The Political Vision of the Divine Comedy
by Joan Ferrante
Chapter 03, “The Corrupt Society”
THE PROPER RELATION of individual states (cities or kingdoms) to the empire and the separate and distinct functions of ecclesiastical and secular authority discussed in chapters one and two provide the political framework for the Comedy. Within that framework, each cantica presents a different but related model for human society. Paradise is the ideal society in all its essential elements working harmoniously; Purgatory is a society in transition, moving from self-centeredness to concern for and commitment to others, but not yet organized within an effective structure. Hell reveals what society is when all its members act for themselves and against the common good. The souls here are condemned not just for their selfish motivations but also for the effects of their actions on others. Dante’s point is that as civic beings, we are responsible not only for our actions, but also for their results. The people he presents were all men and women of prestige and/or power, people in a position to influence others either directly or by example, and in one way or another they all failed. The suffering, the violence, the anarchy of Hell are a result of their failure to act up to their responsibilities or their outright abuse of those responsibilities. Selfishness, greed for money, power, or pleasure, is the basis of the injustice that reigns in Hell, as charity is the basis of the justice that operates in heaven.
Bonaventure and Aquinas name four objects of love or sin: God, ourselves, our neighbors, and our bodies; Dante adds a fifth, our community. It is not that the theologians are not concerned with the effects of our actions on others, but that they are not primarily concerned with the public aspect of those actions, with their consequences for society as an entity. Dante, in contrast, shows how all sins contribute to social disorder, not only the overtly disruptive sins of violence, fraud, and treachery but even those that seem most personal. Lust, gluttony, greed have sociopolitical overtones; even heresy and suicide are presented within a political context. Barratry (graft within the government) is placed in a lower section than simony (graft in the church) because corruption within the state has a greater effect on society; both are treated as aspects of fraud, that is, as social rather than religious sins. Flattery and hypocrisy are lower than robbery and murder (except for murder committed by treachery), not because in themselves Dante considers them more serious sins, but because their effects on society are more insidious and ultimately more damaging. Dante reverses Aquinas’s consideration of theft and robbery: for Aquinas, theft, which is secret, is not as bad as robbery, which is open and violent and does more physical harm to its victim (ST, 2.2ae, q.66). The secrecy is what makes theft worse for Dante, since it opens the way to various kinds of injustice, like the incrimination of the innocent, and threatens economic stability in a much graver way. For Aquinas, blasphemy is also worse than murder or theft because it is a direct attack on God (ST, 1.2ae, q.73, a.3), but Dante places blasphemy in the seventh circle, theft far below it in the seventh section of the eighth circle.
The most serious sins for Dante are those that deny the trust on which social and political relations are based– fraud and treachery. Although treachery is the worst of all because of the special relation between “perpetrator” and victim, fraud is the one that occupies Dante’s attention. He devotes thirteen cantos (from 18 to 30) to it, more than a third of Hell, and he subdivides it into ten different sections. It is not unusual to subdivide sins; the capital vices are normally discussed in terms of the sins they spawn. But Dante differs in two ways from others who make the distinctions: (1) he presents the first five sins without any real subdivisions, (2) he moves into three sins which would normally be offshoots of others, violence, fraud, and treachery, and subdivides them, violence into three sections (the second with two parts, the third with three), fraud into ten (the tenth with four parts), and treachery into four. By introducing all these complexities, he is clearly calling attention to these sins, forcing us to shift the emphasis from the traditional moral view of greed and pride as the worst of evils to the more sociopolitical distinctions of violence, fraud, and treachery. The cantica seems to draw more from legal codes than manuals on vice; several of the punishments, particularly in the eighth circle, are based on contemporary penal codes. The very concept of Dante’s Hell peopled with sinners well known to Dante’s audience may itself be a reflection of the contemporary practice of painting the portraits of certain criminals on the walls of public buildings. 
Dante emphasizes the political message of Hell in other ways as well. One is the identification of specific places with sins. I suggested above in chapter one that Florence is presented as the central sinner throughout the cantica, but that in the lower parts of Hell other cities or regions of Italy share the stage; two classical cities, Thebes and Troy, also echo through Hell as emblems of selfdestructiveness and pride. Rivers are often used to identify cities and regions, suggesting the spread of corruption from one place to another, and Dante uses dialect words particularly in the Malebolge to suggest the atmosphere of different regions. A more subtle way, perhaps, of underlining the interdependence of men in society is Dante’s placing members of the same family in different parts of Hell (and in other cantiche for contrast). In a malfunctioning society, sinners seem to lead even their relatives into sin: the Navarrese barrator Dante sees in canto 22 is the son of a wastrel, the implication being that wasting oneself or one’s goods leads naturally to abusing the government, which is an extension of the self. Michel Zanche, another barrator, was killed by his son-inlaw, who appears among the traitors to guests in the ninth circle, as though the deception of one’s fellow citizens by the subversion of government led to the betrayal of still closer bonds. The bishop, Ruggieri, among the traitors, is a nephew of Cardinal Ottaviano, who is mentioned with the heretics, implying that the lack of faith in eternity facilitates the betrayal of faith to other men.
In every way, Dante tries to show that we are responsible not only for our own actions, but for the effects they have on others; we are responsible not only for our own salvation, but for the good of our fellows. Dante moves in Hell from vices which seem to be personal and simple (although complications are revealed in them) to more and more overtly social faults. The victims become more numerous, from single individuals to large groups and even whole nations; the simple impulse to sin is replaced by the more complex manipulation of that impulse in others. We see the corrupt society built up from its basic element–the self-indulgent individual–and when we reach the center, we discover that the lowest sinner is not so different from the souls in the upper circles: Ugolino’s story echoes Francesca’s in many ways because the love that is dominated by lust can be as destructive to its object as hatred. For Dante, individual morality cannot be dissociated from social responsibility because the individual is a citizen, and to be a good individual, he must be a good citizen. Thus, to retrace the moral journey of the pilgrim through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, is to follow the journey of the citizen from a corrupt society, through the transition from selfishness to social responsibility, to his goal in the ideal society. The moral level of Dante’s allegory is also the political level because it is impossible to be a moral human being without being a good citizen, and it is difficult to be either a good citizen or a moral person in a bad society. In Hell, Dante leads his pilgrim-persona step by step through a knowledge of what constitutes a corrupt society and a corrupt person and shows how even a basically good individual can be affected by the evil around him. By analyzing the structure of Hell, investigating each region in the order in which the pilgrim goes through it, since each sin has political implications, we can see how Dante reveals the hidden corruption that undermines society and how he unmasks the respected public figures. By the end, Dante’s audience should understand what constitutes evil in a society as well as in an individual and be able to see the part we play in the evil around us.
The first point Dante makes in Hell is his own social responsibility. The pilgrim begins outside society in the woods, alone, severed from all human connections, as Dante found himself in exile, banned under pain of death, cut off from his family, his city, and any public function. The inner man on his own is threatened by vice (the three animals), particularly greed (the wolf) as the outer man is endangered by the enmity of Florence and the papacy (see chapter one). Aid comes in the form of a man who has all the public connections and purpose Dante lacks. Virgil is a poet, a Roman who served the highest form of political society, the empire, with his poetry. He must prepare Dante to become like him, a Roman and a poet of the empire. He is the first character in the Comedy to speak and he identifies himself by region, city, period, government, and role, bringing the poem abruptly from the moral allegorical into the real historical sphere. He was a Lombard, from Mantova, born under the emperor who formed and spread the empire, Julius Caesar; he lived under Augustus, who established the peace in which Christ was to be born, and he sang of the “just” Aeneas, who brought the seeds of that empire to Italy. Virgil connects himself with the origin and high moments of the empire, and provides all the social identifications Dante so far lacks: nationality, citizenship, public function as poet. Virgil also prophesies the figure who will kill the wolf and send it back to Hell, the restoration of empire and reform of church (as Dante eventually learns, see chapter two), in which Dante’s poem is to play an important role. Virgil will show Dante the way through Hell and Purgatory, but not to Paradise, not to the ideal society, because he was a rebel to God’s law. The language of the outlawed rebel associates Virgil with Dante, who is historically in that position when he writes the poem, although he was not when the poem is supposed to take place. But Dante is in rebellion only against an unjust government of man, Virgil against the law of God: “quello imperador che la su regna/perch’io fui ribellante a la sua legge,/non vuol che in sua citta per me si vegna” (1.12426: “that emperor who reigns there will not allow any to enter his city through me, because I was a rebel to his law”). Virgil recognizes the authority of God and the rule of law with a metaphor drawn from the highest secular authority; this statement establishes from the very beginning of Hell that however attractive a soul in Hell may be, he or she is in rebellion against God’s law. Virgil began his speech with the Roman empire on earth; he ends it with the empire in heaven, making a connection between the two which Dante will carry through the poem, reinforced by the souls in Paradise. The last to make the poem, reinforced by the souls in Paradise. The last to make the connection is Bernard, who points out at the end of the journey the main figures of “this most just and pious empire” (Pr. 32.117: “questo imperio giustissimo e pio”), recalling in his adjectives the hero of Virgil’s poem.
It is because Virgil is a poet and Dante is a poet that heaven sent Virgil to guide Dante; his “parola ornata” will move Dante as Dante’s must move his audience. What Dante does not recognize when he hesitates (“I am not Aeneas, I am not Paul,” Hell 2.32), is that as the poet of the Christian empire, he has the same mission as Aeneas and Paul, as the state and the church. The allusions to their journeys establish certain important points. Aeneas is described in the first canto as the son of Anchises who came from Troy (1.74); in the second, he is the father of Silvio, Aeneas’s son by Lavinia, the first Trojan born in Italy of an Italian race. God, the “enemy of all evil” (2.16)–God is always the enemy in Hell, as the emperor is in corrupt societies on earth–grants Aeneas the journey to the otherworld because of the “high effect” that is to proceed from him. He was chosen by heaven to be the father of Rome and of its empire (2.20-21), which was established as the seat of the papacy, “the holy place where the successor of the greatest Peter sits” (2.22-24). The empire had to prepare the way for the church. Long after Aeneas, Paul, also chosen by heaven, the “vas d’elezione,” made his journey to the otherworld, but his mission was spiritual. What Aeneas learned in Hell was the cause of his victory and also of the papal mantle (2.2627); what Paul learned in heaven supported the faith that leads to salvation (2.29-30). The temporal institution of the church depends not on Paul but on Aeneas’s heirs, which is why Dante takes fifteen lines to describe the reasons for Aeneas’s journey and only three for Paul’s. It is perhaps a coincidence, but the sort that would have assured Dante of the correctness of his position, that there is an Aeneas in the same chapter of the Acts of the Apostles in which Paul’s conversion is described and in which Paul is called the “vas electionis” (Acts 9:15). This Aeneas is a man who has lain in bed with palsy for eight years, but Peter cures him saying, “Aeneas, the lord Jesus Christ healeth thee; arise, and make thy bed” (9:34). Can Dante have failed to understand this as meaning that the Christian faith restored the empire? Dante’s mission, like Paul’s, will be to spread the truth, to reform and restore both empire and church.
The first lesson Dante learns towards this mission after he enters Hell is the importance of making a commitment, the first step in social action; the neutrals, men and angels who never took sides, never made a public commitment. Their failure is viltade (3.60), a baseness of spirit like Dante’s hesitation (2.45), which is not humility, but a denial of God’s gifts, a lack of courage to accept one’s responsibilities. The neutrals lived for themselves alone, refusing to choose either good or evil and are therefore scorned by both heaven and hell, by mercy and justice (3.50) because they have done nothing to merit either. Cut off from all recognized human and divine laws, they are men without a country; the world has forgotten them (3.49), heaven and hell will not receive them. It is worse in Dante’s view to take no part at all in civic life than to take the wrong part. Among them, Dante recognizes “the one who made the great refusal” (3.59-60: “colui/che fece per viltade il gran rifiuto”). Most early commentators take this to be Celestine V, whose abdication left the papacy to Boniface Vlll, one of the major villains of the Comedy. It is quite possible that Dante does not name the figure because for him all those who refuse to act when called upon deny their own identities; the point is not just what you fail to do, but what you open the way to by your denial of responsibility.
There is one group of souls in Hell who chose good action, the inhabitants of Limbo, but they too failed in one crucial respect. They did not acknowledge the existence of God and therefore their action was not directed to his purpose. The moral life alone is not sufficient, it must serve the creation of the perfect society according to the divine plan. In every other respect, the three groups of virtuous pagans Dante sees together constitute an almost ideal society: the poets, who taught others the highest values and who accept Dante as one of them; the great spirits, who sacrificed themselves for country or principle; and the philosophers, who sought the truth. The last include moral and theological writers, scientists, and commentators; together they represent all aspects of human knowledge, but that is not sufficient to save them or to enable them to succeed. In the sun, Dante will see, side by side, philosophers who took opposing views now completing the figure of perfection, the circle, because they were all motivated by faith. The society of Limbo is peaceful, the only harmonious community in Hell, but it lacks joy because it lacks the deepest motivation for the good society, the salvation of its citizens. Of the four roles Dante recognizes in civil life (see Pr. 8.12426), craftsmen (and intellectuals), lawgivers (and statesmen), warriors, and priests, Limbo lacks the priests.
Beyond Limbo, Dante sees souls who felt no responsibility outside themselves; the next three sections of Hell are devoted to different kinds of selfish action: lust, gluttony, greed. But Dante makes it clear that the self is not the only victim. The circle of lust is filled with figures of great social responsibility, queens and princes, who chose indulgence of their passions over duty to their peoples. The queens are given a lot of attention by the early commentators, particularly Benvenuto da Imola, who details their great deeds as rulers as well as their vices (1.194 ff.). Semiramis twists the laws in order to cover her own guilt: “libito fe licito in sua legge” (5.56: “she made her libido licit in her law”), as if by changing a word she could obliterate morality, an attitude that is particularly disturbing in a guardian of the law. The next three queens were not only self-indulgent but also obstacles in one way or another to the Roman empire: Dido, who killed herself for love, leaving her land and people unprotected, also held Aeneas back temporarily from founding his dynasty in Italy; Cleopatra, also a suicide, had affairs with Caesar and Marc Antony which complicated the course of empire in her time; and Helen’s affair with Paris caused the destruction of Troy, the old Rome. The only men named are Achilles, Paris, and Tristan, all princes: Achilles died ignominiously fighting over love, Paris and Tristan both stole the wives of kings, one of his host, the other of his uncle, and their affairs led to serious trouble for their countries. The violence such love engenders, spreading the effects of self-indulgence well beyond the immediate actors, is part of the responsibility they must now bear for their sin, which in life interfered with their fulfilling their assigned obligations as leaders of their people.
The next stage of self-indulgence is to satisfy the body without even the excuse of a nobler impulse, simply to feed it as an animal does. Gluttony is so completely centered on the physical senses that it becomes virtually impossible for the gluttonous individual to give of himself, even with words, to others. This self-indulgence leads to a self-absorption that necessarily interferes with social exchange. The gluttons lose the power to act or to communicate with others. Dante finds it very difficult to get anything out of them; he has to keep coaxing “tell me, tell me”: “Ma dimmi chi tu sei,” 6.46, “ma dimmi, se tu sai,” 6.60, “e dimmi la cagione,” 6.62, “dimmi ove sono,” 6.82, “ancor vo’ che mi’nsegni/e che di piu parlar mi facci dono” (6.7778: “I still want you to instruct me and make me a gift of more speech”). But always the soul stops before Dante is satisfied: “e piu non fe parola,” 6.57, “qui puose fine,” 6.76; and finally the soul declares “piu non ti dico e piu non ti rispondo” (6.90: “I tell you no more and I answer you no more”), and falls back with the others.
