- exordium transitions from tragical high style—“l’altezza de’ Troian che tutto ardiva” (Inf. 30.14)—to quotidian low style—“di quel modo / che ’l porco quando del porcil si schiude” (Inf. 30.26-27)—creating a hybrid mixed discourse that typifies comedìa and that is distilled in the hybridity of verse 128: “e per leccar lo specchio di Narcisso”
- the forma/norma rhyme
- impersonation and the law
- representational and economic fraud intertwined in this canto
- connections to the tenzone with Forese Donati and to other moments of Dante’s lyric past: the sonnet O voi che per la via d’Amor passate and the longue durée of Lamentations in Dante’s poetry
- the theme of vergogna reprised
- to dream that one is dreaming = to dream the truth
The tenth bolgia, devoted to four different types of falsifiers, continues. Inferno 30 begins with elaborate classically inspired similes that led the great philologist Gianfranco Contini to speculate that Dante wrote this passage with Ovid open on the desk in front of him. In Dante’s Poets I describe in detail the cascading effect of the first 27 verses of Inferno 30, which opens with a great mythological panorama, as Dante moves from the “high” Ovidian sonority of the tragic madness of Athamas and Hecuba to the “low” simile that describes two souls running through Hell like pigs freed from a pigsty.
As discussed in Dante’s Poets, the effect is to persuade the reader that, when we reach the description of the first two sinners of this canto, we have in effect reached “reality”:
Dante devotes the first twenty-one lines of canto XXX to two classical examples of madness, one Theban and the other Trojan. The first is Athamas who, driven insane by Juno as part of her revenge on Semele, is responsible for the deaths of his wife Ino, Semele’s sister, and their two sons (1-12); the second is Hecuba, reduced to barking like a dog by the loss of her home, husband, and children (13-21). These exempla are executed in a deliberately high style: in each case the protagonist, Athamas or Hecuba, is presented only in the fourth line of the exemplum, after an initial terzina of background material. Thus, the canto opens with a great mythological panorama, which sets the madness of Athamas within the ongoing narrative of Jove’s amours and Juno’s anger: “Nel tempo che Iunone era crucciata / per Semelè contra ’l sangue tebano” (In the time when Juno was irate because of Semele against the Theban blood [1-2]); and Hecuba is preceded by a sweeping evocation of the fall of Troy: “E quando la fortuna volse in basso / l’altezza de’ Troian che tutto ardiva” (And when Fortune brought low the pride of the Trojans that dared all [13-14]).
The canto thus moves progressively forward in time: from remote Thebes, to less distant Troy, and finally to the present, in which the pilgrim sees “due ombre smorte e nude, / che mordendo correvan di quel modo / che ’l porco quando del porcil si schiude” (two pale and naked shades, who were running and biting like the pig when it is let out of the pigsty [25-27]). Here Dante presents the bolgia’s first sinners in a terzina whose style is in intentional opposition to the canto’s extraordinarily literary exordium; the unmediated realism of the brief simile of the pig loosened from the pigsty contrasts sharply with the elaborate Ovidian exempla. We note, moreover, that the introduction of low language, such as porco and porcil, corresponds to the moment in which the canto reaches “reality”: i.e. the sinners, the events of this bolgia. (Dante’s Poets pp. 235-236)
After the exordium, Inferno 30 moves on to the second sub-group of falsifiers (the falsifiers of persons, or impersonators), the third (falsifiers of money, or counterfeiters), and the fourth (falsifiers of words, or liars). Here we see the continued pairing of classical and contemporary figures that is a feature of Malebolge, pairings that reinforce the divergence between (Vergilian) tragedìa and (Dantean) comedìa. The impersonators, who are afflicted with madness, include the contemporary Florentine Gianni Schicchi and the classical figure Myrrha (Inf. 30.32-41). Later in the canto we will witness the quarrel between the contemporary Maestro Adamo of Brescia (a counterfeiter) and Sinon, protagonist of Book 2 of the Aeneid, perhaps the most famous liar of classical mythology (Inf. 100-129).
