Virgil and Dante encounter three famous Florentines among the sodomites. Later, they reach a great waterfall, where Virgil does something mysterious.
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As we moved on I could hear the distant sound of water falling down into the next circle. It sounded like the humming of beehives.This is the river of boiling blood, the Phlegethon, and our travelers are still walking along the top of its raised bank. They are nearing the innermost edge of the Third Round of Hell’s Seventh … Continue reading And as another group of burning spirits rushed past us on the fiery sand below, three of them broke away and approached us shouting all together – at me! “You there, stop! We can tell by the clothes you’re wearing that you are from our perverted city.”At this point we discover that the poets are still among the sodomites because this new group of sinners rush by them, burning and running about – the punishment prescribed for them as noted in the … Continue reading
Ohh, you should have seen the burnt wounds all over them! You could tell some were old, but others were obviously newly inflicted. I still feel sorry for them. As Virgil heard them shouting at me, he turned and said: “Let’s wait here because these are souls who are worth your deep respect. And if it wasn’t for the terrible rain of flames out there, it would be right for you to go down and meet them.”Dante’s emotion seems to get the better of him here when he stops to view these three sodomites and share their pain inwardly. Interestingly enough, Virgil seems to know something about these men … Continue reading
When they saw us stop, they slowed down, and when they reached us they joined arms and made a circle of themselves, like a wheel turning. Turning like that, they reminded me of wrestlers, all naked and oiled, watching for the right moment to lunge before the real fight began. As they kept circling like that, each one of them kept his eyes on me as they turned.Among the many strange scenes presented to us in the Inferno this is one of the more curious. As we will soon hear, these men were famous for their exploits in battle and their participation in … Continue reading One of them spoke for the rest: “If the misery we suffer on these burning sands make our charred bodies repulsive to you, at least let our fame in the world above touch your heart to tell us who you are and how you can be walking safely through this Hell – alive! This fellow here in front, even though he’s naked and all blistered, was more noble than you might imagine, looking at him now. He’s Guido Guerra, grandson of that good woman, Gualdrada. Alive, he was noted for his wisdom – and his sword. This one right behind me is Tegghiaio Aldobrandi. The world would have done well to learn from his wisdom. And as for me, I’m Jacopo Rusticucci, and, by God, it was my wife who drove me into my sin.”Now these sinners are identified and, if we remember, Dante had asked Ciacco about two of them (Tegghiaio and Jacopo) in Canto 6. Ciacco told him they were among the blacker souls below, and here we … Continue reading
I tell you, I would have gladly jumped down off the bank to join them if I could have been protected from the flames – and I think Virgil would have let me do it. But, fear got the better of me, and rightly so. I wanted to hug each of them, but I would have been badly burned down there. So, I spoke to them: “I am not at all repulsed by you. When my guide here told me that such noble souls as yourselves were approaching, I felt a deep grief for you and what you suffer here. It’ll be a long time before that grief leaves me. I, too, am from Florence, and I have always heard your honored names and your great deeds spoken of with fondness. I, too, feel that fondness. I’m leaving the bitterness of that place and my guide here is leading me to a sweeter destination. But first, my journey must take me down to the very bottom.”Dante’s answers to Jacopo’s questions, filled with his outright affection for these sodomites, is cause for wonder: except for the flames, he would hug each one of them; he is not repulsed by … Continue reading
“May your living soul guide you for years to come, and may the light of your own fame shine long after you are gone. But tell us, if you please, can courtesy and valor still be found in our city, as it used to be; or have they, too, been banished from it? We’ve heard sad reports from Guglielmo Borsiere who recently joined our company here.”Reminiscent of Brunetto Latini’s words to Dante in the previous canto, these gracious and generous words to honor Dante highlight Jacopo’s question about the virtues of courtesy and valor. Note … Continue reading
I told them, sadly: “There’s a new breed in Florence: wealthy, proud, and unrestrained, and they’ll soon make her weep.” For the moment, I, too, was unrestrained and held my head high as I spoke. The three sinners looked at one another and nodded at the truth I had spoken.This is not the last time we will hear about the sad state of Florence. And as recently as the previous canto Brunetto Latini leveled a strong apostrophe against the city, singling out the vices and … Continue reading
“If you’re always so open with your speech,” they replied, “happy are you to have such a gift! If you reach your happy destination and return to the world above, please think of us and tell others you were down here.”Perhaps in reciprocation for his high regard for them, Dante has received many compliments among the sodomites in this and the previous canto. His open and honest speech are highlighted as is the … Continue reading With that, they let go of each other and ran away as fast as they could. They vanished quicker than one might say an “Amen.”
