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

Inferno 27


A Failed Conversion

The Undivine Comedy, pp. 88-89; Dante’s Poets, pp. 229-33; Dante and Francesca da Rimini: Realpolitik, Romance, Gender”, Speculum 75 [2000]: 1-28; “‘Only Historicize’: History, Material Culture (Food, Clothes, Books), and the Future of Dante Studies,” Dante Studies 127 (2009): 37-54; “The Self in the Labyrinth of Time: Rerum vulgarium fragmenta,” Petrarch: A Critical Guide to the Complete Works, eds. Victoria Kirkham and Armando Maggi (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), pp. 33-62.
  • what language does Virgilio speak?
  • historical torture versus metaphoric torture
  • tirannia reprised (see Introduction to Inferno 12)
  • Boniface VIII reprised (see Introduction to Inferno 19)
  • Christian doctrine on repentance wedded to Aristotelian logic: the law of non-contradiction (A ≠ not A)
  • the little temporal adverbs that signal the issue of conversion, as in Augustine’s Confessions: conversion follows the arrow of time
  • connections of Guido da Montefeltro’s story to Petrarch’s Rerum vulgarium fragmenta and to Boccaccio’s Decameron

Inferno 27 is the second of the two canti devoted to the sin of fraudulent counsel. In this bolgia, as elsewhere in Malebolge, we see a classical figure (Ulysses in Inferno 26) paired with a contemporary figure (Guido da Montefeltro in Inferno 27). In this instance, atypical in Malebolge, both are great characters, each dominating an entire canto.

It is fascinating to see how Dante goes about transposing fraudulent counsel from the heroic/epic/classical key of Ulysses to the vernacular/contemporary/quotidian key of Guido da Montefeltro.

The canto of Guido da Montefeltro functions in many ways as an unmasking of the canto of Ulysses, following a rule that is fairly constant throughout Inferno, whereby a sinner who is treated in a particularly metaphorical key is offset by one who is treated with a harsher literalism: thus, Francesca is followed by Ciacco, Pier della Vigna by Capaneo, and—turning to characters who committed the same sin—Brunetto is followed by the three noble Florentines. As Inferno 16 serves to demythologize Inferno 15, pointing to the political and social consequences of corruption among society’s elite, and focusing on the physical suffering of the sinners in a way that compensates for the comparative lack of such description with respect to Brunetto, so Inferno 27 demythologizes Inferno 26.

The difference between Dante’s treatment of Ulysses and his treatment of Guido is immediately apparent. The travelers are beginning to move off after Ulysses has finished speaking, when another flame comes after them, emitting a “confuso suon” (perplexing sound [Inf. 27.6]): instead of Virgilio’s lengthy and beautiful captatio benevolentiae, here it is the sinner who begs the travelers to remain, and instead of Ulysses’ sonorous exordium, here there is only a confused racket. Dante now elaborates on the modus operandi of this speaking flame, something he chose not to do in Inferno 26, and there follows the graphic horror of the simile of the Sicilian bull. This is the bronze bull in which the tyrant Phalaris of Sicily (circa 570 to 554 BCE) roasted his victims, whose shrieks were transformed by the machine into the bellowing of a bull. As the tortured victims in the bull attempt to wail, but have their human cries transformed into a bull’s bellowing (a further degradation to amuse the tyrant), so the soul within the flame attempts to speak, but can find no outlet for his voice (Inf. 27.7-15).

An artistic and representational emphasis symptomatic of Malebolge is built into the simile, by way of the “artistry” of the bull’s inventor, Perillos of Athens, an artistry emphasized by Dante—as it was by Ovid—in verses 8-9.

