infamia di Creti” (infamy of Crete) of Inferno 12.12. As with the previous classical guardians of Hell, Virgilio manages Dante’s safe passage, in this case by infuriating the Minotaur and taking advantage of its irate distraction to make a run for the pass.

The first section of Inferno 12, through verse 45, is an important installment in the ongoing story of Virgilio and his ability to negotiate Hell: we see both Virgilio’s limitations vis-à-vis Christianity, and his correct intuitions. Here Virgilio, who recently failed to guide Dante through the gates of Dis, guarded by Christian devils, once more shows himself adept at handling classical monsters and guides Dante safely past the Minotaur.

Perhaps having learned from the experience of watching the angel open the gate of Dis, Virgilio taunts the Minotaur by reminding him of Theseus (“the duke of Athens” of verse 117), the Greek hero who was able to defeat the Minotaur on Crete: “Forse / tu credi che qui sia ’l duca d’Atene, / che sù nel mondo la morte ti porse?” (Perhaps / you think this is the Duke of Athens here, / who, in the world above, brought you your death [Inf. 12.16-18]). Similarly, in Inferno 9, the Furies are still haunted by the “assault” of Theseus on Hades (Inf. 9.54), and the angel taunts the infernal throng with the memory of Hercules, who once defeated Cerberus (Inf. 9.97-99).

Theseus and Hercules are classical forerunners of Christ, early harrowers of Hell whose actions symbolize infernal defeat. By invoking Theseus in Inferno 12, Virgilio shows how well he has learned the lesson of the celestial agent who arrived in Inferno 9.

There are echoes in Inferno 12 of the previous episode with the devils. The discussion of the causes of “questa ruina” in Inferno 12.32 (“ruina” is Dante’s word for the landslide that they are climbing down) induces Virgilio to reminisce about the first time he made this trip through Hell. At that time, he says, the boulders that they are picking their way through had not yet fallen:

Or vo’ che sappi che l’altra fïata
ch’i’ discesi qua giù nel basso inferno,
questa roccia non era ancor cascata.     (Inf. 12.34-36)

Now I would have you know: the other time
that I descended into lower Hell,
this mass of boulders had not yet collapsed.  

Any reference to Virgilio’s first trip to Hell serves to problematize our beloved guide, since it reminds us that he once undertook this same journey under the aegis of a very different power from Beatrice: as we recall from the description of Virgilio’s prior trip in Inferno 9, he was called the first time by that mistress of the dark arts, the witch Erichtho. Yet, despite this troubling set of associations, in Inferno 12 Virgilio goes on to show impressive powers to intuit Christian verities.

Virgilio correctly intuits what has happened in the time elapsed between his first journey to lower Hell and his current undertaking. First, he temporally situates the earthquake that caused the rockslide, connecting it to the moment when Christ entered Hell and liberated the Biblical righteous: the earth shook immediately before the arrival of “colui che la gran preda / levò a Dite del cerchio superno” (the One who took / from Dis the highest circle’s splendid spoils [Inf. 12.38-39]). In other words, the earth quaked before the arrival in Hell of Christ.

The periphrasis that Virgilio uses for Christ, calling Him the One who robbed Lucifer of his prey, by taking the Biblical righteous out of “the highest circle” of Hell (“the One who took / from Dis the highest circle’s splendid spoils” (Inf. 12.38-39), is extremely telling. Christ’s arrival in Limbo and His liberation of some of the souls from that circle is a fixed reference point for Virgilio, which he articulates for the first time in the canto devoted to Limbo, Inferno 4 (52-53), and again in confronting the devils at the gate of Dis (Inf. 8.124-26). That was the moment when, newly arrived in the first circle—“Io era nuovo in questo stato, / quando ci vidi venire un possente” (I was new-entered on this state / when I beheld a Great Lord enter here [Inf. 4.52-53])—Virgilio first realized that some of Limbo’s residents would be liberated to a different and higher reality: one that is not accessible to him.

The unfolding theme of Virgilio’s melancholy, with its most poignant expressions in Purgatorio, is rooted in the moment of realization constituted by Christ’s Harrowing of Hell, a moment first referenced in Inferno 4.52-53. That first moment of realization is supplemented as Virgilio comes to understand the scope of Christ’s act of liberation, reflected in the fact that there were not only Biblical righteous among the souls He saved. There were also virtuous pagans, as first discussed in the Introduction to Inferno 4.

