Dante and Virgil venture into the wood of the suicides.
(To read a footnote, click the number in the text. To come back from a footnote, click the up arrow at the note number.)
Nessus hadn’t reached the other side of the ford over the bloody river when we were already making our way into a forest unmarked by any path.Obviously, when he and Virgil reached this forest, a natural thing to do on Dante’s part was to look back to see how far they had come from the bloody river. Not very far, apparently, because … Continue reading The leaves on the trees here were black, not green; the branches were a wild, twisted tangle; and they bloomed with poisonous thorns not fruit. Not even the god-forsaken lands between Cecina and Corneto over on the coast below Pisa have such savage forests for wild beasts to make their homes in!In Dante’s time, this large territory was a mixture of wild, dense trees, marshes, and swamps. It was filled with dangerous beasts and snakes, and a home to malaria-causing mosquitoes. As a matter … Continue reading
Here, the revolting Harpies inhabited these woods with their foul stench – the same ones who drove the Trojans from the Strophades Islands with their prophesies of disaster. They’re half human and half bird, with their human faces, their wide wings, clawed feet, and fat, feathered bellies. And they sit in those ugly trees screeching out their wailing cries.These hideous misshapen creatures, part-bird and part-human, continue the line of monsters of nature we saw with the Minotaur and then the Centaurs. In mythology, the Harpies (the name means … Continue reading
Stopping there, Virgil said: “Before we go any farther into this wood, remember that we’re on the second level of this circle, and we will be until we get to the burning sands. Look around now and take in everything you see, because even if I described it for you, you wouldn’t believe me.”Drawing out the suspense, as it were, Virgil stops to remind Dante of how the Seventh Circle is structured in three concentric and narrowing rounds: (1) the River Phlegethon, (2) this Forest of Woe, … Continue reading
Cries of grief and pain echoed everywhere around me, but there was no one there to make those cries. I was completely bewildered by this and stopped dead in my tracks. I think Virgil might have thought what I was thinking: all these cries are coming from people hiding near us in this strange forest. So he told me: “If you break off any branch around here, what you’re thinking will break off too.”At this point, we can consider ourselves fully-enough within this wild forest for the real action to begin. By now, Dante has heard enough cries and screams of pain along his journey through Hell to … Continue reading
Well, doing what he said, I cautiously snapped a brittle branch off of a huge thorny bush, and all of a sudden the bush cried out: “Why do you tear me apart?” There was blood where I had broken the branch off, and it cried all the more: “Why are you ripping me up? Don’t you have an ounce of pity? We were once living men, and now we’re changed into these ugly shrubs. Even if we had been the souls of snakes, you might have shown us more pity than you did.”This is a unique moment in the Inferno, and if it crossed the reader’s mind that a joke was being played on Dante when he heard the “hidden” cries of pain, or more so when Virgil told him to … Continue reading
You know how a green log, burning at one end sputters and hisses as it oozes out sap at the other end? Well, that splintered limb I had broken sputtered out a mixture of words – and blood! Standing there stiff with fear, I flung that branch away.The image here centers on burning wood or branches that are still green and have sap in them. These don’t make a good fire by themselves, but when thrown on an already burning fire, steam and sap … Continue reading Virgil now stepped in and explained: “O wounded spirit! If only this man would have let himself believe what he had once read in my poem, he would never have thought to injure you purposely. But the truth here is so unbelievable that I urged him to do it, and what I did now grieves me. But please, tell him who you were when you were alive, because he can make up for what he did to you by restoring your fame when he returns to the world above.”Virgil’s intervention here is both gracious and repentant. But, as he explains, “the truth here is…unbelievable” – a reminder of what we already know, and a demonstration is necessary. … Continue reading
