Virgil and Dante arrive at the region of Hell called Malebolge. Proceeding ever downward, they observe the punishments of sinners who were pimps, panders, and flatterers.
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Far down in Hell, there’s a place called Malebolge. It’s cut out of the stone and it’s iron gray color matches the cliffs that surround it. This is Hell’s eighth circle. I’ll give you a general description of it first, and fill in the details as Virgil and I moved through it.Dante seems to have invented the Italian word malebolge, which is plural, and means “evil ditches” or pouches, a bolgia being a ditch. The Eighth Circle of Hell is subdivided into ten of these … Continue reading
Geryon had let us off near the cliffs walling in this enormous, circular expanse. In the center of this place was an immense well, wide and deep. Between this well and the cliffs is a broad circular belt of land, divided into ten descending levels like terraces. From above it would look like the plan for ten moats surrounding a castle. Each of these ten levels was connected and crossed by a series of down-sloping bridges so that it looked like a great wheel or a series of wheels connected by spokes. The hub of this great wheel-like structure was the deep central well. So, this is where we were when Geryon left us.As Dante described it moments ago, this entire section of Hell is carved out of iron gray stone which, in the dusky gloom, increases the sense of despair and hopelessness that characterize the … Continue reading
We started walking to our left, Virgil first and me following him. On the right, I now saw new sinners, new suffering, new tortures, and new torturers – all crammed into this first level.They are walking along outer edge of the first ditch, with the other nine gradually below them on their left and the sinners to their right. Note that they have resumed their usual walking direction. Two long lines of naked sinners walked along the bottom, one line facing us and the other moving in the same direction as we did – all moving very quickly. I was reminded of the Jubilee year down in Rome, where they had devised ways to handle the huge throngs of pilgrims that had to come and go across the Tiber. On one side were those heading toward St. Peter’s, and on the other where those coming back.The significance of the two lines of sinners walking in opposite directions, and their nakedness, will soon be explained by Dante. But, as he has done so many times – and will continue to do – he … Continue reading
But…down here, all along both sides of this bolgia I saw horned devils with long whips beating those poor sinners with great delight. How they made them jump at the crack of those whips! None of them stopped to get more lashes!This is the first time we see actual devils in Dante’s Hell. These seem to pursue their tasks with gusto as they beat the naked sinners in both lines – “to keep the traffic moving.” We soon … Continue reading
As we continued walking there, I made eye-contact with one of the sinners and said to myself: “I know him! Somewhere I’m sure I’ve seen him before.” So, I stopped to get a better look at him, and Virgil also stopped. He actually let me go back a ways. Well, that beaten sinner thought he could hide from me by looking down so I wouldn’t recognize him. But I did, and I shouted at him: “Hey you, there! You with your head bent down. If I’m not mistaken, you’re Venedico Caccianemico. I’m positive it’s you. How on earth did you get yourself into such a pickle down here?”Dante has seen and identified several notable characters in his travels so far. But Venedico Caccianemico is someone Dante knew and now recognizes, even though he tries hide his identity – the … Continue reading
Shamed, he replied: “I really don’t want to tell you, but I feel I have to because your plain talk is honest and it reminds me of the old times above. It was I who sold off my own sister, Ghisolabella, to pleasure that perverted Marquis – no matter how the sleazy story goes. But I’m not the only one from Bologna suffering down here. In fact, this place is stuffed with us! There are more of us here than there are people who say ‘Sipa’ up in our region! If you want proof, let your memory recall what greedy hearts we have.”Note how Dante’s plain, honest way of speaking leads Venedico to relate the terrible sin for which he is now punished. Another way, perhaps, of suggesting that honesty uncovers/ overcomes … Continue reading
No sooner had he spoken than a great devil lashed him a good one with his great whip, shouting: “Get going, you filthy pimp! There’s no women to cash in on down here!”
