- Dante’s technique of rapid recontextualization, here applied to Francesca’s story
- an emblematic announcement of the “poetics of the new” in the opening verses of Inferno 6
- the Cavalcantian echoes incorporated by Dante into this announcement of the poetics of the new
- Florence, the true protagonist of Inferno 6
- Florence and its “gluttony” for dominion and power: the metaphorization of sin (the example of verse 50, discussed below)
- the distinction between sin and underlying vice is introduced in verse 74
- Florence and factional violence: Dante’s own exile from Florence in 1302 is prophesied by Ciacco
- the shame and dishonor of exile: onta (shame) is connected to the practice of vendetta and to civic strife in Inferno 29 and in the definition of ira in Purgatorio 17
- political analysis: the “divided city” of verse 61 and its implications spelled out in Inferno 28
- an analysis that casts a net over a century of Florentine history
- the theme of the body, both virtual and eschatological, and its merging of Aristotle with Christianity
Inferno 6 begins with an example of the poet’s technique of rapid recontextualization, here applied to Inferno 5. The lush romantic aura that suffused the encounter with Francesca is brusquely brushed aside in the first verses of Inferno 6, and Francesca and her lover are referred to bluntly as “i due cognati”: “the two in-laws” (Inf. 6.2).
Also at the beginning of Inferno 6 is an emblematic announcement of the Commedia’s “poetics of the new”, as discussed in Chapter 2 of The Undivine Comedy: for Dante-pilgrim alone, in Hell, there are the “novi tormenti e novi tormentati” (new sufferings and new sufferers) of Inf. 6.4. For the sinners, instead (as for the angels, but for opposite reasons, and with opposite results), there is no difference, nothing is ever new. Thus the narrator states categorically in Inferno 6.9 that in Hell “measure and quality are never new”: “regola e qualità mai non l’è nova” (Inf. 6.9).
As I write in The Undivine Comedy:
The pilgrim and the narrator are both committed to forward motion, to the new. Analogous to the pilgrim’s experience of “novi tormenti e novi tormentati” is the narrator’s task to “ben manifestar le cose nove” (manifest well the new things [14.7]), recalled later in his statement that “Di nova pena mi conven far versi” (Of new pain I must make verses [20.1]). In contrast to the motion of the pilgrim who, by dint of continually “passing beyond” (Noi passamm’ oltre [27.133]), will keep meeting new things until one day hell will be a memory, confined to the past absolute — “quando ti gioverà dicere «I’ fui» (when it will please you to say «I was» [16.84]) — stand both the deathly stasis of hell and the vital quies of heaven. God is “Colui che mai non vide cosa nova” (Purg. 10.94), a periphrasis whose emphatic negation echoes the description of hell where ”regola e qualità mai non l‘è nova.” (The Undivine Comedy, p. 24)
Moreover, this expression of the “poetics of the new” echoes the language of Dante’s primo amico, the poet Guido Cavalcanti, an imprint that gives to this passage at the beginning of Inferno 6 an uncanny resonance and a particular importance:
What is interesting, in our present context, about these classic verses of comedic upward mobility is that they are derived from Guido Cavalcanti, the poet of zero mobility: Contini points out the echo of Cavalcanti’s ‘‘una paura di novi tormenti,’’ from the sonnet Perchè non fuoro a me gli occhi dispenti. So Dante has reworked Guido’s fear—his friend’s paralyzing ‘‘paura di novi tormenti’’ (fear of new sufferings)—into his own relentless forward motion; after all, the ‘‘novi tormenti’’ of canto 6 have a positive connotation for the protagonist, not being his. Rather, he revels in the resurgent strength of that unbridled present tense, used in five verbs in three verses culminating in the resounding ‘‘Io sono’’: ‘‘mi veggio intorno, come ch’io mi mova / e ch’io mi volga, e come che io guati. / Io sono al terzo cerchio . . .’’ (Inf. 6.5-7). He is not stuck with Francesca, stuck with the ‘‘novi tormenti,’’ in the space of canto 5, the space of love and death, anymore than he will be stuck with anyone else he meets along the way. And, perhaps, there is a final Cavalcantian echo, not picked up by Contini: the verse that describes the deathly stasis of hell, ‘‘regola e qualità mai non l’è nova,’’ seems to me imprinted on a periphrasis for love in Donna me prega, where love is ‘‘La nova qualità’’ (the new quality, Donna me prega 49). If so, then—in a transformation that accurately sums up Dante’s thoughts on what Guido had to say in his great canzone— Cavalcanti’s love has become Dante’s hell. (“Dante and Cavalcanti [On Making Distinctions in Matters of Love]: Inferno 5 in Its Lyric and Autobiographical Context,” p. 99)
Inferno 6 could not be more different from Inferno 5. As compared to the “high” courtly and romantic lyricism of the latter half of Inferno 5, Inferno 6 is a “low” and plebeian canto, in its tone and stylistic register and even with respect to the form of punishment. Asking the soul of Ciacco about the dismal torment of the circle of gluttony, the pilgrim notes, in a verse that is emblematic of the transition to Inferno 6, that “if other pain is greater, none is more disgusting”: “che, s’altra è maggio, nulla è sì spiacente” (Inf. 6.48).
