Divine Comedy-I: Inferno

Divine Comedy-I: Inferno Summary and Analysis of Cantos XXIX-XXXII

Canto XXIX: Summary:

Virgil asked Dante why he was staring so intently at the mutilated shades, and he answered that he thought he saw one of his ancestors. Virgil said that he had seen that shade ­ a certain Geri del Bello ­ threatening Dante while he was speaking to someone else. Dante explained that Geri's murder had still not been avenged, which was why Geri's shade was so angry and scornful toward his descendant. Speaking of this, they came to the next and final pouch of Malebolge.

Dante wanted to put his hands over his ears because of the lamentations of the sinners there, who were afflicted with scabs like leprosy, and lay sick on the ground, furiously scratching their skin of with their nails: it was worse than the great hospitals.

Two of the shades leaned against one another and scratched themselves mercilessly like a stableboy currycombing a horse. Virgil asked them if there were any Italians there, to which they replied, weeping, that they were Italians. Virgil explained the situation of the journey, and Dante asked them who they were, so he could tell the world above, and their memory would not fade. One answered that he was from Arezzo and had been burned by Albero of Siena because he had boasted that he could fly ­ and then failed to teach Albero the art. However his damning sin was alchemy. Dante told Virgil that the Sienese were extremely vain, and the other sinner agreed, listing the names Stricca, Niccolo, Caccia d'Asciano, and Abbagliato as examples. This sinner said he was the alchemist Capocchio.

Canto XXIX: Analysis:

From Dante's preoccupation with his unavenged ancestor we can see that he was not immune to the feuding spirit of the times. One murder could be the beginning of a deadly quarrel between families as revenge followed revenge. Geri del Bello, Dante's father's cousin, was a troublemaker who was killed by a Sacchetti. He was finally avenged in 1310, and the pointless feud begun between the Alighieri and the Sacchetti lasted until 32 years later.

Leprosy hardly exists in western cultural consciousness today, but in Dante's time the disease was much more common and much more terrifying. Because of the slow and disfiguring deaths suffered by lepers, and because of similarities with a skin disease mentioned in the Bible, the victims of which were called unclean, lepers were made to live in communities apart from healthy people. They had to ring bells to warn people of their presence when they collected alms. In some places, the time when a new leper went to join his or her companions was marked by a ritual "burial" to symbolize that the leper was dead as far as healthy people were concerned: the leper would stand in a grave and be sprinkled with earth. Lepers occupied a peculiar cultural space: on one hand they were sometimes thought to be closer to God because they began their purgatories on earth, and on the other hand the disease was supposed to result from immoral behavior, particularly sexual immorality. The fact that leprosy here is a divine punishment for sin is characteristic of medieval attitudes. Note that the bubonic plague has not yet made its appearance, which would come in 1348. It might be interesting to wonder how the Inferno might have been different if it had been written after then. He might have approved of the plague decimating Florence: a scourge from God to punish their misdeeds.

Alchemy is another thing which was very important in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and has disappeared now, though scientists as recent as Isaac Newton were deeply concerned with alchemical questions. Alchemists spent their time trying to turn base metals into gold. They were associated with strange knowledge and mystery; their activities were not so far removed from sorcery. Alchemy might be said to be a forerunner of modern chemistry, since it involved experiments with metals ­ of course no one ever succeeded. Because turning base metals into gold was impossible, alchemists were also associated with fraud: as Capocchio says, he was good at imitating fine metals, not at making them. These two alchemists are Griffolino of Arezzo, who cheated Albero of Siena by claiming that he could teach him to fly for a large sum of money. He was burned as a heretic by Albero's protector (and perhaps his father), the Bishop of Siena. Capocchio was burned at the stake for alchemy in 1293.

The names listed by Capocchio in regard to Siena's vanity were members of the Spendthrift Club (see Canto XIII).

Canto XXX: Summary:

The madness that Dante saw next surpassed the great examples of antiquity: Athamas was driven insane by Juno so that he slaughtered his wife and children thinking they were lions, and Hecuba, the queen of Troy, went mad with grief after the city fell and she found the bodies of her children Polyxena and Polydorus. Two mad shades came running up; one bit Capocchio in the neck. The alchemist from Arezzo was afraid, and said that that was Gianni Schicci, and that the other mad shade was Myrrha, who had changed shape to trick her father into having sex with her. Gianni Schicci had faked a death and pretended to be someone else for selfish reasons.