The simile of the Sicilian bull functions as a transforming medium stationed at the outset of Inferno 27 in order to “lower” the discourse, to accomplish the transition from high to low. This transition is articulated at the level of language, a key thematic concern in this bolgia inhabited by tongues of fire. The simile stresses the transition from speech, in this context a “high” sound (as emphasized by the previous high epic speech of both Virgilio and Ulysses) to the “low” sound of the bull’s bellows. The simile’s second term describes the “conversion” of Guido’s struggling words into “the language of the fire”, evoking the deformation of human speech by the instrument of torture in which the body is encased:

così, per non aver via né forame
dal principio nel foco, in suo linguaggio
si convertìan le parole grame. (Inf. 27.13-15)

so were the helpless words that, from the first,
had found no path or exit from the flame,
transformed into the language of the fire.

Only now do we understand that Ulysses’ voice, like Guido’s, must have been physically degraded by the effort of speaking as a flame. Only now do we learn the full import of the description “gittò voce di fuori” (he threw forth his voice [Inf. 26.90]). Only now do we realize that Ulysses’ eloquence, like that of Pier della Vigna, who emitted “parole e sangue” as he spoke, was accompanied by great pain.

This passage is followed by another terzina describing the mechanics of Guido’s speech act, and then, finally, by his first words, which are addressed to Virgilio and refer to the maestro’s recent dismissal of Ulysses. If it is surprising to learn that Virgilio, who had addressed the hero with such respect, should dismiss him with the words “Go away now”, it is nothing short of shocking to hear that these words were spoken—far from the high style of the previous canto—in a coarse Lombard dialect, faithfully reproduced by Guido da Montefeltro:

udimmo dire: “O tu a cu’ io drizzo
la voce e che parlavi mo lombardo,
dicendo ‘Istra ten va, più non t’adizzo’”  (Inf. 27.19-21) 

We heard: “O you to whom I turn my voice,
who only now were talking Lombard, saying,
Go away now, I urge you no more’” 

How has Virgilio’s Latinate “S’io meritai di voi” of Inferno 26 become Lombard “Istra ten va” of Inferno 27? Dante has effected a remarkable transposition from the high style and tone adopted by Virgilio with Ulysses to the coarse Lombard dialect retrospectively put into Virgilio’s mouth by Guido da Montefeltro. And, while we are on the subject of Virgilio as Lombard native: did Ciampolo offer to call “Toschi e Lombardi” (Tuscans and Lombards [Inf. 22.99]) out of the pitch in the bolgia of the barraters because he heard Virgilio speaking Lombard? Dante was a theorist of language (before the Commedia he wrote a linguistic treatise, De vulgari eloquentia) and it is legitimate to use this passage to explore questions about what Dante believed was spoken by those who wrote classical Latin on the Italian peninsula. (On this topic, see the long note in Dante's Poets, pp. 231-32.)

When Guido da Montefeltro says that he heard Virgilio say to Ulysses “Istra ten va, più non t’adizzo” (Go away now, I urge you no more [Inf. 27.21]), it is as though Guido had literally “translated” the style and register of Virgilio’s words from the mode of tragedìa (Inferno 26) to the mode of comedìa (Inferno 27).

 * * *

The Sicilian bull is a historic instrument of torture devised for a real tyrant of Agrigento in Sicily, one who is cited as an example of bestiality by Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics 7.5.

Along with the Sicilian bull, there are other real tortures cited in Inferno. In Inferno 19 Dante stands over Nicholas III who is head-first in his well and compares himself to a friar who confesses an assassin (Inf. 19.49-51). Dante is referring here to the capital punishment meted upon paid assassins, called propagginazione, which consists of burying the criminal head-first in a hole, filling the hole with dirt, and creating death by suffocation. In Inferno 23.66 Dante compares the leaden capes worn by the hypocrites to the lead mantle supposedly devised as an instrument of torture by Frederick II (there is no documentary confirmation of this torture, whose alleged connection to Frederick is repeated by all the ancient commentators). In Inferno 28.80, Dante refers to a form of torturous murder committed on board ships: mazzerare, which consists of putting a living man in a sack with a heavy rock, tying the sack, and throwing it overboard. In Inferno 30.75, Maestro Adamo reports having been burned alive on the stake: “per ch’io il corpo sù arso lasciai” (for this I left my body, burned, above [Inf. 30.75]).

