Dante relates almost unbelievable stories as he witnesses the punishment of the thieves.
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When he finished what he had to say, that savage thief shaped his fists into figs, raised them high and shouted out: “Fuck you, God! These are for you!” At that moment all those snakes became my friends: right off, strangling him, one of them coiled itself around his neck, as if to say: “That’s all you’re going to say!” Another snake coiled itself into such a knot around his arms it would have been impossible for him to move.This canto begins immediately where the previous canto stopped, with Vanni Fucci making a purposely hurtful prophecy against Dante. He finishes his lambasting with the “fig,” an ancient obscene … Continue reading
Oh, wicked Pistoia, Pistoia! Like the thieves here, why don’t you end it all and just burn yourself to ashes? You’ve done more evil than all your ancestors. So far I haven’t seen a single shade here in Hell as haughty toward God as this one! Not even Capaneus who was struck by a lightning bolt from Zeus as he scaled the walls of Thebes.This is one of just a few of Dante’s wild apostrophes against Italian cities in the Inferno, provoked by one or more of their citizens. The reader will recall that Capaenus, famous in mythology, is … Continue reading
No sooner had he gone off but a great centaur galloped up in a rage shouting: “Where is he? Where’s that savage beast?” I swear the swampy Maremma doesn’t have as many snakes as I saw on his back, right up to where his human form began. And riding up on his shoulders was a dragon, wings outstretched, spitting out fire at anyone who came near.
Virgil told me: “That is Cacus. He spilled a lake-full of blood in the grotto under Mount Aventine in Rome – more than once! We didn’t see him with the other centaurs because he was a clever thief and stole Hercules’ famous cattle. But that was the end of him: Hercules chased him down and beat him to death with his great club – a hundred blows, and he probably only felt ten.”Because Vanni Fucci has shown himself to be such a “savage beast” of a man, it’s appropriate that a centaur (half-horse, half-human) appear on the scene looking for him. In Canto 12, the … Continue reading
Cacus had galloped off as Virgil was talking to me and, as it happened, three sinners took his place just below us. We wouldn’t have noticed them if they hadn’t cried up to us: “Who are you two?” We stopped talking and looked at them. I had no idea who they were, but, as it sometimes happens, one of them named another of their group: “Where did Cianfa go?” he said. I put my finger across my lips to keep Virgil quiet for a moment.Reading this short scene, one might almost hear Dante saying: “I don’t always have to inquire about the sinners. Sometimes all I have to do is listen.” And so it is here. If the vulgar gesture … Continue reading
Now, if you’ll find it hard to believe what I’m going to tell you next, I won’t blame you. I myself can scarcely believe what I saw with my own eyes, let alone what I’m writing! While I was looking at those three, all of a sudden some kind of dragon-like serpent with six feet shot up and grabbed onto one of those sinners. With its middle feet it grabbed the sinner around the waist, and with its front feet it grabbed him by the arms. Then it bit that sinner through his cheeks – the one and then the other! That serpent-creature then wrapped its hind legs around the sinner’s thighs, then shoved its stiff tail between his legs and slid it up against his back. I’ve never seen ivy cling to any tree so tightly as that hideous creature wove its limbs in and out with that poor sinner’s.Thus begins the second of three extraordinary metamorphoses in Cantos 24-25. Dante’s suddenness with the appearance of this dragon (like its attack on the sinner) is immediately contrasted with his … Continue reading
But that’s not all… Wrapped in this serpentine embrace, both the sinner and the monster slowly started melting, like wax. Both began to fuse into each other, somehow mingling their color and their substance, so that neither one looked like what they were before. It was like seeing a page on fire and how the paper turns brown just ahead of the flame. Watching this transformation in utter amazement, the other two sinners shouted out: “O Agnèl! Look how you’re changing! You’re neither the one nor the other!”And so the metamorphosis begins – thieves literally stealing each other’s bodies, one becoming the other and hiding therein. Like Dante and Virgil above them, the two thieves are also part of … Continue reading
By now, the two heads had fused into one, and the features of serpent and man blended into a single face where there were two before. After this, each set of arms blurred into four strips of flesh, followed by the thighs and the legs. And out of the stomach and chest sprouted such freakish limbs that no one has ever seen! In the end, whatever former likeness each creature had – it was gone! They were both, and neither. And then it just crept away slowly.If Dante “stole” the names of serpents from Lucan in the previous canto, in this description of the horrific transformation between the serpent-dragon and Agnèl he “steals” from Ovid … Continue reading
