Virgil and Dante see the gruesome punishment of those who caused schisms and division.
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God help us all! What person, no matter how hard he tried – even in the simplest words – could adequately describe the bloody spectacle I saw next! No one could ever do it! I don’t think human memory or human speech are capable of comprehending the depth and breadth of such pain!After the relative calm of the previous two cantos, Dante returns us to the horrors of Hell. Having left the eighth bolgia where human language was violated by fraud, the Poet tells us that what he … Continue reading
If it were possible to gather together every single person whose blood was spilled in the Puglia by the ancient Romans; and then spilled again in later Roman battles (recall Livy’s history and the story of the bushel of rings from the dead!); and then put those with the ones who battled against Robert Guiscard; and then put all those with the dead whose bones still lie in heaps at Ceprano, where so many turned traitor; and, finally, add them all to those at Tagliacozzo, where victory could be credited to Alardo’s clever schemes – if all these scenes of slaughter and bloody horror, with the countless maimed, sliced, chopped, and speared were brought together – that spectacle would be nothing compared to the sights that awaited Virgil and I in the ninth bolgia.Dante still has not begun to describe the scene he witnessed in this bolgia. Instead, he gives the reader a sense of the magnitude of death by referring to five different battles as a way to lead … Continue reading
To begin, I never saw a wine barrel broken and split the way I saw a sinner down there ripped open from his throat right down to his butt-hole! Hanging down between his legs, all his guts were spilling out – heart, organs, and the foul sac that turns everything we eat into shit! While I stood there gaping into that bloody hollow he looked at me and then pulled his chest wide open! “Watch how I tear myself apart!” he said. “Look here at Mohammed, maimed and torn! And look at that weeping one there ahead of me – the one with his face split open from head to chin. That’s Ali, my first disciple. All of us passing by you – all of us created such scandals and schisms when we were alive that, dead down here, you see us torn to pieces. There’s a devil back there who cruelly hacks each one of us up. Worse than that, by the time we’ve walked around this road of torture, our wounds have healed and he waits to re-mutilate us – time and again! But who are you, now, gawking at us from up there? Are you trying to put off your eternal sentence?”As Dante begins to describe for us what he actually saw, scholars note how his Italian syntax here is broken and fragmented in order to give his original readers a linguistic sense of what they were … Continue reading
It was Virgil who answered him: “Death does not have this man within his grip, and he’s not down here to pay the debt of his sins. He’s here in order to have the fullest experience of this realm, and I, who am dead, I am leading him through all of it, right down to the bottom. This is as true as me standing here speaking to you.” Hearing this, more than a hundred of those mangled sinners halted their sad march to stare at me. For the moment, they seemed oblivious of their pain.Not since Canto 12 and his explanation of their journey to Chiron have we heard from Virgil at such length, and with such precision. One senses not only his confidence in his mission, but his pride … Continue reading
But Mohammed addressed me again: “You who will most likely see the sun again soon, give that heretic, Fra Dolcino, this message: if he doesn’t want to follow me down here, he’d better store up food quickly, or the snow will turn a hard-won victory into an easy one for the Novarese who pursue him into the mountains.” Saying this, he raised up a foot for a moment, then put it down and walked away from us.Clear now that Dante is, in fact, alive, Mohammed asks him to deliver a message to a more contemporary religious renegade, Fra Dolcino. We remember, of course, that the spirits can see the past and … Continue reading
But there was another one standing there – this one with his throat slit across, his nose cut away, and missing an ear. Like all the others, he had stopped to stare at us in amazement. Then he stepped forward and pulled his throat open. It ran with blood all over as he spoke: “You, the guiltless one there! Unless I’m being fooled, I’ve seen you up in our homeland. If you ever see the beautiful plains that stretch from Vercelli down to Marcabò, then call to mind Pier da Medicina. And tell Fano’s chief citizens – Guido and Angiolello – what I foresee if I’m not deceived: both of them will be stuffed into a sack and thrown from their ship into the sea near Cattolica – victims of one-eyed Malatestino’s treachery! In all the sea, I tell you, from one end to the other, even Neptune himself never witnessed such a wicked deed in that sea from pirates or even the Greeks! There’s someone here with me who wishes he’d never seen the land ruled by that one-eyed tyrant. He’ll invite them to talk aboard his ship and then throw them in so they don’t have to waste time praying to escape Focara’s fearsome winds on the way back!”The reader will have observed already that the farther down into Hell Dante takes us, the worse the sins, the worse the punishments, and here a story whose wickedness would put even “pirates and … Continue reading
I answered him: “If you want me to carry your message back, tell me who’s the one next to you who hopes he’ll never see that tyrant’s lands? Show me.”
