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

Inferno 26


The Quest

The Undivine Comedy, Chapter 3, “Ulysses, Geryon, and the Aeronautics of Narrative Transition”, especially pp. 48-58, p. 77, p. 89; Dante’s Poets, pp. 228-29, 232-33; “Ulysses”, in The Dante Encyclopedia, ed. Richard Lansing (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 2000), pp. 842-47; W. B. Stanford, The Ulysses Theme: A Study in the Adaptability of a Traditional Hero, 2nd ed., Ann Arbor: U. of Michigan Press, 1968.
  • Florentine imperial ambitions castigated by Dante in opening apostrophe (compare Guittone d’Arezzo in Ahi, lasso, or è stagion de doler tanto)
  • transmission of the Ulysses-myth from antiquity and the bifurcated critical reception
  • Ulyssean lexicon and metaphors sutured into DNA of Commedia: the metaphor of flying as the desire to know
  • an epic hero writ into the veracular
  • Dante’s “backwards pedagogy”: the Greek hero Ulysses as a signifier for Biblical Adam

Inferno 26 presents one of the Commedia’s most famous characters: the Greek hero of Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus, known by his Latin name as Ulysses.

Inferno 26 opens with a scathingly sarcastic apostrophe to Florence. You have reached such pinnacles of greatness, says the poet to his natal city, that you beat your wings over sea and land and spill your name throughout Hell:

Godi, Fiorenza, poi che se’ sì grande
che per mare e per terra batti l’ali,
e per lo ’nferno tuo nome si spande!   (Inf. 26.1-3)

Be joyous, Florence, you are great indeed,
for over sea and land you beat your wings;
through every part of Hell your name extends!

The second terzina of the apostrophe lets us know, retrospectively (in the same way that we learn only at the beginning of Inferno 6 that Paolo and Francesca of Inferno 5 are “cognati”, in-laws), that the five souls we see in the bolgia of thieves are all Florentines:

Tra li ladron trovai cinque cotali
tuoi cittadini onde mi ven vergogna,
e tu in grande orranza non ne sali.  (Inf. 26.4-6)

Among the thieves I found five citizens
of yours—and such, that shame has taken me; 
with them, you can ascend to no high honor. 

The first terzina of Inferno 26 frames Florentine imperial ambitions and expansionism in the language of quest and journey. This is language deeply sutured into the DNA of this poem, which begins in Inferno 1 with the metaphor of a land-journey (by way of a cammino) and whose first simile in Inferno 1 is that of a mariner whose ship is lost at sea. The apostrophe features Florence as a giant bird of prey that beats its wings relentlessly over all the world—“per mare e per terra”—over both sea and land.

The wings of the beautiful Ulyssean image that is seared in our minds from later in this canto, that of the hero’s turning his oars into wings for his mad flight—de’ remi facemmo ali al folle volo” (we made wings of our oars in a wild flight [Inf. 26.125])—are thus at the outset of Inferno 26 presented as the wings of a giant and malignant bird of prey.

Let me note, à propos Florentine expansionism, that Dante was atypical in castigating his native city for her imperial ambitions. An inscription of 1255 on the Palazzo del Bargello in Florence celebrates the city “quae mare, quae terram, quae totum possidet orbem” (who is master of the sea, of the land, of the whole world; cited by commentators, for instance Chiavacci Leonardi and Sapegno). There is nothing sarcastic about the inscription, and indeed the more typical contemporary sarcasm would be that of Guittone d’Arezzo in his political canzone Ahi, lasso, or è stagion de doler tanto, written after the defeat of Florence at Montaperti in 1260. Guittone deplores the political decline of Florence, which until then had been the most powerful city in Tuscany, and uses biting sarcasm to try to reawaken Florentine imperial ambitions.

The opening verses of the apostrophe forecast the great protagonist of Inferno 26. Florence is “grande” in verse 1 (“poi che se’ sì grande”) and Ulysses is a great hero—and whereas Florence’s greatness is punctured immediately by the author’s sarcasm, Ulysses’ is not.