For a city as for a man, overfeeding is self-destructive; more wealth and power than it can handle will first disrupt its natural processes and then destroy it. Florence, which is the subject of Dante’s conversation with the glutton, and the way the soul first identifies himself, suffers from political gluttony, which is both greed and envy: “la tua citta, ch’e piena/d’invidia si che gia trabocca il sacco” (6.49-50: “your city, which is so full of envy that its sack overflows”), an image echoed in Purgatory, 20.7375, where Florence’s paunch, presumably overstuffed, is burst by the lance of Charles. Even its best men are flawed: all the Florentines Dante asks about, “who were so worthy,” are lower down in Hell, and only two just men are left in the city, an allusion to Gen. 18:23 ff. where Abraham attempts to save Sodom on the basis of the just men in it and cannot find even ten. As in Ezek. 14:14, the sins of the world are such that even the best men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, could only save themselves. The implication is that a modicum of virtue can stem the corruption of society, but the corruption of Florence is so great that its good men cannot save it.
Greed and gluttony are aspects of the same impulse, the amassing of more material than can be used. Like food, material wealth was intended by God to serve men’s needs, but misuse of wealth is potentially harmful to one’s fellows. What the miser hoards cannot serve others’ needs. Fortune, which Dante the pilgrim sees as a monster holding the goods of the world in its “claws” (7.69), is in fact a minister of God, ordained to supervise the transmission of worldly goods and power from one people to another as well as from one family to another (7.73 ff.). In other words, the distribution of worldly goods and power seems random to man because he cannot understand it and wrongly blames fortune (7.9193), but it follows a divine plan, whereas the action of misers and prodigals on earth and in Hell, in their continuous semicircles, seems ordered, but is really futile or worse, because it runs counter to providence. Thus greed, on the personal or public level, is a serious social sin for Dante because it interferes with the proper functioning of government and of providence. It is not accidental that the group Dante concentrates on in this section is identified by their tonsures; they are all churchmen, whose function was to give, not to possess, and to teach others the vanity of earthly goods. They substituted the things of this earth for heaven in their own desires, a particularly serious sin in a cleric, who is supposed to reject temporal goods, but a common one, as Benvenuto notes (1.255-56) and as Dante stresses throughout the Comedy.
Dante follows a logical progression in sinful impulses from the indulgence of natural physical desires for sex and food to the indulgence of desires for less natural, but still necessary, goods like wealth, which is essential to social existence. The more the sins are centered on the self, the more hostile they render the individual to others. The glutton is only noncommunicative, the miser is aggressive. The rage that begins to surface in the circle of greed in the accusing shouts of the souls, but without a specific object, erupts in the next three circles against very specific objects, other people, the self, and God. It bursts out like the stream that has boiled underground but pours forth into the Styx (7.100-08). As we learn later, all the rivers of Hell are connected, just as tendencies to sin are connected, so the Styx must flow underground from the Acheron; in other words, wrath is latent in all the sins of self-indulgence, but after greed it comes to the surface and finds its object in another being. In the upper circles, the sins and sinners are wrapped up in themselves; from wrath down, there is much more interaction between the souls and between them and Dante. Filippo Argenti, who was a political enemy of Dante’s, a Black and a member of the family which received Dante’s confiscated goods after his exile, attacks Dante as he approaches the city, eliciting a fierce reaction from the pilgrim with Virgil’s approval. What Dante exhibits, in contrast to the soul’s unprovoked hostility, is righteous indignation, a mean between the extremes of wrath and sloth, both of which are socially harmful: wrath strikes out wildly in any direction, sloth rejects action and turns inward, while proper anger, when guided by reason (Virgil), upholds the cause of good against its enemies. Filippo’s wrath is a threat to his society; Dante’s is essential to its proper functioning. Dante consciously aligns himself with divine justice and against the attacking soul, making it clear, as he has not before, that he is an alien in Hell.
This change in Dante’s attitude heralds a change in the entire presentation. The scene is dramatic, with a much larger cast of active characters than has been seen heretofore, and the atmosphere is much more overtly civic. Beginning with the exchange of signals between towers, which suggests a hostile setting, the approach of an alien, perhaps an enemy, as Benvenuto notes (1.275-76), we are aware of entering a more structured, more complicated organization than Dante has encountered before, indeed a city. In the earlier circles, there were guards who objected ineffectually to his presence. Now there is sophisticated communication among beings he cannot see. He is about to enter the inner city of Hell, the city of Dis, “wealth,” in which greed dominates, with its gravi cittadin– the serious citizens of Hell–its “army” of devils, and its mosques, a city of infidels whose citizens work to deceive and exploit each other. Dante and Virgil enter this city as hostile aliens, although Virgil is himself an inhabitant of Hell, a fellow countryman from a different region, so to speak; for Dante, the experience is one he lived in his own life, an alien everywhere but in Florence, where he was an unwanted outlaw. If the devils who guard the city gates represent corrupt churchmen, as suggested in chapter two, it is clear why Dante sees them as dangerous enemies; in any case, fallen angels are rebels who try to close the city to representatives of the true emperor, God, just as Florence, with the church’s support, closed its gates to Henry and to Dante. Dante perhaps will be the divine messenger who with a seemingly small weapon, his poem, like the angel’s wand, will open them again. The action of the fallen angels is, of course futile; they cannot shut this gate against the divine will. Their whole rebellion won them only the loss of heaven, not even the control of their own domain, which, like the Italian cities that defy the emperor, is filled with chaos and self-destructive violence. The angel who brings divine help asks the devils why they bother to resist a will that cannot be thwarted, an action which can only increase their pains, 9.94-96. That is an important question for Dante and the reader to ponder before entering the lower circles where the sins are a conscious and continuous affirmation of evil and rejection of God, but it is also a reminder to Florence that, however successful it may be at thwarting the emperor temporarily, the divine will must ultimately prevail on earth as in Hell.
The city of Dis is the core of the corrupt society. Inside it, Dante concentrates on four large categories of sin, those which are the most socially destructive: (1) heresy, the limited or distorted truth, which prevents acceptance of the larger truth and kills the soul, is the equivalent of factionalism in politics, the narrow view that destroys the body politic; (2) violence, the flouting of the most basic natural laws which rule men in their relations with others, with themselves, and with God; (3) fraud, the willful deception of others in order to exploit them; and (4) betrayal, the willful and harmful deception of those to whom one owes a special kind of loyalty.
Heresy was intimately associated with politics for Dante’s audience: Frederick II had condemned and executed heretics as traitors to the state; an inquisitor in Florence condemned Farinata and his wife as heretics posthumously in 1283 because of the fierce hatred inspired by Farinata’s part in the defeat at Montaperti; and Pope John XXII instigated trials for heresy against his political enemies, like Matteo and Galeazzo Visconti, Can Grande, and Federico da Montefeltro. In Hell, Dante uses the charge of heresy not as a political weapon, but as a symbol of political factionalism. The souls he concentrates on are Epicureans, a sect which indulges the body and denies the immortality of the soul; politically, these souls deny the larger reality of empire or even city in order to indulge the smallest segment, their party. Each heretical sect has its own quarter in Dante’s Hell, emphasizing the narrowness and factionalism, the refusal to see beyond one’s own obsession, whether in religion or in politics, and the heretics are condemned not just in themselves, but in their followers, for whom they are responsible. They are buried along with those they misled, a point that is carefully made twice (9.128 and 10.14) and emphasized by the word which first identifies them, eresiarche (9.127), meaning leaders of sects or groups of heretics.
There is a suggestion that Dante is himself vulnerable to this kind of factionalism, both in the fear he feels when Farinata addresses him and in the accusation implicit in Farinata’s words, “La tua loquela … ,” (10.25), which echo the words spoken to Peter before he denies his connection with Christ (Matt. 26:73). Dante will, in fact, be led to deny his true loyalties to the imperial side in response to Farinata’s attack. Farinata feels a deep loyalty to Florence, “quella nobil patria,” so strong still that it elicits a rare (for Hell) statement of regret: “to which I was perhaps too hostile” (10.27: “a la qual forse ful troppo molesto”), a reference to his part in the battle at Montaperti, where the exiled Florentine Ghibellines fought with Siena against Florence. That love for Florence was strong enough while he was alive to make him oppose a-lone the destruction of Florence, (10.91-93: “fu’io solo . . . colui che la difesi a viso aperto”), but it is not strong enough to overcome his loyalty to party, and it leads him into an exchange with Dante, his countryman, that is painful to both of them. Benvenuto comments that the Florentines are worse partisans than any other people in Italy (1.346: “Florentini sunt magis partifices quam alius populus Italiae”). Ironically, Farinata’s attack on Dante’s family forces Dante to identify with the Guelphs as a party, which in Farinata’s time was the church party, although Dante is in fact a White Guelph and therefore, like Farinata, of the imperial party. As in most factional disputes, they hurt each other to no purpose: Dante tells Farinata that the Ghibellines never returned to Florence, and Farinata counters with a prophecy of Dante’s exile. And both of them, in their zeal to attack each other, ignore the feeling of their fellow Florentine. Farinata’s neighbor in the next tomb, Cavalcanti, is closely connected with him not only by the sin they share and their native city, but also by the marriage of their children, a union arranged to end enmity between the two factions; yet each is so wrapped up in his own obsession that he is completely impervious to the other’s. And Dante, the third Florentine, bound to both, to Farinata by love of Florence and the imperial cause, to Cavalcanti as the father of Dante’s close friend and fellow poet, Guido, is so preoccupied with his own concerns that he manages to wound both of them, one with political taunts, the other with a comment about his son. He strikes them in two loyalties, to party and to family, which can most obstruct the higher loyalty to country. Cavalcanti, a member of an important commercial family, may also represent the class that put its financial interest ahead of the needs of the city or the country, another aspect of factionalism quite prevalent in Dante’s world (see below, chapter six).
Dante suggests the responsibility of church and empire to save mankind from the effects of factionalism by mentioning only two others among the more than a thousand souls who lie with Farinata and Cavalcanti: the emperor Frederick 11, and “the Cardinal.” Both were eminent leaders, men with great social responsibility to others and spiritual responsibility to God, whose vicars they were, but both denied the existence of God or eternity and pursued their personal ambitions to the detriment of their larger obligations. The cardinal, Ottaviano, is reputed to have said, “My soul, if it exists, l have lost for the Ghilbellines”; the emperor is supposed to have made a similar remark: “If I had one foot in Paradise, l would withdraw it to take revenge on Viterbo.” Frederick also engaged in discussions on points of faith and in experiments to test the life of the soul after death, and he persecuted heretics as threats to imperial power, so there is a certain poetic justice to his location in Hell.  The only other heretic Dante mentions is a pope whose tomb’ he sees in a different section of heresy. The pope is Anastasius, who was thought not to have believed in the divine nature of Christ; in fact, medieval tradition confused the pope with an emperor of the same name who was actually the heretic, but it is important for Dante’s view to balance the emperor Frederick with a pope. It is bad enough for the emperor, God’s regent, to reject God, but it is shocking when the highest placed guardian of the faith falls into heresy instead of guarding others from it.
Dante focuses our attention on the special nature of the other sins inside Dis by breaking his narrative pattern before he leaves the circle of heresy and devoting the better part of a canto (11) to a discussion of the sins of the last three circles of Hell. Pietro comments that this canto is in some ways like a gloss of the whole cantica: “hoc capitulum . .. quodammodo est glosa totius hujus libri Inferni” (136). This is an unusual pause in the poem, the only purely didactic, nondramatic canto in Hell. It is made partly because the lower sins are complicated by subdivisions, and Dante the pilgrim, like the reader, must be prepared in order to understand them properly; but also because Dante the author is about to make a break with traditional presentations of sin, and he is calling attention to that. The sins he presented outside the walls of Dis are among the standard capital vices: lust, gluttony, greed, wrath, which in Dante’s Hell also have political overtones. Heresy, which is inside, is treated more as a political than as a theological problem. The remaining sins are presented, with some reference to Aristotelian categories, essentially as sins against society, sins against others within a social context: violence, fraud, treachery. Pietro remarks, apropos of violence, that if man were a solitary animal, the double order of reason and divine law would suffice, but since he is a political and social animal, as Aristotle says in the Politics, there must be a third order by which men are ordered to other men, hence violence is divided into three sections (140).
The Aristotelian distinction serves mainly to divide the lower sins of malice from those of incontinence, which are outside the city of Dis. Whether the third disposition, “mad bestiality,” is meant to be equated with a specific circle, violence or treachery, has been much argued. Aristotle opposed it to superhuman virtue, which is found only in heroic and divine natures, and says it is rarely found among men. Aquinas, in his commentary on the Ethics, makes the same point (7.1.1,2961,303); he notes that men can be bestial in three ways, like barbarians who operate without rational laws, like those who lack certain human faculties, or with great increase in malice, which is rare. Bestial malice, he says, is worse than human malice or incontinence if men become like animals; men can progress beyond the limits of human life in taking on the desires of beasts. Modern commentators take one of two positions on bestiality in the Comedy: they either equate it with one section or they see it as part of other sins. Dante’s earliest commentators made no attempt to fix bestiality in one circle: Pietro points out how rare it is and specifically says that Dante does not distinguish a place for it, unless it is the Minotaur (138); he and Benvenuto both define it as something that goes beyond human limits (Pietro, 139, Benvenuto, 1.374). Benvenuto also notes how rare it is among men; he connects it with madmen who cut open the wombs of pregnant women to eat the embryos and barbarians who eat human flesh and live without rule in the open (cf. the Ottimo, 1.207). In short, they equate bestiality with the absence of civilization; since it is men’s nature to form a political society, if they do not do so, they are no more than animals. Inasmuch as they indulge their lower impulses without the control of reason, they are bestial and antisocial. But the only “pure” bestiality in Hell is to be seen in the superhuman inhabitants, Satan and the giants, who began as more than human and have been reduced to something far lower.
What is most significant in canto 11 is the discussion of the three lower sins and their various subdivisions, which emphasize the social nature of the sins, particularly in their focus on the victim. In violence and treachery, the divisions are made according to the nature of the victim or his relation to the sinner; in fraud, the sinner manipulates his victim to involve him in the sin which in turn has other, often numerous, victims. Malice, the willful harm to others either by force or fraud (11.22-24), is the essence of all these sins. But fraud, for Dante, is worse than force because it is an evil peculiar to man (11.25: “frode e de l’uom proprio male”); animals cannot conceive it, since they communicate by instinctive action; angels cannot practice it, since they communicate by direct intuition. Only men can deceive each other. Fraud is the quintessential social sin because it plays on the natural bond of love that should unite all men with their fellows. It can be practiced indiscriminately on any available victim or, and far worse, on those to whom one is bound by special trust, and then it is treachery, the worst sin of all. But in either case, the effects of the act have wide-reaching repercussions. The three sins discussed in this canto, which fill the lowest circles of Hell and command fully two thirds of the cantica, are the sins most harmful to society and, Dante declares by his placement of them, most displeasing to God, because they disrupt the order he instituted for man’s life on earth.
All three sins involve a perversion of the reasoning process, a conscious decision to harm others in order to satisfy personal desires. This is why in order to move through the lower circles Dante must give himself consciously into the power of the monster who symbolizes it: in violence, he rides through the river of blood on the Centaur’s back; in fraud, he flies on Gerione’s back; in treachery, he is lifted and lowered by the giant Antaeus. Violence is a combination of “blind greed” and “mad wrath” (12.49), wrath towards people, greed towards their possessions. The circle of violence is divided into three sections according to the object of the violent act–others, the self, or God. It is further divided within those sections into the person of the victim or his goods, the objects respectively of wrath and greed. Possessions, as we know from Virgil’s lesson about Fortune, play their part in the divine order as well as in the political structure, where due sense of ownership is essential to social stability. Therefore, violence against others includes tyranny, which involves both persons and goods, murder and assault or robbery, extortion, and plunder; violence against the self is suicide or wasting of goods; violence against God is either direct in blasphemy, or indirect against his creation through sodomy or usury, one a perversion of the sexual act, which impedes the providential course of procreation, the other the abuse of the proper function of money, which interferes with the providential distribution of wealth.
