With difficulty Virgil and Dante climb up out of the bolgia of the hypocrites. Soon they come to the next bridge and a frightening sight awaits them.
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Late in the Winter season, when the sun enters Aquarius and the nights get shorter; when morning frost still looks like snow, deceiving the poor peasant into thinking there’s no grass for his sheep and he complains bitterly; then he goes out again and sees that the frost is gone and brings his sheep out to graze – I was like that shepherd. It hurt me to see Virgil so troubled as we left that bolgia, but I was soon healed of that wound. When we got to the shattered remains of the nearest bridge, he turned and looked at me with that same affectionate face as when I first encountered him at the foot of the mountain. After carefully examining the stones and deciding how to proceed, he opened his arms and picked me up. He had it all worked out as we ascended – always looking ahead for the next rock to stand on. “OK, grab onto that rock there, but test it to see if it’ll hold your weight,” he’d say.After the madness and deception of Cantos 21 and 22, and the wild escape into the previous canto, ending with Virgil’s anger that he had allowed himself to be duped, this opening scene is … Continue reading
Believe me, this was no place for one who wore the gilded cloak! It was a very hard climb, even though he was helping me – and he was weightless. Luckily, this bank was lower than the opposite one we had slid down. I can’t speak for my master, but without him I probably would have given up. However, since the Malebolge all slope toward the great central pit of Hell, each level is laid out so that one bank is higher than the next one down.Perhaps with the image of the Malebranche chasing them along the top of the opposite bank, Dante has an opposing image here – namely that the heavily-weighted hypocrites would never be able to … Continue reading
Finally, we got to the top of that ledge. By then I was so out of breath I just couldn’t go on. So I plopped down right there. “Oh, come on,” Virgil said, poking me, “shake off that laziness of yours! Lounging on cushions or a soft bed is no way to win fame. And without fame, a person just wastes his life away. Any trace of them is like smoke or foam on the water. So get up now! Conquer this fatigue with that courage of soul that wins every battle, if it doesn’t falter under it’s body’s weight. We’ve got much steeper stairs to climb than these, and we certainly haven’t seen enough sinners yet. If you’re paying attention, then learn from my words and act.”Virgil’s long pep-talk to Dante is both affectionate and down-to-earth. He is definitely in the role of mentor here, and under his words is sound spiritual advice. Sitting down is no way to reach … Continue reading
Hearing this, I got up, stood straight, and made it look like I had plenty of breath. “I’m OK now,” I said. “I’m strong and ready to go.” We climbed a bit more and gradually made our way across the bridge, which was pretty rough and difficult to cross. Plus, it was much steeper than any of the previous bridges. I didn’t want to seem like I was faint, so I talked while we were climbing. Soon, though, I heard a voice coming up from the bottom of the seventh bolgia. It sounded muffled and I had no idea what it was saying, even though I was leaning over the edge of the bridge.
While I was trying to peer into that thick darkness down there, I said to Virgil: “Master, let’s go down there into that place. I hear what I think are words but I can’t understand a thing, nor can I see anything.”
And he replied: “My pleasure is to answer your request. Let’s go.”By now, Dante and Virgil have reached the top of the ridge between the sixth and seventh bolge, and they are walking to the nearest bridge, which is more difficult to cross than any of the others … Continue reading
So, from the top of the bridge we made our way down to where it joined the edge of the bank, and from there I could see the whole bolgia. Oh Horror! I saw such a terrible mass of monstrous snakes my blood runs cold just recalling it! The Libyan desert – with its chelydri, jaculi, phareans, cenchres, and amphisbenes – is nothing compared to what I saw! Even combined with those in Ethiopia or around the Red Sea. What a venomous plague infected this place! The sinners ran here and there, shrieking in terror, naked, with no hope of finding a hiding-place or magic heliotrope. The serpents attacked and bit the sinners, coiling around their bodies, tying their hands or their legs together in writhing knots.After reading the lovely opening section of this canto, it’s hard to believe the same man wrote (and experienced) this initial description of the seventh bolgia. Without any warning, now begins the … Continue reading
As one sinner ran along the bank near us, a snake flew out of a hole and bit him right where the neck meets the shoulder. I tell you, no “o” or “i” was ever written more quickly than that sinner went up in flames, burned out, and fell into a heap of ashes! And this is even more amazing: almost immediately, the scattered ashes formed back into the man who had burned up! It reminded me of what the philosophers say about the phoenix: that near its five-hundredth year it goes up in flames and is reborn again from its own ashes. Alive, all it eats are bits of frankincense and balm; toward death, it wraps itself in nard and myrrh.This is the first of three extraordinary metamorphoses that take place in this seventh bolgia and spanning Cantos 24-25. Reading these lines, one gets the sense that Dante’s imagination has run … Continue reading
Now, it may happen that a man might fall down in a fit – not knowing why (it could be a hidden demon pulling on him or some opiate that makes him insensate). But then he struggles to get up, looking around confused and anguished by what just happened – moaning just like the sinner there in front of me when he was re-formed. Truly, the Power of Heaven is mighty in its vengeance when you see it like this.Like a snakebite, Dante “bit” his readers with an impossible scene to open his experience of the seventh bolgia. Having frightened us with his descriptions and fully captured our attention, here … Continue reading
Right away, Virgil asked him who he was, and he replied: “Only recently did I fall down from Tuscany into this fearsome place. Bastard that I was, I was more savage animal than human. I’m Vanni Fucci, the beast! And Pistoia was my perfect den.”
