- family honor and male codes of behavior now take a personal twist through the encounter with Dante’s own kinsman Geri del Bello
- the definition of a kinsman as a “consort in shame” (Inf. 29.33): Dante’s term “consorte” echoes the contemporary term consorteria
- from Bertran de Born, “lord of Hautefort”, to Geri del Bello: what sense do feudal honor codes have in mercantile Tuscany?
- the culture of vendetta in Dante’s world (cf. A. Zorzi, cited in Coordinated Reading)
- Dante’s moral reading of vendetta: vendetta is featured in the characterization of anger in Purgatorio 17
- the evolution of Dante’s sense of personal “honor”: the canzone Tre donne
- the perils of mimesis, mimesis viewed as a form of Daedalan/Ulyssean trespass
- magic and the paranormal as instruments of fraud: alchemy and the magic arts (“teaching someone how to fly like Daedalus”) pick up from false prophecy and astrology in Inferno 20
- greed and fraud and financial intemperance expressed as vanity and triviality: codes of honor deriving from feudal and heroic context of a Bertran de Born are trivialized in the brigata spendereccia and Duecento Tuscan consumer culture, also connected to the Dante’s youthful tenzone with Forese Donati
In Inferno 29 we reach the tenth and final bolgia of the eighth circle. The tenth is a catch-all bolgia: it contains four different kinds of falsifiers, culminating in the falsifiers of words.
However, before we proceed to the tenth bolgia, verses 1-36 of Inferno 29 offer a final episode pertaining to the ninth bolgia, that of the sowers of discord. Introducing his father’s cousin Geri del Bello, Dante now develops the theme of family honor and blood feuds as cause of prolonged civic torment and the “seed” of the self-destruction of Florence. This theme is attested in Inferno 28 by Mosca de’ Lamberti’s claim to have sown the “evil seed for the Tuscan people”: “mal seme per la gente tosca” (Inf. 28.108).
Mosca sows the evil seed that will grow into an evil fruit that will be meted out to all Tuscans. In Inferno 29’s coda to Mosca and to Inferno 28, Dante dramatizes the personal origins from which public devastation springs, and he draws attention to these personal origins by relating these issues to himself.
We come, thus, to the complex issue of vendetta.
Andrea Zorzi has written compellingly on the normative aspects of vendetta in Dante’s world, urging us not to impose an anachronistic moral judgment on a behavior that was “un elemento ordinario delle relazioni politiche” (an ordinary element of political relations; see Zorzi, “La cultura della vendetta nel conflitto politico in età comunale”, p. 159). Zorzi notes that refutation of vendetta in didactic literature of the period was motivated by practical as well as by moral arguments:
Il sentimento di rifiuto della vendetta che ritroviamo in molta letteratura didattica non originava dunque soltanto da motivazioni morali ma anche da considerazioni di ordine utilitaristico e di prestigio sociale. (Zorzi, “La cultura della vendetta nel conflitto politico in età comunale”, p. 156)
The refutation of vendetta that we find in much didactic literature therefore did not originate only in moral motives but also from utilitarian considerations related to social prestige.
Writing about the Geri del Bello episode in Inferno 29, Enrico Faini wonders whether Dante was ideologically opposed to vendetta or unable to prosecute vengeance because of scarce financial resources (see “Ruolo sociale e memoria degli Alighieri prima di Dante,” cited in Coordinated Reading).
I will argue here that Dante mounts a moral argument against vendetta in the Commedia. In his unparalleled attention to the complexity and nuance of history, Dante mounts his moral argument against vendetta while at the same time acknowledging himself in Inferno 29 to be personally steeped in the communal culture of vendetta described by Zorzi, and while acknowledging too his own personal sense of pietas for his relative’s unavenged murder. To unlock Dante’s moral argument, we need to turn to Purgatorio 17 and to the characterizations of the cardinal vices offered there.
Let us pick up now from Inferno 28 and from Dante’s indictment of Mosca de’ Lamberti. As noted above, blood feuds are at the core of the tragedy caused by Mosca de’ Lamberti, the Ghibelline whose advice to kill Buondelmonte de’ Buondelmonti gave rise to the factional hatred and strife between Guelphs and Ghibellines in Florence. We remember that Buondelmonte was killed in 1216. Dante believed that the factionalism unleashed by Buondelmonte’s murder was at the root of his own exile in 1302. Given the duration of the suffering here invoked, we can better understand why Dante can say that Mosca’s actions were the “evil seed for the Tuscan people”: “mal seme per la gente tosca” (Inf. 28.108).
