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

Inferno 24


Metamorphosis and Mystery

The Undivine Comedy, Chapter 4, “Narrative and Style in Lower Hell”, pp. 86-87; Dante’s Poets, pp. 223-25, 239-40; Dante’s Lyric Poetry, p. 75. To explore further the precise Ovidian intertextuality of this and other canti, see Intertextual Dante, edited by Julie van Peteghem.
  • the double helix of the Virgilio-narrative: affective strand interwoven with intellective strand
  • the lengthy narrative sequence of the broken bridges: Inferno 21.106 - Inferno 24.64
  • exoticism and orientalism: the Libyan sands, Ethiopia, the Arabian desert
  • discourse of the body: from Inferno 13 to Inferno 24-25
  • metamorphosis as a complex of ideas about which Dante has been thinking for decades; cf. the “forma vera” in verse 10 of the early sonnet Piangete, amanti (Vita Nuova VIII [3])
  • metamorphosis as an opportunity to go to the heart of how humans conceive of self: if our shape changes, does our substance—our essence—change as well? Ovid’s treatment of these issues in the Metamorphoses is valorized by Dante
  • metamorphosis as an opportunity to tackle fundamental Christian mysteries
  • Man ⇒ Dust ⇒ Man: in malo Death and Resurrection

Inferno 24 begins with the erudite simile devoted to the villanello (the farmer or peasant) who is chagrined by the unexpected sight of snow and then relieved when he realizes that the snow is frost and that he will be able to take his sheep to pasture. This long simile will resolve into an installment of the Virgilio-narrative, since it turns out to be a rhetorically complex way to tell us that Dante is relieved when Virgilio’s demeanor changes from “turbato un poco d’ira nel sembiante” (somewhat disturbed, with anger in his eyes [Inf. 23.146]), as he was at the end of Inferno 23, to tender and affectionate, as he will be by the time we reach the end of the simile, in verses 20-21 of Inferno 24. In these verses, the poet tells us that Virgilio turns to him “with that sweet manner / I first had seen along the mountain’s base”: “ con quel piglio / dolce ch’io vidi prima a piè del monte” (Inf. 24.20-21).

As I wrote in Dante’s Poets, this information constitutes an affectively charged moment in the ongoing Virgilio-narrative. The adjective dolce retroactively revises what we learned about Virgilio’s affect in Inferno 1, rewriting the formal teacher/student relationship of Inferno 1 into the tender filial/paternal dynamic that we saw in Inferno 23:

What is remarkable about this passage is not so much the tenderness of Virgilio’s regard per se as the author’s specification that he first saw such a “sweet look” at the foot of the mountain, i.e. in Inferno 1, where Dante tries to climb the colle and fails. At that point in the narrative there is no indication of any loving demonstration on Virgilio’s part toward Dante, or of any sweetness in his look; indeed, the meeting between the two poets is described in stiff and formal terms, as is their relationship throughout the early cantos of the Inferno. Therefore, in specifying that Virgilio’s “piglio / dolce” (where the enjambment puts dolce into relief) is first seen “a piè del monte”, Dante is retrospectively rewriting the original meeting of Inferno 1, instituting an affective tie which at the time was not there. Not only are we forced to revisualize the episode of canto I, but also to conjure up many another sweet glance that the narrative has not seen fit to mention. Thus, in two lines Dante inscribes a new thread of affectivity into the texture of the Inferno, casting a long sweet light all the way back to canto 1. (Dante’s Poets, p. 239)

The verses that inscribe Virgilio’s “piglio / dolce” where it had not previously existed do not occur in Inferno 24 fortuitously.

Virgilio’s retroactive “piglio / dolce” is part of a subtle strategy of counterbalancing that dictates the moves in Dante’s Virgilio-narrative. Dante here engages the dialectical principles of the double helix narrative structure that he is creating, whereby an affective narrative strand is interwoven with an intellective narrative strand.

