Dante and Virgil now come to the place where various kinds of counterfeiters are punished.
(To read a footnote, click the number in the text. To come back from a footnote, click the up arrow at the note number.)
The more I saw of those mutilated crowds parading in that human slaughterhouse, the more stunned and confused I became. Imagine it: I wanted to keep looking, but I was repulsed and crying at the same time. Virgil came over to me and said: “What are you looking at? Why are you staring so intently at that mangled brood down there? You didn’t act this way at any of the other bolge. Keep in mind that this bolgia alone is twenty-two miles around. Time is running short. The moon is beneath us now, and there’s a lot more for us to see.”The previous canto ended without a segue, and we were left with the ghastly sight of Bertran de Born conversing with Dante while holding his severed and talking head up to him. At this point, Bertran … Continue reading
Still in tears, I replied somewhat testily: “Well, if you had taken the time to find out what I was looking for down there, maybe we could have stayed a little longer.” But Virgil kept moving on, and I continued my little rant as I traipsed along behind him: “I think there’s someone from my family down there paying that penalty for his sins.”
Still walking, Virgil turned to me and said: “Look, from now on, don’t give him another thought. Think about what’s ahead of us and leave him back there. You didn’t see it, but I did: he was standing under the bridge the whole time, pointing at you with threatening gestures. I heard someone call him Geri del Bello. You were so engrossed with the headless lord of Altaforte that you missed him.”
“My dear guide,” I sighed quietly, “his murder still hasn’t been avenged by those who were disgraced by it, and I suppose he went off without a word to me because he felt resentful. And now I feel even more pity because I didn’t get to see him.”Just as the schismatics were dis-jointed in their various mutilations, the dialogue between Virgil and Dante here is disjointed by the narrative that holds the conversation together. Actually, … Continue reading
So, we talked about this until we reached the bridge that crossed the tenth bolgia. If there had been a little more light, we might have been able to see the bottom from up there. When we did get to the top, that final cloister of Malebolge opened below us and now we could see all its “monks.” Let me tell you, the shrieking screams of pain that rose up out of there pierced me with such arrows of pity that I stood there covering my ears. Just imagine if we took all the sick out of the hospitals in Maremma, Valdichiana, and Sardinia in the middle of summer, and crammed them all together into that canyon – that’s what it was like down there. And to make it even worse, the stench coming off all those rotting, gangrenous sinners was almost more than I could bear!This marks the actual beginning of Canto 29. We have reached the bottom, tenth, level of Malebolge, and as Dante and Virgil cross the bridge over it, Dante remarks about the darkness as he has done … Continue reading
Continuing our course always to the left, we came down the other side of the bridge to that final bank of Malebolge where it was now clear enough for me to see all the way to the bottom. There the Almighty’s minister, infallible Justice, hands out her sentences against the earth’s counterfeiters. You know the story of how Juno sent a plague on the island of Aegina, which killed almost every living thing there, right down to the smallest worm. And then how, according to the poets, Jupiter repopulated the whole place from the ants. Well, I doubt whether that scene of plague could have come near the one that presented itself to me here in Hell’s deepest bolgia! Heaps of sinners were piled up together everywhere. Their grossly distorted bodies lay there all over each other, some spread out on each other’s bellies, some on others’ backs, and some clawing and dragging themselves along that immense ditch.Turning to the left, as we’ve been accustomed, Dante and Virgil arrive at the lowest part of the bridge arching over the tenth bolgia. One can imagine them looking upward into the darkness housing … Continue reading
In silence we slowly made our way through that putrid place, looking everywhere and listening to what words we could make out coming from those diseased sinners who no longer had the strength even to lift themselves up. Two of them nearby leaning against each other looked like pans propped together in the fire. But these two, covered from head to foot with great blotches and scabs, tore at themselves in a violent frenzy of scratching that did nothing to relieve their eternal itching! I was reminded of a stable-boy quickly running his curry-comb over his harsh master’s horse so he could finish his task and go to bed. They dug their nails so deeply into their flesh it was as though they were scaling fish with a knife!As though to remind his readers of what he compared this last bolgia to – namely a cloister with monks – Dante and Virgil walk slowly and silently among the sinners listening to them say their … Continue reading
Seeing them, Virgil called out: “You two over there, scratching wildly and gouging at your sores, may those pincer-fingers of yours serve you well for all eternity! Tell us, are there any Italians crammed into this place with you?”