This remarkable indictment, the sentiment that factional behavior was a seed of evil for an entire people, cannot be overlooked in assessing Dante’s views on vendetta.
The tragedy of Buondelmonte’s murder and its repercussions was not rooted only in Mosca’s scandalous advice. It was a product of the social norms of the time, social norms that Dante examines in the Geri del Bello episode of Inferno 29. Here he asks the questions: Is it right for every man to carry the burden of his family’s honor and the “shame” that comes with it? And is it right for every man to be obliged to act on that shame, carrying out a vendetta that is required of him?
Virgilio sharply questions Dante as to what he is staring at in the ninth bolgia, pointing out that he did not remain thus fixated over the previous ditches and reminding him that their time is limited and that they must move on: “lo tempo è poco omai che n’è concesso (the time alloted to us now is short [Inf. 29.11]). Dante explains that he believes he saw a kinsman, a spirit of his own blood: “credo ch’un spirto del mio sangue pianga / la colpa che là giù cotanto costa” (I think a spirit born of my own blood laments / the guilt which, down below, costs one so much [Inf. 29.20-21]).
The words “del mio sangue” (of my blood) in verse 20 will be echoed in the Latin “O sanguis meus” (O my blood [Par. 15.28]) with which Dante addresses his great-great-grandfather Cacciaguida in paradise. The reference to his own bloodline is the sign that we have entered the domain of the autobiographical.
The issue of blood feuds as featured in Inferno 28 and 29 is not simply one that is historical, one that applies to others. It is an issue of which Dante had personal experience.
Virgilio tells Dante that he saw the soul point at Dante threateningly and heard him named “Geri del Bello” (Inf. 29.27), all while Dante was intent on the headless Bertran de Born, “the one who once was lord of Hautefort”: “colui che già tenne Altaforte” (Inf. 29.29). The text thus moves seamlessly from the naming of Dante’s close kinsman Geri del Bello, a cousin of Dante’s father, to the invocation by feudal periphrasis of Bertran de Born of the previous canto, here named the lord of Hautefort.
The transition from “Geri del Bello” in verse 27 to “colui che già tenne Altaforte” in verse 29 allows Dante to signal the connection that he posits between the heroic and feudal norms of the lord of Hautefort and the urban and no longer feudal world of Geri del Bello.
What sense do the codes of a martial, hierarchical, and honor-based society, like the feudal society sung by the lord of Hautefort in southern France, have in the mercantile and consumerist culture of Tuscany at the end of the Duecento? Dante poses this question, as he considers the honor-based society from which he sprang.
The mercantile and consumerist culture of Tuscany is a key theme of this canto, one to which Dante will return in his presentation of the brigata spendereccia at the end of Inferno 29.
In his reply to Virgilio’s censure, Dante explains that Geri del Bello is angry (“disdegnoso”) at him due to the violent death that he suffered (“la vïolenta morte”) that has not yet been avenged: “che non li è vendicata ancor” (for which he still is not avenged [Inf. 29.32]). Geri’s disdegno is now provoked by the presence of a kinsman, that is, by the presence of someone who should have avenged him.
Although Dante does not take upon himself any obligation to perform the act of vendetta that Geri craves, he feels sympathy—pietas—for his unavenged cousin:
«O duca mio, la violenta morte che non li è vendicata ancor», diss’io, «per alcun che de l’onta sia consorte, fece lui disdegnoso; ond’el sen gio sanza parlarmi, sì com’io estimo: e in ciò m’ha el fatto a sé più pio». (Inf. 29.31-36)
“My guide, it was his death by violence, for which he still is not avenged,” I said, “by anyone who shares his shame, that made him so disdainful now; and—I suppose— for this he left without a word to me, and this has made me pity him the more.”
In the above passage, Dante opens a window onto the social system of vendetta, honor killing, and blood feuds. We note Dante’s periphrasis for kin, defined as one who shares one’s shame: kin is “anyone who is consort in one’s shame”—“alcun che de l’onta sia consorte” (Inf. 29.33).