Dante-narrator will confirm in Purgatorio 27 that in his lifetime he witnessed both propagginazione and burning at the stake. He references the manner of “one who is placed in the ditch [to be buried alive]” in Purg. 27.15 (“colui che ne la fossa è messo”) and shortly thereafter mentions “umani corpi già veduti accesi” (the human bodies I’d once seen burning [Purg. 27.18]).

Let me note the difference between the metaphoric “torments” of the damned and the real tortures of propagginazione or mazzerare. Our convention as Dante scholars is to write about the “sufferings” and “torments” of Hell. There is physical pain in Dante’s Inferno, but, for me, it is not in the literalized metaphors that serve as contrapassi. It is in the passing references to propagginazione or mazzerare, or in the description of the Sicilian bull.

In the context of Inferno 27, the Sicilian bull and the tyrant who deployed it anticipate the first part of the dialogue with Guido da Montefeltro, which will treat the spread of tirannia as a form of governance throughout the cities of the Romagna region. On tirannia, see the Introduction to Inferno 12.

Realizing that Dante is Italian, Guido da Montefeltro asks whether his native Romagna experiences peace or war. Going city by city through the region, Dante tells Guido da Montefeltro about the situation of Romagna. Although there is no outright war at present, Romagna is never free of war “in the hearts of its tyrants”—“ne’ cuor de’ suoi tiranni”: “Romagna tua non è, e non fu mai, / sanza guerra ne’ cuor de’ suoi tiranni” (Romagna is not now and never was / quite free of war inside its tyrants’ hearts [Inf. 27.37-38]).

This meditation on the birth of tyrannical rule in Italy features a list of Romagnol dynasties that includes both Francesca da Rimini’s birth family, the Polentani, and the family into which she married, the Malatesta (Inf. 27.41 and 46 respectively). In verses 46-48, Dante pungently refers to the cruelty of the founder of the Malatesta dynasty, Malatesta da Verucchio, and his son, Malatestino, who became lord of Rimini after his father’s death. In the next canto, Dante adds to the indictment of this dynasty, calling Malatestino the “tiranno fello” (foul tyrant [Inf. 28.81]) who had the two best citizens of Fano “mazzerati” (Inf. 28.80) in the Adriatic near Cattolica.

Guido da Montefeltro himself was a great warlord and political strategist who founded the ruling dynasty of Urbino, and whose role in shaping the destiny of the Romagna region has been insufficiently considered in discussions of Inferno 27. For more on Guido da Montefeltro and his enmity with Malatesta da Verucchio, see my essay “Dante and Francesca da Rimini” cited in Coordinated Reading. In The Malatesta of Rimini and the Papal State, the historian of Romagna P. J. Jones notes that the ‘‘transformation of local into regional signoria was mainly the work of one man”: this man was Guido da Montefeltro. In my essay “Only Historicize” I cite Jones and consider how such an understanding can transform our reading of Inferno 27:

Reading historians of Romagna allowed me to glimpse the remarkable and unexploited historical density of Dante’s poetry in Inferno 27: the drama of Guido da Montefeltro’s false conversion in the canto’s latter half is ripe for a reexamination that reads his story against the canto’s earlier probing of Romagnol history. In The Malatesta of Rimini and the Papal State, the historian P. J. Jones writes of Guido’s impact on Romagna that the ‘‘transformation of local into regional signoria was mainly the work of one man’’.

