- a textual environment of dense semiosis, in which all infernal denizens are equipped with signs and are sophisticated semiotic players: the sinners have sign-systems that they use to communicate, as do the devils, as of course do the travelers
- an unusually complex narrative line: the over-arching story-line of the travelers who try to enter the city of Dis and are rebuffed by devils; this story-line begins in the last verse of Inferno 7 and concludes with the arrival of the angel in Inferno 9
- this over-arching narrative accommodates an interpolated shorter narrative in which the pilgrim, while traversing the Styx, is accosted by a wrathful soul: the Florentine magnate Filippo Argenti
- an Aristotelian template with respect to wrath, begun with the tristi at the end of Inferno 7, is completed by the rabid Filippo Argenti in Inferno 8
- the over-arching story-line of the travelers trying to enter the city of Dis is also an important installment in the ongoing story of Virgilio in the Commedia: the encounter with the devils at the gates of Dis is the first occasion in which Dante-author scripts a fallible role for the guide who thus far has been the “mar di tutto ’l senno” (sea of all wisdom [Inf. 8.7])
In the last verse of Inferno 7 the travelers come to the foot of a tower: “Venimmo al piè d’una torre al da sezzo” (We came at last upon a tower’s base [Inf. 7.130]). At the beginning of Inferno 8 we learn of an infernal system of communication: we receive the disquieting information that signals have been exchanged between the tower of canto 7 and another watchtower, further off. These are fortified towers of the sort found in Italian cities of the period, and the signals mark the onset of hostilities: those engaged in communicating through signals are hostile to Dante and his guide, and consider the travelers to be trespassers without license to pass through their territory. We do not yet know who the signalers are. They will turn out to be the devils who guard the city of Dis, keeping watch from their fortified towers on the River Styx, which surrounds Dis like a moat.
The narrative movement of Inferno 8 is complex: it is part of a story-arc that begins with the watchtower at the end of Inferno 7 and is not completed until the arrival of the heavenly intercessor toward the end of Inferno 9. Inferno 8 contains the encounter with Filippo Argenti, which is a story enfolded within the longer story.
The narrator comes to the fore in Inferno 8-9, canti that feature a “display of the author’s narrative prowess” (The Undivine Comedy, p. 69). Dante introduces assertively self-conscious narrative techniques into Inferno 8:
- the narrator’s assertive incipit to Inferno 8—“Io dico, seguitando” (I say, continuing [Inf. 8.1])—whose forceful and interruptive presence is such that it gave rise among early commentators to a biographical theory of this canto’s authorship, whereby Dante here resumed writing the Inferno after a long pause. (This fanciful ancient theory, without empirical foundation, has recently been exhumed in order to advance equally fanciful modern biographical theories regarding the composition of Inferno);
- the self-conscious insertion of the flashback that informs us that signals had been exchanged “long before” between the tower registered in the last verse of Inferno 7 and another tower posited in the opening verses of Inferno 8: “assai prima / che noi fossimo al piè de l’alta torre, / li occhi nostri n’andar suso a la cima / per due fiammette che i vedemmo porre / e un’altra da lungi render cenno” (long before / we two had reached the foot of that tall tower, / our eyes had risen upward, toward its summit, / because of two small flames that flickered there, / while still another flame returned their signal [Inf. 8.1-5]);
- the author’s re-assertion of narrative control in verse 64: “Quivi il lasciammo, che più non ne narro” (We left him there; I tell no more of him [Inf. 8.64]);
- the narrator’s first address to the reader: “Pensa, lettor, se io mi sconfortai / nel suon de le parole maladette, / ché non credetti ritornarci mai” (Consider, reader, my dismay before / the sound of those abominable words: / returning here seemed so impossible [Inf. 8.94-6]).
Filippo Argenti, from the magnate Florentine family of the Adimari, is one of the wrathful souls whom Dante sees in Inferno 8. The wrathful belong to the fifth circle, and are in the River Styx. Dante traverses the Styx in the boat of Phlegiàs (as earlier he had traversed Acheron in Charon’s boat). The result is a nautical sequence that functions as anticipation of the more extended nautical sequence that involves Geryon: Inferno 8-9 echoes the original transition of Inferno 1-2 while anticipating the more critical transition of Inferno 16-17.
While in Phlegiàs’ boat, Dante participates in a bitterly wrathful exchange of insults with Filippo Argenti, provoking the question as to whether the pilgrim in some way participates in or mirrors the sin that he is witnessing. The bitter altercation between Dante and Filippo Argenti anticipates other moments of heightened dialogue in the Inferno.
According to the Aristotelian template that I suggest at the end of the Introduction to Inferno 7, the pilgrim here models righteous anger, the virtuous midpoint between the sad melancholics and the rabid wrathful:
melancholic tristitia ⇤⇤⇤⇤ righteous anger ⇥⇥⇥⇥ rabid wrath
Other examples of righteous anger may be found in the Commedia. For instance, in Purgatorio 8 the narrator refers to the measured and righteous anger that inflames Nino Visconti: “quel dritto zelo / che misuratamente in core avvampa” (that forthright zeal which, / in measured fashion flames within the heart [Purg. 8.83-4]). So too the beatitude that signals the pilgrim’s departure from Purgatorio’s terrace of wrath is rewritten by Dante to include the idea of “ira mala”: “Beati / pacifici, che son sanz’ ira mala!” (Beati / pacifici, who are without evil wrath [Purg. 17.68–69]).
