- the second circle (lust) is significantly more “infernal” or “hellish” than the first circle (Limbo): the presence of Minos at the threshold of the second circle
- the first great dramatic encounter, with Francesca da Rimini: a self-serving user of the ideology of courtly love, whose tenets she imbibed as a reader of love lyric and Arthurian romance, the genres with which she still identifies
- the possibility of seeing a different version of Francesca, if we take the route of historicizing her and uncovering her gendered history as dynastic wife and political pawn who attempts to exert agency in a patriarchal world (I do not discuss this historicized perspective in this commentary; for more on this, see “Dante and Francesca da Rimini: Realpolitik, Romance, Gender”, cited in Coordinated Reading, and “Dante Alighieri” in Women and Gender in Medieval Europe: An Encyclopedia, cited in Coordinated Reading). From this historicized perspective, it is less important that Dante put Francesca into his hell than that he saves her to history, preserving her from oblivion and becoming Francesca’s historian of record
- love leads to (Cavalcantian) death in Inferno 5 (“Amor condusse noi ad una morte” [Love led the two of us unto one death [Inf. 5.106]) while love leads to salvation in Inferno 2: “amor mi mosse, che mi fa parlare” (Love prompted me, that Love which makes me speak [Inf. 2.72])
- Dante traces here his own lyric development from the early tenzoni with Dante da Maiano through the Sicilian, Cavalcantian, and Guinizzellian phases
- Aristotle’s idea of “incontinence” (lack of moderation and self-control) is grafted onto courtly and lyric notions of excess desire
Our first move in treating Inferno 5 must be to put the treatment of lust as a sin into historical context. As I suggested in my 1998 essay “Dante and Cavalcanti (On Making Distinctions in Matters of Love): Inferno 5 in Its Lyric and Autobiographical Context” (see Coordinated Readings), we can do this by comparing Dante’s treatment of lust in Inferno 5 to that of various moralistic traditions, both written and visual: to vision literature, to didactic poetry and sermons, and to the contemporary artwork that we find in churches. The distance between Dante and the various moralistic traditions is immense. The instructive contrast helps us to realize that Dante is not particularly interested, in Inferno 5, in what the moralists call fornication. He is interested in the self’s negotiation of desire.
The visionaries follow a tradition in which punishment is inflicted on the sinful body part and are quite insistent that the tortures inflicted on fornicators are genital tortures. The visions demonstrate to what degree Dante, by contrast,
could be said to de-sexualize lust.
In the earliest Christian vision, St. Peter’s Apocalypse (2nd c. CE), we find women hung by their hair, hair that they plaited “not for the sake of beauty but to turn men to fornication”, and men “hung by their loins in that place of fire” (Eileen Gardiner, ed. Visions of Heaven and Hell before Dante [New York: Italica Press, 1989], p. 6). At the end of the vision tradition is Thurkill’s Vision (dated 1206, of English provenance), whose adulterers must fornicate publicly in an infernal amphitheater, and then tear each other to pieces:
An adulterer was now brought into the sight of the furious demons
together with an adulteress, united together in foul contact. In the
presence of all they repeated their disgraceful love-making and immodest
gestures to their own confusion and amid the cursing of the demons.
Then, as if smitten with frenzy, they began to tear one another, changing
the outward love that they seemed to entertain toward one another before
into cruelty and hatred. (Gardiner, ed. Visions of Heaven and Hell before Dante, pp. 230-231)
Visual depictions of hell are similarly focused. The treatment of the lustful in the Last Judgment of Dante’s contemporary Giotto (1267-1337 c.), in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padova, offers graphic images of what art historians Anna Derbes and Mark Sandona call “torments directed at genitalia”. They describe Giotto’s figures thus:
For instance, just below Satan’s left arm, on the bristly back of a serpentine monster, is a soul doomed to spend eternity with a reptilian green demon gnawing on his penis. Above and to the right of Satan, a black demon grips another man’s penis in pincers. Hanging to the right are four more damned souls, two of whom—one male, one female—are suspended by their genitals, another by his tongue, and the fourth by her long hair, a common sign of luxuria. The fact that her hair is braided may also signify her concupiscence. (Anna Derbes and Mark Sandona, The Usurer’s Heart: Giotto, Enrico Scrovegni, and the Arena Chapel in Padua, p. 66)
It goes without saying that Dante’s adulterers are not genitally tortured and do not fornicate in an infernal amphitheater to the prurient delight of demons. Or, rather, although it has always gone without saying, maybe we should say it as a thought experiment: to say it forces us to envision the Commedia as a text in which Paolo and Francesca perform a degraded sexual act for the pilgrim and his guide.
