- Dante’s treatment of sodomy continues to run counter to the cultural norm: it serves not to focus on sexual sin but as a lever for indicting corruption of famous Florentines
- Inferno 16 removes the heroic patina of Inferno 15
- social status and its signifers (e.g. dress and deportment)
- wealth management and the Florentine nobility: Inferno 16’s castigation of new money
- Dante as a political theorist of wealth and nobility: the contradictions between Inferno 16’s castigation of new money and his earlier refutation, in the canzone Le dolci rime and in Book 4 of the Convivio, of the theory whereby old money confers nobility. While he previously dismissed the idea of old money as a key feature of nobility, now Dante disparages new money, thus implying greater appreciation of the families characterized by their “antica possession d’avere” (ancient possession of wealth [Le dolci rime, 23]). The issue of appropriate noble behavior vis-à-vis wealth is also treated in the canzone Poscia ch‘Amor. (On Le dolci rime and Poscia ch’Amor from this perspective, see the essays “Sociology of the Brigata” and “Aristotle’s Mezzo,” cited in Coordinated Reading.)
- an extended meditation on narrative transition (with many of the same features as those found in Inferno 8–Inferno 9), beginning in the first verse of Inferno 16 and concluding at the end of Inferno 17
Inferno 16 continues Dante’s treatment of sodomy, which (we should note) does not feature the practice of sodomy at all. Rather, we might say that “sodomy” (a favorite whipping post among the preachers of the time) is present in this ring of hell about as much as “fornication” (another favorite whipping post) is present in the circle of lust. If we consider the treatment of sodomy among contemporary artists as well, we realize that Dante goes completely counter to the cultural norm represented, for instance, by an artist like Taddeo di Bartolo, whose extraordinarily violent treatment of sodomy is reproduced in my essay “Dante’s Sympathy for the Other” (see Coordinated Reading).
The graphic and violent punishment of sexual sin found in vision literature and in contemporary art, notable for its “torments directed at genitalia” (see the Introduction to Inferno 15), is altogether absent from the Commedia.
The sin of sodomy in Dante’s treatment seems rather to be a lever for indicting great Florentines, a way of accusing them of corrupt behavior. We thus move from a famous Florentine man of letters in Inferno 15 to famous Florentine men of public affairs in Inferno 16. All the men whom Dante places in the ring of sodomy were great citizens, worthy of reverence in earthly society.
The treatment of the Florentine sodomites in canto 16 will have a sobering retroactive effect with respect to the great humanistic themes of canto 15. While Brunetto’s cooked visage is only touched on in passing and his physical torment glossed over in the previous canto, Inferno 16 stresses the physical torment of the sinners: “Ahimè, che piaghe vidi ne’ lor membri / ricenti e vecchie, da le fiamme incese!” (Ah me, what wounds I saw upon their limbs, / wounds new and old, wounds that the flames seared in! [Inf. 16.10-11]).
Likewise the fall from high estate and dignity is passed over in Inferno 15 and stressed in Inferno 16. The simile that compares Brunetto to a runner in the footrace of Verona is mentioned poignantly at the end of Inferno 15, allowing the poet to conclude the canto with the pathos of “e parve di costoro / quelli che vince, non colui che perde” (of those runners / he appeared the one that wins, not the one that loses [Inf. 15.123-4]). The fall from dignity of the Florentines in Inferno 16 is immediately highlighted by the simile that compares these great nobles to nude wrestlers, greased and ready for a fight (Inf. 16.19-24).
The issue of earthly fame, imbued with such a heroic patina in Inferno 15, takes on a very different complexion when these miserable creatures speak of “la fama nostra” (our fame) in verse 31.