The idea of “evil wrath” invokes a spectrum on which ira mala is an extreme and ira bona is the virtuous midpoint.
Virgilio’s strong endorsement of the pilgrim’s punitive behavior toward Filippo Argenti includes his praising the pilgrim for his disdain, addressing Dante as “Alma sdegnosa” (“Indignant soul” [Inf. 8.44]). This approbation, and the association of disdain with the angel who will arrive in Inferno 9 and of whom Dante writes “Ahi quanto mi parea pien di disdegno!” (How full of high disdain he seemed to me! [Inf. 9.88]), underscores that the pilgrim is here performing righteous anger.
Virgilio’s somewhat over-the-top performance of approbation for Dante’s behavior, which includes his inflated evangelical language “benedetta colei che ’n te s’incinse” (blessed is she who bore you in her womb [Inf. 8.45]), suggests that the pagan poet is carefully aligning himself with Christian values, showing his distance from the sinners and his endorsement of divine judgment. By the same token, however, Virgilio’s performance of Christian values in this episode only highlights his subsequent pagan failure in Inferno 9.
After Filippo Argenti is attacked by other sinners, Dante and Virgilio approach the city of Dis, whose skyline is notable for its fiery mosques:
E io: “Maestro, già le sue meschite là entro certe ne la valle cerno, vermiglie come se di foco uscite fossero”. (Inf. 8.70-73)
I said: “I can already see distinctly— master—the mosques that gleam within the valley, as crimson as if they had just been drawn out of the fire”.
The reference to the mosques—“meschite” of Inf. 8.70—of the diabolic city constitute one of the most negative characterizations of Islam in the Commedia: the characteristics of the infernal city of Dis are the characteristics of a Muslim city. Here is the note of a 14th century commentator, Francesco da Buti, on the word “meschita”, which he describes as “a Saracen word”:
S’intende: Maestro; cioè Virgilio, lo quale chiama in più nomi simili e convenienti a lui, come appare nel processo del libro. già le sue meschite; cioè torri, o campanili della città predetta. Meschita è vocabolo sarainesco, et è luogo ove li Saracini vanno ad adorare; e perché quelli luoghi ànno torri a modo di campanili ove montano li sacerdoti loro a chiamare lo popolo che vada ad adorare Idio, però l’autore chiama le torre di Dite meschite. (Francesco da Buti, Commento all’Inferno, cited from the Dartmouth Dante Project)
Meschita is a Saracen word, and it refers to the place where Saracens go to pray; and because those places have towers (similar to our bell-towers) where their priests climb to call the people to prayer, therefore the author calls the towers of Dis meschite.
Inferno 8’s association of mosques with devils should be compared to the positive treatment, for instance, of Saladin, Averroes, and Avicenna, who reside in Limbo (Inf. 4.129 and 134-144), and whose presence there is discussed in the Introduction to Inferno 4.
The entire episode between Dante and Filippo Argenti takes place within the ongoing story, which extends into Inferno 9, about the travelers’ attempts, initially thwarted, to enter the city of Dis. To that story Dante now turns his attention.
When Dante and Virgilio disembark in front of the gates of Dis, Virgilio for the first time deals with infernal guardians whom he cannot dominate. The mythological creatures whom he had encountered thus far were easily subdued. They are from his own, pagan, world, and his knowledge has been sufficient to allow him to control them.
But now, faced with the determined resistance of Christian devils, Virgilio shows his limits and is unable to get license to pass. This encounter with the devils is the first such encounter in the poem and it is an important installment in another, even longer, story-arc: the unfolding story that tells of Virgilio’s strengths and limitations in the role of Dante’s guide through hell and purgatory.
In the episode at the gates of Dis, Dante-poet for the first time underscores the limitations of Virgilio as a guide.
Chapter 3 of Dante’s Poets analyzes in great detail how Dante constructs a plot for Virgilio that undercuts the Latin poet’s intellectual authority while simultaneously causing the affective ties between Virgilio and himself to become ever stronger. By the time Virgilio leaves Dante in Purgatorio 30 he has become “Virgilio dolcissimo patre” (Virgilio, sweetest father [Purg. 30.50]). In this way, Dante-poet creates a poignant, dynamic, and tension-filled plot-line at the heart of the Commedia, one that will culminate in the pilgrim’s experience of profound loss.
Dante describes the guardians of the walls of Dis as “da ciel piovuti”—“rained from heaven” (Inf. 8.83)—thus reminding us that devils were once angels. They fell from heaven when they followed the rebellious Lucifer. This history was evoked in Inferno 3, for the vestibule of hell houses the cowardly angels who did not take sides during Lucifer’s rebellion: “quel cattivo coro / de li angeli che non furon ribelli / né fur fedeli a Dio, ma per sé fuoro” (the coward angels, / the company of those who were not rebels /nor faithful to their God, but for themselves [Inf. 3.37-9]). In the language of Inferno 3, then, the pilgrim and Virgilio are negotiating with angeli che furon ribelli a Dio: angels who were rebels to God. This is a class of being utterly alien to Virgilio.