Even the imagery of Inferno 27 can be contextualized with respect to contemporary politics: for instance, Jones mentions a Ghibelline poem that ‘‘sets out to contrast the two captains, Guido ‘leone’ and Malatesta da Verucchio ‘veltro’ ’’ (34), while in Inferno 27 Malatesta is a mastiff rather than a veltro, and Guido famously says that his deeds ‘‘non furon leonine, ma di volpe’’ (Inf. 27.75). When the pilgrim, speaking to Guido da Montefeltro in Inferno 27, refers to the ‘‘lunga prova’’ endured by Forlì before it reduced the French to a ‘‘sanguinoso mucchio,’’ he is referring to events in which historians assign that same Guido da Montefeltro the central role. And yet there has not been a reading of Dante’s Guido da Montefeltro that takes into account his crucial role in a historical process—the formation of tirannia—that Dante deplored. (“Only Historicize,” pp. 48-49)

* * *

Guido da Montefeltro is praised by Dante in Convivio 4.28.8 for having renounced worldly ambitions in his old age to become a Franciscan friar. But now, some years after putting aside the Convivio, Dante refashions Guido da Montefeltro as a damned soul who tells a devastating story of failed conversion.

Guido prefaces his account by averring that if he thought he were speaking to someone able to go back to earth, his flame would move no more:

S’i’ credesse che mia risposta fosse
a persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
questa fiamma staria sanza più scosse (Inf. 27.61-63)

If I thought my reply were meant for one
who ever could return into the world,
this flame would stir no more.  

In other words, he would be silent, lest by speaking he hurt his reputation. But, Guido continues, since he has heard that no one exits from this pit, he will speak without fear of infamy:

ma però che già mai di questo fondo
non tornò vivo alcun, s’i’ odo il vero,
sanza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.  (Inf. 27.64-66)

And yet, since none, if what I hear is true,
ever returned alive from this abyss, then
without fear of facing infamy, I answer you.  

The underlying logic of Guido da Montefeltro’s story of failed conversion is already visible in this opening passage, where Guido weighs whether to tell his story to Dante, and carefully calculates that he is safe and may therefore speak. He errs in his prudential calculation, of course, since Dante is the one traveler who does leave this pit, and so Guido now exposes himself to the very infamy that he so carefully seeks to avoid. This moment in Hell is therefore a replay of the warlord’s life-story as Dante recounts it, in which Guido da Montefeltro became a Franciscan in order to avoid infamy but was unable to resist the lure to speak and offer fraudulent counsel to Boniface VIII.

Let me note in passing that these haunting verses of failed calculation are the epigraph to T. S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, and thereby have offered me and many others our first encounter with Dante’s verse. Eliot does not identify the author or location of the two terzine he cites as epigraph of “Prufrock”. I still remember my juvenile encounter with language that I found even more beautiful than Eliot’s and my father’s assurance that their provenance was Inferno.

Guido’s miscalculation vis-à-vis the pilgrim is a mise-en-abyme of the erring prudential calculation that delivered him to Hell in the first place. His error is revealed in his syntax, in the conditional contrary to fact of terzina 61-63, which seems so clever yet leads him so astray, leading him to the causal conjunctions plus temporal adverbs of verse 64. The words “ma però che già mai”—“given that never before” (as in: given that never before has anyone left Hell, I will answer you)—seem ironclad, but in context their logic is faulty. Dante’s trip through Hell is the exception that Guido fails to take into consideration.

Similarly, Guido’s plan to go to heaven would have succeeded were it not, in his telling, that he forgot to take into consideration the “High Priest” who lured him back into sin:

Io fui uom d’arme, e poi fui cordigliero,
credendomi, sì cinto, fare ammenda;
e certo il creder mio venìa intero,
se non fosse il gran prete, a cui mal prenda!
che mi rimise ne le prime colpe.   (Inf. 27.67-71)

I was a man of arms, then wore the cord,
believing that, so girt, I made amends;
and surely what I thought would have been true
were it not for the High Priest—may he be damned—
who made me fall back into my former sins. 