The Florentines featured here are great citizens of the generation before Dante, the generation that included the aristocratic Florentine protagonists of Inferno 10: Farinata degli Uberti (1212-1264) and Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti (died ca. 1280). As with Brunetto Latini (1220-1294) in Inferno 15, the dramatic irony turns on what these famous souls are doing here: Guido Guerra (ca. 1220-1272), Tegghiaio Aldobrandi (died 1262), and Iacopo Rusticucci (died after 1266) are supposed to be among the noblest of the Florentines and yet here they are among the sodomites in Hell.
We remember that in Inferno 6, the first canto to focus on Florence and the city’s woes, Dante asked Ciacco about a specific list of great Florentines: “Farinata e ’l Tegghiaio, che fuor sì degni, / Iacopo Rusticucci, Arrigo e ’l Mosca” (Farinata and Tegghiaio, who were so worthy, / Iacopo Rusticucci, Arrigo, and Mosca [Inf. 6.79-80]). The pilgrim refers to these men as citizens who did good works, who used their intellects “a ben far”, “to do good”: “ch’a ben far puoser li ’ngegni” (had their minds bent toward the good [Inf. 6.81]). Picking up the theme of ben far from Inferno 6, the works that we do in life are a key theme of Inferno 15 and 16, which offer a meditation on our civic contributions to the common good.
Brunetto tells Dante that he would have supported his “opera” (work [Inf. 15.60]) had he lived, and he characterizes Dante’s own actions with the same phrase, “ben far”, that in Inferno 6 was used for the great Florentines: “ti si farà, per tuo ben far, nimico” ([the Florentine people] for your good deeds, will be your enemy [Inf. 15.64]). We see here not only a non-ironic endorsement of the civic virtues that Dante and Brunetto held dear, but a sense of Dante’s views of the inter-generational obligations that hold up a community: the obligation of the previous generation to help and support their successors.
At the same time, we are made to understand the failure of the previous generation. Given that many of that prior generation’s great leaders are found in Hell, clearly the implications for the nature of the society and community that they created are dire. And indeed, with respect to the great Florentines of whom Dante asks Ciacco in Inferno 6, we are now in a position to check off quite a few from the list: Farinata is among the heretics in Inferno 10, while Tegghiaio and Iacopo Rusticucci are here among the sodomites in Inferno 16.
Like Inferno 6, Inferno 16 will treat Florentine corruption, although less through the lens of factional politics and more through the lens of the underlying greed and avarice that motivate human behavior. In other words, Inferno 16 approaches Florentine corruption (“la nostra terra prava” of verse 9) more through the lens of wealth acquisition and wealth management, issues treated in Inferno 7 and already deeply intertwined with the factional politics treated in Inferno 6.
Accordingly, in Inferno 16 the issue of social status comes to the fore, for instance in the attention paid to dress, a very important indicator of status in Florentine society (and indeed legislated as such). While Farinata recognizes Dante as a fellow Florentine through his diction (“la tua loquela” of Inferno 10.25), these souls recognize a fellow citizen of depraved Florence through his clothing: “Sòstati tu ch’a l’abito ne sembri / esser alcun di nostra terra prava” (Stop, you who by your clothing seem to be / someone who comes from our corrupt country! [Inf. 16.8-9]). In his commentary to these verses, Boccaccio notes the distinctiveness of civic dress: “ciascuna città aveva un suo singular modo di vestire, distinto e variato da quello delle circunvicine; per ciò che ancora non eravam divenuti inghilesi né tedeschi, come oggi agli abiti siamo” (Esposizioni sopra la Comedia di Dante, literal exposition of Inferno 16.7-9, consultable through the Dartmouth Dante Project).
Although the issue of Florence as a “terra prava” is put on the table from the very beginning of the encounter with the Florentine sodomites, and by the sinners themselves, the narrator continues to stress the high status that these sinners were accorded in society. Virgilio participates, telling his charge that these sinners must be treated with courtesy and adding, remarkably, that were it not for the nature of the place that consists in fire raining down like arrows, it would be more appropriate for Dante to run toward them than for them to be running toward him: “i’ dicerei / che meglio stesse a te che a lor la fretta” (I’d say that haste / was seemlier for you than for those three [Inf. 16.17-18]).