The bush replied: “Your gracious words are so appealing that I must comply with your request. Please don’t mind, then, if I allow myself a little conversation with you. I was Frederick II’s Chancellor, and I held the keys to his heart. I could lock and unlock it with such subtle delicacy that few were allowed into his confidence.The speaker/tree is Pier delle Vigne, though he never identifies himself (perhaps, as we shall see, because he took his own life). The “keys” he held as Chancellor to the Emperor symbolize the … Continue reading So faithful was I to his trust that I not only lost sleep over it, but I lost my life as well. That whore, Envy – the particular evil of courts, and our undoing – who scurries softly with her lustful eyes among Caesar’s corridors, inflamed the hearts of everyone there against me. And those hearts then inflamed my Augustus, and all my pleasant honors turned to grief. In my mind, I had a morbid belief that my death would justify me. And in the end, it made me unjust to myself – I who was always just! Please believe me when I swear to you by the twisted branches of my tree here – never once did I ever break my lord’s trust, he who was so honorable and trusting of me. If you return to the world above, kindly restore the good memory of me who remains here, forever cut down by Envy’s blow.”Some additional context to Pier’s tragic story is helpful here. It should be noted that, as Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II ruled a vast kingdom which included all of Sicily, all of Italy except … Continue reading
When there was a pause for a moment, Virgil said to me quietly: “Now that he’s finished, don’t miss this opportunity to ask him anything else you want to know.”One is reminded here of how Virgil prompted Dante to speak to Francesca in Canto 5 and to Farinata in Canto 10. As in those earlier cantos, Virgil here opens the door to much more information with … Continue reading
“Oh, my Poet,” I sighed, “you do the asking for me. I feel so bad for him that my heart is breaking.”While, on the one hand, Dante’s emotions again get the better of him, this is, perhaps, further validation that he, like so many others during his time, believed that Pier was innocent.
So, he addressed that melancholy soul again: “This man can do exactly what you’ve asked, O sad soul. So, please carry on and tell us how it happens that a soul comes to this place and finds himself in these tangles. And that we might have the fullest understanding, tell us also whether a spirit entrapped here might leave this forest prison.”
There was a deep sighing in that wounded bush; soon it became a voice and words. “I can briefly answer your questions thus: When the soul of a suicide leaves its violent body it appears before Minos, who sends it to this seventh circle. There is no specific place for us here, we just fall into this wood anywhere Fortune throws us. Then like a seed, we grow into a sapling, and then into such wild trees and bushes as you see here.The randomness of their being flung anywhere in the forest matches the ultimate lack of care they give to their bodies – temples of their immortal souls. Having rudely uprooted their souls from … Continue reading But soon the foul Harpies nest in our branches, gorging themselves on our leaves, causing us even more suffering.Not only is this an additional part of the contrapasso for the suicides, it may be the worst part because the ravenous Harpies constantly injure them as they feed on the leaves that grow from their … Continue reading On the Last Day, we, too, will return above to claim our bodies. But we will not be able to wear them, for it would be wrong for us to get back what we so violently threw away. Instead, we’ll just drag them back here into this miserable forest and hang them on some thorn of the souls we tore them from.”In Canto 11, Virgil referred to suicide as a kind of “self-robbery,” an interesting phrase. Generally, as it makes no sense that a thief should lay claim to something he stole, so in this case … Continue reading
Standing there forlorn and listening, in case that wretched bush had more to tell us, we were startled by a crashing sound somewhere in that forest not far away. It sounded like a boar hunt, with the wounded creature running away, and then the mayhem of the chase: branches snapping and hunting dogs howling after their prey. Then suddenly, just to the left, two frightened spirits rushed past us, stark naked and all gashed with wounds. Careless in their rough flight, they tore away many branches from the bush we had been speaking with.After a rather startling opening when Dante breaks the branch of Pier delle Vigne’s tree, this canto took on a somber tone as the two travelers conversed with Pier delle Vigne about his life and … Continue reading The soul in front screamed out: “Death! Death! Come quickly!” And the slower soul screamed back: “You never ran so fast, Lano! Certainly not at the tournament at Toppo!”These two souls are Arcolano da Squarcia di Riccolfo Maconi , also known as Lano da Siena. The other is Giacomo da Sant’ Andrea, a nobleman from Padua. Both men were notorious profligates who … Continue reading
Unable to keep up the pace any longer, the slow one just threw himself into a nearby bush and wrapped himself up to hide in its thorny branches. But that didn’t work. The forest was soon overrun by huge ravenous black bitches like wild dogs having broken their chains. Oh, terrible! In their fury, they rushed into that poor bush and ripped the frightened sinner open, tore him to pieces, and ran off with mouthfuls of his wretched limbs and body parts!Having gone through their substance and run up immense bills, they are chased by their creditors – the wild dogs – who take everything that is left.
