Cupidigia/Tirannia

  • the landslide that the travelers encounter at the beginning of Inferno 12 is a “ruina”: ruine are caused by Christ’s Harrowing of Hell and they function as Christological signposts scattered through the infernal landscape
  • a new installment in the Virgilio-narrative: discussion of the landslide/ruina serves to recall the moment in which Virgilio witnessed Christ’s liberation of many souls from Limbo — a group that does not however include himself
  • the pilgrim is substantial, endowed with a real body that causes him to move rocks with his feet; the souls are insubstantial, as we can infer from verse 96: “ché non è spirto che per l’aere vada” (for he’s no spirit who can fly through air)
  • the distinction between a specific action or sin and the underlying vice, a distinction previously discussed in the Introduction to Inferno 6; here violent actions such as murder and pillage are the sins, while greed and anger — “cieca cupidigia e ira folle” (Inf. 12.49) — are the underlying vices
  • cupidigia is a “super-vice”: an unbridled desire that is a composite of three sins of incontinence; it embraces excess desire for carnal pleasure, excess desire for food, excess desire for money, honors, and advancement
  • in this canto Dante uses the word cupidigia for the first time in the Commedia, as also the word tirannia
  • in Dante’s analysis, cupidigia and ira lead to violence, including the political violence that he invokes through his emphasis on tyrants
  • the concept of tirannia: in reference not only to the tyrants of antiquity but as part of an ongoing political analysis of forms of governance on the Italian peninsula (see Inferno 27 and Monarchia), and with particular consideration of the Malatesta clan of Rimini, whose dynasty is featured in both Inferno 27 and Inferno 28

[1] Inferno 12 begins with a difficult climb down a steep and mountainous rock face: it is passable, albeit tortuous, terrain, as in the wake of an alpine landslide. On the edge of the cliff there is a monster from classical mythology which guards the way down to the seventh circle: the Minotaur, “l’infamia di Creti” (infamy of Crete [Inf. 12.12]). As with the previous classical guardians of Hell, Virgilio manages Dante’s safe passage, in this case by infuriating the Minotaur and taking advantage of its irate distraction to make a run for the pass.

[2] The first section of Inferno 12, through verse 45, is an important installment in the ongoing story of Virgilio and his ability to negotiate Hell: the poet lets us see both Virgilio’s limitations vis-à-vis Christianity and his correct intuitions. Here Virgilio, who recently failed to guide Dante through the gate of Dis, which was guarded by Christian devils, once more shows himself adept at handling classical monsters and guides Dante safely past the Minotaur.

[3] Perhaps having learned from the experience of watching the angel open the gate of Dis, Virgilio taunts the Minotaur by reminding him of Theseus (“the duke of Athens” of verse 17). Theseus is, as Virgilio states, the Greek hero who was able to defeat the Minotaur on Crete: “Forse / tu credi che qui sia ’l duca d’Atene, / che sù nel mondo la morte ti porse?” (Perhaps / you think this is the Duke of Athens here, / who, in the world above, brought you your death [Inf. 12.16-18]). Similarly, in Inferno 9, the Furies are still haunted by the “assault” of Theseus on Hades (Inf. 9.54), and the angel taunts the infernal throng with the memory of Hercules, who once defeated Cerberus (Inf. 9.97-99).

[4] Theseus and Hercules are classical forerunners of Christ, early harrowers of Hell whose actions symbolize infernal defeat. As I wrote in Dante’s Poets:

Both Theseus and Hercules are flgurae Christi, heroes who descended to the underworld to rob it of its booty, and as such both are mentioned in Inferno IX: Theseus by the Furies, who still clamor for revenge (“mal non vengiammo in Teseo l’assalto” badly did we not avenge ourselves on Theseus [Inf. IX, 54]); and Hercules implicitly by the angel, who reminds the devils of Cerberus’ ill-fated attempt to withstand the hero in Inferno IX, 97-99. (Dante’s Poets, pp. 209-10)

[5] By invoking Theseus in Inferno 12, Virgilio shows how well he has learned the lesson of the celestial agent who arrived in Inferno 9.

[6] There are echoes in Inferno 12 of the previous episode with the devils. The discussion of the causes of “questa ruina” (this ruin [Inf. 12.32])  — “ruina” is Dante’s word for the landslide that they are climbing down — induces Virgilio to reminisce about “the other time” — “l’altra fiata” (Inf. 12.34) — that he made this trip through Hell. At that time, he says, the boulders that they are picking their way through had not yet fallen:

Or vo’ che sappi che l’altra fïata
ch’i’ discesi qua giù nel basso inferno,
questa roccia non era ancor cascata.
(Inf. 12.34-36)
Now I would have you know: the other time
that I descended into lower Hell,
this mass of boulders had not yet collapsed.

[7] Any reference to Virgilio’s first trip to lower Hell serves to problematize our beloved guide, since it reminds us that he once undertook this same journey under the aegis of a very different power from the one that sends him now. As we recall from the description of Virgilio’s prior trip given in Inferno 9, he was called to undertake the trip into lowest Hell the first time by that mistress of the dark arts: the witch Erichtho.

[8] Dante’s invented Virgilian backstory of Erichtho, the sorceress from Lucan’s Pharsalia who in Dante’s account had the power to send Virgilio on a mission to lowest Hell, raises issues that problematize not only Virgilio, but also the status of Hell itself. How can Hell’s territorial integrity have been violated in such a way and by a classical practitioner of the dark arts? True, Erichtho did not enter Hell herself; she instead used Virgilio as her agent. But how did she have even such limited power?

[9] This section of Inferno 12 generates such latent questions, because of its emphasis on the Harrowing of Hell: Christ’s divinely ordained violation of Hell’s territorial integrity. First presented in Inferno 4, Christ’s violation of Hell is the divine act that caused the crumbling of the infernal infrastructure that we now see as the ruine.

[10] With respect to the ongoing Virgilio-narrative, a complex picture emerges. On the one hand, there are the troubling associations raised by the implied reference to Erichtho of verses 34-36. On the other, however, in Inferno 12 Dante scripts a Virgilio who shows impressive powers to intuit Christian verities.

[11] Virgilio correctly intuits what has happened in the time elapsed between his first journey to lower Hell and his current mission. First, he temporally situates the earthquake that caused the rock slide, connecting it to the moment when Christ entered Hell and liberated the Biblical righteous, here called the “great booty” of the “highest circle” (the “highest circle” is Limbo). With precision, Virgilio evokes the Harrowing of Hell, an event that he personally witnessed (see Inferno 4.52-54). Now he mentions that the earth shook just before — “poco pria” (37) — the arrival of “the One who took / from Dis the highest circle’s splendid spoils”: “colui che la gran preda / levò a Dite del cerchio superno” (Inf. 12.38-39). Thus, the earth quaked just before the arrival in Hell of Christ.

[12] The periphrasis that Virgilio uses for Christ, calling Him the One who robbed Lucifer of his prey by taking the Biblical righteous out of “the highest circle” of Hell, sets the militaristic tone: this passage is devoted to Christ’s historical conquest of Hell. The marks of Hell’s ignominious defeat remain visible in the ruine: reminders of Hell’s true impotence.