Right away he grabbed the jaws of his poor companion and pulled his mouth open, saying: “This is the man. But he can’t talk because he’s the one who urged Caesar to cross the Rubicon, telling him: ‘A man who’s ready is lost if he hesitates.’” That hapless sinner was the Tribune Curio. Once so quick and bold to speak, he stood there looking bewildered – his tongue hacked out!Dante speaks for the first time in this canto and responds with a bargain to Pier da Medicina’s cryptic mention of the next sinner we’ll meet. We meet seven sinners in this canto. Notice how he … Continue reading
And then there was another one, whose hands had been chopped off. Seeing me, he raised his arms in the air, blood splattering down on his face from those handless stumps, crying out: “I’m sure you’ll also remember me, Mosca. It was my cursed words, “What’s done is done!” that planted the seed of strife between your party and its enemies.”
“Rot in Hell, you and all your family!” I shouted, wounding him with my words. He screamed in pain and ran off like one gone mad!All through the Inferno, and the entire Poem, for that matter, we have heard about and seen the results of the incessant battles between the Guelf and Ghibelline parties. Dante the Poet and many of … Continue reading
Well, I stayed there watching that throng of mangled sinners, and… I saw something… but… Well, I hesitate to go on because the only evidence I can offer is my clear conscience that assures me I’m telling the truth. A good conscience is the seal of a man’s heart. So, there it was… I’m sure of it because I can still see it: a man came walking into view, no different from anyone else there. Except… he had no head! Well, he did, but he held it up in front of him by the hair, as if it were a lantern! It looked right at us and spoke: “Woe! Woe to me!” Out of himself he became his own light – the two in one. You ask yourself how this could be, and I have no answer. God only knows…A reader, particularly a first time reader, might find it hard to list in order the terrible sights Dante has presented along his journey through Hell. But if we pay attention to his words here, and … Continue reading
And when he got there right below our bridge, he raised that ghastly lamp up high so it could speak to us – face to face! “You there! Alive looking at the dead. Look well at this heinous punishment, and find one worse than mine! When you return to the world above, tell them about me: I am Bertran de Born. I was the one whose evil counsel set young prince Henry against his father. Though Achitophel instigated Absalom’s revolt against his father, David, mine was a worse sin. I severed the bonds between a son and his father, and so I hold my head here, cut off from the source of its life, which stands right behind me! Here you see the perfect contrapasso.The headless man continues to move toward where Dante and Virgil are, stopping just below the bridge s they’re standing on. Obviously, he had to hold his head up high in order to converse with … Continue reading
Notes & Commentary
|↑1||After the relative calm of the previous two cantos, Dante returns us to the horrors of Hell. Having left the eighth bolgia where human language was violated by fraud, the Poet tells us that what he will now attempt to describe is literally off the spectrum of language, and that neither poetry nor simple words, neither memory nor speech will provide a medium of comprehension for what he is about to present. But, subtly appealing to our imagination and curiosity, and having brought us this far in his Inferno, we trust him (and his genius) to show us what he really saw in this ninth bolgia. And note how Dante echoes the dire words of the priestess of Apollo in Virgil’s Aeneid: “Not if I had a hundred tongues, a hundred mouths, a voice of iron, could I tell all the forms of wickedness or spell out the names of every torment” (VI, 626f). Long before we had the psychological language to understand PTSD or traumatic amnesia, Dante has a sense here of horror beyond horror that modern readers might now recognize.|
|↑2||Dante still has not begun to describe the scene he witnessed in this bolgia. Instead, he gives the reader a sense of the magnitude of death by referring to five different battles as a way to lead into the punishments meted out here – though even these five battles put together won’t come close to what he has in mind for his readers. What follows is a kind of historical archaeology, removing layers of battlefields, but starting from the bottom up, as it were.
