- this is the bolgia of divination and false prophecy: forms of determinism
- and yet Dante does not engage the most important medieval art of divination, astrology
- the commentator Benvenuto da Imola implicates Dante in the material of this bolgia
- instead of dealing with contemporary astrology and the issues of determinism it raises, Dante deflects by litigating the truth value of classical poetry and classical culture
- the canto focuses on four classical diviners associated with four great classical texts: Amphiaraus from Statius’ Thebaid, Tiresias from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Arruns from Lucan’s Pharsalia, and Manto from Vergil’s Aeneid
- the brief mentions of medieval astrologers Michael Scot and Guido Bonatti recall the astrologer who in real life engaged Dante textually, Cecco d’Ascoli (1257-1327)
- Virgilio is again, and more explicitly than before, assigned the task of debunking the Aeneid
- tragedìa vs. comedìa
- two classical sorceresses in the Inferno — Erichtho and Manto — both connected to Virgilio
- gender issues: the unnamed contemporary witches are treated with far less respect than the wizard Michael Scot
- the classical seer Tiresias and Dante’s fascination with transgressing the boundary of gender: transgender experience
 Inferno 20 deals with the sin that commentators have traditionally referred to as false prophecy or divination. In this bolgia Dante features the gamut of activities with which humans have attempted to foretell the future and to convince fellow humans that they are able to do so. He features these activities, but he also sidesteps them, evading a confrontation with the importance of these activities in his own day.
 Dante lived in a moment when prophecy, divination, magic, alchemy, and astrology were intensely valued and intensely debated. The views of various claimants to inspired truth existed in tension, and many attacks of “false prophet” are launched and rebutted and litigated throughout this period. One example is the life and subsequent reception of Joachim of Flora, the Cistercian abbot and mystic who died in 1202. Dante places Joachim in the heaven of the sun and describes him as “endowed with prophetic spirit”: “di spirito profetico dotato” (Par. 12.141). And yet, having been supported by the Church while alive, Joachim’s ideas excited suspicion later on: they were condemned by Alexander IV in 1256, his central doctrine was confuted by St. Thomas in the Summa Theologiae (I-II, Q. 106, a. 4), and its Franciscan exponents were sternly repressed by St. Bonaventure.
 Dante does not use his bolgia of false prophets and diviners to wrestle with contemporary debates around the practices of prophecy, divination, or astrology. Rather, in Inferno 20 Dante deflects: he features classical diviners rather than Christian ones. He sidesteps the crucial contemporary issues with which he could have engaged.
 Most interestingly, Dante deflects astrology, a pursuit in which he personally took pleasure, according to the astute gloss offered by the fourteenth-century commentator Benvenuto da Imola: “qui aliquantulum delectatus est in astrologia” (who to some degree took pleasure in astrology). (The citation is from Benvenuto’s commentary to Inferno 20.19-24: Benvenuti de Rambaldis de Imola, Comentum super Dantis Aldigherij Comoediam, ed. J. P. Lacaita, 5 vols. [Firenze: Barbèra, 1887], vol. 2, p. 67, also available through the Dartmouth Dante Project.)
 Benvenuto goes so far as to implicate Dante in astrology, a sin of this bolgia, writing that the matter of this bolgia touches the author personally. Indeed, this is the observation that leads him to note that Dante took pleasure in astrology: “praesens negotium tangebat autorem ipsum, qui aliquantulum delectatus est in astrologia” (the present matter touches the author himself, who to some degree took pleasure in astrology).
 Benvenuto goes on to suggest that the author reveals his personal connection to this sin through the weeping pilgrim. The pilgrim, weeping at the grotesquely twisted bodies of this bolgia, really weeps out of compassion at Dante’s own “error”: “Ideo bene fingit se nunc ita plorare compatiens aliis et sibi de errore suo” (Therefore he does well to depict himself now weeping, having compassion for others and himself for his error). So what is this “error” of which Benvenuto writes?
 Astrology is the most important form of divination in Dante’s time. In the medieval period astrology still had academic, scientific, and philosophical standing. In our modern age, “astrology” has declined into a pseudoscience, while the scientific study of the stars is now termed “astronomy”. In Dante’s time, astrology was not distinguished from astronomy.