With that, I ran back to where Virgil was. We hadn’t walked too much farther when we reached one of the bridges jutting out of the bank of that level.To get our bearings: until this point, Dante and Virgil have been walking with the sheer stone walls of the Great Abyss to their left. They’ve been looking down to their right into the first bolgia … Continue reading We easily climbed up out of there and turned right along that rocky place, leaving those sinners to circle that place forever. When we got to the point where we could look back down into that wide ditch, my guide said: “Let’s stop here for a moment so you can see more of those shameless spirits down there whose faces you couldn’t see because they were moving in the same direction as we were.” And from the top of that ancient bridge we got a good look at them as they skipped and jumped along from the cracks of those devils’ whips.Now at the top of the first bridge, Virgil has Dante stop and look back down into the ditch to their right so they can see the seducers they couldn’t see when they were walking alongside the ditch. … Continue reading
“Look at that striking fellow down there coming toward us,” Virgil said quietly. “He isn’t shedding a single tear. How regal he still looks. That’s Jason, by whose wily and clever ways the Colchians lost their golden fleece. On his way there, he stopped at the island of Lemnos, where the brave and cold-blooded women had killed every man on the place! With his good looks and slick words he seduced Hypsipyle (who, by the way, had spared her father) and then abandoned her, alone and pregnant. That kind of sin merits the punishment you see here. Later, Medea, Jason’s wife (also jilted by him), got her revenge on him by killing their children! Along with him all deceivers like himself are punished – and that’s all you need to know about the sinners here on this first level.”In this scene, Virgil tells Dante the story of Jason with a very definite slant against this hero-cum-womanizer. Jason appears in the classical mythology of both Greece and Rome and is the hero of … Continue reading
Already we were crossing to the second level where the bridge connected it from the first one. Now we heard the sounds of muttering, snorting, grunting, blows, and slapping hands coming from the sinners in the second bolgia. A vaporous stench rose up from there which coated the place with a thick slimy mold. It was awful to see and even worse to smell! But the bottom of this place was so far down we could only see it well when we got to the middle of the bridge crossing it.Dante, far from rushing to tell us who and what we’ll see in the second bolgia, anticipates this with a series of sensory suggestions: a strange variety of bodily sounds, walls covered with a slimy … Continue reading
You won’t believe it… From up there I saw souls plunged into sewage and excrement like what we flush from our latrines! Of course, I was looking to see if there was someone I knew down there, when my eyes landed on a man whose head was so smeared with shit you couldn’t tell whether he was a priest or a layman! When he caught me in the act of staring at him he shouted up at me: “Why are you feasting your eyes on me more than the other filthy creatures down here?”
I shouted back at him: “Because I remember seeing you once or twice – and your hair was dry! You’re Alessio Interminei from Lucca, and that’s why I feast my eyes on you!”
With that, he slapped his besmirched forehead and called back: “Well, I’m stuck in all this shit down here because of my continual flatteries when I was alive.”If Dante was surprised to encounter Venedico Caccianemico in the previous ditch, the surprise here probably has more to do with the clever contrapasso than with the sinner himself, though he, too, … Continue reading
When he had finished, Virgil said: “Lean out a little more and get a good look at that piggish slut down there scratching herself with her shitty nails. Look how she spreads her legs and squats up and down like she’s shitting. That’s the whore Thaïs. When her lover asked her: ‘Was I worth it?’ she replied: ‘Worth it? Incredibly worth it!’ And now I think we’ve had enough of this shit!”Knowing his companion’s (useful) curiosity and having heard the sass that prompted Alessio’s “confession,” Virgil urges Dante to lean way out over the bridge to get a look at a scene that is … Continue reading
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Notes & Commentary
|↑1||Dante seems to have invented the Italian word malebolge, which is plural, and means “evil ditches” or pouches, a bolgia being a ditch. The Eighth Circle of Hell is subdivided into ten of these ditches, all filled with sinners being punished for various forms of fraud.|
|↑2||As Dante described it moments ago, this entire section of Hell is carved out of iron gray stone which, in the dusky gloom, increases the sense of despair and hopelessness that characterize the Inferno. These ten ditches, as we will see, cannot be escaped from, so the iron gray stone image gives one the sense of an immense subterranean prison where the sins of fraud are punished. Keep the word “enormous” in mind as he provides us with a precise description of the place which, from the way he explains it, seems more like an aerial view (from Geryon’s back?) than an on-the-ground report. Dante would have been used to seeing castles and other fortresses surrounded by a moat, but ten of them here certainly plays into the theme of fraud. Note also that Dante tells precisely how many ditches there were (ten), but not how many (series) of bridges. The deep central well (from which rises the horrible stench in Canto 11), reaches to the very bottom of Hell. Over the centuries, not a few commentators and men of science have proposed the exact dimensions of Hell, and this particular part of it. Dante never really goes this far, but the attempts to calculate the proportions of his Inferno, nevertheless, do give one a sense of its immense size – and with that Dante would agree.|
|↑3||They are walking along outer edge of the first ditch, with the other nine gradually below them on their left and the sinners to their right. Note that they have resumed their usual walking direction.|
|↑4||The significance of the two lines of sinners walking in opposite directions, and their nakedness, will soon be explained by Dante. But, as he has done so many times – and will continue to do – he is reminded of some other experience he has had by what he sees now in front of him.
