- Inferno 31 anticipates Inferno 34; the giants are anticipations of Lucifer
- towers — like the fortified towers of the magnate families in Duecento cities — are symbols of power, of the will to dominance and of overweening pride
- the Garisenda tower of Bologna and Dante’s early sonnet Non mi poriano
- the interweaving of classical and biblical in the presentation of the giants (this is the same pattern that we will find in the presentation of the exempla of the vices and virtues in Purgatorio)
- the presence, among the giants, of Nimrod (Nembrot for Dante), the biblical builder of the Tower of the Babel
- the story of the Tower of Babel and of the linguistic differentiation that followed: from Genesis 11:1-9, to Augustine ’s City of God 16.4, to Dante’s De vulgari eloquentia 1.7
- linguistic diversity, “confusion of tongues”, is the punishment meted out to Nembrot and his followers for their presumptuous building of the Tower of Babel: thus, in these texts — in Genesis, in City of God, and in De vulgari eloquentia — difference is punishment
- however, Dante punishes Nembrot not with linguistic diversity, as in all previous versions of the story, but by assigning him a non-language that communicates non-sense
- the social analogue to the linguistic fall is betrayal: the misuse and corrosion of the bonds that tie humans into social and familial consortia
 Inferno 31 is a transitional canto, a pause in the downward journey that marks the transition to the ninth and lowest circle of Hell. Inferno 31 also serves to anticipate the very bottom of Hell, the lowest point of the universe toward which all matter — all “weight” — tends: “lo mezzo / al quale ogne gravezza si rauna” (the center to which all weight is drawn [Inf. 32.73-74]). Inferno 31 features giants, classical and biblical, who are lesser approximations of Lucifer (named for the first time in Inferno 31.143 and for the second and last time in Inferno 34.89).
 The giants are less completely estranged, less completely devoid of cognition and understanding, less completely consigned to the category of hulking and unthinking brute matter than Lucifer. They are not animate death, as Lucifer is. Some of the giants — not Nembrot, however — are to some small degree still capable of the “reasoning of the mind” (“argomento della mente” in verse 55). As a group, the giants function as anticipations of Lucifer: while not as evil as the king of Hell, the giants too are guilty of having rebelled through hubris against an all-mighty divinity.
 Seeing tall structures in the distance, the pilgrim thinks that he sees towers. This is not a surprising error, for fortified towers belonging to rival magnate families were a hallmark of Duecento cities. But what the pilgrim sees in the distance are not towers. Instead what he sees are the enormous figures of the giants who stand in a circle around the “well” — “pozzo” (Inf. 31.32) — that is the pit of Hell. The feet of the giants are on the floor of the ninth circle, while their torsos and heads stick up over the far edge of the eighth circle, thus giving the appearance of towers. The analogy between towers and giants casts the nobles who built the urban towers of Duecento cities as prideful and arrogant, men who pursued a will to dominance like that of the giants.
 Only in the topsy-turvy world of Dante’s Hell can the fact that these are giants, rather than towers, be deemed “less strange”: “acciò che ’l fatto men ti paia strano, / sappi che non son torri, ma giganti” (so that the fact may seem less strange to you, / I’d have you know they are not towers, but giants [Inf. 31.30-31]). The narrator moreover reinforces the analogy by comparing the circularly arranged giants to the towers that ring Monteriggioni, a circular fortress built by the Sienese as a front in their war against the Florentines: “come su la cerchia tonda / Montereggion di torri si corona” (as, on its round wall, Montereggioni / is crowned with towers [Inf. 31.40-41]).
 “Montereggion” is the first historical and contemporary landmark in this canto; later on Dante will refer to “Garisenda” (136), a famous tower in Bologna that he had referenced by name in his early sonnet Non mi poriano. (For more on the Garisenda sonnet, see my commentary to the poem in Dante’s Lyric Poetry: Poems of Youth and of the Vita Nuova, cited in Coordinated Reading.) In Inferno 31 Dante describes the Garisenda tower with a precision that indicates that he had studied it in person, in Bologna. Again, by naming these places, by naming these features of the contemporary social and political landscape, Dante links his social world to the issues represented by the giant-towers of Inferno 31: power, will to dominance, overweening pride.
 When the travelers arrive at the farthest reaches of the eighth circle, the circle’s edge, Virgilio asks one of the giants to pick them up and deposit them on the very floor of Hell, in the ninth and final circle. Technically, the ninth circle, devoted to betrayal, is still under the rubric of fraud. As Virgilio explained in Inferno 11, betrayal is fraud committed against those who trust us.