Weeping loudly, one of them cried back: “You see two disfigured Italians right here in front of you. But who are you?”
“I am escorting this living man, showing him all of Hell – right down to the very bottom.” Hearing that, they lost each other’s support and turned aside to stare at me. And so did everyone else who heard Virgil’s reply. That dear guide then nudged me gently and said: “We’ve got their attention now, so go ahead and ask them anything you want to know.”Speaking first, Virgil takes the lead in a familiar fashion. He asks the two propped sinners – who seem not to have noticed them – if there were any Italians there, and tells them that he’s … Continue reading
I started: “May people’s memory of you live on in the world above, and so please tell me your names and where you were from when you were alive. Don’t let your terrible punishment discourage you from speaking candidly.”It should still be in the reader’s memory that Dante, on several occasions, uses this literary “carrot on a stick” to entice sinners to reveal their identities and tell their stories. And they … Continue reading
One of them began: “I’m from Arezzo, and Albert of Siena had me burned at the stake. But I’m not in this place for what I died for up there. To be honest, I was only joking when I told him that I knew the trick of flying through the air. The poor thing was rather dumb; but dying to learn, he couldn’t wait for me to show him how. When he realized I had made a fool of him, he reported me to the bishop. But, as I said, I’m not here for that. I’m down here in this last bolgia because I practiced alchemy in the world above, and this is where Minos, who’s never wrong, condemned me.”Although this sinner doesn’t give his name, he conveniently provides just enough information about himself that we can identify him as Griffolino d’Arezzo. He was, to quote Benvenuto, … Continue reading
Leaning aside to Virgil, I half whispered: “Have you ever known anyone as silly as the Sienese? Not even the French are that bad!”Here, as noted above, Dante confirms the humorous underlayer of this canto (like the sinners who are stacked or heaped) where, otherwise, its inhabitants have already been described as being horribly … Continue reading
The other sinner, who was listening in, joked back: “Except that spendthrift, Stricca, of course, who was so tight; and Niccolò, who introduced Siena to the luxury of cooking with cloves. Oh, and definitely not members of the fashionable Spendthrift Club, like Caccia d’Asciano, who squandered all his inheritance, and where Abbagliato amazed us with his wit! But just so you know who it is who’s joining your joke against the Sienese, look at me carefully and you’ll find out. I am Capocchio, the great counterfeiter, and if you’re who I think you are, you’ll recall what a master of fakery I really was!”It is Capocchio, the other Italian, who brings this canto to a gossipy conclusion. Capocchio is a nickname which means “blockhead” in Italian. Like his companion, Griffolino, we don’t know much … Continue reading
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Notes & Commentary
|↑1||The previous canto ended without a segue, and we were left with the ghastly sight of Bertran de Born conversing with Dante while holding his severed and talking head up to him. At this point, Bertran must have rejoined the procession of the mutilated schismatics that hasn’t stopped moving along below the bridge where Dante and Virgil have been standing. Dante, like we haven’t seen him before, is a mess of conflicted emotions: he’s stunned, confused, repulsed, and crying. He’s horrified by what he sees, but he tells us he can’t stop looking. More than that, in the Italian, he tells us that his eyes were “drunk” with the sight. At the same time, Virgil attempts to bring some sense back to his stricken companion by reminding him that there’s more to do and see. And for the first time in Hell, he gives us a the precise dimensions of this ninth bolgia, and this is one of the smallest of them. And as we’ve noted before, time in Hell is told by the position of the moon. If we calculate from the other time references Virgil has made, it’s now about 1:00pm and they’ve been traveling from the dark forest of Canto 1 since 7:00am the previous morning – about 18 hours.
The reference to the circumference of the ninth bolgia here has given rise to a great deal of speculation through the centuries about the size and structure of Hell. Even Galileo wrote a treatise on it. We know that it lies not far beneath the surface of the earth and that it’s shaped like a kind of funnel that ends at the earth’s center. Some attempts to determine the size of Hell have ended with a place much smaller than what Dante seems to intend, while others have created impossibly colossal structures. In the end, the best measure is one’s imagination.