The Ulysses episode is not ultimately cast in the mode of sarcasm or irony but of tragic, heroic, flawed greatness. The author does not intend to cut his hero down to size as he does Capaneus and Vanni Fucci, at least not within Inferno 26. The adjective grande that stands at the threshold of the bolgia that houses the Greek hero casts an epic grandeur over the proceedings, an epic grandeur and solemnity that Dante maintains until the beginning of Inferno 27.

In The Undivine Comedy, I noted the “anti-oratorical high style” of Inferno 26, a rhetorical mode with which Dante “endows the cadences of authentic grandeur” upon his epic hero, Ulysses:

The rhetoric of canto 26 is austere, sublimely simple. The opening apostrophe to Florence carries over from the oratorical flourishes and virtuoso displays of the preceding bolgia. As the canto progresses the narrative voice takes on more and more the note of dispassionate passion that will characterize its hero, that indeed makes him a hero, until finally the voice flattens out, assumes the divine flatness of God’s voice, like the flat surface of the sea that will submerge the speaker, pressing down his high ambitions. The anti-oratorical high style that culminates at the end of Inferno 26 is perhaps the most telling index of the poet’s commitment to the canto’s protagonist, upon whom he endows the cadences of authentic grandeur. (The Undivine Comedy, p. 89)

As noted above, the opening apostrophe of Inferno 26 engages Dante’s self-consciously “Ulyssean” lexicon, dipping into the deep reservoir of metaphoric language related to quest and voyage that Dante has been using since the beginning of his poem. This code and lexicon will persist long after we leave Inferno 26, indeed it will persist to the end of the poem, where the poet’s wings finally fail him at the end of Paradiso 33: “ma non eran da ciò le proprie penne” (and my own wings were not up to that [Par. 33.139]).

The description in verse 2 of Florence as a giant bird whose wings beat over land and sea causes Dante to invoke all three modalities of journeying: by land, by sea, and by air. The metaphor of Florence’s wings that beat in flight takes us back mentally to the pilgrim’s flight down to the eighth circle on Geryon’s back (Inferno 17), with its comparison of Dante to the mythological failed flyers Phaeton and Icarus. The metaphor of battere le ali also forecasts the great verse spoken by Ulysses later in this canto, when he conjures the heroic quest as a passionately exuberant and indeed reckless flight: “de’ remi facemmo ali al folle volo” (we made wings of our oars in a wild flight [Inf. 26.125]).

The Ulyssean lexicon is sutured into the DNA of the Commedia, and Ulysses himself has therefore a wholly unique status among sinners. Ulysses has a sustained presence in the poem: he is named in each canticle, not only in Inferno 26 but also in Purgatorio 19, where the siren of Dante’s dream claims to have turned Ulysses aside from his path with her song, and in Paradiso 27, where the pilgrim, looking down at Earth, sees the trace of “il varco / folle d’Ulisse” (the mad leap of Ulysses [Par. 27.82-83]), in a stunning reminiscence of the original episode’s “folle volo” (Inf. 26.125).

As “folle volo” and “varco folle” indicate, Ulysses and his surrogates, other failed flyers like Phaeton and Icarus, are connected to one of the Commedia’s most basic metaphorical assumptions: if we desire sufficiently, we fly; if we desire sufficiently, our quest takes on wings. Dante explicitly establishes this equivalence in Purgatorio 4, telling us that in order to climb the steep grade of lower Purgatory one needs to fly with the wings of desire:

ma qui convien ch’om voli;
dico con l’ale snelle e con le piume
del gran disio  (Purg. 4.27-29)

But here one must fly,
I mean with the swift wings and the pinions of great desire

Ulysses embodies the fundamental trope of voyage, and he dramatizes the Commedia’s metaphorization of desire as flight.

* * *

The first thing to know before tackling Inferno 26, the canto of Ulysses, is that Dante did not read Greek and never read the Iliad or the Odyssey. Homer’s works were not available in the West until later humanists recovered the knowledge of ancient Greek and the texts of Greek antiquity. Dante’s Ulysses is entirely mediated through Latin texts, in particular through Book 2 of Vergil’s Aeneid and through Cicero’s De Finibus.

