- Dante’s poetic mission, transferred from the canzone Così nel mio parlar (one of the rime petrose) to Inferno 32
- hair-pulling, transferred from a gendered and sexualized context in the erotic canzone Così nel mio parlar to a political context vis-à-vis Bocca degli Abati in Inferno 32
- winter, transferred from the rime petrose to the pit of Hell
- ice: the frozen core—the frozen heart—at the center of the universe
- ice: the mirror of the self
- the structural connection between family and betrayal in the upper stratum of society anticipates the Ugolino episode
- there are multiple connections between the traitors and Inferno 5: “Caina” is named in Inf. 5.107 as Gianciotto’s future home; the traitor Tebaldello de’ Zambrasi of Faenza became Gianciotto’s father-in-law (after Francesca’s death Tebaldello’s daughter Zambrasina married the widower Gianciotto Malatesta)
- the “bestial segno” and the utter distortion of language: used not to comfort and console and communicate but to betray
As is usual for Dante, acknowledgment of radical representational inadequacy reinforces his dedication to overcome such lack, to be “di natura buona scimia” (Inf. 29.139): a “good ape of nature”, in other words, a great mimetic artist. He seeks to find the language that will eliminate difference, traversing the space between what De vulgari eloquentia calls the rational and the sensual aspects of language, i.e., the space between the meaning and the sound, between the signified and signifier. The goal is to achieve a language that is indivisible from reality, “sì che dal fatto il dir non sia diverso” (so that my word not differ from the fact [Inf. 32.12]).
Accordingly, the great cascade of metapoetic language that opens Inferno 32 celebrates the fundamental principle of Dantean mimesis: language must not differ from reality. What Dante seeks is the exact opposite of Nembrot’s affliction. If Nembrot is condemned in Inferno 31 to “parlare a vòto”—to “speak emptily” or vainly (Inf. 31.79)—Dante seeks a parlare that clings to reality like a burr, annihilating all distance between the fatto—the event as it occurs—and the dir that represents it.
Because we exist in time, and because our representation of life always comes into existence belatedly with respect to life itself, Dante’s quest is an impossible one: it is an “ovra inconsummabile”—“unaccomplishable task” (Par. 26.125)—as per the language with which Adam describes Nembrot’s attempt to build the Tower of Babel in Paradiso 26. Nonetheless, the ovra inconsummabile of creating a language in which dir is not different from fatto, a feat (“impresa” [Inf. 32.7]) undertaken with full understanding of the metaphysical reasons because of which such a goal is eternally out of reach, is without a doubt the great heroic, indeed Ulyssean, quest of the Commedia. In my opinion, Dante accomplishes this ovra inconsummabile as well as any person who has ever lived.
Inferno 32 begins with an extraordinary metapoetic opening that includes an invocation to the Muses and also echoes Dante’s own erotic canzone Così nel mio parlar voglio esser aspro (written circa 1296). This canzone, one of the rime petrose, itself boasts a metapoetic opening, in which Dante writes about the desire to find a poetic form that is fully commensurate with his content. The canzone’s content centers on a beautiful and stone-cold woman (“questa bella petra”), whose actions are as harsh and unyielding as stone (“com’è ne li atti questa bella petra”). Consequently the poet seeks language (“parlar”) that is as harsh (“aspro”) as is the lady in her behavior:
Così nel mio parlar voglio esser aspro com’è ne li atti questa bella petra . . . (Così nel mio parlar, 1-2)
I want to be as harsh in my speech as this fair stone is in her deeds . . .
In the opening of Così nel mio parlar, the poet wants to align his parlare with the harsh atti that he seeks to describe. In the opening of Inferno 32, the poet wants to align his dir with the harsh fatti that he seeks to represent.
It is the same poetic program, transferred from conjuring a scene of violent and frustrated eros in the canzone to describing the violent “fondo a tutto l’universo” (bottom of the universe [Inf. 32.8]) in Inferno.
Along with the same poetic program, Dante also transfers the same stylistic modality—harsh rhymes—from the canzone to the Commedia. As in Così nel mio parlar voglio esser aspro the poet desired harsh speech, a “parlar . . . aspro”, now at the end of Hell he desires harsh and rasping rhymes, “rime aspre e chiocce” (we remember that Plutus had a “voce chioccia” in Inferno 7.2):
S’io avessi le rime aspre e chiocce, come si converrebbe al tristo buco sovra ’l qual pontan tutte l’altre rocce, io premerei di mio concetto il suco più pienamente . . . (Inf. 32.1-5)
Had I the crude and scrannel rhymes to suit the melancholy hole upon which all the other circling crags converge and rest, the juice of my conception would be pressed more fully . . .