Those who commit violence against others are grouped according to the nature and scope of their actions and stand more or less submerged in blood. The most deeply submerged, the guiltiest, are the tyrants, whose violence was felt by whole peoples. They perverted the governor’s function as God’s vicar the one destined to maintain order in society, and created chaos instead. As the Ottimo comments, tyrants ruin the political regime by putting their own interests before the public good (1.213; cf. Jacopo, 1.234: “the tyrant’s intent is completely and solely on his own good, which by its perversity is bad for all others”). Among the tyrants are several who were known as the scourges of their people or their time, a reminder to Dante’s audience that their own sins bring on their suffering: Attila, “che fu flagello in terra” (12.134); Ezzelino da Romano, son-in-law of Frederick II and a cruel tyrant, according to Villani, who destroyed towns, blinded citizens, confiscated their possessions, killed and tortured, in short was “a great scourge of his time . . . to punish the sin of their ingratitude” (6.73: “fue uno grande flagello al suo tempo nella Marca Trivigiana e in Lombardia per punire il peccato della loro ingratitudine”). Ezzelino’s own sister, Cunizza, calls him a “firebrand who made a great assault on the countryside” (Pr 9.29-30: “facella/che fece a la contrada un grande assalto”) The next group, in blood up to their throats, are the murderers, of whom only one is pointed out, whose deed, though committed for personal reasons, had international repercussions because it involved figures at the highest level of government: Guy of Montfort murdered his cousin, Prince Henry of Cornwall, in a church at Viterbo in 1271. The murder was committed to avenge his father, Simon, in the presence of his king, Charles of Sicily, whose vicar he was, thereby showing in the one act contempt for his earthly lord as well as for God. The result of this murder was that Henry’s brother, Edward, later king of England, was never a friend to King Charles or his people, according to Villani (Istorie Fiorentine, 7.39). The other souls in this section are despoilers and plunderers; one, Rinier da Corneto, was reputed to have held all the Maremma in fear, acting like a tyrant without a political office. The implication, particularly since this is a circle and Dante has been moving round it back towards the tyrants, is that tyrants and plunderers are much the same. Frederick II, considered by many to be a tyrant, cannot appear in this circle since he was placed among the heretics, but he is very much present through the various people who are connected with him, Ezzelino, Rinier, and in the next section, Pier della Vigna.
The second section of violence contains suicides, a sin that would appear to be the most personal of all, and indeed Dante classes it under violence against the self, although Aristotle considered it a crime against the city. Nonetheless, by his choice of suicides, Pier della Vigna and the anonymous Florentine, Dante makes political statements about both the empire and Florence. Pier, the central figure in the section, is a public man in two ways, a high and influential official at the imperial court of Frederick II, whose functions were diplomatic and legal, and a poet and rhetorician, whose epistolary collections were used as models. Although Pier presents himself as an innocent victim, he reveals that he in fact abused his office; so, whether or not he was guilty of the crime he was accused of, he is not undeserving of his fate. Pier may blame others for turning the emperor against him, but he cannot altogether excuse his own actions, and he is completely responsible for his death by his own admission. He had, he boasts to Dante, held the keys of Frederick’s heart, from which he excluded almost everyone else, although an emperor should be open to all his people; naturally this aroused the envy of others and they turned against him, eventually turning the emperor against him as well. Like Farinata, who clings to his loyalty to Florence remembering how he had saved it but forgetting his contribution to her troubles, Pier insists on his loyalty to the emperor (“gia mai non ruppi fede/al mio segnor,” 13.74-5), but fails to see how much harm he did the state by his distorted view of service. What Pier did was turn a public office into a private domain, and the result was that he became the private victim of the public reaction. But he also abused his office by fostering the emperor’s pride and arrogance through his extravagant eulogies, which drew on biblical as well as pagan imperial sources, whereas a courtier and advisor, not to say a poet, is supposed to curb the evil tendencies in the ruler and guide him away from them. He became the victim of the tendencies he had failed to correct. At the same time, though heavy responsibility rests with Pier, the story also reflects badly on the emperor, who first gave excessive power to him and then exacted excessive punishment from him, both serious failings in a ruler. The possibility that the name “Peter of the Vineyard” and the imagery of the keys are meant to suggest that Peter is also an allegory for the pope, using the keys to impede the proper functioning of empire, was discussed in chapter two. What is here imputed to Pier as a public official can also be imputed to the church in its relations with the empire.
The other suicide Dante sees, identified only as a Florentine and seeming to stand for the city in its selfdestructiveness (see chapter one), also presents himself as a victim. When the hunted wastrel, fleeing from dogs (veltri, like the instrument of divine justice promised in canto 1), takes shelter beneath the suicide bush, the bush is caught in the dogs’ attack. “What did I ever do to you?” he asks (literally, “what responsibility do I have for your evil life?” 13.135), as if he could dissociate himself completely from the guilt and suffering of his fellows. That is, the city that destroys itself, its people and its goods, by its greed, ambition, and violence, attempts to stand aloof from the guilt and suffering of its people and its fellows who look to it for protection. Through both suicides, Pier della Vigna and the anonymous Florentine, Dante raises questions about man’s responsibility for his fellows: Pier, as a courtier or as a symbol of the church, takes on more imperial responsibility than he should and therefore fails to fulfill his proper function as a public servant and interferes with the emperor’s doing so; the Florentine refuses to take any responsibility for another, revealing a total rejection of social identity, as an individual with his city, as a city with its nation under the empire.
The self-destructiveness of the city is reflected in the allusion Dante makes to Attila, the Scourge of God, burning it down centuries before (13.149). Benvenuto’s comment on this passage adds a significant detail about the event: that Attila was taken into Florence because he promised to destroy Florence’s enemy, Pistoia, but once inside destroyed Florence instead (1.463-64). Thus Florence was destroyed by her vindictive pride. Villani, in Istorie Fiorentine, takes a similar position, that the city continues to make the same mistakes and God continues to send warnings that go unheeded. He describes fires and other disasters in Florence which he attributes to divine judgment for the city’s sins: in 1177, a great fire was sent to punish the city’s pride over the recent defeats of its enemies (5.7); in 1260, the city was defeated and nearly destroyed despite its strength as divine punishment for its sins (6.80).
The remaining sinners in the seventh circle commit their violence against God, but they too are carefully set within a social context: blasphemers are represented by a king, sodomites by teachers and statesmen, usurers by members of important families and commercial operations. Blasphemers abuse the gift of speech, the expression of the highest human faculty, reason, and the basic instrument of social communication, by using it to attack or defy God. By challenging the highest authority directly, they become the ultimate human anarchists, the equivalent of the rebel angels. When a king, Capaneus, challenges the only authority above him, he undermines the basis of his own. Capaneus compares himself to the giants who rebelled against the gods (and were defeated), but the reader is reminded of the futile defiance of the fallen angels outside the walls of Dis; they all began as creatures of greater strength than Capaneus, but were defeated by the divine power they challenged. Dante condemns any disruption of the providentially ordered chain of authority, even from a king, but he also reminds us that arrogance in a ruler has repercussions on his subjects: the story of Capaneus recalls the devastating war against Thebes, and allusions to the armies that suffered in the burning deserts of India and Libya remind us of Alexander’s insatiable lust for conquest (14.31 If.). The figure who brings together everything Dante is saying about blasphemy and defiance of the providential order is the statue described at the end of the canto, the “Veglio di Creta,” which represents the moral history of mankind. The statue suggests classical and biblical traditions, the four ages of man (as in Ovid, Metamorphoses, 1.89 ff.) with the implication of continuing moral degeneration and corruption, and the four kingdoms of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Dan. 2:31-44), which represent the transfer of power from one nation to another through human history. The statue faces west, following the movement of empire, with its face mirrored in Rome (14.105), which in God’s plan is the climax of human destiny. It stands on two feet, the empire and the church (cf. Benvenuto, 1.491), both intended by divine plan to have their seat in Rome (cf. Hell 2.20-24), but though one foot is iron, the other is only clay and the statue is now leaning too heavily on the more vulnerable one; the implication is that the church now has more power in the world than the empire, but cannot sustain it. The statue is cracked in all its members, except the gold head, and tears flow from the cracks forming the rivers of Hell, the suffering of mankind; that is, man’s defects create his hell. Whether it is national or individual, moral corruption is harmful to all: the polis is contaminated by the acts of a single person, individuals are touched by the acts of the polis. All men suffer potentially for any man’s sins.
The section on sodomy (by which Dante means homosexuality), which follows the description of the statue, offers a striking illustration of the contamination of public life by the private sins of public figures. That Dante is concerned primarily with civic life in this section is clear not only from the focus on Florence and its vices in his conversations with the souls, but even more from the fact that he groups the souls in this section by their public functions, their professions, and that every major sphere of civic life is represented: politics, law, the church, letters, and commerce. These are all men professionally committed to maintaining order in their own spheres. Richard Kay has amassed a stunning amount of evidence to show that all the men named in canto 15 were guilty of professional perversion. It is Dante’s technique to begin with the sin named and move into larger implications, such as the “professional perversion” Kay so amply illustrates. The same perverted thinking that allows the indulgence of one’s sexual appetites permits the abuse of one’s professional position. Priscian wrote a textbook for his fellow grammarians in which he glorified his own craft, whereas Donatus, whom Dante puts in Paradise, wrote a simple textbook for the use of students. Francesco d’Accorso, the son of the man who did the Glossa Ordinaria to the Corpus iuris civilis, used his father’s work and name, taking credit for the work as if it were his own, and also supported the king of England and the pope against the empire; since Roman law is the empire’s responsibility, he, by his allegiance to its enemies, abused and misrepresented the law he taught. Bishop Andrea dei Mozzi came from a great banking family that had gone from Ghibelline to Guelph and financed the papacy against the emperor Frederick. Andrea himself tried to tax the clergy to pay for his own promotion, used excommunication as a personal weapon, and preached poorly besides; he was transferred by Boniface to oblige Andrea’s family when the feud between him and his bishop got out of hand. Brunetto taught civic humanism and public service through rhetoric, but upheld the independence of Florence from the empire; he was assumed to have drafted the letter Florence sent in 1281 to Rudolph of Hapsburg asserting her traditional independence; thus he must be associated with the Florence he condemns (15.73-78), because he too was disloyal to its “pure” Roman heritage. And finally, the three Guelph leaders in the next canto opposed the cause of empire, glorying in the power they had as partisans, which they would not have had as nobles within an imperial city.
Brunetto is the dominant figure in this section because he was a particularly respected personage and because, like Pier della Vigna (and Dante), he was not only a public official, but also a master of rhetoric, hence he had a two-fold responsibility to guide others. Brunetto indeed preached the highest principles of public life, that it was the responsibility of the virtuous orator to teach and civilize his fellows, that virtuous deeds, not noble birth, honor a man, that the more exalted the sinner, the more sordid his vice. But as Pier della Vigna did with the emperor, Brunetto supported his city in its mistakes and aggressions instead of correcting it: despite his attachment to the Roman heritage, “the holy seed of those Romans” (15.76-77: “la sementa santa di quei Roman”), he furthered the cause of the Guelph anti-imperial Republic, he was the official notary for the government of Charles of Anjou, and the chosen public orator to urge war against Arezzo. Villani calls him a great philosopher and supreme teacher of rhetoric, praises his books, and notes that he began the refinement of Florence, guided it to speak well and to judge and rule the republic according to the science of politics, but he also calls him a “mondano uomo,” a worldly man, in contrast to his virtues (Istorie Fiorentine, 8.10). Even in Hell, Brunetto seems more concerned with the circulation of his book and with Dante’s literary career than with either’s salvation. Benvenuto makes an interesting judgment on Brunetto’s vanity; he says that he was a man of great intelligence and eloquence, but that he had a high opinion of himself, and when he made a small error in his writing, instead of correcting it, as he might easily have done, he preferred to accuse and blame others lest he appear ignorant, for which Benvenuto claims he was exiled from Florence and condemned to burn. He avoided that fate in his life, the commentator notes, but not in his afterlife (1.502-03).
If there is something superficial about Dante’s conversations with Brunetto, it is even more evident in his exchange with the three Florentines. Naked themselves, they recognize Dante as a Florentine not by his words but by his dress, and what concerns them in Florence is the state of cortesia and valor (16.67), good manners and worth or prestige. If valor is meant to have a moral overtone here, it is ironic that those who should have led by good example are concerned with such behavior now. They show good manners in their speech to Dante, wishing him long life and fame afterwards, like Brunetto, but their naked bodies, moving nervously like wrestlers in a circle, undercut the dignity their names would otherwise evoke, as did Brunetto’s sudden sprint like a winning racer at the end of the previous canto. Dante unmasked Brunetto slowly in his conversation before he destroyed Brunetto’s dignity with the image of the naked racer, but he makes us aware of the sordidness of the other three from the beginning by his description of their grotesque movements while they speak so graciously; the contortions of the bodies betray the lack of control which the voices conceal. In all, Dante presents in these two cantos a chilling picture of the hypocrisy and self-indulgence of Florentine public life. If men such as these are given to such behavior, it is no surprise that the city is troubled. The violent impulse that lies so close to the highly cultivated surface in these men is echoed in the natural allusion with which Dante ends the section, the river that roars down the Alps with strength for a thousand waterfalls, an image of nature uncontrolled, potentially dangerous, in sharp contrast to the dikes mentioned at the beginning (15.4 ff.), which represent man’s attempts to control the harmful forces of nature within civilized life.
All the souls Dante groups among the violent against God abuse divine gifts, which were ordained for the good of men in society. Blasphemers abuse the gift of language, using it to attack the creator rather than to praise him and communicate with men; sodomites abuse sex, using it to indulge sterile desires instead of continuing the human race; the last group, usurers, abuse the gift of art, which follows nature, as Virgil explained in canto 11 (lines 97 If.).. Because the usurer does not labor as Genesis bids, he scorns both nature and art, a greater crime against the providential order than the miser’s, who only attempts to interfere with Fortune (cf. canto 7). Thomas Aquinas points out that usury is especially contrary to nature because, according to nature, money should increase only from natural things, not from money; he describes the making of money from money as a kind of birth, “quidam partus,” to emphasize the distortion of the natural function. Following Aristotle, Thomas also associates usurers with tyrants, among those who make sordid gain at public cost (commentary on Ethics, 4.1). Dante gives little space to the usurers themselves, but he does take time to describe the emblems on the pouches which hang from their necks, the signs of their families and the only distinguishing feature of these souls. The sin committed to aggrandize the family (the major banking and trading operations were family companies) against the laws of God and man is now the cause of public disgrace to the family. The importance of usury in Dante’s world and the overlapping of usury and fraud, which Dante suggests by having the pilgrim see the usurers in the shadow of the monster of fraud, is discussed below in chapter six.
Gerione, the symbol of fraud, is the most striking of Dante’s monsters, as fraud is the most important of his sins. Gerione is a hybrid, but stranger than those in the seventh circle (the centaurs and harpies) because it combines several types of being, as fraud is made up of many kinds of action. Fraud depends on trust, hence it has the face of a just man; it abuses positions of power to prey on others (the hairy arms and paws suggest a lion); it offers attractive but deceptive schemes (the body of a varicolored serpent), and it destroys without warning (the poisonous tail of a scorpion). One must not only consciously give oneself over to it (as Dante and Virgil ride on its back), but also actively seek it with the mind (they summon it with the corda); and its flight carries them deep into Hell because this sin is far more evil than the last. Fraud is the most social and the most socially destructive sin of all in that it involves deceiving others, manipulating them or exploiting their tendency to sin to one’s own advantage and profit and frequently to the harm of many innocent victims. Fraud expands the scope of evil by increasing the number of actors and victims; it is a sin committed more against society than against the individual. Dante sets it in a series of moats surrounding not a castle, the center of a society, but a lake of ice, the denial of life, because fraud destroys the trust on which human life–society–must be built.  The antisociety of the eighth circle, the Malebolge (“sacks of evil” or “evil sacks”), is based not on trust but on deception, not on the common good but on the exploitation of the many for the profit of the few, not on justice but on the abuse of the innocent, not on guidance to the good life but on encouragement to evil.