In other words, their status on earth was such that Virgilio still associates them with dignified comportment and wants to treat them with great respect. When the pilgrim learns who these souls are, the poet lets us know that his own reaction was fully in line with Virgilio’s assessment, for—says the narrator—if it had not been for the flames I would have jumped down from the bank in my eagerness to embrace these souls:
S’i’ fossi stato dal foco coperto, gittato mi sarei tra lor di sotto, e credo che ’l dottor l’avrìa sofferto. (Inf. 16.46-8) If I’d had shield and shelter from the fire, I should have thrown myself down there among them— I think my master would have sanctioned that.
These souls are still keenly aware of their own past importance in Florentine society. When the conversation moves beyond their common Florentine citizenship, Iacopo remarks that their great fame should move Dante to speak with them: “la fama nostra il tuo animo pieghi / a dirne chi tu se” (then may our fame incline your mind / to tell us who you are [Inf. 16.31-2]). And, in presenting his comrades, Iacopo speaks of Guido Guerra using the term “grado” (degree), a word that is redolent of social hierarchy and rank: “fu di grado maggior che tu non credi” (he was higher in degree than you believe [Inf. 16.36]).
The key thematic indicator is Virgilio’s adjective cortese—“a costor si vuole esser cortese” (to these one must show courtesy [Inf. 16.15])—reprised in the all-important noun cortesia in verse 67. The noble Florentines ask Dante about the current state of their city, and frame their query in terms of courtly values, “cortesia e valor”:
«Se lungamente l’anima conduca le membra tue», rispuose quelli ancora, «e se la fama tua dopo te luca, cortesia e valor dì se dimora ne la nostra città sì come suole, o se del tutto se n’è gita fora...» (Inf. 16.64-69)
“So may your soul long lead your limbs and may your fame shine after you,” he answered then, “tell us if courtesy and valor still abide within our city as they did when we were there or have they disappeared completely...”
Dante is here thematizing not just the urban politics of his native city, but the character and fiber of its highest citizens. He measures them by the knightly and feudal code of cortesia (not just “courtesy” but “courtliness”), as inherited in Tuscany from the Sicilian and Occitan courts, and as sung by poets of old.
This courtly world—not the urban and mercantile world of contemporary Florence but an older world that contemporary Florentines held in aspirational esteem—is evoked in Iacopo’s query about the presence of “cortesia e valor” in Florentine society. Knighthood, hearkening back to the feudal world of cortesia, was still a criterion of nobility, as we see in the passages from Carol Lansing’s The Florentine Magnates cited in the Introduction to Inferno 10. For more on the aspirational cortesia present in literary texts of Dante’s period, for instance in the sonnets of Folgore da San Gimignano, see my essay “Sociology of the Brigata,” cited in Coordinated Reading.
Dante replies to Iacopo’s query with his very personal analysis of what has been the cause of Florentine corruption. He believes that the city has been destabilized by new people with their new money: “La gente nuova e i sùbiti guadagni” (Newcomers to the city and quick gains [Inf. 16.73]). Dante here blames the decay of Florentine cortesia on the “nouveaux riches” who have changed the dynamics within the city, bringing “excess and arrogance”—“orgoglio e dismisura”:
«La gente nuova e i sùbiti guadagni orgoglio e dismisura han generata, Fiorenza, in te, sì che tu già ten piagni». (Inf. 16.73-75)
“Newcomers to the city and quick gains have brought excess and arrogance to you, o Florence, and you weep for it already!”
If we trace Dante’s thought process as a political theorist, we find that there are fascinating contradictions embedded in Inferno 16’s castigation of new money. For Dante had earlier refuted passionately and at length the theory whereby old money confers nobility.
Circa 1294, in the canzone Le dolci rime (a canzone whose Aristotelian ethical framework reflects Brunetto Latini’s translation of Aristotle’s Ethics, as discussed in the Introduction to Inferno 15), Dante claims that true nobility resides in virtue, not in lineage, and certainly not in ancient wealth.