But there’s more! You’ve seen lizards darting among the hedges in mid-Summer when it’s really hot, and how they flit across the road in a flash. Well, a little snake, black as a pepper-corn and quick as lightning, shot up and sank its fangs right into the navel of one of the two remaining sinners. Then it fell back and lay stretched out on the ground where it had been. The thief who was bitten stood there speechless staring at the snake, just yawning like he was tired, or had a fever – and the vicious snake was staring back at him. Smoke was now coming out of the sinner’s gut where the snake had bitten him, and it was also coming out of the snake’s mouth – both smokes mingling together.Here begins the third extraordinary metamorphosis in Cantos 24-25. It’s not difficult to observe how each one becomes more creative and startling than the one before it. The first one, in the … Continue reading
Now, stand back and be silent, Lucan – you who wrote of Nasidius and Sabellus melting after being bitten by snakes in Africa. Wait till you hear what I have in store for you. You too, Ovid, with your Cadmus and Arethusa. Though you transformed one into a snake and the other one into a fountain, I’m not jealous. Because you never transposed two creatures into each other – face to face – so that they exchanged their form and substance, one into the other, and vice-versa – and with perfect symmetry.Here, Dante literally and literarily tells us what he is about to do. This is an interesting moment in the Inferno. Throughout the poem so far, and so on to the end, Dante has drawn from many … Continue reading
And so, the serpent’s tail split itself into a fork, and the sinner pulled his feet together. His legs and thighs fused together so perfectly that you couldn’t tell where they joined. All the while, the snake’s now-forked tail took on the leg-like features the sinner was losing, and its skin was growing soft while the sinner’s grew scaly. I watched as the sinner’s arms retracted into his armpits. Then, while that reptile’s front feet, once short, began to stretch out to the length of the man’s legs, the man’s legs shortened to match the creature’s legs. The serpent’s hind feet then twisted around each other and turned into a man’s penis, while the sinner’s member grew into two legs!
The whole time this was happening, both creatures were still wreathed in smoke, exchanging colors, hair growing on one and falling off on the other. The snaky creature now stood up, and the former man sank to the ground. Never once through all this did either of them break the evil glare they fixed on each other – eye to eye, changing face for changing face, because now the standing creature’s serpent-face began to pull back and in toward its temples. Excess skin then formed from the side of the cheeks into its ears; likewise, the excess skin in front formed a man’s nose and lips. Down on the ground, the prostrate monster’s face elongated and his ears withdrew into his head, like the horns on a snail. His tongue, formerly of one piece and able to form words, split into a fork, while the other creature’s forked tongue came solidly together.
The smoke around them now evaporated, and the man-become-snake slithered away hissing along the bolgia’s floor, while the snake-become-man ran after his former self spitting out words!At this point the appalling metamorphosis is finished. Both thief and serpent have completely transformed into each other, never taking their eyes off each other in what might be the epitome of the … Continue reading
But not before he turned around and said to the one sinner left: “Let Buoso run along this valley on all fours as I did a while ago.” And so, if I saw the sinners down there in that seventh bolgia change and interchange, please excuse these seemingly bizarre sights if my pen has failed me. Though it was hard for me to believe what I saw, not to mention how my mind was stunned by it all, in the end none of those sinners escaped without my knowing, eventually, who they were: Puccio Sciancato was the one left who was unchanged, and the other was the one whose killing at Gaville resulted in so many other killings there.It is Francesco dei Cavalcanti (the serpent now become a man) who speaks these vengeful words to Puccio Sciancato, the only thief left untransformed, about Buoso, the man now become a serpent. And … Continue reading
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Notes & Commentary
|↑1||This canto begins immediately where the previous canto stopped, with Vanni Fucci making a purposely hurtful prophecy against Dante. He finishes his lambasting with the “fig,” an ancient obscene gesture made by placing the thumb between the first two fingers. It is still current in Italy. In crude form it represents the sex act, and it is also said to ward off the curse of the evil eye. Several commentators note that atop the tower of the Rocca di Carmignano the Pistoians (Vanni Fucci was one of their “renowned” citizens!) erected two stone arms with hands making the “figs” pointing toward Florence. In a later conquest, the Florentines destroyed this artistic attraction.