Puglia (modern Apulia) is the southeastern region of Italy bordering the Adriatic and including the “heel” of the “boot.” The first battle Dante notes here is the long war of almost 150 years between the ancient Samnites (inhabitants of roughly the same area as Puglia) and the Romans (434-290 B.C.).
The second battle, with its reference to the rings of the dead, is the Second Punic (Carthaginian) War (218-201 B.C.) in which the Roman army was dealt a smashing defeat by Hannibal at Cannae along the central coast of Puglia in 216 B.C. The Roman historian Livy notes a loss of life in the tens of thousands, and that following the battle, Hannibal returned to Carthage and presented its senate with three bushels of gold rings taken from the fingers of dead Roman soldiers. Another estimate lists the number of dead in this battle alone at 65,000!
The third “battle” is actually a reference to several battles of the famous Norman adventurer and Duke of Apulia, Robert Guiscard. Dante most likely includes him here because he won fame for his defeats against the Saracen and Greek invaders among others. We will meet him again in Canto 18 of the Paradiso where Dante places him among the great warriors of the faith.
The fourth battle is referenced by the town of Ceprano, midway between Rome and Naples. Ceprano was the location of one of several mountain passes guarded by the troops of Manfred, King of Sicily and son of Frederick II, against the advances of Charles of Anjou. Those guarding the pass betrayed Manfred and deserted their posts. Charles and his forces soon defeated and killed Manfred at the Battle of Benevento in 1266. Benevento is an ancient city situated about 45 miles east of Naples. Dante apparently conflates the treachery at Ceprano and the Battle of Benevento. We will meet Manfred in Canto 3 of the Purgatorio as an outstanding example of God’s mercy.
Dante ends this “piling on” of battles and bodies with a reference to Tagliacozzo, a town about half way between Rome and the Adriatic coast. In 1268 the forces of Charles of Anjou (again) and those of Conradin, nephew of Manfred, met at Tagliacozzo. The victory of Charles was credited to the clever strategy of Alardo (Érard de Valéry), his general. The plan was for Charles to keep a reserve force ready but hidden. When Conradin seemed to be winning and his army started to scatter, Alardo brought out his reserves and won the battle for Charles. Conradin escaped the defeat but was later captured and executed.
When Dante concludes here he sums up this bloody comparison by telling us that the body count and horror of these slaughters was nothing compared to the sight that lay ahead. What he’s doing here is subtly reminding us that he and Virgil have already seen what he’s about to put into words. Hindsight has given him the opportunity to introduce this canto the way he has with his “archaeology of butchery.”
|↑3||As Dante begins to describe for us what he actually saw, scholars note how his Italian syntax here is broken and fragmented in order to give his original readers a linguistic sense of what they were seeing. The first two subjects of his observations are Mohammed, the prophet and founder of Islam, and his son-in-law and first disciple, Ali. (In all, this canto will feature three religious figures and five of them political.) Modern readers are all too familiar with the graphic violence served up by Hollywood, but Dante was well ahead of his time here, especially in the genre of “slasher movies.” Both men are slashed horribly, Mohammed (who identifies himself without being questioned) obviously the worst of the two. Botticelli illustrates this scene with yards of Mohammed’s intestines trailing out behind him as he walks! This is really the most graphic canto in the Inferno, and the Poet minces no words in creating another fitting contrapasso of horror and disgust – a kind of human abattoir.