A word on the contrapasso that Dante devises in Inferno 5 is in order. Dante’s treatment of lust emphasizes the psychology of desire: his adulterers are tossed by a hellish wind—the “bufera infernal” of verse 31—as in life they were tossed about by their passions. The fourteenth-century commentator Guido da Pisa offers the gloss: ‘‘the lustful are moved in this world by every wind of temptation, so that their souls are always in continual motion and continual tempest’’. He cites Isaiah: ‘‘Cor impii quasi mare fervens quod quiescere non potest’’ (The heart of the wicked man is like a troubled sea that cannot rest). Moving forward from the Bible, Dante’s contrapasso draws on the Augustinian analysis of desire, based on a counterpoint between human motion and divine repose, between the human cor inquietum with its restless and unfulfilled longings and the eternally fulfilled quies of God.
In the essay mentioned above (“Dante and Cavalcanti: Inferno 5 in Its Lyric and Autobiographical Context”), I also proposed an Aristotelian intertext for the contrapasso of Inferno 5, one that to my knowledge had not previously been identified by the commentary tradition.
I proposed the importance for Inferno 5 of the passage in Book III, chapter 1 of Nicomachean Ethics in which Aristotle discusses compulsion and the will:
In a passage that has not, to my knowledge, been brought to bear on Inferno 5, Aristotle illustrates compulsion by offering precisely the example of a person being carried by a wind: ‘‘Those things, then, are thought involuntary, which take place by force or owing to ignorance; and that is compulsory of which the moving principle is outside, being a principle in which nothing is contributed by the person who acts—or, rather, is acted upon, e.g., if he were to be carried somewhere by a wind, or by men who had him in their power’’ (Nic. Ethics 3.1). Francesca, who speaks of her past actions as involuntary, of herself as having been acted upon rather than acting, and who is now carried by a wind, is the perfect embodiment of Aristotle’s example. We could say that she is Aristotle’s example of compulsion transplanted to the Christian afterlife. What for Aristotle serves as an example of compulsion—the example of a person being carried by a material wind—becomes in Dante’s afterworld the metaphor of a windy, tempestuous passion, a metaphor that has been fashioned into a literal feature of Dante’s infernal landscape. Aristotle’s physically compulsive wind has become the bufera infernal: it has become the tempest that represents the passions that Francesca calls ‘‘compulsive’’ but that Dante believes can and must be withstood by reason. (“Dante and Cavalcanti,” p. 74)
Aristotle’s discussion of compulsion and the will in Nicomachean Ethics Book 3 is highly relevant to the issues at stake in Inferno 5. Moreover, I believe that Dante in the Commedia uses the very examples of compulsion that Aristotle offers: “that is compulsory of which the moving principle is outside, being a principle in which nothing is contributed by the person who acts—or, rather, is acted upon, e.g., if he were to be carried somewhere by a wind, or by men who had him in their power’’ (Nic. Ethics 3.1). Both of Aristotle’s examples—being carried somewhere by a constraining wind or by powerful men—find their way into the Commedia’s treatment of compulsion: Francesca is analogous to Aristotle’s man who is “carried somewhere by a wind”, and Piccarda Donati, in Paradiso 3, is analogous to Aristotle’s man who is carried off “by men who had [her] in their power”.
The presence of the Aristotelian images of compulsion in the Commedia underscores the importance of Aristotle’s ethical doctrine of incontinence for Dante’s understanding of lust and desire.
* * *
Dante offers a clear philosophical definition of lust in Inferno 5: lust is the subjugation of reason by desire, the misalignment of our faculties. The lustful are “peccator carnali, / che la ragion sommettono al talento” (carnal sinners, / who subjugate reason to desire [Inf. 5.38-9]). This ethical definition is first put forward early in the canto and then subsequently Dante-poet stages an encounter with a charismatic sinner, Francesca da Rimini, who uses thrillingly beautiful language—language that draws on both love lyrics and Arthurian romance—to subvert the information contained by the ethical definition.