My teacher started to move on and I followed close by. We hadn’t gone too far before the roar of water falling was now so loud we could hardly hear each other speak.At this point we return to our senses, as it were, and realize that Dante and Virgil had stopped along the bank of the channel and hadn’t moved since they were approached by the three sodomites. In … Continue reading
I was reminded of that river up on the other side of the Apennines whose source is at Monte Veso. As it flows eastward it’s called Acquacheta, and when it reaches Forlì it has a different name. It roars mightily as it plunges straight down near the monastery of San Benedetto dell’ Alpe, where a thousand could fit. And so as we climbed down a rocky cliff, the reddish waters plummeted downward alongside us with such a roar that we were nearly deafened!As noted earlier, Dante likes to give us geographical details along his journey and, like this one, there is a connection with the geography of the “real world” above. Getting closer to where the … Continue reading
We had now come to a stop and, as it happened, I was wearing a cord around my waist. I had once thought I could catch that spotty leopard with it. Virgil asked me to take it off and give it to him. So I looped it up and handed it over. But what did he do? He turned to the right and threw it as far as he could off the brink and down into the murky depths of that gorge. “Now something really strange is going to happen,” I thought to myself, “to answer such a curious signal. Look how he’s watching it closely as it falls.” A person has to be careful when his guide not only watches what he does, but can also read his mind and understand what he’s thinking!This is a mysterious passage, and we can divide it into two main pain parts, both of which have generated considerable debate and commentary over the centuries. The cord may simply have been a belt … Continue reading
And so he said to me: “Very soon what I’m expecting is going to rise up out of that abyss – and what you’re trying to figure out in your head will make itself perfectly clear.”
I’ve always felt that it were better to keep silent when what you want to say is true, but it sounds like an outright lie when you say it – and there you are, embarrassed. But, I’m not going to do that here. I swear to you, by this my Comedy – which I hope will win lasting acclaim – that I saw a thing come swimming up out of that thick darkness that would frighten even the strongest heart! It was like someone swimming frog-like up from the depths who had just freed an anchor that was stuck on something out of sight below.“Something very strange,” indeed, does happen, and, perhaps to calm Dante’s inner agitation, Virgil makes it clear that he both knows what it is – and expects it! Dante, refusing to be … Continue reading
Notes & Commentary
|↑1||This is the river of boiling blood, the Phlegethon, and our travelers are still walking along the top of its raised bank. They are nearing the innermost edge of the Third Round of Hell’s Seventh Circle.|
|↑2||At this point we discover that the poets are still among the sodomites because this new group of sinners rush by them, burning and running about – the punishment prescribed for them as noted in the two previous cantos. Like Brunetto Latini, they recognize Dante and break away from their group. And here Dante the Poet mixes subtle contrast and irony: unlike Farinata in Canto 10, who recognized Dante by his elegant language, the sodomites, who are naked, recognize him as being Florentine by his clothes. And they acknowledge their sin by their use of language: Dante is from their “perverted” city.|