[13] Christ’s arrival in Limbo and His liberation of some of the souls from the first circle is a fixed reference point for Virgilio, an event that he has never forgotten — no doubt in part because he himself was not one of the liberated souls. Virgilio articulates this moment for the first time in the canto devoted to Limbo, Inferno 4 (see 52-54), and returns to it in confronting the devils at the gate of Dis (Inf. 8.124-26). That fixed reference point is the moment when, newly arrived in the first circle — “Io era nuovo in questo stato, / quando ci vidi venire un possente” (I was new-entered on this state / when I beheld a Great Lord enter here [Inf. 4.52-53]) — Virgilio first realized that some of Limbo’s residents would be liberated to a different and higher reality that is not accessible to him.

[14] The unfolding theme of Virgilio’s melancholy, with its most poignant expressions in Purgatorio, is rooted in the moment of realization constituted by Christ’s Harrowing of Hell, a moment first referenced in Inferno 4.52-54. That first moment of realization is supplemented as Virgilio comes to understand the full scope of Christ’s act of liberation. For Christ did not liberate only the Biblical righteous; He saved also some virtuous pagans, as we will learn in Purgatorio 1 and as first discussed in this commentary in the Introduction to Inferno 4.

[15] Virgilio now explains the earthquake in terms of the Empedoclean doctrine whereby order depends on the discord of the elements, and chaos would result from their concord. At the moment of the quake, Virgilio says, he believed that the universe “felt love”: “’i’ pensai che l’universo / sentisse amor” (I thought the universe / felt love [Inf. 12.41-42]). Although Virgilio is technically wrong in ascribing the earth’s tremor to the concord of the elements, in saying that the universe “felt love” he has in fact intuited the correct cause of the quake: the universe felt love in that it felt the arrival of Christ.

[16] Beginning in Inferno 12.46, the travelers see what lies before them in the first ring of the circle of violence. Dante tells us of a river of blood, Phlegethon, in which are immersed and boiled the sinners who committed violence against their neighbors, those who “did harm to others through violence”: “qual che per violenza in altrui noccia” (Inf. 12.48). The degree of the shades’ immersion in the boiling blood is determined by the degree of violence that they committed. 

[17] The narrator interrupts with an impassioned apostrophe that begins “Oh cieca cupidigia e ira folle” (O blind cupidity and insane anger [Inf. 12.49]). The phrase “ira folle” in Dante’s apostrophe echoes and anticipates a series of references to anger that accrue in Inferno 12, a canto that contains four uses of the word ira, more than any other canto in the poem. Through characterizations of the Minotaur (to whom Dante also applies the verb infuriare, in verse 27), and of the centaur Pholus, as well as in his apostrophe, Dante communicates the key role of anger in the production of acts of violence: “sì come quei cui l’ira dentro fiacca” (like one whom rage devastates within [Inf. 12.15]),, “ira bestial” (bestial rage [Inf. 12. 33]), “ira folle” (insane anger [Inf. 12.49]), “Folo, che fu sì pien d’ira” (Pholus, who was so full of rage [Inf. 12.72]).

[18] The canto’s textual emphasis on ira raises the distinction between a specific action or sin and the underlying vice, a distinction previously discussed in the Introduction to Inferno 6. Anger is an underlying impulse, a vice that disposes the soul to sinful action. In his apostrophe, Dante addresses cupidity and anger, describing them as internal impulses that goad the soul; he uses the verb spronare, suggesting that we are spurred to cupidity and anger in the same way that spurs goad a horse. This is an image that Dante first encountered in the context of love poetry and that he subsequently grafted into the Aristotelian ethics of the Convivio (see “Dante and Wealth, Between Aristotle and Cortesia”, in Coordinated Reading). Unable to withstand the vicious spurs that goad us during our brief lives on earth (“ne la vita corta”), humans are driven to the violent actions that then cause them to spend eternal life immersed in a river of blood: “sì ci sproni ne la vita corta, / e ne l’etterna poi sì mal c’immolle!” ([you] goad us on so much in our short life, / then steep us in such grief eternally! [Inf. 12.50-51]).

[19] The sinners punished in the first ring of the circle of violence committed sins of violence against others, sins that took the form of actions such as murder and robbery. The sins punished in Dante’s Hell are the precise actions that the sinner committed in historical time: in this particular sub-circle of Hell, therefore, they are acts of murder, robbery, and so forth. The vice, on the other hand, is the underlying motivator of that action. That internal goad can be anger, it can be greed, it can be any of the seven deadly vices. Indeed, the vices often work together. Thus, in Inferno 6 we learn that pride, envy, and avarice are the vices that inflame Florentine hearts: “superbia, invidia e avarizia sono / le tre faville c’hanno i cuori accesi” (Three sparks that set on fire every heart /are envy, pride, and avariciousness [Inf. 6.74-5]).

[20] In this canto, Dante gives us the opportunity to consider a “super-vice”, one that embraces more than one capital vice: this super-vice is cupidity.

[21] As always in human behavior, the underlying vices that spur an individual soul to sin are various and complex. Hence the narrator’s apostrophe to “blind cupidity and insane anger” — “cieca cupidigia e ira folle” (Inf. 12.49 ) — indicts not only the most obvious vice that leads us to violence, namely anger (“ira folle”), but also blind cupidity (“cieca cupidigia”). Cupidigia is a profoundly rapacious and greedy form of inordinate and immoderate desire. We remember that the most fearsome obstacle to the pilgrim’s aborted ascent in Inferno 1 is the lupa (shewolf), traditionally interpreted as embodying cupidigia. 

[22] In Inferno 12 Dante uses the word cupidigia for the first time (he will use it only five times in the Commedia: once in Inferno, once in Purgatorio, and three times in Paradiso). This important term is at the heart of Dante’s analysis of human sin. Cupidigia blinds us, and thus, in Dante’s final employment of the term cupidigia, he circles back to Inferno 12 and to his early coupling of cupidigia with the adjective cieca: “La cieca cupidigia che v’ammalia” (the blind greediness that bewitches us [Par. 30.139]). The “cieca cupidigia” of Paradiso 30.39 reprises the “cieca cupidigia” of Inferno 12.49 and constitutes Dante’s final comment on a vicious impulse that he has examined from the beginning of the Commedia to its end. Not for nothing does the Bible define cupidity as “the root of all evil”: “radix enim omnium malorum est cupiditas” (1 Timothy 6:10).

[23] I believe that Dante understands cupidity/cupidigia as a composite of lust, gluttony, and avarice. In other words, cupidigia embraces all forms of excessive and aggravated desire: excessive desire for carnal pleasure, excessive desire for food, excessive desire for wealth, honors, glory, and advancement. This concept of cupidigia as a composite of three sins of incontinence will be discussed in my commentaries to the top three terraces of Purgatory, the terraces whose sins are represented by the siren of Purgatorio 19. Indeed, the siren’s capacities to bewitch and to blind are recalled in Paradiso 30.139, where Dante declares that blind cupidity bewitches us, using the verb ammaliare with its connotations of seduction and enchantment: “La cieca cupidigia che v’ammalia” (Par. 30.139).