The negative Ulysses is portrayed in Book 2 of Vergil’s Aeneid, where he is labeled “dirus” (dreadful [Aen. 2.261]) and “scelerum inventor” (deviser of crimes [Aen. 2.164]). Vergil’s portrayal came to dominate the Latin and later the medieval tradition, producing the conventional stereotype of a treacherous and sacrilegious warrior that leads directly to Dante’s fraudulent counselor, who is punished in one flame with his comrade-in-arms Diomedes, since “insieme / a la vendetta vanno come a l’ira” (together they go to punishment as they went to anger [Inf. 26.56-57]).

However, Dante’s Ulysses is a complex creation that goes far beyond the negative stereotype. Dante borrowed also from the positive rendering of Ulysses that was preserved mainly among the Stoics, for whom the Greek hero exemplified heroic fortitude in the face of adversity. Horace praises Ulysses in the Epistle to Lollius for his discernment and endurance and especially for his ability to withstand the temptations that proved the undoing of his companions: “Sirenum voces et Circae pocula” (Sirens’ songs and Circe’s cups [Epistles 1.2.23]). From the Ars Poetica, where Horace cites the opening verses of the Odyssey, Dante learned that Ulysses “saw the wide world, its ways and cities all”: “mores hominum multorum vidit et urbes” (Ars Poetica, 142).

And, most suggestively, in De Finibus, Cicero celebrates the mind’s innate craving of learning and of knowledge, what he calls the “lust for learning”: “discendi cupiditas” (De Finibus 5.18.49). As his exemplary lover of wisdom, Cicero presents none other than Ulysses. Cicero interprets Homer’s Sirens as givers of knowledge and Ulysses’ response to their invitation as praiseworthy, writing: “It is knowledge that the Sirens offer, and it was no marvel if a lover of wisdom held this dearer than his home” (De Finibus 5.18).

Dante’s reconfiguring of Ulysses is a remarkable blend of the two traditional characterizations that also succeeds in charting an entirely new and extremely influential direction for this most versatile of mythic heroes. For Dante invents a new story, never told before. His Ulysses departs from Circe straight on his new quest, pulled not by the desire for home and family but by the lure of adventure, by the “the longing / I had to gain experience of the world / and of the vices and the worth of men”: “l’ardore / ch’i’ ebbi a divenir del mondo esperto / e de li vizi umani e del valore” (Inf. 26.97-99). As the classicist W. B. Stanford points out in his wonderful book The Ulysses Theme:In place of [Homer’s] centripetal, homeward-bound figure Dante substituted a personification of centrifugal force” (p. 181).

Stanford offers a remarkable tribute to the importance of Dante’s contribution to the Ulysses myth: “Next to Homer’s conception of Ulysses, Dante’s, despite its brevity, is the most influential in the whole evolution of the wandering hero” (The Ulysses Theme, p. 178). The wings of Dante’s alta fantasia may fail him at the end of the journey but they vouchsafe him remarkable insights along the way. It is indeed a testament to that fantasia that—without knowing Homer—Dante was able to summon the authentic Ulyssean spirit in his brief episode, and to impress his version of that spirit upon our collective imagination.

* * *

The critical reception of Inferno 26 reflects the bifurcated Ulysses of the tradition that Dante inherited. Dante criticism has been divided on the subject of Ulysses essentially since its inception. Among the fourteenth-century commentators, Buti takes a moralizing position critical of the Homeric hero, while Benvenuto sees him as exciting Dante’s admiration. For complete documentation of the Ulysses debate, beginning with the early commentators and moving to later critics, see The Undivine Comedy, Chapter 3, “Ulysses, Geryon, and the Aeronautics of Narrative Transition”, and my article “Ulysses” in The Dante Encyclopedia, cited in Coordinated Reading.