One can imagine a certain literary risk here by the Poet in writing this scene. His readers knew well that in emotional outbursts one is liable to hear (or say) anything. But to curse God in such an obscene manner, while it shocks Dante the Pilgrim, is a master stroke of the Poet in describing precisely the kind of outrage one would expect from a violent sinner whom Dante described in the previous canto as a man of bloody anger. In the previous canto Dante described terrifying serpents, and, seeing what this perverse thief has done, finds himself in friendship with them as they lock him in their coiled embraces. This, in a sense, is Dante’s revenge against Fucci’s revenge against Dante.
|↑2||This is one of just a few of Dante’s wild apostrophes against Italian cities in the Inferno, provoked by one or more of their citizens. The reader will recall that Capaenus, famous in mythology, is among the blasphemers in Canto 14, lying on his back shouting curses at God through the rain of flames.|
|↑3||Because Vanni Fucci has shown himself to be such a “savage beast” of a man, it’s appropriate that a centaur (half-horse, half-human) appear on the scene looking for him. In Canto 12, the centaurs guarded the river of boiling blood where the violent sinners were immersed, and Cacus connects that scene with this one. He is a centaur and he is a thief. Why is Cacus here? Virgil gives us the major part of the answer as found in his Aeneid. However, it is Dante who makes Cacus a centaur, perhaps because Virgil writes that he is half-human. In the mythological stories, Cacus was the son of Vulcan, a giant, who lived in a cave in Mount Aventine in Rome, who breathed fire and feasted on human flesh. In the Aeneid, he stole the cattle of Hercules who beat him to death soon afterward. As for the manner of Cacus’ death, Dante borrows (“steals?”) from Ovid; and while Ovid’s Hercules delivers only four blows, Dante greatly exaggerates here with a hundred! If one recalls that Dante has several mythological creatures guarding various areas of Hell, Cacus fits well here among the thieves. And his “badge,” as it were, is the swarm of snakes he carries on his back and the great fire-spitting dragon on his shoulders. As Musa notes in his commentary, Cacus plays a double role here: “He is both a punished thief and a punishing guardian of the thieves.”
The Maremma was a wild, malarial, swampy area along the coast of Tuscany, uninhabited by humans because it was filled with snakes. Here it’s another of Dante’s recollections from real life. The draining and reclamation of the Maremma region was begun by Ferdinando I de’ Medici, and today it is a lush agricultural region virtually the opposite of what it was before the 14th century.
|↑4||Reading this short scene, one might almost hear Dante saying: “I don’t always have to inquire about the sinners. Sometimes all I have to do is listen.” And so it is here. If the vulgar gesture that opened this canto is still on the reader’s mind, this one is virtually neutral and almost universal. And the “shushing” of Virgil, which is somewhat comical, reminds us of how silence is the thief’s friend. At the same time, Dante’s signal tells us (and Virgil) to be quiet because, as he is about to tell us, he is going to outdo all of his poetic ancestors with one of the most amazing scenes in the entire Inferno. It’s as though the lights go down before the curtain goes up at a theatrical performance. Dante (the Pilgrim) is himself a member of the audience.
First, we recall that Dante and Virgil were standing safely on a kind of outcropping between the bridgehead above them and the floor of this bolgia below. And because they were busy with Vanni Fucci and the arrival of Cacus, they didn’t realize they were being watched by three new thieves, whose naming of one of their now-lost companions gives them away. Little else is known about these thieves (we will encounter five of them) except that they were all Florentine. While their family names are given here, Dante himself does not reveal them. They’ve been stolen. The thieves are Agnello dei Brunelleschi, Buoso degli Abati, Puccio dei Galigai (same as Puccio Scianciato), Cianfa dei Donati, and Francesco Guercio dei Cavalcanti. Their asking where their companion Cianfa has gone will be answered now in an unbelievable scene.