Let us begin with the two impersonators, described in verses 37-48. Myrrha, “l’anima antica / di Mirra scellerata” (the ancient soul / of wicked Myrrha [Inf. 30.37-38]), took on the form of another woman in order to consummate her incestuous erotic passion for her father: “Questa a peccar con esso così venne, / falsificando sé in altrui forma” (She came to sin with him by falsely taking / another’s shape upon herself [Inf. 30.40-41]).
The second impersonator is Gianni Schicchi, whose impersonation is motivated by greed rather than by lust. Gianni Schicchi was asked by Simone Donati to impersonate Simone’s uncle, Buoso Donati: “falsificare in sé Buoso Donati” (he disguised himself as Buoso Donati [Inf. 30.44]). The goal was to ensure that Buoso’s estate be left to Simone, with a cut of the proceeds (a prize mare) going to the impersonator.
Gianni Schicchi’s skills of impersonation were such that, upon taking Buoso’s place in his deathbed, he was able successfully to deceive the notary and the witnesses and thus to have them ratify the will. Dante’s language is legal and precise. Gianni Schicchi, pretending to be Buoso Donati, drew up a will (“testando”) and gave it all legal norms: “testando e dando al testamento norma” (Inf. 30.45).
Impersonation as a means of securing fraudulent gain continues to attract the attention of law enforcement. Here is an example of a debt collection scam that was closed by the FBI in 2014 because of false representations—impersonations—on the part of the debt collectors, who in effect were engaged in the kind of “falsificare in sé” practiced by Gianni Schicchi:
According to the joint press release by the offices of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara and the Assistant FBI Director George Venizelos, the scam unfolded in 2009 and continued well into 2014. Employees working for WSA would routinely coerce victims into paying consumer debts through a variety of false statements and threats. Typically, the WSA employees would used aliases, sometimes referring to themselves as a “Detective” or “Investigator,” and falsely advise consumers they had committed crimes such as “check fraud” or “depository check fraud.” They then told the victims that a warrant would be issued for their arrest if they failed to make an immediate payment to WSA.
WSA employees also falsely claimed that the debt collection company had contracted with, or was otherwise affiliated with, certain federal or local law enforcement agencies, including the Department of Justice and the United States Marshals Service. Alternatively, they might say that they represented non-existent government agencies like the “Federal Government Task Force” and the “DOJ Task Force.” To further create the appearance that it was affiliated with the federal government, WSA would send victims correspondence containing the seal of the United States Department of State and the following language: “Warrant Services Association, A Division of the Federal Government Task Force.” (Story by Ken Berry, columnist in Accounting Web, dated 12/1/2014, accessed at http://www.accountingweb.com/crime-story-defendants-charged-in-massive-debt-collection-scam)
In the Myrrha-Gianni Schicchi passage we encounter the rare rhyme forma/norma. The word “forma” applies to Myrrha, who falsifies her form to have sex with her father: “falsificando sé in altrui forma” (Inf. 30.41). The word “norma” instead describes the legally ratified but deceptive will achieved by Gianni Schicchi: “testando e dando al testamento norma” (Inf. 30.45).
The forma/norma rhyme, whose full philosophical unfolding in the divine form and shape of the universe is revealed in Paradiso 1.103-08, appears, in the plural forme/norme, on one other occasion, in Inferno 25:
ché due nature mai a fronte a fronte non trasmutò sì ch’amendue le forme a cambiar lor matera fosser pronte. Insieme si rispuosero a tai norme . . . (Inf. 25.100-03) he never did transmute two natures, face to face, so that both forms were ready to exchange their matter. Together they answered to such norms
The forma/norma rhyme that is featured in both Inferno 25 and Inferno 30 signals the common themes of transformation, change of essence, mutation of self. The impersonation of Inferno 30 is a trivialized and anecdotal reduction of the grandiose but perverse metamorphosis of Inferno 25.
The unusual rhyme forma/norma rhymes with orma on two occasions: in Inferno 25 (“orme” in Inf. 25.105) and in Paradiso 1 (“orma” in Par. 1.106). It rhymes with “dorma” in Par. 3.100. Its only other appearance in the Commedia is in Inferno 30, where it rhymes with “torma” in verse 43. Gianni Schicchi, after securing Buoso Donati’s estate for Simone Donati, secures for himself Buoso’s prize mare: “la donna de la torma” (the lady of the herd [Inf. 30.43]).