[24] In Purgatorio 19 Virgilio explains that the siren of the pilgrim’s dream represents the sins being purged on all three upper terraces of Mount Purgatory. Dante thus effectively acknowledges that he has deliberately conflated the three vices of lust, gluttony, and avarice into a composite cupidigia. Moreover, Dante will make explicit in Purgatorio 19 that he has extended avarice beyond excessive desire for wealth to include unbridled lust for power, honor, and glory. For this reading of the top three terraces of Mount Purgatory, see The Undivine Comedy, chapter 5, “Purgatory as Paradigm” (especially pp. 105-6) and this site’s commentaries to the appropriate canti of Purgatorio.

[25] The yoking of cupidigia with ira in the apostrophe of Inferno 12 signals that the vices of emotional excess cause violence. Similarly, the yoking of cupidigia to tirannia (a word also used for the first time in Inferno 12) is congruent with Dante’s vision of rapacity and greed as a driving force behind political violence.

***

[26] The theme of classical antiquity continues. The travelers meet a group of Centaurs, creatures from classical mythology known for their violent tempers, but also for their better traits: the leader of the troop is the Centaur Chiron (Inf. 12.71), famed in antiquity as the tutor of Achilles. Chiron greets the travelers. He has realized that Dante is alive, because he sees that Dante’s feet move the rocks that he touches as he picks his way down the landslide to the plain. His feet, notes Chiron, are unlike the feet of the dead:

                 Siete voi accorti
che quel di retro move ciò ch’el tocca?
Così non soglion far li piè d’i morti.
(Inf. 12.80-82)
                 Have you noticed
how he who walks behind moves what he touches?
Dead soles are not accustomed to do that.

[27] Since he is alive, Dante’s feet are substantial (in the etymological sense of the word) and able to move rocks as he descends to the first ring of the seventh circle. Given that he possesses substantial and rock-moving feet, Dante is unable to fly through the air as do the shades, in their virtual bodies; this is a point that Virgilio will make in the verses cited below. Because he cannot fly, Dante will need to be carried over the boiling blood when they are ready to leave this ring for the next. Consequently, Virgilio asks Chiron for an escort who will lead them to a ford and who will transport the living traveler over the river:

danne un de’ tuoi, a cui noi siamo a provo,
e che ne mostri là dove si guada
e che porti costui in su la groppa,
ché non è spirto che per l’aere vada.  
(Inf. 12.93-96)
give us one of your band, to serve as companion;
and let him show us where to ford the ditch,
and let him bear this man upon his back,
for he’s no spirit who can fly through air.

[28] Chiron delegates the centaur Nessus to guide the travelers to the ford and to carry the pilgrim over the river. This is the first occasion in which one of the infernal guardians is assigned to serve as a local guide and assistant for the travelers.

[29] This passage constitutes an important installment with respect to the nature of the virtual bodies that Dante-poet has designed for his afterlife. From verse 96, “ché non è spirto che per l’aere vada” — “for he’s no spirit who can fly through air” — we infer that the dead are able to move through air. We have already learned, in Inferno 6, that the virtual bodies of the dead are insubstantial, “empty images that seem like persons”: “lor vanità che par persona” (Inf. 6.36). The description of Inferno 6 accords well with the information offered here regarding the ability of dead souls to navigate through the medium of air: “per l’aere” (Inf. 12.96).

[30] Later in Hell the pilgrim will encounter a sinner whose body is described as though substantial: Dante pulls on the hair of the traitor Bocca degli Abati in Inferno 33. But in this instance Dante is functioning as a deliverer of infernal torment, and his ability to “touch” Bocca must be categorized as analogous to the ability of the devils to throw the barrator Ciampolo back into the pitch or to wound the schismatics.

[31] In sum, Dante’s body is substantial: it moves rocks in Inferno 12 and causes Charon’s boat to sink in Inferno 3. The souls in contrast are insubstantial: thus when Dante tries to embrace his friend Casella in Purgatorio 2, Casella’s body is an insubstantial image that cannot be embraced. The souls only appear substantial in the context of infernal (and purgatorial) torment.

[32] Virgilio also offers the centaur Chiron a concise and important description of the journey and of its principal protagonists: they are himself, Beatrice, and Dante. He was appointed the task of guiding the pilgrim, he explains, on a journey that is no pleasure trip: “mostrar li mi convien la valle buia / necessità ’l ci ’nduce, e non diletto” (it falls to me to show him the dark valley. / Necessity has brought him here, not pleasure [Inf. 12.85-86]). Necessity has brought them here, and Virgilio is performing an “officio” that was commissioned by Beatrice, described as one who departed from “singing alleluia” in order to give him his novel assignment: “Tal si partì da cantare alleluia / che mi commise quest officio novo” (For she who gave me this new task was one / who had just come from singing halleluiah [Inf. 12.88-89]). Beatrice is here aligned, through the use of the pronoun “Tal” (such a one), with the celestial agent who opens the gate of Dis. As we saw in Inferno 8 and Inferno 9, the same pronoun is repeatedly used by Virgilio to predict the arrival of the mysterious agent of deliverance.

[33] Chiron tasks Nessus with guiding the travelers to a place where the river narrows and with carrying Dante across Phlegethon. Having executed this function, Nessus immediately goes back over the ford; his return is communicated in Inferno 12’s last verse. At the beginning of Inferno 13 the narrator uses Nessus’ retreating haunches in order to indicate the speed with which the travelers enter the wood in front of them: “Non era ancor di là Nesso arrivato, / quando noi ci mettemmo per un bosco” (Nessus had not yet reached the other bank / when we began to make our way across a wood [Inf. 13.1-2]).

* * *

[34] As they proceed along the shore of Phlegethon heading for the place to ford, the travelers learn that the violent souls are immersed in the boiling blood in a graduated fashion, according to the gravity of their sins.

[35] The sinners boiled in Phlegethon include both the violent against others in their persons and the violent against others in their possessions. The gravest sinners in this ring are the tyrants (“tiranni” in verse 104), despotic rulers who committed violence against their subjects both in their persons (by killing them) and in their possessions (by plundering their goods). The tiranni are therefore indicted on both counts and are immersed in blood up to their brows (Inf. 12.103-4). They both murdered and plundered, and hence are the worst offenders in the category of violence against others: “«E’ son tiranni / che dier nel sangue e ne l’aver di piglio” (These are the tyrants / who plunged their hands in blood and plundering [Inf. 12.104-5]).

[36] In his late political treatise Monarchia Dante makes a synthetic but telling comment about the nature of tyrants, a type of ruler that he had previously featured in Inferno 12, Inferno 27, Inferno 28, and Purgatorio 6 using the terms tiranno /tiranni/tirannia. In Monarchia 3.4.10, Dante defines tyrants as rulers who do not observe “publica iura” (public laws). Rather, they are pitted against the common welfare (“comunem utilitatem”) and seek only private gain (“ad propriam”):

si vero industria, non aliter cum sic errantibus est agendum, quam cum tyrampnis, qui publica iura non ad comunem utilitatem secuntur, sed ad propriam retorquere conantur. (Mon. 3.4.10)

but if such things are done deliberately, those who make this mistake should be treated no differently from tyrants who do not observe public rights for the common welfare, but seek to turn them to their own advantage.