Dante looked around and saw some deformed shades: one had a dropsy which made him look like a lute. He said he was Master Adam and that he was tormented by thirst for his crime of counterfeiting. Adam wanted to revenge himself on Guido, Alessandro, and their brother, because they had incited him to make false coin.

Two sinners who lay prone on the ground and gave off steam were being punished for lying; they were Sinon the Greek and the woman who blamed Joseph. Sinon struck Adam, he retaliated, and a quarrel began over whose sin had been worse. Virgil told Dante to stop listening to their curses, and Dante was very much ashamed of his vulgar curiosity. Virgil forgave him, but said that it was base to listen to such things.

Canto XXX: Analysis:

The madness of Athamus was a result of Jupiter's infidelity and Juno's jealousy: Jupiter loved Semele, daughter of Cadmus, the king of Thebes ­ and she bore him Bacchus, the god of wine. Athamus' wife was Ino, Semele's sister. Hecuba's daughter Polyxena was sacrificed on Achilles' tomb, and her son was murdered. She went mad, howling like a dog, and drowned herself. It's debatable whether Dante's description of the madness of the impersonators actually surpasses the classical examples. However the practice of describing something in terms of something similar but less serious was commonly used, though it was rather daring of Dante to set himself up in opposition to the Ancients.

Gianni Schicci impersonated Simone Donati's uncle Buoso Donati, who had just died: on Simone's request, Gianni, pretending to be Buoso, dictated a new will in favor of Simone. He also left himself Buoso's best mare, the lady of the herd. Puccini wrote a comic opera on this story, called Gianno Schicci: the aria "O mio babbino caro" is very famous.

Myrrha, daughter of the king of Cyprus, fell incestuously in love with her father, and impersonated another woman so as to sleep with him. When she was discovered, she fled execution, and was changed into a myrrh tree by the gods.

These sinners, who tricked other people into thinking they were someone else, are punished by becoming confused about their own identities: they are insane.

Sinon tricked the Trojans into bringing the wooden horse filled with Greek soldiers into Troy (see Canto XXVI). The woman is the wife of Potiphar, who falsely accused Joseph of making advances toward her.

Canto XXXI: Summary:

Dante and Virgil continued on towards the ninth circle. Dante was nearly deafened by a gigantic bugle blast, and seemed to see a city surrounded with towers in front of them (because it was quite dark it was hard to see far). Virgil told him that it was not a city: what he thought were towers were really giants, standing in the central pit so that Dante could see them from the waist up. Coming closer, Dante saw that this was true, and he was thankful that Nature made no more giants, and that the only large animals were inoffensive, like elephants and whales. A giant shouted "Raphel mai amecche sabi almi," but Virgil told him to blow the bugle strapped across his chest instead. He was Nimrod, whose fault it was that different peoples spoke different languages. His own language was unlike any on earth.

Another giant's arms were tied fast, one behind and one in front, by a massive chain. He was Ephialtes, who had rebelled against Jove. Dante wanted to see Briareus, but instead they spoke to Antaneus, who was not chained. Virgil asked Antaneus to pick him and Dante up and put them down in the ninth circle at the bottom of the pit. In exchange Dante would give him fame by telling about him on earth. Antaneus hastily did so.

Canto XXXI: Analysis:

The giants here are mainly noteworthy for having rebelled against God, or having otherwise used their great stature or abilities to challenge the divine preeminence. Like many Renaissance rulers, Dante's Machavellian God thoroughly disapproves of overly powerful subjects, and has imprisoned these giants in the coldest reaches of Hell.

In the Bible, Nimrod ruled in Babylon when the Tower of Babel was built ­ it was supposed to be tall enough to reach the sky. God was angered by the lofty ambitions of his creations, and punished mankind by making them speak in different languages. (Formerly all men had spoken the same language, thus permitting the kind of cooperation that resulted in the Tower). God's technique of "divide and conquer" has been used with great success by less divine tyrants. Nimrod's punishment, as we see, is to speak a language that nobody else understands, and to understand no other languages: he is truly isolated.