The “gran prete” whom Guido da Montefeltro damns in verse 70 will indeed be damned, according to Dante, for Guido is referring to Boniface VIII, the very pope whom Dante implicates in simony in Inferno 19. However, Guido is here damning not only Boniface but also himself: for he is revealing that his conversion was not real, but prudential. Boniface could not have compelled him to return to his “prime colpe” (former sins [Inf. 27.71]) had he truly converted and left those sins behind.

The verb mettere in the past absolute is used by both Ulysses and by Guido in key verses that are emblematic—of Ulysses’ failed adventurism on the one hand and of Guido’s failed conversion on the other. Where Ulysses speaks of himself as in control, the agent of his destiny who sets out intrepidly onto the open sea—“ma misi me per l’alto mare aperto” (I set out on the open sea [Inf. 26.100])—Guido speaks of Boniface VIII as agent, the one who turned him back to his old bad ways: “mi rimise ne le prime colpe” (he made me fall back into my former sins [Inf. 27.71]).

 * * *

Unlike Ulysses, whose journey to death and damnation is one of isolated grandeur in both decision-making and execution (the crew are but his pawns, in his own telling), Guido da Montefeltro’s story involves a second actor. The story Guido tells is therefore in some ways more layered and complex, involving a double set of motivations.

As we have seen, Guido complains bitterly that he was induced to return to his old bad ways by pope Boniface VIII. Boniface sought counsel from the old warrior on how to conquer Palestrina, the stronghold of his Colonna enemies. The Colonna cardinals had refused to accept the legitimacy of the abdication, in 1294, of Boniface VIII’s predecessor, the holy Benedictine hermit, beloved of spiritual Franciscans, Celestine V. Consequently, they did not accept the legitimacy of Boniface VIII’s reign, and the result was war.

The brutal papal siege of the Colonna stronghold at Palestrina is in fact another example of tirannia, and Boniface VIII is another tiranno to add to the list of Romagnol tyrants offered earlier in this canto.

When Boniface sees that Guido hesitates to give him the counsel he requires, the pope reassures the retired condottiere that he need not fear for his soul. At this point Boniface gives false counsel, for he lies, telling Guido da Montefeltro that as pope he has the power to absolve and—here is the lie and abuse of power—that he will absolve Guido of his future sin immediately, from this very moment:

  E’ poi ridisse: “Tuo cuor non sospetti;
finor t’assolvo, e tu m’insegna fare
sì come Penestrino in terra getti. (Inf. 27.100-02)
  And then he said: “Your heart must not mistrust:
I now absolve you in advance——teach me
to batter Penestrino to the ground.

In a most remarkable instance of layering, Dante provides us with a troping of fraudulent counsel in this episode, for the fraudulent counselor Guido da Montefeltro relates that he was fraudulently counseled by Boniface VIII. Boniface gave Guido fraudulent advice when he tells him not to worry about sinning, promising that he will absolve him in advance, before he sins: “finor t’assolvo” (I now absolve you in advance [Inf. 27.101]).

This apparently prudential logic that is based on a false premise—sin now and I will absolve you in advance—was able to lure Guido da Montefeltro because it resonates with his own inner thoughts and calculations: Guido had approached salvation prudentially before, and is therefore susceptible to the wiles of Boniface VIII, wiles that replicate his own faulty logic.

Boniface of course knows that one cannot be absolved of a sin before committing that sin. (However, for an actual example of papal absolution offered in advance, see Appendix 1 below.) The logic here is simple: commission of a sin requires the soul to will to carry out the sin, and it is not possible to will an act and repent of that act simultaneously. It is this simultaneous repenting and willing that is challenged by the devil who arrives to take Guido’s soul to Hell, snatching him from St. Francis in the story that Guido relates at the canto’s end.

The devil unites in his analysis both elementary Christian doctrine—to wit, absolution requires repentance—and elementary Aristotelian logic: one cannot simultaneously want to commit an action and want not to commit it.