Hearing that, I said to Virgil: “Don’t let him run away. Find out what sin he committed to end up down here, because I remember him – famous for his bloody temper.”Without prompting from Dante, Virgil immediately inquires of the regenerated sinner who he was. Without hiding the truth, Vanni Fucci identifies himself as more of a beast than a human. Quickly, … Continue reading
Fucci heard me and didn’t try to excuse himself. Instead, he looked right at me, red in the face with wretched shame, and said: “It grieves me more than the day I died that you should catch me by surprise down here. So now I’m forced to answer your question: I’m this far down because I was a thief. I stole the treasury in San Zeno’s church and blamed it on someone else.Accustomed as we are by now, there’s a story here. And, for the first time, we, along with Dante, discover this bolgia is reserved for thieves. Vanni Fucci was the bastard son of Fuccio de Lazari, … Continue reading If you ever get out of here, don’t be too happy about what you’ve found out. Instead, listen to me: In days to come the Black Guelfs in Pistoia will be thrown out. They’ll join with the Blacks in Florence and change the laws there. At Valdimagra, Mars will shoot out a lightning bolt amid thick clouds and a great storm will erupt above Piceno’s fields. No White Guelf will escape without wounds! And why am I telling you this? Just to make you suffer!”This is the fourth prophecy leveled against Dante (or Florence) in the Inferno. Ciacco made the first one in Canto 6, Farinata the second in Canto 10, and Brunetto Latini in Canto 15. This is a hard … Continue reading
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Notes & Commentary
|↑1||After the madness and deception of Cantos 21 and 22, and the wild escape into the previous canto, ending with Virgil’s anger that he had allowed himself to be duped, this opening scene is beautifully executed by Dante the poet to set a tone of renewal. The long opening simile suggests that Virgil’s frosty demeanor as they left the sixth bolgia has melted. His loving care of Dante has returned as he helps him climb from stone to stone up and out of the ditch of the hypocrites. One can tell how much Dante appreciates his mentor because he throws his memory (and ours) all the way back to the beginning of the Poem when they first met. And then, once again, Virgil literally embraces Dante and lifts him up. Though Dante clearly states that he was like the deceived peasant, it is equally clear from his behavior in the previous cantos that it was really Virgil who was deceived. And yet, like the shepherd, Dante was unhappy, but unhappy to see his mentor so downcast, and now happy to see him come out of his dark mood. The emotional Winter has changed to Spring. But all of this suggests a transition, and the reader will want to keep hold of words like change and transition because, while the first part of this canto acts as a kind of bridge and buffer, what awaits the two travelers is change and transition – metamorphosis, really – of almost unbelievable proportion.|
|↑2||Perhaps with the image of the Malebranche chasing them along the top of the opposite bank, Dante has an opposing image here – namely that the heavily-weighted hypocrites would never be able to climb out of their ditch. On the other hand, this image also reinforces the difficulty he and Virgil experience in climbing up and over the ruins of the broken bridge – a difficulty Dante admits may have overcome him. Interestingly enough, though, though this climb is difficult, the two are actually moving downward. Looking at this climb on a symbolic level, Dante makes it clear that the climb from sinful ways is a tough one, and best not done alone. Though Virgil represents the best of human Reason, spiritually he is the God who does not abandon sinners in their climb.|
|↑3||Virgil’s long pep-talk to Dante is both affectionate and down-to-earth. He is definitely in the role of mentor here, and under his words is sound spiritual advice. Sitting down is no way to reach God, which is Dante’s goal. And here he has Virgil quote words from the Book of Wisdom (5:14): “The hope of the wicked is like chaff borne by the wind, and like fine, storm-driven snow; like smoke scattered by the wind, and like the passing memory of the nomad camping for a single day.” As for fame, Virgil tells Dante – considering that they’re both poets – no one is going to become famous by being lazy. And soon enough, Dante will show proof of this in feats of imagination like no one before him. But right now, “courage of soul” is exactly what Dante needs because, as Virgil notes, his journey has just begun, and he has a lot more climbing ahead of him (certainly an allusion to the Purgatorio). “Don’t just do what I say,” we can hear him telling Dante, “do what I do, too!” Sound advice. In his commentary on this scene, Musa highlights the spiritual underpinning of this scene: “Virgil in effect suggests that virtue is not merely the negative act of avoiding sin. Rather, it is a positive act of climbing to God and fame. For this reason, the Pilgrim must not only separate himself from the sinners he has seen, he must also strive to ever greater heights and ever greater accomplishments.”|