Then, in the canzone, the goal was to find language that matched the harshness of the lady he loved. Now, in Inferno, it is to find language fit to render the unremittingly harsh reality of the pit of Hell:
ché non è impresa da pigliare a gabbo discriver fondo a tutto l'universo, né da lingua che chiami mamma o babbo. (Inf. 32.7-9)
for it is not a task to take in jest, to show the base of all the universe— nor for a tongue that cries out, "mama," "papa."
The consonance between canzone and Inferno 32 goes further, involving an act of violence committed by the poet in both works. In Così nel mio parlar the poet imagines that he takes a violent and erotic revenge on the lady for her resistance, in a scene that involves seizing her by her beautiful braids:
S’io avessi le belle trecce prese, che fatte son per me scudiscio e ferza, pigliandole anzi terza, con esse passerei vespero e squille: e non sarei pietoso né cortese, anzi farei com’orso quando scherza; e se Amor me ne sferza, io mi vendicherei di più di mille. (Così nel mio parlar, 66-73) Once I’d taken in my hand the fair locks which have become my whip and lash, seizing them before terce I’d pass through vespers with them and the evening bell: and I’d not show pity or courtesy, O no, I’d be like a bear at play. And though Love whips me with them now, I would take my revenge more than a thousandfold. (Foster & Boyde)
In Inferno 32 Dante will pull hair again, and pull it violently—not this time the hair of a lady who rejects his desire, but the hair of Bocca degli Abati, the Guelph nobleman whom he here brands the arch-traitor of the battle of Montaperti (the identification of Bocca as the traitor of Montaperti is not completely confirmed). Bocca now howls in pain (“latrando lui” [Inf. 32.105]), as Dante once howled in desire for the stony lady: “Ohmè, perché non latra / per me, com’io per lei, nel caldo borro?” (Alas, why does she not howl / for me in the hot gorge, as I for her? [Così nel mio parlar, 59-60]).
In this way Dante channels the violence and frustration of his early canzone into his violent anger toward Bocca degli Abati: from a violent eros that remains in the private and subjective domain of lyric poetry he moves to the violent public history of Florence and Tuscany. Moreover, as discussed in the essay “Dante’s Sympathy for the Other”, Dante here transfers hair-pulling from the sexualized and gendered domain to a desexualized and political domain. The sexual stereotype has mutated into the shaming of a man for his political treachery:
The aggressively sexualized hair-pulling of the canzone feeds not into the Commedia’s treatment of female sexual sin but into the shaming of a man in Inferno 32 (a canto whose opening request for «rime aspre e chiocce» echoes the incipit of Così nel mio parlar). Rather than an adulterous woman, the hair-pulling of Inferno 32 involves Bocca degli Abati, the Florentine arch-traitor of the battle of Montaperti: a man. (“Dante’s Sympathy for the Other”, p. 179)
* * *
The sin that Dante stipulates for the ninth circle of Hell is treachery: fraud practiced on those who trust us, as he defines it in Inferno 11.53. The ninth circle is thus a continuation of the eighth, which features sinners who deceived people with whom they shared no special bonds of trust. Dante has given about half the real estate of Hell to fraud, given that we enter the circle of fraud in Inferno 18 and that fraud persists as an organizing principle until the end of Inferno.
When the travelers arrive at the fondo dell’universo, the ninth circle, they see ice: ice so thick that if certain very large and particularly stony mountains fell upon this ice, it would not crack (verses 25-30). One of the mountains named in this passage is “Pietrapana” (from Pietra Apuana), a mountain in the Apuan Alps in Tuscany that is now called Pania della Croce. Its very name, Pietrapana, reminds us of the ice-cold stony lady of the rime petrose.
And indeed, as the poetic program of lowest Hell is imprinted with a rima petrosa, so too is the air, the landscape, the very “weather” of this place. The petrose are winter poems, poems that explore a love that renders the self stone-dead and ice-cold. The icy death of the rime petrose, subjective and psychological, has now been projected onto objective reality: it has been conjured as the frozen lake of Cocytus, the frozen core—the frozen heart—at the center of the universe.
Ice was no more a popular frame of reference for Hell in the medieval cultural imaginary than in ours. Dante ignores convention to make his point: ice = lack of all warmth, lack of all life, lack of all love. The ninth circle features the icy coldness of death. The ice of Cocytus is maintained by a frigid wind, which (as we will learn in Inferno 34) is generated by Lucifer’s bat-like wings. A first mention of the frigid wind of lowest Hell is found in verse 75: “e io tremava ne l’etterno rezzo” (and I was trembling in the eternal breeze [Inf. 32.75]).