|↑2||Just as the schismatics were dis-jointed in their various mutilations, the dialogue between Virgil and Dante here is disjointed by the narrative that holds the conversation together. Actually, the two come quite close to a break between themselves. All of this points us back to the scenes Dante saw in the previous canto, the images which he still carries with him. At the same time, much of what the two travelers discuss is actually unseen, which makes a reasonable interaction between them all the more difficult. Dante is already in a highly emotional state when Virgil tells him they need to move along. Feeling that Virgil doesn’t share what he’s going through, Dante responds rather sharply and reveals that a member of his family might have been down in that slaughtering ditch. Virgil, on the other hand, seems to reply rather unsympathetically, until we realize that while Dante was talking with Bertran de Born, he was unaware that Virgil was watching his cousin under the bridge make threatening gestures. (Bertran was the “lord of Altaforte,” Italian for Hautefort, Bertran’s castle). One could also read Virgil here as telling Dante: “You seemed to be more interested in talking to Bertrand de Born than your own cousin!” Nevertheless, learning this, Dante softens a bit, and tells Virgil that Geri del Bello was murdered and that the crime has yet to be avenged. After he learned what Virgil saw, Dante probably realized that any meeting between himself and Geri would have been painful, and so he feels even more pity for the disgraced man. At this point, and given Dante’s fragile emotional state, Virgil probably realizes that it would be better if he did not repeat what he told him in Canto 20 as he wept at the sight of the twisted fortune-tellers: pity is dead in this place! The pious thing here is to have no pity. The burning question, however, is what Geri is doing here in the first place. As always, there’s more than meets the eye.
Geri del Bello was a first cousin of Dante’s father, otherwise little else is known about him. He seems to have been a trouble-maker, was involved in a blood feud with the Sacchetti family, and was later murdered by Brodaio dei Sacchetti. By 1300, when the Inferno is set, this murder was not avenged, though it was avenged in 1310. In Dante’s day, vengeance of this kind was both lawful and almost required as a matter of honor. And there seems to have been scriptural backing for it – see Numbers 35:19: “The kinsman of him that was slain, shall kill the murderer.” Yet at another place, happily, the Bible has God telling Israel: “Vengeance is mine, I will repay!” (Deuteronomy 32:35)
But there still remains the question of where Dante stood in relation to this tradition of vendetta. Some commentators suggest that Dante’s concern here had more to do with the suffering of his relative in Hell than with avenging his murder. And a few suggest the opposite. Geri may feel he has cause to be angry at Dante because his murder has not been avenged. This seems fairly clear from the text. Interestingly, though, his threatening gesticulations and his not waiting to speak with Dante are themselves actions that foment schism – in this case among family members. Dante, the relative, obviously interprets Geri’s gestures and departure differently, and he tells Virgil that this caused him to feel all the more pity for him. In the end, we don’t know where Dante stood on this issue because, apart from here, Dante the Poet has not addressed the subject in writing.
Perhaps a better way to approach the issue is to step away from murder and revenge and look at Dante’s overall stance on sin, mercy, and forgiveness which are at the heart of his Commedia. Dante tells Virgil that he felt “pity” (pio) for Geri. In the Italian this line reads, ”e in ciò m’ha el fatto a sé più pio.” Translators generally render this as Dante feeling more pity for Geri. Many use the word compassion. Perhaps if Dante had been writing in Latin, he would have used the word pietas here to describe his feeling because this Latin word specifically denotes what he, in fact, says he experiences: loyalty, filial devotion, duty, etc. Once again, though, the tortured tension between duty and pity fit perfectly here as the Poet really quite clearly exhibits in his words and in Dante the Pilgrim’s actions and feelings the struggles that result from separating things that should otherwise be together. By the way, one wonders in what way Geri was mutilated.
|↑3||This marks the actual beginning of Canto 29. We have reached the bottom, tenth, level of Malebolge, and as Dante and Virgil cross the bridge over it, Dante remarks about the darkness as he has done before. This amplifies the momentary sense of mystery and anticipation. Arriving at the top of the bridge, and in a moment of black humor, perhaps, Dante uses monastic imagery, describing this bolgia as a cloister, and its inhabitants – variously translated – as monks or lay brothers.
But here, all humor stops when Dante hears the “shrieking screams of pain” that fly up at him like arrows. Reminiscent of his opening image in the previous canto, where he piled battles and bodies on top of each other to make his point, he does the same here with his hospital images. In the previous canto, he told us he was horrified at all the mutilated bodies he saw, but couldn’t stop looking at them. Here, he covers his ears because the screams are too much. And note how he cleverly describes each scream as an arrow of pity striking him, wounding him. And yet, as we’ll see, it will be the sinners below who are wounded.