The devils challenge the pilgrim’s right to undertake this journey. He, as a living man, should not be in the realm of the dead: “Chi è costui che sanza morte / va per lo regno de la morta gente?” (Who is this that without death / goes through the kingdom of the people dead? [Inf. 8.84-5]). The devils seem not to know that the pilgrim has been issued a passport by the Highest Authority. After all, they have not had the advantage of reading Inferno 2!
Their speech, however, is very attuned to the lexicon and thematics of Inferno 2. The devils seem to know all the buttons to push to reawaken the fear that the pilgrim experienced in that preliminary canto. They seek to separate the pilgrim from his guide, instructing Virgilio to remain with them while the pilgrim returns back alone along the path by which they have come, which they call the “folle strada”: “Sol si ritorni per la folle strada: / pruovi, se sa; ché tu qui rimarrai” (Let him return alone by his mad road; Try, if he can; for thou shalt remain here [Inf. 8.91]). Here the devils echo the pilgrim’s own fear of illegitimacy and trespass, as expressed in Inferno 2: “temo che la venuta non sia folle” (I fear my venture may be wild and mad [Inf. 2.35]).
The dilemma of being blocked by the devils, unable to proceed on his voyage through Hell, provokes the poet’s first address to the reader, in which he articulates his fear at never returning to the world of the living:
Pensa, lettor, se io mi sconfortai nel suon de le parole maladette, ché non credetti ritornarci mai. (Inf. 8.94-96)
Consider, reader, my dismay before the sound of those abominable words: returning here seemed so impossible.
The author’s first-person and present-tense intervention signals a moment of unusual significance. And, indeed, the pilgrim, who has lost his bearings altogether, begs Virgilio to give up on their journey so that they can retrace their steps together: “ritroviam l’orme nostre insieme ratto” (let us retrace our steps together, quickly [Inf. 8.102]). However, Virgilio insists, correctly, that their journey has been vouchsafed by such a one that it cannot be resisted: “ché ’l nostro passo / non ci può tòrre alcun: da tal n’è dato” (no one can hinder / our passage; One so great has granted it [Inf. 8.104-5]).
The drama continues to play out: Virgilio goes off to negotiate with the devils, but they shut the gate in his face, causing him to return to Dante with his confidence depleted. Virgilio however reminds himself and his charge of the conquest that he witnessed first-hand as an inhabitant of Limbo. The devils are as insolent now, he says, as they were once before when they attempted to block the entrance to “a less secret gate” (“men segreta porta” [Inf. 8.125]), a gate that still now remains wide open as sign of their impotence: “la qual sanza serrame ancor si trova” (a gate that is still without its bolts [Inf. 8.126]).
Virgilio is here recalling the time when he saw the gate of Hell itself (“less secret”, because less internal, than the gate of Dis, at which the travelers now find themselves), swung open by an omnipotent Christ at His Harrowing of Hell. We in turn recall that Virgilio had referenced this event already in Inferno 4: “ci vidi venire un possente, / con segno di vittoria coronato” (I saw hither come a Mighty One, / with sign of victory incoronate [Inf. 4.53-54]).
Inferno 8 ends by signalling a transition that does not occur immediately, leaving the canto suspended. From Virgilio’s memory of the arrival in Hell of the “powerful one, crowned with sign of victory” (Inf. 4.53-54), Who flung open the gate of Hell, we move to Virgilio’s assertion of the arrival of a being who will open the gate of Dis, an event to take place in the immediate future: “tal che per lui ne fia la terra aperta” (the one who will lay open this realm for us [Inf. 8.130]).
Virgilio and Dante now wait, an unprecedented activity in the unfolding diegesis of the Inferno. In Inferno 8’s final verses, Virgilio’s words are projected forward, as he uses the future tense and the telling adverb “già” (see the discussion of già in the Introduction to Inferno 23). In this way Virgilio forecasts the imminent arrival of the being who will unlock the gate:
e già di qua da lei discende l’erta, passando per li cerchi sanza scorta, tal che per lui ne fia la terra aperta. (Inf. 8.128-30)
and now, already well within that gate, down the steep path and across the circles without escort the one who will unlock this realm for us.
The one who comes down the steep path to help the travelers needs no guide or escort: he passes “per li cerchi sanza scorta” (across the circles without escort [Inf. 8.129]). In Virgilio’s conjuring, this being moves unimpeded; no one can stop him. The next canto will reveal this being to be “sent from heaven”: “da ciel messo” (Inf. 9.85). In other words, the travelers now await the arrival of an angel.
But where is he? In a narrative first, and in another sign of the narratological complexity of an episode whose beginning looks backward (via flashback) and whose ending looks forward (via suspense), Inferno 8 concludes in medias res: suspended, in the middle of a plot development that is not yet near resolution.