Divine Comedy-I: Inferno

Divine Comedy-I: Inferno Summary and Analysis of Cantos XXV-XXVIII

Canto XXV: Summary:

When Vanni Fucci had finished his speach he cursed God with obscene gestures, and Dante was pleased to see him attacked by some snakes who coiled around him tightly. Then he saw a centaur, Cacus, who was covered in snakes as well, who was killed for his thievery by Hercules. Dante then saw three shades who wanted to know who he was. He didn't recognize them, but one of them called another Cianfa. A strange and horrifying scene followed: a serpent with six feet closely grasped one of the shades, and as though they were made of warm wax, the two melted together. The other shades were horrified by the shade's metamorphosis; they called him Agnello. Agnello turned into a doubled serpent monster and crawled off. Then a little serpent pierced through the stomach of one of the other sinners and as the transfixed shade and the serpent stared at each other, they slowly changed shape: the serpent turned into a man and then man into a serpent. The new-made man told the third shade that he had wanted Buoso to run on all fours like he had done. Dante noted that the only soul who did not change shape was Puccio Sciancato, and the other, who had originally been a small serpent, was he who had made Gaville grieve.

Canto XXV: Analysis:

The shape-changing scene should be read carefully: its horror cannot be understood in a summary. Dante's shocking account of the metamorphosis derives its force from the detail of the gradual change: flesh does not simply disappear to reappear in a new form, but is rather a malleable substance like wax or clay. Note that Dante's serpents can have legs: there was no clear biological distinction between snakes and dragons at that time. The early biologist Aldrovandi's great work on serpents and dragons makes that clear: it includes both vipers and beasts with scales and wings breathing fire.

Cianfa Donati and Agnello de' Brunelleschi were both noble Florentine thieves. Apparently Cianfa is the snake who combines with Agnello. Puccio Sciancato was from a noble Ghibelline family in Galigai. The one who made Gaville grieve was Francesco de' Cavalcanti. The people of the town Gaville murdered him, and his family in revenge killed almost everyone in Gaville. Note that many of these thieves, who broke into shops and stole cattle, were of noble birth and of good family: Renaissance Italy was a lawless place.

The torment here seems to be based on the idea that there are not enough human bodies for everyone ­ the others take the forms of serpents. These thieves ar reduced to continually stealing each other's human shape.

Canto XXVI: Summary:

Dante ironically congratulates Florence for her greatness: her name is known throughout Hell. But retribution will come.

In the eighth valley he saw as many flames as a farmer sees fireflies when he sits on a hill in the evening. Dante could not see very clearly since the scene was indistinct, and Virigl explained that each fire held a damned soul. One of the fires seemed to be double, and indeed Virgil said there were two souls in it: Ulysses and Diomedes, who were punished together for the fraudulent scheme of the Trojan Horse. Dante wanted very much to hear them speak, which Virgil permitted on condition that he do the talking (since the Greeks might be disdainful of Dante's speech).

Ulysses told the story of his death: his love for his family had not been enough to stop him from exploring, so he set out into sea with a ship and some men. By the time they got to the place where Hercules set up his boundary stones they were old and tired, but Ulysses convinced them to go on with a fiery speech. After crossing the ocean for months they saw a great mountain before them. At first they were glad, but a whirlwind from the strange land rose up and sank their ship, and the sea closed over them.

Canto XXVI: Analysis:

Dante makes use of acid irony in his mock praise of Florence. Hell is not an honorable land where many Florentine settlements denote conquering greatness.

The metaphor of the farmer and the fireflies is similar to that of the shepherd in Canto XXIV. Here, however, it does not seem as innocent, since the "fireflies" are really burning people. One might wonder why Dante chose that particular metaphor: did he want to make the description vivid by using a familiar image? Did he want to tone down the horror of the scene by describing it in terms of harmless insects? Did he want to make his readers uncomfortable by the juxtaposition of a peaceful landscape and a scene of torture? Or some combination of these?

Ulysses (or Odysseus in the Greek form) was a crafty member of the Greek army which beseiged Troy after the Trojan prince Paris ran off with the Spartan queen Helen. After ten years were spent in useless battle, Ulysses and Diomedes came up with a plan to make a huge hollow wooden horse, fill it with Greek soldiers, and leave it in front of Troy as a "gift." It worked: the Trojans took it in and in the night the soldiers came out and laid waste to the city. Dante evidently did not approve. His disapproval may be related to the myth that Romans were the descendants of Aeneas, a Trojan who escaped and went to Italy (the subject of Virgil's Aeneid).

The boundary stones of Hercules means Gibraltar, which was more or less the end of the world by Greeky standards: Ulysses and his men sailed out into the Atlantic Ocean, never to return. The mountain they found was probably the Mountain of Purgatory, which for Dante was the only body of land in the southern hemisphere. Remember that Dante wrote more than a century before Columbus's voyages.