|↑3||Dante’s emotion seems to get the better of him here when he stops to view these three sodomites and share their pain inwardly. Interestingly enough, Virgil seems to know something about these men before they identify themselves. While he tells Dante that these sinners warrant his respect, he also reads Dante’s rash intention to go down off the dike to meet them by reminding him of the flames. And note how cleverly Dante gives us a sense of how long these men had been in Hell – some of their terrible burns were old, but others were new.|
|↑4||Among the many strange scenes presented to us in the Inferno this is one of the more curious. As we will soon hear, these men were famous for their exploits in battle and their participation in Florentine politics not that long before Dante was born. So we have three warrior/politicians, likened to naked classical wrestlers, speaking very masculine Italian compared to Brunetto’s earlier elegance, wrapped awkwardly in each other’s arms – and doing a delicate kind of dance reminiscent of paintings one might see of the Three Graces! As in the previous canto, Dante is not overtly concerned about sodomy in this one; he simply presents the scene and lets us work out the subtleties. Furthermore, as with Brunetto in the previous canto, there seems to be no historical record that these men were sodomites, though the speaker does hint at it for himself. On the other hand, they were noted as honorable men. Thus, the twisted dance – arms one way, heads the other way, the awkward intimacy, the distorted sense of fame, shame, honor, and sin, the respect accorded those called perverts, the aimless running about in herds all seem to lead nowhere in particular. And perhaps this is exactly what Dante wants us to understand about sins against God and Nature – all this un-“natural” yoking together is ultimately as fruitless as the fiery landscape populated by these sinners. In a later canto, Vigil will sternly rebuke Dante for his tears over the sinners’ suffering, yet here, as we saw, he would have had him join them were it not for the flames. Everything is upside down.|
|↑5||Now these sinners are identified and, if we remember, Dante had asked Ciacco about two of them (Tegghiaio and Jacopo) in Canto 6. Ciacco told him they were among the blacker souls below, and here we are. So now, urging Dante to look beyond their frightful appearance, Jacopo, the speaker for the group, hopes that their fame will touch his heart so that he will, in turn, reveal to them who he is and by what privilege he is there among them – alive. As in the previous canto, one must savor the awkwardness of the scene. Earlier, the famed Brunetto Latini was stark naked and covered with terrible burns as he conversed in elegant Italian with his student. Here also, three famous Florentines, stark naked and badly burned, also talk with Dante.
The first man identified, is the noble Guido Guerra. And in order to help Dante remember him, Jacopo connects him first with his (more famous?) grandmother, Gualdrada. She was the lovely daughter of Bellincion Berti, an honorable citizen of “old” Florence whom Dante will mention in the Paradiso. A popular legend about her was that the Emperor Otto IV was taken with her beauty when he visited Florence, offered her in marriage to one of his noblemen, and endowed them with considerable riches. In reality, she was, by that time, already married to another nobleman named Guido Guerra. The Guido here in this canto would have been her grandson. Born around 1220, he died in 1272 when Dante was 7 years old. Guido was a well-known Guelf who earned his “last name” as a great soldier – guerra means “war” in Italian.
We do not know the date of Tegghiaio Aldobrandi’s birth, but he died around 1266. Like Guido, he was a notable leader of the Guelfs – both were known for their wise strategic advice. As Jacopo notes, that advice – if listened to – would have saved the Florentine army from a disastrous defeat against Siena.
There are no specific dates for Jacopo Rusticucci’s birth or death. But he was a knight in the Florentine army and most likely a well-heeled merchant.
