Divine Comedy-I: Inferno

Divine Comedy-I: Inferno Summary and Analysis of Cantos XIII-XVI

Canto XIII: Summary:

Across the bloody river, in the second ring of the seventh circle, Dante and Virgil came to a strange and sad forest. The leaves were black and all the trunks were gnarled; there were no flowers. The Harpies (foul birdlike creatures with human faces) nested there. Virgil instructed Dante to look around carefully. Dante could not see anyone, but heard sighing voices all around. Virgil told him that he would understand if he broke off a twig, so Dante did so. A voice from that thornbush cried out and the wound bled, frightening Dante. Virgil apologized to the tree and asked him to tell his story so that Dante could honor his memory in the world of the living. The spirit said that it had been Frederick's faithful confidant, but that jealous courtiers had turned Frederick against him, and he had committed suicide in despair. He told Dante that he had always been loyal to Frederick, and asked him to tell people this. Dante was too overcome by pity to speak, and asked Virgil to ask the spirit questions in his place. The spirit explained how suicides came to be sad trees: Minos sent them to the seventh circle as seeds, to sprout wherever they fell. After the last judgement they would bring their bodies down, but would not inhabit them, since as suicide's they had no right to take them again: instead they would hang their bodies on their trees.

Suddenly they were interrupted by two souls who were hunted through the forest by black bitches. One was referred to as Lano; the other, who could not run fast enough, fell into a bush and was torn to pieces by the dogs. Virgil led Dante to the bush that had been wounded by the struggle; it lamented its fate and said that it was not responsible for the indecent life led by Jacopo da Santo Andrea (the spirit who had been dismembered). Virgil asked the bush who it had been; it replied that it was from Florence (the city whose first patron gave way to John the Baptist), and that it had made a gallows place of its own home.

Canto XIII: Analysis:

This vision of Hell is one of the most striking scenes in the Inferno. The desolate forest made up of black, twisted trees which bled if they were broken seems strangely fitting as the place of punishment for suicides. Although Dante the author assigns suicides a deep place in Hell, Dante the character cannot help being suffocated by pity for them.

The first speaking soul is that of Pier della Vigna (1190-1249), who was the minister, private secretary and counselor of Frederick II until he fell into disfavor and was put in prison and blinded. There he committed suicide. Dante makes it clear that he thinks Pier was innocent of the charges raised against him, although his suicide damns him. Pier's speech is an example of a particular rhetorical style and deserves to be read carefully: the repetitions and juxtapositions of certain words give a solemn measure to his lines. The "whore" who inflamed people against him is envy.

Lano is probably Arcolano of Siena, who belonged to the Spendthrift Club, a group of young noblemen who wasted time and money on frivolous and extravagent entertainments. According to Boccaccio, when Arcolano ran out of money he sought death in battle. Jacopo da Santo Andrea was a notorious squanderer. It is not altogether clear what difference there is between these squanderers and the prodigals in the fourth circle. It seems that these acted consciously and self-destructively (for example, the Spendthrift Club and Arcolano's quasi-suicide), which might explain it.

The first patron of Florence was the God of War, Mars. Cast out by the second, John the Baptist, Mars proceeded to torment his former city with strife and bloodshed. The anonymous Florentine suicide cannot be identified, and is probably supposed to symbolize widespread despair in Florence.

Canto XIV: Summary:

Out of love for their native city, Florence, Dante gave the anonymous spirit the branches that had broken from him, and then continued on his way to the third ring of the seventh circle. There the woods gave way to sand, and many naked souls were miserable there, exposed in different degrees to the flakes of fire which rained down from above, setting the sand on fire when they fell. Dante asked Virgil who a particular spirit was, who did not seem to care about the fires. The giant spirit himself answered, and claimed that he feared God no more in death than he had in life. Virgil berated him and said that his madness was a suitable punishment for his arrogance and blasphemy, then informed Dante that this was Capaneus, one of the seven kings who beseiged Thebes. They continued on, keeping to the edge of the forest to avoid the burning sand, and came to a thin red stream. Virgil explained that within the mountain Ida in Crete there was a gigantic statue of an old man, whose head was made of gold, his arms and chest of silver, brass down to the legs, his legs of iron and his right foot of clay. Each part of him except his golden head is cracked, and the tears that drip down the cracks make all the infernal rivers: the Acheron, the Styx, Phlegethon, and finally Coctyus. The rivulet Dante saw was presumably water from the Phlegethon dripping down to the Cocytus. Dante wanted to know where Lethe was (another mythological infernal river, associated with forgetting), and Virgil answered that he would see it, but in the palce where spirits cleansed themselves of repented guilt. They then left the circle through a path that didn't burn.

Canto XIV: Analysis:

Capaneus was one of the seven legendary kings who beseiged Thebes. Apparently Capaneus boasted that even Jove couldn't stop him, and was hit by a thunderbolt in retribution. Joves is associated with Jehova here, strangely enough: one wouldn't think that disobedience to a Pagan god would warrant damnation by a Christian god. However Jove is often associated with Jehova in early literature, perhaps because of the similarity of their names, and their preeminent positions as the head of the gods and the only god.