No sooner were they gone than my guide grabbed my hand and pulled me over to that mangled bush. It wept piteously, crying out from every bleeding branch: “O Giacomo da Sant’ Andrea,” it wept, “what good did it do for you to hide within me? It wasn’t my fault that you lived such a wicked life!”
Virgil, looking on with compassion, asked it: “Who were you, now gasping out your story of blood and so many wounds?”
He answered: “O gentle souls, just in time to see such injustice and the mutilation that has broken me to pieces. Please, if you will be so kind, gather up my leaves and twigs and put them here near the trunk of my sad bush. I was a citizen of the city that exchanged John the Baptist for her earlier patron, Mars. And I’ll tell you this: by his art, she will suffer endless trouble. If it wasn’t that a fragment of his statue was still on the bridge over the Arno, those citizens who rebuilt the city after Attila destroyed it would have worked in vain. As for me, I hanged myself in my own house!”Like Pier delle Vigne, this suicide’s story is filled with gentleness and pathos. The profligacy of Lano and Giacomo recklessly injured and caused pain to others, not to mention their own goods. … Continue reading
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Notes & Commentary
|↑1||Obviously, when he and Virgil reached this forest, a natural thing to do on Dante’s part was to look back to see how far they had come from the bloody river. Not very far, apparently, because Nessus was not back across yet. And the fact that they are ready to enter the forest suggests both its close proximity to the Phlegethon and that they wasted no time in getting there. This forest, on the same level as the river, actually forms the second of three rings or areas on the Seventh Circle where a different group of sinners and punishments await them. This is the second time we’ve encountered a forest in the Inferno, and echoes of the dark forest of Canto 1 surely haunt Dante still. The fact that it is unmarked by any path is an additional horror and a mirror of the unique horror awaiting the travelers inside. And continuing with the mirror image, each of the first three tercets of this canto begin with the word non, a series of negatives which describe the deathly and foreboding nature of the place the travelers are about to enter. Recall how this identical feature opened Canto 3. The notice above the Gate of Hell was three tercets long and each tercet began with the same phrase: per me, through me.|
|↑2||In Dante’s time, this large territory was a mixture of wild, dense trees, marshes, and swamps. It was filled with dangerous beasts and snakes, and a home to malaria-causing mosquitoes. As a matter of fact, it was while walking back from Venice to Ravenna through a similarly swampy area on the eastern coast that Dante caught malaria and died shortly thereafter. As we saw at the end of the previous canto, this region, called the Maremma, was also a home to thieves and robbers (e.g., Rinieri da Corneto) who made their living off intrepid travelers and pilgrims who made their way to and from Rome along the coastal edge of this forsaken place. Today, however, after several major projects over the succeeding centuries, the swamps have been drained, the land reclaimed, and the Maremma is a verdant, fertile, and prosperous region of Italy. Dante’s description is not one of healthy green trees, abundant and fruitful. Rather, everything here is black, thorny, thick, twisted, and poisonous. But we are in Hell, lest we forget, and the images of this forest are mirrors of death and devastation, lifeless waste, endless gloom, desolation, sin and evil. The punishment of the violent sinners in the Phlegethon was open and plain to see. But this almost impenetrable forest is sinister and forbidding even before Dante and Virgil enter it. Cecina (south of Livorno) and Corneto (now Tarquinia near Viterbo) mark the northern and southern boundaries of the Maremma region Dante is referring to here.