Dante’s use in Inferno 29.33 of the word “consorte”, which literally means someone who shares one’s fate (sorte), echoes contemporary usage, in which the Latin consortes gave rise to the term consorteria: “The term consorteria reflects the common use in the thirteenth century of consortes to refer to kinsmen” (Carol Lansing, The Florentine Magnates, p. 30).
Besides “consorte”, the other key term in Dante’s redolent periphrasis for kinsman is “onta”. An exceptionally harsh word for shame, onta has a more public frame of reference than vergogna and shades into “dishonor”. Because of the connection to dishonor, the idea of onta links easily to vendetta. Thus, onta is linked with that which needs to be avenged in the Hoepli on-line dictionary, where we find this usage: “vendicare l’onta subita” (to avenge one’s dishonor).
The feeling of onta is socially-constructed, connected to political and social disgrace and misfortune. In his philosophical treatise Convivio Dante talks of the disgrace (“infamia”) of Boethius’ exile and of his own (Convivio 1.2.13 and 15). And we note Dante’s language for the disgraced Whites in Inferno 6, where the Bianchi weep and feel ashamed—feel onta—as a result of their treatment at the hands of the Neri: “come che di ciò pianga o che n’aonti” (however much they weep or feel ashamed [Inf. 6.72]).
The culture of onta and its consequence, vendetta, was strong in Dante’s time and place. Dante signals the pervasiveness of this malign cultural matrix in his characterization of anger in Purgatorio 17.
In Purgatorio 17 Dante analyzes the seven deadly vices. With respect to anger, Dante characterizes a generically irascible person in a way that to us, in our time, does not seem generic. The angry man is one who has been shamed as a result of an injury and then waxes greedy for revenge:
ed è chi per ingiuria par ch’aonti, sì che si fa de la vendetta ghiotto, e tal convien che ’l male altrui impronti. (Purg. 17.121-23)
And there is he who, over injury received, resentful, for revenge grows greedy and, angrily, seeks out another’s harm.
In this characterization of anger in Purgatorio 17 Dante includes both the verb aontare (to take offense as a result of onta; the same verb used for the disgraced Bianchi in Inf. 6.72 cited above) and the noun vendetta. He also uses the noun ingiuria, which Zorzi’s documentation shows to be fundamental to contemporary discussions of vendetta.
The logic embedded in Purgatorio’s description of anger is complex, and begins with ingiuria: the person who acts out in anger begins as the injured party. There are many emotions packed into this one terzina. From the ingiuria comes the experience of shame. The shame leads to the craving for vengeance. Thus, the injured party experiences shame as a result of the injury received—“chi per ingiuria par ch’aonti” (Purg. 17.121)—and the shame leads to a craving for vengeance that explodes in anger and in a willingness to hurt others.
There is a circularity to Dante’s analysis of this cultural phenomenon: injury leads to shame and thence to anger, which leads to more injury, and so on in perpetuity. This profound analysis of a cultural context that enables and indeed supports anger is already on view in the Geri del Bello episode, where we see Dante turn his back on the social and cultural norms, inherited from feudal and courtly culture, which exacerbated the factionalism that tore Tuscany apart.
The Geri del Bello episode of Inferno 29 tells us that Dante, while he still feels pietas toward Geri as a kinsman who died violently, categorically refuses to be enmeshed in the male codes of honor that define him as “consort in Geri’s shame” (Inf. 29.33).
Dante had witnessed such behavior and had thought hard about such behavior, as we can see from the analysis of anger in Purgatorio 17.121-23. He chose not to participate in such behavior. He does not seem to have experienced in himself the consortial shame that is the trigger to the anger that allows one to kill. Whether or not he experienced it, he did not act on it.
In the Geri del Bello episode Dante dramatizes his resistance to the essentializing social dictates of his time and place.
Dante resists being a “con-sort” in the family “shame” and he resists especially the psychological and moral toll of avenging Geri’s violent death by becoming a murderer himself.