Virgilio now explains the quake in terms of the Empedoclean doctrine whereby order depends on the discord of the elements, and chaos would result from their concord. At the moment of the quake, Virgilio says, he believed that the universe “felt love”:  “’i’ pensai che l’universo / sentisse amor” (I thought the universe / felt love [Inf. 12.41-42]). Although Virgilio is technically wrong in ascribing the earth’s tremor to the concord of the elements, in saying that the universe “felt love” he has in fact intuited the correct cause of the quake: the universe felt love in that it felt the arrival of Christ.

Beginning in Inferno 12.46, the travelers see what lies before them in the first ring of the circle of violence. Dante tells us of a river of blood, Phlegethon, in which are immersed and boiled the sinners who committed violence against their neighbors, those who “did harm to others through violence”: “qual che per violenza in altrui noccia” (Inf. 12.48). The degree of the shades’ immersion in the boiling blood is determined by the degree of violence that they committed. 

The narrator interrupts with an impassioned apostrophe to the “blind cupidity and insane anger” that drive humans, causing us to spend eternity in a river of blood: “Oh cieca cupidigia e ira folle” (Inf. 12.49). Here again we see, as discussed in the Introduction to Inferno 6, the distinction between the underlying vice and the specific action or sin.

The sinners punished in the first ring of the circle of violence committed sins of violence against others. These sins took the form of actions such as murder and robbery. The sin is the precise violent action that the sinner committed: the act of murder, the act of robbery. The vice is the underlying motivator to that action—be it anger, be it greed, or be it another of the seven deadly vices.

As always in human behavior, the underlying vices that spur a soul to sin are various and complex. Here the narrator’s apostrophe to “blind cupidity and insane anger”—“cieca cupidigia e ira folle” (Inf. 12.49)—indicts not only the most obvious vice leading to violence, namely anger (“ira folle”), but also cupidity or greed (“cieca cupidigia”). We remember that the most fearsome obstacle to the pilgrim’s aborted ascent in Inferno 1 is the lupa that represents cupidigia.


The theme of classical antiquity continues. The travelers meet a group of Centaurs, creatures from classical mythology famed for their violent tempers, but also for their better traits: the tutor of Achilles was the centaur Chiron (Inf. 12.71), who is here the leader of the troop. Chiron greets the travelers. He has realized that Dante is alive, because he sees that Dante’s feet move what he touches, unlike the feet of the dead:

                 Siete voi accorti
che quel di retro move ciò ch’el tocca?
Così non soglion far li piè d’i morti.   (Inf. 12.80-82)

                 Have you noticed
how he who walks behind moves what he touches?
Dead soles are not accustomed to do that.   

Since Dante’s feet are substantial (in the etymological sense of the word) and real, they move rocks. Possessing substantial and rock-moving feet, it follows that Dante is alive and is unable to fly through the air in a virtual body, like the shades. Virgilio explains to Chiron that Dante will need to be carried over the boiling blood and asks for an escort who will lead them to a ford and who will transport the living traveler over the river:

danne un de’ tuoi, a cui noi siamo a provo,
e che ne mostri là dove si guada
e che porti costui in su la groppa,
ché non è spirto che per l’aere vada.  (Inf. 12.93-96)
give us one of your band, to serve as companion;
and let him show us where to ford the ditch,
and let him bear this man upon his back,
for he’s no spirit who can fly through air.

Hence Chiron delegates Nessus to guide the travelers to the ford and to carry the pilgrim over the river. This is the first occasion in which one of the infernal guardians is assigned to serve as a local guide for the travelers.

From verse 96, “ché non è spirto che per l’aere vada”—“for he’s no spirit who can fly through air”—we can infer that the dead are able to move through air. We have already learned, in Inferno 6, that the virtual bodies of the dead are insubstantial, “empty images that seem like persons”: “lor vanità che par persona” (Inf. 6.36). The description of Inferno 6 accords well with the information offered here regarding the ability of dead souls to navigate through the medium of air—“per l’aere” (Inf. 12.96).

Later in Hell the pilgrim will encounter a sinner whose body is described as though substantial: Dante pulls on the hair of the traitor Bocca degli Abati in Inferno 33. But in this instance Dante is functioning as a deliverer of infernal torment, and his ability to touch Bocca must be categorized as analogous to the ability of the devils to throw the barrator Ciampolo back into the pitch or to wound the schismatics. When, on the other hand, Dante tries to embrace his friend Casella in Purgatorio 2, Casella’s body is an insubstantial image that cannot be embraced.