 The giant who does the service of depositing the travelers in the ninth circle is Antaeus, a figure drawn from classical mythology. Antaeus, who is unfettered unlike his fellow giants, provides transport from the eighth to the ninth circle as Geryon previously provided transport from the seventh to the eighth. At canto’s end Antaeus picks up Dante and Virgilio upon Virgilio’s behest. Virgilio speaks to Antaeus at length (verses 115-29): his address to the giant includes a detailed captatio benevolentiae and a promise of renewed fame on earth if he will comply with the request. Fascinating too is Virgilio’s claim that long life awaits the pilgrim, if grace does not call him before his time:
Ancor ti può nel mondo render fama, ch’el vive, e lunga vita ancor aspetta se ’nnanzi tempo grazia a sé nol chiama. (Inf. 31.127-29)
He still can bring you fame within the world, for he’s alive and still expects long life, unless grace summon him before his time.
 Most significantly, with respect to the thematics of Inferno 31 and this canto’s anticipation of Inferno 34, Antaeus still preserves the faculty of reason. The sign of Antaeus’s cognitive presence is language: he can receive Virgilio’s communication, understand it, and comply. At the end of Inferno 31 Antaeus gently places the travelers on the floor of the ninth circle, and so the canto concludes with Dante and Virgilio deposited at the very bottom of the universe, the “fondo a tutto l’universo” (Inf. 32.8).
 At first mention the giants are placed within a classical frame of reference, that of the mythological War of the Titans against the Olympians. This struggle, the Gigantomachy, culminated in the battle of Phlegra where Jove defeated the giants with his thunderbolts. Thus, Dante calls them “li orribili giganti, cui minaccia / Giove del cielo ancora quando tuona” (the terrifying giants, whom Jove still menaces / from Heaven when he sends his bolts of thunder down upon them [Inf. 31.44-45]). Later on in the canto, the classical giant Ephialtes is described in two verses that make him effectively a classical counterpart to Lucifer in his hubris. He is a “superbo” (91), a challenger of Jove’s/God’s supremacy and an embodiment of rebellious pride: “Questo superbo volle esser esperto / di sua potenza contra ’l sommo Giove” (This giant in his arrogance had tested / his force against the force of highest Jove [Inf. 31.91-92]).
 In the references to Jove’s thunderbolts in verse 45, Dante is also echoing language used by that other “superbo” who rebelled against Jove/God and is now punished as a blasphemer in Hell: the mythological king from the Thebaid, Capaneus. Capaneus is explicitly reprised and called “superbo” in Inferno 25.14. When we first meet Capaneus among the blasphemers in Inferno 14, he alludes to Jove’s battle against the giants, the battle of Phlegra (indeed, “Flegra” in Inferno 14.58 is a hapax). Capaneus references Phlegra and the Gigantomachy as part of his grandiose insistence that nothing that Jove — God — can do can possibly frighten him (Inf. 14.51-60). Central to the thematic of prideful transgression in Inferno, Capaneus informs our current encounter with the giants who once challenged Jove in their arrogance.
 The classical giants of Inferno 31 are thus suitable anticipations of Lucifer in Dante’s personal mythography. The giants rebelled against Jove as Lucifer rebelled against God. This is the same Dantean mythography in which, as we recall from the Commento on Inferno 26 (paragraphs 59-61), classical Ulysses is analogous to biblical Adam.
 Most of the giants named in Inferno 31 are classical, in a group that includes, along with Antaeus and Ephialtes, also Briareus, Tityus and Typhoeus. Also known as Typhon, Typhoeus will be referenced again in Paradiso 8.70, as the giant whom the ancients believed was imprisoned under Mount Aetna (for the deconstruction of classical beliefs in Paradiso 8, see Dante’s Poets, pp. 73-43). The most interesting giant of Inferno 31 is the solitary biblical figure, Nembrot (Nimrod in English). The themes of pride and transgression figured in the classical giants are most illuminatingly set forth by Dante in his treatment of Nembrot. The classical giants will be paired with Lucifer and Nembrot again, as examples of overweening pride to be castigated and trampled upon, in Purgatorio’s terrace of pride (Purgatorio 12.28-36).
