- Dante’s treatment of usury continues the indictment of the Florentine nobility from the previous canto
- Dante’s treatment of usury, like his treatment of sodomy, is culturally non-normative, since he avoids stigmatizing Jews or invoking the typical anti-Semitic rhetoric that associates Jews with usury and money-lending (for anti-Jewish iconography, see Debra Higgs Strickland, Saracens, Demons, and Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art, cited in Coordinated Reading)
- Dante’s own family was involved in the money-lending business
- there are numerous Ovidian references throughout this canto, which can be explored in greater detail through Intertextual Dante
- the flight on Geryon and the evocation of the “failed flyers” of classical mythology: Phaethon and Icarus, figures doomed by their reckless daring
- Arachne, a classical example of representational or artistic hubris, like Icarus’ father, Daedalus
- spiral narrative structure of Inferno 16 and 17
In The Undivine Comedy, Chapter 3, I analyze the “intercalatory structure” of the Geryon episode, referring to the complex way in which Dante uses splicing techniques to narrate the transition from the seventh circle (violence) to the eighth circle (fraud). In Inferno 17, the narrator begins with Geryon, and thus already seems to have moved forward to the eighth circle: Geryon is a representation of the circle of fraud who will serve as a vehicle of transition to the eighth circle. But, after the initial sequence describing Geryon, the narrator in Inferno 17 then “goes back” (narratologically and physically) to describe the encounter with the usurers, thus postponing the descent to the eighth circle and reminding us that we are in fact still in the seventh. The narrator finally goes forward in the last section of Inferno 17, which features the awe-inspiring depiction of the travelers’ downwards flight, into the abyss, on Geryon’s back.
Dante thus uses narrative structure to make a spiral pattern writ large, terza rima writ large, as demonstrated in the narratological analysis of these canti in The Undivine Comedy. The spiral pattern is visible in the following diagram (The Undivine Comedy, p. 73):
The approach to this transition begins in the first verse of Inferno 16, where the narrator first registers the “rimbombo” of the waterfall that cascades over the cliff that marks the end of the seventh circle (Inf. 16.1). After the interlude with the three Florentine nobles who are among the sodomites, in Inferno 16.91 the narrator returns to the waterfall and begins to describe the transition. There is a long section on the “cord” that Dante wears around his waist and that Virgilio now throws into the abyss as a kind of lure. We remember that Inferno 16 ends in medias res (as had Inferno 8), as the poet swears that the amazing creature that he saw swimming out of the deep was not a figment of his imagination but rather absolutely real.
Using the “suspense” (etymologically, suspense is the condition of being suspended, i.e. left hanging, as at the end of Inferno 16 we are literally left hanging over the abyss) that is created by the interrupted action at the end of canto 16, Dante postpones the description of Geryon until the exordium of canto 17. Inferno 17 begins dramatically, with Virgilio heralding the arrival of Geryon:
«Ecco la fiera con la coda aguzza, che passa i monti, e rompe i muri e l'armi! Ecco colei che tutto 'l mondo appuzza!» (Inf. 17.1-3)
“Behold the beast who bears the pointed tail, who crosses mountains, shatters weapons, walls! Behold the one whose stench fills all the world!"
After the detailed description of “that filthy effigy of fraud”—“quella sozza imagine di froda” (Inf. 17.7)—who parks himself at the edge of the cliff and swishes his tail in the void (23-5), Virgilio and Dante head toward the monster. However, as the travelers approach the edge of the cliff, Virgilio points out the group of souls that sits on the edge: these are the usurers.
The usurers are the last sinners in the circle of violence. The English word “usury” derives from the medieval Latin noun “usuria,” which in turn is etymologically linked to “usus,” the past participle of the Latin verb “uti,” to use. Usury is, simply put, the excessive charging of interest on money loaned: literally, it is compensation for the “use” of money. The problem of usury is complexly interwoven with the growth of capitalism in the Italian city-states, where the great merchant banking houses are part of the new growth of trade and cultural exchange that liquidity promotes. Liquidity, money that is not tied up in great feudal landholdings but available for investment and self-promotion, undoubtedly underlies some of the anxiety that Dante feels about the rise of the “gente nuova” and their “sùbiti guadagni” (the new people and their sudden gains [Inf. 16.73]). Indeed, liquidity and “sùbiti guadagni” go hand in hand.
