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

Inferno 31


The Linguistic Fall

Coordinated Reading: The Undivine Comedy, pp. 92, 115; on the sonnet Non mi poriano, see Dante’s Lyric Poetry.
  • Inferno 31 as anticipation of Inferno 34: giants as anticipations of Lucifer
  • towers—like the fortified towers of the magnate families in Duecento cities—are figures of power, of the will to dominance and overweening pride
  • the Garisenda tower of Bologna and the early sonnet Non mi poriano
  • the interweaving of classical and biblical in the treatment of the giants
  • the Tower of Babel and the linguistic diaspora, as recounted by Dante in De vulgari eloquentia and reprised here
  • the opening “Una medesma lingua” translates the De vulgari eloquentia’s “una eademque loquela”: “one same language”
  • a linguistic theory that is based on the same principle as that of monarchy: unity versus diversity
  • Nembrot’s linguistic failure dramatizes the corrosion of the bonds that tie humans into social and familial consortia

Inferno 31 is a transitional canto, a pause in the plot that marks the transition to the ninth and lowest circle of Hell. It also serves to anticipate the very bottom of Hell, the lowest point of the universe toward which all weight tends: “lo mezzo / al quale ogne gravezza si rauna” (the center to which all weight is drawn [Inf. 32.73-74]). It does so by  featuring giants who are effectively lesser versions of Lucifer.

Less completely estranged, less devoid of cognition and understanding, less consigned to the category of enormous but unthinking brute matter (e.g. the elephants and whales of verse 52), still enjoying to some degree the “ability to reason” (“argomento della mente” in verse 55), the giants are nonetheless analogues to Lucifer in having rebelled through hubris against an all-mighty divinity.

Seeing tall structures in the distance, the pilgrim thinks that he sees towers—not a surprising error, for fortified towers belonging to rivaling magnate families were a hallmark of Duecento cities. Instead what Dante sees are the figures of the giants who ring the “well”—“pozzo” (Inf. 31.32)—that is the pit of Hell. The similarity between the towers and the giants casts the magnates who built those towers as prideful and arrogant, men who pursued a will to dominance like that of the giants.

Only in the topsy-turvy world of Dante’s Hell can the fact that these are giants, rather than towers, be considered “less strange”: “acciò che ’l fatto men ti paia strano, / sappi che non son torri, ma giganti” (so that the fact may seem less strange to you, / I’d have you know they are not towers, but giants [Inf. 31.30-31]).

The feet of the giants are on the floor of the ninth circle, while their torsos and heads stick up over the edge of the eighth circle. When seen from a distance, they thus appear as “towers” arranged in a circle, like the towers that ring Monteriggioni, a circular fortress built by the Sienese as a front in their war against the Florentines: “come su la cerchia tonda / Montereggion di torri si corona” (as, on its round wall, Montereggioni / is crowned with towers [Inf. 31.40-41]).

“Montereggion” is the first historical and contemporary landmark in this canto; later on Dante will refer to “Garisenda” (136), a famous tower in Bologna that he had referenced by name in his early sonnet Non mi poriano. (For more on “the Garisenda sonnet”, see my commentary in Dante’s Lyric Poetry.) In Inferno 31 Dante describes the tower in a precise way that indicates his having studied it in person, in Bologna. Again, by naming these places, by naming these features of the contemporary social and political landscape, Dante links his social world to the issues represented by the towers of Inferno 31: power, will to dominance, overweening pride.

The travelers ultimately reach the farthest reaches of the circle of fraud, and Virgilio asks one of the giants to pick them up and deposit them on the very floor of Hell, in the ninth and final circle. The giant who does this service is Antaeus, a classical figure, who thus provides transport to the ninth circle as Geryon once provided transport to the eighth. At canto’s end Antaeus picks up Dante and Virgilio upon Virgilio’s behest. Virgilio speaks to Antaeus at length (verses 115-29), including in his address to the giant a detailed captatio benevolentiae and a promise of renewed fame on earth if he will comply with the request. Fascinating too is Virgilio’s claim that long life awaits the pilgrim, if grace does not call him before his time:

Ancor ti può nel mondo render fama,
ch’el vive, e lunga vita ancor aspetta
se ’nnanzi tempo grazia a sé nol chiama. (Inf. 31.127-29)

He still can bring you fame within the world,
for he’s alive and still expects long life,
unless grace summon him before his time.

