- a schematic and exemplary canto, in which the souls are more exempla than characters
- the first and only use of the term “contrapasso”
- a genre or style is proclaimed: the modo sozzo or “foul style”
- truth-telling that causes social discomfort and shame, in a reprise of the Geryon episode of Inferno 16
- the arc of history can bend toward evil for an entire people: the Jews (in Inferno 23) and now the Tuscans
The ninth bolgia is devoted to the “seminator di scandalo e di scisma”: the “sowers of scandal and of schism” (Inf. 28.35). While commentator Natalino Sapegno and others take the two terms “scandalo” and “scisma” as roughly synonymous, not interpreting “schism” in its specifically religious significance, Anna Maria Chiavacci Leonardi defines “scandalo” as referring to civil discord and “scisma” as referring to religious discord (Chiavacci Leonardi, ed., Inferno [Milan: Mondadori, 2005], p. 826; also available through the Dartmouth Dante Project).
In other words, in the overall category—sowers of discord—there are two sub-categories: sowers of civic discord (“scandalo”) and sowers of religious discord (“scisma”). The ninth bolgia contains political and religious figures who span history from antiquity to Dante’s time and whom Dante views as having fostered schism or division within the body politic of the Church or of the state.
These figures also span the globe geographically, as testified by the presence of the two great figures that lend Inferno 28 its notoriety: Mohammed, whom Dante considers responsible for dividing Christianity, and his son-in-law Alì (does Dante consider him responsible for dividing Islam?). Chiavacci Leonardi cites the tradition according to which Mohammed was believed to have originally been a Christian priest: “Secondo la tradizione medievale dell’Occidente, Maometto era infatti in origine un prete cristiano” (Inferno, p. 836). In fact, Dante’s former teacher, Brunetto Latini, presents Mohammed in the Tresor as an “evil preacher, who drove the people from the faith and cast them into error” (1.88). We note, too, how the placement of Mohammed picks up from the previous canto’s reference to “Saracens” and the fall of Acre to the Muslims in 1291 (Inf. 27.87-89).
Inferno 28 has a schematic and exemplary quality. It lacks the psychological profundity of Inferno 27, for instance. Like Inferno 25, Inferno 28 is rhetorically flashy and psychologically shallow. In its insistence on a virtuosity of gruesomeness, the representation of the bolgia of the sowers of discord is akin to the representation of the bolgia of the thieves, albeit without the sexualized component.
Given its gory materia, Inferno 28 ranks high in the infernal lexicography of body parts. In a catalogue of body parts in Inferno according to usage per canto, compiled by Grace Delmolino, Inferno 28 ranks second after Inferno 25. In Inferno 28 the narrator compiles a tally of 41 body parts, as compared to 63 in Inferno 25. The lexical saturation of these two canti can be compared visually in the charts below:
Inferno 28 signals its virtuosic focus from the outset, opening with a rhetorical question that highlights the narrator and his abilities:
Chi poria mai pur con parole sciolte dicer del sangue e de le piaghe a pieno ch’i’ ora vidi, per narrar più volte? (Inf. 28.1-3)
Who, even with untrammeled words and many attempts at telling, ever could recount in full the blood and wounds that I now saw?
In other words, Dante is saying that he is able to accomplish within the constraints of verse what other writers would not be able to carry off even within the relatively less constrained, and hence easier, medium of prose.
The comparison of verse to prose is itself noteworthy, not a commonplace in Dante’s authorial meditations. Here prose is described with the phrase “parole sciolte”, literally “loosened words”, meaning that in prose words are loosened from the bonds of meter and rhythm. A distinguished user of prose, the Roman historian Livy, will be featured in verse 12: “come Livio scrive, che non erra” (as Livy writes, who does not err). Dante seems to be self-consciously comparing himself to the great classical writer of historical prose, as in Inferno 25 he compares himself to the great classical poets Ovid and Lucan. In Inferno 25 Dante construes his superiority over his classical precursors in terms of the kind of metamorphosis that he alone is able to portray, while in Inferno 28 his superiority is measured in terms of the ability to do in verse what his classical precursor does in prose.