Briareus and Ephialtes rebelled against the Olympian gods, who dealt with them in much the same way as the Biblical god dealt with Nimrod. Antaneus was born after the rebellion, therefore he is unfettered, though still imprisoned.

Canto XXXII:Summary:

Dante begins with an invocation to the Muses to help him tell his tale. As he was walking in the ninth circle, he heard a voice telling him to be careful where he put his feet so as not to trample on his fellow-men. Looking down, he saw that he was walking on a frozen lake, in which the shades of traitors to their kin were locked fast, and miserable with cold. He saw two frozen together, and asked them who they were; their eyes and lips were frozen shut with tears. Another sinner told him they were: the sons of Alberto near Bisenzio. Other sinners there were he whose chest was shattered by Arthur, and Focaccia, and Sassol Mascheroni. The speaker said he was Camiscion de' Pazzi, and that he was still waiting for Carlino to absolve him.

Walking on, Dante was horrified to see the thousands of frozen faces. By mistake he kicked one of them, who wept , and asked him if he had come to avenge Montaperti. Dante asked Virgil to let him wait a minute and speak with the shade, and he asked the sinner who he was, offering to give him fame in the outside world. The sinner was not attracted by the offer, and Dante became cruel, threatening to pull out all his hair. He had already pulled out a handful with another shade addressed Dante's victim as Bocca. Dante prepared to go on his way, promising to tell the world about Bocca's filthy deeds, and Bocca told him the names of some others as well: him of Duera, one of the Beccheria, Gianni de'Soldanieri and Tebaldello and Ganelon.

Continuing on, Dante saw two shades frozen in a hole. One of them was gnawing the other's skull. Dante asked the gnawer why he so hated his companion.

Canto XXXII: Analysis:

Dante's Hell gets colder and colder as you descend further down. This first ring of the ninth circle is called Caina, and holds traitors to kin (the name doubtless comes from that of Cain, the son of Eve and Adam, who treacherously murdered his brother Abel). The ninth circle is a frozen lake made by the river Cocytus.

The two sons of the Florentine noble Alberto degli Alberti are Napoleone and Alessandro. Napoleone was a Ghibelline and Alessandro was Guelph; they murdered each other between 1282 and 1286. He whose chest was shattered by Arthur is Mordred, Arthur's nephew (and according to some versions, his incestuously conceived son), who tried to seize power in England and was killed by his uncle for his treachery. Focaccia was the nickname of a noble White Guelph who murdered his cousin. Sassol Mascheroni also murdered a relative.

Camiscion de' Pazzi shared a fortress with Ubertino until he murdered him. He hopes that Carlino will "absolve him" because Carlino was a member of his family who had committed a graver act of treachery which would make his own appear less serious by contrast: Carlino betrayed his party (the Whites). Bocca degli Abati was another Guelph who betrayed his party: during the battle of Montaperti in 1260, he cut off the hands of the person carrying the Guelph flag, and the loss of the flag panicked the Guelphs, who were then defeated. Remember that the Ghibelline Farinata (Canto X) saved Florence after that battle by opposing the plan to destroy the city.

The others mentioned also betrayed their parties. Unlike the others, Ganelon is a legendary figure, who was part of Charlemagne's army in the epic, the Song of Roland. When Charlemagne was returning to France after wars with the infidels in Spain, Ganelon betrayed the rear guard of the army, led by Roland. Roland was too proud to blow his horn for help, so the rear guard was massacred. Roland finally did blow the horn, and the rest of the army returned to find their dead (including Roland), and to avenge them. Ganelon was given a traitor's death.

Dante's cruelty is striking. He generally appears to be fairly sensitive character, easily moved by the sufferings of the damned ­ and sometimes he even seems weak and frightened. What is it about Bocca which makes him so cruel? When he tortures him he doesn't even know who he is, except that he was damned for treachery. It may be relevant, however, that Bocca was a Guelph who betrayed his party to the Ghibellines ­ since Dante was also a Guelph.