This is the third circle, and the souls here are the gluttons. The main protagonist of Inferno 6 is Ciacco, whose name itself is lowly and plebeian, while Francesca’s name is redolent of the great feudal courts of France and French romance. Most importantly, Ciacco is a Florentine who addresses Dante as a fellow Florentine.
Florence here enters the Commedia. Indeed, Florence—the city-state—is effectively the main protagonist of Inferno 6. The conversation between the Florentines Ciacco and Dante features words like “città” (city) and “cittadini” (citizens):
Ed elli a me: “La tua città, ch’è piena d’invidia sì che già trabocca il sacco, seco mi tenne in la vita serena. Voi cittadini mi chiamaste Ciacco... (Inf. 6.49-52)
And he to me: “Your city—one so full of envy that its sack has always spilled— that city held me in the sunlit life. The name you citizens gave me was Ciacco . . .
By making Florence, the city, the true protagonist of Inferno 6, Dante also creates for himself an opportunity to think about sin in a metaphorical way. In what way is Florence connected to gluttony?
In Ciacco’s words cited above, he characterizes Florence as “so full of envy that its sack is already overflowing”: “piena / d’invidia sì che già trabocca il sacco” (Inf. 6.49-50]). Here we see Dante’s penchant for metaphorizing sin. In Inferno 5 we already saw his interest in widening the reach of a sin: thus, in treating lust he ends up treating the moral responsibility of readers and authors as well. Similarly, in Inferno 6 Dante pays very little attention to literal gluttony, which is touched on briefly in the treatment of Cerberus.
Instead, Dante moves from literal gluttony to metaphorical gluttony. Thus, from literal gluttony he moves to the lust for wealth and power that is at the root of the factional politics that divide and destroy the city (Inf. 6.50). As we shall see, the same move from literal to metaphorical occurs, in more explicit fashion, in the purgatorial treatment of the sins of incontinence.
Verse 50 beautifully crystallizes in its language the move from the literal to the metaphorical. Literal gluttony is invoked in the verb traboccare (to spill out of, literally to spill out of the mouth of), with its root bocca (mouth). Literal gluttony is here however quickened by the yeast of envy: “La tua città, ch’è piena / d’invidia sì che già trabocca il sacco” (Your city—one so full / of envy that its sack has always spilled [Inf. 6.49-50]). Envy is one of the seven deadly vices.
Gluttony, quickened by the vice of envy, becomes much more than simple gluttony: it becomes the spur to the divisive factional rivalries that were destroying the city of Florence.
On multiple occasions later in the Commedia, Dante will make clear his view of Florence’s metaphorical gluttony. One such occasion is the apostrophe that opens Inferno 26. Here Dante expresses his disdain for Florence.
Here is his statement on Florence’s gluttony for dominion and power:
Godi, Fiorenza, poi che se’ sì grande che per mare e per terra batti l’ali, e per lo ’nferno tuo nome si spande! (Inf. 26.1-3)
Be joyous, Florence, you are great indeed, for over sea and land you beat your wings; through every part of Hell your name extends!
The word “invidia” in verse 50 of Inferno 6 is repeated in verse 74, where envy is combined with pride and avarice. Here Dante invokes as instigators to Florentine gluttony three of the seven deadly vices: “superbia, invidia e avarizia sono / le tre faville c’hanno i cuori accesi” (Three sparks that set on fire every heart /are envy, pride, and avariciousness [Inf. 6.74-5]).
Telling us that “superbia, invidia e avarizia”—pride, envy, and avarice—are the three sparks that have inflamed the hearts of the Florentines against each other, Dante is demonstrating the relation of vice to sin. While sin is the specific act that has been committed, vice is the disposition of the soul that inclines it toward sinful action. Here Dante requires us to consider this distinction: the distinction between sin, the specific sinful act that has been committed, and the underlying vice, the disposition of the soul that inclines it to sin.