Dante probably read Senaca’s Hercules furens, in which Theseus describes his own journey to the Underworld which is appropriate here: “The foul pool of Cocytus’ sluggish stream lies here; here the vulture, there the dole-bringing owl utters its cry, and the sad omen of the gruesome screech-owl sounds. The leaves shudder, black with gloomy foliage where sluggish Sleep clings to the overhanging yew, where sad Hunger lies with wasted jaws, and Shame, too late, hides her guilt-burdened face. Dread stalks there, gloomy Fear and gnashing Pain, sable Grief, tottering Disease and iron-girt War; and last of all slow Age supports his steps upon a staff…No meadows bud, joyous with verdant view, no ripened corn waves in the gentle breeze; not any grove has fruit-producing boughs; the barren desert of the abysmal fields lies all untilled, and the foul land lies torpid in endless sloth – sad end of things, the world’s last estate. The air hangs motionless and black night broods over a sluggish world. All things are with grief dishevelled, and worse than death itself is the abode of death.”
|↑3||These hideous misshapen creatures, part-bird and part-human, continue the line of monsters of nature we saw with the Minotaur and then the Centaurs. In mythology, the Harpies (the name means “snatchers”) were the daughters of Thaumus, a sea god, and the Oceanid Electra. Dante provides us with a good description of them, but left out that they were notorious trouble-makers and their mode of operation was to settle somewhere and befoul the inhabitants’ food. They were eventually banished to the Strophades islands in the Ionian Sea. In light of this, Dante takes advantage of Virgil’s presence here to refer to the story in the Aeneid (II:209ff) where Aeneas and his men stop at the Strophades to rest and are tormented by the Harpies, who twice befoul their feast. One of them prophesies that Aeneas’s journey is doomed and that he and his men will starve to death. They fled in haste! In the same text (III:216f), Virgil describes them as: “Bird-bodied, girl-faced things they are; abominable their droppings, their hands are talons, their faces haggard with hunger insatiable.” They were sometimes called “the hounds of Zeus.” Harpies are said to be a symbol of guilt and remorse – most fitting for the souls we are about to encounter.|
|↑4||Drawing out the suspense, as it were, Virgil stops to remind Dante of how the Seventh Circle is structured in three concentric and narrowing rounds: (1) the River Phlegethon, (2) this Forest of Woe, and (3) the Burning Sands. They have obviously started to penetrate this thick forest, and Virgil feels it necessary to prepare Dante – though he knows it will be futile – for what he won’t be able to believe when they get further in.|
|↑5||At this point, we can consider ourselves fully-enough within this wild forest for the real action to begin. By now, Dante has heard enough cries and screams of pain along his journey through Hell to be somewhat used to them. What’s different here is that they’re coming from everywhere, yet he can see no one. And though Virgil can read Dante’s thoughts, Dante here can only wonder if Virgil is thinking the same thing he’s thinking – namely, that the souls here are hiding among the trees. One can only imagine what Dante thought when Virgil answered his thoughts by telling him to break off a branch from a nearby tree. But when he does, his faulty thinking will also be broken off. Twisting the old saying a bit: “Actions will speak louder than words.”|
|↑6||This is a unique moment in the Inferno, and if it crossed the reader’s mind that a joke was being played on Dante when he heard the “hidden” cries of pain, or more so when Virgil told him to break off a branch, one has to “enjoy” watching the shock and surprise on the Pilgrim’s face when the tree cries out in bloody pain and rebukes him for his unthinking carelessness. The rebuke also contains part of the contrapasso for the sinners in this place – they were once living people and now they’ve been changed into ugly trees and shrubs. The soul here will soon explain this in detail. Note also how the tree/soul accuses the usually pity-filled Dante of being pitiless.