The fraudulent lengths to which Gianni Schicchi will go for a horse and the greed and deceit of Simone Donati (the father of Dante’s friend Forese Donati) once more underscore the economic motivations that compete with representational issues as the key theme of the bolgia of the falsifiers. In Inferno 30 economic and representational matters are intertwined, as they are in Inferno 29. Economic issues are foregrounded in the treatment of two of the four sinners of this canto, the impersonator Gianni Schicchi and the counterfeiter Maestro Adamo.
Trivial and non-heroic desire—like Gianni’s desire for the prize mare, “the lady of the herd”—is very much in the spirit of the personal accusations that sprinkle the six sonnets that make up Dante’s tenzone with Forese Donati, a scurrilous sonnet-exchange that features as well the denigration of family members.
The Gianni Schicchi episode might be seen as a direct reprise of the tenzone with Forese Donati, for the episode indicts not only Gianni Schicchi but also Forese Donati’s father, Simone Donati, whose greed set the whole plot against Buoso Donati into motion.
By directing an accusation of greed squarely at Forese Donati’s father, the Gianni Schicchi episode of Inferno 30 picks up the familial vituperation of Dante’s youthful tenzone. Moreover, Dante seems to respond here to the tenzone’s denigration of his own father by Forese. In the sonnet L’altra notte Forese imagines that he has come across the ghost of Dante’s father, called by name “Alaghier”: “ch’io trovai Alaghier tra le fosse” (I found Alighieri among the graves). Forese’s sonnet L’altra notte puts Dante’s father into a sinister and unflattering light, and Dante’s retort is the denigration of Forese’s father in the Gianni Schicchi episode of Inferno 30.
Whereas the tenzone with Forese has long been linked to the second half of Inferno 30, through the figure of Simone Donati we can link the tenzone to the first half of the canto as well. For more on the tenzone and the Commedia, see my essay “Amicus eius: Dante and the Semantics of Friendship,” cited in Coordinated Reading.
In the latter part of canto 30, Dante models the art of altercation in language: “botta e riposta” in Italian (tit for tat or cut and thrust). This is an art he practiced as a young man in the tenzone with Forese Donati. A series of sonnets in which Dante and Forese viciously attack each other, the tenzone has long been considered by critics the developmental backdrop for the quarrel between Maestro Adamo, a famous contemporary counterfeiter, and Sinon, the Greek who according to the account of Aeneid 2 helped bring about the fall of Troy.
Before getting to the quarrel at the canto’s end, I will take a look at other echoes of Dante’s lyric past, whose presence in these lower reaches of Hell signal the stylistic incongruity that we have been tracking through Inferno: the hybrid mixed-style of comedìa A perfect example of this stylistic hybridity is verse 128, where Dante weds the crude verb “leccar” (to lick) to a precious periphrasis for water, “the mirror of Narcissus”, and creates “e per leccar lo specchio di Narcisso” (to have you lick the mirror of Narcissus [Inf. 30.128]). This verse is singled out by Battaglia Ricci as emblematic of the poetics that govern these cantos. (See Dante e la tradizione letteraria medievale [Pisa: Giardini, 1983], pp. 28-29.)
The words with which Maestro Adamo greets Dante and Virgilio echo, as commentators note, Lamentations 1:12: “O vos omnes qui transitis per viam, attendite et videte si est dolor sicut dolor meus” (Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow [King James Version]). Commentators also remind readers of the sonnet in the Vita Nuova that begins by echoing the same verse, quite remarkably inserting “d’Amor” into the first verse, so that the biblical passers-by are now on the road “of Love”:
O voi che per la via d’Amor passate, attendete e guardate s’egli è dolor alcun quanto ’l mio grave (1-3) O you who walk along the path of Love, behold and see if there be any grief as deep as mine (Lansing trans.)
The sonnet O voi che per la via is, moreover, a sonnet that exists in a pre-Vita Nuova redaction, offering us therefore an opportunity to consider the longue durée of Lamentations in Dante’s poetry: used first in a courtly sonnet that predates the Vita Nuova, Lamentations then migrates to the Vita Nuova, whose theologized prose-frame draws attention to the biblical textuality that hybridizes the early courtly poem, and ultimately resurfaces in Inferno 30. For more on the sonnet O voi che per la via, see Dante’s Lyric Poetry, cited in Coordinated Reading.