Here Dante follows a narrative method that he uses consistently, of first giving us information and then challenging our ability to integrate it. For instance, although “we are duly informed that ‘Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore’ (Justice moved my high maker [Inf. 3.4]), this is information that we will internalize—if at all—only after completing much of the voyage through hell, not here at the outset” (The Undivine Comedy, p. 31).
Francesca, who committed adultery with her brother-in-law Paolo, tells Dante that Love forced her to respond. She portrays herself as compelled by love. Love as an overwhelming force that cannot be withstood is a staple of the vernacular love lyric tradition. The Sicilian poet Giacomo da Lentini offers the language of passive surrender to a love that grips and holds him against his will. For example, in the canzone Madonna, dir vo voglio Giacomo writes ‘‘como l’amor m’ha priso’’ (as love has taken me) and ‘‘di tal guisa Amor m’ha vinto’’ (in such fashion has love conquered me). Guido delle Colonne too presents love as a force that seizes and overcomes him: in the canzone Ancor che l’aigua he writes ‘‘sì m’ave preso e tolto’’ (so love has taken and seized me) and in Amor, che lungiamente m’hai menato we find ‘‘Amor che vince tutto’’ (Love that conquers all). As I pointed out in “Dante and Cavalcanti”, Guido delle Colonne’s canzone Amor, che lungiamente m’hai menato “ is in effect a lyric version of Inferno 5 without the eschatological context”:
The Augustinian dialectic between menare and posare (termst hat will govern Inferno 5 as well) shapes the canzone from the outset, where the compulsive force of love is compared not to the roiling force of a gale on the sea but to the severe control of a rider on his mount; the lover begs love to loosen the reins by which he is so tightly bound: “Amor, che lungiamente m’hai menato / a freno stretto senza riposanza, / alarga le toi retene in pietanza” (1-3). (“Dante and Cavalcanti”, p. 75)
Dante began his poetic life as a lyric poet working within the conventions of courtly love and in the context of eros as an imperious force that cannot be withstood. In his very early sonnet to Dante da Maiano, Savere e cortesia, Dante Alighieri declares that there is no power that can impede love: “ché nulla cosa gli è incontro possente (for nothing has the power to take him [Love] on” [Savere e cortesia, 13]). Further discussion of Savere e cortesia within the context of the trajectory that leads to Inferno 5 may be found in Dante’s Lyric Poetry, cited in Coordinated Readings.
I will take this opportunity to add another echo of the early poetic exchanges with Dante da Maiano to the lyric repertory of Inferno 5. When Francesca says that “There is no greater sorrow / than thinking back upon a happy time / in misery”—“Nessun maggior dolore / che ricordarsi del tempo felice / ne la miseria” (Inf. 5.121-23)—she is echoing not only Boethius, as the commentaries note, but Dante’s own early tenzone del duol d’amore (tenzone on the suffering of love), where Dante Alighieri had used the same locution “maggior dolore” (greater suffering) now used by Francesca: “sacci bene, chi ama, / se non è amato, lo maggior dol porta” (know this full well: whoever loves / but is not loved will bear the greatest pain [Non canoscendo, 10–11]). To Francesca’s well-known echo of Dante’s early sonnet Amore e ’l cor gentil sono una cosa, we can thus add an echo of the tenzone with Dante da Maiano. It stands as a marker of how far Dante Alighieri has traveled in his view of love from those early days, when he believed in love as a compulsive force.
But already as a lyric poet, in his moral canzone Doglia mi reca, Dante had taken aim at the idea of love as a compulsive force. As Dante adds the ethical dimension to his poetry—and as he adds an Aristotelian ethical template—he becomes passionately invested in the belief that desire can be withstood, that reason can and must triumph. It is this profoundly psychological and ethical drama, with deep roots in the courtly tradition, and its extremely idiosyncratic and Dantean imbrication of Aristotle and courtliness (for which see my essay “Aristotle’s Mezzo, Courtly Misura, and Dante’s Canzone Le dolci rime”, cited in Coordinated Readings) that is ultimately played out in Dante’s treatment of lust in Inferno 5.
