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

Inferno 9


Virgilio and Fallibility

The Undivine Comedy, Chapter 3, “Ulysses, Geryon, and the Aeronautics of Narrative Transition,” pp. 68-71; Dante’s Poets, pp. 205-8.
  • the Dante-pilgrim/Virgilio relationship deepens: the manipulation of language and dialogue to reveal affect, subjectivity, and intimacy
  • a meta-canto, like Inferno 2, featuring language itself: “parole maladette” (Inf. 8.95)  → “parola tronca” (Inf. 9. 14) → “parole sante” (Inf. 9.105)
  • Dante-poet gives us new and troubling information about his character Virgilio in a canto that is an indictment of the dark aspects of classical culture
  • the narrator’s scripting of a “past” for his characters that precedes the diegesis of the poem: this is a key technique in creating a virtual reality, as too are the techniques that the narrator uses for creating suspense in an over-determined plot

As discussed in the previous Introduction, we here pick up a story-line that began in Inferno 8, which narrates the attempt of Dante and Virgilio to gain entrance to the city of Dis. As we saw, this story is literally suspended at canto’s end: Inferno 8 ends in medias res, while Dante and Virgilio are still blocked from entrance to the city guarded by devils.

With the shared story-line, there is a shared lexicon. A key little word that carries over from the last part of Inferno 8 to the opening of Inferno 9 is the indefinite pronoun “tal” (the shortened form of tale), used by Virgilio to refer to the unknown being who will come to their assistance. First used in Inferno 8.105 for the force that legitimizes the pilgrim’s journey (“da tal n’è dato” One so great has granted it [Inf. 8.105]), the pronoun recurs at the end of Inferno 8, again referring to the force that is coming to Dante’s aid: “tal che per lui ne fia la terra aperta” (the one who will open this realm for us [Inf. 8.130]). As we shall see, Virgilio uses the same pronoun as he fends off his uncertainty at the beginning of Inferno 9.

Inferno 9 picks up the story, emphasizing the doubt and concern that Virgilio is feeling, despite his reassuring words. The scene that follows focuses on the deepening intimacy and psychological connectedness of the two travelers: I can think of no other medieval text that manipulates dialogue and direct discourse to create affect and dramatic tension in the way that Dante here does. He uses language and the interruption of language to depict two people interacting in a context where one of them tries and fails to reassure the other.

It is worth parsing this scene in some detail, as an example of Dante’s ability to deploy subtle linguistic cues and narrative resources in order to create dramatic art and the sense of intimate and authentic feeling.

Inferno 9 begins with the simple information that Dante and Virgilio are both afraid. But the information relayed is, already in the first terzina, far from simple. Dante is afraid because he has deduced that Virgilio is afraid. As a result of seeing Virgilio turned back by the devils (“veggendo il duca mio tornare in volta” [Inf. 9.2]), Dante changes color, becoming pale: “Quel color che viltà di fuor mi pinse” (The color cowardice displayed in me [Inf. 9.1]). The pilgrim’s pallor is a cue that in turn causes Virgilio to repress his own fears, keeping his emotions “inside” (“dentro”) in order not to further alarm his disciple: “più tosto dentro il suo novo ristrinse” (made him more quickly mask his own new pallor [Inf. 9.3]).

Dante-poet here represents these two characters interacting on a very intuitive and psychologically intense level, in an interaction whose subtlety he now intensifies by adding a discursive component to the drama of changed aspects and physical pallor and inferred fear.

Having stipulated a psychological chain reaction of fear creating fear in verses 1-3, in the second terzina the narrator represents Virgilio as standing alert, listening for some sign that help is on its way. Then Virgilio begins to speak, in effect thinking out loud: he is literally “ex-pressing” his inner thoughts, as we can see from the fact that he articulates doubt and then cuts himself off. He interrupts himself, because he doesn’t want to alarm Dante. But, in a further chain reaction, the pilgrim infers from his guide’s self-interruption that his guide is truly afraid.

In these first two terzine of Inferno 9 Dante-narrator informs us about the respective aspects of Virgilio’s and Dante’s faces in order to open up a space of subjectivity, signaled by the word “dentro” (“inside”) in verse 3: “più tosto dentro il suo novo ristrinse” means literally that Virgilio keeps within himself, inside, the new fear that he feels (Inf. 9.3). Subsequently, in the next terzina, this inside space—the space of interiority and subjectivity that the poet is working to uncover—is reflected in Virgilio’s articulation of his thoughts and especially in the unfinished clause of verse 8.