Dante emphasizes the importance of fraud by dividing the eighth circle into ten sections and devoting thirteen cantos to it, more than a third of the entire cantica of Hell. He arranges the ten sections so that they seem to be distortions or intensi
fications of the larger categories of Hell’s nine circles or the manipulation of the impulse to those sins in others, the organizing of sin for profit:
FRAUD, EIGHTH CIRCLE CIRCLES OF HELL
01 panderers, seducers 02 lust
02 flatterers 03 gluttony
03 simoniacs 04 avarice
04 false prophets 04 prodigality
05 barrators 05 wrath
06 hypocrites 06 heresy
07 thieves 07 violence
08 counsellors of fraud 08 fraud
09 disseminators of scandal, schism 09 treachery, betrayal
10 falsifiers (of elements, persons, coins, words) 10 Satan
Seducers and panderers turn the lust of others to their gain; flatterers indulge the gluttonous appetite of others for praise; simoniacs feed their own greed for money on others’ greed for position; false prophets squander their gifts of divining to feed others’ reckless desire to know the future. Barrators attack the structure of the state, ultimately a self-destructive act, since the state is an extension of the self, just as the wrathful vent their passions on themselves when there is no other object to hand. Hypocrites deceive others with a false appearance of piety, while heretics, who search for truth, accept false beliefs; thieves take by stealth, the violent by force, both interfering with the providential order; counsellors of fraud advise others to use fraud; disseminators of scandal and schism advise others to treachery, the one case in which the act itself is worse than the inducement to it. The last section has no counterpart among the sins: if the falsifiers, who abuse all the essentials of human existence, making both civilized life and salvation impossible, have any counterpart, it can only be Satan, the perverse reflection of the creator of those elements. The souls in the eighth circle prostitute every aspect of human life, the body (sec. 1), the mind (2), God’s gifts of the sacraments (3), of prophecy (4), of government (5); they practice willful deception in politics (secs. 6, 8, 9), commerce (7, 10), and religion (9).
Despite the attempts of the souls to order their “society” by the principles of greed and self-aggrandizement, a certain justice does prevail; the deceiver is deceived, the con man conned. The most striking example of this occurs outside of Hell, but is described by a soul, Guido da Montefeltro, who was seduced into devising yet another deception by Pope Boniface VIII. The great counsellor of fraud is tricked by the master deceiver. Like the clever inventor of the brass bull, mentioned in the same canto (27.7 ff.), who was his machine’s first victim, Guido becomes the victim of his own cleverness; as the inventor did not consider that the cruelty of the tyrant for whom he made the bull might be turned on him, so Guido does not think that a pope who can deceive others on his advice could as easily deceive him. It is fitting, since the fraudulent incite others to sin, that in Hell they should become the objects of evil action, the perpetrators, so to speak, becoming the victims: the panderers and seducers, who incited others to sexual acts, are goaded to movement by the whips of devils; flatterers squat in the excrement that they metaphorically showered on others; simoniacs are buried in baptismal fonts, a symbol of the source of eternal life which they stifled; the false prophets who twisted divine truth are twisted in their bodies; devils abuse the barrators as they abused the government; hypocrites literally bear the weight of their own hypocrisy; thieves cannot control possession even of their own bodies; counsellors of fraud who inflamed others with their tongues become tongues of flame; disseminators of schism who severed the members of church and state are continually severed in their bodily members; and falsifiers who corrupted the elements of human life are corrupted, diseased, in their bodies and minds.
The punishments of the souls also recall actual contemporary punishments in several instances, which reminds us once again that Hell is really an earthly city or state. Certain types of criminals were walked around the city before they were executed and whipped as they went, as the panderers and seducers are (Davidsohn, Storia di Firenze 5.611); some lost limbs for encouraging seditions (Davidsohn, 5.612), like the mutilated sinners in the ninth section. The upside-down burial of the simoniac popes recollects the punishment of assassins, buried alive upside down, as Dante himself notes (19.49-51); the hoods the hypocrites wear are lead, like the coverings Frederick II had placed on traitors before they were burnt, again noted by Dante (23.65-66). Other details reinforce the sense of the contemporary city. The second section provides the sight and odor of excrement, the first is densely populated, with groups of sinners moving quickly in opposite directions, their movement carefully ordered, as the Romans ordered their traffic during the Jubilee (18.28 ff.).
The crowds in the first section of the Malebolge also suggest the vast extent of the sin, both of those who commit it and those who suffer from it. The number of people involved in these sins as victims and as participants is a significant factor in the social impact of fraud. Jason seduced and abandoned a number of women, each of whom had already betrayed others, which suggests an endless cycle of deception and revenge and numerous, sometimes innocent, victims. Victims are more and more obvious in the lower part of the circle: whole nations, like the Jews, because of Caiaphas’s hypocrisy (sec. 6), Troy, because of the deceptions of Ulysses (8) and Sinon (10), and Islam, because of the schism of Mohammed (9). Cities suffer from the activities of hypocrites (6) and counterfeiters (10), the inhabitants of a castle from political deception (8), and individuals from false accusations (7 and 10). Even Dante is briefly caught up in the atmosphere of this circle and becomes its victim: Virgil, thinking that Dante is trying to gauge the distance, or perhaps attempting to direct Dante’s attention to facts and away from temptation, gives him details and tries to hurry him away from the ninth section. Dante’s answer is unusually aggressive: “If you’d known why I was looking, you might have let me stay,” 29.13-15. Whether or not Virgil read Dante’s thoughts, as he usually can, he has seen the person Dante was looking for, a cousin whose violent death is still unavenged. Virgil did not point him out, because, as reason, he must guard Dante from the consequences of personal feuds. Dante missed his cousin because he was so intent on another sinner, the political poet Bertran de Born; thus the bad example of one political poet, Bertran, and the wisdom of another, Virgil, prevent Dante from abusing his own gifts, from getting involved in a feud that would have had serious political consequences. His concern with the public, perhaps theoretical, aspect of the problem, represented by the two poets, protects him from the private aspect, which could have had public repercussions. Nonetheless, if only for a moment, the cousin has had the effect he had in life, of dividing those who should be united. Again in the tenth section, Dante is so fascinated by the exchange between two falsifiers, Virgil has to rouse him quite sharply. This time, Dante has no excuse, only shame, but that satisfies Virgil, so they leave the circle in harmony, reason in the good man having overcome the threat of fraud, which is to draw others into sin. “The same tongue first bit me,” Dante comments, “and then gave me medicine” (31.1 and 3). This is the proper function of language and of poetry, to show what is wrong and guide to what is right, and it contrasts sharply with the fraud of the whole eighth circle.
There are many innocent victims of fraud because it is practiced by people who have official positions or functions, which they abuse to the harm of those who must depend on them. Many of the categories of fraud involve advisors, a role Dante was particularly concerned with since he cast himself in it: the flatterers in section two are courtiers, companions, advisors, who should use their access to lords and leaders to persuade them to right action, to correct and stem their sinful desires, but who instead pander to their vanity. The false prophets in section four, instead of using their knowledge of the future to correct and guide, as the prophets of the Old Testament attempted to do, sell it to those who would use it for political advantage. Counsellors of fraud (sec. 8) and disseminators of scandal (9) pervert their advisory functions altogether by guiding to sinful action, which is harmful not only to the souls of those who listen to them, but also to those against whom they act. Many of these advisors are themselves public officials, as are most of the souls Dante points out in the other sections: Venedico Caccianemico (sec. 1) was a podesta of various cities; as well as a pimp for his sister; church officials as high as popes practice simony (3); barratry (5) and hypocrisy (6) are the vices of political officers; religious and political leaders engage in fraudulent counsel and in scandal and schism (8, 9).
Because fraud is the core of the corrupt society in Dante’s scheme, it is appropriate to look at relevant details of various sections, following Dante’s order. He gives short shrift to the first two–pimps and flatterers–using them primarily to set the atmosphere for the circle, the prostitution of body and mind, the sordid traffic in what is essentially filth. The third section, however, is one of major importance, because it involves the church at the highest level, not only trafficking in the sacraments, but also interfering in secular affairs. Prostitution and adultery figure largely in the imagery of this section (canto 19), because the church used the language of marriage widely in its political propaganda as well as in religious texts (see chapter two). Dante speaks of simoniacs committing adultery for gold and silver (19.4), of Boniface taking the lady church by fraud and then raping her (19.56-57); the popes fulfill the prophecy of the whore who fornicates with kings in the Apocalypse (19:106-08). The whore in the Bible stood for secular Rome, but then the church became secular Rome with the Donation of Constantine, taking on its corruption with the possession (19.115 If.).. The church now trades in the “things of God” which were meant to be the “brides of goodness” (19.2-3); those “things” are the sacraments and spiritual gifts, which the church should administer freely to all.
The simoniac popes are in their own holes, as the heretics are in their own tombs, a connection that Benvenuto points out (2.48); they too have rejected the faith, but with more farreaching effects. They are buried upside down as they subverted their sacramental functions, the only sinners Dante sees in this position; Jacopo notes that they are upside down because they were concerned with things of the earth rather than of heaven (1.312). The position is not only a striking indicment of their abuses, but also serves to connect them with Satan, whom Dante sees upside down as he leaves Hell, suggesting that in perverting the functions God gave them and in usurping others not meant for them, they do the devil’s work rather than God’s. Not only have they taken to themselves what properly belongs to all men, and Nicholas admits to Dante that he used the church to benefit his family, they also claim and use powers that God gave to the empire. They usurp or interfere with secular authority: Dante alludes to Nicholas’s intrigues against Charles of Sicily (19.98-99), which, as early commentators make clear, were believed to have led to the carnage of the Sicilian Vespers; he compares Clement’s relations with the French king to the story of Jason in 4 Maccabees (19.85-87); he may be reminding the Florentines, in his remarks about the broken font, of the oath they took to stand together for the city, which was undermined by the treachery of the Blacks with the collusion of Pope Boniface VIII, as Noakes suggests; and his use of the curious word zanca to describe the papal leg (19.45) is probably, as Kaulbach argues, a reference to the slippers worn by the prefect of the city of Rome in papal rituals, symbolizing a temporal power once vested in the Roman consul, but taken over by the papacy. All we see of the popes in this section are their legs, which have taken the place of the head by usurping imperial power.
False prophets also abuse a divine gift that was intended to help mankind, of foretelling the future, which they put to the selfish purposes of political leaders or to their own profit. All the commentators make a distinction between knowing the future through divine revelation, which may come either directly in a vision or dream or through natural science, both of which are proper, and knowing it through demons, who use it to destroy souls. Prophets, like Dante and Virgil, chosen to transmit the divine message, serve God and man, but they were also believed by some to be sorcerers. At the heresy trial of Matteo Visconti, a witness reported that Dante had been summoned by Matteo to practice magic against the pope. Therefore, Dante takes pains to establish exact details in this canto in order to dissociate himself from the souls he sees, and he has Virgil correct the story he told in the Aeneid about the founding of Mantova and reprimand Dante sharply for showing sympathy to the sinners. Prophets played an important role in political policy-making in Dante’s time. Rulers depended on their forecasts to make key decisions. Villani reports several of the scholar Michel Scot’s prophecies coming true much later, in 1328 when Can Grande took control of Padua (Istorie Fiorentine, 10.103), and in 1329, when he took Trevigi (10.139). However, Villani also warns that not all astrologers or their prophecies can be trusted, although the point of his story seems to be rather that men may be misled by prophecies they do not fully understand. He reports a prophecy that Henry of Luxembourg would advance to the end of the world (“capo di mondo”), which was taken to mean that nothing could stop him; events seemed to belie the apparent meaning until a local abbot told them of a street named Capo di Mondo and they realized how badly they had misinterpreted the prophecy (9.46). The problem with prophecy may lie as much in the lords who rely on it as in the prophets; among those Dante mentions, Michel Scot served as court astrologer to Frederick II, and Guido Bonatti was astrologer to both Guido da Montefeltro and Ezzelino da Romano. Benvenuto notes that Guido consulted Bonatti in all his actions (2.89). It is surely no accident that Dante condemns these lords as well, Frederick for heresy, Guido for counseling fraud, Ezzelino for tyranny. By serving them, the prophets used their arts in the service of evil.
Barrators commit a much more direct political crime: they subvert government from within. According to Aquinas, the purpose of government is to imitate God in his goodness and in moving others to be good, but barrators not only fail to move others towards good, they actively subvert government for private profit.  They destroy the honor of their cities for money, Jacopo says (1.354). Dante gives much attention to this sin, two full cantos, a treatment he accords only two other sins in the Malebolge, because he is particularly concerned with the proper function of government, and because he himself was accused of the crime. The simile of shipbuilding and repairing in Venice, which begins canto 21, suggests what government is meant to be, everyone engaged in a different activity with a distinct purpose that serves the whole operation in order to keep the ship of state functioning. What barratry makes of government, however, is a farce. The puns implicit in the word barrateria point up both the serious and the game aspect of the evil. Nine lines after the first mention of barratry in the poem, baratro occurs (11.69), meaning “the abyss,” as if the subversion of government were itself the equivalent of hell, which it helps to produce on earth; baratta occurs in the cantos of barratry (21.63) as “scuffle,” “contest”; in other words, a competitive game. In life, barratry is a game that you lose when you win, since to turn government, which is an extension of the self, to selfish purposes subverts its real purpose and therefore harms the self. In Hell, it is a game that has been lost before it is begun: the souls cannot get away from the devils and the devils cannot get away from them; they are unable to leave the section even to move into the next (see 23.55-57). Still they play: the souls trick the devils, the devils try to trick them, and everyone ends up in the pitch. If the devils miss a crack at the souls, they attack each other and have to be dragged out by their fellows’ hooks. There is little difference in this section between the sinners and the devils; both play the same game to the same futile ends. The devil caught on his own hook is simply an extension of the barrator’s plight and a direct result of their abuses; barratry sets up an endless cycle of corruption which extends upwards and downwards in the echelons of government. As Benvenuto points out, barratry is practiced at all levels of courts, from the greatest minister to the least mercenary (2.97); the greater barrators flay the lesser, the lesser sew strife among themselves (2.153); no lord can avoid their hidden plots, even good lords are vulnerable (2.136-37); and barratry is so contagious that if a saint entered a court and became involved in its functions, he would become a barrator.
Barratry afflicts religious as well as lay courts; indeed Benvenuto tells a story of his own experience at the papal court at Avignon, where the pope’s treasurers expected him to offer a bribe even though his cause was just (2.118). Benvenuto claims that the best examples of barratry are to be found in the pope’s court (2.97). He identifies Dante’s devils as important officials, great masters of barratry or their ministers, presumably either lay or clerical (2.101), and offers a lengthy analysis of their names, showing how they illustrate different aspects of barratry (2.120-21). I suggested in chapter two that the devils might represent corrupt churchmen trying to manipulate the politics of secular as well as of religious government; in any case, whether priests or laymen, Dante’s message is that barrators will eventually be caught and hooked on their own intrigues. His devils are, incidentally, black (21.29 and 23.131), as the souls must also be since they are submerged in pitch, which may well suggest the Black Guelphs, the church party and Dante’s enemies. It was the Black Guelphs, supported by the church, who falsely accused and sentenced Dante, effectively exiling him from the city.