In the case of Florence, there are three underlying vices: pride, envy, and avarice. These are three of the seven vices (mistakenly referred to as the seven deadly sins) that Christian thinkers had identified, in a kind of psychology of human behavior, as the instigators of human sin.
Precisely as Dante says, the vices are the sparks that inflame humans and cause them to act sinfully.
The distinction between the act that is sinful and the disposition toward that act is the fundamental distinction between the organizational template of Hell and the organizational template of Purgatory. The organizational template of Hell is based on the sinful acts that have been committed in the past and never repented. The organizational template of Purgatory, a place for souls who, before dying repented of the specific sins they committed in life, is based on the seven underlying vices that inflame the soul to commit sinful acts.
* * *
Dante-pilgrim—testing the prophetic capacities of the damned—asks Ciacco for an account of the future. He articulates his request as a three-part question: 1) What will happen to the citizens of the divided city? 2) Is any man there just? 3) And what has led to so much discord?
For Dante the political thinker, the negative analysis of Florence is implicit in the lexicon of divisiveness and schism: “the divided city”—“la città partita”—of verse 61 and the “discordia” that assaults the city in verse 63.
As we will see in the Introduction to Inferno 28, which contains the bolgia of the schismatics, the highest of political values for Dante are concord and unity, while their opposites—division and discord—spell political disaster. These values are made explicit in Dante’s political treatise Monarchia, of which apposite passages are cited in the Introduction to Inferno 28.
In Dante’s time Florence was not a “city” in our sense, but a state, and the references to the “city” are references to the state that Dante had served as a citizen-politician and by which he was unjustly exiled. The circumstances that led to the condemnations of January and March 1302 that changed Dante’s life are here rehearsed and all the major protagonists of the political dramas that savaged the city are introduced, albeit in cryptic language: the White party (pro-imperial), the Black party (pro-papal), and Pope Boniface VIII.
In the fiction of the poem, in which Dante’s voyage to the afterlife takes place in spring of 1300, the condemnations of 1302 have not yet occurred. Hence Ciacco’s prophetic speech is also a moment of great personal drama: the moment in which Dante-pilgrim learns that he will be exiled from his city.
This is also the moment in which Dante-poet first broaches a matter of great personal pain.
To be exiled in Italy in 1300 is to be stateless: a vagabond, shamed, and dishonored. The personal theme of his bitter exile will be intertwined by Dante with the moral indictment of Florence throughout the Commedia.
Significant is Dante’s language for the disgraced Whites in Inferno 6. This is the group to which he belonged and to whose fortunes he remained bound for some years after leaving Florence, before he famously turned away from all party alliances.
In Inferno 6 the Bianchi are said to weep and feel shame—feel “onta”—as a result of their treatment at the hands of the Neri: “come che di ciò pianga o che n’aonti” (however much they weep or feel ashamed [Inf. 6.72]). Onta, the shame and dishonor that results from social and civic injury, is a topic that will recur in the Commedia. See the Introduction to Inferno 29 for a detailed discussion of onta in the context of Florentine factional violence and the practice of vendetta.
The word onta is deeply sutured into the psyche of Italian communal life, as we can see by following its lexical traces.
In Purgatorio 17 Dante defines each of the seven deadly vices. With respect to anger, he signals that ira is an impulse triggered by the particular cultural nexus of onta and vendetta. Dante’s periphrasis for a generically irascible man is therefore not generic at all, but embedded in his particular culture and in the particular psychic pathology induced by his culture’s norms.
Thus, his definition of anger includes both the verb aontare (to take offense as a result of onta; the same verb used for the disgraced Bianchi in Inf. 6.72 cited above) and the word vendetta. In the succinct but telling definition of Purgatorio 17, an angry man is one who has been injured and who, ashamed as a result of the injury received, craves vengeance:
ed è chi per ingiuria par ch’aonti, sì che si fa de la vendetta ghiotto, e tal convien che ’l male altrui impronti. (Purg. 17.121-23)
And there is he who, over injury received, resentful, for revenge grows greedy and, angrily, seeks out another’s harm.
Anger is injury that triggers shame, which in turn triggers desire for vengeance.
Much of what went wrong in Florence, what led to its being a “divided city”—“città partita” (Inf. 6.61)—can be inferred from the description of anger in Purgatorio 17.
We could also formulate in reverse: in defining ira in Purgatorio 17, Dante is so deeply influenced by the cultural norms of his place and time that he extrapolates the definition of anger from the factional violence and bitter blood feuds that tore apart his own city.