 Dante mentions two medieval astrologers in Inferno 20 (three if we include Asdente). All are briefly touched upon at the end of the canto. One tercet (Inf. 20.115-17) is devoted to the very important figure of Michael Scot, an astrologer and scholar whose work is central in the history of the transmission of Aristotle in the West:
Michael Scot, (born c. 1175—died c. 1235), Scottish scholar and mathematician whose translations of Aristotle from Arabic and Hebrew into Latin are a landmark in the reception of that philosopher in western Europe.
Scot was famous in the European Middle Ages as an astrologer and soon acquired a popular reputation as a wizard. He is first recorded at Toledo in 1217, where he finished translating the treatise of al-Biṭrūjī (Alpetragius) on the sphere. In 1220 he was in Bologna and during the years 1224–27 may have been in papal service, as he is mentioned in several papal letters. A pluralist, he was promoted archbishop of Cashel in Ireland (May 1224) but declined the see a month later. He seems, however, to have held benefices in Italy from time to time. After 1227 he was at the Sicilian court of the Holy Roman emperor Frederick II and was mentioned as recently dead in a poem written early in 1236.
His works are mainly undated, but those on natural philosophy seem to predominate in his earlier, Spanish period, and those on astrology in his later, Sicilian period. At Toledo, in addition to his translation of al-Biṭrūjī, Scot translated Aristotle’s Historia animalium from Hebrew or Arabic. He also translated, perhaps at this time, Aristotle’s De caelo, and he was probably responsible for the translations of the De anima and the commentary by Averroës that is found in the same manuscripts. There is no evidence that Scot translated Aristotle’s Physics, Metaphysics, or Ethics.
He wrote three treatises on astrology, and several alchemical works were ascribed to him. He appears in Dante’s Inferno (xx) among the magicians and soothsayers and has the same role in Boccaccio.
 Immediately after the sighting of Michael Scot, Virgilio points to the thirteenth-century Italian Guido Bonatti: “Vedi Guido Bonatti” (Inf. 20.118). Bonatti is, according to Cesare Vasoli, “il più autorevole trattatista di astrologia del Medioevo italiano” (the most authoritative author of astrological treatises in the Italian Middle Ages; see “Bonatti, Guido,” in Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, available online at Treccani.it, accessed 10/27/2015). Vasoli cites Bonatti’s self-description from 1260: “astrologus Communis Florentiae de Forolivio” (astrologer of the Commune of Florence from Forlì).
 The intellectual profiles of Michael Scot and Guido Bonatti — the latter was astrologer to various lords whose careers interested Dante: Ezzelino da Romano, Guido Novello da Polenta, and Guido da Montefeltro — offer many points of interest to the author of the Commedia. Dante himself both concedes the importance of the stars in determining some human traits and dispositions but also vehemently rejects the idea that they determine our choices. The cannot determine our choices, Dante states categorically in Purgatorio 16 (see especially verses 73-6), because humans are endowed with free will.
 At the same time there is no denying that Dante engages in a kind of generic determinism in the Commedia, a poem that reads the future with respect to every character we meet. It is clear that determinism in this non-technical sense is built into the very enterprise of writing a poem that adjudicates the afterlife. Moreover, the same Paradiso that defends the absolute freedom of the will also presents souls who return to their natal stars, an idea that the poet then has to dismiss as a metaphor. The representational template that governs Paradiso is revealed, with fanfare, to be merely a trope; it could not possibly reflect reality, Beatrice explains in Paradiso 4, because the idea of the soul returning to its natal star is dangerous, a deterministic Platonic “poison”.
 Again, we marvel at the perspicacity of Benvenuto da Imola, who also notes in his commentary to Inferno 20 that Dante in the Commedia set out to predict some future events: “et voluit praedicere aliqua futura, sicut patet in libro isto” (Dante wanted to predict some future things, as appears in this same book).