An interesting fact to consider about Mohammed is that in the Middle Ages he was considered a schismatic and an apostate, not necessarily a heretic. Some believed that he was originally a Christian, even a priest or a cardinal, and broke from the faith to found a new religion in the Near East. Dante places him here among those who caused great and famous divisions – in this case, a great religious divide in the world at that time. Hollander states that Dante saw the prophet not as the founder of a new religion but of a rival religion. Though already mutilated, when Mohammed sees Dante he literally tears himself more widely open as he explains the contrapasso. The Poet’s vulgar language is intentional as it projects a response of disgust and subtly allows the Poet to debase what the prophet had done in the most terrible way possible.
Explaining why both men are split, Singleton notes:
“… both Mohammed and Ali are described as spilt, the former – sower of discord among nations – from the chin down, the latter – sower of discord among the heads of the Mohammedan sect – from the chin up, thus completing the total schism.”
Vernon, quoting Scartazzini, looks at the difference this way:
“Scartazzini points out that Dante has represented Ali with just that part of the body severed which has been left entire to Mahomet, because Ali was credited with having been the author of a schism among the Mahometans themselves. Mahomet has his body severed, because he sowed schism among nations; Ali has his head divided, because he sowed schism principally among the heads of the Mahometan sect.”
Then, in a few brief sentences, Mohammed concludes by explaining exactly how the contrapasso in this bolgia works. Schism and scandal might begin as one-time events, but the evil that results from them may never be eradicated. And so the sinners here are not hacked and mutilated once and left to suffer (and recover?) from their wounds. No, as Mohammed tells Dante, reminding us subtly that all of Malebolge is circular. The sowers of discord here suffer the effects of their sin again and again for all eternity as they walk along the “road of torture.” But be mindful of how this road works: the sinners are mutilated; they walk along in unspeakable pain; gradually their wounds heal; and once healed, they are mutilated again. And once they’ve walked this circle the first time, they will also know in advance – for all eternity – what awaits them! It is, perhaps, in this vein that Mohammed inquires whether Dante, who seems to have been the object of the prophet’s explanations, has a sense of the horror of repetitive torture and is trying to put it off as long as possible because he himself is a condemned sinner.
|↑4||Not since Canto 12 and his explanation of their journey to Chiron have we heard from Virgil at such length, and with such precision. One senses not only his confidence in his mission, but his pride in being Dante’s mentor: “I am leading him…” All the sinners we will meet in this canto led others – the wrong way! In contrast, Virgil speaks the truth, and for a moment a large group stop their painful procession to listen to him.|
|↑5||Clear now that Dante is, in fact, alive, Mohammed asks him to deliver a message to a more contemporary religious renegade, Fra Dolcino. We remember, of course, that the spirits can see the past and the future, while the present is not clear. But it’s curious why such an old schismatic would have concern for one living 600 years later, except – cleverly – since he was a prophet, Dante the Poet has him deliver a prophecy to the Pilgrim. Musa offers the following suggestion:
“Mahomet’s ‘warning’ to Fra Dolcino seems based on the fact that their religious activities, modifying existing religious institutions, eventually led to splits within the universal church: Mahomet impeded the possibility of a single, unified religion, while Fra Dolcino caused a split within the Catholic faith.”
The story of Fra Dolcino takes place at a time in the Middle Ages that saw the rise and fall of several fanatical and apocalyptic religious sects seeking to reform the Church. In this case, once the founder of The Apostolic Brethren (one of these sects) was burned at the stake in 1260, Dolcino took over the leadership of this group of Franciscan-like monks, though they had no connection with that Order. He himself was not a monk but the illegitimate son of a priest. He was intelligent, eloquent, and given to apocalyptic prophecies. His Order’s members preached simplicity and a return to the Church of apostolic times. The Rule of the order claimed, among other things the sharing of property and of women! One can understand what came next. Pope Clement V declared the group heretical and called a crusade against them to wipe them out. Dolcino took his order, including its women and, apparently, several thousand followers, into hiding at a stronghold in the mountainous region between Novara and Vercelli (between Milan and Turin). There they staved off the papal forces for more than a year until they were finally starved out. In the spring of 1307, Fra Dolcino and his supposed mistress, Margarita of Trent, were captured. At Vercelli, she was slowly burned at the stake in the sight of Dolcino, after which he was paraded through the streets and horribly tortured and maimed along the route back to the stake, where he was thrown upon the fire that still consumed the body of his paramour. Dante, of course, was in exile at this time.