 Throughout the Commedia, Dante uses the Hebrew king Nembrot/Nimrod and the biblical story of the Tower of Babel to give a linguistic and artistic focus to pride. Nimrod is described thus in Genesis 10:8-10:
8 And Cush begat Nimrod: he began to be a mighty one in the earth. 9 He was a mighty hunter before the LORD: wherefore it is said, Even as Nimrod the mighty hunter before the LORD. 10 And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. (King James Version)
 The story of the building and destruction of the Tower of Babel is told in the next chapter, Genesis 11:1-9:
And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. 2 And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. 3 And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter. 4 And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. 5 And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. 6 And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. 7 Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. 8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. 9 Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth. (King James Version)
 The story of the Tower of Babel was retold by St. Augustine in The City of God 16.4. Dante also retells the story in his linguistic treatise, De vulgari eloquentia (On Vernacular Eloquence), which he wrote in the first half of the first decade of the 14th century, after his exile in 1302 and before writing Convivio (circa 1304-1307) and beginning Inferno. In his retelling of the Tower of Babel in De vulgari eloquentia 1.7, Dante focuses on 1) human hubris and 2) the linguistic implications of the biblical narrative. Nembrot, like Ulysses, led his people astray, on a rash and hubristic quest:
Presumpsit ergo in corde suo incurabilis homo, sub persuasione gigantis Nembroth, arte sua non solum superare naturam, sed etiam ipsum naturantem, qui Deus est, et cepit hedificare turrim in Sennear, que postea dicta est Babel, hoc est confusio, per quam celum sperabat adscendere: intendens, inscius, non equare, sed suum superare Factorem. (De vulgari eloquentia 1.7.4)
Incorrigible humanity, therefore, led astray by the giant Nimrod, presumed in its heart to outdo in skill not only nature but the source of its own nature, who is God; and began to build a tower in Sennaar, which afterwards was called Babel (that is, ‘confusion’). By this means human beings hoped to climb up to heaven, intending in their foolishness not to equal but to excel their creator. (trans. Steven Botterill, De vulgari eloquentia [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996])
 Dante proceeds to outline the various tasks of the many people — “almost the whole of the human race” — who worked together on the Tower, “this work of evil”:
Siquidem pene totum humanum genus ad opus iniquitatis coierat. Pars imperabant, pars architectabantur, pars muros moliebantur, pars amysibus regulabant, pars trullis linebant, pars scindere rupes, pars mari, pars terra vehere intendebant, partesque diverse diversis aliis operibus indulgebant, cum celitus tanta confusione percussi sunt . . . (De vulgari eloquentia 1.7.6)
Almost the whole of the human race had collaborated in this work of evil. Some gave orders, some drew up designs; some built walls, some measured them with plumb-lines, some smeared mortar on them with trowels; some were intent on breaking stones, some on carrying them by sea, some by land; and other groups still were engaged in other activities — until they were all struck by a great blow from heaven. (trans. Steven Botterill)
 This vast multitude was able to work together — etymologically, to “collaborate” — because they had the benefit of being unified by the use of one language. Hence, God forced their collaboration to end by confounding their language. The account in Genesis 11:6–7 stipulates the link between linguistic unity and transgressive human success:
et dixit: Ecce, unus est populus, et unum labium omnibus: coeperuntque hoc facere, nec desistent a cogitationibus suis, donec eas opere compleant. Venite igitur, descendamus, et confundamus ibi linguam eorum, ut non audiat unusquisque vocem proximi sui. (Genesis 11:6–7)
The Lord said, If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.
 When Dante restates this event, in which God deliberately confused human language, he stresses that the confusion of tongues is a form of linguistic difference, and that the transition that occurs is from the One — “one same language” — to the Many — “different languages”:
ut qui omnes una eademque loquela deserviebant ad opus, ab opere, multis diversificati loquelis, desinerent, et nunquam ad idem commertium convenirent. (De vulgari eloquentia 1.7.6)
Previously all of them had spoken one and the same language while carrying out their tasks; but now they were forced to leave off their labors, never to return to the same occupation, because they had been split up into groups speaking different languages. (trans. Steven Botterill)
 Striking in the above passage is the way the opposition between prelapsarian and postlapsarian is characterized in linguistic terms. In their prelapsarian state, the people were blessed with one same language — “una eademque loquela” — while in their postlapsarian condition they are diversified into many tongues: “multis diversificati loquelis”. This linguistic fall is in fact the great theme of Inferno 31, announced in its opening words: “Una medesma lingua” (One same tongue [Inf. 31.1]).
 The first three words of Inferno 31 are actually a reference to Virgilio’s tongue: the same tongue which had rebuked Dante at the end of the previous canto, admonishing him not to be fixated on the quarrel between Sinon and Maestro Adamo, now comforts him and restores his good cheer. To be clear: in context and correctly construed, the words “una medesma lingua” at the beginning of Inferno 31 do not refer to the prelapsarian unified language. Nonetheless, Dante’s decision to begin Inferno 31 with the words “one same language” seems intentional. One might suggest that the canto that treats the linguistic diaspora as the wages of human arrogance begins with a vernacular translation of the phrase “una eademque loquela” from De vulgari eloquentia.