By insisting that reason can triumph over desire, and that the issue for us is to keep our faculties in proper alignment, Dante is able to withstand the siren call of dualism.
Dante is Aristotelian and he is not saying that desire is simply bad. He is saying that desire must be controlled, as per the Aristotelian doctrine of incontinence:
The philosophical implications of defining desire in terms of incontinence are frequently overlooked in a critical tradition that has insisted for centuries on the binary of secular versus divine love. Defining desire in terms of incontinence means that it is not defined dualistically, for the Aristotelian system of virtue as a mean between two sinful extremes is a unitary system, based on a spectrum of behaviors, not a dualistic one. (“Aristotle’s Mezzo, Courtly Misura, and Dante’s Canzone Le dolci rime,” p. 167)
* * *
We now come to the deployment of the word “love” in Dante’s language. Dante-poet creates a virtual reality in which we must be active participants, learning, for instance, to decode who is using “amore” correctly and who is not. Dante makes such decoding particularly complex in Inferno 5 by having his protagonist, Francesca, draw on the literary language of love (including, as we have seen above, on Dante’s own literary language of love), using poets and writers as her authorities.
We have seen love and desire already featured quite prominently in the first canti of Inferno. The word amor/amore appears in Inferno nineteen times, and of those, fourteen occurrences are in the first five canti: three times in Inferno 1, one time in Inferno 2, one time in Inferno 3, and nine times in Inferno 5. (We can increase the tally to twelve times in Inferno 5, if we add the adjective amorosa in Inf. 5.61 and the two forms of the verb amare in verse 103: “Amor, ch’a nullo amato amar perdona”.)
Here are all the occurrences of the noun amor/amore in Inferno:
ch’eran con lui quando l’amor divino Inf. 1. 39 vagliami ’l lungo studio e ’l grande amore Inf. 1.83 ma sapïenza, amore e virtute Inf. 1.104 amor mi mosse, che mi fa parlare Inf. 2.72 la somma sapïenza e ’l primo amore Inf. 3.6 L’altra è colei che s’ancise amorosa Inf. 5.61 che con amore al fine combatteo Inf. 5.66 ch’amor di nostra vita dipartille Inf. 5.69 per quello amor che i mena, ed ei verranno Inf. 5.78 Amor, ch’al cor gentil ratto Inf. 5.100 Amor, ch’a nullo amato amar perdona Inf. 5.103 Amor condusse noi ad una morte Inf. 5.106 a che e come concedette amore Inf. 5.118-120 del nostro amor tu hai cotanto affetto Inf. 5.125 di Lancialotto come amor lo strinse Inf. 5.128 pur lo vinco d’amor che fa natura Inf. 11.56 Per l’altro modo quell’amor s’oblia Inf. 11.61 sentisse amor, per lo qual è chi creda Inf. 12.42 del vecchio padre, né ’l debito amore Inf. 26.95 al padre, fuor del dritto amore, amica Inf. 30.39
In Inferno 1 “amore” enters the Commedia as the divine love that moves the stars. Love is the life force, the force that binds and moves the universe; it is coexistent with intellect and with truth. Therefore, for Dante, that which we can properly call love can never be antithetical to intellect, reason, and truth. In the moral canzone Doglia mi reca nello core ardire, written post-exile in the first decade of the 14th century, Dante had already explained that we often use the word “amore” incorrectly, for love, properly understood, cannot exist “outside of reason’s garden”: “fuor d’orto di ragione” (Doglia mi reca, 147).
A passion that is antithetical to reason for Dante cannot be love. According to the canzone Doglia mi reca, if reason is not operative, then the passion in question is not love but merely “bestial appetite”: “appetito di fera” (Doglia mi reca, 143).
The second circle of Hell contains the lustful, the “peccator carnali” (carnal sinners [Inf. 5.38]) who allowed passion to dominate reason: “che la ragion sommettono al talento” (who subjected reason to desire [Inf. 5.39]). In defining lust in this manner Dante shows none of the prurient interest in sexual activity, none of the emphasis on fornication and non-normative behavior that has been in so many cultures throughout history the staple of preachers and moralistic writing. Dante is focused instead on the proper functioning of the human faculties in the healthy soul.
