- a new beginning: the entrance to lower Hell
- a built environment—urban and architectural—as compared to the perverted natural environment of the circle of violence
- devils as guardians compared to the monstrous animal-based guardians of upper Hell
- the semiotic nature of fraud
- the list of Italian cities in Malebolge, here Bologna and Lucca: political identity as linguistic identity (“sipa”) and the connection to De vulgari eloquentia
- the presence of sexualized sins and sinners
- two sets of classical/contemporary couples
Inferno 18 is the first canto of the eighth circle, the circle of fraud. This enormous circle containing fraudulent souls extends from Inferno 18 all the way to Inferno 30, making up 38% of Dante’s hell, textually speaking. The opening verse of the canto self-consciously marks a narrative new beginning in the Inferno. This—finally—is the true entrance to lower Hell.
As I write in The Undivine Comedy: “Inferno 18 constitutes an emphatic new beginning situated at the canticle’s midpoint, at its narrative mezzo del cammin. ‘Luogo è in inferno detto Malebolge” (There is a place in hell called Malebolge) begins the canto, with a verse that is crisply informative, explicitly introductory, and patently devoted to differentiation: this is a new place, a new locus” (p. 74).
The first verse of Inferno 18—“Luogo è in inferno detto Malebolge”—is interesting on a number of counts. First, its merging of the Latinate “Luogo è” (“locus est”) with Dante’s plebeian neologism “Malebolge” will be mirrored in the narrative: as we shall see, Dante will deliberately couple classical figures with contemporaries throughout the eighth circle.
Also, and particularly interesting with respect to Dante’s ongoing techniques of verisimilitude, is the little word “detto”: an innocent past participle that is used to subliminally convey the information that the word “Malebolge” has currency as a word, that it comes trippingly off the tongues of some set of humans. To say “Luogo è in inferno detto Malebolge” (There is a place in hell called Malebolge [Inf. 18.1]) is to treat Malebolge as an accepted place on a real map, a place that is “called Malebolge” by someone.
By whom is this place called Malebolge? Given that Dante invented the name, there can have been no one who uttered it until the existence of Inferno 18. But we never pose the question “detto da chi?”, because Dante’s verisimilar art has lulled us into acceptance of his invented reality.
In the narrative/stylistic analysis of the canti of lower Hell in The Undivine Comedy, Chapter 4, I write as follows about the style of Malebolge and that of Inferno 18 in particular:
From the stylistic perspective, these cantos run the gamut from the lowest of low styles to the highest of high; here too, canto 18 is paradigmatic, moving in its brief compass from vulgar black humor—“Ahi come facean lor levar le berze / a le prime percosse! già nessuno / le seconde aspettava né le terze” (Oh, how they made them lift their heels at the first blows! Truly none awaited the second or the third [37-39])—to the solemnity with which Vergil displays Jason—“Guarda quel grande che vene” (Look at that great one who comes [83)])—to the nastiness of the merda in which the flatterers are plunged. For Barchiesi, such transitions constitute the essence of canto 18; he suggests that the canto’s most singular aspect is its violent juxtapositioning of elevated language with realistic language, of the Latinate “Luogo è” with the plebeian neologism “Malebolge.” This insight can be extended to the cantos of Malebolge as a group, whose violent stylistic transitions provide an implicit commentary on the questions of genre and style that were opened up for the poem by the use of the term comedìa in the Geryon episode. (The Undivine Comedy, pp. 75-6)
One of the key features of Dante’s Inferno and of Malebolge in particular is the extraordinary narrative and stylistic variatio that makes turning the page into a new canto a continual encounter with the new.
That said, I classify Inferno 18 as a mainly “low” style canto, whereas, for instance, the canto that follows belongs mainly to the “high” style. A caveat: these categories should never be taken as monolithic, since even when Dante has designated a certain section or canto as mainly belonging to a particular register or style, he nevertheless always includes some variety.
Although Inferno 18 contains different stylistic registers, it is famous for the lowly merda in which the flatterers are immersed. Indeed, in later periods many authors and arbiters of style issued rebukes to Dante for the language of Inferno 18.
The language and style of Inferno 18 clarify the nature and the properties of comedìa, as this text was recently named during the Geryon episode (see In: ferno 16.128 and the end of the Introduction to that canto). We now can understand better what comedìa is: a form of writing that willingly embraces every kind of language and style, because it represents all of reality.