We can sketch the positions of various modern critics around the same polarity demonstrated by Buti and Benvenuto in the fourteenth century. There is a pro-Ulysses group, spearheaded by Fubini, who maintains that Dante feels only admiration for the folle volo, for the desire for knowledge that it represents, and for the oration that justifies it. (Fubini’s supporters include Sapegno, Pagliaro, and Forti.) Then there is a less unified group that emphasizes the Greek hero’s sinfulness and seeks to determine the primary cause for his infernal abode.

Discussion of Ulysses’ suitability for the eighth bolgia is further complicated by Dante’s avoidance of this pit’s label until the end of the next canto. Only at the end of Inferno 27 does a devil, cited in Guido da Montefeltro’s account of the dramatic altercation that occurred at his death, clarify that Guido is located in the eighth bolgia “perché diede ’l consiglio frodolente” (because the counsel that he gave was fraudulent [Inf. 27.116]).

Within the Ulysses debate, the more negative critical camp can be subdivided into those who see the folle volo itself as the chief of Ulysses’ sins and those who concentrate instead on the sin of fraudulent counsel as described by Guido da Montefeltro. Those in the latter group focus on Ulysses’ rhetorical deceitfulness as manifested in his “orazion picciola” (Inf. 26.122), the “little speech” with which he persuades his men to follow him. (This group includes Padoan and Dolfi.)

Most influential in the first category has been the position of Nardi, who argues that Dante’s Ulysses is a new Adam, a new Lucifer, and that his sin is precisely Adam’s, namely, “il trapassar del segno” (the going beyond the mark) of which Adam speaks in Paradiso 26.117. Ulysses is thus a transgressor, whose pride incites him to seek a knowledge that is beyond the limits set for man by God, in the same way that Adam’s pride drove him to a similar transgression, also in pursuit of a knowledge that would make him Godlike.

We can consider the positions of Dante scholars within the Ulysses querelle along a continuum with extreme positions at either end. At one extreme are those critics, like Fubini, who maintain that Dante feels only admiration for Ulysses’ voyage and that it has nothing whatever to do with his damnation. At the other are those critics, like Cassell, who deny Ulysses any special importance, telling us that the poet feels nothing but scorn for his creature and that to see anything else at work in the canto is to read it through anachronistic romantic eyes.

Both these readings rob the episode of its tension and deflate it of its energy—on the one hand, by making the fact that Ulysses is in Hell irrelevant and, on the other, by denying that this particular sinner means more to the poem than do his companions. Fubini’s simple admiration fails to deal with the fact that Dante places Ulysses in Hell; Cassell’s simple condemnation fails to take into account the structural and thematic significance that the Greek hero bears for the Commedia as a whole.

The encounter with Ulysses belongs to the eighth bolgia, but Dante does not tell us that the eighth bolgia houses fraudulent counselors until the end of Inferno 27. A deliberate ambiguity is thus structured into the presentation of Ulysses. On the one hand it is clear (at least retrospectively, after we read Inferno 27) that Ulysses is guilty of fraudulent counsel: in Dante’s account he urged his men to sail with him past the pillars of Hercules, and so led them to their deaths. On the other hand, it is equally clear that Dante’s narrative does not focus on fraudulent counsel but on the idea of a heroic quest that leads to perdition.

For more on the critical responses to Ulysses, see The Undivine Comedy, where my goal is to achieve an integrated critical response, as Dante’s hero himself integrates the complex and polysemous Ulysses who came down through the centuries.

Dante is most often a both/and writer, rather than an either/or writer. He gets the maximum out of every word he writes, because every word is susceptible to multiple meanings, not in the banal sense of allegory but in the living sense of language that goes in multiple directions, all psychologically true and real to life. In Inferno 26 Dante weaves together both the deceptive Ulysses of the Aeneid and the lover of knowledge praised by Cicero in the De Finibus. Dante’s brilliance is to capture both strands in a polysemous whole.

* * *

Dante’s placement of Ulysses among the sinners of fraud, and specifically among the fraudulent counselors, depends heavily on the anti-Greek pro-Trojan propaganda of imperial Rome: the sentiment Dante found in the Aeneid. Aeneas, Vergil’s choice as mythic founder of Rome, is a Trojan, and Vergil’s Ulysses reflects the tone of the second book of the Aeneid, in which Aeneas recounts the bitter fall of Troy. The fall of Troy occurred, after ten long years of war, not because of military superiority but because of the stratagem—the Ulyssean stratagem—of the Trojan horse.