In the year 1300, the same year that he sets his poem, Dante’s nemesis, Pope Boniface VIII, initiated the Jubilee Year in Rome. The idea of the jubilee is first noted in the Book of Leviticus in the Old Testament (see 25:8-13) where every 50th year was designated as a Jubilee Year. During this year, debts were forgiven, slaves were freed, the land would lie fallow, families who were dispersed would come together, and the whole of Israel invoked and celebrated the mercy of God.
Pope Boniface decreed that everyone who came to Rome for a certain number of days, visited the main churches and basilicas, venerated the relics of the apostles and saints, and confessed and repented of their sins would be given a complete pardon and forgiveness, and many other blessings besides. Dante himself was in Rome during the following year (1301) as part of an embassy from the government of Florence to the Pope, but he was most likely a visitor or pilgrim during the Jubilee to give such a precise description of Roman traffic control here (is there such a thing?). The idea of this Jubilee was extraordinarily popular with Christians throughout Europe. Contemporaries of Dante and other historians note that the Eternal City was thronged with hundreds of thousands of pilgrims during that year. The tradition of the Jubilee Year continues to this day every 25 years.
What connects Dante’s memory with the two lines of naked sinners is that in order to control the crowds going to and from St. Peter’s Basilica (keep in mind, this is the “original” St. Peter’s, not the present one), all those going to the Basilica crossed over the Tiber in front of the Castel Sant’Angelo (the only bridge to that part of Rome in Dante’s time) and proceeded toward the Basilica that way. Those returning from St. Peter’s were directed to the right along the hillside across the Tiber (probably the area of Monte Goirdano) and passed back toward the bridge by going that way. On this bridge itself the Romans had constructed a barrier down the middle to keep the two groups separated. Those going to St. Peter’s passed on the right, and those coming back passed on the left. Keep in mind, also, that construction of the present wide boulevard known as the Via della Conciliazione, which now leads directly from the river to the great piazza in front of the present Basilica was only begun in 1936 by Mussolini and sadly involved the destruction of dozens of structures dating back to the Middle Ages.
|↑5||This is the first time we see actual devils in Dante’s Hell. These seem to pursue their tasks with gusto as they beat the naked sinners in both lines – “to keep the traffic moving.” We soon learn that this ditch contains pimps (walking toward Dante) and seducers (walking in the same direction as Dante). Remember the bridge over the Tiber. Their sins, basically sexual, are different in character from the lovers/adulterers in Canto 5. Here, the pimps and seducers committed fraud by using the passions of their victims to serve their own purposes. Nevertheless, note how the sexual sinners in Cantos 5, 14, 15, and this one are continually on the move. The devils beating them with whips may be Dante’s clever use of Leviticus 19:20, where some of the older translations state that if a man has sex with a female slave of marriageable age but who has not been freed, they shall both be scourged but not put to death. These sinners’ marching past each other in opposite directions also suggests the movements of street-walkers and others who “cruise” by to inspect their prey. That they are naked, of course, is another strong suggestion of sexuality and the sins they would have been ready to commit.|
|↑6||Dante has seen and identified several notable characters in his travels so far. But Venedico Caccianemico is someone Dante knew and now recognizes, even though he tries hide his identity – the first sinner to do this and something sinners will do more often from now on. This hiding of identity is definitely an aspect of fraud. Venedico was a contemporary of Dante and a notable figure as the head of the Guelf party in Bologna. He also governed several other Italian cities, among them Milan and Pistoia. He was also accused of murder and harboring criminals. And we will learn something even more terrible as Dante continues. The Poet is obviously surprised to find him in this place and cleverly questions him using Italian slang. When Dante writes, “Ma che ti mena a sì pungenti salse?” he’s literally asking how Venedico came to find himself in such “pungent sauce.” In other words, how did you get yourself into such trouble as this – thus, the “pickle.” What’s clever is that the Salse is not a reference to “sauce” but to a large garbage dump – a ravine, a bolgia – outside Bologna. Benvenuto da Imola, an early commentator who knew Bologna well tells us that the Salse was a place where, after execution, the bodies of “desperate criminals, usurers, and other unspeakable persons used to be thrown.” W.W. Vernon adds that it was a place “where criminals were punished in various ways; where pimps and such like were flogged; where, perhaps, robbers were buried alive head-downwards, and the bodies of excommunicated persons were left unburied.”|
|↑7||Note how Dante’s plain, honest way of speaking leads Venedico to relate the terrible sin for which he is now punished. Another way, perhaps, of suggesting that honesty uncovers/ overcomes fraud. In order to curry favor with the Marquis of Este, whom the centaur Nessus pointed out in Canto 12 as one of the tyrants standing quite deeply in the river of boiling blood, Venedico pimped his beautiful sister Ghisola. Apparently, there were many versions of this story, including one which states that this episode is not true. In the end, not only is Venedico forthcoming about his sin, but after he “confesses” to Dante he doesn’t hesitate to implicate a huge number of his Bolognese countrymen in the same sin as his own. This bolgia is “stuffed” with them, he says. And when he amplifies this by telling Dante there are more sinners like him than those who say “Sipa,” he’s referring to the Bolognese dialect where the word sipa means “yes,” as in si. What’s interesting, though, is that Venedico ends with an appeal to Dante’s memory – his memory of the Bolognese as a greedy people. He’s just accused a large portion of the population of being pimps and panders, and now he’s referring to them as greedy and avaricious. Of course, Dante studied in Bologna, so he probably has a fairly good idea of what Venedico is talking about. But one also begins to wonder about Venedico’s objectivity. Dante’s plain speech may have gained this sinner’s trust. But he’s a fraud, and soon enough he’s implicating hundreds, not only in his own sin, but in one he’s not here for. Would Dante have done better in not reporting these exaggerations, or did he risk the anger of the Bolognese by reporting what one of their citizens told him – whether or not it was true? Interesting questions….|
|↑8||To get our bearings: until this point, Dante and Virgil have been walking with the sheer stone walls of the Great Abyss to their left. They’ve been looking down to their right into the first bolgia at two lines of sinners, the panders coming toward them (their faces exposed), and the seducers moving in the same direction as they are (their faces hidden). Now they come to the first bridge – on their right – which crosses this ditch.|
|↑9||Now at the top of the first bridge, Virgil has Dante stop and look back down into the ditch to their right so they can see the seducers they couldn’t see when they were walking alongside the ditch. Imagine standing at the middle of a freeway overpass looking down at traffic.|
|↑10||In this scene, Virgil tells Dante the story of Jason with a very definite slant against this hero-cum-womanizer. Jason appears in the classical mythology of both Greece and Rome and is the hero of the quest for the golden fleece of Colchis. Deprived of the throne of Iolcus by a usurper, Jason was challenged by him to bring back the golden fleece of Colchis, and only then could he take up his rightful place as king. Through many adventures with his band of “Argonauts,” he succeeded in capturing the precious prize, but not the throne. The long and convoluted story ends with Jason in grief and reduced to nothing. Virgil highlights a few of the story’s major points. The sub-story at Lemnos has it that the women of the island had abandoned the worship of Venus. Insulted by this, the goddess took her revenge on the women by causing them to stink so badly that their revolted husbands abandoned them in disgust. In revenge for this, the women rose up and slew every last man on the island! The princess Hypsipyle, however, lied. She spared her father the king but told everyone else that she had killed him. Some time later, Lemnos was the first stop for the Argonauts on their way to Colchis. As Virgil tells Dante, Jason seduced Hypsipyle and then abandoned her while she was pregnant and continued on his quest for the golden fleece.