Dante in his youthful poetry was not immune from the rivalries of male honor (see the essay on the tenzoni with Dante da Maiano cited in Coordinated Reading). As a person he seems to have been quite susceptible to social vergogna. (See the Introduction to Inferno 28 on vergogna and truth-telling and the Introduction to Inferno 30 on Virgilio’s rebuke and Dante’s shamed response.) And yet the point of the Geri del Bello episode is to communicate that Dante has evolved into someone who retains pietas toward a family member (“e in ciò m’ha el fatto a sé più pio” [Inf. 29.36]) but who is not moved by a societally scripted feeling of shame. He is able to make a moral calculation rather than behave reactively and reductively as required by social codes. He has not bought into the code that prescribes shame on a man who does not avenge a killing of his kin, a code that was in great part responsible for the devastation of Florence attested by the presence of Mosca de’ Lamberti in Inferno 28.
This evolution is already tracked in Dante’s lyric poetry. Dante proclaims his hard-won freedom from societal norms and codes in his magnificent canzone of exile, Tre donne. He tells us in the canzone that he now participates in a higher code of ethics and justice. He reconstructs the social shame and dishonor of his exile and makes it into something of immense value, his own personal justice-affiliated honor. Through the alchemy of his conscience and his poetry, he literally makes his dishonor into his honor, writing that “the exile that is given me I hold as honor”: “l’essilio che m’è dato onor mi tegno” (Tre donne, 76).
The man who wrote the Geri del Bello episode of Inferno 29 had learned to reject the dishonor that was prescribed by others and, painfully, to define honor for himself. If we apply the analysis of Purgatorio 17.121-23, we could say the following: Dante had learned not to be triggered by shame and therefore not to respond in anger, through vendetta.
In the Commedia Dante consciously rejects the culture of vendetta that prevailed in his time and place. At the same time he makes it clear that he is indeed, as critics have noted, steeped in that culture and that he is not immune from its claims. But his acknowledgement of that culture as one that he understands and can still feel, does not mean that he endorses it.
* * *
After Geri del Bello, Inferno 29 transitions to the tenth and last bolgia, belonging to the falsifiers, whose punishments are not inflicted by sadistic devils like the mutilations of Inferno 28, but are based on human illness: the body turning upon itself. We find an “accumulative” simile of the type that at the beginning of the previous canto accumulates all the wounds of centuries of battles in southern Italy; now Dante has us consider all the sufferings accumulated in the hospitals of the most insalubrious parts of Italy in the most months most prone to illness (Inf. 29.46-51).
The first souls he sees are leprous and are those of two alchemists, for the first sub-group of the tenth bolgia are the falsifiers of metals or alchemists. The lead-in to the dialogue between Dante and Griffolino features a brilliantly repellent domestic realism that portrays the two sinners scratching their scabs with the fury of a stable-boy currying a horse whose master awaits. Moving from horses to fish, they deploy their nails on their scabs “just as a knife scrapes off the scales of carp / or of another fish with scales more large”: “come coltel di scardova le scaglie / o d’altro pesce che più larghe l’abbia” (Inf. 29.83-84).
Dante uses alchemy as an opportunity to focus on the perils of mimesis, viewed as a form of Ulyssean/Daedalan trespass: a going beyond the limits set by God. Alchemy is the art through which some claimed to be able to turn base metals into gold, thus arrogating to themselves more than human powers. In the last verses of Inferno 29 the alchemist Capocchio declares that he falsified metals through alchemy—“falsai li metalli con l’alchìmia” (Inf. 29.137)—and emphasizes his remarkable mimetic powers, his ability to “be an ape of nature”: “com’io fui di natura buona scimmia” (how apt I was at aping nature [Inf. 29.139]). With the trope “ape of nature” Dante reminds us that he classifies human art as imitation of nature. (See the Introduction to Inferno 11 for the discussion of God’s “possessions”: nature and art.)