[37] In Inferno 12, Dante presents tyrants from classical antiquity as well as from contemporary Italy. Immersed in the river Phlegethon in the first ring of the circle of violence are the classical tyrants Alexander and Dionysius (verse 107) and also contemporary tyrants: the “Azzolino” of verse 110 is Ezzelino III da Romano, lord of the Marca Trevigiana (died 1259), while “Opizzo da Esti” in verse 111 is Obizzo II d’Este, lord of Ferrara (died 1293). The ravages of Ezzelino da Romano on the Marca Trevigiana are reprised in Paradiso 9, where his sister Cunizza da Romano identifies herself as coming from that hill whence descended a firebrand that destroyed the surrounding country: “là onde scese già una facella / che fece a la contrada un grande assalto” (from which a firebrand descended, / and it brought much injury to all the land about [Par. 9.29-30]).

[38] The terms “tiranni” (tyrants [104]) and “tirannia” (tyranny [132]) initiate an ongoing Dantean political analysis of a form of governance then emerging in Italy: lordship, despotic rule concentrated in the hands of one lord and his family.

[39]  For Dante the concept he calls tirannia is a key element of his assessment of the political ills that plague the Italian peninsula. Dante uses the term tirannia again in Inferno 27, in order to describe the form of governance that has taken shape in the city-states of Romagna. Queried about the condition of life in Romagna, the pilgrim replies with a resume of all the nascent despotisms that have taken root throughout the region. Only Cesena has not succumbed completely: it hovers still “between tyranny and freedom” (“tra tirannia si vive e stato franco” [Inf. 27.54]).

[40] In his book Italy in the Age of Dante and Petrarch (1216–1380), historian John Larner describes the steps by which the medieval communes fell into the hands of despots. Eventually the rule of the despot (tiranno) was legalized, with the result that the tirannie became signorie (see especially Chapter 7, “Party-leaders and signori”). In other words, as Larner cogently describes, the later signorie of the Renaissance are really legalized tirannie. Given that “the formalization of lord­ship in the legal institutions of the towns” occurred in Romagna mainly after Dante’s death (see Larner, p. 139), Dante was on sound footing in considering the towns of Romagna to be tirannie rather than signorie.

[41] As noted above, Dante returns to the question of contemporary tirannia in Inferno 27, a canto that begins with the drawn-out simile of the “Sicilian bull”: the gruesome instrument of torture devised for his victims by the classical tyrant Phalaris of Sicily. Interestingly, Phalaris is cited by Aristotle as an example of bestiality in Nicomachean Ethics 7.5. We remember that the Minotaur flaunts a rage that is bestial: “ira bestial” (bestial rage [Inf. 12.33]).

[42] The connections between Inferno 12 and Inferno 27 are strong. The coordination of the ancient Phalaris with contemporary tyrants in Inferno 27 recalls the pairing of classical and contemporary tiranni in Phlegethon in Inferno 12. All the tiranni whom Dante names in Inferno 27 are worthy candidates for immersion in Phlegethon.

[43] In Inferno 27, Dante moves from the classical tyrant Phalaris to a roll-call of the contemporary tiranni of the Romagna region. Canto 27’s resume of despots mentions both the Polenta family of Ravenna and the Malatesta family of Rimini. These are the families into which Francesca da Polenta of Inferno 5 (now better known as Francesca da Rimini) was born, and into which she married, becoming the wife of Gianciotto Malatesta. I discuss the connection, through Francesca da Polenta in Malatesta, of Inferno 5 to  Inferno 27 in my essay “Dante and Francesca da Rimini: Realpolitik, Romance, Gender” (see Coordinated Reading).

[44] Special attention is given to the Malatesta dynasty in Inferno 27’s catalogue of Romagnol tyrants. Malatesta da Verucchio and his eldest son Malatestino, the first and second lords of Rimini, are mastiffs who “make an auger of their teeth” (48). They use their teeth, in other words, to pierce their subjects’ flesh as a tool with a screw point might bore through wood:

E ’l mastin vecchio e ’l nuovo da Verrucchio,
che fecer di Montagna il mal governo,
là dove soglion fan d’i denti succhio. 
(Inf. 27.46-48)
Both mastiffs of Verrucchio, old and new, 
who dealt so badly with Montagna, use 
thier teeth to bore where they have always gnawed.

[45] While in Inferno 27 the Malatesta are one of a group of castigated tiranni, in Inferno 28 Dante isolates the clan, describing at length one of Malatestino’s political murders achieved through the typical Romagnol method: betrayal. Based on Dante’s comments in Inferno 28, Malatestino too is a plausible modern candidate for submersion in Phlegethon.

[46] Malatestino became lord of Rimini after the death of his father, Malatesta da Verucchio, the founder of Malatesta rule in Rimini. In Inferno 28, Malatestino is called a “tiranno fello” or “foul tyrant” (Inf. 28.81), an indictment that Dante backs up by reference to a particularly heinous crime. Malatestino is guilty of having treacherously invited to parley the two noblest citizens of Fano and then having them foully tortured and murdered:

gittati saran fuor di lor vasello
e mazzerati presso a la Cattolica
per tradimento d’un tiranno fello. 
(Inf. 28.79-81)
they will be cast out of their ship and drowned,
weighed down with stones, near La Cattolica,
because of a foul tyrant’s treachery.

[47] The two noblest citizens of Fano were Guido del Cassero and Angiolello da Carignana; they were treacherously murdered near Cattolica. They were “mazzerati” (Inf. 28.80): tied in a sack, thrown overboard, and drowned. For mazzerare, see the discussion of the Commedia’s contemporary forms of torture in the Introduction to Inferno 27.

[48] Dante’s meditation on tirannia in the Commedia merits greater consideration, as I suggest in the essay “Only Historicize: History, Material Culture (Food, Clothes, Books), and the Future of Dante Studies”:

Dante’s meditation on tirannia may be gleaned even from a glance at his use of the words tirannia and tiranno/tiranni in the Commedia, words that are concentrated in Inferno 12 and 27 (the ‘‘tiranno fello’’ of Inf. 28.81, a reference to Malatestino Malatesta, takes us back to the Malatesta family of Inferno 5 and 27). The reconstruction of this meditation through an investigation of these passages and especially of the families to which Dante alludes would be a most worthwhile project. (“Only Historicize,” p. 49)

[49] The travelers see many shades in the river: the souls of murderers and violent brigands as well as tyrants. There is no encounter between the pilgrim and these souls, who are merely named by Nessus and viewed by the travelers. After pointing to perhaps history’s quintessential and most infamous tyrant, Attila (ruler of the Huns from 434 CE until his death in March 453 CE), called here with the traditional label “scourge of the earth” (“flagello in terra” [Inf. 12.134]), Nessus concludes his resume with the two contemporary highway robbers Rinier da Corneto and Rinier Pazzo (Inf. 12.137). He then turns away from the travelers and, in the canto’s last verse, goes back across the ford: “Poi si rivolse e ripassossi ’l guazzo” (Then he turned round and crossed the ford again [Inf. 12.139]).

Coordinated Reading

Dante’s Poets (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), pp. 208-9; “Dante and Wealth, Between Aristotle and Cortesia: From the Moral Canzoni Le dolci rime and Poscia ch'Amor to Inferno VI and VII”, Medioevo letterario d'Italia 15 (2018): pp.33-47, esp. p.38; The Undivine Comedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), chapter 5, "Purgatory as Paradigm", esp. pp. 106-6; “Dante and Francesca da Rimini: Realpolitik, Romance, Gender,” 2000, rpt. Dante and the Origins of Italian Literary Culture (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006), pp. 304-32; “Only Historicize: History, Material Culture (Food, Clothes, Books), and the Future of Dante Studies,” Dante Studies, 127 (2009): 37-54, esp. pp. 48-49; John Larner, Italy in the Age of Dante and Petrarch (1216–1380) (London and New York: Longman, 1980), esp. Chapter 7.