In Le dolci rime Dante specifically takes aim at the definition of nobility as “old money and good manners”: “antica possession d’avere / con reggimenti belli” (ancestral wealth / together with fine manners [Le dolci rime, 23-24; trans. Richard Lansing). He mocks those who think that they derive worth and nobility from inherited wealth and status:
ed è tanto durata la così falsa oppinion tra nui, che l’uom chiama colui omo gentil che può dicere: ‘Io fui nepote, o figlio, di cotal valente’, benché sia da niente. And so ingrained has this false view become among us that one calls another noble if he can say “I am the son, or grandson, of such and such worthy man”, despite being himself nothing. (Le dolci rime, 32-37; trans. Richard Lansing modified by TB)
But in Inferno 16 Dante seems to veer away from the position of Le dolci rime, whereby old money does not confer special status. By attacking the new people and new money who bring “arrogance and excess”—“orgoglio e dismisura”—into the city, Dante suggests a greater appreciation of the families characterized by what Le dolci rime terms “antica possession d’avere” (ancient possession of wealth [Le dolci rime, 23]).
The newly-minted wealthy of Florence were perhaps more threatening to Dante, with respect to his personal status, than the older aristocracy. His own social position as a member of a non-wealthy family that claimed noble antecedents was rather precarious, and it must have been difficult for Dante, the greatly ambitious scion of a somewhat marginal family, to watch the speedy rise of pretentious insurgents.
Adding to Dante’s sensitivity to the “nuova gente” would be the decline of his family’s fortunes, traced by Enrico Faini in “Ruolo sociale e memoria degli Alighieri prima di Dante,” cited in Coordinated Reading. As Faini shows, Dante’s ancestors had achieved aristocratic status in the time of Cacciaguida and Alighiero I, while Dante’s branch of the family lost noble standing in the succeeding decades. The circumstances of Dante’s marriage to Gemma Donati, who brought a very small dowry into her marriage (see Chabot, cited in Coordinated Reading), are also worth considering in this context:
Lui era figlio di un mediocre campsor; lei, certo, apparteneva a una famiglia dell’antica aristocrazia cittadina. Ma se il padre di lei, Manetto Donati, non era in grado di sborsare più di 200 lire per darla in sposa, evidentemente condivideva con Alighiero la stessa mediocritas. (Chabot, “Il matrimonio di Dante,” p. 10).
He was the son of a middling money-changer; she, certainly, belonged to a family of the city’s ancient aristocracy. But if her father, Manetto Donati, was not in a position to disburse more than 200 lire to give her in marriage, evidently he shared the mediocritas of Alighiero.
Connected to Dante’s precarious social standing is the idea that nobility is not connected to wealth and social status, but is infused directly by God. This idea, originally developed by Dante in the canzone Le dolci rime following in the wake of Guido Guinizzelli’s canzone Al cor gentil, is present in the Commedia as well. There is a strong endorsement of this view for instance in Purgatorio 7, where we learn that virtue comes from the transcendent principle, not from lineage:
Rade volte risurge per li rami l’umana probitate; e questo vole quei che la dà, perché da lui si chiami. (Purg. 7.121-23) How seldom human worth ascends from branch to branch, and this is willed by Him who grants that gift, that one may pray to Him for it!
But at the same time, the variegated social tapestry of the Commedia triggers complex reactions in Dante, which lead to some privileging of ancient lineage over the despised nouveaux riches. Thus, in Paradiso 16 Dante will return to the theme of the “gente nuova”—those who have money but no lineage—and whose arrival has ruined Florence.