As noted earlier, Dante is the only one to suggest that the characters in Cantos 15 and 16 were sodomites, and there are no historical sources to verify his claim. It may be that, while they were already notable Florentines in Dante’s time, their fame gave them life only in the history books, but not eternally – a moral Dante will bring home again and again in his Poem. Nevertheless, a few early commentators shed a bit of light on Jacopo’s admission that it was his wife who drove him to sodomy. One notes that she was unruly (some translators call her fierce) and was sent back to her family. Perhaps he was impotent in his sexual relations with her. Perhaps he was already gay. We simply don’t know for sure. Benvenuto da Imola, in his early commentary, puts the whole matter rather bluntly: “Indeed his wife was ferocious, and it was impossible to live with her. Thus he gave himself over to this vice.”
|↑6||Dante’s answers to Jacopo’s questions, filled with his outright affection for these sodomites, is cause for wonder: except for the flames, he would hug each one of them; he is not repulsed by them; he calls them noble; he feels deep and long-lasting grief for them; and he feels fondness for them. Perhaps it is simply the fact that they’re all “home-boys,” and happy to meet someone from their home town. This will happen a few more times in the course of the Poem. And in this context, one can imagine that Dante’s bitterness over Florence and how it treated him is probably amplified by his sorrow at meeting three of its more notable citizens here in Hell. Put differently, Florence treated him in a hellish manner while three of its noble citizens, now in Hell, treat him with the honor and respect he deserved.|
|↑7||Reminiscent of Brunetto Latini’s words to Dante in the previous canto, these gracious and generous words to honor Dante highlight Jacopo’s question about the virtues of courtesy and valor. Note that he also wonders (cleverly) whether, like Dante, the virtues of courtesy and valor have been banished from Florence. And to validate his surmise he introduces the testimony of another notable Florentine , now added to Dante’s unverified list of sodomites. Little is known about Guglielmo Borsiere (whose last name means “pursemaker”), though he probably died around the year 1300 for him to be mentioned here. Nevertheless, Boccaccio praises him highly with words that would fit well in this conversation:
“He was a knight who frequented the courts, a very well-bred man of the most laudable manners. It was his endeavor, and that of others like him, to make peace among aristocrats and gentlemen, to negotiate marriages and family relationships, and occasionally, with delightful and moral tales, to refresh the spirits of the troubled, and to spur them on to honorable deeds. Modern men no longer do these things; in fact, the more wicked and unpleasant men are, and the uglier their words and deeds, the more are they liked and the better are they rewarded.” (Decameron I:8) Boccaccio’s last sentence here could be part of Dante’s answer to Jacopo.
|↑8||This is not the last time we will hear about the sad state of Florence. And as recently as the previous canto Brunetto Latini leveled a strong apostrophe against the city, singling out the vices and treachery of the “new breed” – more than likely immigrants from the surrounding regions who bring their problems with them and disrupt the civility of an earlier generation. Dante would be fascinated at how this is still a position held by many in our own time. His own apostrophe here, though short, cuts deep and amazes his hearers such that they nod in agreement. Unrestrained wealth and pride, among other civic vices, have, over time, perverted Florence and increased the population of Hell. One is left to wonder whether this kind of perversion is more subtle and more deadly – like a deep-seated cancer – than mere sodomy. And once again, the question in these cantos is whether we should take the sin of sodomy at face value, or whether it points symbolically to far greater perversions – the unvalidated sodomites are bearers of this deeper message, but not necessarily guilty of this sin.|
|↑9||Perhaps in reciprocation for his high regard for them, Dante has received many compliments among the sodomites in this and the previous canto. His open and honest speech are highlighted as is the fame these will bring to him in the future. Brunetto Latini saw that same bright destiny and called him the plant that “bears within it the holy seed of ancient Rome.” Yet, as a subtle prophecy, Dante will pay a heavy price for these qualities. At the same time, Dante the Poet is not averse, on occasion, to praise his own abilities, and this may be one of those places. Earlier, we heard Jacopo tell him: “may the light of your own fame shine long after you are gone.” Some seven hundred years later, Dante’s fame still shines brightly, something we readers are partly responsible for. Like Brunetto, Jacopo’s last words are also about fame – and memory: “think of us and tell others you were down here.” Only toward the end of the Inferno do the souls Dante encounters not want to be remembered. Otherwise, it’s the memory of them, the fame, that keeps them alive – at least as long as time will last. And once in a while, Dante will even entice sinners to identify themselves by telling them he’ll recall them when he’s back among the living. Sadly for these and all the sinners in Hell, memory is so fleeting, so thin a thing to hang a lifetime on when compared with Dante’s “happy destination.”|
|↑10||At this point we return to our senses, as it were, and realize that Dante and Virgil had stopped along the bank of the channel and hadn’t moved since they were approached by the three sodomites. In the previous canto, Dante wanted to stop and talk with his teacher, but Latini told him that his punishment would be increased if he stopped. So they continued moving – Dante atop the river bank and Brunetto below on the burning sand. Here, interestingly enough, note that both groups do stop to talk, but cleverly the three sodomites keep turning in their circle the whole time, So that, while they did stop, they also kept moving.