There follows the lengthy accumulation of Romans, Anjevins, and other mutilated combatants who have fallen on the battlefields of southern Italy, part of a simile that introduces the carnage of the ninth bolgia. If all those wounded warriors were assembled and each demonstrated his wounds, it would in no way equal the foulness of this place: “d’aequar sarebbe nulla / il modo de la nona bolgia sozzo” (it would be nothing to equal the foul mode of the ninth pouch [Inf. 28.20-21]).
The task of Inferno is to equal in its textuality the foul mode of infernal reality, which is labeled as though it too were a genre or style, a “foul style”—a “modo . . . sozzo” (Inf. 28.21). (Inferno 28 is the only canto in the Commedia that features two uses of the adjective sozzo: verse 21 is followed by the “faccia sozza” of Mosca de’ Lamberti in verse 105.)
The suggestive label modo sozzo could be seen as another way of describing the special hybridity that characterizes Malebolgian poetics. As in the pouch of the thieves, here we find a foully realistic matter wedded to virtuosic rhetoric, conjoined in a hybrid style whose hallmark is its ability to encompass within a 20-verse span both the erudite reference to the Roman historian Livy and the “tristo sacco / che merda fa di quel che si trangugia” (sad sack that makes shit of what is swallowed [Inf. 28.26-27]).
Inferno 25 and 28 are also similar—and typical of a post-Geryon infernal poetics—in their insistence on the truth of their fantastic representations. In Inferno 25 we find the poet intervening to address the reader:
Se tu se’ or, lettore, a creder lento ciò ch’io dirò, non sarà maraviglia, ché io che ’l vidi, a pena il mi consento. (Inf. 25.46-48)
If, reader, you are slow now to believe what I shall tell, that is no cause for wonder, for I who saw it hardly can accept it.
Similarly, in Inferno 28 the following emphatic intervention precedes the arrival of Bertran de Born: “Io vidi certo, ed ancor par ch’io ’l veggia, / un busto sanza capo” (I surely saw, and it still seems I see, / a trunk without a head [Inf. 28.118-19]).
Here the poet applies what I call “the Geryon principle” (The Undivine Comedy, pp. 60 and 90).
The preamble to announcing the vision of headless Bertran de Born is devoted to the difficulty of telling a truth that everyone will believe is a lie. Dante would be afraid to tell what he saw, he tells us, but luckily he has the protection of his conscience which is like a breastplate of purity:
e vidi cosa ch’io avrei paura, sanza più prova, di contarla solo; se non che coscïenza m’assicura, la buona compagnia che l’uom francheggia sotto l’asbergo del sentirsi pura. (Inf. 28.113-17)
I saw a thing that I should be afraid to tell with no more proof than my own self— except that I am reassured by conscience, that good companion, heartening a man beneath the breastplate of its purity.
The original Geryon sequence in Inferno 16 faced Dante with a similar dilemma, exquisitely social in nature:
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. (Inf. 16.124-26)
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.
We note the stress on shame and fear: the poet’s “vergogna” at describing the fantastic figure of Geryon in Inferno 16 is akin to his “paura” at having to recount the appearance of Bertran de Born in Inferno 28.
Susceptibility to vergogna is a hallmark of Dante’s authorial persona, intriguingly enmeshed with his boldness.
Already in the Vita Nuova, Dante writes that it would be shameful not to be able to account for his poetic practice:
grande vergogna sarebbe a colui che rimasse cose sotto vesta di figura o di colore rettorico, e poscia, domandato, non sapesse denudare le sue parole da cotale vesta, in guisa che avessero verace intendimento. (VN XXV.10 [16.10])
It would be shameful for one who wrote poetry dressed up with figures or rhetorical color not to know how to strip his words of such dress, upon being asked to do so, showing their true sense.
In this same bolgia Dante will see his second cousin, Geri del Bello, and will invite us into the male world of honor codes and the social shame that accrues to a man who does not live according to those codes. Geri del Bello appears in the opening section of Inferno 29. In my discussion of that episode I will return to the question of how Dante positions himself vis-à-vis the feeling of shame.