The third terzina of Inferno 9 relates what Virgilio has been thinking and puts his thoughts into words, including his interrupted speech:

  “Pur a noi converrà vincer la punga”,
cominciò el, “se non ... Tal ne s’offerse.
Oh quanto tarda a me ch’altri qui giunga!”. (Inf. 9.7-9)
  “We have to win this battle,” 
he began, “if not... But one so great had offered help. 
How slow that someone's coming to see me!”

In the above verses Virgilio allows himself to express doubt, first through the opening adverb pure in “Pur a noi converrà vincer la punga” (Inf. 9.7): “Surely we must be the ones to win this fight.” The on-line Hoepli Grande Dizionario Italiano notes of pure: “Rafforza il tono dubitativo di un’espressione” (It reinforces the dubious tone of an expression). And then Virgilio’s insecurity becomes explicit, when he begins to articulate the possibility of a negative outcome to their enterprise with the two little words “se non” (if not), subsequently interrupting himself before completing the thought. The doubt of “se non” is then countered by another little word, inherited from Inferno 8, “tal”: “Tal ne s’offerse” (Such a one had offered help [Inf. 9.8]).

Virgilio’s spoken thoughts in verses 7-8 proleptically outline the plot or action of Inferno 9. Specifically, the plot of this canto can be extrapolated from verse 8.

Inferno 9 as a whole unpacks the dialectic of verse 8: between the doubt of “se non” and the belief of “Tal ne s’offerse” (Inf. 9.8).

The plot of Inferno 9 can therefore be outlined thus:

  1. The events of Inferno 9 through the appearance of Medusa and Virgilio’s response to Medusa are the unfolding of the “se non” scenario: this is the negative scenario of what could happen, the scenario based on the fear that does not ultimately materialize, the fear that remains as “tronca” or unfulfilled as Virgilio’s expression of that fear in what the narrator calls his “parola tronca” (cut-off word [Inf. 9.14]);
  2. The arrival of the angel who opens the gate of Dis is the fulfillment of “Tal ne s’offerse”: this is the positive scenario of what does happen.

One of the remarkable features of the opening sequence of Inferno 9 is the narrator’s participation in glossing the various linguistic events on which the psychological drama is built. Dante here connects linguistic praxis to intentionality and hermeneusis. Virgilio’s ruptured syntax itself becomes a signifier to be analyzed. It is labeled “la parola tronca” and the narrator tells us in verses 14-15 that he may well have inferred more negative content from Virgilio’s parola tronca than was warranted: “perch’ io traeva la parola tronca / forse a peggior sentenzia che non tenne” (because I drew out from his broken phrase / a meaning worse—perhaps—than he’d intended [Inf. 9.14-15]).

Dante-narrator explains the effect of Virgilio’s interrupted speech, noting Virgilio’s “covering up” of what he had started to say with what followed after:  “I’ vidi ben sì com’ ei ricoperse / lo cominciar con l’altro che poi venne” (But I saw well enough how he had covered / his first words with the words that followed after [Inf. 9.10-11]). In verse 11 the narrator analyzes in detail the components of Virgilio’s previous discourse, breaking it down into a “beginning” (“cominciar”: this corresponds to “se non” in verse 8) that was then covered “with the other part that came after” (“l’altro che poi venne”: this corresponds to “Tal se n’offerse” in verse 8).

Here Dante shows his investment in understanding the inner workings of human speech acts. In this passage, full of meta-categories, Dante is functioning as a philosopher of language:

  I’ vidi ben sì com’ei ricoperse
lo cominciar con l’altro che poi venne,
che fur parole a le prime diverse;
  ma nondimen paura il suo dir dienne,
perch’io traeva la parola tronca
forse a peggior sentenzia che non tenne. (Inf. 9.10-15)
  But I saw well enough how he had covered
his first words with the words that followed after—
so different from what he had said before;
  nevertheless, his speech made me afraid,
because I drew out from his broken phrase
a meaning worse—perhaps—than he’d intended.

The result of the pilgrim’s scrutiny of Virgilio’s speech-acts is to become more nervous, and the pilgrim now shows, for the first time, a lack of confidence in his guide.