Virgilio also offers Chiron a concise and important description of the journey and of its principal protagonists: they are himself, Beatrice, and Dante. He was appointed the task of guiding the voyager, he explains, on a journey that is no pleasure trip: “mostrar li mi convien la valle buia / necessità ’l ci ’nduce, e non diletto” (it falls to me to show him the dark valley. / Necessity has brought him here, not pleasure [Inf. 12.85-86]). Necessity has brought them here, and Virgilio is performing an “officio” that was commissioned by Beatrice, described as one who departed from “singing alleluia” in order to give him his novel assignment: “Tal si partì da cantare alleluia / che mi commise quest officio novo” (For she who gave me this new task was one / who had just come from singing halleluiah [Inf. 12.88-89]).

Nessus will eventually conduct the travelers to a place where they can ford the boiling blood and will carry the pilgrim across the river Phlegethon on his back. The request for such assistance is given by Virgilio in verses 94-96, cited above, but the actual activity of fording the river is not narrated. It occurs after Inferno 12 has ended and before Inferno 13 begins, and is confirmed retrospectively in the first verse of Inferno 13. As Inferno 13 opens, we learn that Dante has commenced to observe his surroundings in the second ring of the seventh circle even before Nessus has reforded the river and returned to the first ring: “Non era ancor di là Nesso arrivato” (Nessus had not yet reached the other bank [Inf. 13.1]).

* * *

As they proceed along the shore of Phlegethon with Chiron and the other Centaurs, the travelers learn that the violent souls are immersed in the boiling blood in a graduated fashion, according to the gravity of their sins.

The sinners boiled in Phlegethon include both the violent against others in their persons and the violent against others in their possessions. The gravest sinners in this ring are the tyrants (“tiranni” in verse 104), despotic rulers who committed violence against their subjects both in their persons (by killing them) and in their possessions (by plundering their goods). The tiranni are therefore indicted on both counts and are immersed in blood up to their brows (Inf. 12.103-4). They both murdered and plundered, and hence are the worst offenders in the category of violence against others: “«E’ son tiranni / che dier nel sangue e ne l’aver di piglio” (These are the tyrants / who plunged their hands in blood and plundering [Inf. 12.104-5]).

It is worth noting that in his late political treatise Monarchia Dante makes synthetic but telling reference to the category of tyrants. Using the Latin version of the Italian “tiranni” (a term that by the time he composed Monarchia Dante had already used not only in Inferno 12 but also in Inferno 27 and 28, as we shall see below), he defines tyrants as a group. Tyrants do not observe “publica iura” (public laws); they are pitted against the common welfare (“comunem utilitatem”) and seek only private gain (“ad propriam”):

si vero industria, non aliter cum sic errantibus est agendum, quam cum tyrampnis, qui publica iura non ad comunem utilitatem secuntur, sed ad propriam retorquere conantur. (Mon. 3.4.10)

but if such things are done deliberately, those who make this mistake should be treated no differently from tyrants who do not observe public rights for the common welfare, but seek to turn them to their own advantage.

The tyrants immersed in Phlegethon and viewed in the first ring of the circle of violence are both classical (Alexander and Dionysius in verse 107) and contemporary: the “Azzolino” of verse 110 is Ezzelino III da Romano, lord of the Marca Trevigiana (died 1259), while “Opizzo da Esti” in verse 111 is Obizzo II d’Este, lord of Ferrara (died 1293). The ravages of Ezzelino da Romano are reprised in Paradiso 9, where his sister Cunizza da Romano identifies herself as coming from that hill whence descended a firebrand who destroyed the surrounding country: “là onde scese già una facella / che fece a la contrada un grande assalto” (from which a firebrand descended, / and it brought much injury to all the land about [Par. 9.29-30]).

The terms “tiranni” (104) and “tirannia” (132) initiate an ongoing Dantean political analysis of a form of governance then emerging in Italy: lordship, despotic rule concentrated in the hands of one lord and his family.

For Dante tirannia is a key element of his assessment of the political ills that plague the Italian peninsula. Dante uses the term tirannia again in Inferno 27, in order to describe the form of governance that has taken shape in the city-states of Romagna. Queried about the state of things in Romagna, the pilgrim replies with a resume of all the nascent despotisms that have taken root throughout the region, noting only of Cesena that it hovers still “between tyranny and freedom”: “tra tirannia si vive e stato franco” (Inf. 27.54).

In his book Italy in the Age of Dante and Petrarch (1216–1380), historian John Larner describes the steps by which the communes fell into the hands of despots and how the rule of the despot (tiranno) ultimately was legalized, with the result that the tirannie became signorie (see especially Chapter 7, “Party-leaders and signori”). In other words, following Larner, the later signorie are legalized tirannie. Given that “the formalization of lord­ship in the legal institutions of the towns” occurred in Romagna mainly after Dante’s death (see Larner, p. 139), Dante was on sound footing in considering the towns of Romagna to be tirannie rather than signorie.