In Inferno 28 the application of the Geryon principle is further strengthened by the use of the present tense, with the adverb “ancora” carrying the full weight of the poet’s visionary authority. Moreover, a variation in the Geryon strategy is introduced. Whereas in Inferno 16 Geryon was a fantastic truth—a “ver c’ha faccia di menzogna” (Inf. 16.124)—to be assimilated by the pilgrim, now the roles are reversed. Now the pilgrim becomes the source of wonder to the damned souls. His living body provokes the “maraviglia” in them that Geryon once provoked in him: “s’arrestaron nel fosso a riguardarmi / per maraviglia, oblïando il martiro” (they stopped within the ditch and turned / to look at me, amazed, forgetful of their torture [Inf. 28.53-54]). Here Virgilio takes on the role of the poet, insisting on the truth of what he has just recounted, namely the pilgrim’s remarkable itinerary: “e quest’è ver così com’io ti parlo” (and this is true just as I say [Inf. 28.51]).
What is a man to do when he is obliged to recount an unbelievable truth? If he is Dante, he feels the weight of social stigma but nonetheless puts on his breastplate of purity and plows ahead, actually upping the ante by troping the already enormous self-consciousness of the original Geryon episode with a new variation.
Years later, in the Monarchia, Dante uses a similar image in a similar truth-telling context. In the Monarchia he specifically cites the image’s biblical pedigree. Arming himself for battle with those who will resent his truth-telling, the author of the political treatise puts on “‘the breastplate of faith’, as Paul exhorts us”:
But since truth from its unchangeable throne implores us, and Solomon too, entering the forest of Proverbs, teaches us by his own example to meditate on truth and loathe wickedness; and since our authority on morals, Aristotle, urges us to destroy what touches us closely for the sake of maintaining truth; then having taken heart from the words of Daniel cited above, in which divine power is said to be a shield of the defenders of truth, and putting on “the breast-plate of faith” as Paul exhorts us, afire with that burning coal which one of the seraphim took from the heavenly altar to touch Isaiah’s lips, I shall enter the present arena, and, by his arm who freed us from the power of darkness with his blood, before the eyes of the world I shall cast out the wicked and the lying from the ring. (Monarchia 3.1.3; translation of Prue Shaw, emphasis mine)
* * *
The human shapes of the sinners of the ninth bolgia are mutilated in ways that represent their mutilation of the body politic, the corporate body of the state or institution that they wounded and harmed. They are guilty of rending that corporate unity which should have been kept whole.
Again, we find here the principle of the literalized metaphor discussed in the Introduction to Inferno 3. As the schismatics tore asunder the fabric of the body politic (and consider the Old Man of Crete in Inferno 14 as another literalizing of the metaphor of the “body politic”), so they are now themselves torn asunder. Never does Dante demonstrate more clearly—almost pedagogically—the way in which “the punishment fits the crime” (in the phrase coined by Gilbert and Sullivan).
The didactic and exemplary nature of this canto creates the context for the appearance of the word “contrapasso” in the canto’s last verse, where it is spoken by Bertran de Born. The Occitan troubadour enunciates the word “contrapasso” in Inferno 28.142, while holding his severed head in his hand.
Bertran, Viscount of Hautefort, soldier, and poet famous for his martial verse, was born circa 1140 and died circa 1212-1215. He accompanied King Richard I of England (known as the Lionheart), son of King Henry II, on a crusade to Palestine. His poetry is echoed in the long and bloody similes that open Inferno 28. Dante knew and admired Bertran’s poetry: he cites Bertran de Born as a great poet of arms in De vulgari eloquentia 2.2.9 and praises the troubadour in the Convivio for his liberality (4.11.14).
In the next canto Dante will look back at Bertran de Born, using a periphrasis for the troubadour, lord of Hautefort, “colui che già tenne Altaforte” (the one who once was lord of Hautefort [Inf. 29.29]), to signal his awareness of the historic process whereby heroic and feudal norms, like blood feuds, moved from the world of the lord of Hautefort to the urban and no longer feudal world of Florence.
Bertran de Born abetted the rebellions of the sons of King Henry II against their father. Richard’s older brother, Prince Henry (known by contemporaries as “the young king” or “re giovane” as Dante calls him in Inf. 28.135), nearly overthrew his father Henry II in 1173. The young king died in 1183, before his father, who died in 1189, and so never inherited the throne of England. Bertran wrote a planh (lament) on the death of the young king, whose incipit Si tuit li dol is echoed in the opening section of Inferno 28.