The moral indictment of Florence and its citizens continues in the next part of the dialogue, where Dante asks Ciacco to tell him of the whereabouts in the afterlife of specific great Florentine citizens of the generation before his: “Farinata e ’l Tegghiaio, che fuor sì degni, / Iacopo Rusticucci, Arrigo e ’l Mosca” (Farinata and Tegghiaio, who were so worthy, Iacopo Rusticucci, Arrigo, and Mosca [Inf. 6.79-80]). These are citizens whom Dante-pilgrim here describes as having had “minds bent toward the good”: “ch’a ben far puoser li ’ngegni” (Inf. 6.81).
Shockingly, Ciacco replies that these Florentines are among the blackest souls of hell: “Ei son tra l’anime più nere” (They are among the blackest souls [Inf. 6.85]). Ciacco’s condemnation of citizens whom the pilgrim considers exemplary of good work—“ben far” in verse 81—is a confirmation of the moral depravity of Florence.
The term “ben far” will recur as a description of Dante’s own contributions to Florence in another canto that deals with Florentine civic virtue, or the lack thereof, the canto of Brunetto Latini, Inferno 15. Brunetto tells Dante that he would have supported Dante’s “opera” (work [Inf. 15.60]) had he lived, and he characterizes Dante’s own actions with the same phrase, “ben far”, that in Inferno 6 is used for the great Florentines: “ti si farà, per tuo ben far, nimico” ([the Florentine people] for your good deeds, will be your enemy [Inf. 15.64]). But whereas Dante remembers and honors the ben far of the previous generation, his own ben far will be rejected by his fellow citizens in his lifetime.
Ciacco tells Dante that he will be able to see the souls of the great Florentines of the preceding generation as he proceeds through the infernal regions, and the reader should likewise pay attention to this directive. All the souls on this list of Florentines from Inferno 6 will reappear in Inferno with the exception of “Arrigo”, of whose identity we are unsure. We encounter Farinata degli Uberti in Inferno 10, among the heretics, and Tegghiaio Aldobrandi and Iacopo Rusticucci in Inferno 16, among the sodomites.
The last soul on this list, Mosca dei Lamberti, who died in 1242, appears in Inferno 28, among the sowers of discord: he is blamed for having sown the division and hatred among the Florentines that led to factional division and strife in the city. The city’s factional discord was believed to have originated in the murder of Buondelmonte de’ Buondelmonti in 1216, a murder that was precipitated by Buondelmonte’s jilting of a woman of the Amidei family in favor of a Donati. Mosca’s sin was to have counseled the Amidei to take their revenge not in the form of a beating or a mutilation, but to kill Buondelmonte outright and have done with it, an act “which was the seed of evil for the Tuscans”: “che fu mal seme per la gente tosca” (Inf. 28.108).
This canto’s catalogue of Florentine citizens who did bad rather than good—Farinata, Tegghiaio, Iacopo Rusticucci, Arrigo, and Mosca—eventually culminates in Inferno 28 in a revelation about the consequent suffering of the citizenry as a whole. Mosca dei Lamberti’s act of factional violence is the “evil seed” that bore evil fruit for the entire Tuscan populace: “per la gente tosca” (for the Tuscan people [Inf. 28.108]).
Dante’s analysis of the ills that affect “la gente tosca” thus casts a net over almost a century of evil action: he goes back to the killing of Buondelmonte in 1216 and comes forward to the time of his own exile in 1302. He includes the factional violence precipitated by Mosca de’ Lamberti in 1216 (Inferno 28) and later manifested in the warfare undertaken by Farinata, Ghibelline commander at the battle of Montaperti in 1260 (Inferno 10).
All this taken together, all this nefarious behavior over many generations of Florentines, results in the “divided city” that Dante deplores in Inferno 6. In effect, Dante starts the history of Florence in Inferno 6 with the situation of contemporary Florence: the city from which he was exiled in 1302.
And he works backward through time throughout the Inferno, ultimately coming in Inferno 28 to the “evil seed” that bears the bitter fruit of Inferno 6.
In this first presentation of Florence in the Commedia, Dante is profoundly historical, laying the groundwork for showing, as he will do throughout the Commedia, that the factional violence of his day has its roots in a century of wrong-doing.
Moreover, Dante’s engagement with this historical analysis is itself of long duration in his own poetic career, having begun in the canzoni Le dolci rime and Poscia ch’Amor. See the essay cited in Coordinated Reading, “Dante and Wealth, Between Aristotle and Cortesia: From the Moral Canzoni Le dolci rime and Poscia ch’Amor to Inferno VI and VII”, for the ways in which some key themes of Poscia ch’Amor, in particular, are reprised in Inferno 6.