Recommended Citation

Barolini, Teodolinda. “Inferno 12: Cupidigia/Tirannia.” Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2018. https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/inferno/inferno-12/
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Commento Table of Contents

1 Era lo loco ov’ a scender la riva
2 venimmo, alpestro e, per quel che v’er’ anco,
3 tal, ch’ogne vista ne sarebbe schiva.

4 Qual è quella ruina che nel fianco
5 di qua da Trento l’Adice percosse,
6 o per tremoto o per sostegno manco,

7 che da cima del monte, onde si mosse,
8 al piano è sì la roccia discoscesa,
9 ch’alcuna via darebbe a chi sù fosse:

10 cotal di quel burrato era la scesa;
11 e ’n su la punta de la rotta lacca
12 l’infamïa di Creti era distesa

13 che fu concetta ne la falsa vacca;
14 e quando vide noi, sé stesso morse,
15 sì come quei cui l’ira dentro fiacca.

16 Lo savio mio inver’ lui gridò: «Forse
17 tu credi che qui sia ’l duca d’Atene,
18 che sù nel mondo la morte ti porse?

19 Pàrtiti, bestia, ché questi non vene
20 ammaestrato da la tua sorella,
21 ma vassi per veder le vostre pene».

22 Qual è quel toro che si slaccia in quella
23 c’ha ricevuto già ’l colpo mortale,
24 che gir non sa, ma qua e là saltella,

25 vid’io lo Minotauro far cotale;
26 e quello accorto gridò; «Corri al varco:
27 mentre ch’e’ ’nfuria, è buon che tu ti cale».

28 Così prendemmo via giù per lo scarco
29 di quelle pietre, che spesso moviensi
30 sotto i miei piedi per lo novo carco.

31 Io gia pensando; e quei disse: «Tu pensi
32 forse a questa ruina, ch’è guardata
33 da quell’ ira bestial ch’i’ ora spensi.

34 Or vo’ che sappi che l’altra fïata
35 ch’i’ discesi qua giù nel basso inferno,
36 questa roccia non era ancor cascata.

37 Ma certo poco pria, se ben discerno,
38 che venisse colui che la gran preda
39 levò a Dite del cerchio superno,

40 da tutte parti l’alta valle feda
41 tremò sì, ch’i’ pensai che l’universo
42 sentisse amor, per lo qual è chi creda

43 più volte il mondo in caòsso converso;
44 e in quel punto questa vecchia roccia
45 qui e altrove, tal fece riverso.

46 Ma ficca li occhi a valle, ché s’approccia
47 la riviera del sangue in la qual bolle
48 qual che per vïolenza in altrui noccia».

49 Oh cieca cupidigia e ira folle,
50 che sì ci sproni ne la vita corta,
51 e ne l’etterna poi sì mal c’immolle!

52 Io vidi un’ampia fossa in arco torta,
53 come quella che tutto ’l piano abbraccia,
54 secondo ch’avea detto la mia scorta;

55 e tra ’l piè de la ripa ed essa, in traccia
56 corrien centauri, armati di saette,
57 come solien nel mondo andare a caccia.

58 Veggendoci calar, ciascun ristette,
59 e de la schiera tre si dipartiro
60 con archi e asticciuole prima elette;

61 e l’un gridò da lungi: «A qual martiro
62 venite voi che scendete la costa?
63 Ditel costinci; se non, l’arco tiro».

64 Lo mio maestro disse: «La risposta
65 farem noi a Chirón costà di presso:
66 mal fu la voglia tua sempre sì tosta».

67 Poi mi tentò, e disse: «Quelli è Nesso,
68 che morì per la bella Deianira
69 e fé di sé la vendetta elli stesso.

70 E quel di mezzo, ch’al petto si mira,
71 è il gran Chirón, il qual nodrì Achille;
72 quell’ altro è Folo, che fu sì pien d’ira.

73 Dintorno al fosso vanno a mille a mille,
74 saettando qual anima si svelle
75 del sangue più che sua colpa sortille».

76 Noi ci appressammo a quelle fiere isnelle:
77 Chirón prese uno strale, e con la cocca
78 fece la barba in dietro a le mascelle.

79 Quando s’ebbe scoperta la gran bocca,
80 disse a’ compagni: «Siete voi accorti
81 che quel di retro move ciò ch’el tocca?

82 Così non soglion far li piè d’i morti».
83 E ’l mio buon duca, che già li er’ al petto,
84 dove le due nature son consorti,

85 rispuose: «Ben è vivo, e sì soletto
86 mostrar li mi convien la valle buia;
87 necessità ’l ci ’nduce, e non diletto.

88 Tal si partì da cantare alleluia
89 che mi commise quest’ officio novo:
90 non è ladron, né io anima fuia.

91 Ma per quella virtù per cu’ io movo
92 li passi miei per sì selvaggia strada,
93 danne un de’ tuoi, a cui noi siamo a provo,

94 e che ne mostri là dove si guada
95 e che porti costui in su la groppa,
96 ché non è spirto che per l’aere vada».

97 Chirón si volse in su la destra poppa,
98 e disse a Nesso: «Torna, e sì li guida,
99 e fa cansar s’altra schiera v’intoppa».

100 Or ci movemmo con la scorta fida
101 lungo la proda del bollor vermiglio,
102 dove i bolliti facieno alte strida.

103 Io vidi gente sotto infino al ciglio;
104 e ’l gran centauro disse: «E’ son tiranni
105 che dier nel sangue e ne l’aver di piglio.

106 Quivi si piangon li spietati danni;
107 quivi è Alessandro, e Dionisio fero,
108 che fé Cicilia aver dolorosi anni.

109 E quella fronte c’ha ’l pel così nero,
110 è Azzolino; e quell’ altro ch’è biondo,
111 è Opizzo da Esti, il qual per vero

112 fu spento dal figliastro sù nel mondo».
113 Allor mi volsi al poeta, e quei disse:
114 «Questi ti sia or primo, e io secondo».

115 Poco più oltre il centauro s’affisse
116 sovr’ una gente che ’nfino a la gola
117 parea che di quel bulicame uscisse.

118 Mostrocci un’ombra da l’un canto sola,
119 dicendo: «Colui fesse in grembo a Dio
120 lo cor che ’n su Tamisi ancor si cola».

121 Poi vidi gente che di fuor del rio
122 tenean la testa e ancor tutto ’l casso;
123 e di costoro assai riconobb’ io.

124 Così a più a più si facea basso
125 quel sangue, sì che cocea pur li piedi;
126 e quindi fu del fosso il nostro passo.

127 «Sì come tu da questa parte vedi
128 lo bulicame che sempre si scema»,
129 disse ’l centauro, «voglio che tu credi

130 che da quest’ altra a più a più giù prema
131 lo fondo suo, infin ch’el si raggiunge
132 ove la tirannia convien che gema.