The ongoing meditation on the nature of comedìa that runs through the post-Geryon canti includes the contrast between comedìa, which can be low as well as high, and the epics of classical antiquity, which are composed in an unremittingly high style.
The contrast between the mixed vernacular style and the high style of classical epic is reflected in another narrative element that we associate with Malebolge: the classical/contemporary couple. In this part of Hell Dante goes out of his way to couple contemporary figures with classical figures. These couples are indexed to the poet’s ongoing meditation on comedìa and tragedìa, a meditation that is particularly strong in Malebolge.
The coupling of classical with contemporary souls is spectacularly on display in Inferno 18. In this canto we actually find two sets of classical/contemporary couples, one couple in each bolgia: Venedico Caccianemico and Jason in bolgia 1 (Venedico is a pimp and Jason a seducer), and Alessio Interminelli and Thaïs in bolgia 2.
* * *
The circle of fraud consists of ten bolge, or “sacks” heaped with fraudulent sinners. These sinners are listed in the organizational template of Hell offered by Inferno 11, although not in the order in which they are later encountered:
ipocresia, lusinghe e chi affattura, falsità, ladroneccio e simonia, ruffian, baratti e simile lordura. (Inf. 11.58-60)
hypocrisy and flattery, sorcerers, and falsifiers, simony, and theft, and barrators and panders and like trash.
Inferno 18 is unusually crowded and depicts three groups of sinners, who are divided into two bolge.
The first bolgia contains two related groups of sinners, both engaged in sexualized sin involving the traffic of women. These are the pimps and the seducers.
The two groups of the first bolgia circle the perimeter of the bolgia in opposite directions from each other. (The manner of their opposed circling is somewhat reminiscent of the method used by Dante in Inferno 7, where he treated a previous “double” sin, in that case involving the misers and the prodigals.) The second bolgia contains the flatterers.
The pimps and the flatterers are named in the summary terzina of Inferno 11: see, in the above citation, “lusinghe” (flattery) in Inferno 11.58 and “ruffian” in Inferno 11.60.
Inferno 18 is unusual in containing two bolge in one canto, giving an impression of souls packed into hell like commuters in a packed subway car. The crowded feel of these two bolge is enhanced by the two sets of sinners comprised in the first bolgia.
An aspect of Inferno 18 that is ripe for future exploration is the gendered and sexualized discourse featured throughout the canto.
The first soul with whom the pilgrim speaks does not want to be recognized, another common trait of sinners in lower Hell. But Dante persists in addressing him, asking him whether he is Venedico Caccianemico, and inquiring as to what has led him to “such pungent sauces” (“sì pungenti salse” [Inf. 18.51]). In explaining what has brought him to the bolgia of pimps and seducers, Venedico offers a synthetic account of a sordid tale. He pimped his sister, beautiful Ghisola, constraining her to do the will of the Marquis who paid him: “I’ fui colui che la Ghisolabella / condussi a far la voglia del marchese” (For it was I who led Ghisolabella / to do as the Marquis would have her do [Inf. 18.55-56]).
A number of interesting points emerge from the pilgrim’s brief colloquy with Venedico. The verses in which Venedico describes what he did to his sister cast both himself and the Marchese as agents—one constrained Ghisolabella and the other profited sexually—while casting the woman as the victim. In this canto of sexualized sin the women will run the gamut from passive victim to aggressor: Ghisolabella is portrayed as victim, Hypsipyle as both victim and aggressor, like Medea, while Thaïs is depicted solely as aggressor.
The men who victimize Ghisola are men of power: Venedico was a powerful Bolognese Guelf, while the “Marchese” of verse 56 is Opizzo II d’Este, lord of Ferrara. Her brother sold sexual relations with his sister and Opizzo II d’Este purchased them; the financial aspect of the transaction connects it to fraud and deceit rather than simply to violence.
Violence is certainly present, however. Opizzo II is among the tyrants in the circle of violence, named in Inferno 12:
e quell'altro ch’è biondo, è Opizzo da Esti, il qual per vero fu spento dal figliastro sù nel mondo. (Inf. 12.110-12)that other there, the blonde one, is Obizzo of Este, he who was indeed undone, within the world above, by his fierce son.