As noted above, Dante will come back to the question of contemporary tirannia in Inferno 27, a canto that begins with a drawn-out simile based on the gruesome instrument of torture used on his victims by the classical tyrant Phalaris of Sicily. The coordination of the ancient Phalaris with contemporary tyrants in Inferno 27 recalls the pairing of classical and contemporary tiranni in Phlegethon in Inferno 12. Noteworthy too in this context is the reference to Phalaris as an example of bestiality in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics 7.5. Given the importance of bestiality in the framing of this ring, whose Minotaur-guardian flaunts “ira bestial” or “bestial rage” (Inf. 12.33), Phalaris seems an excellent candidate to be plunged in Phlegethon.

In Inferno 27, Dante moves from the classical tyrant Phalaris to a roll-call of the contemporary tiranni of the Romagna region. In canto 27’s resume of despots Dante mentions both the Polenta family of Ravenna (into which Francesca da Polenta of Inferno 5, better known as Francesca da Rimini, was born) and the Malatesta family of Rimini (into which Francesca da Polenta was married, becoming the wife of Gianciotto Malatesta). Special attention is given to the Malatesta dynasty. In Inferno 27’s catalogue of Romagnol tyrants Malatesta da Verucchio and his eldest son Malatestino, the first and second lords of Rimini, are mastiffs who “make an auger of their teeth” (48), who use their teeth, in other words, to pierce their subjects’ flesh as a tool with a screw point might bore through wood:

E ’l mastin vecchio e ’l nuovo da Verrucchio,
che fecer di Montagna il mal governo,
là dove soglion fan d’i denti succhio. (Inf. 27.46-48)

Both mastiffs of Verrucchio, old and new, 
who dealt so badly with Montagna, use 
thier teeth to bore where they have always gnawed.

While in Inferno 27 the Malatesta are one of a group of castigated tiranni, in Inferno 28 Dante isolates the clan, describing at length one of Malatestino’s political murders achieved through the typical Romagnol method: betrayal.

Based on Dante’s comments in Inferno 28, Malatestino is another plausible candidate for submersion in Phlegethon.

Malatestino became lord of Rimini after the death of his father, Malatesta da Verucchio, the founder of Malatesta rule in Rimini. In Inferno 28, Malatestino is called a “tiranno fello” or “foul tyrant” (Inf. 28.81), an indictment that Dante backs up by reference to a particularly heinous crime. Malatestino is guilty of having treacherously invited to parley the two noblest citizens of Fano and then having them foully tortured and murdered:

gittati saran fuor di lor vasello
e mazzerati presso a la Cattolica
per tradimento d’un tiranno fello. (Inf. 28.79-81)

they will be cast out of their ship and drowned,
weighed down with stones, near La Cattolica,
because of a foul tyrant’s treachery.

The noble citizens of Fano Guido del Cassero and Angiolello da Carignana were “mazzerati” (Inf. 28.80)—tied in a sack, thrown overboard, and drowned. For mazzerare, see the discussion of contemporary forms of torture in the Introduction to Inferno 27.

Dante’s meditation on tirannia in the Commedia merits greater consideration, as I suggest in the essay “Only Historicize: History, Material Culture (Food, Clothes, Books), and the Future of Dante Studies”:

Dante’s meditation on tirannia may be gleaned even from a glance at his use of the words tirannia and tiranno/tiranni in the Commedia, words that are concentrated in Inferno 12 and 27 (the ‘‘tiranno fello’’ of Inf. 28.81, a reference to Malatestino Malatesta, takes us back to the Malatesta family of Inferno 5 and 27). The reconstruction of this meditation through an investigation of these passages and especially of the families to which Dante alludes would be a most worthwhile project. (“Only Historicize,” p. 49)

The travelers see many shades in the river: the souls of murderers and violent brigands as well as tyrants. There is no encounter between the pilgrim and these souls, who are merely named by Chiron and viewed by the travelers. After pointing to perhaps history’s quintessential and most infamous tyrant, Attila (ruler of the Huns from 434 CE until his death in March 453 CE), called here with the traditional label “scourge of the earth” (“flagello in terra” [Inf. 12.134]), Chiron concludes his resume with the two contemporary highway robbers Rinier da Corneto and Rinier Pazzo (Inf. 12.137). He then turns away from the travelers and goes back across the ford, leaving Nessus to carry the pilgrim across Phlegethon to the second ring of the circle of violence.

Recommended Citation

Barolini, Teodolinda. "Inferno 12 : Tirannia." Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. Center for Digital Research and Scholarship. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2015.

Coordinated Reading