There are further echoes of Dante’s lyric poetry in this section of Inferno 30. Maestro Adamo’s poigant recall of the “verdi colli / del Casentin” (green hills of the Casentino [Inf. 30.64-65]) reminds us of the lover’s location in Dante’s canzone montanina. Maestro Adamo’s reference to the castle of Romena “where I counterfeited / the currency that bears the Baptist’s seal” (“là dov’ io falsai / la lega suggellata del Batista” [Inf. 30.73-74]) is a reference to the castle in the Casentino that belonged to the Conti Guidi, and thus takes us back to the tenzone with Forese, where the Conti Guidi are mentioned as good marriage prospects because of their great wealth. In Maestro Adamo’s more jaundiced description they are the powerful lords who hired him to counterfeit the Florentine florin.
All the sins of the tenth bolgia are a form of falsificare, and Dante in the last sequence of this bolgia gives heightened resonance to the idea of falsification by staging a quarrel between Maestro Adamo, the falsifier of the florin, and Sinon, the falsifier of words. Thus the intertwining of economic and representational fraud, a central theme of Malebolge, literally takes central stage, and is performed in the quarrel between the counterfeiter and the liar.
The altercation between Sinon and Maestro Adamo features and repeats the words ver (truth, true) and falso (falsehood, false), as analyzed in Dante’s Poets:
Within the sequence of insults exchanged by Sinon and maestro Adamo, we shall focus on the passage in which ver and its opposite—here not menzogna, but falso—are featured, since these terms are connected to the issue of genre throughout the Inferno. In response to Sinon’s taunt that maestro Adamo’s hands were less agile while he was being led to the stake than while he was coining money, the counterfeiter replies first by acknowledging that the Greek speaks the truth in this—“Tu di’ ver di questo” (112)—and then by reminding Sinon of his great untruth, that most notorious of literary lies, the lie that drove Hecuba mad, to the very condition in which we find her at this canto’s beginning: “ma tu non fosti sì ver testimonio / là ’ve del ver fosti a Troia richesto” (but you were not so true a witness / there at Troy where the truth was requested from you [113-114]). To this insistence on the ver that he did not tell, and on his role as a non-true witness, Sinon throws back the generic falsification for which both are damned, further noting that maestro Adamo’s crimes, unlike his own, were multiple. While maestro Adamo stresses the word ver, Sinon stresses falso. (Dante’s Poets, p. 236)
This exchange of insults thus becomes a mise-en-abyme of the deep theme of Malebolge: the binary ver versus menzogna, the binary inherited from Inferno 16’s baptism of comedìa as “ver c’ha faccia di menzogna” (truth that has the face of a lie [Inf. 16.124]), is now cast as the binary ver versus falso. In the form of tagged insults, “truth” versus “falsehood” becomes the sing-song refrain that seals and concludes Hell’s circle of fraud.
At the end of Inferno 30 Virgilio severely rebukes Dante for watching the squabble between Maestro Adamo and Sinon so avidly:
Ad ascoltarli er’ io del tutto fisso, quando ’l maestro mi disse: «Or pur mira, che per poco che teco non mi risso!». Quand’ io ’l senti’ a me parlar con ira, volsimi verso lui con tal vergogna, ch’ancor per la memoria mi si gira. Qual è colui che suo dannaggio sogna, che sognando desidera sognare, sì che quel ch’è, come non fosse, agogna, tal mi fec’ io, non possendo parlare, che disiava scusarmi, e scusava me tuttavia, e nol mi credea fare. (Inf. 30.130-141)
I was intent on listening to them when this was what my master said: "If you insist on looking more, I'll quarrel with you!" And when I heard him speak so angrily, I turned around to him with shame so great that it still stirs within my memory. Even as one who dreams that he is harmed and, dreaming, wishes he were dreaming, thus desiring that which is, as if it were not, so I became within my speechlessness: I wanted to excuse myself and did excuse myself, although I knew it not.