Dante’s Virgilio recites a list of Ulyssean “crimes” that are fully consonant with the “scelera” (crimes) of which Ulysses is the inventor in Aeneid 2 (“scelerum inventor” [deviser of crimes Aen. 2.164]). He is guilty first and foremost of the Trojan horse: “l’agguato del caval che fé la porta / onde uscì de’ Romani il gentil seme” (the horse’s fraud that caused a breach— / the gate that let Rome’s noble seed escape [Inf. 26.59-60]). Ulysses is guilty also of the trick by which Achilles was lured to war and the theft of the Palladium:

Piangevisi entro l’arte per che, morta,
Deïdamìa ancor si duol d’Achille,
e del Palladio pena vi si porta.  (Inf. 26.61-63)

There they regret the guile that makes the dead
Deidamia still lament Achilles;
and there, for the Palladium, they pay. 

On the other hand, despite this damning recital, countless readers have felt compelled to admire Ulysses’ stirring account of his journey beyond the Pillars of Hercules. He wants to experience what is “di retro al sol, del mondo sanza gente” (beyond the sun, in the world that is unpeopled [Inf. 26.117]).

Like humans then who were involved in the European explorations of the Atlantic that were just beginning in Dante’s day, like humans today who seek to go further into the solar system, Ulysses wants to go beyond the markers of the known world.

In order to persuade his old and tired companions to undertake such a “folle volo” (mad flight [Inf. 26.125]), Ulysses deploys his forceful eloquence in an “orazion picciola” (little oration [Inf. 26.122]). Rightly or wrongly, his oration has moved generations of readers and (quite divorced of its infernal context) has achieved proverbial status in Italy. Ulysses exhorts his companions to follow him to the unknown, framing such a voyage as a pursuit of knowledge:

Considerate la vostra semenza:
fatti non foste a viver come bruti,
ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza. (Inf. 26.118-20)

Consider well the seed that gave you birth:
you were not made to live your lives as brutes,
but to be followers of worth and knowledge.  

The words spoken by Dante’s Ulisse in Inferno 26 resonate still in Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses”:

We are not now that strength which in old days 
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are; 
One equal temper of heroic hearts, 
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will 
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. 

In its infernal context, this oration exemplifies fraudulent counsel, since through it Ulysses leads his companions to their destruction. But it also powerfully evokes the authentic spirit of the Ciceronian discendi cupiditas. The cupiditas or lust for learning that Cicero’s Ulysses feels is perfectly captured by the “ardor” to see all that there is to see:

ch’i’ ebbi a divenir del mondo esperto
e de li vizi umani e del valore.  (Inf. 26.97-99)

                           the longing
I had to gain experience of the world
and of the vices and the worth of men.  

The desire to see and to know is a long-term Dantean quest, celebrated in the opening of the Convivio, where Dante cites Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Aristotle begins the first book of the Metaphysics thus:

All men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight. For not only with a view to action, but even when we are not going to do anything, we prefer seeing (one might say) to everything else. The reason is that this, most of all the senses, makes us know and brings to light many differences between things.

Although Virgilio gives a concise account of all the deceits and tricks for which Ulysses was famous, Dante focuses Inferno 26 on the heroic quest. His Ulysses presents himself as a fearless (perhaps reckless) voyager into the unknown who leaves behind all the ties of human affect and society to pursue “virtue and knowledge”: “virtute e canoscenza” (Inf. 26.120). He incites his men to a folle volo to uninhabited lands beyond the known world. Sailing the watery and uninhabited wastes of the southern hemisphere, Ulysses eventually sees a mountain in the distance, “the highest mountain I had ever seen” (Inf. 26.133-135). This is Mount Purgatory, unapproachable except by way of the angel’s boat, as we will see in Purgatorio 1 and 2. The end of Purgatorio 1, in particular, is suffused with Ulyssean tropes, which work to make evident the contrast between Ulysses and Dante-pilgrim.