What does keep moving, however, is the River Phlegathon, and if the two travelers at the beginning of this canto heard the sound of a waterfall in the distance like a swarm of bees, they are now so much closer to it that they are nearly deafened by the sound. And this gives Dante the geographer the chance to make a rather long digression about another waterfall which transitions us to the next major stage of the Poem.
|↑11||As noted earlier, Dante likes to give us geographical details along his journey and, like this one, there is a connection with the geography of the “real world” above. Getting closer to where the Phlegethon plunges into the great central Abyss of Hell (moving from the Seventh to the Eighth Circle), Dante is reminded of another great cataract. But to make the best sense of what he’s referring to, we have to untangle several confusing parts of what he is alluding to.
To begin with, about 40 miles southwest of Turin, and not far from the French border, lies Monte Viso (Veso), the highest peak in the Cottian Alps that form the border between Italy and France. The Po River, the longest in Italy, has its headwaters at Monte Viso and flows across north central Italy until it empties into the Adriatic Sea just north of Ravenna. Several other rivers also rise in this alpine region, many of which eventually flow into the Po. However, the Acquacheta (meaning “quiet water” in Italian), which also rises in the Cottian Alps, is not a tributary of the Po. Note the contrast, by the way, between the quiet waters of the Acquacheta and the deafening roar of the Phlegethon. To make matters somewhat more confusing, the Acquacheta becomes the Montone at Forlì, not far from Ravenna, and thereafter also empties into the Adriatic. In the mountainous region between Florence and Forlì is a large monastery of the Benedictine monks known as San Benedetto in Alpe. To the northwest of this monastery is a famous waterfall of the Acquacheta and this is what Dante is referring to here. Today it is a tourist attraction along the Florence-Forlì route, and it is quite probable that Dante saw it when it was falling at full force. The roaring sound would have made it impossible to talk as he suggests here in his text.
But Dante’s text is not clear here and both commentators and translators have gone in different directions trying to give the best interpretation. When discussing the word “thousand,” some suggest that Dante seems to be implying in this verse that the Phlegethon was so full or powerful at this point that it flew off the precipice in one leaping bound rather than simply spilling over in cascades, hitting the many (thousand) rocks and outcroppings along the face of the Abyss on the way down. If one steps (always gently) into Dante’s imagination after seeing the waterfall this seems to be the most logical interpretation. On the other hand, Boccaccio, one of Dante’s earliest commentators, relates that he once visited the monastery of San Benedetto and, recalling his own difficulty with Dante’s text, he spoke with the Abbot who told him that there had once been a plan among the local Counts to create a settlement for their many (thousand?) vassals near the waterfall. But the one who planned the project died, and the settlement came to nothing. Alongside the commentators, various English translators also support these two views, though there is another variant that merits mention and may offer some glimmer of clarity. Some translators take the “thousand” in another direction by suggesting that the fall of the Phlegethon is so broad or wide that a thousand other smaller falls or cascades could fit or be housed within the spread of the one Dante describes. Regardless of which particular direction we choose here, if we add to this “confusion” the fact that the river changes name – we are being prepared to enter the realm of Fraud though we are not quite done with Sins against God and Nature.
|↑12||This is a mysterious passage, and we can divide it into two main pain parts, both of which have generated considerable debate and commentary over the centuries. The cord may simply have been a belt or some other kind of cincture Dante wore to keep his cloak or gown closed and gathered securely around his waist. This article of clothing would have been quite common and, for that matter, it still is. There seems to have been nothing else remarkable about it, because even the three sodomites with whom Dante had just been talking – and who recognized him as a Florentine by his clothes – said nothing about it.