The image of the gigantic statue of the old man is Dante's own, although it draws on imagery from Ovid and Daniel 2:31-35. In Ovidian legend, the golden age was followed by the silver, the brass, and iron, as humans fell from their early innocence and goodness. This bears some resemblance to the Jewish and Christian myth in which humans fell from innocence in the Garden of Eden to a general wickedness around the time of the Great Flood. In Dante's image, the clay leg symbolizes the Church, and the iron leg is the Empire; the old man rests more on the clay leg than the iron because of the superior power of the Church over the Empire in Dante's time. Its being made of clay symbolizes its corruption and unreliability. Damietta is in the east so the statue faces west, toward Rome.

Canto XV: Summary:

Dante and Virgil walked along a kind of dyke between the river and the fiery sands, which Dante compares to those of the Flemings. They came across a group of men who were trudging along the sands; one of them recognized Dante and greeted him affectionately. At first Dante could not tell who it was because of the effect of the heat on his face, but then he respectfully greeted him as Ser Brunetto. They spoke together, walking slowly (Brunetto was not allowed to stop). Dante explained how he happened to be journeying through Hell and Brunetto predicted a happy ending to his journey. He said that if he had not died, he would have helped Dante more in his work, and warned him of the ingratitude of the people who came down from Fiesole, who were presumptuous, avaricious, and envious. Brunetto said that Dante would have an honorable future and should not bind himself to a party since neither of them deserved him. In return, Dante said that he wished Brunetto were still alive, and said that he would always remember his kind paternal image and the teaching he had received. He also said that he was not afraid of Fortune, to Virgil's commendment. Dante wanted to know who Brunetto's companions were, but he told him that most of them were not worth knowing, though some were men of letters and fame. They were all stained by the same sin, and included Priscian and Francesco among others. Brunetto then had to leave Dante, and asked him to hold his Tesoro dear. He ran ahead as though winning a race at Verona.

Canto XV: Analysis:

Although the spirits here are tormented for the sin of sodomy, it is not explicitly mentioned in this canto. Indeed, Dante's behavior towards Brunetto is unfailingly respectful and affectionate. Brunetto Latini (1220-1294), a Guelph Florentine, was a famous political leader and writer. He wrote an encyclopedia in French, called Li Livres dou tresor, and an Italian poem, the Tesoretto. Although Brunetto was not actually Dante's teacher, he seems to have been an important influence and a close friend.

The reference to the people of Fiesole comes from the legendary history of Florence. Florentines believed that Florence had been founded by noble Romans, but that in had been peopled in part by inhabitants of the town Fiesole in the mountains above Florence ­ these were the rough trouble-makers who caused all of Florence's ills. According to Villani's Chronicles, the mixture of the two different peoples accounted for Florence's exceptional and volatile nature.

Priscian of Cesarea was a Latin grammarian of the Middle Ages, and Francesco d'Accorso was a lawyer at Bologna and Oxford. The third person, referred to enigmatically by Brunetto, is Andrea de'Mozzi, the Bishop of Florence (the city lies on the river Arno) who was transferred for his scandalous lifestyle by the Pope Boniface VIII (the Servant of His servants) to Vicenza. He died soon after, apparently worn out by sodomy (his tendons strained by sin).

The final image of Brunetto running to catch his companions is an example of Dante's ability to turn a negative situation into a positive one. Brunetto is forced to eternally walk along the burning sands, and is not allowed to fall too far behind his companions ­ however, his running to catch up is represented not as a punishment but as a victory. He is the winner of a race.

Canto XVI: Summary:

When Dante had almost reached the place where the waters fell down to the next circle, three shades ran up to him, and called for him to stop, since he was a Florentine. Dante was struck with pity by the burn marks on their skin, and Virgil told him that these were honorable men and well worth talking to. One of the shades said that his companions were men of high degree: Guido Guerra, grandson of the good Gualdrada, and Tegghiaio Aldrobandi; he himself was Jacopo Rusticucci. Dante wanted to embrace them but dared not descend to the burning sands, so instead he said he was sorry for their state, and explained the reason for his journey. Jacopo wished him good fortune, and asked him whether the virtues still flourished in Florence; he had heard from a recent arrival, Guigliemo Borsiere, that the city wasn't doing well. Dante replied: "Newcomers to the city and quick gains have brought excess and arrogance." The three shades then asked him to remember them to the living, and ran off.

Dante followed Virgil to a roaring cascade which fell into a deep chasm. Dante gave Virgil the cord he wore around his waist, and Virgil threw one end of it down the chasm. To Dante's amazement, a horrific figure soon appeared, swimming up the cord.

Canto XVI: Analysis:

The three Florentine sodomites were all famous and honorable political leaders, evidently well respected by Dante despite their personal sins. Again, as in the last canto with Brunetti, there is little reference to the sin itself, and the attitude of Dante towards the sinners is extremely polite and respectful. Unlike some other cases, he does not seem to consider himself offended by their sin, perhaps because sodomy is defined as violence against God, and hence not particularly harmful to anyone else.

Dante's condemnation of Florence may be a reference to mercantile activity (remember that fraud and usury are strongly condemned). Evidently mercantile values do not coexist peacefully with aristocratic ones.

At the end of the canto, Dante says that he would rather not say what he saw, because it seems so improbable that no one would believe it ­ however, consideration for truth forces him to go ahead. This is a fairly standard ploy used by writers of fiction in order to gain credibility. It would be interesting to know if any of Dante's contemporaries believed that his journeys had actually taken place. It seems unlikely, but is possible.