Now, Bertran de Born explains that his sundering of father from son in life is reflected in the sundering of his head from his torso in the afterlife:
Perch’io parti’ così giunte persone, partito porto il mio cerebro, lasso!, dal suo principio ch'è in questo troncone. Così s’osserva in me lo contrapasso. (Inf. 28.139-42)
Because I severed those so joined, I carry— alas—my brain dissevered from its source, which is within my trunk. And thus, in me one sees the law of counter-penalty.
The term contrapasso is a shorthand for expressing the principle that governs the relationship between what the sinner did in life and what the sinner experiences in the afterlife. While the word “contrapasso” has become a commonplace of Dante criticism, sprinkled liberally about, it is important to recognize that Dante uses it only this once.
The connection between contrapasso and the culture of vendetta is discussed by Alessandro Niccoli and Giovanni Diurni, in the essay “Vendetta” in the Enciclopedia Dantesca:
Dante non si sottrae a questo modo di sentire; anzi, immerso nella realtà del suo tempo, ne percepisce con geniale intuizione i motivi più nascosti. Se tale sentimento faccia parte della natura del poeta ovvero venga recepito intellettualmente dallo stesso in tutta la sua complessa struttura e nelle sue implicazioni, anche le più remote, può essere discusso, ma è indubbio che egli ha saputo distillare quanto di più pregnante e significativo si ricava dalla giustizia privata, applicando nel suo poema la legge del contrapasso e creando un’opera che in ultima analisi non rappresenta che una sublime vendetta contro i suoi numerosi avversari. (accessed at http://www.treccani.it/enciclopedia/vendetta_(Enciclopedia-Dantesca)/)
Dante was not exempt from this manner of feeling; in fact, immersed in the reality of his time, he perceived the hidden motivations of vendetta with genial intuition. Whether such a sentiment is part of the nature of the poet or whether he understood the sentiment in all its complex structure and with its implications, can be discussed, but it is certain that he knew how to distill the most significant aspects of private justice, applying in his poem the law of contrapasso and creating a work that represents a sublime vendetta against his numerous adversaries.
See Inferno 29 for further discussion of vendetta.
The concept behind this bolgia is that unity is good and division is evil; concord is good and discord is evil. This is the concept expressed in the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, where the punishment for human hubris is to be divided linguistically, and hence politically. This is the concept that emphatically guides the thinking of Dante’s political treatise Monarchia, where the need to justify a single ruler leads to the explanation that what can be done by one, “per unum”, is better done by one than by many, “per plura”: “Et quod potest fieri per unum, melius est per unum fieri quam per plura” (Mon. 1.14.1). From this principle Dante derives another, namely that for something to be done by one is good, whereas for it to be done by many is evil: “quod fieri per unum est bonum, per plura simpliciter malum” (Mon. 1.14.2). Proceeding to larger and larger conclusions, Dante goes on to align oneness—“unum”—with goodness, and multiplicity—“multa”—with evil: “unum esse videtur esse radix eius quod est esse bonum, et multa esse eius quod est esse malum” (to be one seems to be the root of what it is to be good, and to be many of what it is to be evil [Mon. 1.15.2]). The polarity established in the Monarchia between the one and the many finally allows Dante to achieve a definition of sin as nothing but the disparagement of the one and a consequent progression toward the many: “peccare nichil est aliud quam progredi ab uno spreto ad multa” (Mon. 1.15.3).
The hostility toward multiplicity that we see in Monarchia informs a canto like Inferno 28. The Commedia as a whole, however, balances this Neoplatonic privileging of unity with Dante’s Aristotelian conviction of the value of multiplicity, as discussed in The Undivine Comedy.
* * *
As noted above, the souls of the ninth bolgia include sowers of civil as well as religious discord. The contemporary Christian heretic Fra Dolcino will be here after he dies in 1307; the classical Roman Curio, as well as the moderns Pier da Medicina, Bertran de Born, and Mosca de’ Lamberti, are already present. Fra Dolcino was burnt at the stake for his heretical beliefs in 1307, thus seven years after Dante’s visit to Hell in the spring of 1300. Dolcino’s case is therefore comparable to that of Pope Boniface VIII, in that Dante “pre-condemns” him before his death.