Contradictions abound, too, between the values of feudal cortesia, which place a premium on spending money with largesse, and those of bourgeois (and Aristotelian) moderation. In the essays “Sociology of the Brigata” and “Aristotle’s Mezzo,” I discuss some of the ways in which Dante experienced himself and his society as buffetted by these different philosophies of wealth and social standing and consider too how “the Aristotelian template allows for an easy pivot on Dante’s part from ethics in the moral and philosophical sphere to ethics in the social and historical sphere”:
If we bear in mind that the mean between avarice and prodigality is located by Aristotle in the virtue of liberality, a virtue of enormous resonance for the ethos of knighthood and for Dante’s own theory of what constitutes ‘true’ nobility (whose definition is expounded by him in the canzone Le dolci rime and then massively elaborated in book 4 of the Convivio), then we can see how the Aristotelian template allows for an easy pivot on Dante’s part from ethics in the moral and philosophical sphere to ethics in the social and historical sphere. (“Aristotle’s Mezzo,” p. 169).
In another moral canzone of the 1290s, Poscia ch’Amor (circa 1294-1295), Dante considered behaviors pertaining to cortesia, attempting to answer questions such as “how much should a nobleman spend, and how should he dress and speak?” (“Aristotle’s Mezzo,” p. 176). The connection to Inferno 16, where dress is actually referenced, is manifest.
The story of the barrater Ciampolo in Inferno 22 offers insight into the ethical challenges faced by the hangers-on living in the margins of a great court. Ciampolo’s tale highlights the pressures of a life-style in which financial prudence was much less valued than largesse in spending.
In “Aristotle’s Mezzo” I write too about the indicators of Dante’s social anxiety, linking the canzone Poscia ch’Amor to the attitudes toward Florence found in the Inferno:
Poscia ch’Amor’s vituperation of those who throw away their wealth, feigning liberality and nobility of character when in actuality they are not liberal but prodigal, is both profoundly Aristotelian (liberality as the virtuous mean between prodigality and avarice) and brimming with social anxiety: we can feel Dante’s frustration that these sham nobles can still be thought of as do-gooders by their fellow citizens (similarly, in Inferno 6, the great Florentines known for good works turn out to be “among the darkest souls”). The Inferno’s meditations on unethical wealth management indicate the continuing depth of Dante’s frustration: the prodigals who do not spend their wealth appropriately, in Inferno 7; the wastrels who dissipate their wealth, most likely on gaming and whoring, in Inferno 13; the “gente nuova” whose sudden wealth is responsible for Florentine “orgoglio e dismisura,” in Inferno 16.73–74; and the sarcastic reference to the “temperate spese” (Inf. 29.126) of the Sienese gilded youth known as the brigata spendereccia, in Inferno 29. (“Aristotle’s Mezzo,” pp. 176-77)
Do the sham nobles of the canzone Poscia ch’Amor possess new money or old? In the canzone, where he is struggling to distinguish the liberality required of a noble from the deplorable vice prodigality, Dante does not stipulate the families whose behavior he castigates. These distinctions await the Commedia, where Dante tends to show a nostalgic partiality to the feudal nobility and its old money, running counter to the more purist analysis of Le dolci rime, where money and status have nothing to do with nobility. For instance, in Purgatorio 8 he celebrates the Malaspina family for their aristocratic “pregio de la borsa” (Purg. 8.129). The “glory of their purse” refers to the Malaspina lords’ prowess in liberal spending, in noble largesse.
In Inferno 16 Dante’s attack focuses on the “orgoglio e dismisura” of the gente nuova. As I explain in “Aristotle’s Mezzo,” the word “dismisura” is the vernacular equivalent of the Aristotelian concept of “incontinenza” from Inferno 11: it refers to lack of measure (misura) and thus excess. Dante uses the word dismisura first in Inferno 7, à propos precisely wealth management, in the circle of avarice and prodigality. Dismisura in Dante’s usage becomes an umbrella term embracing the wide-ranging sickness of overheated and intemperate desire captured in the Christian concept of cupidigia (manifested by the lupa in Inferno 1) and in the Aristotelian concept of incontinenza (see Inf. 11.82 and 83). In Inferno 7, we recall that Dante expresses the concept of dismisura by saying that the misers and spendthrifts are those who spent without misura, hence with dismisura: “che con misura nullo spendio ferci” (no spending that they did was done with measure [Inf. 7.42]). The term dismisura appears only two times in the Commedia; the other use occurs appropriately on the terrace of avarice and prodigality, in Purgatorio 22.35.