Finally, Inferno 6 features an important installment in the ongoing topic of Dante’s treatment of the body. This moment functions too as an installment in Dante’s stout and explicit Aristotelianism, his adherence to the philosophical tenets of the great Greek philosopher and his fascinating attempts to wed Aristotelianism to Christian eschatological beliefs.
Aristotle is among the shades in Limbo, where he is accorded a remarkable honorific: he is “’l maestro di color che sanno” (the master of those who know) in Inferno 4.131. Toward the end of Inferno 6 Dante asks his guide whether the torments of Hell will be greater or lesser after the Last Judgment (Inf. 6.103-105). In reply, Virgilio instructs him to “return to your science” (“ritorna a tua scienza” [Inf.6.106] ). By “tua scienza” Virgilio refers to Aristotelian philosophy and to the doctrine that holds that “perfection”—completion, actuality—will always result in an increase in pain or pleasure.
According to Christian theology, the human soul will reach “perfection” in the afterlife only after the resurrection of the body, when body is reunited with soul at the Last Judgment. At that point, when souls have achieved their “perfezion” (Inf. 6.110) — perfection, i.e. completion — only then will each soul experience his or her maximum of pleasure and maximum of pain:
Ed elli a me: “Ritorna a tua scienza, che vuol, quanto la cosa è più perfetta, più senta il bene, e così la doglienza. Tutto che questa gente maladetta in vera perfezion già mai non vada, di là più che di qua essere aspetta.” (Inf. 6.106-11)
And he to me: “Remember now your science, which says that when a thing has more perfection, so much the greater is its pain or pleasure. Though these accursed sinners never shall attain the true perfection, yet they can expect to be more perfect then than now.”
The Aristotelian doctrine of entelecheia results in the principle that souls in the eschaton (after the end of time), a period that in Christian theology will be heralded by the Last Judgment, will experience more pleasure in Heaven and more pain in Hell.
This passage is of great importance for a host of issues that constellate around the body and what it means to be embodied, in life and in eternity.
Very important is the recognition that we are only completed, from a Christian theological perspective, once we have been reunited to our bodies.
Ultimately the belief first stated here, at the end of Inferno 6, will issue into one of the Dante’s most remarkable “inventions” about his journey: the idea, expressed in Paradiso, that he is graced in his vision to see the blessed in their bodies, as they will be after the Last Judgment.
The recognition of the irreducible status of the body also informs some of Dante’s most beautiful poetry, for instance Paradiso 14’s beautiful cadences on the blessed souls’ desire for their dead bodies:
Tanto mi parver sùbiti e accorti e l’uno e l’altro coro a dicer «Amme!», che ben mostrar disio d’i corpi morti: forse non pur per lor, ma per le mamme, per li padri e per li altri che fuor cari anzi che fosser sempiterne fiamme. (Par. 14.61-66)
One and the other choir seemed to me so quick and keen to say “Amen’ that they showed clearly how they longed for their dead bodies— not only for themselves, perhaps, but for their mothers, fathers, and for others dear to them before they were eternal flames.
By the time we reach Inferno 6, Dante has already begun to thematize the body with respect to its status in otherworld journeys, for instance in Inferno 2’s reference to Aeneas journeying to Hades “sensibilmente”, i.e. “in the body” (Inf. 2.15). Now the poet begins to treat the issue of the “bodies” of the souls, an ongoing theme of the Commedia. See the Introductions to Inferno 10, Inferno 13, and Inferno 25 for further discussion of the theme of the body in the Inferno.
The theme of the resurrection of the body as introduced at the end of Inferno 6 thus connects to the poet’s creation of virtual bodies for his afterlife. These virtual bodies are ultimately treated in Purgatorio 25, but they are first adumbrated in this very canto.
I refer to the section of Inferno 6 where the travelers walk on the incorporeal shades: “e ponavam le piante / sovra lor vanità che par persona” (and set our soles upon / their empty images that seem like persons [Inf. 6.35-36]). These incorporeal shades—“vanità” as Dante calls them in Inferno 6. 36—will seem to become quite substantial later on in the journey through Hell, especially in the encounter with the sinner whose hair Dante pulls in Inferno 32 (this is Bocca degli Abati). However these apparently substantial bodies of lower Hell become “vanità” again in the encounter with Casella in Purgatorio 2.
Most of all, Inferno 6’s referencing of the Last Judgment and the resurrection of the body reminds us that, for Dante as for Catholic theology of the resurrection, the body is essential: not a husk to be discarded (as per the suicides of Inferno 13), but an integral part of the completed and “perfected” human being.
For Dante, we only become perfect when we are reunited with our flesh.