Immersed up to his brows in the river of blood in Inferno 12, Opizzo d’Este was violent toward others in both their persons and their possessions. The phrase “far la voglia del marchese” in Inferno 18.56—to do the will of the Marquis—captures the nature of a man for whom others exist only as objects. At the same time, the few verses referring to Opizzo in Inferno 12 remind us that violence breeds violence, for Opizzo was killed by his son.
We can see a vast interconnected network taking shape. The links between the souls of Dante’s afterlife have yet to be fully explored and mapped. As I wrote in “Only Historicize” (cited in Coordinated Reading): “The Commedia includes an amazing web of family—and hence political—interconnectivity spun by Dante, who so carefully chose and enmeshed the characters of his great poem” (p. 49).
Venedico’s account will also include the semiotic and representational dimension that is so heightened in the post-Geryon world. Venedico refers to the “sconcia novella” (filthy tale [Inf. 18.57]) that circulates about him and his sister, thus alluding to the oral dimension of gossip and scandal. And Venedico subsequently implicates his fellow Bolognesi in his sin, referring to them linguistically: they are those who say “sipa” for “sì” between Savena and Reno (verses 60-61).
In his characterizing of the Bolognese by their use of the affirmative adverb “sipa” Dante draws on his own background as a linguist and writer on language. He first uses the affirmative adverb as a marker of political identity in his linguistic treatise De vulgari eloquentia, where he distinguishes between Italian, French, and Occitan by their modes of affirmation. Italian is the language that uses ”sì“ to say “yes”:
Totum vero quod in Europa restat ab istis, tertium tenuit ydioma, licet nunc tripharium videatur; nam alii oc, alii oïl, alii sì affirmando locuntur; ut puta Yspani, Franci et Latini. (De vulgari eloquentia 1.8.5)
All the rest of Europe that was not dominated by these two vernaculars was held by a third, although nowadays this itself seems to be divided in three: for some now say oc, some oïl, and some sì, when they answer in the affirmative; and these are the Hispanic, the French, and the ItaIians.
In Inferno 18, Dante picks up from the De vulgari eloquentia the idea of identifying languages from their modes of saying “yes” and creates a subset for the Italian peninsula. He adds the Bolognese “sipa” to the larger category “sì” that he used for Italian in De vulgari eloquentia.
* * *
The second group of sinners in the first bolgia is that of the seducers and features the great classical hero Jason, in his role as seducer and impregnator of Hypsipyle. Again the sexualized and gendered components of Dante’s account are noteworthy. Hypsipyle and the women of Lemnos are not simply victims, for the back-story of their murder of the men of Lemnos is acknowledged. Here the language is highly gendered, pitting the “femmine” against the “maschi”: “l’ardite femmine spietate / tutti li maschi loro a morte dienno” (its women, bold and pitiless, / had given all their island males to death [Inf. 18.89-90]).
But Dante subsequently, just a few verses later, depicts Hypsipyle no longer as the aggressor but as the quintessential seduced and abandoned female: “Lasciolla quivi, gravida, soletta” (And he abandoned her, alone and pregnant [Inf. 18.94]). Here the language renders Hypsipyle’s vulnerability, and the two adjectives “gravida, soletta” replace the two adjectives used for the women of Lemnos, the “ardite femmine spietate”: the bold and pitiless Hypsipyle is now pregnant and alone.
With “parole ornate” that remind us of Virgilio’s “parola ornata” in Inferno 2.67, Jason deceives Hypsipyle semiotically: “Ivi con segni e con parole ornate / Isifile ingannò” (With polished words and love signs he took in / Hypsipyle [Inf. 18.91-2]). But Dante also reminds us that Hypsipyle, now deceived by Jason, had previously deceived the women of Lemnos, saving her father from their mass murder of the island’s men: “la giovinetta / che prima avea tutte l’altre ingannate” (the girl whose own deception / had earlier deceived the other women [Inf. 18.92-3]).
In the compressed compass of his Hypsipyle narrative, Dante manages to convey the way in which Hypsipyle whipsaws between being the one who harms and the one who is harmed. Deceit is a common denominator in both parts of her story.
In verse 100 Dante transitions to the bolgia of flattery, where the sinners are immersed in shit. The inventive rhyme-words, taken from everyday life and resolutely non-literary—for instance “scuffa”/“muffa”/“zuffa” (Inf. 18.104-8)—are used to give a plebeian tone to the degraded surroundings of the final two sinners of Inferno 18.