 As in the bolgia of the sowers of schism (Inferno 28), in Inferno 31 too the underlying premise is that oneness is good and multiplicity is bad. As Dante puts it in the Monarchia (written later, in the second decade of the 14th century): “unde fit quod 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]). We thus arrive at the following alignment:
unum (one) = bonum (good) = una eademque loquela (one same language)
multa (many) = malum (evil) = multis diversificati loquelis (diversified into many languages)
 In De vulgari eloquentia Dante also connects Nembrot specifically to artistic pride, as we saw in the passage cited in paragraph 15 above. The connection between pride and human endeavor — human “art” or skill — anticipates the Commedia. The idea that there is a kind of artist arrogant enough to presume “to surpass with his art not only nature, but also nature’s maker, who is God” (Dve 1.7.4). runs through the Commedia and indeed lays the conceptual foundation for the terrace of pride in Purgatorio. As he does with many of his core ideas, Dante roots his idea of artistic presumption or hubris in both biblical and classical antecedents. For Dante, the transgressive mythological artists Daedalus and Arachne are matched by the biblical figure of Nembrot.
 Nembrot’s attempt to surpass “not only nature but nature’s maker” will cause him to be remembered in each canticle of the poem, as part of an artistic constellation that also includes Ulysses (for a detailed exposition of this point, see The Undivine Comedy, pp. 51, 92, 115-16, 122, 283 n. 13, 296 n. 40 and n. 43, 304 n. 37, 306 n. 1, 310 n. 22). In Purgatorio 12, Nembrot stands dazedly at the foot of the Tower, the “gran lavoro” (great work [Purg. 12.34]) that has been destroyed by God. In Paradiso 26 Adam articulates the core concept of trespass, which he calls the “trapassar del segno” (the trespass of the boundary [Par. 26.117]), and recalls Nembrot’s failed attempt — his “ovra inconsummabile” (an uncompleteable work) — one last time (Par. 26.125).
* * *
 While there is substantial continuity between De vulgari eloquentia and Inferno 31, there is also an important point of divergence. It is to this divergence, as laid out in my essay “Difference as Punishment or Difference as Pleasure: From the Tower of Babel in De vulgari eloquentia to the Death of Babel in Paradiso 26” (cited in Coordinated Reading), to which I now turn. In that essay I argue that in Paradiso 26 Dante breaks the causal logic of the Tower of Babel account, a causal logic that had been present in the story in all versions since Genesis. The causal logic disrupted by Paradiso 26 holds that our sinful pride was punished by linguistic confusion: our arrogance and transgression caused diversity of language, the punishment of “confusion of tongues”.
 Dante still held to that causal link in Inferno 31, where Virgilio addresses Nembrot as foolish and confused, “Anima sciocca” (73) and “anima confusa” (74), reminding us of the causal link between Nembrot’s Tower and the confusion of tongues. Dante further presents Nembrot in two verses that highlight the causation between overweening pride and linguistic diversity: “questi è Nembrotto per lo cui mal coto / pur un linguaggio nel mondo non s’usa” (this is Nimrod, through whose wicked thought / one single language cannot serve the world [Inf. 31.77–78]). Here Dante states with utmost clarity the premise that because of Nembrot’s “evil thought” (“mal coto”), one single language (“pur un linguaggio”) is no longer used (“non s’usa”) by humans.
 The causal link that is here posited between human sin and linguistic diversity indicates that the Babel myth still holds sway in Dante’s mind. There is no denying that Inferno 31 picks up from De vulgari eloquentia the castigatory concept that Nembrot’s sin led to the loss of “un linguaggio” that was shared by all humans. But, at the same time, I believe that Inferno 31 demonstrates an important softening, not toward Nembrot and his sinfulness, but toward the very concept of difference, which is no longer seen as inherently sinful and hence as an appropriate punishment for transgression. In this way, I believe that we can see the position on language of Inferno 31 as a way-station toward the position on language of Paradiso 26.
 For in Inferno 31 Dante punishes Nembrot not with linguistic diversity, but by assigning him a non-language that communicates non-sense. He is explicit about this point, stating that Nembrot’s language is known to no one:
Lasciànlo stare e non parliamo a vòto; ché così è a lui ciascun linguaggio come ’l suo ad altrui, ch’a nullo è noto. (Inf. 31.76-81)
Leave him alone — let’s not waste time in talk; for every language is to him the same as his to others — no one knows his tongue.