Dante exonerates himself from the charges of false prophecy and barratry by his treatment of the sins; but this is not the case in hypocrisy. He seems to admit some slight guilt here by the precipitousness of his fall into the sixth ditch and the difficulty of his climb out of it. One can only assume that he adopted some self-righteous posture when he went into exile, perhaps during his brief and unhappy political association with other exiled Whites, to which Cacciaguida refers (Pr. 17.61-65). Hypocrisy is commonly associated with false piety, but it can also have far-reaching political effects, and that is the aspect Dante concentrates on. Among the souls he presents, Caiaphas is one whose hypocrisy brings suffering on an entire nation. Ironically, he advised the Pharisees to make one man suffer rather than the whole people (Hell 23.116-17), and that was the “seed of evil for the Jewish people” (23.123: “fu per li Giudei mala sementa”). He now lies crucified on the ground where all the hypocrites must pass over him, that is, he bears the full weight of the world’s hypocrisy, as Christ in his crucifixion bore the full weight of the world’s sin. The two Frati Gaudenti Dante speaks to in this canto were sent to Florence to keep the peace; of opposing parties, they were elected to serve together as one podesta for the city but actually worked as one for the pope, and instead of reconciling the two sides, they favored the Guelphs at great cost to the Ghibellines. The signs of the destruction wreaked on Ghibelline property could still be seen by Dante’s audience (23.108). Benvenuto notes in his commentary that Frati Gaudenti sinned in both hypocrisy and barratry, since they were corrupted by the Guelphs, and that Dante quite properly places these hypocrites next to the barrators (2.178). Villani says they worked together under cover of false hypocrisy (“sotto coverta di falsa ipocrisia”) more for their own gain than for the common good (Istorie Fiorentine, 7.13). Guido comments that they did the devil’s work in the guise of holiness, “sub specie sanctitatis opus diabolicum perpetrarunt” (445). Religious orders are particularly susceptible to this sin because of their ascetic dress and customs, which is why all the hypocrites except Caiaphas wear robes cut in the Cluny fashion, with an abundance of material. Since these robes, however, are gilded lead, they pay for that extravagance with added pain. Dante emphasizes the weight of the cloaks by comparison with the lead coverings in which Frederick II burned traitors, a reference that underscores the political aspect of the sin.
Theft is also a special category for the poet, who devotes two cantos to it, but not because he was directly connected with the sin. Theft shakes the stability of a society by defying and complicating recognized rights of possession; Guido comments that thieves introduce moral poison into society, that stealing what belongs to another corrupts and dissolves human fellowship (451). Because thieves refuse to recognize ownership in others, they lose all claim to it themselves, even to the possession of their own identities. Their punishment is to lose their bodies at random; they never know when they will be attacked, and, worse still, they cannot tell whether the snakes that threaten them are really their friends suffering similar metamorphoses. They suffer the effects of a society in which trust among men has been destroyed. The metamorphoses here are not really changes so much as a revelation of the truth within, which is that the thief reduces himself to the lowest form of animal life.
Through the first thief, Vanni Fucci, Dante reveals several facets of the sin: that it is sacrilege (he steals sacred objects and defies God in a gesture which Dante connects with Capaneo’s blasphemy, 25.14-15, as theft itself defies the divine order in the disposition of goods); that it harms the innocent victim (Vanni mentions that another was accused of the crime, and, according to Benvenuto, he was subsequently hanged for it, 2.217 ff.); that it can be committed by cities as well as by individuals. Like Farinata, a Ghibelline who prophesied trouble to the Guelph Dante, Vanni, the Black Guelph, prophesies trouble for the White Dante; but as he describes the events–the exile of Blacks from Pistoia and of Whites from Florence–the cities seem to undergo metamorphoses like the souls, so we come to see them as thieves: “Pistoia first strips herself of Blacks, then Florence renews her people” (24.143-44; cf. 25.10 ff.: “Ah, Pistoia, why do you not turn yourself to ashes?”). In Purgatory, 6.145-47, Dante comments on the frequency with which Florence changes and renews its laws, money, customs, and members, which Benvenuto echoes in his commentary on theft, saying the thief forecast the mutationem of his city (2.189). Since cities confiscated the personal property of their political exiles, it is not difficult to picture them as thieves.
One of the thieves named in this section, Agnolo, is identified as a Brunelleschi by the early commentators; his family had been Ghibelline, but turned Guelph, and Agnolo himself began as a White and became a Black, a stunning example of political metamorphosis for personal advantage. Agnolo is also a member of a large commercial family, as are most of those mentioned in this section. This, together with the space Dante allots theft, suggests that the poet may also be concerned with a more subtle, more extensive kind of theft, the kind that is accomplished in commerce, particularly through fradulent contracts and sales (see below, chapter six).
Dante is emotionally detached from this sin to the extent that he can take pride in his virtuosity while describing it, comparing himself favorably with Lucan and Ovid. But the same is not true of the counseling of fraud. To describe what he sees, Dante must “rein in his wit more than usual, so that it does not run where virtue does not guide it” (26.21-22). He is ostensibly speaking of his poetry, but he is also aware of his own temptation here–how could a political exile who had been so involved with the plight of his city not be tempted at some point to counsel deception in order to change the situation? Dante stretches so far to see into the ditch, he reports, that had he not seized a rock, he would have fallen into the flames (26.43-45). The danger is intellectual arrogance, pride and excessive confidence in one’s cleverness, as Ulysses and Guido da Montefeltro amply illustrate. Dante must have had the opportunity and, so he suggests, the inclination to counsel fraud, but he rejects the Ulysses model for Aeneas, choosing the dutiful wanderer who obeys the Gods and serves the providential destiny of empire over the clever wanderer who pursues his own interests outside the bounds of civilized life. 
Pride in his own powers and accomplishments is what dominates the figure of Ulysses in the tradition Dante drew on: his cry to the Cyclops is almost fatal to his ship (Ovid, Metamorphoses, 14); in his debate with Ajax he boasts of his deeds, all feats of persuasion or guile, and gloats that as Ajax is body, he is mind (Metamorphoses, 13). From the Trojan point of view, Ulysses is treacherous (cf. Aeneid 2, Sinon’s story, and 3, the Trojan curse on Ulysses’ land). There is a more sympathetic tradition of Ulysses, the wise man who triumphs over passion and adversity, in Apuleius, Cicero, and Horace, but that view is not reflected in the Comedy. The selfish desire to increase his own knowledge when it can serve no social purpose moves Ulysses to abandon all his social responsibilities, public and private, to abandon his father, his son, and his wife, to leave his land without its lord, all to experience “human vice and valor,” in a “land without people” (26.99,117) at an age when men are supposed to share the fruits of their experience with others, as Dante asserts in the Convivio. What is the point of more experience now except to indulge his curiosity? Dante believes in the tremendous desire to know, as he reveals in the Convivio, but knowledge must serve a purpose, religious or social or both. Ulysses pursues knowledge that serves neither, so instead of guiding his country to virtue, he leads his boatload of old and tired followers to destruction in sight of the mountain of Purgatory. It is the highest mountain ever seen (26.133-35), an achievement he still takes pride in, but it can only be reached in humility and awareness of sin. What is punished in his flame is pride of intellect that has been turned to antisocial purposes, first to the deception of others on a grand scale and then to rejection of duty to family and homeland.
Guido da Montefeltro also has enormous pride of intellect and accomplishment: ” I knew all the maneuvers and secret ways and practiced them so well that the report reached the ends of the earth” (27.76-78). But he also turns his gifts to the wrong purposes. After a successful military career, he retired late in life (at the age when “one should draw in the sails” (27.81), he says, showing that he meant to avoid Ulysses’ error) to repent his sins in a monastery, but he could not resist the temptation to do once more what he did so well. He is so sure of himself that he cannot imagine himself being fooled, and yet, because he is so eager to exercise his ability, he allows himself to be duped and destroyed. He blames the pope for luring him out of the cloister, saying his plan for salvation would otherwise have worked. But he knew all along what sort the pope was (27.85-99); he knew he was making war not on infidels but on Christians, and right at Rome, that he had no respect for his office or sacred orders or vows, that he suffered a “proud fever,” and his words were “drunken.” The rhyme words lebbre, febbre, ebbre (“leprosy,” “fever,” “drunken”) emphasize the corrupt, diseased nature of his thought. Guido had ample reason to distrust the pope, having engaged in battles against the church all his life (according to the Ottimo, 1.462). The early commentators on this passage mince no words about Boniface, Pietro calling him “the prince of hypocritical clerics” (240), Guido da Pisa, “depraved by a perverted conscience and exalted by arrogant pride” (559), and Benvenuto “a great tyrant among priests” (2.298). Boniface acts here as a tyrant, and men do not have to obey tyrants, particularly in sinful acts; Pietro says the pope ought not to have ordered Guido to sin nor he to do it, noting that even the pope is subject to divine law (241). Romagna has always been plagued with tyrants and their wars, Dante says, and the commentators support him (the Ottimo, 1.461, Benvenuto, 2.305), laying much of the blame on the greed and intrigues of the popes. The Ottimo comments that canto 26 deals with the deceptions of laymen, canto 27 is concerned with the deceptions of the clergy (1.457). It is, of course, precisely what Guido advises the pope to do to his enemy–make a promise he will not keep– that the pope does to him, and, like the inventor who was burned in his own machine, it is only just that Guido should be so deceived.
The lesson here is for those who give aid and counsel to tyrants, that they cannot protect themselves. But this is not a simple case of the deceiver deceived; Guido’s advice enabled the pope to take the enemy stronghold, which he then destroyed. For that destruction Guido must bear some responsibility, just as Ulysses bears responsibility for the consequences of his cleverness. According to Dante’s Virgil, Ulysses suffers in the flame because of the wooden horse, the betrayal of Achilles, and the theft of the Palladium (26.58-63), deeds that deceived and finally destroyed a nation, betrayed a friend, and desecrated a temple. Ironically, the horse, as Virgil points out, was the gate from which the noble seed of the Romans issued (26.59-60), who were to eclipse the Greeks, making the victory Ulysses takes pride in a temporary one and making him an instrument of his enemies’ triumphant destiny. The social consequences of the kind of deception Guido and Ulysses advise cannot be calculated or controlled by the counsellor, however clever he is, but his guilt must be determined on the basis of those consequences. One modern scholar suggests a connection between the wooden horse at Troy and the secret reentry of Corso Donati’s forces into Florence with the collusion of Boniface and Charles of Valois; he also notes that it was the taking of the Colonna stronghold, which Guido advises, that removed the last serious enemy to Boniface’s legitimacy.
That Dante intends Florence to see an immediate threat to itself from deceptive political practices is evident from the beginning of the section, when the poet connects the divided flames of the souls with the funeral pyre of Eteocles and Polynices, the brothers who caused the war at Thebes by greed, deception, and betrayal. The flame of their pyre divided because even after death their hatred was intense, a fit symbol of the struggles that now divide Italian cities. Dante forecasts similar trouble for Florence from Prato, assumed by early commentators to be a reference to the neighboring city, Florence’s daughter, which wants her to fall because of her iniquity or out of envy of her wealth and power (Guido, 517, the Ottimo, 1.442, Benvenuto, 2.261). Benvenuto also identifies Prato with the cardinal, Niccola da Prato, who was sent to Florence in 1303 to reconcile warring factions; he failed and laid the city under interdict, after which there were various disasters, including civil war and fire (2.262-63). Pietro mentions the destruction of cities by fire in connection with the flame of the souls, saying that a city can be destroyed by one word, or one counsel, as it can be by fire (231).
The effects of evil counsel in the ninth section of fraud are even more direct and widespread: divisions in church and state. The enormity and horror of the sin is suggested by Dante’s allusions at the beginning of the canto to the suffering in wars. Those who cause them, like the souls in the previous canto, take pride in their accomplishments, but they acted not simply out of pride, but out of calculated malice. These souls are eager to identify themselves and their actions to Dante. The poet Bertran de Born, the supreme Provencal poet of war, and Mohammed, the greatest schismatic in Christendom, according to popular belief, define the sin and the simple, straightforward justice of its punishment: as they severed the body of human institutions, so their bodies are now hacked apart by a devil’s sword:
seminator di scandalo e di scisma
fuor vivi, e pero son fessi cosi
disseminators of scandal and schism
they were in life, therefore they are so rent.
Perch’io parti’ cosi giunte persone
partito porto il mio cerebro,lasso!
dal suo principio ch’e in questo troncone.
Cosi s’osserva in me lo contrapasso.
Because I separated persons so joined,
I carry my brain separated, alas!
from its source, which is in this trunk.
So one can see in me the retribution.
The souls Dante meets in this section, which is concerned with serious divisions in the major institutions ordained for life on earth, represent all those most responsible for guiding men in that life, religious leaders, political figures, and poets. It includes Mohammed, who supposedly split the Moslems off from Christianity, and his son-in-law, who continues the work by creating sects within Islam; Curio, who encouraged Caesar to cross the Rubicon, splitting republican Rome and causing civil war, which Dante sees as a crime against the official government, even though it led to the empire; Mosca, who instigated the murder that began the Guelph-Ghibelline feud in Florence, about whom Dante had asked Ciacco in canto 6; and Pier da Medicina, who fomented discord among nobles from which he reaped the benefits, who now warns truthfully of betrayal and murder, too late to be of any use, but not too late to incite to revenge. The single poet is Bertran de Born, who not only encouraged nobles to fight wherever he could, for self-serving reasons, but also incited members of Henry II’s family against each other and their father. He is proud of what he did, comparing himself favorably with the biblical Achitophel and boasting of his wounds. Because he so severely failed in the poet’s responsibility to guide men and betrayed his gift of language, he now carries his head in his hand like a lantern, which lights the way for no one; in contrast, Statius will describe Virgil as holding a light behind to help others see (Pg. 22.68-69). Dante admired Bertran’s talent, praising his poetry in the Convivio and De vulgari eloquentia, but must condemn him here because of the political consequences of his words, and because he, who could use his poetic gift to the same ends, must dissociate himself from such examples.
Throughout the circle of fraud, Dante presents souls who undermined the institutions of church and state by destroying the trust and denying the love and justice on which they must be based. In the tenth and final section of fraud, he groups those who falsify the basic elements of social and political life: alchemists, who change the natural elements of the universe; impersonators, who take on the identity of others; counterfeiters and liars, who falsify the fundamental elements of exchange and communication–coins and words. Counterfeiting is even worse than tampering with the elements, because it threatens political stability directly. The last scene in the circle of fraud is, fittingly, a violent exchange of fists and words between the liar, Sinon, whose false words helped to destroy Troy, the future Rome, and the counterfeiter, Adam, whose fake florins caused severe economic and political problems for Florence, the would-be Rome.
Fraud is the most complex circle of Hell in its structure and substance, the deception and manipulation of others in a variety of ways. But the last circle of Hell, treachery, is a far worse sin because of the objects of deception, those to whom one is bound by special ties, although it is much simpler in its conception. It is one sin, divided according to the relation between the sinner and his victim, a sin of conscious commitment in a much more intense way than any of the others because here one must not only conceive the betrayal, one must decide to deny the special loyalty that binds one to the object. There are four categories of traitors: betrayers of family, of nation, of guest, and of benefactor, all special bonds on which the stability of any society must depend. The Ottimo calls benefactors “those who give being as to worldly status” (1.530), a kind of surrogate parent. For contemporary readers, benefactor seems to mean “lord,” dominus, a political more than a personal connection (Guido, 676, Benvenuto, 2.489, and the Ottimo, 1.545, who says that both the last sections of Hell involve the breaking of the dominicale fidanza that a lord has in his subjects). One might expect either betrayal of family, because it is the archetypal sin against another, or betrayal of nation, because of the number of victims, to be the worst, but instead it is the betrayal of an obligation one has willingly assumed, a breaking of an implicit contract, on one side to protect, on the other to be grateful. These relations are the quintessential social relations and cannot be denied without destroying society itself.