Indeed, the sighting of Mount Purgatory makes inescapable the connection between Dante and Ulysses, a connection that in any case the narrator of Inferno 26 has underscored throughout the episode. Dante tells us explicitly from the outset that the materia of this canto grieves and concerns him in a particular way:

  Allor mi dolsi, e ora mi ridoglio
quando drizzo la mente a ciò ch’io vidi,
e più lo ’ngegno affreno ch’i’ non soglio,
  perché non corra che virtù nol guidi... (Inf. 26.19-22)
  It grieved me then and now grieves me again
when I direct my mind to what I saw;
and more than usual, I curb my talent,
  that it not run where virtue does not guide...

The idea that he must curb or restrain his own ingegno, keeping it from running recklessly over the bounds, speaks to Dante’s own fears of engaging in a “Ulyssean” quest. The question is: is one’s quest for knowledge a self-motivated search for personal glory or is it a divinely sanctioned journey undertaken to help others? Inferno 26 reminds us of Dante’s reply to Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti in Inferno 10. Dante’s claim that “My own powers have not brought me”—“da me stesso non vegno” (Inf. 10.61)—puts his journey at the opposite end of the spectrum from Ulysses’ self-willed voyage.

But the pilgrim’s self-association with Ulysses is very strong. In this bolgia as in some others, the souls are not visible in human form: they are tongues of flame that flicker on the floor of the bolgia like fireflies in the summer twilight (Inf. 26.25-33). When Dante learns from Virgilio of Ulysses and Diomedes encased in a twinned flame (an interesting reprise of the “two in one” theme from the previous canto), his desire overwhelms him. He begs Virgilio to allow him to await the arrival of the horned flame, since, as he exclaims, he “bends” towards it: “vedi che del disio ver’ lei mi piego!” (see how, out of my desire, I bend toward it! [Inf. 26.69]).

Later in the poem we learn that the bending or inclination of the soul toward an object of desire is love: “quel piegare è amor” (that bending is love [Purg. 18.26]). There is no doubt that Dante is communicating his love and fascination for the Greek hero.

The narrator however also creates an opportunity for dissociating the pilgrim from Ulysses, when he has Virgilio suggest that he must address the twinned flame, because the epic heroes would be disdainful towards Dante’s vernacular:

Lascia parlare a me, ch’i’ ho concetto
ciò che tu vuoi; ch’ei sarebbero schivi,
perch’ e’ fuor greci, forse del tuo detto. (Inf. 26.73-75)  

Let me address them—I have understood
what you desire of them. Since they were Greek,
perhaps they’d be disdainful of your speech.

We will come back in the Introduction to the next canto to this important moment, when Dante seems to suggest that it is best for an epic poet—a writer of alta tragedìa (as he calls the Aeneid in Inferno 20.113)—to address epic heroes. He will pick up this idea in a fascinating way at the beginning of Inferno 27. For now, let us note that Dante here scripts for Virgilio language that—while written in Italian—sounds as much like Latin epic as it is possible for the vernacular to sound. Virgilio’s lofty words to Ulysses resound with the high accents of heroic undertakings and noble deeds:

  «O voi che siete due dentro ad un foco,
s’io meritai di voi mentre ch’io vissi,
s’io meritai di voi assai o poco
  quando nel mondo li alti versi scrissi,
non vi movete; ma l'un di voi dica dove,
per lui, perduto a morir gissi». (Inf. 26.79-84)
  “You two who move as one within the flame,
if I deserved of you while I still lived,
if I deserved of you much or a little
  when in the world I wrote my noble lines,
do not move on; let one of you retell
where, having gone astray, he found his death.”

Ulysses himself will maintain this lofty diction through his discourse, modulating from the unfettered excitement of his ardor to know and the charismatic humanism with which he summons his men to his dignified and lapidary final submission to the higher power that sends him to a watery grave—his ardor forever unquenched.

* * *

 A final note on the “backwards pedagogy” of the Commedia.