Canto XXVII: Summary:

The flame of Ulysses and Diomedes was silent, and Virgil gave it permission to leave. Then Dante and Virgil's attention was drawn by the strange noise another flame made. It sounded like a fire, but in pain, and reminded Dante of the Sicilian bull. Finally it was able to speak, and asked them to tell it what was happening in Romagna ­ the soul's homeland. Dante answered that Romagna was currently at peace, though there was war in its tyrants' hearts. he gave more detailed descriptions of the various cities, then asked the shade for his name, so he could tell the world about him. The shade did not think Dante could return to the world, and so was not too ashamed to say that he had been first a soldier, then a friar, trying to make amends for his misdeeds. However the Pope had asked his counsel for his illegitimate warfare against Christians (the shade had had a reputation for craftiness). The friar had not wanted to compromise his soul, but when the Pope offered to absolve him in advance, the friar gave him the advice he wanted. When he died, Saint Francis came for him (he had been a Franciscan friar) but a devil claimed him because he had given fraudulent advice. One cannot be absolved without repenting, and one cannot repent something and will it at the same time, so the Pope's absolution did not do him any good, and he was damned.

The flame departed and Dante and Virgil moved on their way.

Canto XXVII: Analysis:

The description of the sound produced by the flame is very interesting, and shows the great extent of Dante's macabre imagination. The Sicilian bull was hollow and made out of bronze for the 6th century tyrant of Sicily. When victims were roasted in it, their screams were supposed to sound like the bellowing of a bull. As Dante points out, the bull's maker was the first one to be killed in it. According to this comparison, if the victim burning in the bull sounds like an enraged bull, the voice within the flame must sound like a tormented fire ­ whatever that may be.

The former friar is Guido da Montefeltro (1220-1298), a famous Ghibelline leader, and the Pope involved is Boniface VIII, not a favorite of Dante's. Boniface wanted to defeat the Colonna family, and asked Guido's advice, assuring him of absolution. Following his counsel, he offered the Colonna family amnesty if they surrendered, and when they did he massacred them. Boniface's unholy use of his supposed powers of absolution and excommunication are an example of why he woul, according to Dante, end up head-downward with his feet being burned for simony.

Canto XXVIII: Summary:

The bloodshed and gore that Dante saw in the next valley (the ninth) surpassed all the great literary wars, he said. He saw a shade whose entire chest was ripped open; the shade drew the two flaps of flesh apart with his hands and said he was Mohammed. Ali was there, with his face split open, and all the others were also sowers of scandal and schism, who were split themselves for their sins. A devil cut them open, and when they healed, he cut them again. Mohammed then asked who Dante was, and Virgil explained the situation. Mohammed told them to warn Fra Dolcino that he should provide himself with food, since if he died being beseiged, he would end up there also. Another sinner, horribly maimed, told Dante he was Pier da Medicina, and asked him to warn Messer Guido and Angiolello that they would be drowned through treachery. In exchange, Dante asked him to show him who detests Rimini, a certain Curio, and he did: Curio was there with his tongue slit. Another whose hands were cut off said that he was Mosca. Then, to his horror, Dante saw a man walk by holding his severed head in his hand. The head said he was Bertran de Born, who through bad counsel had made a son and father hate one another: he was himself divided as punishment.

Canto XXVIII: Analysis:

There is no indication that Mohammed (570-632) and Ali are not Italian, and the inclusion of the founder of Islam and his nephew among Italians and Christians shows how little Christians of the period understood Islam. Mohammed was often thought to be an apostate Christian, which explains his classification among sowers of schism: according to Dante he did not start a new religion, but merely divided an old one. Ali married Mohammed's daughter Fatima and claimed to be the successor to the caliphate. Other Muslims did not agree, and the schism resulted in two separate sects of Islam, the Sunnites and the Shiites.

Fra Dolcino founded an order called the Apostolic Brothers, which believed in holding goods and women in common. They were condemned as heretics by Pope Clement V, and had to take to the hills to avoid the authorites. Eventually their food supplies gave out and they had to surrender; Fra Dolcino was burned alive in 1307, presumably before Dante wrote this canto.

Guido del Cassero and Angiolello di Carignano were thrown overboard on their way to a parley held by the tyrant Malatestino.

The Ghibelline Mosca de' Lamberti was mentioned in Canto VI. He helped create the feud between the Ghibellines and the Guelfs when in 1215 he advised the Amidei family to kill a Guelph, Buondelmonte dei Buondelmonti, for breaking his engagement to be married to an Amidei girl.

Bertran de Born (1140-1215) was a troubadour poet among other things ­ his beautiful works deserve to be read if they can be obtained ­ and was thought by some to have incited Prince Henry to rebell against his father Henry II.