The smooth ice of Cocytus, which the extreme cold has caused to take on the appearance of glass (“avea di vetro e non d’acqua sembiante” [it looks like glass, not water Inf. 32.24]), serves as a mirror. Camicion de’ Pazzi says to Dante, in verse 54, “Perché cotanto in noi ti specchi?”, which, literally translated, means: “Why do you so mirror yourself in us?” (Inf. 32.54).
This is a lake of glass in which the self is mirrored, for the journey through Hell, which now draws to an end, is not only about recognizing evil in others: we must also recognize evil in ourselves.
The ice is the home of traitors, for betrayal is human behavior that is premised on lack of love. Here in the ninth circle we find four types of betrayal (although as we shall see one type easily bleeds into another): betrayal of family, betrayal of country or party, betrayal of friends and guests, betrayal of benefactors. Dante imagines that the ice of Cocytus is roughly divided into four zones accordingly and that the sinners exhibit different postures in the ice according to which zone they inhabit. The sinners in lowest hell are those who defiled the bonds of family and community that we humans hold most dear.
The first section of Cocytus, devoted to the betrayal of family, is called “Caina” (58) after biblical Cain who killed his brother Abel. Dante offers this label in the ferocious description of two brothers who are locked together in the ice for eternity:
D’un corpo usciro; e tutta la Caina potrai cercare, e non troverai ombra degna più d’esser fitta in gelatina. (Inf. 32.58-60) They came out of one body; and you can search all Caina, you will never find a shade more fit to sit within this ice.
The mutual hatred (based on quarrels over inheritance) of these two brothers, Napoleone and Alessandro degli Alberti, counts of Mangona, led to their killing each other. The double fratricide was followed in the next generation by the killing of Napoleone’s son, Orso, by the hand of Alessandro’s son, Alberto (Sapegno, p. 354, who cites Barbi).
The killing of brother by brother reminds us of the first usage of the word “Caina” in Inferno 5, where it is used by Francesca da Rimini. She refers to the future infernal resting-place of her husband, Gianciotto, guilty of killing both his wife and his brother Paolo, her lover, and thus destined to join the traitors of family: “Caina attende chi a vita ci spense” (Caina waits for him who took our life [Inf. 5.107]). Interestingly, another parallel between the counts of Mangona and the Malatesta clan is the transmittal of the desire for vengeance to the next generation. For, as I note in an essay on Francesca da Rimini, Gianciotto’s son Ramberto killed Paolo’s son Uberto, just as Alessandro’s son Alberto killed Napoleone’s son Orso:
The struggle for power among the cousins was so fierce, and betrayal so customary, that Gianciotto’s son Ramberto would eventually invite Paolo’s son Uberto to dinner and there, in concert with other family members, have him killed. (“Dante and Francesca da Rimini: Realpolitik, Romance, Gender”, p. 24)
As the Malatesta family well demonstrates, there is not a clear demarcation between family betrayal and political betrayal. This blurring of the lines between family ties and the exercise of political power, systemic in Dante’s society, comes into focus in the episode that dominates the next canto, that of Count Ugolino della Gherardesca.
There is another tidbit of Malatesta history that relates Francesca’s story to Inferno 32. In verses 122-23 of this canto, Dante presents the political traitor Tebaldello de’ Zambrasi of Faenza: “Tebaldello, / ch’aprì Faenza quando si dormia” (he who unlocked Faenza while it slept). Tebaldello’s daughter Zambrasina married the widower Gianciotto Malatesta and bore him five children after Francesca’s demise, “thus achieving the unique status of being wife of one traitor in Dante’s hell and daughter of another” (“Dante and Francesca da Rimini”, p. 19).
A final point about the word “Caina” in Inferno 5.107. Whatever form of outlining or note-keeping Dante undertook in composing his intricate otherworld, he clearly had worked out at least a basic formal structure, as indicated by Francesca using the name Caina for lowest Hell way up in Inferno 5. This line not only shows that Dante had planned the structure of Hell in some detail quite a bit in advance, it also indicates that he likely understood that he was creating a text that would require commentary. The same early commentators who explain the identity of Francesca da Rimini also have the task of explaining what the word “Caina” signifies in Inf. 5.107.
However, while information about the identity of Francesca da Rimini has to be imported by the commentator from outside of the text, the significance of the word “Caina” in Inf. 5.107 is entirely internal: it can only be ascertained by reading Inferno 32. By treating his own virtual reality as equally deserving of gloss as a simile drawn from Ovid or the identity of a historical character, Dante contributes to the compelling verisimilitude of his text.