Dante’s final observation seems to put Mohammed in slow motion – the prophet, perhaps deep in thought, raises up his foot for a moment and then puts it down again before he moves away. We’re already used to and appreciative of the Poet’s careful attention to detail, and virtually every commentator has something to say about this gesture. It certainly amplifies the grotesqueness of the scene – sliced from his throat to his anus, chest pulled wide open, loose intestines dragging out behind him, lifting up his foot and holding it there for a moment. Perhaps he trod on one of his innards! Singleton suggests that Mohammed spoke with Dante the whole time his foot was in the air, concluding his remarks by putting his foot down.
|↑6||The reader will have observed already that the farther down into Hell Dante takes us, the worse the sins, the worse the punishments, and here a story whose wickedness would put even “pirates and Greeks” to shame. Before the sinner identifies himself – the first of five political schismatics – Dante describes his ghastly wounds and the more ghastly manner in which he pulls his slit throat apart to talk. (Cutting off a serf’s nose was a common punishment in the Middle Ages for those who sought to escape from servitude to their masters.) He addresses Dante as “the guiltless one.” This may be an excessive compliment to indulge the Poet’s attention, but it is also new among the ways the Pilgrim has been addressed along his journey. Earlier, Virgil made it clear that Dante was simply alive.
Cleverly, this almost faceless sinner recognizes Dante by his face, and he’ll ask Dante to recall him by giving his name – Pier da Medicina – since his face is so mutilated. Medicina is a town about 20 miles east of Bologna, and it is not known how Dante may have known this sinner. And apart from Dante, while little is known of this man, what remains was unsavory: he fomented scandals, sowed suspicion, was a liar, and he instigated feuds – most notably between the Polenta family in Ravenna and the Malatesta family in Rimini. All of this is quite enough to place him here in this bolgia. Very cleverly, without listing these sins, he bears the marks of them as Vernon notes in his commentary:
“Pier da Medicina is pierced through the throat, from which issued so many lies; he has been deprived of the use of the nose he was so fond of thrusting into other people’s affairs; and he is represented with one ear only, as he did not use both to listen to the evil and the good and to distinguish between them; and thus maimed and disfigured he appears in his torment as repulsive an object, as in his life he had appeared insidiously attractive and handsome.”
The references to Vercelli (between Turin and Milan) and Marcabò (a castle/fortress at the mouth of the Po River north of Ravenna), mark the far western and far eastern boundaries of the Po River Valley (about 200 miles, which Pier calls the “beautiful plains”) in the old region of Romagna, now Emilia-Romagna.
After this bit of geography, Pier gives Dante a terrible prophecy to deliver. First, another bit of geography. Rimini (recall Canto 5 and Francesca da Rimini, and the Malatesta family she married into) sits on the Adriatic coast 30 miles south of Ravenna. Fano is farther south about 60 miles. Virtually between Rimini and Fano lies the town of Cattolica. Between Cattolica and south to Fano are high coastal headlands from which perilous winds rush down on the sea, forcing mariners to use extreme caution along that region of the Adriatic coast. Over the centuries, commentators are not sure where (except from Pier) Dante got the wicked story Pier reports/prophesies. It seems that two important citizens of Fano (Guido del Cassero and Angiolello di Carignano) were summoned to a meeting at Cattolica by Malatestino, the wicked lord of Rimini (Francesca’s other brother-in-law). Traveling from Fano to Cattolica by sea, their ship was intercepted by Malatestino’s henchmen, who boarded their ship and murdered them by stuffing them into rock-filled sacks and throwing them into the sea. Malatestino’s motive was to take control of the town of Fano, which he eventually did. He was referred to by Dante in the previous canto when he gave Guido da Montefeltro his “report” about Romagna.