 Nembrot in Inferno 31 is condemned to a more extreme form of unintelligibility than the one visited upon him in De vulgari eloquentia. In previous versions of the tale, Nembrot’s followers are struck with linguistic diversity, so that he as their leader loses his ability to lead: he can no longer communicate with his followers and command them. But he retains the ability to speak, and hence the ability to communicate with those few followers who still speak his language. However, in Inferno 31 there is no speaker to whom Nembrot can communicate; now he is condemned to an absolute “parlare a vòto” (Inf. 31.79), to empty speech. He is stripped of the ability to transfer cognition to language. His “evil cognition” (the “coto” of “mal coto” in verse 77 is derived from Latin cogitare) has been punished in Dante’s Hell by condemnation to speak a non-language that is emptied of cognition. This is truly a parlare a vòto.
 The punishment of Nembrot in Inferno 31 is more absolute than the punishment that he suffers in the biblical and Augustinian stories, where he is punished with the confusion of tongues, the differentiation of one language into many languages. But, although harsher to Nembrot, Inferno 31 no longer classifies difference itself as a form of punishment. Dante has thus shifted away from the original versions of the story: the punishment for Babel in Inferno 31 is non-language, not the creation of multiple different languages.
 Perhaps therefore we can claim that Dante has already softened his view of linguistic difference in Inferno 31. Perhaps we can posit Dante moving incrementally toward the position that he espouses in Paradiso 26, where difference is accepted, indeed celebrated, as part of a necessary existential reality.
 The linguistic fall is secondary only to the original fall in the Garden of Eden. The phrase parlare a vòto in verse 79 indicates the insurpassable gulf, the empty space between res and signum that is part of mankind’s fallen condition.
 Much of Inferno has been devoted to an investigation of the problems of deceit and fraudulence inherent in the medium of language. As we saw in Inferno 17, Geryon was from the first associated with Arachne and with the perils of mimetic art. And yet, deeply aware as he is of the ways in which language can be used to deceive and abuse, Dante remains committed to the idea that without language we are less than human. Throughout Inferno semiotic abuse has been presented in a dazzling array of linguistic and literary vestments. Now we have arrived at a semiosis that cannot connect at all: we have arrived at the idea of a parlare a vòto, a speech into the void, a discourse in which the signifier will never bear any relation to the signified.
 In the linguistic failure that Nembrot performs, Dante dramatizes the complete corrosion of the bonds that tie humans into social and familial consortia. There is no more telling correlative to the sin of treachery — of fraud practiced on those we trust, those to whom we are bound with special ties of love and obligation and devotion — than the failure of language.
 Language is par excellence the human asset that we use to build and achieve together, to console each other, and to communicate our love. This failure is most poignantly expressed in the story told by Ugolino, in Inferno 33, in which the traitor withholds the consolation of language from his sons. It is ultimately a failure embodied by Lucifer, who uses his mouth to masticate — but not to speak.
 Inferno 31 begins with Virgilio’s mouth, with his applying his tongue — his speech — to the multiple and proper offices of communication. As Virgilio used his tongue to cause Dante shame with his severe rebuke at the end of Inferno 30, so now, at the beginning of Inferno 31, Virgilio uses his tongue to offer the sweet balm of comfort.
 As Inferno 31 begins with Virgilio’s mouth, so it ends with an anticipation of Lucifer’s mouth: a mouth that does not speak, does not communicate, but only devours. Lucifer devours, and Lucifer is devoured: Antaeus places the travelers on “the floor that devours Lucifer with Judas” (“al fondo che divora / Lucifero con Giuda” [Inf. 31.142-43]).
 Lucifer’s devouring but non-communicating mouth, itself devoured by Hell (“the floor that devours”), is Inferno’s final image of brute matter devoid of speech, because devoid of the light of reason. For Lucifer does not have what the giants still have, as Dante specifies in Inferno 31.49-57, where he opines that it is just as well that Nature has left off making creatures who are as large as elephants and whales but, unlike elephants and whales (Dante does not know what we know about the cognition of animals), still possess the ability to reason:
E s’ella d’elefanti e di balene non si pente, chi guarda sottilmente, più giusta e più discreta la ne tene; ché dove l’argomento de la mente s’aggiugne al mal volere e a la possa, nessun riparo vi può far la gente. (Inf. 31.52-57)
And if she still produces elephants and whales, whoever sees with subtlety holds her — for this — to be more just and prudent; for where the mind’s acutest reasoning is joined to evil will and evil power, there human beings can’t defend themselves.
 The “argomento della mente” — “the mind’s reasoning” (Inf. 31.55) — is what produces language, and it is what makes us human. The inhumanity of humans, signaled by our failures with respect to language, is what engages Dante’s imagination in these last canti of Inferno.