In the encounter with the alchemists, Dante comments on misrepresentation, imitation for false purposes. While the tone of the episode is one of mundane triviality, the issues are of profound importance. Thus, Griffolino explains that he was not burned as an alchemist, as he “should” have been, but for jokingly telling Albero di Siena that he knew how to fly: “Vero è ch’i’ dissi lui, parlando a gioco: / “I’ mi saprei levar per l’aere a volo” ( [Inf. 29.112-13]). Albero, who had much desire but little wisdom—“vaghezza e senno poco” (Inf. 29.114)—wanted to learn the art of flying, and had Griffolino burnt for not “making him Daedalus”:
volle ch’i’ li mostrassi l’arte; e solo perch’ io nol feci Dedalo, mi fece ardere (Inf. 29.115-17)
He wished me to show that art to him and, just because I had not made him Daedalus had me burned
The idea of “being Daedalus” is an important one for Dante, as we know from Dante’s comparison of himself to Icarus in the Ovidian simile of Inferno 17, which features Daedalus’ distraught cry to his falling son (Inf. 17.111). The Ulysses episode of Inferno 26 shows the Greek hero—like Daedalus—“making wings of his oars for the mad flight” (Inf. 26.125), using a metaphor with a classical pedigree:
Dante is referring to a consummate mimesis that can transgress the boundaries between art and nature, permitting men to do what they were not endowed by nature to do: to fly, as Vergil puts it of Daedalus in the Aeneid 6.10, on “the rowing of his wings” (“remigium alarum”), as Dante’s Ulysses is able to fly “on the wings of his oars” (Inf. 26.125). To be Daedalus is, according to the Ovidian account, to be able to set your mind upon unknown arts and change the laws of nature (“ignotas animum dimittit in artes / naturamque novat”), to create by imitation wings that look and work like real birds’ wings (“ut veras imitetur aves”), to possess fatal arts (“damnosas . . . artes”) that enable one to be taken for a god (“credidit esse deos”), and that one ends by cursing (“devovitque suas artes”). (The Undivine Comedy, pp. 91-92; the verses from the Metamorphoses are, in order of citation: Metamorphoses 8.188-89, 195, 215, 220, 234)
At the end of the canto we move from the representational key back to the social-historical key, and to other issues of masculinity in Dante’s social milieu. Dante’s response to Griffolino’s story is to point to the fatuous vanity of the Sienese: “Or fu già mai / gente sì vana come la sanese?” (Was there ever / so vain a people as the Sienese? [Inf. 29.121-22]). His remark segues into the theme of masculine social life via the “brigata” (130) or social group of rich Sienese youth, notorious as the brigata spendereccia: a brigata famous for its intemperate spending habits.
This passage reminds us of Dante’s tenzone with Forese Donati, a set of sonnets also deeply imbued with masculine social codes. The tenzone with Forese Donati, like this passage, evokes the reckless spending habits and gluttonous inclinations of the gilded youth of the age. I discuss the connections between the brigata spendereccia and the tenzone with Forese in the essay “Sociology of the Brigata”:
In Inferno 29 Dante sets the brigata spendereccia within a socio-economic meditation that has many commonalities with the tenzone with Forese—including a male family relation, Geri del Bello, named in the early part of the canto: in common are the male names, extravagant eating habits, squandering of resources, and sarcastic language. Inferno 29’s vignette of the brigata spendereccia is focused on excess consumption, a social and economic ill that is given immediate ethical focus through the sarcastic reference to Stricca’s “temperate spese” in verse 126, and is then linked to trade as a promoter of immoderate social habits through the discovery of “la costuma ricca / del garofano” (127–28). (“Sociology of the Brigata”, pp. 10-11)
Although the social customs of the male brigata spendereccia are less serious and oppressive than vendetta, the two issues are not unrelated, for the bands of young men that roamed the streets in brigate were responsible for much of the urban and factional violence. For more on this topic, see the historians cited in “Sociology of the Brigata”.
Indicted in this last section of Inferno 29 is the mercantile and consumerist culture of Dante’s Tuscany. Griffolino’s phrase “parlando a gioco”—speaking in jest—is an excellent rubric for the vanity and triviality conjured in the treatment of the alchemists and distilled in the description of the brigata spendereccia.
Greed and fraud and financial intemperance (“le temperate spese” of verse 126 is heavily sarcastic) are here expressed as vanity and triviality: the codes of honor imported from the feudal and heroic context of a Bertran de Born are trivialized in Duecento Tuscan consumer culture. This mercantile and consumerist culture is subtly analyzed, for instance in its promotion of trade with the East, which supports the profligacy of using cloves in cooking: “la costuma ricca / del garofano” (the luxurious custom of the clove [Inf. 29.127-128]). Trade and commerce are the engines that fuel the brigata’s gluttony and prodigality.
For discussion of the brigata in historical context and the implications of the brigata’s spending and financial habits, see the discussion and bibliography in “Sociology of the Brigata”, cited in Coordinated Reading.
The concluding discussion of the brigata spendereccia thus continues the profound social and cultural analysis, in particular with respect to codes of honor and the construction of masculinity, that is the hallmark of Inferno 29.