The changes in the texture of Florentine life that Dante rues are thus deeply connected to banking and money-lending. And yet, his own family’s principal occupation was money-lending: “l’attività principale della famiglia: il prestito del denaro” (Faini, “Ruolo sociale e memoria degli Alighieri prima di Dante,” p. 27).
The church viewed usury as an affront to God because it allows humans to make money from money rather than only through the sweat of their labor (see the end of Inferno 11). However most of the up and coming citizens of cities like Florence are merchants and/or bankers.
In Inferno 17 Dante focuses not on the individual but on the family, whose names are indicated through minute evocations of their heraldic crests. The various components of these crests are so carefully indicated that illustrators have been able to paint them with precision.
These crests emblazon the money-bags that hang around the necks of the unnamed usurers: “che dal collo a ciascun pendea una tasca / ch’avea certo colore e certo segno” (from the neck of each a purse was hung / that had a special color and an emblem [Inf. 17.55-56]). The crests are denoted with the bright colors that are so absent from Inferno, and they indicate noble Florentine families. Thus, the indictment of the Florentine nobility continues from Inferno 16.
The representative of the Florentine Gianfigliazzi family (Black Guelph) boasts “a yellow purse with azure on it / that had the face and manner of a lion” (Inf. 17.59-60), while the representative of the Ghibelline Obriachi family wears a “purse that was bloodred, / and it displayed a goose more white than butter” (Inf. 17.62-3). The usurer who speaks to Dante is a Paduan of the Scrovegni family, as indicated by the crest on his money-bag:
E un che d’una scrofa azzurra e grossa segnato avea lo suo sacchetto bianco mi disse: «Che fai tu in questa fossa?» (Inf. 17.64-6)
And one who had an azure, pregnant sow inscribed as emblem on his white pouch, said to me: “What are you doing in this pit?”
A key social issue related to usury is anti-Semitism, which was frequently expressed in attacks on Jewish money-lenders. The commentary tradition of the Commedia does not look at the social and historical context of usury and therefore readings of Inferno 17 do not bring up the topic of anti-Semitism. As a result the commentaries fail to note two key features of Dante’s treatment of usury in this canto: on the one hand Dante does not mention Jews; on the other he does mention the iconography that was associated with Jews, namely money-bags.
For further analysis of this aspect of Dante’s treatment of usury, I refer to my essay “Dante’s Sympathy for the Other” (cited in Coordinated Reading), where I draw on the visual documentation of anti-Semitism in Debra Strickland’s book, Saracens, Demons, and Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art. Strickland documents the visual demonizing of Jews, including the depiction of Jews heading into Hell with money-bags around their necks.
Put into social and historical context, we can see that Dante’s treatment of usury is remarkable for its strict avoidance of Jews, marginal members of his society.
Rather than scapegoat the marginal, Dante focuses instead on his society’s most normative members: on the great Christian families whom he indicts through the heraldic crests that blazon the money-bags worn around their necks.
In other words, in Inferno 17 Dante evokes the precise iconography associated with Jewish usurers, namely the money-bags worn around the necks, but he jettisons the anti-Semitic cultural context to which that iconography is linked. Dante thus transfers the money-bag iconography, along with the status of usurer, to Christians: in Dante’s Hell the money-bags hang around the necks of Christian money-lenders.
* * *
The latter part of Inferno 17 describes in tactile and immediate language, which is at the same time highly literary, the experience of flying on Geryon’s back: Geryon carries the travelers in a spiraling motion down into the abyss, from the seventh to the eighth circle.
Dante depicts the experience of flying with enormous naturalism, basing himself both on navigating a boat and on the swimming of animals. In the opening sequence of canto 17, describing the monster’s position on the edge of the abyss, the poet compares him first to boats that are banked on the shore, part in the water and part on land, and then to the beaver. Then, in order to describe the way in which Geryon backs up from the edge and turns around, Dante again pairs the image of a boat, a “navicella”, with a marine animal, the eel.
In the passage that follows Dante conjures the experience of flying, telling us of the wind that blows on his face and from below: Geryon “sen va notando lenta lenta; / rota e discende, ma non me n’accorgo / se non che al viso e di sotto mi venta” (the beast goes swimming slowly on; he wheels and descends, but I can make out nothing but the wind blowing on my face and from below [17.115-17]). He conjures, from his imagination, the experience of being in total darkness, feeling nothing but the wind and seeing nothing but the animal on whom he rides.