Dante is working to reveal the common ground of excess or dismisura that underlies all the sins of incontinence, as he had begun to do years before in the canzone Doglia mi reca (see “Guittone’s Ora parrà, Dante’s Doglia mi reca, and the Commedia’s Anatomy of Desire,” cited in Coordinated Reading). Far from viewing dismisura as most applicable to sexual behavior, Dante’s focus had been for years, going back to his moral canzoni, on wealth and wealth management.
Beginning in Inferno 16.91, the narrator’s attention turns to the waterfall (first mentioned in the first verse of this canto) over the abyss and to the strange arrival of the flying monster who will serve as the vehicle on which they descend to the eighth circle: Geryon.
The remarkable feature of these verses is that Dante chooses them to baptize his poem, named as “questa comedìa” in Inferno 16.128:
Sempre a quel ver c’ha faccia di menzogna de’ l’uom chiuder le labbra fin ch’el puote, però che sanza colpa fa vergogna; ma qui tacer nol posso; e per le note di questa comedìa, lettor, ti giuro, s’elle non sien di lunga grazia vòte, ch’i’vidi per quell’aere grosso e scuro venir notando una figura in suso, maravigliosa ad ogne cor sicuro... (Inf. 16.124-32)
Faced with that truth which seems a lie, a man should always close his lips as long as he can— to tell it shames him, even though he's blameless; but here I can't be still; and by the lines of this my Comedy, reader, I swear— and may my verse find favor for long years— that through the dense and darkened air I saw a figure swimming, rising up, enough to bring amazement to the firmest heart...
In this passage, for the first time, Dante refers to his poem as a comedìa. The only other use of the word comedìa will occur in Inferno 21.2.
In linking his comedìa to a “truth that has the face of a lie”—“ver c’ha faccia di menzogna” (Inf. 16.124)—Dante defines comedìa: it is truth that has the appearance of a lie but that is nonetheless always a truth.
Dante here swears that the in-credible thing he saw swimming out of the murky deep is absolutely and incontrovertibly true. It is true because he saw it. And he swears this truth with an oath: an oath taken on the very notes of the poem that he is writing.
We note too that the poet swears his oath here on the stakes of the “lunga grazia” that he hopes his poem will achieve with its readers:
e per le note di questa comedìa, lettor, ti giuro, s’elle non sien di lunga grazia vòte (Inf. 16.127-29)and by the lines of this my Comedy, reader, I swear— and may my verse find favor for long years—
In other words, Dante seeks a long life for his comedìa. This prayer for long life for his poem recalls Inferno 15 and Brunetto’s “nel qual io vivo ancora” and reminds us that we must be careful in discounting the value of literary fame for this poet.
As I write in The Undivine Comedy, “Geryon serves as an outrageously paradoxical authenticating device: one that, by being so overtly inauthentic, so literally a figure for inauthenticity, a figure for ‘fraud’, confronts and attempts to defuse the belatedness or inauthenticity to which the need for an authenticating device necessarily testifies” (The Undivine Comedy, p. 59). With respect to the oxymoronic juxtaposition of “maravigliosa” with “io vidi” in the verses cited above, I note: “Far from giving quarter, from backing off when the materia being represented is too ‘maravigliosa’ to be credible, Dante raises the ante by using such moments to underscore his poem’s veracity, its status as historical scribal record of what he saw” (The Undivine Comedy, p. 60).
Dante’s term comedìa will thus both vindicate the prophetic truth of his vision and confront the necessary quotient of deceit embedded in language.