133 La divina giustizia di qua punge
134 quell’ Attila che fu flagello in terra,
135 e Pirro e Sesto; e in etterno munge

136 le lagrime, che col bollor diserra,
137 a Rinier da Corneto, a Rinier Pazzo,
138 che fecero a le strade tanta guerra».

139 Poi si rivolse e ripassossi ’l guazzo.

The place that we had reached for our descent
along the bank was alpine; what reclined
upon that bank would, too, repel all eyes.

Just like the toppled mass of rock that struck—
because of earthquake or eroded props—
the Adige on its flank, this side of Trent,

where from the mountain top from which it thrust
down to the plain, the rock is shattered so
that it permits a path for those above:

such was the passage down to that ravine.
And at the edge above the cracked abyss,
there lay outstretched the infamy of Crete,

conceived within the counterfeited cow;
and, catching sight of us, he bit himself
like one whom fury devastates within.

Turning to him, my sage cried out: “Perhaps
you think this is the Duke of Athens here,
who, in the world above, brought you your death.

Be off, you beast; this man who comes has not
been tutored by your sister; all he wants
in coming here is to observe your torments.”

Just as the bull that breaks loose from its halter
the moment it receives the fatal stroke,
and cannot run but plunges back and forth,

so did I see the Minotaur respond;
and my alert guide cried: “Run toward the pass;
it’s better to descend while he’s berserk.”

And so we made our way across that heap
of stones, which often moved beneath my feet
because my weight was somewhat strange for them.

While climbing down, I thought. He said: “You wonder,
perhaps, about that fallen mass, watched over
by the inhuman rage I have just quenched.

Now I would have you know: the other time
that I descended into lower Hell,
this mass of boulders had not yet collapsed;

but if I reason rightly, it was just
before the coming of the One who took
from Dis the highest circle’s splendid spoils

that, on all sides, the steep and filthy valley
had trembled so, I thought the universe
felt love (by which, as some believe, the world

has often been converted into chaos);
and at that moment, here as well as elsewhere,
these ancient boulders toppled, in this way.

But fix your eyes below, upon the valley,
for now we near the stream of blood, where those
who injure others violently, boil.”

O blind cupidity and insane anger,
which goad us on so much in our short life,
then steep us in such grief eternally!

I saw a broad ditch bent into an arc
so that it could embrace all of that plain,
precisely as my guide had said before;

between it and the base of the embankment
raced files of Centaurs who were armed with arrows,
as, in the world above, they used to hunt.

On seeing us descend, they all reined in;
and, after they had chosen bows and shafts,
three of their number moved out from their ranks;

and still far off, one cried: “What punishment
do you approach as you descend the slope?
But speak from there; if not, I draw my bow.”

My master told him: “We shall make reply
only to Chiron, when we reach his side;
your hasty will has never served you well.”

Then he nudged me and said: “That one is Nessus,
who died because of lovely Deianira
and of himself wrought vengeance for himself.

And in the middle, gazing at his chest,
is mighty Chiron, tutor of Achilles;
the third is Pholus, he who was so frenzied.

And many thousands wheel around the moat,
their arrows aimed at any soul that thrusts
above the blood more than its guilt allots.”

By now we had drawn near those agile beasts;
Chiron drew out an arrow; with the notch,
he parted his beard back upon his jaws.

When he’d uncovered his enormous mouth,
he said to his companions: “Have you noticed
how he who walks behind moves what he touches?

Dead soles are not accustomed to do that.”
And my good guide—now near the Centaur’s chest,
the place where his two natures met—replied:

“He is indeed alive, and so alone
it falls to me to show him the dark valley.
Necessity has brought him here, not pleasure.

For she who gave me this new task was one
who had just come from singing halleluiah:
he is no robber; I am not a thief.

But by the Power that permits my steps
to journey on so wild a path, give us
one of your band, to serve as our companion;

and let him show us where to ford the ditch,
and let him bear this man upon his back,
for he’s no spirit who can fly through air.”

Then Chiron wheeled about and right and said
to Nessus: “Then, return and be their guide;
if other troops disturb you, fend them off.”

Now, with our faithful escort, we advanced
along the bloodred, boiling ditch’s banks,
beside the piercing cries of those who boiled.

I saw some who were sunk up to their brows,
and that huge Centaur said: “These are the tyrants
who plunged their hands in blood and plundering.

Here they lament their ruthless crimes; here are
both Alexander and the fierce Dionysius,
who brought such years of grief to Sicily.

That brow with hair so black is Ezzelino;
that other there, the blonde one, is Obizzo
of Este, he who was indeed undone,

within the world above, by his fierce son.”
Then I turned to the poet, and he said:
“Now let him be your first guide, me your second.”

A little farther on, the Centaur stopped
above a group that seemed to rise above
the boiling blood as far up as their throats.

He pointed out one shade, alone, apart,
and said: “Within God’s bosom, he impaled
the heart that still drips blood upon the Thames.”

Then I caught sight of some who kept their heads
and even their full chests above the tide;
among them—many whom I recognized.

And so the blood grew always shallower
until it only scorched the feet; and here
we found a place where we could ford the ditch.

“Just as you see that, on this side, the brook
continually thins,” the Centaur said,
“so I should have you know the rivulet,

along the other side, will slowly deepen
its bed, until it reaches once again
the depth where tyranny must make lament.

And there divine justice torments Attila
he who was such a scourge upon the earth,
and Pyrrhus, Sextus; to eternity

it milks the tears that boiling brook unlocks
from Rinier of Corneto, Rinier Pazzo,
those two who waged such war upon the highroads.”

Then he turned round and crossed the ford again.

THE place where to descend the bank we came
Was alpine, and from what was there, moreover,
Of such a kind that every eye would shun it.

Such as that ruin is which in the flank
Smote, on this side of Trent, the Adige,
Either by earthquake or by failing stay,

For from the mountain’s top, from which it moved,
Unto the plain the cliff is shattered so,
Some path ‘twould give to him who was above;

Even such was the descent of that ravine,
And on the border of the broken chasm
The infamy of Crete was stretched along,

Who was conceived in the fictitious cow;
And when he us beheld, he bit himself,
Even as one whom anger racks within.

My Sage towards him shoutedw: “Peradventure
Thou think’st that here may be the Duke of Athens,
Who in the world above brought death to thee ?

Get thee gone, beast, for this one cometh not
Instructed by thy sister, but he comes
In order to behold your punishments.”

As is that bull who breaks loose at the moment
In which he has received the mortal blow,
Who cannot walk, but staggers here and there,

The Minotaur beheld I do the like;
And he, the wary, cried: “Run to the passage;
While he wroth, ’tis well thou shouldst descend.”

Thus down we took our way o’er that discharge
Of stones, which oftentimes did move themselves
Beneath my feet, from the unwonted burden.

Thoughtful I went ; and he said: “Thou art thinking
Perhaps upon this ruin, which is guarded
By that brute anger which just now I quenched.

Now will I have thee know, the other time
I here descended to the nether Hell,
This precipice had not yet fallen down.

But truly, if I well discern, a little
Before His coming who the mighty spoil
Bore off from Dis, in the supernal circle,

Upon all sides the deep and loathsome valley
Trembled so, that I thought the Universe
Was thrilled with love, by which there are who think

The world ofttimes converted into chaos;
And at that moment this primeval crag
Both here and elsewhere made such overthrow.