The traditional reading of this passage assumes that Virgilio is correct to rebuke Dante. This reading assumes that Virgilio speaks as the mouthpiece of the author and does not consider Virgilio as a character who is frequently corrected in the Commedia. In other words, it does not take narrative voice into account.
In Dante’s Poets, I argue that Virgilio is wrong, and that “the pilgrim’s wish to listen is right, for his is the comedic desire to confront evil and to bear witness to all of reality, including hell” (p. 238). I still maintain the position that I take in Dante’s Poets, and as further support I would adduce the events of Inferno 32, in which Dante not only watches a quarrel, as he does in Inferno 30, but actually participates in it. In Inferno 32, Dante pulls Bocca degli Abati’s hair from his head, causing Bocca to howl in pain; Virgilio at that point does not rebuke Dante, nor does Dante apologize. Rather another sinner certifies Dante as a minister of divine vengeance, asking Bocca “what devil’s touching you?”: “qual diavol ti tocca?” (Inf. 32.108).
In conclusion, we come back to the theme of shame, discussed also in the Introductions to Inferno 28 and to Inferno 29. In Inferno 30.136-41 Dante describes his experience of shame at being rebuked by Virgilio. He compares his feeling to that of a man who dreams of his suffering and in his dream wishes that he were dreaming. This passage is fascinating both for what it tells us of Dante’s feelings about shame and for what it suggests about the experience of dreaming. Let us look at both issues.
Dante was always susceptible to feeling social shame, as we can see from the Vita Nuova, and as is evidenced as well in the Geri del Bello episode of Inferno 29. Here his great vergogna at being corrected by his guide reminds us that Dante did not reject authority lightly and that the feelings of social inadequacy incurred by Virgilio’s displeasure did not pass easily. In fact, in this passage Dante insists on the intensity of his feeling of shame, telling us that he still now—in the present tense, after the cessation of his vision—can conjure the feeling in his memory:
Quand’io ’l senti’ a me parlar con ira, volsimi verso lui con tal vergogna, ch’ancor per la memoria mi si gira. (Inf. 30.133-35) And when I heard him speak so angrily, I turned around to him with shame so great that it still stirs within my memory.
The shame that Dante scripts for himself here confirms that his refusal to feel onta at not having avenged Geri del Bello is an acquired, not an innate, skill. In other words, Dante was naturally susceptible to the societal shame of family dishonor, but with his reason he resisted the feeling of onta and the actions that it triggered: vendetta.
Most fascinating in the concluding section of Inferno 30 is Dante’s comparison of himself to “one who dreams that he is harmed / and, dreaming, wishes he were dreaming, thus / desiring that which is, as if it were not”:
colui che suo dannaggio sogna, che sognando desidera sognare, sì che quel ch’è, come non fosse, agogna tal mi fec’io (Inf. 30.136-39)
Dante feels ashamed and wishes he were no longer experiencing shame. He does not know that Virgilio has already forgiven him, and that his desire has therefore already become reality. His desire to no longer feel bad is compared to the desire of a dreamer who dreams that he is experiencing harm and while dreaming wishes for release from harm—and thus while dreaming wishes to be dreaming.
The dreamer to whom Dante compares himself is therefore someone who craves the reality that is already his reality—to be dreaming—as though it were not his reality. Dante compresses and ends up with a profoundly existential statement: he is one who craves that which is—“quel ch’è”—as though it were not: “come non fosse” (138).
The simile depicts someone who craves a reality of which he is already in possession, if he could but recognize the reality of his dream. As I write in Chapter 7 of The Undivine Comedy, which treats true dreams: “Here the dream is reality; the dreamer need dream no more. All the while that he craves reality, ‘what is’—‘quel ch’è’—he is in possession of it, if he could but recognize the reality of his dream, the truth—nonfalsity—of his error” (The Undivine Comedy, p. 164).
To dream and to wish that one were dreaming is to dream the truth. One is dreaming of what one already possesses, although not knowing it. Hence, one is dreaming reality: one is dreaming what is.
Here, at the end of Malebolge, we therefore encounter another definition of comedìa: it is a true dream, a dream that is the truth.
And finally, for those like my son who saw and loved the movie Inception, in which dreams nest within dreams, we note the fascinating modernity and psychological suppleness of Dante’s extraordinary comparison.