|↑5||Thus begins the second of three extraordinary metamorphoses in Cantos 24-25. Dante’s suddenness with the appearance of this dragon (like its attack on the sinner) is immediately contrasted with his measured, step-by-step description of the attack. If the sinner is passively mute here (perhaps like one being robbed), Dante wants his readers to cry out in horror, imagining such a thing happening to them. And perhaps this is the moral lesson that underpins this scene. Biting the sinner in the face, on one cheek and then the other mocking an affectionate greeting – a thief’s kiss – is almost beyond horror. The Poet himself, as he tells us, was in horror when he witnessed this, and again when he wrote it down. This amplifies the reality of what is about to happen and heightens our attention. The dragon’s hold on the sinner – his waist, his arms, and his thighs – is enough to completely immobilize him. And added to this, as though to make the foul embrace even tighter, the creature thrusts its tail obscenely between the sinner’s thighs and up along his back as though to press them together – as Dante describes – like ivy on a tree. In this image, Dante is more than a casual observer of nature. Ivy on trees is lovely to look at, but it eventually kills them by covering them. As it will turn out, this dragon-serpent is none other than the lost Cianfa!|
|↑6||And so the metamorphosis begins – thieves literally stealing each other’s bodies, one becoming the other and hiding therein. Like Dante and Virgil above them, the two thieves are also part of the audience viewing this dreadful spectacle. We are not told yet that the dragon is the metamorphosed Cianfa, but now we know that his victim was Agnello dei Brunelleschi because the two thieves cry out his name in horror at what they are witnessing. In his notes on Agnèl, Charles Singleton quotes from the old Anonymous Glosses: “This Agnello was a member of the Brunelleschi family of Florence. Even as a boy, he used to empty the purses of his father and mother; later, he would empty the strongbox in the shop and steal other things. Then, as an adult, he broke into other people’s houses. He would dress like a pauper and wear the beard of an old man. And for this reason, Dante has him transformed through the serpent’s bites, as he was when he stole.”|
|↑7||If Dante “stole” the names of serpents from Lucan in the previous canto, in this description of the horrific transformation between the serpent-dragon and Agnèl he “steals” from Ovid (Metamorphoses Book IV:346-388). Phrases like “by now,” “after this,” “in the end,” and “and then” give us a precise sense of movement – in this case like a macabre dance in which the partners literally turn into each other. Except – and here, perhaps, is the ultimate horror: neither of them resembles the other when the transformation is complete. There is no former likeness to be compared with. It’s gone. The two are “both, and neither.” This new anatomical monstrosity, with “strips of flesh” and “freakish limbs” in the wrong places slowly creeps off stage. Dante himself seems to be at a loss for words. Medieval readers must have had their own nightmarish tales or images of frightening deformities no less than modern ones reading Shelly’s Frankenstein or seeing Kurt Neumann’s science fiction horror classic, The Fly. Dire consequences lie in wait for those who meddle with Nature. And yet no form of progress can take place, it seems, without that meddling. Still, in the alchemy of the human spirit gold is often found. Dante would have his thieves walk toward each other on either side of a double mirror, and passing through it each would become the other. All the while he knows that it cannot be done, and yet he is the genius that makes it happen. And in this, as he tells us, he surpasses Lucan and Ovid and all the others. But wait…continue reading and you’ll see just what a genius he is.|
|↑8||Here begins the third extraordinary metamorphosis in Cantos 24-25. It’s not difficult to observe how each one becomes more creative and startling than the one before it. The first one, in the previous canto, saw the beastly Vanni Fucci bitten by a serpent, going up in flames, and regenerating back to himself from the ashes. The second, even more amazing, just concluded. A serpent-dragon attacked Agnèl, wrapped itself around him and then began an exchange between the two that resulted in one monstrously deformed creature. And now begins the third. Dante starts with a common enough image of a lizard flitting quickly among the bushes in the heat of a summer day. This brings us back to reality but also sets up the next scene which begins immediately. A small black snake shoots up from the ground and strikes one of the two remaining thieves in the belly at his navel. The flitting lizard and the lightning-fast snake give the reader a sense of both speed and unexpectedness. This snake is actually the transformation of Francesco dei Cavalcanti whom Dante will refer to – unnamed – in the last line of this canto. The thief he attacks here is Buoso degli Abati.
Once the quick black snake strikes Buoso it falls back to the ground, and now there is a mysterious pause in the action, as though everyone – Dante, the reader, Buoso, and the snake – are waiting for something to happen. Staring at the snake, the bitten thief yawns – amazingly – as though he’s bored. The snake stares back. But now the action begins. Smoke comes out of the thief’s navel where it was bitten, and smoke comes out of the snake’s mouth. And these smokes begin to mingle together. This mingling reminds us of the previous mingling of the dragon-serpent and Agnèl. Will this scene end with another monstrosity creeping along the floor of this bolgia? The thief isn’t simply bitten in the navel. Dante adds that this is where we are first nourished in the womb. On the moral level, this suggests that the sins of this thief have, in a sense, poisoned him right back to the beginning of his life, and have “stolen” from an alternate path of virtue. The out-of-place yawn signifies how accustomed the thief has become to the bite of his sin. The smoke also adds to the sense of mystery, Dante using it, as it were, to cloud reality as a preface to what is about to take place.