But Pier isn’t finished. He caused his share of trouble when he was alive, and seems to deflect any blame for his sins by suggesting that the murders of Guido and Angiolello are something worse than a pirate would commit – or, for that matter a Greek! Many commentators suggest that seafaring Greeks were often associated with piracy. And some think that this mention of Greeks (perhaps above water) and Neptune (under water) amplifies the unheard-of nature of Malatestino’s crime.
Finally, in a kind of jump-forward-jump-backward reference, Pier makes an oblique segue to the next sinner, whom he’ll introduce in a moment. This new schismatic will be from Rimini which, as Pier is talking, is ruled by Malatestino, the “one-eyed tyrant.” Pier ends by telling Dante that Malatesta will have the two nobles from Fano drowned before they have time to say the traditional sailors’ prayer for protection against the winds off the headlands of Focara (near Cattolica on Italy’s east coast between Rimini and Pesaro).
|↑7||Dante speaks for the first time in this canto and responds with a bargain to Pier da Medicina’s cryptic mention of the next sinner we’ll meet. We meet seven sinners in this canto. Notice how he has introduced the first three and how he’ll manage the next four.
In keeping with the ghoulishness of the scene, Pier, with his throat cut, and his nose and one ear cut off, introduces Curio by pulling his mouth open and speaking for him – because his tongue has been cut off! This former Roman Tribune, Caius Scribonius Curio, is one of those side-lined characters in history who are all but forgotten in the aftermath of the upheaval they caused. In this case, it was he who urged Julius Caesar to cross the Rubicon River (about 12 miles north of Rimini) with his troops who were gathered there, and begin his fateful march on Rome. At that time, the Rubicon marked the northern boundary of the Republic of Rome. Caesar, who had been governor of the area north of this boundary had been forbidden to cross it with his army. Curio was apparently a gifted orator (another possible reason for having his tongue cut out) and earlier in his career was actually an enemy of Caesar. However, it is said that some time before the river crossing, Caesar paid all of Curio’s debts and also paid for his support in Rome. Thereafter, the two were of one mind, and the rest is history. Curio’s advice, “A man who’s ready is lost if he waits,” would be matched by Caesar’s famous words the following day, January 10, 49 B.C.: “The die is cast.”
|↑8||All through the Inferno, and the entire Poem, for that matter, we have heard about and seen the results of the incessant battles between the Guelf and Ghibelline parties. Dante the Poet and many of his characters have and will comment about it and the destruction to the social fabric of Florence caused by this feuding. Recall how, in Canto 6, Dante asked Ciacco about the whereabouts of five worthy Florentines who were intent on doing good. Ciacco remarked that they were among the blacker souls below. The last one mentioned there by Ciacco was Mosca. Here, at last, we meet the man – Mosca de’Lamberti – who brought the embers of enmity to full flame – and caused what Musa calls “the slow suicide of Florence.”
Here is the story. In 1215, 40 years before Dante was born, during a banquet celebrating the knighthood of a young Florentine, one of the guests, Buondelmonte de’ Buondelmonti, a rich, handsome young man, stabbed a rival in the arm. In restitution for the injury and dishonor, the elders decided that young Buondelmonte should wed a girl from the Amidei family. With that agreed to, the powerful Amidei and Buondelmonti families arranged an engagement ceremony, where Buondelmonte was to publicly pledge to marry the Amidei girl. With the Amidei assembled in the piazza, the young Buondelmonte rode past them, and instead asked for the hand of a girl from the Donati family. Furious, the Amidei and their allies plotted revenge. They debated whether they should scar Buondelmonte’s face, beat him up, or kill him. Mosca de’ Lamberti took the floor and argued that they should kill him at the place where he had dishonored them and get it over with (“What’s done is done!”). Not satisfied with a mere scarring of the face or a beating, we find Mosca here scarred and beaten, as it were, and moving about with his hands cut off!
So, on Easter morning on his way to marry the Donati girl, as Buondelmonte crossed the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, he was pulled from his horse and murdered by the Amidei and their allies. The Buondelmonte murder and the clan rivalry that grew from it became the legendary origin of the Guelf and Ghibelline conflict in Florence.