Clearly, Dante had in mind Aeneas’ discovery of the body of Polydorus (a son of Priam, King of Troy) in a tree (Aeneid III:19-68):
“I was offering sacrifice to my mother, Venus, and the other gods, that they might bless the work begun, and to the high king of the lords of heaven I was slaying a shining white bull upon the shore. By chance, hard by there was a mound, on whose top were cornel bushes and myrtles bristling with crowded spear shafts. I drew near, and attempting to tear up the green growth from the soil, that I might deck the altar with leafy boughs, I saw an awful portent, wondrous to tell. For from the first tree which was torn from the ground with broken roots there trickled drops of black blood which stained the earth with gore. A cold shudder shook my limbs, and my chilled blood froze with terror. Once more, from a second also I went on to pluck a tough shoot and probe deep the hidden cause; and from the bark of the second tree there also follows black blood. Pondering much in heart, I prayed to woodland Nymphs, and father Mars, who rules over the Thracian fields, duly to bless the vision and lighten the omen. But when with greater effort I tore at the third shafts, and with my knees wrestled against the resisting sands – should I speak or be silent? – a piteous groan was heard from the depth of the mound, and an answering voice came to my ears. ‘Woe is me! Why, Aeneas, do you tear me? Spare me in the tomb at last; spare the pollution of your pure hands! I, born of Troy, am no stranger to you; not from a lifeless stock oozes this blood. Ah! Flee the cruel land, flee the greedy shore! For I am Polydorus. Here an iron harvest of spears covered my pierced body, and grew up into sharp javelins.’ Then, indeed, with mind borne down with perplexing dread, I was appalled, my hair stood up, and the voice choked in my throat.”
Ovid also has a similar story in his Metamorphoses (II:358-366) that tells the tale of how the Heliades were changed into trees as they mourned for their dead brother Phaeton. “That is not enough: she tries to tear away the bark from their bodies and breaks off slender twigs with her hands. But as she does this bloody drops trickle forth as from a wound. And each one, as she is wounded, cries out: ‘Oh, spare me, mother; spare, I beg you. ‘Tis my body that you are tearing in the tree. And now farewell’ – the bark closed over her latest words.”
|↑7||The image here centers on burning wood or branches that are still green and have sap in them. These don’t make a good fire by themselves, but when thrown on an already burning fire, steam and sap will hiss out of the ends that aren’t burning. One can imagine Dante’s horror at realizing that he’s holding a “talking stick,” flinging it away as though it were a snake! Note also the very subtle contrast between the green log and dark, gnarly wood that surrounds the two travelers.|
|↑8||Virgil’s intervention here is both gracious and repentant. But, as he explains, “the truth here is…unbelievable” – a reminder of what we already know, and a demonstration is necessary. Virgil’s gracious manner of speaking – even though he does not know who this soul is – will be reciprocated by the soul, and the story about to unfold will make this one of the more poignant cantos in the Inferno. Dante’s telling it here does what Virgil promises to the soul: it restores his fame. The dead live on in our memory, and when we forget them, perhaps they truly die. Interestingly, every time Dante’s poem is read, the souls he tells us about – even those damned for all eternity – live on for a while longer.|
|↑9||The speaker/tree is Pier delle Vigne, though he never identifies himself (perhaps, as we shall see, because he took his own life). The “keys” he held as Chancellor to the Emperor symbolize the power he held both to grant or deny people access to him, and to open or close the doors of his heart. In this, it may be that Dante had in mind the keys Jesus gave to St. Peter (and, by association, the papacy; see Matthew 16:19), granting him the same power of access and denial to the Kingdom of Heaven. Having come from a humble background (vine-dressers, as his name implies), he studied law at Bologna, was brought to the attention of the Emperor and rose rapidly in his court. At the same time, he was also a noted poet of the Sicilian School and was famous for the ornate eloquence of his verse (which Dante imitates in several verses of this canto). Among other things, he rearranged all the laws of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and negotiated Frederick’s marriage to Isabella, the sister of Henry III of England.|
|↑10||Some additional context to Pier’s tragic story is helpful here. It should be noted that, as Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II ruled a vast kingdom which included all of Sicily, all of Italy except the Papal States, Germany, and the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Among other things (many of them bad; recall that Farinata in Canto 10 listed him among the Epicureans buried with him among the fiery tombs), he was brilliant, ambitious, adventurous, a poet, and a linguist. In his time, he was known as stupor mundi, “the astonishment of the world.” Throughout his reign, he was at war with the papacy, having been excommunicated four times! Pope Gregory IX called him the “predecessor of the Antichrist.”