|↑4||By now, Dante and Virgil have reached the top of the ridge between the sixth and seventh bolge, and they are walking to the nearest bridge, which is more difficult to cross than any of the others before this. So, as they’re going down, it’s actually getting more difficult. In an all-to-common ploy, Dante plays at having recovered his strength and talks out loud to show that he’s ok. On an ominous note, though, an incoherent voice comes up from below as they look off the bridge into the darkness below. Describing what he’s doing in Italian, Dante says he was looking down into that darkness with his “living eyes” ( li occhi vivi), a fascinating way to emphasize once again that he is there – alive. At this point, the canto moves in an entirely different direction, concluding at the end of Canto 25.|
|↑5||After reading the lovely opening section of this canto, it’s hard to believe the same man wrote (and experienced) this initial description of the seventh bolgia. Without any warning, now begins the change and transformation noted earlier. Dante’s word, “horror,” is almost an understatement of what is to come. Banking on his reader’s innate fear of snakes, he draws us into the scene by sharing his own frightened reaction. For nothing else but for “safety’s sake,” it should be noted that Dante and Virgil were not down among the serpents and sinners, but were viewing “the whole bolgia” from below the bridge on a terrace of rock, perhaps 10-12 feet above the bottom. His mention of the Libyan desert and it’s specific serpents is directly from Book 9 of Lucan’s epic poem, Pharsalia, on the Roman civil war. Here he mentions only five out of Lucan’s sixteen hideous reptiles! In his commentary on this canto, John Ciardi summarizes thus: “chelydri make their trails smoke and burn, and are amphibious; jaculi fly through the air like darts piercing whatever they hit; phareae plow the ground with their tails; cencri waver from side to side when they move; and amphisbaenae have a head at each end.” Courtney Langdon, in his commentary on this scene remarks that Dante used the Latin names of the serpents to make them “snakier.” To outdo Lucan, though, Dante extends his serpent-filled map to include Ethiopia (which would have included southern Egypt in Dante’s time) and the regions around the Red Sea, which some commentators say is simply a reference to Egypt, while others go farther east to include all of Arabia that borders that sea. Once again, these sinners are naked, which makes them even more vulnerable. Their terror and shrieking seizes at the reader’s fear, especially when Dante tells us there was no place to hide and no heliotrope – a semi-precious stone said to be a remedy against snakebite and to make its possessor invisible. Finally, Dante seems to add to the terror by relating that the serpents, much like boas and other huge snakes, coiled themselves around the sinners, wrapping themselves in knots.|
|↑6||This is the first of three extraordinary metamorphoses that take place in this seventh bolgia and spanning Cantos 24-25. Reading these lines, one gets the sense that Dante’s imagination has run away with him. That a snake’s bite should cause the immediate spontaneous combustion of its victim and its immediate regeneration is utterly unheard-of. Except, of course, in legend and myth. And this, it seems, is Dante’s goal in this and the following canto: to raise his poem to the immortal heights of classical mythology that underpins later epic poetry and literature. And so cleverly borrowing from Ovid’s Metamorphosis (Bk. 15), he points to the phoenix as “proof.” Ovid’s story of the phoenix is one of many. In his version the phoenix simply dies and regenerates at the end of 500 years; it doesn’t burn up. And back to snakes, he’s borrowing again from Book 9 of Lucan’s Pharsalia, where the Roman poet describes in horrific detail how one soldier burns to death after a snakebite, and another melts away.|
|↑7||Like a snakebite, Dante “bit” his readers with an impossible scene to open his experience of the seventh bolgia. Having frightened us with his descriptions and fully captured our attention, here he pulls back a bit in order to give us time to balance his fiction with some fact. Apart from the snakebite that catches one on fire, he has seen people seized by an epileptic fit or some other form of collapse (which in his time was, in fact, attributed to some form of demonic possession), and then recover seeming not to realize what happened to them. This, at least, is possible and adds another element of truth to his otherwise fantastical descriptions. Notice how this weaving in and out of truth is snakelike.|
|↑8||Without prompting from Dante, Virgil immediately inquires of the regenerated sinner who he was. Without hiding the truth, Vanni Fucci identifies himself as more of a beast than a human. Quickly, Dante now remembers him the way he described himself and asks Virgil to find out why he’s in this bolgia.|