The pilgrim learns that Dolcino will be joining the souls of the ninth bolgia through a prophecy that the poet assigns to the figure of the prophet Mohammed, who announces Dolcino’s future arrival in verses 55-60. This sardonic announcement takes the form of Mohammed urging Dolcino to stock up well on food and supplies if he doesn’t want to follow him speedily to the ninth bolgia: “s’ello non vuol qui tosto seguitarmi” (if he doesn’t want to follow me soon [Inf. 28.57]). Dante here aligns Mohammed and Fra Dolcino: two religious schismatics, as he sees them. Urging Fra Dolcino to arm himself so that he may withstand the wintry siege that eventually led to his fateful surrender, Dante’s Mohammed might be construed as inciting Dolcino to schism even now.
Mosca de’ Lamberti, who died in 1242, is on the list of famous Florentines of the previous generation about whom Dante quizzed Ciacco back in Inferno 6. He claims responsibility for having created the factional discord that plagues Florence (and that caused Dante great personal affliction, in the form of his exile). The city’s factional discord was believed to have originated in the murder of Buondelmonte de’ Buondelmonti in 1216, a murder that was precipitated by Buondelmonte’s jilting of a woman of the Amidei family in favor of a Donati. We note here, immediately before the encounter with Geri del Bello in Inferno 29, how the fixation on a family’s honor leads to nefarious consequences for the city as a whole. In the case of the Buondelmonte murder, family honor is perceived as invested in its women, as frequently is the case in honor societies.
Mosca’s sin was to have counseled the Amidei to take their revenge not in the form of a beating or a mutilation, but to kill Buondelmonte and have done with it. Mosca’s argument for murdering Buondelmonte is the proverbial “Capo ha cosa fatta” (What’s done is at an end [Inf. 28.107]), where he indicates the wisdom of resorting to full rather than half measures. What’s done is done and cannot become undone. An act brought to completion (in this case, the completed act is the murder of Buondelmonte) gives greater security and the guarantee that your enemy cannot harm you further.
Ironically, Mosca’s counsel, intended to avoid further evil repercussions for his faction, brought evil repercussions on the entire Tuscan race, for his counsel “was the seed of evil for the Tuscans”: “fu mal seme per la gente tosca” (Inf. 28.108).
The phrase “mal seme” is particularly telling because it draws on the metaphor of sowing seeds that is built into the label of this bolgia: these are the sowers of discord—“seminator di scandalo e di scisma”—and now we see what evil semi these seminatori have sown.
Dante and his peers believed that the Buondelmonte murder of 1216, precipitated by Mosca de’ Lamberti, unleashed the factional strife that still afflicted the city in Dante’s day. In other words, the strife that afflicts his Florence, and that has cost him dearly in his own life, is for Dante the bitter fruit grown from the seed sown by Mosca de’ Lamberti.
The encounter with Mosca de’ Lamberti must be added to previous encounters with Florentines who speak to Dante of civic strife and turmoil, going back to Ciacco in Inferno 6. We do not find here the character development that we found in the encounter with Farinata, although we find key elements of that earlier interaction. The bitter exchange between the two Florentines in Inferno 10 is echoed in the pilgrim’s mordant one-line rejoinder to Mosca: “E io li aggiunsi: «E morte di tua schiatta»” (I added: “and brought death to your own kinsmen” [Inf. 28.109]). Just as Farinata experiences greater suffering as a result of the news that Dante gives him about his own family, Mosca is additionally grieved by what Dante tells him of the desolate fate of his own tribe or schiatta: he goes off “accumulando duol con duolo” (heaping grief on grief [Inf. 28.110]).
The connection established here between Farinata and Mosca therefore includes the theologically untenable idea that suffering in Hell can be increased as a result of information received after damnation.
The death of Mosca de’ Lamberti’s kin is emblematic of the ruin brought on Florence through factionalism. Mosca concludes his self-presentation with a chilling verse that captures the arc of history bent toward evil for an entire people. In Inferno 23 we learned that the counsel of the Pharisees that led to the killing of Christ “was an evil seed for the Jews”: “fu per li Giudei mala sementa” (Inf. 23.123). Now in Inferno 28 we learn that the counsel of Mosca de’ Lamberti that led to the killing of Buondelmonte de’ Buondelmonti “was the seed of evil for the Tuscans”: “fu mal seme per la gente tosca” (Inf. 28.108). It is hard to imagine what political assessment could be more devastating, from Dante’s perspective, than the link that he establishes here between the Tuscans and the Jews.