* * *
The second zone of the ninth circle, ”Antenora” (verse 88), contains political traitors, including Bocca degli Abati, a Florentine Guelph whom Dante believed betrayed his fellow Guelphs at the battle of Montaperti (1260). The Abati family is a magnate family. (See the list of Florentine magnates compiled by the historian Carol Lansing in her book The Florentine Magnates, posted in the Introduction to Inferno 10.) Bocca degli Abati’s betrayal of Florence during the battle of Montaperti—he cut off the hand of the Florentine standard-bearer—turned the tide and led to the victory of the Sienese and the Florentine Ghibellines over the Florentine Guelphs.
Looking back at the chronicles of Florentine history in the Inferno that feature Montaperti—in particular Inferno 10 and Inferno 28—we see that the battle of Montaperti is like a festering wound that never heals.
The exiled Florentine Ghibelline, Farinata degli Uberti of Inferno 10, led the Sienese forces to victory, and that victory initiated a violent back-and-forth as Ghibellines and Guelphs exchanged power and exiled each other throughout the subsequent decades. The violence of the encounter with Bocca degli Abati reflects this dolorous history: Dante suspects he is speaking to Bocca and when Bocca refuses to reveal his name (a name that is then “betrayed” to Dante by another traitor in Inf. 32.106) the pilgrim threatens to pull out his hair (Inf. 32.97-99).
The sinner who betrays Bocca is subsequently revealed by Bocca to be Buoso da Duera, who betrayed Manfredi and the Ghibelline cause: Buoso da Duera accepted a bribe from Charles of Anjou and withdrew all opposition to the passage of the French through Lombardy, thus leading to Manfredi’s defeat at Benevento (1266). Dante in this way offers both a Ghibelline traitor and a Guelph traitor, although his personal passion is reserved for the Guelph.
The pilgrim tells Bocca that he will heap shame on him by bringing “true news” of his whereabouts back to earth: “ch’a la tua onta / io porterò di te vere novelle” (for I shall carry / true news of you, and that will bring you shame [Inf. 32.110-11]). Here Dante threatens Bocca with the very stigma of profound shame and dishonor—the “onta” discussed in the Introduction to Inferno 29—that in the Geri del Bello episode he refused to assume for himself. While the failure to have performed vendetta does not deserve onta, the betrayal of one’s fellow citizens to their deaths certainly does.
The passion that Dante brings to the Bocca degli Abati episode simmers in its fierce repartee. Buoso asks Bocca why he is howling in pain, and wonders “what devil is touching you?”:
quando un altro gridò: “Che hai tu, Bocca? non ti basta sonar con le mascelle, se tu non latri? qual diavol ti tocca?” (Inf. 32.106-8) when someone else cried out: “What is it, Bocca? Isn’t the music of your jaws enough for you without your bark? What devil’s at you?”
Of course, the “devil” that is touching Bocca is none other than Dante, who here has “become” a devil or a minister of God’s justice, in fulfillment of the infernal mandate that “Qui vive la pietà quand’è ben morta” (Here pity lives when it is truly dead [Inf. 20.28]).
At the same time, it is worth noting that Dante is here participating in the kind of quarrel that Virgilio just recently, at the end of Inferno 30, rebuked him for even watching. Perhaps, as I suggested in the Introduction to Inferno 30, Virgilio’s rebuke was a sign of the Roman poet’s limited understanding of Hell, rather than a sign of Dante’s shameful behavior.
In the last section of Inferno 32, the travelers see one sinner savagely eating the skull of another, digging his teeth in “right at the place where brain is joined to nape” (Inf. 32.129). The pilgrim addresses the soul as one who shows his hatred through such a “bestial sign”: “O tu che mostri per sì bestial segno / odio sovra colui che tu ti mangi” (O you who show, with such a bestial sign, / your hatred for the one on whom you feed [Inf. 32.133-34]).
This is the beginning of the encounter with Ugolino della Gherardesca, whose story dominates Inferno 33.
The distortion of language that was signaled by Nembrot’s gibberish in Inferno 31 has now found its fitting rubric. Down here language is a “bestial segno” (bestial sign [Inf. 32.133]). These souls would have been better off had they been “pecore e zebe” (sheep and goats [Inf. 32.15]): now they chatter their teeth like storks (“mettendo i denti in nota di cicogna” [Inf. 32.36]) and howl like dogs (“latrando lui con gli occhi in giù raccolti” [Inf. 32.105]).
Their language is bestial not because it is poorly uttered or composed; as we will see Ugolino is an accomplished rhetorician. It is bestial because it does not respect the human ties that are the reason for language’s existence: it does not respect the ties of family and community. It is not used to comfort and console. It is used—like Buoso’s and Bocca’s language in Inferno 32—to betray.