To communicate his fear, Dante cites Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and compares himself to two mythological figures: Phaeton and Icarus. He tells us that neither Phaethon nor Icarus experienced more fear during their doomed flights than did he in his flight into the abyss of lower Hell:
Maggior paura non credo che fosse quando Fetonte abbandonò li freni, per che ’l ciel, come pare ancor, si cosse; né quando Icaro misero le reni sentì spennar per la scaldata cera, gridando il padre a lui «Mala via tieni!», che fu la mia, quando vidi ch’i’ era ne l’aere d’ogne parte, e vidi spenta ogne veduta fuor che de la fera. (Inf. 17.106-14)
I do not think that there was greater fear in Phaethon when he let his reins go free— for which the sky, as one still sees, was scorched— nor in poor Icarus when he could feel his sides unwinged because the wax was melting, his father shouting to him, “That way's wrong!” than was in me when, on all sides, I saw that I was in the air, and everything had faded from my sight—except the beast.
Ovid’s story of Daedalus and Icarus is found in Metamorphoses Book 8, verses 183-235. You can view the passage in Ovid side-by-side with Dante’s text through Digital Dante’s own Intertextual Dante, created by Julie van Peteghem.
Dante heightens the Ovidian description of Icarus’s flight with a signature personal touch. He inserts into Ovid’s story the haunting and poignant words cried out by the father, Daedalus, to his son: “gridando il padre a lui «Mala via tieni!»” (his father shouting to him: “You’re on the wrong path!” [Inf. 17.111]). The words “Mala via tieni”—“You’re on the wrong path!”—are not only words of enormous resonance for this poem, constructed on the metaphor of the path, but they testify to Dante’s understanding of the power of direct discourse.
The use of direct discourse to heighten immediacy is a signature Dantean move (we find instances of direct discourse inserted even into Dante’s very early lyrics) and it is a hallmark of the Commedia, a poem built on dialogue.
And what could be more powerful than the concision of the extraordinary verb spennar (“to unfeather”)? Dante uses it in the description of Icarus feeling “his sides unwinged because the wax was melting”: “le reni / sentì spennar per la scaldata cera” (Inf. 17.109-10). The story of Daedalus and Icarus will be evoked again in Paradiso 8, where Dante will refer to Daedalus as the one “who flew through the air and lost his son”: “quello / che, volando per l’aere, il figlio perse” (Par. 8.125-26).
On the basis of the recurrence of the Daedalus-Icarus story in the Commedia, one could argue that for Dante the key figure is the artifex, Daedalus, whose hubris in creating a method for flying takes precedence over Icarus’ recklessness in the air. Daedalus will be invoked again in an interesting passage in Inferno 29, again as the artificer of flight (see verse 116), as a transgressor of human limits, and as mimetic genius par excellence. Moreover, Dante humanizes Daedalus by focusing on his tragedy as a father: to the roster of the Commedia’s fathers and sons, we must add Daedalus and Icarus.
In these Ovidian similes of Inferno 17, Dante makes substantial his self-comparison to great “failed flyers” of mythological antiquity. This is a group he simultaneously compares himself to and distances himself from. He fears he might be Phaethon or Icarus, but he knows—and hence we know—that he will not be. Dante’s voyage is not destined to end in failure: this we already learned from Virgilio quoting Beatrice in Inferno 2, when Dante-pilgrim initially feared that his journey might be “folle” (Inf. 2.35).
Phaethon and Icarus are treated by Dante, within the poetic economy of the Commedia, as failed flyers who are avatars of his Ulysses. In Inferno 26 Dante will tell a version of the Ulysses narrative that casts the Greek hero as a transgressor; Ulysses’ voyage is a “mad flight”—“folle volo” (Inf. 26.125)—that leads to his perdition. In other words, Dante borrows from classical mythology to construct a personal mythography: in his personal mythography, Dante uses Phaethon and Icarus as a template on which to construct Ulysses as his ultimate failed flyer, his ultimate example of transgression.
Inferno 17 is saturated with mythological figures whose hubris led to their failure: hubris not only existential (Phaeton and Icarus), but artistic (Arachne and Daedalus). Geryon’s adorned and colorful flanks are compared in the early section of this canto to the fabrics woven by Turks and Tartars, and to the webs of Arachne (Inf. 17.18):
Con più color, sommesse e sovraposte non fer mai drappi Tartari né Turchi, né fuor tai tele per Aragne imposte. (Inf. 17.16-18)
No Turks or Tartars ever fashioned fabrics more colorful in background and relief, nor had Arachne ever loomed such webs.