Again, Dante is not saying that desire is wrong per se. He is saying that reason must be in charge: what is wrong is for reason to be dominated by desire. As long as reason controls passion—and not the other way around—the soul is not in danger.
The souls whom we meet in this canto are all souls who, according to Dante’s placement of them here, put passion in charge of reason, thus inverting the proper functioning of our human faculties. It is clear therefore that from Dante’s perspective these “carnal sinners”—blown about for eternity by an infernal windstorm that is the externalization of the carnal passions that they allowed to control them while they were alive—did not experience what for Dante is love. They experienced lust, lussuria. And yet these sinners, in particular the sinner who speaks to Dante at length, Francesca da Rimini, characterize their experience as that of love.
By giving Francesca the lexicon of love, a vocabulary dominated by amor/amore, Dante scripts a performance and challenges his readers to interpret it. This is dramatic art, in which individual sinners use words that suit them, and not necessarily in a way that agrees with the narrator’s definitions.
Francesca’s performance is heightened by its literary register and by its intertextual resonances. A romantic aura envelops Dante’s encounter as Francesca tells the story of how she fell in love with her brother-in-law Paolo Malatesta and was killed by her husband Gianciotto Malatesta. Her story draws on the language and the style of two quintessentially amorous literary genres: the love lyric, and the romance. The first part of her account is stylized and abstract and draws on the lyric, while the latter part is more life-like and detailed and draws on the prose romance (in particular the Lancelot romance). Francesca’s story is a prime example of Dante scripting for a sinner a seductive rhetorical power that makes us “forget” the definition of lust that we have just heard.
Francesca uses the tenets of the courtly love lyric to ascribe all agency to Love, conjured by her as an imperious and compulsive force that she and Paolo could not possibly resist or withstand. In her three famous terzine beginning with “Amor”, she explains that Love compelled Paolo to fall in love with Francesca (100-2), that Love compelled Francesca to reciprocate the love of Paolo (103-5), and that Love led both of them to their deaths (106-8):
Amor, ch’al cor gentil ratto s’apprende / prese costui (Love, that can quickly kindle the gentle heart, / took hold of him) ⇒ LOVE COMPELLED PAOLO
Lyric intertexts of note: Guido Guinizzelli’s canzone Al cor gentil rempaira sempre amore and Dante’s own imitation of Guinizzelli, the sonnet Amore e ’l cor gentil sono una cosa
Amor, ch’a nullo amato amar perdona / mi prese (Love, that releases no beloved from loving, / took hold of me) ⇒ LOVE COMPELLED FRANCESCA
Lyric intertexts of note: Giacomo da Lentini’s “como l’amor m’ha priso” and “di tal guisa Amor m’ha vinto”
(Madonna, dir vo voglio, 2, 72); Guido delle Colonne, “si m’ave preso e tolto” (Ancor che l’aigua, 33), “Amor che vince tutto” (Amor, che lungiamente, 24)
Amor condusse noi ad una morte (Love led us to one death) ⇒ LOVE COMPELLED BOTH PAOLO & FRANCESCA
Lyric intertexts of note: Guido Cavalcanti, “Di sua potenza segue spesso morte” (Donna me prega, 35)
(For these intertextual connections between Donna me prega and Inferno 5, see my essay “Dante and Cavalcanti,” cited in Coordinated Readings)
Similarly, Francesca later explains that a book, the Lancelot romance, caused Paolo first to kiss her. Indeed, the book served as the facilitator of their adulterous romantic encounter, which occurred while they were reading it. In the verse “Galeotto fu ’l libro e chi lo scrisse” (a Gallehault indeed, that book and he who wrote it [Inf. 5.137]), Francesca literally blames the book that she and Paolo were reading for their liaison. The book is said, through complex literary resonance, to have behaved like Gallehault, the character in the Lancelot romance who facilitated the first kiss between Lancelot and Guinevere. The book “and he who wrote it”—the book’s author—are thus responsible for her first adulterous kiss.