If Mosca had entertained the slightest hope of absolution by making his confession to Dante, there isn’t an ounce of it in Dante’s response. These are, without a doubt, the strongest words he speaks in the entire Poem! And while forgiveness would be the moral high ground here, Dante was surely thinking of the “seeds of strife” that grew out of Mosca’s words, and the countless thousands who had been killed or ruined because of the constant strife between the Guelfs and Ghibellines. Not to mention his own ruined life and resulting exile. Dante is as slashed and wounded internally as the sinners he encounters here are outwardly.
As it turned out, the Ghibelline Lambertis were later expelled from Florence on three different occasions and labeled as “enemies” of the Republic. After the final expulsion in 1280 (when Dante was 15), they disappeared from Florence entirely. The Ottimo Commento, the great Florentine Commentary on Dante’s Commedia, published a dozen years after his death in 1321, reports that “all the Lamberti, males and females, suffered some kind of punishment for Mosca’s crime, some by death, some by exile, some by the confiscation of their property.”
|↑9||A reader, particularly a first time reader, might find it hard to list in order the terrible sights Dante has presented along his journey through Hell. But if we pay attention to his words here, and even more so to his stumbling around, and even his wrestling with his conscience, we might agree that this scene is at the top of the list for him. So much so, that it has burned itself onto his memory – as though the image were still there when he closed his eyes. The decapitated man holds his head toward Dante and Virgil, looks right at them, and speaks its words of woe. One might suppose that if he wanted to speak to someone else, he would have pivoted and held his head in their direction, as Dante says, like a lantern – a flashlight! A ghoulish detail he leaves to us. But we must remember that this is absolutely real, and the Poet’s struggle with evidence and conscience makes it all the more so. Had he found words to adequately describe what he saw and what he felt, we might be less inclined to believe him. However, Dante has been honest with us at every turn. This is certainly the most impressive mutilation we’ve seen in this canto, and of the seven, this one is definitely the best.|
|↑10||The headless man continues to move toward where Dante and Virgil are, stopping just below the bridge s they’re standing on. Obviously, he had to hold his head up high in order to converse with them. His pride is obvious here, not only in asking Dante to remember him when he returns to the upper world (he must have heard Virgil explaining to Mohammed that Dante was alive), not only in his candid confession, but most of all in his “perfect” contrapasso. This, by the way, is the only time in his poem that Dante actually uses the word, though it has become commonplace to use it in reference to virtually every punishment meted out to sinners in both the Inferno and the Purgatorio. Musa notes:
“The term contrapasso, according to d’Ovidio, is derived from Aristotle and the Scholastic philosophers (especially Saint Thomas Aquinas). The prefix contra should not be taken to mean ‘contrary’ or ‘opposite’ but rather ‘in return, in exchange, in retribution.’”
Bertran de Born (1140-1215), a Provençal nobleman, was famous as a warrior and a troubadour (a fascinating combination). Much of his poetry focused on themes of military adventure. In his De Vulgari Eloquentia, Dante praises him as one of the most gifted martial poets. According to biographers, while he was accomplished on many levels, he had a penchant for dividing people who were otherwise friends. This was his sin, and his contrapasso will be a logical outcome.
Bertran tells Dante and Virgil that he instigated a quarrel between Henry II of England and his son, Prince Henry. There isn’t a lot of historical background related to this quarrel, and Dante may have relied for much of his information here on Provençal stories circulating at the time. In his confession, Bertran makes himself out to be worse than Achitophel and Absalom (see the story in 2 Samuel 15-17). Absalom was King David’s second son, and Achitophel was one of David’s counselors, but an evil one. He supported Absalom when he revolted against his father. When Absalom’s troops were routed by those of his father, he fled through a forest where his long hair became entangled in the branches while his mount kept going. The rebel prince was soon killed by Joab, one of David’s generals. Interestingly, like Guido da Montefeltro in the previous canto, Bertran died as a monk at the Cistercian monastery of Dalon near his castle in southwestern France.