Furthermore, Dante is just as specific with names and places here as he was with his list of wars and battles in the previous canto. The Maremma and the Valdichiana (Valley of the Chiana River) are presently rich agricultural regions on the western (Maremma) and eastern (Valdichiana) sides of Tuscany. However, they were not always like this. In Dante’s time, they were covered with swamps and marshes filled with dangerous creatures and breeding grounds for mosquitoes and malaria. Dante died of malaria after traveling through the swampy region of Comacchio between Venice and Ravenna. Like its mainland counterparts, the island of Sardinia in Dante’s time was also known for its disease-filled swamps.
And so, to make matters worse here, Dante empties all the hospitals in these regions of their diseased patients – in the middle of summer when pestilential diseases are at their height – and puts them into the tenth bolgia! With all their rotting stench! And here, the stench comes from the sinners themselves, apart from the already terrible stench coming up from the bottom of Hell. One might think of this “hospital” for the diseased as a counterpart to the “hospital” for the mutilated in the previous canto.
|↑4||Turning to the left, as we’ve been accustomed, Dante and Virgil arrive at the lowest part of the bridge arching over the tenth bolgia. One can imagine them looking upward into the darkness housing the immense infernal amphitheater of Malebolge. Then they look down into the ditch itself where they can now see everything clearly, and they begin to descend.
Dante immediately begins to see the workings of another of God’s “ministers,” in this case Justice. (Recall Virgil’s explanation of Fortune, a previous “minister.” in Canto 7.) And, we’re also accustomed to his allusion to some past – in this case mythical – event that sets the scene for what he is about to describe. In this case, he borrows a story of the Plague of Aegina from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (VII,523-660). The Greek island of Aegina was named for a nymph who was the daughter of a river god. She fathered a child from Zeus named Aeacus, who later became king of the island. Hera became enraged with jealousy at her husband’s philandering and sent a terrible plague on the island which killed every living thing except Aeacus and the ants. Aeacus prayed to his father for help and Zeus repopulated the island from the ants.
Ovid’s long account of the plague is so remarkably realistic it could have been written by an eyewitness. Recalling what Dante did in Canto 25 by outdoing his literary predecessors, we see the Poet doing the same here by cleverly populating Ovid’s account with “contemporary” sinners – and telling us plainly that he’ll even out-do it. And so, over the next two cantos we’re witness to sinners who commit the lowest and most serious forms of fraud – heaps of them: falsifiers of things, of persons, of money, and of words. All of these, as Dante has noted, are afflicted with serious diseases and deformities as an appropriate contrapasso. Such falsifying of things robs the truth and reality of their form – literally rotting them, and so Dante’s counterfeiters appear to us, robbed and rotted.
|↑5||As though to remind his readers of what he compared this last bolgia to – namely a cloister with monks – Dante and Virgil walk slowly and silently among the sinners listening to them say their “prayers.” Falsifiers decrease the worth of things, and to accompany his “humor” Dante chooses images that are utterly commonplace: sinners covered with (dripping?) sores propped together like pans drying out on a stove, or combing a horse, or scaling a fish – and all the while violently scratching at itches that will never be satisfied.|
|↑6||Speaking first, Virgil takes the lead in a familiar fashion. He asks the two propped sinners – who seem not to have noticed them – if there were any Italians there, and tells them that he’s guiding Dante to the bottom of Hell. But not before using the “magic words” to get their attention: he’s alive. Humorously, however, he sweetens his request with what every “itcher” wants: a good “scratcher.” Then, hearing that the two propped sinners are, in fact, Italians, and now seeming to have everyone’s attention, Virgil prompts Dante to speak.|
|↑7||It should still be in the reader’s memory that Dante, on several occasions, uses this literary “carrot on a stick” to entice sinners to reveal their identities and tell their stories. And they generally oblige. Dante seems to take a risk by asking these sinners to be candid, but they will be. Of course, it’s the Poet underneath the Pilgrim’s words who has their stories ready to hand. And odd as it may seem for souls condemned to Hell for terrible sins, many of them still seek fame or notoriety in the world of the living.|
|↑8||Although this sinner doesn’t give his name, he conveniently provides just enough information about himself that we can identify him as Griffolino d’Arezzo. He was, to quote Benvenuto, “… a man very well versed in the science of nature and in alchemy.” Apparently, he was quite charismatic and glib about his abilities and seems to have duped his rich and credulous friend, Albert, son of the bishop of Siena, into believing he possessed extraordinary powers, and that he could teach the witless man how to fly. The gullible Albert, realizing that his payments for lessons amounted to nothing but words, he denounced Griffolino as a sorcerer to his father, the bishop. In turn, the bishop had Griffolino burned at the stake. The unwary Albert was apparently from a noble and wealthy Sienese family, and commentators seem to be divided as to whether he was the natural son of the bishop or whether he was adopted. In addition, we have no specific dates for Griffolino other than his name appearing in a Bolognese document dated 1259.