 One of the future events that Dante predicts is the damnation of Boniface VIII, who was not yet dead — hence not yet damned — when Dante visited the bolgia of the simonists in April 1300. In Inferno 19 Pope Nicholas III claims to have read in the book of the future — the “scritto” of Inferno 19.54 — that Boniface VIII will eventually join him in the third bolgia of the eighth circle. By condemning Boniface to Hell while he was still alive (Boniface died on 11 October 1303), Dante effectively denies Boniface the benefit of his free will. In doctrinal terms, Boniface should have had the opportunity to repent until the last moment of his life, as Dante knew full well; in fact, Dante dramatizes precisely this doctrine of repentance in extremis in the case of Bonconte da Montefeltro in Purgatorio 5.
 How can Boniface be free to repent until the hour of his death on 11 October 1303 when his name is already inscribed in the book of the future in April 1300? The case of the pre-damnation of Boniface VIII in Inferno 19 seems dangerously deterministic, even discounting the generic determinism that inheres to the genre of afterlife vision.
 Dante-poet opines in Inferno 19.88 that he was perhaps “troppo folle” (too rash) in the outraged tirade he directs at Nicholas III: “Io non so s’i’ mi fui qui troppo folle, / ch’i’ pur rispuosi lui a questo metro” (I do not know if I was too rash here — I answered so [Inf. 19.88-9]). In fact, Dante-poet was “troppo folle” in Inferno 19 — but less in what he says than in what he does: he engineers the theologically audacious pre-damnation of Boniface VIII.
 Dante steps back in Inferno 20. He evades determinism and astrology and the dangers surrounding these issues by focusing on classical diviners instead of medieval astrologers.
 Dante’s substitution of classical diviners for medieval astrologers is a way of distancing the Commedia from the practice of divination by contemporary medieval astrologers. It is a way of distancing himself from the dangers of determinism, the determinism for which Cecco d’Ascoli attacks Inferno 7 and the determinism that we note in the treatment of Boniface VIII in Inferno 19.
 And yet, the historical record offers us some traces of the reality that Dante did not fully succeed in distancing himself from the deterministic quotient of the Commedia. We have been considering Benvenuto da Imola, and we should also consider the links between Dante and the astrologer Cecco d’Ascoli (1269-1327), the author of the philosophical poem Acerba. Cecco attacks Dante on a number of counts in Acerba, where he makes clear that he views Dante as engaged in an inferior version of his own project.
 Cecco would not have taken the trouble to condemn Dante’s project if he had not viewed Dante’s project as in some fundamental ways analogous to his own. Moreover, if Dante’s project had not overlapped in some ways with that of professional astrologers like himself, Cecco would have had no interest in competing with him.
 Very interesting in this context is Cecco’s indictment of verse 89 of Inferno 7, which he considers an example of determinism on Dante’s part. See the Appendix to the Commento on Inferno 7, where I explain that Cecco’s attack was not dismissed as without foundation by contemporaries. Rather, both Boccaccio and Benvenuto da Imola took Cecco’s concern about Inferno 7.89 seriously.
 Benvenuto da Imola was right on target when he wrote of Inferno 20 that “the present matter touches the author himself”. Here is the full passage from Benvenuto’s commentary to Inferno 20, verses 19-24:
praesens negotium tangebat autorem ipsum, qui aliquantulum delectatus est in astrologia, et voluit praedicere aliqua futura, sicut patet in libro isto. Ideo bene fingit se nunc ita plorare compatiens aliis et sibi de errore suo.
the present matter touches the author himself, who to some degree took pleasure in astrology, and wanted to predict some future things, as appears in this same book. Therefore he does well to depict himself now weeping, having compassion for others and himself for his error. (Benevenuti de Rambaldis de Imola, Comentum super Dantis Aldigherij Comoediam, ed. J. P. Lacaita [Florence: Barbèra, 1887], commentary to Inferno 20.19-24, available through the Dartmouth Dante Project)
 What did Benveunto mean by “some future things” — “aliqua futura”? Perhaps with the qualification that Dante wanted to predict “some future things” Benvenuto intends the Commedia’s specific prophecies: the prophecy of the coming of the veltro in Inferno 1.101, the prophecy of the DXV in Purgatorio 33.43, and so forth. But the real point is that the entire Commedia is a prophecy, a revelation concerning matters hidden to ordinary mortals, not given to us to see.