There are many accounts of Pier delle Vigne’s tragic end – from intimate confidante to seeming treacherous villain – some of them, perhaps, unreliable. They all contain elements of intrigue, rumor, and violence. It seems that he and Taddeo di Sessa (Frederick’s Chief Justice) were sent by the Emperor to the First Council of Lyon (1245) where Pope Innocent IV had issued a decree both excommunicating and deposing him. Taddeo apparently offered a strenuous defense of the Emperor, but Pier was silent. This silence was rumored by some to be the result of the pope’s having bribed him, not only to be silent but, after many clandestine meetings, to secretly side against the Emperor and even to seek his life. One account has it that later, when the Emperor was ill, it was Pier’s personal physician who brought (poisoned) medication which the suspicious Frederick refused to take. Ultimately, it is not altogether clear why the Emperor had Pier arrested, though it is clear that Dante and others of his contemporaries felt certain that he was brought down, as Pier himself tells us, by the jealous envy of others. In the end, Frederick had him arrested, imprisoned, and blinded by holding his face over molten iron. Again, it is difficult to know whether he died because of his tortures or took his own life. It is said that on his way to prison, he rushed headlong into the wall of a church and dashed his brains out. Another account has him doing the same, but in his prison cell. And another has him throwing himself from the top of a tower.
In the end, it is fascinating to consider how Dante accedes to Virgil’s assurance to Pier that the poet will “rehabilitate” his memory by fashioning his own story of the man’s end. In spite of the fact that Frederick had him tortured and imprisoned, at least twice here Pier swears that he was faithful to Frederick, while accepting the consequence of his own final sin. Some have suggested that suicide is a particularly “Christian” sin and that Dante would have been aware of the many “noble” suicides in classical literature. After all, his own guardian of Purgatory, Cato, took his own life. But while he may have placed Pier in Hell as a suicide, he subtly softens the blow by having us consider the extent to which the sins of others (jealousy, envy, intrigue, treachery) might have driven an otherwise noble man to such a terrible end. After all, Dante himself, was falsely accused and driven into exile for the rest of his life. And if he believed that Pier was, in fact, a traitor, Dante would have placed him at the bottom of Hell where that sin is punished.
|↑11||One is reminded here of how Virgil prompted Dante to speak to Francesca in Canto 5 and to Farinata in Canto 10. As in those earlier cantos, Virgil here opens the door to much more information with two more questions that will help Dante and the reader understand the nature of this place.|
|↑12||While, on the one hand, Dante’s emotions again get the better of him, this is, perhaps, further validation that he, like so many others during his time, believed that Pier was innocent.|
|↑13||The randomness of their being flung anywhere in the forest matches the ultimate lack of care they give to their bodies – temples of their immortal souls. Having rudely uprooted their souls from their bodies, they are just as rudely thrown about the forest to be re-rooted haphazardly. In other places in Hell there is a certain order to the layout or to the punishments. But here in this forest, there is no order, no path – reminiscent of the dark forest where Dante found himself in Canto 1. When he referred there to the “middle“ of his life he implied that there is a certain length of time each of us are allotted. Suicides, on the other hand, cut themselves off from life before their allotted time is up.|
|↑14||Not only is this an additional part of the contrapasso for the suicides, it may be the worst part because the ravenous Harpies constantly injure them as they feed on the leaves that grow from their gnarled branches. The constant injury, of course, reminds the suicides of the final “injury” they did to their bodies – and perhaps the injury they did to those they left behind.|
|↑15||In Canto 11, Virgil referred to suicide as a kind of “self-robbery,” an interesting phrase. Generally, as it makes no sense that a thief should lay claim to something he stole, so in this case the suicides cannot re-claim what they threw away. But there is some fascinating commentary history behind these lines. Did Dante actually believe what he wrote? If so, he would be guilty of heresy. But, of course, he was faithful Catholic and knew well the doctrines of the Church. Why would he say this except, perhaps, to put these words in Pier’s mouth who (wrongly) believed this to be the case, and thus reinforce the spiritual tragedy of suicide as an attempt to separate what, ultimately, will not be separated. In this place Dante strongly reinforces the doctrine of the resurrection of the body and its eternal reunion with the soul it left temporarily in death.|