The second sub-story involves Medea. When the Argonauts arrived at Colchis, Jason fell in love with Medea, the daughter of King Aeëtes. Not only was she a princess, she was also a sorceress, and if he promised to marry her she promised to help him with her magic arts to steal the golden fleece. Jason succeeded, as we know, but he also repeated what he did to Hypsipyle. He took her with him when he left Colchis, but when he arrived at Corinth, he abandoned her and his two children for Creusa, the daughter of King Creon. In revenge, Medea poisoned Creusa and then murdered her two sons, a final act so savage that Jason seems never to have recovered from it and died in grief. And with this, Virgil abruptly brings their visit to the first bolgia to a close.
|↑11||Dante, far from rushing to tell us who and what we’ll see in the second bolgia, anticipates this with a series of sensory suggestions: a strange variety of bodily sounds, walls covered with a slimy mold, all reeking of something terribly foul. And so deep, the bottom can only be seen from the middle of the second bridge. And that we don’t mistake his purpose here, Dante’s elegant Italian becomes progressively more coarse until the obscenely vulgar end of this canto.|
|↑12||If Dante was surprised to encounter Venedico Caccianemico in the previous ditch, the surprise here probably has more to do with the clever contrapasso than with the sinner himself, though he, too, deserves mention. As above, Dante the poet anticipates the Pilgrim’s encounter with the sinner by giving us a description of this bolgia that’s beyond belief. Not so much because it looks like a sink-hole in which we might get a rare view of a broken major sewer line spewing out its contents, but because there are people in it besmirched from head to toe! And, as with most sinners in Hell, we can presume they’re naked here as well.
Dante is so casual with his curiosity here it’s almost laughable, except who among us might not be the same in this circumstance? He wants us to understand that he’s always curious and, as we know, only a few times has he been unrewarded. Whether or not the sinner he discovers is a priest or a layman made more sense to a Medieval reader than it might to modern ones who aren’t familiar with the old rituals and practices of religious orders. In this case, as a symbol of his intention to move toward ordination, a circle of hair would be shaved off the top of a monk’s or candidate’s head. This was called the tonsure, and it was generally kept for life. The tonsure easily distinguished men who were clerics or priests from laymen, but Dante has difficulty distinguishing Alessio’s status because he seems to be covered with shit from head to toe.
The quick and sassy dialogue between Dante and this flatterer is even more humorous than Dante’s being “caught” staring at him. Dante’s curiosity and the sinner’s embarrassment at being “found out” lead the man to “confess.” Alessio Interminei was from a noble family in Lucca who, like Dante, were White Guelfs and thus opposed to the interference of the papacy in civil and political affairs. He was a notorious flatterer as the early commentator, Benvenuto da Imola, writes: “This Alessio had a terrible habit: he was so given to flattery, that he was unable to say anything at all without seasoning it with the oil of adulation. He greased everyone, even the most vile and venal servants. In short, he completely dripped with flattery and stank of it.”
Needless to say, the contrapasso here is clever and spot-on! The shit sticks to the flatterers like their sticky flatteries.
|↑13||Knowing his companion’s (useful) curiosity and having heard the sass that prompted Alessio’s “confession,” Virgil urges Dante to lean way out over the bridge to get a look at a scene that is itself way out. Thaïs was the famous mistress of Alexander the Great, but this is not the courtesan Virgil is referring to. This one is the lesser-known lead character – modeled after her more famous counterpart – in a work by the Roman playwright Terence. The flattering words of Thaïs are quoted by Cicero, and it seems that this is Dante’s source here.
This is, without a doubt, the most vulgar scene in Dante’s Inferno! And it is Virgil who describes it, not Dante. The Poet’s resort to such a repulsive description – whether she was engaged in sexual intercourse, physically defecating, or both, is warranted not only by his personal disgust for the vice of flattery, but for the danger it represented to clarity and reason, not only in social conversation but in the highest matters of statecraft. It is nothing less than fraudulent discourse. In her translation of the Inferno, Dorothy Sayers remarks: “Note that Thaïs is not here because she is personally a harlot; the sin which has plunged her far below the Lustful, and even below the traffickers in flesh, is the prostitution of words – the medium of intellectual intercourse.” And Courtney Langdon, in his translation, adds: Whatever prostitution may be from other points of view, physical or ethical, Dante’s marvelous insight saw that it was spiritually poisonous, because essentially it was the most corrupting form of flattery.” And, like the previous canto, it is Virgil who brings this disgusting canto to a close.