As the devil points out, this argument presents a logical fallacy, based on the law of non-contradiction. The law of non-contradiction—which Dante states in Paradiso 6, verse 21, also in the context of conversion (see Appendix 2 below)—holds that a true statement and its opposite cannot both be true at the same time in the same sense. This principle is stated in logic as A ≠ not A:

  ch’assolver non si può chi non si pente,
né pentere e volere insieme puossi
per la contradizion che nol consente (Inf. 27.118-120)
  one can’t absolve a man who's not repented,
and no one can repent and will at once;
the law of contradiction won't allow it.

There is a repertory of types of fraudulent counsel in this bolgia, and, strangely, the worst example seems to be that of the man who is damned to a different bolgia, namely Boniface VIII. Ulysses leads his men astray, but does nothing to them that he does not do to himself. Guido da Montefeltro advises Boniface VIII to deceive his enemies by promising peace and not fulfilling his promise, but he does not himself deceive them. Boniface VIII lies directly to Guido da Montefeltro.

A final thought on Boniface VIII. As discussed in the Introduction to Inferno 19, Boniface did not die until 1303, and Dante therefore has to go to great lengths to insert him into a Hell that the pilgrim visited in April of 1300. In doing so, he denies him the possibility of repentance in extremis (the very possibility that he grants to Guido da Montefeltro’s son, Bonconte, in Purgatorio 5) and flirts dangerously with determinism. One could say that the pope’s fraud was in promising absolution for a sin not yet been committed, and in return Dante has promised damnation for a life not yet fulfilled.

Nonetheless, in giving Boniface the evil advice he seeks, Guido shows that he has not really converted, that he has not really changed his essence.

As at the core of Ulysses’ story is not his fraudulent counsel but his failed journey, so too the core of Guido’s story is not his counsel but his failed conversion: his own failed journey.

Guido had left his life as a warrior and politician, and yet his sinful inclinations were so strong that he was susceptible to the temptation posed by Boniface VIII. His conversion did not “take”: he was tempted and he fell. In Hell he is furious at the man who outwitted him and regretful that his brilliant plans to achieve salvation were thus thwarted.

Guido da Montefeltro put great effort into taking the steps that he thought would guarantee his salvation, renouncing his worldly life to become a Franciscan. Yet he fails, because his heart did not change. His son Bonconte, whose story Dante recounts in Purgatorio 5, remained a warrior until his end, dying on the battlefield, and yet, by uttering a heartfelt prayer with his last breath, he achieves salvation.

* * *

Inferno 27 is also a touchstone for the poet Petrarch, whose depiction of his own struggle with conversion is greatly influenced by the episode of Guido da Montefeltro. As shown by Augustine in the Confessions and by Dante in Inferno 27, the logic of conversion follows the arrow of time.

When Guido blames Boniface for returning him to his “prime colpe” (Inf. 27.71), for sending him back to the state he was in before he became a Franciscan, he effectively acknowledges that he did not truly convert. According to Dante’s analysis, Guido did not experience conversion, for he went backwards, not forwards.

Petrarch, who writes of his “primo giovenile errore” (first youthful error) in the first poem of the Rerum vulgarium fragmenta and of never being able to leave “il primo alloro” (the first laurel) in Rvf 23.167, is acutely aware of the deep logic of Guido’s story, and of the way that Dante embeds conversion and its causality in a temporal process that must go forward.