 Benvenuto vigorously defended Dante against Cecco’s charge of determinism in Inferno 7.89. But Benvenuto’s commentary to Inferno 20 shows that he was nonetheless fully aware of the ways in which Dante was complicit and that he understood that Dante’s behavior might indeed excite suspicion. Benvenuto’s insightful comment about the weeping pilgrim and Dante’s participation in the “error” of this bolgia shows us that even Dante-poet’s concerted attempt at deflection and evasion was not sufficient to get Benvenuto off the scent.
 In short, with the sinners of Inferno 20 Dante is dealing with versions of himself. The poet distances the sinners in this bolgia by choosing figures from classical antiquity. He does so because the topic at hand is one of too much potential personal proximity.
* * *
 Instead of litigating astral determinism or mystical prophecies about the future of Christendom in Inferno 20, Dante litigates the truth value of classical culture.
 As we have seen, Dante chooses to avoid the issue of truth claims and prophecy in contemporary society in this canto. Instead, he turns his treatment of false prophecy into an indictment of the limitations and hubris of classical culture. This canto is thus linked to others where there are negative characterizations of figures from classical antiquity, for instance Inferno 9 (featuring Erichtho, Medusa, etc.) and Inferno 14 (Capaneo). Inferno 20 is also linked to canti where Dante-poet finds an imaginative way to undermine the authority of the Aeneid as carrier of truth; this he does, for instance, in the encounter with Pier della Vigna in Inferno 13.
 Capaneo is particularly relevant to our discussion here, because he is in Hell as a blasphemer, and blasphemy is a religious crime. We recall that Dante presents the scene of the blasphemer who taunts Jove to use his thunderbolts, using language studded with references to classical mythology. As he does in Inferno 20, Dante in Inferno 14 sidesteps a contentious area of contemporary religious life and uses a classical figure as a form of avoidance.
 In Inferno 20 Dante focuses on the soothsayers and diviners of antiquity. He features four classical figures, each one taken from one of the great epic poems of classical antiquity. Inferno 20 falls into four narrative segments. Lines 1-30 present the sin of divination in general terms. Lines 31-57 introduce famous diviners of antiquity, each of whom figures in and represents a major classical text. Lines 58-99 encompass the digression on the founding of the city of Mantova. Lines 100-130 contain Dante’s query regarding further diviners, and Virgilio’s response, in which he names Eurypylus from the Aeneid and the contemporary practitioners discussed above.
 The four diviners of antiquity who dominate the bolgia of false prophecy and divination in Dante’s telling are:
- Amphiaraus from Statius’ Thebaid
- Tiresias from Ovid’s Metamorphoses
- Arruns from Lucan’s Pharsalia
- Manto from Vergil’s Aeneid
 Inferno 20 is also an important installment in the ongoing Vergilian narrative: Virgilio does most of the speaking in Inferno 20 and he speaks with unusual passion. Perhaps because of the severe condemnation of classical culture in this canto, Virgilio feels the need to distance himself from the sinners here with greater than usual vigor. Virgilio speaks with the same kind of harshness to Capaneo in Inferno 14, and there are interesting points of contact, centered on the city of Thebes and its dark history, between Capaneo and three of the diviners of Inferno 20.
 When Dante weeps at the sight of the deformed bodies of the diviners, whose heads are twisted around so that their tears run down their buttocks, Virgilio rebukes him in no uncertain terms: “Qui vive la pietà quand’ è ben morta” (Here pity only lives when it is dead [Inf. 20.28]).
 Virgilio’s strong condemnation of the diviners requires him, moreover, to inveigh against the prophetess Manto, featured in his own poem, the Aeneid, where she is the founder of a city named after her. Mantova is the city where the Latin poet was born, as we remember from Virgilio’s first speech in Inferno 1: “e li parenti miei furon lombardi, / mantoani per patria ambedui” (Both of my parents came from Lombardy, / and both claimed Mantua as native city [Inf. 1.58-9]).