There are political overtones in all the regions of the ninth circle: several of the souls in the first section, Caina, murdered their relatives to take over their lands and powers; the second section, Antenora, is made up entirely of political traitors; Tolomea is named for and inhabited by souls who betrayed guests for political reasons; and of the three souls in the Giudecca, two assassinated the first Roman emperor. Antenora is named for the Trojan who, like Ulysses, was involved in the theft of the Palladium and the deception of the wooden horse, but against his own country; in it, Dante encounters a traitor to Florence, involved in the shameful defeat at Montaperti, and pulls his hair out, participating not only as an offended Florentine, but also as an instrument of divine vengeance. Tolomea is so named either for the son of the high priest in 1 Maccabees 16, who killed his guest, a public official traveling to keep the country in order, or for the king of Egypt, brother of Cleopatra, who had Pompey killed, or for both; this name has meaning for the histories of both chosen nations, Rome and Israel. Perhaps implicit in the ambiguity of the name is the confusion between church and state, the interference of the church in secular affairs, which so troubles Dante in his own period, and which is reflected in the presence of the archbishop Ruggieri and of Fra Alberigo in this section. The souls here are those who have killed their guests (one cannot overstress the sanctity of hospitality in the Middle Ages), but the deed is particularly offensive to Dante when the motivation is political, as it is in every case he mentions. Indeed, Dante is moved by the souls he sees not to sympathy for them but to attacks on their cities, Pisa in 33. and the Genovese in 33.151, as if the whole city were tainted by the sin.
The impulse to betray is so strong that it continues even in Hell; there is always one who will name his “brothers,” and Dante quickly learns to play them against each other in order to find out what he wants to know, to betray in his turn. This is, of course, the fruit of betrayal: it draws others into the sin so that, almost inevitably, the betrayer is betrayed. When the Florentine traitor refuses to give his name, another soul identifies him; the first, in fury, names not only the one who gave him away, but a host of others, as if their shame somehow lessened his. One soul gnaws on the skull of his enemy, the-hatred so strong that it impels him to devour even what has no substance. 79 Dante goes out of his way to shock the audience with the last souls he sees before he reaches Satan, because he wants to impress on us the lessons he draws from them: Ugolino gnaws on Ruggieri’s skull, Fra Alberigo is in Hell although his body is still alive on earth. Ugolino’s story, the last extended comment by a soul in Hell, is reminiscent in many ways of the first told by Francesca in canto 5. By the echoes in these two stories from the beginning and end of Hell, Dante is saying that the selfish impulse which moves all sinners, the satisfaction of the sinner’s desires with no thought to the consequences for anyone else, is the same. It is destructive to the self and to others, whether it consumes them literally, as in Ugolino’s case, or figuratively, as in Francesca’s; it is passion which devours them and their partners, who are also their victims. Sin is finally, after all the intricate distinctions Dante has made through the cantica, selfishness, the indulgence of the self at the expense of all other obligations, and therefore, by definition, antisocial. That is why it is possible to consider, even for a moment, that Ugolino may have tried to feed on his sons. Dante’s view of treachery is that a man who can commit it is no longer human. Ugolino says he could not weep when he found himself locked in the tower because he had turned to stone inside (33.49), but he was stone long before, when he committed his own acts of betrayal, a point Dante makes most forcefully through Fra Alberigo. His soul is in Hell, but his body remains on earth, inhabited by a demon, a particular “vantaggio,” “privilege,” of this section: as soon as an act of treachery is committed against a guest, the soul goes to Hell. In other words, the soul that commits such an act is already damned, incapable of moral judgment as it is incapable of feeling. Dante is making a startling point about this kind of treachery; but he is also calling attention to the main lesson of this cantica, that we create hell by allowing ourselves to be dominated by these impulses. Once we give in to them, our feelings are dead; the lake of the heart becomes the frozen lake of Cocytus, with pure evil–Satan–at its core.
Around the outer limits of the ninth circle stand four giants who, at a distance, appear to Dante to be towers. Dante’s first view of the city of Dis, as of any medieval city, was its towers; here at its center we see the corrupt city for what it really is, not a city at all, but an anarchic mass, devoid of all human feeling, frozen in a lake of ice, guarded by naked, mostly mindless force. Perhaps because they are seen as towers, the giants are meant to suggest the pride of the magnates. Benvenuto says that a high tower figures pride, that the giants are proud rulers who presume against God and subject men to their own will, mentioning in this connection that the giant at the end of Purgatory represents the king of France (2.457-58). Pietro suggests that the giants signify earthly powers, bound and reduced to impotence by God (263). The first giant Dante sees here is Nembrot, who built the tower of Babel to reach heaven, leading to the confusion of tongues, the destruction of communication among different peoples; his pride harmed not only his own, but all peoples. The rest are classical figures who were involved in rebellion against the gods, and Antaeus, who fought the Christ figure, Hercules. With the giants around the edge and Satan at the center of the circle, it is rebellion against the highest ruler, God, and betrayal of the Creator that dominates the circle, the ultimate treachery and the supreme arrogance committed by the highest classes of creature, angels and giants, those just beneath the divine in the hierarchy.
At the center of the corrupt city, Dante sees its lord literally consuming his subjects, but otherwise impotent, imprisoned in the corruption he has helped create. The Satan Dante sees is a perverted reflection of the God he aspired to be, three heads, with the three traitors in his mouths. All of them betrayed their greatest benefactor, and all of them betrayed God, either in himself, as Satan did, in his human form (Christ), as Judas did, or in his vicar (the emperor), as Brutus and Cassius did. Brutus and Cassius had both fought with Pompey on the side of the Roman republic; both had been pardoned by Caesar and given high office, which they accepted, and yet they plotted and carried out his murder. Dante makes an important distinction between Cato, whom he places in Purgatory because he fought Caesar as an enemy of the Roman state but remained true to his principles, and Brutus and Cassius, who changed sides and whose allegiance should have been to the empire once it was established as well as to the emperor who had befriended them. The objects of betrayal in the final section of Hell are universal benefactors: God, who bestowed creation on all creatures, Christ, who died to redeem mankind, and the founder of the empire, which exists to restore mankind to paradise. In sinning against any of them, the implication is, we commit the worst of all sins and ultimately betray ourselves.
Dante shows, through the cantica of Hell, that we choose in our acts to inhabit the city of Hell, to turn our own city into Hell. He reminds us that Hell is a city as he enters the last circle, when he asks the muses to aid him, as they aided Amphyon to enclose Thebes (32.11), an allusion to the creation of a city by eloquence. Dante has also created such a city, modeled on his own city, Florence, which, like Thebes, is destroying itself by its selfishness and total lack of moral order. Benvenuto goes into lengthy detail towards the end of his commentary on Hell to show the reader how the city of Hell reflects the earthly city:
Considera ergo quod sicut imperator, rex vel dominus stat in medio civitatis, ita Lucifer stat in centro istius civitatis; et sicut apud regem stant nobiles et magnates, qui sunt sibi magis familiares et amici, ita de prope Luciferum stant isti proditores sub umbra alarum eius; et sicut circa palatium, ad portas et in platea stant custodes, ita hic in circuitu circa lacum stant gigantes magni et fortes, tamquam satellites et stipatores deputati ad custodiam tanti regis, per quorum manus omnes transeunt ad curiam eius. Et sicut postea in tota terra per diversos vicos et contratas stant cives, mercatores et artistae, ita in tota ista civitate sunt fraudulenti et violenti per diversas bulgias et circulos; quia in omni contrata inveniuntur diversae fraudes mercatorum et artistarum, et ita diversae violentiae divitum et nobilium, qui nituntur suppeditare alios quantum possunt; et sicut in suburbiis civitatis stant rustici, viles et incogniti, ita hic extra civitatem fortem et muratam stant incontinentes; et sicut communiter extra civitatem est flumen per quod transitur ad civitatem, ita hic est Acheron magnus fluvius per quem transitur ad istam civitatem maximam omnium, quae continet in se magnam partem civium omnium civitatum mundi. Et sicut longe a civitate stant strenui et bellatores in campis qui gerunt bella, et philosophi et heremitae qui speculantur in solitudine; ita hic in campo herboso et amoeno stant viri illustres, philosophi et poetae separati ab omni turba confusa aliorum gloriosi . . .
Consider that, just as an emperor, king, or lord is at the middle of his city, so Lucifer is at the center of this city; and just as there are nobles and magnates with the king, who are his servants and friends, so near Lucifer are the traitors, beneath the shadow of his wings; and as at the gates and in the courtyard of the palace there are guards, so here around the lake are great and strong giants, like attendants assigned to care for the king, through whose hands all must pass to enter his court. And just as in the whole land, in different villages and towns, there are citizens, merchants, artisans, so in this whole city, there are the fraudulent and violent in different sections and circles; for in every town different frauds of merchants and artisans are found, just so different kinds of violence by the rich and noble, who strive to be supplied by others as much as they can; and just as in the suburbs of cities there are peasants, common and unknown, so here outside the strong walled city are the incontinent; and as there is usually a river outside the city by which one crosses into the city, so here is the great river Acheron by which one crosses to this greatest city of all which contains in itself the great part of the citizens of all the cities of the world. And just as the strong warriors who wage war in the fields, and philosophers and hermits who speculate in solitude are far from the city, so here in the lovely green field are the illustrious men, glorious philosophers and poets…. (2.56162)
The political side of Dante’s message was clearly not foreign to contemporary readers. But the message of Hell is not unrelievedly negative. At the end, Dante tells us that Satan’s fall caused the mountain of Purgatory to rise on the other side of the earth; that is, he helped establish the place of man’s restoration even before he tempted man to fall. Just as his body provides Dante and Virgil the means of beginning their climb out of Hell, so his fall provides for mankind the place to climb from the sinful state to salvation. The knowledge of evil in the self and the state, which Dante has described in such detail in Hell, should provide the means to begin the move towards a new self and a new society, which Dante begins in Purgatory and completes in Paradise.
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 01
W. H. V. Reade, The Moral System of Dante’s Inferno (1909; reprint, New York: Kennikat, 1969), is so intent on distinguishing God’s justice from man’s and on showing Aquinas’s influence on Dante that he neglects the importance of the effects of human action, which Dante weighs along with the motivation. Allan H. Gilbert, Dante’s Conception of Justice (1925; reprint, New York: AMS Press, 1965), gives a much better sense of the relation between earthly and divine justice in the Comedy
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 02
For the four objects, see Bonaventure, Speculum animae, 3 (Opera omnia, vol. 7); Aquinas, ST, 2.2ae, q.25, and 1.2ae q.73, a.9. I do not mean to imply that either of them is not concerned with man’s actions in relation to society on the contrary, Bonaventure says that for a harmonious political life, man must be rightly ordered to society as well as to God and his fellows (Collationes in Hexaemeron S); see also Matthew M. de Benedictis, The Social Thought of St. Bonaventure (1946; reprint, Westport: Greenwood, 1972), 28. Aquinas considers a sin against a public person more serious than one against a private person because of the numbers affected, but taken as individuals, not as an entity. Aquinas also recognizes the three orders the individual must respect of reason, of human, and divine law and is concerned with the state as an organ of justice on earth. But he separates political issues from questions of sin whereas Dante intentionally confuses them, or sets the treatment of sin and virtue in a political context. Brunetto Latini comes closer to Dante in the Tresor, Bk. 2, in which he discusses vices and virtues in terms of Aristotle’s Ethzs, and the governing of cities, and notes that pride, envy, etc., lead to enmity and fighting, which disrupt law and destroy cities (2.131.8).
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The social implications explain all the differences between Dante and Aquinas, which G. Busnelli lists, L’Etica Nicomachea e l’ordinamento morale dell~~~lnferno di Dante (Bologna: Zanichelli, 1907), 153: for Aquinas, neutrality, heresy, blasphemy, suicide are worse; for Dante, theft, lying, hypocrisy, bad counsel.
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 04
Bonaventure, Aquinas, Vincent of Beauvais, Brunetto Latini all deal with sin this way.
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 05
See R. Davidsohn, Storia di Firenze, I primordi della civilta’ fiorentina: im pulsi interni, influssi esterni e cultura politica (Italian trans. Eugenio DupreTheseider), 5.598.
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 06
See Hell 15.113, 20.73 ff., 21.49, 23.95, 27.30,49,52, 30.65, 32.26,27,56, 33.83; cf. Pg. 14.24, 92, 16.115. The Arno is the river most frequently cited, but it is by no means the only one.
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Dante also uses families for contrast: Frederick II is in Hell, his son, Manfredi, in Purgatory, his mother, Costanza, in Paradise; Forese Donati is in Purgatory, his sister, Piccarda, in Paradise, his brother, Corso, destined for Hell; Guido da Montefeltro is in Hell, his son, Bonconte, in Purgatory; Ubaldino is in Purgatory, his son, Ruggieri, in Hell; Ezzelino da Romano is in Hell, his sister, Cunizza, in Paradise.
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The wood is this life, both as Augustine describes it, an immense forest of traps and dangers (Confessions 10.35), and as the romance hero encounters it when he goes off into the wilderness to seek adventures, trials which test and perfect him so that he can return to society and serve it properly.
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The wolf is connected with greed throughout the Comedy, particularly clerical greed, see Hell 7.8, Pg. 20.10, Pr. 9.132, 27.55. Benvenuto da Imola, discussing the prophecy of the veltro, notes that if the author intends it to be a Roman prince, the avarice he will oppose is that of prelates and pastors of the church, in whom avarice has its source, continually increasing, 1.57.1 prefer to follow the early commentators who gloss the three animals as lust, pride, and avarice, as befits the moral allegory of the inner man in the first canto (see Pietro, 32 ff..,, Guido, 9, the Ottimo, 1.6, Benvenuto, 1.38-40; Jacopo gives vainglory for the lonza, but agrees on the other two, 1.109). At the same time, the animals suggest Florence and Rome, as mentioned in chapter one, and therefore also have a political meaning for the public man.
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Benvenuto comments that Virgil was really born under consuls, not under Julius Caesar, and claims Dante intentionally has him change that fact because Virgil admires Caesar and prefers to derive his origin from his reign, 1.45-46. For a detailed study of Dante’s treatment of Virgil and his poetry in the Comedy, see Robert Hollander, II Virgilio Dantesco: Tragedia nella “Commedia” (Florence: Olschki, 1983), and Teodolinda Barolini, Dante’s Poets: Textuality and Truth in the “Comedy” (Princeton: Princeton University, forthcoming).
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The neutral angels are an apocryphal concept, but effective in making Dante’s point. For a discussion of the issue, see John Freccero, “Dante’s Per Se Angels: The Middle Ground in Nature and in Grace,” Studi danteschi 39 (1962), S-38.
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See the Ottimo, 1.30, Guido, S9, Jacopo, 1.131, and Pietro, 69. Pietro does not accept the notion that Celestine had to retire from the world to lead a holy life (“he could be as holy and spiritual in the papacy as in a hermitage”) and says that he acted “pusillanimously” in renouncing the papacy. In a later recension, he expresses some doubts about Celestine and suggests that the figure might be Diocletian or Develicianus, who renounced the empire (V/S 80, 81). Benvenuto, who denies the identification, admits that Celestine’s renunciation was generally attributed to “great baseness,” but insists that Dante could not have meant Celestine because he was “magnanimus” before, during, and after the papacy, though he notes that Celestine was unable to keep the incorrigible cardinals from their simony and other cupidity, 1.117-18. Busnelli, L’Etica, 21 comments that the problem with the renunciation is the evil that came with Boniface’s election.
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Dante also condemns himself to some extent in this section through identification with Francesca and her exploitation of noble-sounding lyric conventions, he too engaged in the selfish and self-deceptive aspects of the love tradition about which he began to have doubts as early as the Vita Nuova. By the Comedy, he has come to see his role in that tradition as antisocial rather than ennobling.