As we have seen in the Introduction above, Dante gives to his Ulysses an Adamic function, meaning that in Dante’s very idiosyncratic and personal mythography Ulysses inhabits a moral space analogous to that of Adam in the Christian tradition: indeed, Ulysses is a signifier of what Dante’s own Adam calls “il trapassar del segno” (Par. 26.117).

We meet Dante’s Adam in Paradiso 26, where Adam names another signifier of trespass: Nembrot, the Biblical builder of the Tower of Babel. Nembrot, whom we will encounter in Inferno 31, is the emblem for Dante of linguistic trespass and fall, cited by Adam for his “ovra inconsummabile”—his “unaccomplishable task” (Par. 26.125). Moreover, Nembrot is the only Dantean sinner, other than Ulysses, whom Dante names in each canticle of the Commedia (for which, see The Undivine Comedy, p. 115). By the time we reach Paradiso 26, and indeed by the time we reach the Garden of Eden, this strange constellation—Ulysses, Nembrot, Adam—makes sense to us.

But it is worth noting that Dante, a Christian author, leads his readers on a very counter-intuitive course to the understanding that we eventually attain. It would have been far simpler, in other words, to have presented Adam himself—rather than Ulysses—as the signifier of Adamic trespass. The fact that in the Commedia we work backwards, arriving at the idea of Christian trespass through Dante’s incarnation of the Greek hero, is itself worthy of note.

Of course, at a fundamental level this happens because Dante has us read Inferno before Purgatorio and Paradiso, thus presenting much material in its negative variant, through a negative representative, and so forth. The effect of this in malo reading experience must inevitably be to complicate matters, since we get hold of things from the wrong end first and have to scramble about a bit and disentangle a good deal to get things back to right. For instance, we have to wrestle with feeling compassion in Hell and learning why it is wrong rather than avoiding such an arduous lesson until we are well versed in the requisite theology.

But the experience of backward reading is not in itself sufficient to account for Ulysses as Dante’s avatar of Adam. After all, Nembrot alone would have been able to fulfill that function more straightforwardly, confronting one Biblical character with another. What is remarkable is the choice of a classical figure for the personification of Adamic trespass, a choice that creates a yet more steep learning curve for the reader.

The choice of Greek Ulysses is one for which we are prepared by the presence of other classical trespassers in Inferno, particularly by Capaneus, one of the Seven Against Thebes. At the same time, Capaneus is a figure for whom the author elicits no sympathy, whom he keeps at arms-length and to whom Virgilio speaks with disdain. Ulysses, by contrast, is a figure to whom Virgilio speaks with great respect and with whom the pilgrim explicitly identifies, saying: “vedi che del disio ver’ lei mi piego!” (see how, out of my desire, I bend toward it! [Inf. 26.69]).

The identification of the pilgrim with Ulysses is one that the narrator of Inferno has been building since the first canto of the Commedia, through voyage and maritime imagery and the deployment of a specific metaphoric code and “Ulyssean” lexicon. It is an identification that he effectively announces when, in Inferno 2, he has the pilgrim use the adjective “folle” for his undertaking: “temo che la venuta non sia folle” (I fear my venture may be wild [Inf. 2.35]). As discussed in the Introduction to Inferno 2, that canto is devoted to both declaring and preemptively defusing Dante’s self-identification with trespass, the trespass that he figures as Ulyssean.

From the beginning of the Inferno, therefore, we are schooled in a different rhetoric, and in a different mythography—we are taken on a very personal course toward understanding. This path, saturated in early humanism and classical antiquity, is Dante’s own varco folle. The very idea that Adamic trespass will be introduced through the figure of Ulysses is a varco folle. It is a sign of Dante’s having consummated his own “ovra inconsummabile”—of his having successfully constructed his own “towering” achievement—that we now take his mythography for granted, and that we give so little consideration to the backwards pedagogy that starts with Ulysses and finally arrives at Adam.

Recommended Citation

Barolini, Teodolinda. "Inferno 26 : The Quest." Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. Center for Digital Research and Scholarship. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2015.

Coordinated Reading