Petrarch dramatizes himself as the protagonist of a failed conversion, based on his inability to move forward from primo to something that comes later. His first sonnet, Voi ch’ascoltate, features repentance via the same unusual form of the verb (pentére) used by Guido da Montefeltro. In a replication of Guido’s failed logic, Petrarch places a poem of “repentance” before a lyric sequence that subsequently and repeatedly celebrates the very act for which he has “already”, in sonnet 1, declared his repentance. As I note in “The Self in the Labyrinth of Time”, Petrarch is replicating Guido’s time-line, “repenting” before sinning:

A recantation—“’l pentérsi,” repentance (1.13)—at the outset makes no more sense than a sinner’s attempt to repent before sinning, a logical contradiction treated by Dante in the Guido da Montefeltro episode of the Inferno (via the same unusual form of the verb, pentere, used in Voi ch’ascoltate by Petrarch): “ch’assolver non si può chi non si pente, / né pentere e volere insieme puossi / per la contradizion che nol consente” (For he who does not repent cannot be absolved, nor can one both repent and will at once, because of the contradiction which does not allow it [Inf. 27.118–20]). “Forse / tu non pensavi ch’io loïco fossi” (Perhaps you did not think I was a logician! [Inf. 27.122–23]), says the devil to Guido as he drags him off to hell. As shown by Augustine in the Confessions and by Dante in the Commedia, and as Petrarch well knows, the logic of conversion follows the arrow of time: it is not logical to renounce the “breve sogno” before engaging in it, before succumbing to it, before representing it. (“The Self in the Labyrinth of Time: Rerum vulgarium fragmenta,” p. 42)

* * *

At the heart of Guido’s story are Augustinian temporal adverbs that he weds with causal conjunctions. Boniface says “finor t’assolvo”—“from now I absolve you”— and Guido echoes in response, making his fatal error when he links the causal conjunction “da che” (since) with the temporal adverb “mo” (now): “Padre, da che tu mi lavi / di quel peccato ov’ io mo cader deggio” (Father, since you cleanse me of the sin / that I must now fall into [Inf. 27.108-109]). The tiny particle “mo” is the crux of matter: it signals that Guido accepts the idea that he can receive prior absolution for the sin that he will only “now”—“mo”—commit.

But, as the devil reminds us, absolution requires repentance, and it is not possible to repent for an act that one has not yet committed: volere and pentére cannot be simultaneous, they must be sequential. The logic of sin and repentance, and therefore ultimately of conversion, is temporal.

Guido uses the lexicon of repentance and conversion, but he scrambles the order—fatally, because the order of conversion, its unfolding in time, is its essence.

If we were to take the lexicon of repentance and conversion of Inferno 27 and unscramble it, we could achieve what Guido did not achieve, the following proper temporal alignment:

1) volere (verse 119: desire, in this case the desire to sin) →
2) the commission of sin (described in verses 110-11) →
3a) pentére (verse 119: repentance of the sinful act committed) →
3b) confession following repentance (as in verse 83:
“pentuto e confesso mi rendei”) →
4) absolution (as in Boniface’s “finor t’assolvo” of verse 101)

In Boniface’s impossible sequence, accepted by Guido because he had not lost the desire to sin, the words are robbed of meaning and become formal shells, to be manipulated at will. (Indeed, Boniface is a man who says “Lo ciel poss’io serrare e diserrare”: Heaven can I lock and unlock [Inf. 27.103].) When the words have meaning, when they correspond to real feelings, then they can proceed only in one direction, because of the nature of desire and its unfolding in time.

The theatricality of the scene in which St. Francis arrives for the soul of one of his Franciscans, only to be sent packing by the logic-wielding devil, is reminiscent of mystery plays and popular medieval dramatic art. The theatricality also reminds us that conversion is not a performance art: we cannot in fact read what is happening inside the soul. (Not even a church dignitary can do so: hence the archbishop of Cosenza, delegate of Pope Clement IV, who mistakenly condemned the saved Manfredi in Purgatorio 3.)