After the narrator has undermined Virgilio in the intellective domain, he then takes care to enhance him in the affective domain. Thus, in the previous canti the narrator has greatly compromised Virgilio’s standing as “quel savio gentil che tutto seppe” (that gentle sage, who knew all [Inf. 7.3]), allowing him to be deceived by a devil and condescendingly instructed by hypocrites. In the very aftermath of this narrative nadir in Virgilio’s authority, the same narrator who has worked to undermine that authority makes sure to reinforce the affective ties between him and the pilgrim. He does this by referring to Virgilio’s “care piante” (dear feet) in the last verse of Inferno 23 and then to his “piglio / dolce” (sweet manner) in Inferno 24.20-21.

“Vergil functions as a paradox at the heart of the poem” is the formulation I used in Dante’s Poets, a paradox through which the reader is forced, with the pilgrim, “into the dilemma of loving that which is fallible, corruptible, and transitory—into the human experience par excellence”:

At the outset of Inferno 24, Vergil has just emerged severely tarnished from a test that spans three cantos: he has been lied to by Malacoda, and humiliated by the discovery. Precisely at this moment of intellectual defeat, Dante tightens the affective screws; if Vergil is to function as a paradox at the heart of the poem, the reader must not be allowed easily to dismiss him, but instead must be forced, with the pilgrim, into the dilemma of loving and respecting that which is fallible, corruptible, and transitory—i.e. into the human experience par excellence. This is accomplished rhetorically by the insinuation of affective language into the narrative at the moments of greatest intellective stress. Thus, at the end of Inferno 23, after Catalano has informed Vergil that devils are liars, Vergil walks off with great strides in evident anger, and the author concludes the canto as follows: “ond’ io da li ’ncarcati mi parti’ / dietro a le poste de le care piante” (so I departed from those burdened spirits, / while following the prints of his dear feet [Inf. 23.147-48]). The reference to Vergil’s “dear feet”—“care piante”—at this juncture represents an escalation in the tension of the Vergilian dialectic; although the great sage has been treated like a fool by a hypocrite in hell, his charge loves him not less, but more. The “dear feet” are in fact an element in an affective crescendo that peaks with the “sweet look” of Inferno 24, and that begins with the simile in which Vergil is compared to the mother who rescues her son from a burning house, a simile that has the effect of neutralizing the event it is illustrating. (Dante’s Poets, pp. 239-40)

The simile of the villanello also contributes in fascinating ways to the Inferno’s ongoing meditation on representation and semiosis, as discussed in The Undivine Comedy. It is a densely semiotic moment, in this respect akin to the Aesop’s Fable moment the opens the preceding canto, Inferno 23:

Although this simile presents us with less sheer multivalence than the Aesop’s fable analogy, it begins to explore the implications of semiotic failure in a way that the earlier passage does not, by raising the larger issue of representation through its use of artistic/mimetic language. The peasant mistakenly believes the frost to be snow because the frost has imitated the snow; borrowing from the lexicon of mimesis, the poet tells us that the frost “copies the image of its white sister”. Attempting to represent snow, the frost appropriates the mode of art, and it fails, for like all art—all human representation—it is nondurable, subject to time: “little lasts the point of its pen”. As compared to Purgatorio 10, where art is assimilated to nature and becomes real, infallible, here nature is assimilated to art, becoming fallible, corruptible, subject to time. From a concern with the shifting values of signs, Dante's meditation broadens to engage the constraints of human representation. (The Undivine Comedy, p. 87)

Finally, the simile looks forward to the materia of the next bolgia: verse 13—“veggendo ’l mondo aver cangiata faccia” (seeing the world to have changed its face [Inf. 24.13])—states the theme of metamorphosis in succinct fashion. Moreover, the employment of equivocal rhymes (the same word in appearance but having different meanings, like faccia / faccia in verses 11 and 13) anticipates metamorphosis, the experience that dominates the seventh bolgia.

Whereas the words faccia / faccia possess the same shape (appearance) but have a different substance (meaning), metamorphosis is a transformation in which the same substance takes on a different shape.