|↑9||Here, Dante literally and literarily tells us what he is about to do. This is an interesting moment in the Inferno. Throughout the poem so far, and so on to the end, Dante has drawn from many classical resources to build each canto. Not to mention that he has his own greatest classical resource right alongside him as a mentor, Virgil. Now, though, emerging from behind the smoke, as it were, he doesn’t address us as readers. No. He addresses his resources directly as a kind of braggart, telling them that he’s going to go beyond them and invent something new. Previously, Dante has taken pride in his Florentine heritage by being noted here and there as a Florentine. And he’s made sure that individuals have recognized the elegance of his speech (an advertisement for this poem). Here, though he’s more elegant, Dante basically tells Lucan and Ovid to “give it up” or “shut up” about their stories of soldiers who were bitten by snakes and either melted or blew up (Nasidius and Sabellus), or of mythological figures turned to snakes and fountains (Cadmus and Arethusa). And note carefully what he’s telling them, as though he’s their teacher critiquing their work: “This is ok. But look, you haven’t gone far enough with this. You simply transform people into other forms. I’m going to transform them into each other – perfectly! When he says this, he speaks specifically of the transformation of both “form” and “substance.” One might be tempted to pass over this statement but Dante uses both terms on purpose to signify a “complete and total” transformation of both soul (form) and body (substance), not just one or the other. And where is he “stealing” these distinctions from? Classical philosophy (Aristotle) and theology (St. Thomas Aquinas). Returning to his boast, Dante is not yet one-third of the way along his journey, and he has ahead of him an immense number of things to experience and learn from. However, he doesn’t hesitate to show off his skill. And – is he being humble? – he tells them he’s not jealous. He’s been clear all along about how much he reveres the great poets of antiquity, so let’s watch the master craftsman create a tour de force.|
|↑10||At this point the appalling metamorphosis is finished. Both thief and serpent have completely transformed into each other, never taking their eyes off each other in what might be the epitome of the “evil eye.” Oddly enough, as noted earlier, the “fig,” apart from being an obscene gesture, is also used as a cure for the evil eye. And all the while, the mysterious smoke, like a kind of magical curtain, has wreathed around them as though it possesses some form of mystical power controlled by an unseen evil force. As though to demonstrate the ultimate evil of theft, both creatures have stolen each other’s body and soul (form and substance), each thief becoming what he steals. However, it is fascinating to consider that, while the two creatures seem to have metamorphosed perfectly, there is one significant item that is left flawed, and that is speech. The man-become-snake hisses, and the snake-become-man sputters. Ovid, in Book 4 of his Metamorphoses, writes of Caedmon after he was changed into a serpent:
“He wanted to say much more, but his tongue was of a sudden cleft in two; words failed him, and whenever he tried to utter some sad complaint, it was a hiss; this was the only voice which Nature left him.”
But Musa has a wonderful explanation for this in his commentary:
“Theft, as a sin that strikes at the very foundations of civilization through its abuse of property, also strikes at civilization’s greatest accomplishment – language. The sinners in this bolgia must therefore re-create language after every transformation they experience. The Pilgrim participates in this recreation when he rewrites Lucan and Ovid earlier in the canto.”
In the end, Dante has shown by way of trial-and-error, as it were, three successive transformations, each one outdoing the one before it until the third one is perfectly executed. At the same time, he seems to present the reader with three constantly alternating scenarios that randomly afflict the thieves. They either burn up and regenerate as they were, or they merge with a serpent into a single hideous monster, or they simply pass through each other and trade with exactly what they were in the process. With his last metamorphosis, Dante takes his time in a precisely choreographed transformation; again to emphasize that what he writes and what we see are real. As he wrote in the previous canto after the first transformation: “Truly, the Power of Heaven is mighty in its vengeance when you see it like this.” Lucan and Ovid would be amazed.
|↑11||It is Francesco dei Cavalcanti (the serpent now become a man) who speaks these vengeful words to Puccio Sciancato, the only thief left untransformed, about Buoso, the man now become a serpent. And gracefully stepping down from the literary heights he has just spoken from, Dante asks his readers to excuse him if we feel he has been either excessive or unclear in his descriptions. Still amplifying the reality of what he has presented to us, he cleverly claims that it was hard for him to believe what he saw because he, too, was stunned by it. One can hardly read these lines without a chuckle because we, too, have consciously participated in this “charade.” And he doesn’t stop here. He makes what he has presented here all the more real by telling us that by the end of this canto he knew exactly who each thief was. But of course, because they were real Florentine countrymen of his. And to make matters even more believable – right to the end – he names the last sinner, not by name, but by what he did, tricking us, as it were, to agree with him by looking up Gaville and piecing together that this final unnamed thief is, as has been noted (perhaps unfairly until now), Francesco dei Cavalcanti. All of the confused identity (“change and interchange”) is precisely what Dante has wanted to achieve by his metamorphoses And what is this final clue? Francesco was murdered (we don’t know the reason why) in Gaville, a small town 25 miles southeast of Florence. To avenge his death, the Cavalcanti family killed a great many of its citizens.|