Most significantly, with respect to the thematics of Inferno 31 and this canto’s anticipation of Inferno 34, Antaeus still preserves the faculty of reason, and the sign of his cognitive presence is language: he can receive Virgilio’s communication, understand it, and comply. At the end of Inferno 31 Antaeus gently places the travelers on the floor of the ninth circle, and so the canto concludes with Dante and Virgilio deposited at the very bottom of the universe, the “fondo a tutto l’universo” (Inf. 32.8).

At first mention the giants are placed within a classical frame of reference, in the context of the mythological War of the Titans against the Olympians: they are “li orribili giganti, cui minaccia / Giove del cielo ancora quando tuona” (the terrifying giants, whom Jove still menaces / from Heaven when he sends his bolts of thunder down upon them [Inf. 31.44-45]). Later on in the canto, the classical giant Ephialtes is described in two verses that make him effectively a classical counterpart to Lucifer in his hubris. He is a “superbo” (91), a challenger of God’s supremacy and an embodiment of rebellious pride: “Questo superbo volle esser esperto / di sua potenza contra ’l sommo Giove (This giant in his arrogance had tested / his force against the force of highest Jove [Inf. 31.91-92]).

In the references to Jove’s thunderbolts, Dante is also echoing that other “superbo” (Inf. 25.14) who rebelled against Jove and is now punished as a blasphemer in Hell: Capaneus, explicitly reprised and called “superbo” in Inferno 25. When we meet Capaneus among the blasphemers in Inferno 14, he alludes to Jove’s battle against the giants as part of his grandiose insistence that nothing that Jove can do can possibly frighten him (Inf. 14.51-60). Central to the thematic of prideful transgression in Inferno, Capaneus informs our current encounter with the giants who once challenged Jove in their arrogance.

The classical giants of Inferno 31 are thus suitable anticipations of Lucifer in Dante’s personal mythography. This is a highly personal and idiosyncratic mythography in which, we recall, classical Ulysses is analogous to biblical Adam.

Although most of the giants named in Inferno 31 are classical—including Briareus, Tityus and Tiphon—the most interesting giant is the solitary biblical figure, Nembrot (known as Nimrod in English). The themes of pride and transgression figured in the classical giants are most illuminatingly set forth by Dante in his treatment of Nembrot. The classical giants will be paired with Lucifer and Nembrot again, as examples of overweening pride to be castigated and trampled upon, in Purgatorio’s terrace of pride (Purgatorio 12.28-36).

Dante uses Nembrot and the biblical story of the Tower of Babel to give the issue of pride a linguistic and artistic focus.

Nembrot is the Hebrew king who set out to build the Tower of Babel. The story of the tower of Babel is told in Genesis 11:1-9:

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter. And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

The story of the Tower of Babel was retold by many, including St. Augustine in The City of God. Dante too retells it, in his linguistic treatise, De vulgari eloquentia (On Vernacular Eloquence), which he wrote circa the mid-point of the first decade of the 14th century, after his exile in 1302 and before beginning Inferno. In his retelling of the Tower of Babel in De vulgari eloquentia, Dante focuses on the following key points of the biblical narrative: 1) when all the peoples of the earth were united in possessing one language they could do anything; 2) they misused this privilege by seeking to build a tower whose top could reach to heaven and challenge the divinity; 3) to restrain them God confounded their language.

Thus linguistic diversity is the castigation meted out by God for human hubris. Dante makes this point clearly in his linguistic treatise De vulgari eloquentia:

ut qui omnes una eademque loquela deserviebant ad opus, ab opere, multis diversificati loquelis, desinerent (Dve 1.7.6)

Previously all of them had spoken one and the same language while carrying out their tasks; but now they were forced to leave off their labors, never to return to the same occupation, because they had been split up into groups speaking different languages. (trans. Steven Botterill)

In other words, the people came to the work of building the Tower “with one same language”—“una eademque loquela”—but they left off the work “estranged from one another by a multiplicity of tongues”: “multis diversificati loquelis desinerent” (Dve 1.7.6).