 Manto is not the first classical sorceress named in the Inferno. That honor goes to Erichtho, by whose black magic Virgilio was compelled to make this journey once before: according to Virgilio he was “congiurato da quella Eritón cruda / che richiamava l’ombre a’ corpi sui” (compelled by that savage Erichtho / who called the shades back to their bodes [Inf. 9.23-4]). We note that Erichtho’s power, in Virgilio’s telling, is demiurgic: she can reconnect shades to their bodies, in a perverse kind of resurrection. According to Virgilio’s story in Inferno 9, Erichtho “forced” him to undertake his previous entry of the city of Dis: “ella mi fece intrar dentr’ a quel muro” (she made me enter that wall [Inf. 9.26]). Dante raises the question of coercion, and suggests Virgilio’s passivity in the face of Erichtho’s power.
 But can one’s will be coerced by a sorceress, by a diviner, by a seer? Can the stars determine our fates? Determinism is the core issue here.
 Virgilio now tells the story of Manto — who is connected to Erichtho by her identity as a classical sorceress and by the adjective “cruda” — significantly and negatively altering the earlier account in the tenth book of the Aeneid. The Latin poem relates that the prophetess bears a child, Ocnus, who founds the city and gives it his mother’s name: “qui muros matrisque dedit tibi, Mantua, nomen” (who gave you walls and the name of his mother, O Mantua [Aen. 10.200]). The Commedia, on the other hand, relates that Manto, childless and indeed a “savage vergin” (“la vergine cruda” [Inf. 20.82]), settled and died in a spot later chosen by men from the surrounding regions as suitable for a city: “Fer la città sovra quell’ossa morte” (They built a city over her dead bones [Inf. 20.91]). Virgilio’s correction of the text of the Aeneid with respect to Manto constitutes another authorial self-correction of the sort that Dante-poet imposed upon Virgilio at the end of Inferno 14, where Virgilio must explain that the river Lethe is not in Hell but in Purgatory, a contradiction of the description of the underworld in Aeneid 6.
 In the Aeneid Manto is fertile and sutured to local history, bearing a son who founds a city in her name. In the Commedia Manto is cut off from civilization, a vergine cruda who left no son but only her bones to mark the place where she had lived, in a spot later chosen by others for a city. At the end of Virgilio’s speech detailing the founding of Mantova, he instructs the pilgrim to disregard all other accounts of his birthplace: “la mia terra” (Inf. 20.98). The only true version of the founding of Mantova is the one he has just heard, says Virgilio. In fact, the pilgrim must “let no lie defraud the truth”, in other words he must reject all other accounts as false:
Però t’assenno che, se tu mai odi originar la mia terra altrimenti, la verità nulla menzogna frodi. (Inf. 20.97-9)
Therefore, I charge you, if you ever hear a different tale of my town’s origin, do not let any falsehood gull the truth.
 Here we find a programmatic undermining of the Aeneid. In Dante’s Poets, I note: “But in what source could Dante find the story of ‘mia terra’ told ‘altrimenti,’ if not in the Aeneid? According to Vergil’s own statement then, the Aeneid is a text that — like the false prophets of this bolgia — is capable of defrauding the truth” (Dante’s Poets, p. 217).
 Echoing Inferno 13, where Virgilio positions the Aeneid’s account of a man changed into a tree as a “cosa incredibile” and the Commedia’s account of the metamorphosis of Pier della Vigna into a tree as true and therefore credible, in Inferno 20 Virgilio dismisses as false the account of the founding of Mantova told in Aeneid 10 and replaces it with the “true” version of the Commedia.
 All of these elements feed into the important information about genre that Virgilio offers toward the end of Inferno 20, where he calls his Aeneid “l’alta mia tragedìa” (my high tragedy [Inf. 20.113]). At the beginning of canto 21 Dante reconfirms that his poem is, instead, a “comedìa”:
Così di ponte in ponte, altro parlando che la mia comedìa cantar non cura, venimmo... (Inf. 21.1-3)
We came along from one bridge to another, talking of things my Comedy is not concerned to sing.