But fix thine eyes below; for draweth near
The river of blood, within which boiling is
Whoe’er by violence doth injure others.”

O blind cupidity, O wrath insane,
That spurs us onward so in our short life,
And in the eternal then so badly steeps us !

I saw an ample moat bent like a bow,
As one which all the plain encompasses,
Conformable to what my Guide had said.

And between this and the embankment’s foot
Centaurs in file were running, armed with arrows,
As in the world they used the chase to follow.

Beholding us descend, each one stood still,
And from the squadron three detached themselves,
With bows and arrows in advance selected;

And from afar one cried: “Unto what torment
Come ye, who down the hillside are descending ?
Tell us from there; if not, I draw the bow.”

My Master said: “Our answer will we make
To Chiron, near you there; in evil hour,
That will of thine was evermore so hasty.”

Then touched he me, and said: “This one is Nessus,
Who perished for the lovely Dejanira,
And for himself, himself did vengeance take.

And he in the midst, who at his breast is gazing,
Is the great Chiron, who brought up Achilles;
That other Pholus is, who was so wrathful.

Thousands and thousands go about the moat
Shooting with shafts whatever soul emerges
Out of the blood, more than his crime allots.”

Near we approached unto those monsters fleet;
Chiron an arrow took, and with the notch
Backward upon his jaws he put his beard.

After he had uncovered his great mouth,
He said to his companions: “Are you ware
That he behind moveth whate’er he touches ?

Thus are not wont to do the feet of dead men.”
And my good Guide, who now was at his breast,
Where the two natures are together joined,

Replied: “Indeed he lives, and thus alone
Me it behoves to show him the dark valley;
Necessity, and not delight, impels us.

Some one withdrew from singing Halleluja,
Who unto me committed this new office;
No thief is he, nor I a thievish spirit.

But by that virtue through which I am moving
My steps along this savage thoroughfare,
Give us some one of thine, to be with us,

And who may show us where to pass the ford,
And who may carry this one on his back;
For ’tis no spirit that can walk the air.”

Upon his right breast Chiron wheeled about,
And said to Nessus: “Turn and do thou guide them,
And warn aside, if other band may meet you.”

We with our faithful escort onward moved
Along the brink of the vermilion boiling,
Wherein the boiled were uttering loud laments.

People I saw within up to the eyebrows,
And the great Centaur said: “Tyrants are these,
Who dealt in bloodshed and in pillaging.

Here they lament their pitiless mischiefs; here
Is Alexander, and fierce Dionysius
Who upon Sicily brought dolorous years.

That forehead there which has the hair so black
Is Azzolin; and the other who is blond,
Obizzo is of Esti, who, in truth,

Up in the world was by his stepson slain.”
Then turned I to the Poet; and he said,
“Now he be first to thee, and second I.”

A little farther on the Centaur stopped
Above a folk, who far down as the throat
Seemed from that boiling stream to issue forth.

A shade’ he showed us on one side alone,
Saying: “He cleft asunder in God’s bosom
The heart that still upon the Thames is honoured.”

Then people saw I, who from out the river
Lifted their heads and also all the chest;
And many among these I recognised.

Thus ever more and more grew shallower
That blood, so that the feet alone it covered;
And there across the moat our passage was.

“Even as thou here upon this side beholdest
The boiling stream, that aye diminishes,”
The Centaur said,”I wish thee to believe

That on this other more and more declines
Its bed, until it reunites itself
Where it behoveth tyranny to groan.

Justice divine, upon this side, is goading
That Attila, who was a scourge on earth,
And Pyrrhus, and Sextus; and for ever milks

The tears which with the boiling it unseals
In Rinier da Corneto and Rinier Pazzo,
Who made upon the highways so much war.”

Then back he turned, and passed again the ford.

The place that we had reached for our descent
along the bank was alpine; what reclined
upon that bank would, too, repel all eyes.

Just like the toppled mass of rock that struck—
because of earthquake or eroded props—
the Adige on its flank, this side of Trent,

where from the mountain top from which it thrust
down to the plain, the rock is shattered so
that it permits a path for those above:

such was the passage down to that ravine.
And at the edge above the cracked abyss,
there lay outstretched the infamy of Crete,

conceived within the counterfeited cow;
and, catching sight of us, he bit himself
like one whom fury devastates within.

Turning to him, my sage cried out: “Perhaps
you think this is the Duke of Athens here,
who, in the world above, brought you your death.

Be off, you beast; this man who comes has not
been tutored by your sister; all he wants
in coming here is to observe your torments.”

Just as the bull that breaks loose from its halter
the moment it receives the fatal stroke,
and cannot run but plunges back and forth,

so did I see the Minotaur respond;
and my alert guide cried: “Run toward the pass;
it’s better to descend while he’s berserk.”

And so we made our way across that heap
of stones, which often moved beneath my feet
because my weight was somewhat strange for them.

While climbing down, I thought. He said: “You wonder,
perhaps, about that fallen mass, watched over
by the inhuman rage I have just quenched.

Now I would have you know: the other time
that I descended into lower Hell,
this mass of boulders had not yet collapsed;

but if I reason rightly, it was just
before the coming of the One who took
from Dis the highest circle’s splendid spoils

that, on all sides, the steep and filthy valley
had trembled so, I thought the universe
felt love (by which, as some believe, the world

has often been converted into chaos);
and at that moment, here as well as elsewhere,
these ancient boulders toppled, in this way.

But fix your eyes below, upon the valley,
for now we near the stream of blood, where those
who injure others violently, boil.”

O blind cupidity and insane anger,
which goad us on so much in our short life,
then steep us in such grief eternally!

I saw a broad ditch bent into an arc
so that it could embrace all of that plain,
precisely as my guide had said before;

between it and the base of the embankment
raced files of Centaurs who were armed with arrows,
as, in the world above, they used to hunt.

On seeing us descend, they all reined in;
and, after they had chosen bows and shafts,
three of their number moved out from their ranks;

and still far off, one cried: “What punishment
do you approach as you descend the slope?
But speak from there; if not, I draw my bow.”

My master told him: “We shall make reply
only to Chiron, when we reach his side;
your hasty will has never served you well.”

Then he nudged me and said: “That one is Nessus,
who died because of lovely Deianira
and of himself wrought vengeance for himself.

And in the middle, gazing at his chest,
is mighty Chiron, tutor of Achilles;
the third is Pholus, he who was so frenzied.

And many thousands wheel around the moat,
their arrows aimed at any soul that thrusts
above the blood more than its guilt allots.”

By now we had drawn near those agile beasts;
Chiron drew out an arrow; with the notch,
he parted his beard back upon his jaws.

When he’d uncovered his enormous mouth,
he said to his companions: “Have you noticed
how he who walks behind moves what he touches?

Dead soles are not accustomed to do that.”
And my good guide—now near the Centaur’s chest,
the place where his two natures met—replied:

“He is indeed alive, and so alone
it falls to me to show him the dark valley.
Necessity has brought him here, not pleasure.

For she who gave me this new task was one
who had just come from singing halleluiah:
he is no robber; I am not a thief.

But by the Power that permits my steps
to journey on so wild a path, give us
one of your band, to serve as our companion;

and let him show us where to ford the ditch,
and let him bear this man upon his back,
for he’s no spirit who can fly through air.”