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Louis R. Rossi, “The Devouring Passion, Inferno vI,” Italza 42 (1965), 24, making a connection with Paradise, 27.106-10, comments that the breakdown of the moral organism is an effect of the dissolution of the social order, and the fault lies with the leaders. He also notes that there are covert allusions to Corso Donati and Charles of Valois in Hell 6, and that Corso comes up again on the ledge of gluttony in Purgatory 24, where the destruction of his body and the ruin of his city are discussed, 26-28.
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Benvenuto says the two just men are Guido Cavalcanti and Dante (1.236), although Dante gives no hint of this; in Purgatory, 16.121, Dante suggests there are only three just men left in the whole region of Lombardy. Early commentators try to place all the other men Dante asks Ciacco about: the Ottimo has Tegghiaio, Jacopo, and Arrigo in canto 16, Mosca in 29 (1.100); Benvenuto puts Theghiaius and Jacobus among sins against nature, Musca and Arrigus
among sins against others, while Farinata sinned against the faith (1.238). Farinata, Tegghiaio, and Jacopo all question Dante about life in Florence when he meets them. Unfortunately, no one identifies Arrigo, though Pietro calls him Arrigus de Arrigucijs (V/S, 129); the point may be that everyone knows some Arrigo who belongs in Hell.
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Boethius, in the Consolation of Philosophy, defends Fortune’s acts as beneficial to those she abandons, but he does not see her as a positive force; Dante himself presents different views of fortune: as random chance, Conviuio, 4.11, as the fate of an individual, Pr. 8.139, and as providence, Pr. 27.145 and Monarchy, 2.9. For connections between fortune and history in Dante, see Giuseppe Mazzotta, Dante, Poet of the Desert (Princeton: Princeton University 1979), Appendix.
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The tonsure on their heads and the broken circle they form in their movement may both be reflections of the wheel of Fortune, whose turning they have obstructed and which operates as an instrument of providence. Dante lures the reader into making the same mistake they did with the line “mal dare e mal tener lo mondo pulcro” (7.58), which seems to mean “the bad giving and holding of the beautiful world” until the first three words of the next line, “ha tolto lor,” corrects that impression; “the beautiful world” becomes the object of tolto rather than of dar and tenet, that is, their bad giving and holding robbed them of the beautiful world, which we now understand to be heaven, not this earth.
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Landino, cited by Natalino Sapegno, in his notes to his edition, La Divina
Commedia (Milan: Ricciardi, 1957), 98. Fiorenzo Forti, in his article on Filippo in the Enciclopedia Dantesca, 2.873-74, reports that Filippo’s brother, claiming offenses by Dante, received Dante’s confiscated goods as a concession from the commune, and henceforth, according to Benvenuto, opposed Dante’s return to Florence. Forti also notes that the Chiose Selmi related a quarrel between Filippo and Dante in which Filippo slapped the poet.
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Cf. Aquinas on kinds of anger, deserving of praise if in accord with right reason, whereas unreasonable patience can be the hotbed of many vices (ST, 2.2ae, q.158, ad).
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 20
Robert Hollander pointed out to me that the source of the storm simile which heralds the angel’s appearance in canto 9 is the storm simile in Aeneid 2.416 ff., which precedes the destruction of another proud city, Troy.
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See N. Ottokar, “La condanna postuma di Farinata degli Uberti,” Archivio storico italiano 77 (1919),155-63, on Farinata. For the other trials, see Nicolai Rubinstein, “Studies on the Political History of the Age of Dante,” Atti del Congresso internazionale di studi danteschi (Florence: Sansoni, 1965),1.227, and Friedrich Bock, “I processi di Giovanni XXII contro i Ghibellini delle Marche,” Bullettino dell’Istituto Storico Italiano per il Medio Evo 57 (1941), 19-68. According to Davidsohn, Storia di Firenze, 5.609, the remains of heretics were exhumed and their tombs defaced, which may also be behind Dante’s presentation of them in open tombs.
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See Joseph A. Mazzeo, “Dante and Epicurus,” Comparative Literature 10 (1958),106-20, for contemporary views of the Epicureans. According to Aquinas (ST, 2.2ae, q.11), a heretic is one who picks and chooses what he wishes to believe.
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Cavalcanti’s son, Guido, was apparently also involved in factional struggles- Dino Compagni describes a feud in which both he and Corso Donati were involved Cronica, ed. Gino Luzzato (Turin: Einaudi, 1968),1.21.
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Dante’s error was in assuming that Farinata and Cavalcanti were aware of the present, a natural mistake since they know the future. The irony Is that the present, which was all they cared for or believed in, is the one thing now denied them- at the end of time, when there is no future and all is present m eternity� the one present they did not acknowledge�their knowledge will be altogether dead, “tutta morta.” Their perception of time Is yet another modification of the limitations of factionalism; concentrating on the immediate, the local, they fail to comprehend the larger context.
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The cardinal’s remark is cited by both the Ottimo (1.192: “se anima e, io l’ho perduta per li Ghibellini”) and Guido (200); the emperor’s is cited by Ernst Kantorowicz, Frederick the Second trans. E. O. Lorimer (1931; reprint, New York: Ungar, 1957), 352.
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Guido repeats the story of Frederick asking how the soul of a man who was enclosed in a vat to die could escape (200). Dante’s positive and negative views of Frederick were discussed in chapter two. Giovanni Villani, Istorie Fiorentine (Milan: Societa Tipografica dei Classici Italiani, 1802), also praises Frederick for his wisdom and valor, but calls him an enemy of the church, who led an “epicurean” life with no thought to the next life (6.1), and describes his part in Florence’s factional squabbles (6.33).
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The early commentators accept the identification of the pope as the heretic. Bruno Nardi, Nuova Lectura Dantis: 11 canto Xl dell’Inferno (1951; reprint, Rome: Signorelli, 1955), discusses the historical confusion. He shows that Dante followed Gratian’s Decretum, making Pope Anastasius an adherent of the Acacian heresy, presumably because he had favorably received the deacon of the eastern church, who did follow the heresy.
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Reade, The Moral System, devotes an entire chapter to explaining why Dante drags it in at all and argues for the seventh circle as the section of bestial malice on the basis of sodomy and cruelq, suggesting that if fraud is peculiarly human, force must be bestial. Alfred Triolo places bestiality in the ninth circle, as excessive malice, “Matta Bestialita in Dante’s Inferno: Theory and Image,” Traditio 24 (1968), 247-92; he makes an interesting point about the guardians of Hell, that they become less bestial and more human as the sinners themselves become more bestial. Busnelli points out cautiously that any excess of vice, even lust and gluttony, had its bestial aspect for Aristotle- similarly, Dante shows bestial lust in the Minotaur, a combination of fraud and violence in the man/beast, Gerione, and bestiality in the thief, Vanni Fucci, L’Etica, 71-72 107, 150.
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The Ottimo (1.223) and Jacopo (1.243) identify the centaurs with the soldiers of tyrants; here, however, it is the centaurs who control the tyrants.
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Dorothy Sayers, Introductory Papers on Dante, (London: Methuen, 1954) 141-42, cites an early commentator, Gelli, who suggested that the sodomite makes sterile what should be fertile, the usurer makes breed what was meant to be sterile. For more on usury and related sins, see below, chapter six.
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Also among the tyrants is Opizzo da Este, who was believed to have been murdered by his son and successor; Dante speaks of the latter as his “stepson” (12.111-12) either to emphasize the unnaturalness of the act, or as a gratuitous insult. According to Alfonso Lazzari, in “11 marchese Obizzo 11 d’Este signore di Ferrara nel poema di Dante e nella storia,” Giornale dantesco 39 (1936), 12750, Obizzo was supposed to be the man to whom Venedico Caccianemico pandered his sister (canto 18), as sordid in his private as in his public life.
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 32
According to the Anonimo Fiorentino, as cited by Singleton in his commentary on Hell, 203. The Ottimo says Rinier robbed prelates of the church at the command of Frederick 11, as a result of which he and his descendants were perpetually deprived of all rights in Florence (1.235).
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 33
See William A. Stephany, “Pier della Vigna’s Self-Fulfilling Prophecies,” Traditio 38 (1982),193-212, and A. Huillard-Breholles, Vie et Correspondence de Pierre de la Vigne (Paris: H. Plon, 1895).
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 34
Pier’s responsibiliq for his fate may explain why Virgil says his own description of Polydorus is not sufficient for Dante; the soul who speaks from the tree in the Aeneid is not a suicide, but an innocent victim of treachery and murder, what Pier pretends to be. Cf. Kurt Ringger, “Pier della Vigna o la poesia del segno,” Medioevo Romanzo 5 (1978), 87, who connects the soul’s plant name with his fate. Benvenuto, who praises both Pier and Frederick, the first for his great knowledge of secular and canon law and the art of writing, the other for his magnificence and building, seems to hold the emperor indirectly responsible for Pier’s suicide and that of his own son, Henry (1.444).
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 35
Ironically, a rumor claimed that Pier wrote a letter at the pope’s instigation in opposition to one of Frederick’s and that he revealed all Frederick’s secrets to the pope, according to the Ottimo (1.246), and Jacopo (1.255), which Jacopo offers as the cause of his disgrace. Stephany, “Pier della Vigna’s Prophecies,” points out that the courtiers who turned against him out of envy and brought about his disgrace were probably the “fruits of his vineyard,” products of his curricular reforms at the University of Naples.
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 36
There is a simple justice to Pier’s suicide; unable to endure the public scorn of his disgrace, he took his own life, robbing himself, by the same blow, of salvation. When Pier says “ingiusto fece me contra me giusto” (13.72: “he made me unjust against my just self”), he means that by executing himself he was unjustly punishing himself because he was innocent, but since his final act was a sin against the highest justice, it made him “unjust,” guilty, so that his final act, ironically, vindicates the world’s view of him. Though a public servant, Pier shows himself to be as self-centered in his death as he was in his life, and selfdestructive in both.
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 37
See Mazzotta, Dante, Poet of the Desert, chapter 1, for an interesting discussion of this passage and the suggestion that Rome here is an anti-Eden.
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 38
Benvenuto, for whom the statue represents the ages of the world, identifies the church with the terra-cotta foot because it was originally simple and humble like earth but, after the Donation of Constantine, became richer, stronger, and more beautiful and flourishes while the empire declines (1.491). See chapter two, fn. 16, for other early interpretations of the Veglio.
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 39
Dante does not depart from the historical-political significance of the statue, as Busnelli suggests, L’Etica, 163, but joins it with the moral; see Busnelli for a discussion of medieval moral interpretations, 176-80.
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 40
See his Dante’s Swift and Strong (Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas, 1978), from which the information in the rest of this paragraph is drawn. The book is extremely useful despite Kay’s denial that homosexuality is the sin punished in this section. Even if sodomy was a social as well as sexual perversion in the Bible, for Dante the one does not preclude the other. Dante suggests homosexual overtones in Brunetto’s greeting, giving Dante the eye, pulling at his hem, following his skirts, and it is clear from the earliest commentators that sodomy meant homosexuality for Dante’s audience: Pietro is particularly specific, calling it coitus with males, “coitum cum masculis” (178); Jacopo and the Ottimo discuss various kinds of sexual aberration, of which this, being against nature, is the worst. None of them objects to the claim that the men named in this section were homosexual. Jacopo even notes that Boniface, who transferred the bishop, Andrea dei Mozzi, “fu simile sodomita” (1.286). A Pezard, Dante sous la pluie de feu (Paris: Vrin, 1950), had, of course, also raised the question and supplied an interesting substitute, the perversion of language, which is effective for Brunetto, Priscian, and Andrea, but not for the others. Like Kay’s work, it adds to our understanding of the section, even if one cannot accept the premise that these sinners were not homosexual. Dante may well have perceived a certain ambivalence in Brunetto’s loyalties to Florence, since Brunetto chose to write the Tresor in French, which he called “la
parleure la plus delitable et plus commune a toutes gens,” 1.1.1. On the larger question of homosexuality in the Middle Ages, see John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1980).
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 41
The connection between rules of sexual behavior and rules that establish order in language is found in Alanus de Insulis, De planctu Naturae, who uses grammatical terms to discuss sexual perversion; laws of grammar were made to control the natural corruption of speech so men could communicate; sexual mores are established so that men can preserve the forms of family on which larger units of society are based. For Dante, the family is the first stage of human society (Monarchy, 1.5, and Convivio, 4.4.2); homosexuality, if indulged to the exclusion of other sexual activities, impedes procreation and eliminates families. Dante emphasizes this aspect of the sin by his use of the words famiglia, 15.22, figliuol, 15.31 and 37, and imagine paterna, 15.83. He describes the group of souls as a famiglia; Brunetto calls Dante his “son,” not unusual usage among poets in the Comedy, but double-edged in this context. Dante is also the son of Florence, which will reject him; perverse, like so many of her distinguished men, she chooses to be sterile in respect of her good sons. She is too corrupt, Brunetto implies, to bear good fruit, 15.65-66. As Amilcare lannucci puts it, “The homosexual steps outside of the natural order of birth, procreation, death, and seeks his own image. In so doing he refuses to accept his own mortality.” He thinks he can live through his writings, but not even Brunetto’s major work was to be of importance for any length of time (“Brunetto Latini: ‘come l’uom s’etterna’,” NEMLA Italian Studies 1(1977),17-28.
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 42
The possibility of a pun in the words Dante uses to describe that transfer implying other relations between the bishop and Boniface, was discussed in chapter two.
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 43
In the Tresor, discussed by Charles T. Davis, “Brunetto Latini and Dante,” Studi medievali s. 3, 8 (1967), 421-50. Davis gives details of Brunetto’s life and work and points out interesting connections between Brunetto and Pier della Vigna. See also H. Wieruszowski, “Brunetto Latini,” Dizionario biografico degli Italiani (Rome, 1970), 3-10.
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 44
His prophecies of Dante’s glorious future and the benevolence of heaven refer to Dante’s fame on earth; Dante’s remark, “you taught me how man makes himself eternal” (15.85), does not refer to his soul, in the sense that Statius will attribute his own salvation to Virgil, but to his writing. That is the eternity Brunetto wanted and got for himself: “Sieti raccomandato il mio Tesoro,/nel qual io vivo ancora, e piu non cheggio” (15.119-20: “Let me commend to you my Treasure, in which I yet live, and I ask no more”). It is an ironic twist of fate that Dante is more effective in keeping Brunetto eternal by mentioning the book in his own poem.
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 45
A lot of attention is paid to dress in this section of Hell: Brunetto grabs Dante’s hem (15.24), follows “at his skirts” (15.40), the Florentines recognize his dress (16.8), and at the end, Dante takes off his corda and Virgil uses it to summon the monster of fraud. Villani says the Florentine dress was the most noble and honorable of all Italian garb because it was like the ancient Romans’ (Istorie Fiorentine, 12.4). Dante’s dress clearly contrasts with the nakedness of the sinners, the corruption that lurks beneath the noble dress they wore in life. The corda which summons fraud (16.106 ff.) must be connected with false appearance or posture; Pietro connects it with Dante’s deceptions of women (180), Jacopo with attempts to acquire temporal goods (1.294).
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 46
In his commentary on the Politics, cited by Singleton in his commentary on Hell, 182.
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 47
The Ottimo (1.319) comments that one of the Gianfigliazzi is put here to represent all of them.
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 48
The early commentators note the different aspects of fraud in the different parts of the monster. The Ottimo explains that it has the face of a just man because the beginning of fraud has a just and benign appearance, with the hairy parts of a beast of prey and the chest of a serpent because of varied and venomous wills, decorated with deceptive goods and pleasures, and the tail of a scorpion because fraud hurts with its end, its goal, (1.314-15). The Ottimo also emphasizes the harm to others from fraud (1.309 and 313). Pietro connects Gerione with a king of Spain who had three kingdoms and with three kinds of fraud, in word (the face), deed (the scorpion), and in the thing itself, which includes merchandise (the serpent) (181-82). He notes that fraud travels far by letters and embassies. A modern commentator, Giuseppe Garrani, 11 pensiero di Dante in tema di economia monetaria e creditizia (Palermo: Cassa di Risparmio, 1965), suggests that the monster represents fraudulent contracts. The commercial aspects of fraud will be discussed below in chapter six.