 The three occasions on which Dante uses the genre terminology comedìa vs. tragedìa are all in Inferno:
- Inferno 16.128: the narrator swears an oath by the notes of his comedìa as he seeks to describe the not-to-be-believed arrival of Geryon, “maravigliosa ad ogne cor sicuro” (enough to bring amazement to tehe firmest heart [Inf. 16.132])
- Inferno 20.113: toward the end of Inferno 20 Virgilio calls the Aeneid his “alta tragedìa”
- Inferno 21.2: soon thereafter, at the outset of Inferno 21, Dante refers to “la mia comedìa”, as though in reply to Virgilio’s “alta mia tragedìa” at the end of the previous canto
 Dante uses this constellation of moments to define his poem in juxtaposition to Vergil’s Aeneid, the greatest poem of antiquity that he had read, through a system of associations analyzed in Dante’s Poets:
The language of line 99, with its harsh juxtaposition of verità and menzogna, as well as the appearance in line 113 of tragedia, the Comedy’s second genre term, indicate the close ties which bind this episode to that of canto XVI: Vergil’s poem, defined as a tragedia, is, at least at times, a lie that defrauds the truth, while Dante’s poem is a truth that sometimes bears the face of a lie. Such a poetic truth is, as we already know, a comedìa, a term Dante will now use for the last time in the opening verses of canto XXI. We note the progressive unfolding of information: first the implicit association of the Aeneid with menzogna in XX, 99; then Vergil’s reference to his poem as “l’alta mia tragedia” in XX, 113, which results in the alignment of menzogna and tragedia; and finally, safely distanced from the tragedies of the ancients by the boundary between cantos XX and XXI, the reference to Dante’s poem as “la mia comedìa” in XXI, 2, which confirms that his poem is the opposite of the Aeneid and therefore also of menzogna. (Dante’s Poets, pp. 217-18)
 There is a second diviner from the Aeneid in Inferno 20. The minor character Eurypylus is revised by Dante from a common foot-soldier in the Aeneid to an augur in Inferno 20.106-17, thus becoming another element in the massive rewriting of the Aeneid that we find in Inferno 20. Moreover, Virgilio points precisely to the heavily revised Eurypylus to commend Dante for knowing the Aeneid — his “alta tragedìa” (113) — in its entirety:
Euripilo ebbe nome, e così ’l canta l’alta mia tragedìa in alcun loco: ben lo sai tu che la sai tutta quanta. (Inf. 20.112-14)
His name’s Eurypylus; a certain passage of my high tragedy has sung it so you know that well enough, who know the whole of it.
 Dante-poet thus puts Virgilio, his character, into an unenviable position in Inferno 20, scripting for him a wholesale repudiation of the Aeneid on the subject of the founding of Mantova and following up with a similar insistence that Virgilio embrace a completely different Eurypylus from the minor character in his poem:
The episode belongs to the Aeneid’s second book. In order to persuade the Trojans to take the fateful horse into their city, Sinon invents his deceitful tale, claiming that the Greeks were going to offer him in sacrifice to Apollo; Eurypylus is the soldier who, according to Sinon, was sent to consult the oracle, which would respond by demanding a Greek life: “suspensi Eurypylum scitatum oracula Phoebi / mittimus” (Uncertain, we send Eurypylus to consult the oracle of Phoebus [Aeneid II, 114-115]). In canto XX Dante transforms this harmless messenger into a partner of the seer Calchas, responsible with Calchas for the sacrifice of Iphigenia at Aulis, and has Vergil insist on this identification by pointing to the Aeneid as its source and stressing Dante’s thorough knowledge of that text, a poem that he is said to know in its entirety, “tutta quanta”. (Dante’s Poets, p. 221)
 As the above analysis demonstrates, through the figure Eurypylus Dante-poet enmeshes Virgilio’s alta tragedìa in a skein of lies and deceit going back to Sinon — Malebolge’s quintessential liar — and the Trojan Horse.
 Nonetheless, while in Dante’s Poets I stress the negative implications of the tercet devoted to the revision of Eurypylus, I now note that — despite the Virgilian violations in which this tribute to Dante’s knowledge of the Aeneid occurs — there is still genuine satisfaction in witnessing Dante’s claim to know Vergil’s alta tragedìa from stem to stern: “tutta quanta” — all of it. Dante may revise the Aeneid for his own purposes, but he honored it enough to learn it by heart. There is, moreover, something quite remarkable about the simplicity and directness of verse 114: the spoken cadence of “ben lo sai tu che la sai tutta quanta” carries the conviction of lived experience.