Then Chiron wheeled about and right and said
to Nessus: “Then, return and be their guide;
if other troops disturb you, fend them off.”

Now, with our faithful escort, we advanced
along the bloodred, boiling ditch’s banks,
beside the piercing cries of those who boiled.

I saw some who were sunk up to their brows,
and that huge Centaur said: “These are the tyrants
who plunged their hands in blood and plundering.

Here they lament their ruthless crimes; here are
both Alexander and the fierce Dionysius,
who brought such years of grief to Sicily.

That brow with hair so black is Ezzelino;
that other there, the blonde one, is Obizzo
of Este, he who was indeed undone,

within the world above, by his fierce son.”
Then I turned to the poet, and he said:
“Now let him be your first guide, me your second.”

A little farther on, the Centaur stopped
above a group that seemed to rise above
the boiling blood as far up as their throats.

He pointed out one shade, alone, apart,
and said: “Within God’s bosom, he impaled
the heart that still drips blood upon the Thames.”

Then I caught sight of some who kept their heads
and even their full chests above the tide;
among them—many whom I recognized.

And so the blood grew always shallower
until it only scorched the feet; and here
we found a place where we could ford the ditch.

“Just as you see that, on this side, the brook
continually thins,” the Centaur said,
“so I should have you know the rivulet,

along the other side, will slowly deepen
its bed, until it reaches once again
the depth where tyranny must make lament.

And there divine justice torments Attila
he who was such a scourge upon the earth,
and Pyrrhus, Sextus; to eternity

it milks the tears that boiling brook unlocks
from Rinier of Corneto, Rinier Pazzo,
those two who waged such war upon the highroads.”

Then he turned round and crossed the ford again.

THE place where to descend the bank we came
Was alpine, and from what was there, moreover,
Of such a kind that every eye would shun it.

Such as that ruin is which in the flank
Smote, on this side of Trent, the Adige,
Either by earthquake or by failing stay,

For from the mountain’s top, from which it moved,
Unto the plain the cliff is shattered so,
Some path ‘twould give to him who was above;

Even such was the descent of that ravine,
And on the border of the broken chasm
The infamy of Crete was stretched along,

Who was conceived in the fictitious cow;
And when he us beheld, he bit himself,
Even as one whom anger racks within.

My Sage towards him shoutedw: “Peradventure
Thou think’st that here may be the Duke of Athens,
Who in the world above brought death to thee ?

Get thee gone, beast, for this one cometh not
Instructed by thy sister, but he comes
In order to behold your punishments.”

As is that bull who breaks loose at the moment
In which he has received the mortal blow,
Who cannot walk, but staggers here and there,

The Minotaur beheld I do the like;
And he, the wary, cried: “Run to the passage;
While he wroth, ’tis well thou shouldst descend.”

Thus down we took our way o’er that discharge
Of stones, which oftentimes did move themselves
Beneath my feet, from the unwonted burden.

Thoughtful I went ; and he said: “Thou art thinking
Perhaps upon this ruin, which is guarded
By that brute anger which just now I quenched.

Now will I have thee know, the other time
I here descended to the nether Hell,
This precipice had not yet fallen down.

But truly, if I well discern, a little
Before His coming who the mighty spoil
Bore off from Dis, in the supernal circle,

Upon all sides the deep and loathsome valley
Trembled so, that I thought the Universe
Was thrilled with love, by which there are who think

The world ofttimes converted into chaos;
And at that moment this primeval crag
Both here and elsewhere made such overthrow.

But fix thine eyes below; for draweth near
The river of blood, within which boiling is
Whoe’er by violence doth injure others.”

O blind cupidity, O wrath insane,
That spurs us onward so in our short life,
And in the eternal then so badly steeps us !

I saw an ample moat bent like a bow,
As one which all the plain encompasses,
Conformable to what my Guide had said.

And between this and the embankment’s foot
Centaurs in file were running, armed with arrows,
As in the world they used the chase to follow.

Beholding us descend, each one stood still,
And from the squadron three detached themselves,
With bows and arrows in advance selected;

And from afar one cried: “Unto what torment
Come ye, who down the hillside are descending ?
Tell us from there; if not, I draw the bow.”

My Master said: “Our answer will we make
To Chiron, near you there; in evil hour,
That will of thine was evermore so hasty.”

Then touched he me, and said: “This one is Nessus,
Who perished for the lovely Dejanira,
And for himself, himself did vengeance take.

And he in the midst, who at his breast is gazing,
Is the great Chiron, who brought up Achilles;
That other Pholus is, who was so wrathful.

Thousands and thousands go about the moat
Shooting with shafts whatever soul emerges
Out of the blood, more than his crime allots.”

Near we approached unto those monsters fleet;
Chiron an arrow took, and with the notch
Backward upon his jaws he put his beard.

After he had uncovered his great mouth,
He said to his companions: “Are you ware
That he behind moveth whate’er he touches ?

Thus are not wont to do the feet of dead men.”
And my good Guide, who now was at his breast,
Where the two natures are together joined,

Replied: “Indeed he lives, and thus alone
Me it behoves to show him the dark valley;
Necessity, and not delight, impels us.

Some one withdrew from singing Halleluja,
Who unto me committed this new office;
No thief is he, nor I a thievish spirit.

But by that virtue through which I am moving
My steps along this savage thoroughfare,
Give us some one of thine, to be with us,

And who may show us where to pass the ford,
And who may carry this one on his back;
For ’tis no spirit that can walk the air.”

Upon his right breast Chiron wheeled about,
And said to Nessus: “Turn and do thou guide them,
And warn aside, if other band may meet you.”

We with our faithful escort onward moved
Along the brink of the vermilion boiling,
Wherein the boiled were uttering loud laments.

People I saw within up to the eyebrows,
And the great Centaur said: “Tyrants are these,
Who dealt in bloodshed and in pillaging.

Here they lament their pitiless mischiefs; here
Is Alexander, and fierce Dionysius
Who upon Sicily brought dolorous years.

That forehead there which has the hair so black
Is Azzolin; and the other who is blond,
Obizzo is of Esti, who, in truth,

Up in the world was by his stepson slain.”
Then turned I to the Poet; and he said,
“Now he be first to thee, and second I.”

A little farther on the Centaur stopped
Above a folk, who far down as the throat
Seemed from that boiling stream to issue forth.

A shade’ he showed us on one side alone,
Saying: “He cleft asunder in God’s bosom
The heart that still upon the Thames is honoured.”

Then people saw I, who from out the river
Lifted their heads and also all the chest;
And many among these I recognised.

Thus ever more and more grew shallower
That blood, so that the feet alone it covered;
And there across the moat our passage was.

“Even as thou here upon this side beholdest
The boiling stream, that aye diminishes,”
The Centaur said,”I wish thee to believe

That on this other more and more declines
Its bed, until it reunites itself
Where it behoveth tyranny to groan.

Justice divine, upon this side, is goading
That Attila, who was a scourge on earth,
And Pyrrhus, and Sextus; and for ever milks

The tears which with the boiling it unseals
In Rinier da Corneto and Rinier Pazzo,
Who made upon the highways so much war.”

Then back he turned, and passed again the ford.

Reading by Francesco Bausi: Inferno 12

For more readings by Francesco Bausi, see the Bausi Readings page.