Striking in this passage is the way the opposition between prelapsarian and postlapsarian is characterized in linguistic terms. In their prelapsarian state, the people  were blessed with one language—“una eademque loquela”—while in their postlapsarian condition they are diversified into many tongues: “multis diversificati loquelis”. This linguistic fall is in fact the great theme of Inferno 31, announced in its opening words: “Una medesma lingua” (One same tongue [Inf. 31.1]).

The first three words of Inferno 31 are in fact a reference to Virgilio’s tongue: the same tongue which had rebuked Dante at the end of the previous canto, admonishing him not to be fixated on the quarrel between Sinon and maestro Adamo, now comforts him and restores his good cheer. To be clear: in context and correctly construed, the words “una medesma lingua” at the beginning of Inferno 31 do not refer to the prelapsarian unified language. Nonetheless, the choice to begin Inferno 31 with the words “one same language” seems intentional. One might suggest that the canto that treats the linguistic diaspora as the wages of human arrogance begins with a vernacular translation of the phrase “una eademque loquela” from De vulgari eloquentia.

As in the bolgia of the schismatics (Inferno 28), in Inferno 31 too the underlying premise is that oneness is good and multiplicity is bad. As Dante puts it in the Monarchia (written later, in the second decade of the 14th century): “unde fit quod unum esse videtur esse radix eius quod est esse bonum, et multa esse eius quod est esse malum” (“to be one seems to be the root of what it is to be good, and to be many of what it is to be evil” [Mon. 1.15.2]). We thus arrive at the following alignment:

unum (one) = bonum (good) = una eademque loquela (one same language)
multa (many) = malum (evil) = multis diversificati loquelis (diversified into many languages)

In De vulgari eloquentia Dante also connects Nembrot specifically to artistic pride, in the following very important passage:

Presumpsit ergo in corde suo incurabilis homo, sub persuasione gigantis Nembroth, arte sua non solum superare naturam, sed etiam ipsum naturantem, qui Deus est. (Dve 1.7.4)

So uncurable man, persuaded by the giant Nembrot, presumed in his heart to surpass with his art not only nature, but also nature’s maker, who is God.

The connection between pride and human endeavor—human “art” as it is called in the above passage from De vulgari eloquentia—anticipates the Commedia. The idea that there is a kind of artist arrogant enough to presume “to surpass with his art not only nature, but also nature’s maker, who is God” runs through the Commedia and indeed lays the conceptual foundation for the terrace of pride in Purgatorio. As he does with many of his core ideas, Dante roots his idea of artistic presumption or hubris in both biblical and classical antecedents. For Dante, the mythological and Ovidian figures of the classical artists Daedalus and Arachne are matched by the biblical figure of Nembrot.

Nembrot’s attempt to surpass “not only nature but nature’s maker” will cause him to be remembered in each canticle of the poem, as part of an artistic constellation that also includes Ulysses. In Purgatorio 12, Nembrot stands dazedly at the foot of his “gran lavoro” (great work [Purg. 12.34]), which has been destroyed by God. In Paradiso 26 Adam recalls Nembrot’s failed attempt—his “ovra inconsummabile” (a work that cannot be completed)—one last time (Par. 26.125).

In Inferno 31 the theory of linguistic multiplicity as divine punishment for human arrogance is dramatized by the gibberish coming out of Nembrot’s mouth:

  «Raphél maì amèche zabì almi»,
cominciò a gridar la fiera bocca,
cui non si convenia più dolci salmi.  (Inf. 31.67-69)
  “Raphel mai amecche zabi almi,”     
began to bellow that brute mouth, for which
no sweeter psalms would be appropriate.

Dante has gone a step further than the biblical story by assigning to Nembrot, the instigator of the Tower of Babel, a language that is self-enclosed, unknown to anyone else. Whereas in the original story humans break into groups, each new group endowed with its own language, Dante has made Nembrot a group of one. He speaks non-sense and can communicate to no one, as Virgilio explains:

  Poi disse a me: «Elli stessi s’accusa;
questi è Nembrotto per lo cui mal coto
pur un linguaggio nel mondo non s’usa.
  Lasciànlo stare e non parliamo a vòto;
ché così è a lui ciascun linguaggio
come ’l suo ad altrui, ch’a nullo è noto». (Inf. 31.76-81)
  And then to me: “He is his own accuser;
for this is Nimrod, through whose wicked thought
one single language cannot serve the world.
  Leave him alone—let’s not waste time in talk;
for every language is to him the same
as his to others—no one knows his tongue.”