|↑16||After a rather startling opening when Dante breaks the branch of Pier delle Vigne’s tree, this canto took on a somber tone as the two travelers conversed with Pier delle Vigne about his life and death. The wild chase that literally crashes onto the stage literally breaks the forest wide open now and serves to move Dante and Virgil’s attention away from Pier delle Vigne to something quite different. Perhaps as a reminder of the physical and spiritual tragedy of suicide, the courtly sobriety of the canto now gives way to a quick scene that is horrifying in its graphic detail.|
|↑17||These two souls are Arcolano da Squarcia di Riccolfo Maconi , also known as Lano da Siena. The other is Giacomo da Sant’ Andrea, a nobleman from Padua. Both men were notorious profligates who celebrated the speed with which they could spend their considerable wealth down to nothing. Lano was a member of the Spendthrifts Club in Siena and, finally reduced to poverty, he joined the Siennese army and killed himself by rushing headlong into the enemy lines in a battle against the army of Arezzo near a river-crossing called Toppo. Little is known of Giacomo, except that he is identified by the soul of the bush he destroys in his attempt to escape the ravenous dogs. He was noted for wild displays of recklessness like burning down one of his villas because he wanted to see a big fire! He was apparently murdered by Ezzelino da Romano, whom we met in the previous canto, immersed up to his eyebrows in the river of boiling blood. Ironically, Giacomo’s scream for death to take him is useless – Hell’s death is already eternal.
Profligacy, exemplified by these two sinners, is a kind of suicide of one’s substance in contrast to the suicide of one’s flesh – a kind of self-destruction represented by extravagant spending and dissipation until virtually nothing is left. Having brought about their own ruin, Dante places these sinners with the “traditional” suicides. One might ask why these two sinners are placed here instead of above with the misers and spenders who shove great boulders against each other eternally. While theirs is really a sin of the appetite – allowing their hoarding and spending to enslave their reason, the sin of the two profligates here is a wild and violent kind of spending, and thus placed in the circle of the violent.
|↑18||Having gone through their substance and run up immense bills, they are chased by their creditors – the wild dogs – who take everything that is left.|
|↑19||Like Pier delle Vigne, this suicide’s story is filled with gentleness and pathos. The profligacy of Lano and Giacomo recklessly injured and caused pain to others, not to mention their own goods. Sadly, they continue that by running recklessly through the forest tearing and maiming the souls/trees in their path. The trampled speaker here is unnamed by Dante, though some early commentators offered possible identities – an unjust judge, a wealthy man rendered pennyless, etc. However, one should note the connection between the suicides and the status of Florence as seen in this suicide’s prophecy that “she will suffer endless trouble.” In other words, Florence was killing itself by its constant internecine strife. Having long before Dante’s time exchanged its pagan patron, Mars, for St. John the Baptist, it seems that the city reverted to the craft of its first patron: war. The references here are to the fact that at its ancient founding, Florence was dedicated to Mars, and a great statue of him was erected along with his temple. When the city became Christian, the temple was turned into a church and the statue put away in a tower because an ancient legend foretold the doom of Florence were the statue to be destroyed. Here Dante also makes a historical error that was common in his time – writing that the city was ravaged by Attila the Hun when, in fact, it was Totila in the year 542. At that time, the statue ended up in the river, but parts of it were later recovered and placed on the Ponte Vecchio where, in Dante’s time, remnants of it were still displayed. The speaker here refers to another part of the legend of the statue – namely, that even a remnant of the statue was enough for the city to be rebuilt. The Ponte Vecchio still crosses the Arno to this day – fancied by throngs of tourists.|