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 49
The moats are spanned by a bridge, which suggests that fraud is the link from violence to treachery, a worse form of fraud practiced by denying all natural and assumed bonds; from fraud, one falls into the bottom of the abyss, where there is not even the semblance of a society, simply living death.
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 50
For a discussion of the ten divisions in relation to the structure of Hell, see my “Malebolge as the Key to the Structure of Dante’s Inferno,”Romance Philology 22 (1967), 456-66.
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 51
The horned devils suggest cuckolds who are among the victims of this sin, and the whipping, artificial stimulation to sex; what they did to others is now being done to them.
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 52
The crowds in Rome had come on pilgrimage to receive the indulgences promised by the pope, complete pardon for all sins, remission of guilt and punishment, provided the sins were or would be confessed. This procedure reverses the normal order of awareness of sin, confession, absolution, and satisfaction. It is not too great a leap from the reversed order to the absolution of a sin before it is committed, which the same pope, Boniface VIII, fraudulently offered Guido da Montefeltro (canto 27). One wonders if Dante is not suggesting that the church has not only been ordering the traffic of sinners, but even defrauding them with false promises of salvation by undermining the importance of confession. Dante himself as pilgrim makes two confessions in Purgatory and acknowledges the power of papal indulgences indirectly through Casella’s story (Pg. 2), but one assumes that Casella was sincerely repentant.
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 53
Dante names Isifile (Hypsipyle) and Medea. Isifile had deceived all her countrywomen (18.92-93), the women of Lemnos, who had killed their husbands because they had been unfaithful, making the deceivers the victims on a national scale; Isifile deceived them to save her father, but was herself deceived by Jason. Medea killed her brother and deceived her father in order to run off with Jason and later killed Jason’s new bride and her own children in order to avenge herself on him.
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 54
Both the Ottimo (1.497) and Jacopo (1.455) relate that Geri del Bello, Dante’s cousin, was a falsifier of money as well as a sower of discord, in order to explain why he is mentioned in canto 29, devoted to the falsifiers, although he is in the ninth section of disseminators of scandal. Benvenuto discusses Florence’s particular problem with the thirst for revenge, both public and private, and commends the wise man, Virgil, for dissuading Dante from getting involved (2.391).
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 55
Symbolically, Dante suggests that flatterers are whores in the person of Taide, a figure from a Terence play cited by Cicero; the words Dante quotes were actually spoken by the whore’s lover to a parasite. Dante’s change makes the indictment of flattery even stronger; the flattering parasite is a whore because he prostitutes language. They are set in dung because praise that is not only excessive but potentially harmful is mental excrement, the waste product of the human mind; Benvenuto comments that they are in human excrement which smells worse than other animals’ because flattery is peculiarly human (2.25).
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 56
Several of them are alluded to in the canto in a distorted way emphasizing the church’s perversion of its functions: baptism by the fontlike holes in which the popes are buried; confession when Dante talks to the pope “like the brother
who confesses the perfidious assassin” (19.49-50), suggesting a comparison between the assassin who murders for money and the pope who contributes to the death of souls for money; the laying on of hands is the sacrament bought and sold by simoniacs; and the gift of tongues, which came to the apostles with the pentecostal flames, is parodied in the flames which dance on the feet of the sinners.
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 57
Susan Noakes, “Dino Compagni and the Vow in San Giovanni: Inferno XIX, 16-21,” Dante Studies 86 (1968), 46, suggests that the importance of simony for Dante lies in the harm it works on man and the earthly communiq, not principally in the insult it offers to God. Hence, presumably, Dante classes it as a category of fraud rather than of violence.
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 58
Cf. Pietro, “the said pope caused the rebellion of Sicily and Apulia, or consented to it” (200), and the Ottimo, who claims that the pope was bribed to consent to the rebellion and wrote letters to the conspirators, although he did not use the papal seal (1.350).
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 59
See Pietro, 202-03; Guido, 379, the Ottimo, 1.357-58; Jacopo, 1.337. Demons, being angels, albeit fallen, have a higher intellect than men and can know things not accessible to men. See Aquinas on divination (ST 2.2ae, q.95). For a full discussion of many of the vexed problems of canto 20, see Robert Hollander, “The Tragedy of Divination in Inferno xx,” in his Studies in Dante (Ravenna: Longo, 1980; Hollander shows how Dante rewrites his classical sources, particularly Virgil, to defend him from the charge of false prophecy.
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 60
See Rubinstein, “Studies,” 227. Paget Toynbee, Dante Alighieri, His Life and Works (1900; rev. 1910; reprint New York: Harper, 1965), 101-02, and Elisabetta Cavallari (La fortuna di Dante nel trecento [Florence: Perella, 1921], 40), tell the story apropos of Galeazzo Visconti. On Virgil as seer, see Domenico Comparetti, Vergil in the Middle Ages (1908; reprint from 2d ed., Hamden: Archon, 1966), pt. 2.
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 61
It is interesting that in the prophecies, Michel Scot refers to the “dog” (catcalls) of Verona long before the birth of Can Grande, whose name means “big dog”; it gives an added significance to Dante’s prophecy of the veltro if the audience had some knowledge of “dog” prophecies in the past. Dante, of course, died before the ones Villani mentions came true. Michel Scot also predicted his own death by a falling stone and always wore a helmet except at the consecration of the host, where a stone eventually fell on him. Benvenuto says he took off the helmet for public show, not out of love for Christ (2.89); Jacopo tells an amusing story about him, that he entertained by bringing in all his dishes by magic from the royal houses of Europe (1.351).
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 62
For Dante, Christ’s death gave special meaning to human government in that redemption prepared the way for man to reestablish the earthly paradise; he implies this connection by the painstaking accuracy of his reference to the harrowing of hell (1266 years and one day less than five hours before, 21.11214), which broke the bridge from this section to the next.
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 63
This contrasts with the description of tourneys and skirmishes at the beginning of canto 22, reminiscent of Bertran de Born’s Be’m platz lo gais temps de Pascor, which exalts the pleasure of fighting for its own sake, with no sense of a serious purpose. The furious action and noise of such events is compared to the devils’ activity and the music of their leader, who made a trumpet of his ass (21.139). Since man is distinguished from animals by his political nature, abuse of the structure instituted to govern him in society is a denial of his humanity, so the sinners in this section are portrayed as little more than animals, dolphins, frogs, a mouse among cats, a duck, while the devils are like dogs, cats, and a falcon.
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 64
Attempts have been made to read the names of contemporary officials into the devils’ names, see Edward Moore, Studies in Dante, 2d Series (Oxford 1899), 233.
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 65
In this connection, it is interesting that Dante is threatened by devils twice in Hell, first at the gates of Dis, between the fifth and sixth circles, in an attempt to keep him out of the city, and again between the fifth and sixth sections of the Malebolge, to catch and punish him for a crime he did not commit. Both Benvenuto (2.113) and Villani (Istorie Fiorentine, 9.134) insist on Dante’s innocence of barratry, Villani saying that he was banished for belonging to the White party, and for no other crime.
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 66
Cf. Aquinas; property is necessary for three reasons: man makes more of an effort for his own things; there is more order in human affairs if each has charge of particular things; the state is more peaceful if each man is content with his own (ST, 2.2ae, q.66, a.2). But Aquinas considers robbery by force worse than theft by deceit because he is concerned with personal morality and effects on the individual, whereas Dante is concerned with the public. Jacopo points out that there are two kinds of possession: God’s, who created all, and man’s, who has the use of things; but clear title to possessions is important among men because without it there would be nothing but confusion and war (1.387-88). On the possibility that theft may also represent different kinds of financial crimes, see chapter six below.
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 67
For political overtones in the classical allusions in this episode, e.g., the destruction of cities and political exiles from tyranny, see my article on canto 24, in the forthcoming California Lectura Dantis, ed. Allen Mandelbaum, where I also discuss the possibility that Dante presents himself as a thief insofar as he steals from the classical poets, but for a socially beneficial purpose.
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 68
Chiose anonime, cited by Singleton in his commentary on Hell, 437.
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 69
An attempt to deny this definition of the sin of the eighth section was made by Anna Hatcher, “Dante’s Ulysses and Guido da Montefeltro,” Dante Studies 88 (1970), 109-17, but I find it over-subtle.
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 70
Dante has reason to identify with Ulysses, the central figure of this canto, not only because of the temptation to counsel deception, but also because of the journey he made to an unknown world. Dante describes his own journey in sea metaphors and seems to be haunted by the fear of making the mistake Ulysses did of trusting too far in his own capacity: when he reaches the shore of Purgatory, in sight of which Ulysses drowned he girds himself with the reed of humility, and when he reaches the top of heaven, he looks down once more on Ulysses’ “mad course” (Pr. 27.82-83). For Dante, Ulysses is an antiAeneas, wandering to indulge his own curiosity rather than to establish a new civilization. Neither son, nor father, nor proper love for wife could restrain Ulysses, he says, making the contrast with Aeneas who left Troy with his father on his shoulder and his son’s hand in his. Guido notes that the son, father, and wife should have been sufficient to keep Ulysses from his “vagabunda inquisitione” (537), but he commends Ulysses’ speech to his men (540 ff.) as Benvenuto does, though cautiously (2.294). Amilcare lannucci, “Ulysses’ ‘Folle Volo’: The Burden of History,” Medioevo Romanzo 3 (1976), 410-45, offers a careful analysis of Dante’s treatment of the hero as a Christian tragedy, his sin being the seeking of knowledge beyond imposed limits. For an overall view of the Ulysses problem, see J. A. Scott, “Inferno XXVI: Dante’s Ulysses,” Lettere italiane 23 (1971), 14586.
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 71
Boniface seduces Guido by offering to absolve him of the sin before he commits it, using the keys with which he claims he can open and close heaven. Guido, who cannot resist another opportunity to display his cleverness, uses the excuse that it would be worse not to obey the pope, but in his very answer (“Father, since you absolve me of that sin into which I must now fall,” 27.10809) he reveals the weakness of his position. He knows that he will sin as he should know that he cannot be absolved before he sins, something the devil who comes for his soul points out.
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 72
Ricardo J. Quinones, Dante Alighieri (Boston: Twayne, 1979), 125-28.
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 73
The continuous shifts in allegiance in those wars make one wonder what purpose they serve: Apulia is the scene first of the battle of Turnus against Aeneas, forces opposing the future Rome, then of the Punic wars in which Apulia fought with Rome, then of crusades under Robert Guiscard against Saracens and Greeks, and finally of the defeat of the new empire, the betrayal of Manfred, and the deception of Conradin.
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 74
Whether Bertran had the kind of political effect he attributes to himself here is not certain, but as William Paden points out in “Bertran de Born in Italy,” in Italian Literature, Roots and Branches, ed. G. Rimanelli and K. J. Atchity (New Haven: Yale, 1976), 39-66, Dante’s audience thought he did; the same is true of the attribution to him of the lament for the young king, which Dante echoes in this canto. On Bertran’s role in Dante’s poem, see Teodolinda Barolini, “Bertran de Born and Sordello: The Poetry of Politics in Dante’s Comedy,” PMLA 94 (1979), 395-405.
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 75
The popular medieval belief was that Mohammed was a Christian, or was trained by Christians. The Ottimo reports that he was taught by a heretic monk and some say, but it is not true, that he was a cardinal who turned against the church when he failed to get the papacy (1.482).
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 76
The Ottimo points out that some aspects of alchemy are all right, like the attempt to alter towards a more perfect form, or to make alloys, but faking is wrong (1.494-95), cf. Jacopo (1.453). According to Jacopo, both alchemists and counterfeiters are falsifiers of coins, of money (1.312). Both the Ottimo and Benvenuto (2.432-3) cite Aristotle on the importance of money, invented for the common use and good of men, Benvenuto going into more detail about the evolution of money from barter to metal, weight to sign.
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 77
Villani mentions several of them and tells their stories, noting that they appear in this canto of the Comedy (Istorie Fiorentine, 7.4 and 79).
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 78
One soul asks “qual diavol ti tocca?” (32.108), meaning “what the hell is wrong with you?” but literally “what devil touches you?” Dante is, of course, the “devil” who helps punish the soul, a role he gladly assumes among the traitors, as in his refusal to open Alberigo’s eyes with the words “e cortesia fu lui esser villano” (33.150: “and it was courtesy to be rude to him”).
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 79
In fact, this passion to destroy the enemy affects even Dante, who tears the hair and kicks the head of Bocca in canto 32. The cannibal act is an apt symbol of the banquet at which the crime against the guest is committed, literally in the case of Alberigo, which is picked up in the fruit metaphors scattered throughout the episode. Dante does not allow us to shrink from the horror of the scene; indeed, he leaves us with a particularly disturbing doubt: Ugolino describes his sons offering themselves as food when they see him chewing on his hands from hunger; after the sons die, the father, blind from hunger, gropes for them and the last line he speaks is “then hunger did more than sorrow could” (33.75). Presumably he means that hunger killed him before sorrow, but since two lines later he is again gnawing at the skull, his teeth “strong on the bone like a dog’s” (33.78), Dante forces us at least to entertain the thought that he might also have tried to eat his sons. The mere fact that one can consider it, even to reject it, is sufficiently horrible for Dante’s purpose in characterizing betrayal .
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 80
Both are gracious to the poet, unlike so many in Hell, because they seek his sympathy, wanting him to view them as they see themselves, as victims,
and both distort their stories in order to win him over. Both are shut into small spaces and killed with those they love, with the implication that they are imprisoned and destroyed by their own vices, which also destroy those they love. Francesca tells her story partly to condemn her husband, who will end up in this last circle of Hell because he killed his brother, as Ugolino speaks in order to condemn his enemy, Ruggieri, blaming him for the death of his sons, though Ugolino, long before he was imprisoned in the tower, had sacrificed his family to political ambition and revenge. See Villani, Istorie Fiorentine, 7.120 and 127.
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 81
It is unorthodox if we take it literally, despite certain biblical passages: in John 13:27, Jesus gives sop to one who will betray him “and after the morsel, Satan entered into him”; in Psalm S4:16, “let death come upon them [friends who betray] and let them go down alive into hell.” Guido comments that just as the apostle had said “I am alive, but not 1, Christ lives in me,” so a man obstinate in sin might say “the demon lives in me” (705).
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 82
Antaeus seems to be an exception, the kind of giant nature left off creating because the combination of huge body with reason was too potent (Hell 31.4957).
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 83
Benvenuto (2.552) says that the long arms of Satan figure the long power of this king who has many kings under him, his power extending east and west.
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 84
Jacopo notes that according to Statius, Amphyon was so polished and graceful a speaker that everyone went to work on the walls of Thebes just to hear him (1.488). The Ottimo calls him a “most wise and ornate speaker, through whose wise and ornate speech the state and the well-being of the city of Thebes grew and was preserved” (1.549). Boccaccio, in the Genealogie Deorum Gentilium Libri, ed. Vincenzo Romano (Bari: Laterza, 1951), interprets Amphyon’s building the city in the same way, that he persuaded ignorant, crude, and obstinate men by his mellifluous speech, to come together, live civilly, and surround the city for public defense, 1.274.
The Political Vision of the Comedy, ch. 03: 85
The colors of his three faces are echoed in the three steps to the gate of Purgatory, because the knowledge of evil is essential to a proper confession. The colors also suggest the political factions of Dante’s time, which, like Satan, work against the divine order: the black and off-white faces, the Black and White Guelphs; the off-white and red, the Guelphs and Ghibellines, whose emblems changed, but who always had red on white or white on red. See Villani, Istorie Fiorentine, 6.43.