Arachne will be cited as an example of artistic pride and consequent fall on the terrace of pride in Purgatorio 12. In the Ovidian account Arachne claims that her woven textiles are more beautiful and that the stories she narrates on them are more lifelike than those of the goddess Athena. Unfortunately for her, she was right, with the result that the enraged goddess transforms Arachne into a spider.
Dante, emphasizing the perils of Arachne’s creativity, of the “opera” (work) that she wrongly made, depicts her in Purgatorio 12 in mid-metamorphosis, on the way to being a spider:
O folle Aragne, sì vedea io te già mezza ragna, trista in su li stracci de l’opera che mal per te si fé. (Purg. 12.43-45)
O mad Arachne, I saw you already half spider, wretched on the ragged remnants of work that you had wrought to your own hurt!
In The Undivine Comedy, where I analyze the Ovidian component of Purgatorio’s terrace of pride, I classify Arachne as “the textual/artistic correlative of Ulysses”, and therefore also of Phaeton and Icarus:
By comparing the designs woven on Geryon’s flanks to the tele woven by Arachne, Dante summons the mythological figure who more than any other is an emblem for textuality, for weaving the webs of discourse. Her tele are the webs of textuality, of art: they signify the inherent deceptiveness of an art that can deceive through its mimetic perfection, its achievement of verisimilitude (art, therefore, as “craft” in both its senses, as handiwork and Ulyssean guile); also, because Arachne challenged Minerva, her webs signify our hubris (again Ulyssean), our will to challenge, to go beyond. In other words, Arachne is the textual/artistic correlative of Ulysses, and also therefore of those surrogates for Ulysses who figure so prominently at the end of the Geryon episode. (The Undivine Comedy, p. 64)
Hubris and failure are evoked in both existential and representational terms in Inferno 17. Existential and representational hubris overlap in the story of Daedalus and his son Icarus, for artistic hubris is of course also present in the poignant figure of the great craftsman who is responsible for his son’s death. As Ovid writes, Daedalus seeks to imitate nature by constructing true wings that can really fly:
At once he starts to work on unknown arts, to alter nature. He lays out feathers—all in order, first the shorter, then the longer (you’d have said they’d grown along a slope); just like the kind of pipes that country people used to fashion, where from unequal reed to reed the rise is gradual. And these he held together with twine around the center; at the base he fastened them with wax; and thus arranged— he’d bent them slightly—they could imitate the wings of true birds. (Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Allen Mandelbaum)
The language used here by Ovid stresses the idea that art and human techne are an imitation of nature. Ovid embraces the idea that the more verisimilar the work of art—the more life-like it is—the greater it is. The greatest work of art is the one that is most like life. Arachne surpasses Athena as an artist because the figures on her woven textiles are more true to life.
Both Arachne and Daedalus are committed to the practice of mimesis and both incur disaster as a result of their mimetic prowess.
Dante has already indirectly informed us of the theory of mimesis in his discussion of God’s two “possessions” (nature and art) in Inferno 11, where he instructs us that nature imitates God and that our art imitates nature. In this passage he effectively sketches a mimetic hierarchy in which human representational art is at two removes from the divine.
These classical mythological figures—Arachne and Daedalus, along with Phaethon and Icarus—will have enormous resonance for Dante throughout the Commedia.
As the pilgrim prepares himself for the terrifying transition to yet further depths of evil, Virgilio stresses that there is no avoiding the evil around him. In order to progress in this voyage, the pilgrim must himself henceforth utilize and come into contact with the monsters and guardians that he henceforth meets. In this case he must fly to the eighth circle on the back of the “filthy effigy of fraud” that is Geryon: “sozza imagine di froda” (Inf. 17.7). Later a giant will place him on the ice of Cocytus. Most remarkably, he will have to climb on Lucifer’s body in order to depart from Hell.
In other words, it is not enough for him to witness Hell as an observer. The pilgrim must have his own personal encounter with evil. As Virgilio says to him, speaking of clambering onto Geryon and flying on the monster’s back: “Omai si scende per sì fatte scale” (for from now on our descent is by this kind of stairs [Inf. 17.82]).
Dante must go to the heart of darkness within himself.