The pilgrim’s lack of confidence is dramatized by a further speech-act: he poses a question intended to ascertain whether Virgilio is qualified to be a guide through hell. In order not to pose his question too bluntly, Dante asks Virgilio not whether he himself has ever made this journey before, but whether anyone from Limbo has ever successfully before made the journey into lower Hell:

In questo fondo de la trista conca
discende mai alcun del primo grado,
che sol per pena ha la speranza cionca?  (Inf. 9.16-18)

Does anyone from the first circle, the one
whose only punishment is crippled hope,
ever descend so deep in this sad hollow?

This question on the part of Dante-pilgrim allows Dante-poet to add to the back-story of his character Virgilio.

We see here the narrator’s brilliance in constructing a virtual reality, in which we participate the more readily because he creates a “real” past for his characters, a past that precedes the diegesis of the poem. Similarly, in Inferno 10, when the pilgrim commissions Farinata to give a message to Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti, the narrator has created a “future” for his characters, a narrative time that is successive to the diegesis of the poem.

With respect to Virgilio’s past, we remember that most of Inferno 2 is situated in a past before Dante meets Virgilio in Inferno 1, a past in which Beatrice went to Limbo to enlist Virgilio as Dante’s guide. The past related in Inferno 2 has given us one impression of Virgilio, while the past related in Inferno 9 gives us another.

Indeed, we need to consider why Dante chooses to give his beloved guide the dark and troubling back-story that he gives him here. Before proceeding to the analysis of this specific question, we should note a general truth: the addition of conflict and ambivalence to a character’s history brings to life the complexity of that human character, given that we are all products of histories that include actions that are at times hard to reconcile in “one” neat package.

We learn that Virgilio did indeed make the trip from the first circle to lower hell once before, and that he did so because he was “conjured” by the sorceress Eritòn (Erichtho). Erichtho is a witch from the Roman poet Lucan’s history-based epic, Pharsalia (De Bello Civili), where she is described as one of the darkest practitioners of black magic. Virgilio tells Dante that Erichtho sent him on a mission “per trarne un spirto del cerchio di Giuda” (to draw a spirit back from Judas’ circle [Inf. 9.27]). Virgilio thus offers the “comforting” information that he has been to the lowest circle of hell, the “circle of Judas”, in tandem with the disquieting information that he was in service to Erichtho and her black arts. I wrote in Dante’s Poets of the connection established between Virgilio and Erichtho as follows:

Thus, under the pretext of allaying the pilgrim’s fears, Dante raises far greater fears regarding his guide; the astonishing invention here related, whereby the Thessalian witch from Lucan’s poem once deployed Vergil for one of her nefarious missions, casts a long and intentional shadow over the Roman poet. (Dante’s Poets, p. 205)

We note too that the reference to the “cerchio di Giuda” in Inferno 9.27, like the reference to “Caina” in Inferno 5.107, suggests that Dante had prepared some kind of an outline of hell that included place-names, and that this outline was at least tentatively in place before composition of the canti.

Inferno 9 features much classical culture, including many of its darker elements: not only the early stage-setting reference to Erichtho, but then the sighting of the Furies (“le feroci Erine” of Inf. 9.45, i.e. the Erinyes) and most of all the figure of Medusa, who turns men to stone. Note all the classical names: “Megera”, “Aletto”, “Tesifone”, “Medusa”, “Teseo”, “Gorgòn”, and then, later in the canto, “Stige” and “Cerbero”.

The Furies claim, as did the devils of Inferno 8, that there is no way forward. If Dante persists, they say, he will be not just sent back alone as the devils had threatened—“Sol si ritorni per la folle strada” (Inf. 8.91)—but turned into stone: “sì ’l farem di smalto” (Inf. 9.52).

In other words, if Dante fails to believe in the power that sent him on this voyage, he will be petrified, paralyzed with fear and despair.

But these threats are baseless, impotent. We should not be tempted to believe Medusa. Given what Beatrice told Virgilio about Hell’s inability to harm her, as related in Inferno 2.88-93, we should never feel fear or suspense with respect to the ability of any creature in Hell to harm the pilgrim. But the “living textuality” of the Commedia is such that the text works to make us feel fear or suspense, even though technically we should know that these feelings are without merit. This is an extraordinary testament to Dante’s magisterial craft: he can write a story whose plot is completely over-determined and yet still find ways to generate suspense.

In the latter half of Inferno 9 a messenger from heaven arrives, described with a masculine pronoun (“elli” in verse 85) and a masculine past participle: “da ciel messo” (sent from heaven [Inf. 9.85]). The celestial messenger is an angel. He has not “rained from heaven” like the angels who were cast out with Lucifer and became devils: he is not “da ciel piovut[o]” (Inf. 8.83), but “da ciel messo” (Inf. 9.85). He did not fall down, he was sent down. The intentionality of “messo” reminds us of the super-structure that guides Dante’s mission, as described in Inferno 2.