|↑9||Accustomed as we are by now, there’s a story here. And, for the first time, we, along with Dante, discover this bolgia is reserved for thieves. Vanni Fucci was the bastard son of Fuccio de Lazari, a nobleman of Pistoia, 20 miles northwest of Florence. His reputation is worse, if that’s possible, than his own description of himself. Commentators throughout the last seven centuries almost unanimously condemn him as a fundamentally rotten human being. And Dante, of course, has no good memories of him. In the Italian, he calls him a man of blood and anger. For this Dante may have been surprised to meet him in this part of Hell rather than in Canto 12 immersed in the river of boiling blood.It seems that he had been banished from Pistoia (on more than one occasion), and during the time of Carnival in 1293 he returned. One night during the revelries, he and two companions broke into the Cathedral of San Zeno and stole all the precious objects that were kept in the treasury there. The loot was kept in the house of one of the thieves, Fucci having left the city after committing the crime and laying the blame on an innocent man. Shortly before this unfortunate man was to be hanged, Fucci let it be known whose house the stolen items were in. The man was arrested and hanged; the innocent man was freed. Apparently, Fucci’s role in this crime was not clear until after he died in 1300.|
|↑10||This is the fourth prophecy leveled against Dante (or Florence) in the Inferno. Ciacco made the first one in Canto 6, Farinata the second in Canto 10, and Brunetto Latini in Canto 15. This is a hard one, particularly with its nasty ending, as though Vanni Fucci is simply getting revenge on Dante for having discovered him here and, as it were, “forcing” his candid self-identification and the admission of his crime. He may be in Hell, but Dante is an exile.
The context of this prophecy seems to have started in Pistoia, Fucci’s hometown – but a year after he died. (Remember that Dante is writing the Poem around the year 1307, but sets it back several years so that its context is the year 1300.) Early on, the Guelf Party, among other things, was traditionally aligned with the papacy. The Ghibelline Party, on the other hand, was traditionally aligned with the imperial government of the Holy Roman Empire. Dante was a Guelf. But by the end of the century (years leading up to 1300), the Guelfs in Florence began feuding among each other and split into two Guelf factions: the Whites and the Blacks (colors of their respective party banners). The Blacks continued to align themselves with the papacy, while the Whites strongly opposed the interference of the papacy (particularly Pope Boniface VIII, Dante’s nemesis) in local political affairs. At this point, Dante was a White Guelf.
Now, what is Vanni Fucci referring to? The two factions of the Guelf Party had their origins in one Pistoian family, the Cancillieri. One account has it that a drunken brawl started the feud, and another has it that a thrown snowball led to revenge, then the cutting off of hands, and then murder! By 1301 the feuding among the Whites and Blacks was so disruptive that many of the Blacks were forced to flee from Pistoia and took refuge in Florence where there were already Whites and Blacks. More feuding in Florence between the two factions led to the Blacks expelling the Whites in 1302 when Dante was away in Rome on a diplomatic mission to the pope. Dante was exiled at this time and never returned to Florence.
The lightning bolt shot by Mars is generally understood to be a reference to Moroello Malaspina, leader of the Black Guelf army of Florence, but there is uncertainty as to what Fucci is referring to here because there was no battle (“a great storm”) at Piceno near Pistoia – though there were other battles in the region between the feuding parties. Malaspina lived in the river valley of the Magra river (thus Val di Magra or Valdimagra) in the region of Lunigiana between Pisa and Genoa. Interestingly enough, in 1306 Dante was a guest of Malaspina, and though they were earlier members of opposing Guelf factions, their lasting friendship was secured by a close friend of Dante’s. Dante pays homage to the Malaspina family in Canto 8 of the Purgatorio. It is said by the famous Boccaccio that Dante dedicated the Purgatorio to him.
Because this is a prophecy, Vanni Fucci would not have known just how cruelly he was taunting Dante, who was already experiencing the effect of Fucci’s vision. Needless to say, the thief would have been wickedly thrilled! However, he will have his comeuppance in a moment.
Finally, in the Italian this canto is 151 lines long, but only at line 137 do we learn that this seventh bolgia is where thieves are punished – when Vanni Fucci admits to Dante and Virgil that he was a thief. At this point we realize that we’ve already started witnessing the punishment and the contrapasso inflicted on the thieves without knowing it. In a sense, like a thief, Dante has “snuck up” on the reader before revealing this information. Earlier, he poetically “stole” the names of the serpents from Lucan. As the thieves “bit” their victims, so they are bitten here by the serpents. “Caught” by the serpents, their hands and legs are bound as they would be if they were apprehended when they were alive. And as though they were being chased by their victims or by the authorities, these thieves are forever running away from the serpents, wishing they were invisible, but having no place to hide. Literally, the thieves are continually being “stolen” by the snakes: they are bitten, go up in flames, and regenerate.