What is fascinating, though, is the amount of commentary over the centuries that suggests – all without evidence – that this “cord” was, in fact, the cord worn by the Franciscan monks. Monastic schools were very common in Dante’s time, and it’s quite probable that he attended the Franciscan school at Santa Croce in Florence. Some commentators suggest that Dante may even have joined the order for a time, but there is no evidence to support this. Others suggest that because of his esteem for the humble Saint, Dante may have been a lay tertiary (auxiliary) member of the Franciscan Order, not actually bound by their vows, but maintaining a devotional and liturgical closeness to the monks, and even wearing the cord that was part of their habit. But again, there is no evidence to support this. Finally, other commentators, even the early Boccaccio, say nothing at all about this cord.
The long cord itself, worn by the monks, is wrapped around the waist and tied along the hip so that the two ends hang down along the side of their robe. Above one end of the cord, about mid-thigh are three large knots which symbolize the three traditional vows of religious orders – poverty, chastity, and obedience. A monk binds himself with this cord as a symbol of his following these vows and following Christ by living by the principles of the Gospel.
But Dante makes the cord “complicated” when he tells us what he had had in mind as a use for it: namely, to catch the leopard. This, of course, takes us back to Canto 1 when he emerged from the dark forest, saw the sunlit mountain, began to climb, and was immediately confronted by a spotted leopard, which then became the major symbol for Fraud in the Poem.
The second part of this (mysterious) passage has to do with Virgil’s handling of Dante’s cord and the Poet’s unspoken thoughts which anticipate something very strange about to take place. The two travelers had reached the end of the road, as it were. The dike they were walking on, which both channeled the Phlegethon across the fiery plain and protected Dante and Virgil from the rain of flames, had now served its purpose, and they most likely got down from it close to where boiling river of blood poured over the edge of a great cliff and down into the dark central abyss of Hell. Since there was no path down into this abyss, they needed some way to get from the Seventh Circle to the Eighth. Once again, as we have seen several times already, the travelers needed some sort of transport, and Virgil now needs to signal for some assistance. Dante, however, has already told us that the roar of the waterfall was deafening, so it would have done Virgil no good to holler. The closest object at hand was Dante’s cord. When Dante gave it to him, Virgil, without saying a word he surprises both Dante and the reader by hurling it off into the Abyss.
|↑13||“Something very strange,” indeed, does happen, and, perhaps to calm Dante’s inner agitation, Virgil makes it clear that he both knows what it is – and expects it! Dante, refusing to be conflicted by whether he should or should not reveal his own thoughts, tells the reader directly, and for the first time naming his poem a Commedia – swearing by its future fame itself – what he saw. A thing so frightening came swimming up out of the depths of that Abyss that even the strongest heart would quake. And with this the canto ends.
But let us step back for just a moment and see the irony in this last scene. Dante began by telling us that he had hoped to catch the leopard of fraud with the cord he wore around his waist. Sixteen cantos ago that plan quickly went awry when the lion and the wolf followed that leopard in chasing Dante back into the darkness of the forest. Only now does that very early plan come to fruition, though he seems unaware of how successful it has been. That cord might be seen as a symbol of security, holding him together, as it were, from being undone and exposed (to fraud). Virgil made him take it off. But with that very symbol of security, Fraud itself has been defrauded, and in an unusual way, Dante has been prepared to face not only the monster of Fraud itself, but all his legion of sinners who populate the Abyss below.