Through verse 64, Inferno 24 is devoted to the climb out of the sixth bolgia. The two travelers, in their haste to get away from the pursuing demons, slid down into the sixth bolgia on their backs, as fast as water channeled through a sluice to a mill (Inf. 23.46-48). By contrast, they have to scramble up the other side arduously, engaged in a kind of mountain climbing as they grapple with the crags of the bolgia’s wall and the boulders strewn about when the bridges over the sixth bolgia collapsed. The use of the term “ruina” in verse 24, the technical term for the ruins created in hell by the coming of Christ, underscores the importance of the lengthy narrative sequence of the broken bridges, a sequence that begins in Inferno 21, verse 106, and will not be completed until the travelers look down into the seventh bolgia, beginning in verse 65 of Inferno 24.

* * *

Inferno 24 is the first of two canti that treat the seventh bolgia, home of the thieves. These are fraudulent thieves, as compared to the violent robbers plunged into the river of blood in Inferno 12. Dante takes care to clarify the distinction between these thieves and the earlier robbers (as he does not, for instance, clarify the distinction between the prodigals in the fourth circle and the wastrels in the second rung of the seventh circle). He does this by specifying in Inferno 25 that the centaur Cacus “[n]on va co’ suoi fratei per un cammino” (does not ride the same road as his brothers [Inf. 25.28])—his “brothers” are the centaurs who inhabit and guard the first ring of the circle of violence—because of the fraudulent nature of his theft: “per lo furto che frodolente fece” (Inf. 25.29).

In this way, Dante uses the fiction of his underworld to make his taxonomic point. The surprising presence of the centaur Cacus here, in the bolgia of fraudulent thieves, is glossed by way of the “normative” collocation of centaurs within Dante’s fiction: centaurs belong to the first ring of the circle of violence, the ring that houses those who were violent toward others, in both their persons and their possessions. If a centaur is found elsewhere than in the first ring of the seventh circle, there must be a good reason, namely the fraud that governed Cacus’ thievery: “per lo furto che frodolente fece” (Inf. 25.29).

The relation between the sin of theft and the contrapasso (various kinds of metamorphoses) may plausibly—but to my mind not compellingly—be based on the violation of what Dorothy Sayers calls “the distinction between meum and tuum”. Natalino Sapegno explains the contrapasso thus: “i ladri sono qui a loro volta derubati, e della proprietà più intima ed inalienabile, la loro stessa figura umana” (The thieves are here in turn robbed of their most intimate and inalienable property, their own human bodies; see Sapegno, ed., Inferno [Firenze: La Nuova Italia, 1968], p. 270).

Let me say explicitly that the spectacular nature of the contrapasso in this bolgia is disproportionate to the sin in question, and, to my mind, no amount of investigation will eliminate this disproportion. The suggestion put forward by Robert Hollander, whereby this bolgia recalls the “the ‘primal scene’ of thievery in Eden” (Hollander commentary, Inferno 24, at verses 91-96, accessed through, certainly raises the status of the theft, as well as predicting the presence of serpents, but ultimately does not offer a sufficient hermeneutic lens for this canto.

Dante himself does not treat the violation of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil by Adam and Eve as a fraudulent theft, but as a form of incontinence—what I call “epistemological incontinence” (see the title to the Introduction to Purgatorio 19). He insists on this point by placing grafts from the tree of Eden on his terrace of gluttony in Purgatory. In Purgatorio 32, where the primal scene in Eve is recreated by Dante, the griffin/Christ is congratulated precisely for not having eaten from this tree:

  Beato se’, grifon, che non discendi
col becco d’esto legno dolce al gusto,
poscia che mal si torce il ventre quindi. (Purg. 32.43-45)
  Blessed are you, whose beak does not, o griffin,
pluck the sweet-tasting fruit that is forbidden
and then afflicts the belly that has eaten!

Moreover, thievery in the treatment of Inferno 24-25 clearly has a civic dimension, given the apostrophes to Pistoia and Florence that frame the seventh bolgia and the Black Guelph Florentine families to which the thieves belong. It is thus better to say that Dante uses thievery much as he used sodomy, as an opportunity for a discourse on Florence and its corrupted values.

* * *

Most importantly, Dante uses the bolgia of the thieves in order to tackle the concept of metamorphosis itself. In analogous fashion, he uses the circle of lust not to connect to any of the timeworn moralistic formulae regarding lust that were in circulation but to tackle a complex of issues at the heart of his poem and of his life-long meditation: the issues of reading, authorship, reception, responsibility. Metamorphosis, like authorship, is a complex of ideas about which Dante has been thinking for decades by the time he writes Inferno 24 and 25. Already in the sonnet Piangete, amanti (Vita Nuova VIII [3]), as discussed in Dante’s Lyric Poetry (p. 75), Dante probes the issue of the “forma vera” (10), playing with the boundaries between animate and inanimate, life and death.