Repentance, conversion, and salvation remain opaque, hidden in the human heart, mysterious and known only to God, as Boccaccio brilliantly reminds us in the first novella of the Decameron (a novella that owes much to Inferno 27):

Cosí adunque visse e morí ser Cepparello da Prato e santo divenne come avete udito. Il quale negar non voglio esser possibile lui esser beato nella presenza di Dio, per ciò che, come che la sua vita fosse scellerata e malvagia, egli poté in su lo stremo aver sí fatta contrizione, che per avventura Idio ebbe misericordia di lui e nel suo regno il ricevette: ma per ciò che questo n’è occulto, secondo quello che ne può apparire ragiono, e dico costui piú tosto dovere essere nelle mani del diavolo in perdizione che in Paradiso. (Decameron 1.1.89)

So lived, so died Ser Cepperello da Prato, and came to be reputed a saint, as you have heard. Nor would I deny that it is possible that he is of the number of the blessed in the presence of God, seeing that, though his life was evil and depraved, yet he might in his last moments have made so complete an act of contrition that perchance God had mercy on him and received him into His kingdom. But, as this is hidden from us, I speak according to that which appears, and I say that he ought rather to be in the hands of the devil in hell than in Paradise. (Trans. J.M. Rigg, London, 1921, first printed 1903, taken from Decameron Web, emphasis mine)

Appendix 1
Papal Absolution Offered in Advance

Papal absolution was sometimes used in the fraudulent way that Boniface VIII suggests to Guido da Montefeltro in Dante’s account: that is, it was sometimes promised in advance of a sinful act.

Here is an example taken from a biography of Queen Elizabeth:

The Papal nuncio in Spain gave his opinion that the Bull of Pius V justified all her subjects in taking arms against the Queen; as regards her assassination, the Pope would not make any declaration previously, but would give the necessary absolutions after the deed had been done. (Mandell Creighton, Queen Elizabeth, p. 196, The Pergamum Collection, Kindle Edition)

Appendix 2
The Law of Non-Contradiction and Conversion in Paradiso 6

Dante explicitly invokes Aristotle’s law of non-contradiction in another context where he is also discussing conversion.

In Paradiso 6 the conversion in question is that of the Emperor Justinian. Dante followed the tradition whereby Justinian had been a follower of the Monophysite heresy, which holds that Christ possessed only one—divine—nature. For the opposite heresy, the belief that Christ possessed only one—human—nature, see the Introduction to Inferno 10, where I briefly discuss Pope Anastasius II, whom Dante references as a heretic in Inferno 11.

In Paradiso 6 Justinian explains that he was originally believed that Christ possessed only one nature until he was converted from that erroneous belief by Pope Agapetus I:

E prima ch’io a l’ovra fossi attento,
una natura in Cristo esser, non piùe,
credea, e di tal fede era contento;
ma ’l benedetto Agapito, che fue
sommo pastore, a la fede sincera
mi dirizzò con le parole sue. (Par. 6.13-18)
Before I grew attentive to this labor,
I held that but one nature-and no more-
was Christ's-and in that faith, I was content;
but then the blessed Agapetus, he
who was chief shepherd, with his words turned me
to that faith which has truth and purity.

The reference to Aristotle’s law of non-contradiction comes in Justinian’s profession of belief in Christ’s dual nature. This belief, which he originally took on faith from Agapetus, is one that he now sees as clearly as we humans see that in a set of two contradictory statements one must be true and the other false. In other words he now sees Christ’s dual nature as clearly as on earth we can grasp this elementary principle of logic:

Io li credetti; e ciò che ’n sua fede era,
vegg’io or chiaro sì, come tu vedi
ogni contradizione e falsa e vera. (Par. 6.19-21)
I did believe him, and now clearly see
his faith, as you with contradictories
can see that one is true and one is false.

The Aristotelian law of non-contradiction is cited by the devil in Inferno 27 in order to prove Guido da Montefeltro’s culpability: Guido’s non-conversion is obvious according to the most basic principles of human logic. In Paradiso 6 Justinian’s converted state is such that Christ’s mysterious dual nature is as obvious to him as though it were the principle of non-contradiction.

Recommended Citation

Barolini, Teodolinda. "Inferno 27 : A Failed Conversion." Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. Center for Digital Research and Scholarship. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2015.

Coordinated Reading