Onto a discourse dealing with the ethics of desire, crafted of both vernacular and classical antecedents and focused on the question of whether we can be compelled by passion, Dante has layered a discourse about reading and interpretation: Francesca implicates her reading in her moral life. We—as readers of Inferno 5—also have to confront reading as a moral act, for we have the task of reading and interpreting her.
Dante-author, who as a young poet had written the very kind of love poetry that Francesca is here quoting, creates a dramatic scene at the end of the canto in which Dante-protagonist is unable to keep a critical distance from Francesca and her story. Dante-protagonist “falls for her”, literally, falling down in a dead faint in the canto’s last verse: “E caddi come corpo morto cade” (And then I fell as a dead body falls [Inf. 5.142]). The pilgrim swoons on the floor of hell, in a vivid enactment of the “love” that leads to death: “Amor condusse noi ad una morte” (Love led us to one death [Inf. 5.106]).
The idea of a love that leads to death is pervasive in the medieval lyric and romance, but for Dante its most sophisticated exponent is Guido Cavalcanti. Dante is here evoking the Cavalcantian love that held sway over him in an earlier phase of his lyric development (see, for instance, my discussion of the canzone Lo doloroso amor in Dante’s Lyric Poetry). A complex developmental trajectory is invoked in Inferno 5, one that goes all the way back to the tenzoni with Dante da Maiano and that passes through the Sicilian, Guinizzellian, and Cavalcantian phases of his poetics. These phases were mapped in the Vita Nuova long before being mapped in Inferno 5 (see Dante’s Poets and Dante’s Lyric Poetry). While in the Vita Nuova the turn to Guinizzelli frees the young Dante from Cavalcanti, Inferno 5 offers an autobiographically truer assessment whereby Cavalcanti exerts the greatest hold on his imagination.
In this developmental trajectory, Dante arrived at his mature moral formulation on the issue of passion and reason in the moral canzone Dogia mi reca, where love must belong “to reason’s garden” in order to be called “love”. The final stanza of Doglia mi reca is crucial for our topic, for it adumbrates one of the fundamental issues of Inferno 5, namely whether the use of the name “love” is sufficient guarantee that we are in fact talking of love. Dante is concerned with human desire, but also with how we use language when we deal with desire. Francesca talks repeatedly of “love”, but the narrator instructs us otherwise, telling us that we will encounter not lovers but “carnal sinners, / who subjugate reason to desire” (Inf. 5.38-39).
Similarly, Doglia mi reca raises the possibility that someone who desires—a woman who desires, no less—could define love in a self-serving way, could justify her actions by calling her appetite by the name of love. As with Francesca, although the lady of the canzone may use the word amore, she misapplies the signifier, for the impulse that grips her is in fact a “bestial appetite” that she calls by the name “love”: “chiamando amore appetito di fera!” (calling a bestial appetite [by the name] love! [Doglia mi reca, 143). Her mistake comes from the fact that she believes that love is disjoined from reason. Literally, she “believes love to be outside reason’s garden”: “e crede amor fuor d’orto di ragione” (Doglia mi reca, 147).
In Inferno 5, as in the great medieval romances and in much lyric poetry, particularly that of Dante’s best friend Guido Cavalcanti, love is that which leads to death. For Dante, Cavalcanti’s love leads to death precisely because it is disjoined from reason, a disjunction that Cavalcanti theorizes in his canzone Donna me prega. The love of which Cavalcanti wrote in Danna me prega is death-inducing—‘‘Di sua potenza segue spesso morte’’ (From love’s power death often follows)— precisely because it is separated from intellect and reason.
Dante broke with Cavalcanti and other vernacular precursors when he theologized the lady in the canzone Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore. He broke with Cavalcanti even more thoroughly when he theorized a love that belongs “to reason’s garden” in the canzone Doglia mi reca. The positing of a love that is aligned with reason in Doglia mi reca, grafted onto the theologized courtliness of Donne ch’avete and onto the idea of consolation in the canzone Li occhi dolenti, leads to the salvific love that moved Beatrice to come to Dante’s aid in Inferno 2.
In fact, for the mature Dante, what Francesca and Cavalcanti describe is not love at all. Love had nothing to do with it.