Metamorphosis boasts both a classical pedigree and profound religious implications. As a concept that probes the implications of a being that changes its shape, metamorphosis poses such questions as: what is lost, ontologically? what is gained?, does the self that has undergone metamorphosis remain an immutable self?

Although Ovid’s metamorphoses are traditionally treated by commentators as no more than occasions for “bel narrare” (Chiavacci Leonardi, ed., Inferno [Milan: Mondadori, 2005], p. 732), I believe that Dante saw great metaphysical profundity in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Dante certainly would have associated with Ovid the word “forma”, which he uses with metaphysical import as early as the sonnet Piangete, amanti (“forma vera”), and which Ovid uses in his first verse: “In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas / corpora” (My mind is bent to tell of bodies changed into new forms [trans. of Frank Justus Miller, Loeb Classical Library edition]). The word forma has an important story to tell in the Commedia, coming into its own in Paradiso, as does Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Dante viewed Ovid’s text as an examination of identity, selfhood, sexuality, embodiment, and essence—all ideas at the heart of Christian religious thought. I will come back to these issues in the Introduction to Inferno 25.

Above I defined metamorphosis as a transformation in which the same substance or essence takes on a different shape. For Dante, metamorphosis offers an opportunity to think as well about its counterpart, metousiosis, the Greek term that refers to a change of essence or inner reality. Greek metousiosis is the equivalent of Latin transsubstantiatio or transsubstantiation, which is the technical term used by theologians for the change by which the bread and the wine used in the sacrament of the Eucharist become in actual reality the body and blood of Christ.

The questions Dante is posing go to the heart of how humans conceive of self: if our shape changes, does our substance—our essence—change as well?

In the Metamorphoses, Peleus desires Thetis, who changes shape to elude him. Peleus receives counsel to “bind her with snares and close-clinging thongs” while she sleeps and to hold on tenaciously throughout her shape-changing until she returns to her first form: “And though she take a hundred lying forms, let her not escape thee, but hold her close, whatever she may be, until she take again the form she had at first” (Metamorphoses, Book 11, lines 253-54, trans. Miller). In Latin, he must hold on until she regains the shape—“reformet”—of what she was, until she returns to “what she was before”: “quod fuit ante” (254). What Thetis was before, at the beginning—“quod fuit ante”—is what she will be again. The use of the verb esse, to be, tells us everything: Ovid is writing about essence, about being.

Ovid’s idea that the essential self remains present is one that Dante retains in this bolgia, where the souls are bound not with cords but by serpents who are fellow sinners, and where—as always in Dante’s Hell, but more sensationally so because of their shape-changes—their true punishment is that they never cease to be themselves.

* * *

The seventh is perhaps the most spectacular ring in Dante’s hell: it swarms with serpents of all stripes and sizes. The gruesome sight of all those snakes occasions an erudite and classically-inspired boast with an exotic and orientalizing flavor. Dante tells us that the evil pestilences he saw here find no match in the Libyan desert (described in the Pharsalia by Lucan, whose Latin names for various serpents Dante here repeats), nor can such an evil mass be found in Ethiopia, or in the Arabian desert:

  e vidivi entro terribile stipa
di serpenti, e di sì diversa mena
che la memoria il sangue ancor mi scipa.
  Più non si vanti Libia con sua rena; 
ché se chelidri, iaculi e faree
produce, e cencri con anfisibena,
  né tante pestilenzie né sì ree
mostrò già mai con tutta l’Etiopia
né con ciò che di sopra al Mar Rosso èe. (Inf. 24.82-90)
  and there within I saw a dreadful swarm
of serpents so extravagant in form—
remembering them still drains my blood from me.
  Let Libya boast no more about her sands;
for if she breeds chelydri, jaculi,
cenchres with amphisbaena, pareae,
  she never showed—not with all of Ethiopia
or all the land that borders the Red Sea—
so many, such malignant, pestilences.