* * *
 The treatment of Tiresias and Manto reverts to the gendered and sexualized language that is featured in Inferno 18 and that needs to be systematically explored in the treatment of lower Hell. Here the emphasis is very much on the body, apparent from the frequent use of words referring to body parts: 26 in the course of 126 verses. (For charts and further discussion of the most “body-saturated” canti in Inferno, see the Commento on Inferno 25.) The bodies of the diviners are twisted and distorted. Their punishment for trying to see too far “ahead” is to have their heads now literally face backwards: “perché volle veder troppo davante, / di retro guarda e fa retroso calle” (and since he wanted so to see ahead, / he looks behind and walks a backward path [Inf. 20.38-9]).
 Dante takes this opportunity to remind us that Tiresias is the ancient prophet who had a transgender experience, having experienced life as both male and female: “quando di maschio femmina divenne” (when he from male became female [Inf. 20.41]). While the evocation of Tiresias’s experience of gender is not negative, the description of Manto, the “vergine cruda” of Inferno 20.82, dwells on her sexuality in crude and degrading fashion that is highly gendered. There are references to her “breasts” (“mammelle” [Inf. 20.52]), her “hairy parts” (“ogne pilosa pelle” [Inf. 20.54]) and to her “loosened braids”: “le trecce sciolte” (Inf. 20.53). The sexualization of hair, present also in the treatment of Thaïs in Inferno 18 and notably absent from the circle of lust in Inferno 5, is a typical misogynist trope employed to attack female transgression and sexuality.
 This gendered treatment of false prophecy, emphasized in the figure of Manto, is reprised at canto’s end with the fascinating and depressing reference to anonymous contemporary female diviners:
Vedi le triste che lasciaron l’ago, la spuola e ’l fuso, e fecersi ’ndivine; fecer malie con erbe e con imago. (Inf. 20.121-23)
See those sad women who had left their needle, shuttle, and spindle to become diviners; they cast their spells with herbs and effigies.
 There is no language that more confines females to their gendered niche than the words “ago”, “spuola,” and “fuso”: “needle,” “shuttle,” and “spindle” (Inf. 20.121-122). The point here is that these “triste” — sad and miserable female wretches — should have stayed faithful to their needles and spindles, rather than branching out to “make themselves diviners”: “fecersi ’ndivine” (122).
 We note the contrast between the treatment of these unnamed contemporary witches to that of the male astrologers whom Dante mentions by name. Michael Scot was popularly considered a wizard (see the Encyclopedia Britannica entry cited above), a view that Dante clearly endorses: he uses the word “magic” in relation to Michael Scot, writing that “veramente / de le magiche frode seppe ’l gioco” (he certainly / knew how the game of magic fraud was played [Inf. 20.116-17]). The adjective “magiche” in “magiche frode” is a hapax in the Commedia: the only form of the term “magic” to appear in the poem, it draws attention to the magical component of astrology and to Michael Scot’s status as a wizard. The word “magiche” also reminds us of the witch Erichtho, of whom we could also say that “veramente / de le magiche frode seppe ’l gioco”.
 Despite his damning knowledge of fraudulent magic, Michael Scot was a mathematician and a scholar, a translator of Aristotle from Arabic, and he maintains some of the dignity accorded to his (male) professional attainments in Dante’s Hell. So too for Guido Bonatti, despite the “fama di empietà e di oscura stregoneria” (fame of impiety and witchcraft) attributed to him by Vasoli in the biography cited above.
 Even the lowly cobbler of Parma is referred to by his nickname, Asdente (118). Although distinguished from the even lowlier females by the dignity of a name, Asdente is nonetheless also connected to the anoynmous witches who follow him in Virgilio’s presentation. He is castigated for not having stuck to the tools of his trade, “his cord and leather”: “ch’avere inteso al cuoio e a lo spago / ora vorrebbe” (who now would wish he had attended to / his cord and leather [Inf. 20.119-20]). Asdente’s cuoio and spago introduce the list of tools that the women foolishly left behind to become witches: “l’ago, / la spuola e ’l fuso” [Inf. 20.121-2]). From cord and leather we move to needles, shuttles, and spindles: Asdente’s lower class status seems to position him as the male pivot to the divining women who “fecer malie con erbe e con imago” (cast their spells with herbs and effigies [Inf. 20.123]).