Dante sees a man whose head is so covered with shit that it is impossible to discern whether he is lay or cleric: “vidi un col capo sì di merda lordo, / che non parëa s’era laico o cherco” (I saw one with a head so smeared with shit, / one could not see if he were lay or cleric [Inf. 18.116-7]). With this aside, the poet reminds us that back in Inferno 7 he was able to recognize the clerics among the misers of the fourth circle, a group that includes cardinals and popes. At that time Dante was able to discern the tonsured heads of the clerics (Inf. 7.46-7); now such details are not visible.
The pilgrim forcefully names this sinner, Alessio Interminelli of Lucca (Inf. 18.122), despite his unwillingness to be named. Both Italian sinners in this canto crave anonymity, and both have long and mellifluous names that Dante seems to delight in spreading out over the length of the verse: first “Venedico se’ tu Caccianemico” (You are Venedico Caccianmico [Inf. 18.50]), and then “e se’ Alessio Interminei da Lucca” (You are Alessio Interminelli of Lucca [Inf. 18.122]).
There is a division of labor in Inferno 18 between Dante (contemporary) and Virgilio (classical) that is keyed to the contemporary/classical couplings of the souls.
In bolgia one the pilgrim recognizes and names Venedico, while Virgilio points to Jason (“Quelli è Iasón” ); in bolgia two the pilgrim recognizes and names Alessio, while Virgilio points to Thaïs. This division of labor is reflected in linguistic markers as well: Venedico claims that Dante constrains him to reveal himself because he speaks with a “chiara favella” (plain speech ), while Virgilio notes approvingly Jason’s “parole ornate” (polished words ). Moreover, Virgilio demonstrates open admiration for Jason, complimenting his “regal aspect”: “quanto aspetto reale ancor ritene!” (how he still keeps the image of a king! [Inf. 18.85]).
The division of labor between Dante and Virgilio in Inferno 18 anticipates the pièce de résistance of classical/contemporary couples in Malebolge: Ulysses and Guido da Montefeltro. Virgilio insists that he should be the one to speak to Ulysses (Inferno 26), because he is Greek, and then instructs Dante to address Guido da Montefeltro, given that Guido is Italian (Inferno 27).
The last figure in Inferno 18 is the classical Thaïs, who is a whore in Terence’s comic play Eunuchus. This is a play that Cicero cites in De Amicitia XXVI.98 and Cicero is most likely Dante’s source. Dante misunderstands his source and inverts the flatterer and the flattered, ascribing the wrong role to Thaïs.
The erudite and Latinate context from which Thaïs derives does not preclude her being described in the sexualized terms that we have seen throughout Inferno 18. She is the “sozza e scapigliata fante / che là si graffia con l’unghie merdose” (that besmirched, bedraggled harridan / who scratches at herself with shit-filled nails [Inf. 18.130-1]). The adjective “scapigliata” in verse 130, which specifies the courtesan’s “bedroom hair”, reminds us that Dante does not sexualize hair in the infernal canto that treats lust (Inferno 5), as he certainly does with respect to Thaïs here, and as he does as well with respect to Manto in Inferno 20. (For the sexualizing of hair and Dante’s avoidance of it in his treatment of lust in the Commedia, see “Dante’s Sympathy for the Other”, cited in Coordinated Reading.)
The vulgarity of the Dantean verse that conjures Thaïs’ past profession, “e or s’accoscia e ora è in piedi stante” (and now she crouches, now she stands upright [Inf. 18.132]), stands in fascinating contrast to the dialogue that follows between Thaïs and her lover (most likely translated from Cicero’s De Amicitia), in which the courtesan speaks flatteringly and with hyper-courtesy:
Taide è, la puttana che rispuose al drudo suo quando disse “Ho io grazie grandi apo te?”: “Anzi maravigliose!”. (Inf. 18.133-35)
That is Thais, the harlot who returned her lover’s question, “Are you very grateful to me?” by saying, “Yes, enormously.”
For Dante, the perfumed nature of Thaïs’ brief speech act is linguistic deceit in action. The narrator makes the deceitfulness of Thaïs’ speech clear by affirming what she is, insisting on her essentialized nature as a “puttana” (verse 133): a whore, someone incapable of engaging in courteous language unless for reasons of deceit. In the essentialized language that makes Thaïs a puttana Dante gives us his final sexualized sinner of Inferno 18.