Nembrot’s non-sense is Dante’s projection to an extreme of the linguistic diaspora brought about by the Tower of Babel: the nightmare of complete linguistic isolation.

This linguistic fall is secondary only to the original fall in the Garden of Eden.

Failure to communicate is necessarily communicable. In other words, Nembrot’s incomprehensible babbling threatens the travelers with incomprehensibility, as Virgilio suggests:

Lasciànlo stare e non parliamo a vòto;
ché così è a lui ciascun linguaggio
come ’l suo ad altrui, ch’a nullo è noto. (Inf. 31.79-81)
Leave him alone—let’s not waste time in talk;
for every language is to him the same
as his to others—no one knows his tongue.

Literally Virgilio here says: “Let us leave him alone and not speak emptily”. The phrase parlare a vòto indicates the insurpassable gulf, the empty space between res and signum that is part of mankind’s fallen condition.

Much of Inferno has been devoted to an investigation of the problems of deceit and fraudulence inherent in the medium of language. As we saw in Inferno 17, Geryon was from the first associated with Arachne and with the perils of mimetic art. And yet, deeply aware as he is of the ways in which language can be used to deceive and abuse, Dante remains committed to the idea that without language we are less than human. Throughout Inferno semiotic abuse has been presented in a dazzling array of linguistic and literary vestments. Now we have arrived at a semiosis that cannot connect at all: we have arrived at the idea of a parlare a vòto, a speech into the void, a discourse in which the signifier will never bear any relation to the signified.

In the linguistic failure that Nembrot performs, Dante dramatizes the complete corrosion of the bonds that tie humans into social and familial consortia. There is no more telling correlative to the sin of treachery—of fraud practiced on those we trust, those to whom we are bound with special ties of love and obligation and devotion—than the failure of language, the human asset that we use to build and achieve together, to console each other, and to communicate our love. This failure is most poignantly expressed in the story told by Ugolino, in Inferno 33, in which the traitor withholds the consolation of language from his sons. It is ultimately a failure embodied by Lucifer, who uses his mouth to masticate—but not to speak.

Inferno 31 begins with Virgilio applying his tongue—his speech—to the multiple and proper offices of communication: as Virgilio used his tongue to cause Dante shame with his severe rebuke at the end of the previous canto, so now (at the beginning of Inferno 31) he uses it to offer the sweet balm of comfort. The canto ends with an anticipation of Lucifer’s mouth: a mouth that does not speak, does not communicate, but only devours. Antaeus places the travelers on “the floor that devours Lucifer with Judas”: “al fondo che divora / Lucifero con Giuda” (Inf. 31.142-43).

The anticipation of Lucifer’s devouring but non-communicating mouth, now in turn devoured by Hell (“the floor that devours”), will be the Inferno’s final image of a brute matter devoid of speech, because devoid of the light of reason. For Lucifer does not have what the giants still have, as Dante specifies in Inferno 31.49-57, where he opines that it is just as well that Nature has left off making creatures who are as large as elephants and whales but, unlike elephants and whales (Dante does not know what we know about the cognition of animals), still possess the ability to reason:

E s’ella d’elefanti e di balene
non si pente, chi guarda sottilmente,
più giusta e più discreta la ne tene;
ché dove l’argomento de la mente 
s’aggiugne al mal volere e a la possa,
nessun riparo vi può far la gente. (Inf. 31.52-57) 
And if she still produces elephants
and whales, whoever sees with subtlety
holds her—for this—to be more just and prudent;
for where the mind’s acutest reasoning
is joined to evil will and evil power,
there human beings can’t defend themselves.

The “argomento della mente”—“ability to reason” (Inf. 31.55)—is what produces language, and it is what makes us human. The inhumanity of humans, signaled by our failures with respect to language, is what engages Dante’s imagination in the last canti of Inferno.

Recommended Citation

Barolini, Teodolinda. "Inferno 31 : The Linguistic Fall." Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. Center for Digital Research and Scholarship. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2015.

Coordinated Reading