The heavenly messenger is dismissive and disdainful of the devils and the inhabitants of Hell, who in their thousands disperse in front of him like frogs in front of an enemy serpent. The inversion whereby a force of good is here figured as a serpent, an animal traditionally associated with the devil, is typical of Dante’s Inferno, and belongs to a program of inversions that culminates in the association of Dante himself with a “diavol” when he pulls Bocca degli Abati’s hair in Inferno 32.108.

The cleavage between the fear-based scenario and the faith-based scenario is absolute: the angel sent from heaven taps the gate of Dis with his diminutive wand—not “verga” but “verghetta” in Inf. 9.89—and opens it with the greatest ease.

This scene is based on the ancient story of Christ’s Harrowing of Hell after the Crucifixion, a tale already referred to by Virgilio in Inferno 4 and referenced again in Inferno 8. The result of the messo’s arrival is that Dante and Virgilio are able to enter the gates of Dis, “sicuri appresso le parole sante” (safely, behind his holy words [Inf. 9.105]). From Virgilio’s “cut-off word”—“parola tronca” (Inf. 9.14)—we have moved over the span of Inferno 9 to the heavenly messenger’s “holy words”: “parole sante” (Inf. 9.105).

There is a gendered component to this canto: pagan evil tends to be gendered female (though there are exceptions, like “Cerbero vostro”), starting with Erichtho and culminating in Medusa and the Furies, who “membra feminine avieno e atto” (had the limbs of women and their ways [Inf. 9.39]). In contrast, Christian good—notably, the being that is “da ciel messo”—is gendered male. That said, there are also overlaps: Medusa’s hair is made of various kinds of snakes in verses 40-41, and the angel is analogous to a biscia in verse 77.

We can interpret Medusa as the making real of the fear of failure, the vindication of the devils’ taunt in Inferno 8 that the pilgrim’s quest is at an end. It is as though the way forward had never been granted, as though the events of Inferno 2 had never occurred.

Virgilio’s greatest failure in Inferno 9 is his failure to believe, made explicit when he affirms that Medusa has the power to stop Dante in his tracks: “se ’l Gorgòn si mostra e tu ’l vedessi, / nulla sarebbe di tornar mai suso” (should the Gorgon show herself and you behold her, / never again would you return above [Inf. 9.56-57]). Virgilio’s passive acceptance of Medusa’s power over the pilgrim is reminiscent of the power that, as we learned at the beginning of Inferno 9, the witch Erichtho had once wielded over him.

Inferno 9 constitutes a first exploration of Virgilio’s limitations, and by extension an indictment of classical culture. When the angel rebukes the inhabitants of Dis for blocking the pilgrim’s path, reminding them of their impotence in the face of heaven’s dictates, he identifies them with Cerberus, who still bears the marks of his futile attempt to withstand Hercules: “Cerbero vostro, se ben vi ricorda, / ne porta ancor pelato il mento e ’l gozzo” (Your Cerberus, if you remember well, / for that, had both his throat and chin stripped clean [Inf. 9.98-99]).

Dante’s address to those who have “intelletti sani” in Inf. 9.61-63 recalls his prior use of the expression in the canzone Le dolci rime:

  Per ch’a ’ntelletti sani
è manifesto i lor diri esser vani,
ed io così per falsi li ripruovo (Le dolci rime, 74-76)
  Thus it is clear to every mind that's sound
that what they say lacks sense,
and hence I claim their words are false (Lansing trans.)

In Le dolci rime the “intelletti sani” motif comes precisely at the junction of the canzone where Dante moves from “Christian” revelation to Aristotelian exposition. In Inferno 9 the motif is used at a similar suturing point: this time, however, he is moving from pagan false reality to Christian truth.

Inferno 9 marks a low point for classical culture in the Commedia, and the pall over antiquity continues through to the canto’s end. When the travelers move through the gate opened by the angel into the city of Dis, they find themselves in a huge cemetery, a veritable city of death. This city is compared, in the canto’s final association of classical culture with death and impotence, to the Roman necropolises of Arles in Provence and of Pola in Istria.

Recommended Citation

Barolini, Teodolinda. "Inferno 9 : Virgilio and Fallibility." Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. Center for Digital Research and Scholarship. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2015.

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