The classical references to Lucan prepare for the remarkable poetic challenges of Inferno 25.94-102, where Dante will tell of metamorphoses that, he boasts, outdo those of both Ovid and Lucan.

The seventh bolgia features metamorphoses, changes of shape inflicted by serpents upon sinners. We will eventually learn that the serpents are themselves sinners who have previously been changed to serpents. The vicious circularity of the bolgia of the thieves is therefore absolute: far from the solidarity between sinners that Ciampolo offers to betray in the bolgia of barratry (Inferno 22), now we find a situation so degraded that there is no solidarity in the first instance. While in the fifth bolgia the demons were God’s “ministers”, here the sinners are both ministers and recipients of God’s justice.

A discourse on shape-changing necessitates consideration of the shape that changes, i.e. the body. The ongoing thematic of the body is one that we saw already developed, for instance, in Inferno 13. We remember that in Inferno 13 the human shape is not present at all: the souls of the suicides are “embodied” as trees. The static metamorphoses that we saw in Inferno 13 have become dynamic in Inferno 24. In Inferno 13 a metamorphosis from human shape into tree shape is stipulated as having taken place once, at the moment of the soul’s assignment to the ring of suicide. In the bolgia of thieves we find dynamic and ongoing metamorphoses that apparently have no beginning or ending. Not only has flora become fauna (trees have become snakes), but the metamorphoses themselves are never static: they are always changing.

The discourse on the body takes lexical form in the many body-parts named in this bolgia, for instance in this terzina’s description of the sexualized bondage inflicted on the sinners by their serpent-comrades:

  con serpi le man dietro avean legate;
quelle ficcavan per le ren la coda
e ’l capo, ed eran dinanzi aggroppate. (Inf. 24.94-96)
  Their hands were tied behind by serpents; these
had thrust their head and tail right through the loins,
and then were knotted on the other side.

We note the eerily sexualized component to the way in which the serpents “thrust their head and tail right through the loins” in order to bind the sinners into knots. I will return to the sexualized language of this bolgia in the Introduction to Inferno 25.

Man ⇒ Dust ⇒ Man:

in malo Death and Resurrection

Dante’s gaze rests in verse 97 upon a specific sinner who is pierced by a serpent “just where the neck and shoulders form a knot”: “là dove ’l collo a le spalle s’annoda” [Inf. 24.99]). The result is that the sinner is incinerated, literally, turning to ash, only then to recompose into human form. This metamorphosis—from man to dust and then again to man—is a perverse Resurrection, compared indeed to the death and rebirth of the phoenix (a mythological bird used in Christian imagery as a figura Christi): “Così per li gran savi si confessa / che la fenice more e poi rinasce” (just so, it is asserted by great sages, / the phoenix dies and then is born again [Inf. 24.106-7]).

Dante has here used metamorphosis to present a fundamental Christian mystery, death followed by resurrection, rendered in a perverted and hellish mirror-image of itself.

The new life and resurrection that the Christian soul finds in Christ is here a degraded pantomime in which the soul is resurrected only to die again. The dust does not “return to the earth as it was: and the spirit . . . unto God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7); rather, in a perversion of the biblical text, the dust rises over and over again.

This infernal Resurrection is followed by a dialogue with the unhappily resurrected soul, who turns out to be Vanni Fucci of Pistoia. The thief concludes Inferno 24 by insisting on his bestiality—“Vita bestial mi piacque e non umana” (the bestial life pleased me, and not the human [Inf. 24.124])—as though nothing could be more natural and fitting than to find himself bound and trussed by snakes. And then he gives vent to a political prophecy about the fall of the White Guelphs (Vanni Fucci is a Black Guelph, like the others in this bolgia, while Dante is a White Guelph) that he states is intended to wound Dante to the quick: “E detto l’ho perchè doler ti debbia!” (And I have told you this to make you grieve! [Inf. 24.151]). This hate-filled jab is the conclusion of Inferno 24.

Recommended Citation

Barolini, Teodolinda. "Inferno 24 : Metamorphosis and Mystery." Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. Center for Digital Research and Scholarship. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2015.

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