 Manto, a pagan female sorceress who has no offsetting male professional attainments to her credit, is treated in a harsh and degradingly sexualized manner in this canto: she is, as we saw, the “vergine cruda” (Inf. 20.82). But at least Manto has a name, and a city named after her, however the story of its founding is negatively revised.
 The sad and lowly unnamed female witches of Inferno 20 are forerunners of the many women who were condemned to cruel and gendered fates, as witches, in the centuries to come.
Tiresias: “Hardly nobody gets to live two genders in their life”
 Tiresias is presented in a way that explicitly recalls the Ovidian tale told in Metamorphoses 3.316–36. Dante conjures the prophet as one who experienced life both as male and as female:
Vedi Tiresia, che mutò sembiante quando di maschio femmina divenne cangiandosi le membra tutte quante; e prima, poi, ribatter li convenne li duo serpenti avvolti, con la verga, che riavesse le maschili penne. (Inf. 20.40-45)
And see Tiresias, who changed his mien when from a man he turned into a woman, so totally transforming all his limbs that then he had to strike once more upon the two entwining serpents with his wand before he had his manly plumes again.
 Ovid tells the story of Tiresias who witnesses two large snakes mating in the forest and strikes them. As a result the seer is transformed into a woman, living as a woman for seven years. In the eighth year he happens upon the same snakes again and resolves to strike them again. He is transformed back into a man, regaining his “prior form”: “forma prior rediit” (Metam. 3.331).
 Dante’s condensed account in Inferno 20 of Tireisias’ double transformation foreshadows the metamorphoses of Inferno 25. The experience is one that involves “cangiandosi le membra tutte quante” (totally transforming all his limbs [Inf. 20.42]) and the phrase “mutò sembiante” in verse 40 anticipates the programmatic mutare of canto 25: “Così vid’ io la settima zavorra / mutare e trasmutare” (And so I saw the seventh ballast change /and rechange [Inf. 25.142-43]). There are more connections that would bear further investigation, synthesized in the reference to “li duo serpenti avvolti” (the two entwining snakes) of Inferno 20.44: the seventh bolgia teems with entwining snakes, but not loving ones, like those of the Tireisias myth — nor for that matter, of the Cadmus myth, to name an Ovidian figure whom Dante cites in Inferno 25.97. Cadmus and his wife Harmonia are transformed in Metamorphoses 4.563-603 into two loving snakes, reminiscent of the copulating snakes struck by Tiresias, and very unlike the terror-inducing predator-serpents of the seventh bolgia.
 But these considerations, while important for any full accounting of Tireisias’ story as an intertext of Inferno 25, take us away from the issue that I want to stress here, which is the importance of gender in Inferno 20. The Ovidian tale of Tireisias is evoked in language that is highly gendered — “maschio”, “femmina”, “maschili” — and has the specific merit of explicitly raising the issue of transgender experience.
 Dante is fascinated by the idea of transgressing the strictly patrolled boundary of male-female gender. Already in early lyrics in the Vita Nuova he imagines transgressing female space and being able to mourn alongside women, in a way that was socially unacceptable:
Voi che portate gives us a glimpse of a Dante who is not comfortable with the social norms with which he lives, a poet who uses poetry to create occasions for dialogue and encounter that are not permitted by the world around him. His intense desire to participate in the female work of mourning — caught in the imperatives “Ditelmi, donne” (tell me, ladies ) and “nol mi celate” (don’t hide it from me ) — verges on impropriety. His is a desire that threatens to trespass the rigid social barrier placed between male and female and that also risks feminizing him. We will see in the next sonnet how the ladies take action to re-establish the normal divisions between the sexes and between their roles. (Dante’s Lyric Poetry: Poems of Youth and of the Vita Nuova, p. 195)
 The brief but compelling evocation of Tireisias’ transgender experience speaks to a long-term Dantean aspiration.