A few words on alchemy: Alchemy is a word of Arabic origin and one might think of modern chemistry as evolving from alchemy, just as one might think of astronomy as evolving from astrology. The roots of alchemical science go back far into the past and come down to us as a fascinating mix of primitive chemistry, philosophy, natural science, religion, mysticism, and the occult. It involves a cast of ancient Greek and Egyptian philosophers, later Muslim scholars, and Medieval European practitioners. In its simplest sense, though there is much more to the field than this, alchemy is the practice of transmuting base metals like lead through a chemical process that will result in their change to precious metals like silver or gold. One of the alchemist’s goals was, through a series of reductions, to arrive at a substance called “the philosopher’s stone” which, when mixed with certain metals would turn them into gold. Thus, by processes of boiling, burning, refining, reducing, and mixing, one could purify baser metals into their “noble” state. In fact, there are several modern processes involving chemistry, metallurgy, and physics by which elements and compounds can be changed into other substances, even gold. But they also require immense amounts of energy, worth more, in the end, than the metal itself. At the same time, this “noble” (though perhaps oversimplified) explanation led to a darker process whereby nefarious individuals, such as those we meet in these cantos, subverted the process to create “silver” and “gold” which were not the real substances but facsimiles by which their creators could dupe others into believing that they were, in fact, real. In 1317, the Church condemned the practice of both alchemy and astrology. Practitioners could be accused of heresy or sorcery and burned at the stake. Nevertheless, several advances in medicine and toxicology can also be attributed to earlier alchemical discoveries.
Now Griffolino, who really has no reason to be honest, tells Dante twice that he’s not in Hell for sorcery or, at least, the kind of magical alchemy that would have landed him in the fourth bolgia with the fortune-tellers. Instead, he’s really here for the kind of alchemy that falsified baser metals as silver and gold. This sets a nice contrast between human justice which may be faulty (his execution for the wrong charge), and divine Justice which is always correct, as Griffolino indicates in his allusion to Minos. Humorously, the Anonimo Fiorentino records this conversation between Albert and Griffolino, who pointed out to him one of the particular advantages of being able to fly: “You see, Albero, there are few things I cannot do. If I wanted to, I could teach you to fly. Then, if there were any woman in Siena you liked, you could fly into her house through the window.” While this is comical, it is also an outright lie hidden in the humor here, and it is this kind of falsification of language is what lands Griffolino here in Hell. Of course, there is a dark humor in this canto (and the next one) that will lead Dante to remark how silly the Sienese are, followed by more gossipy information freely proffered by the other Italian sinner. All of this will be climaxed by the great “cat fight” that ends Canto 30. The reader must understand, of course, that Dante the Poet allows the Pilgrim to participate in this foolish “mis-“use of language as part of his strategy to present the subtlety of counterfeiting and falsification of all kinds.
|↑9||Here, as noted above, Dante confirms the humorous underlayer of this canto (like the sinners who are stacked or heaped) where, otherwise, its inhabitants have already been described as being horribly deformed and diseased. It was common among Florentines to poke fun at both the Sienese and the French, and the early commentators are filled with examples, like how the hilly Sienese couldn’t walk straight on flat Florence streets, or Sienese being like nails without heads, or the overly vain French who adorned every part of their bodies and their clothing with some new article or decoration. Benvenuto remarks that:
“Since antiquity, the French have been the vainest of people. Julius Caesar remarked it often; and today, it is proved by the facts…. They wear a chain around their necks, a bracelet on the arm, pointed footwear, short clothing…and many other vanities.”
One must enjoy the fact that even Dante is caught up in the gossip (which is, in a sense, the counterfeiting of the truth). Are we to imagine Dante – yet he tells us so – asking Virgil, of all people, whether he’s ever known a sillier people than the Sienese, or the French?
|↑10||It is Capocchio, the other Italian, who brings this canto to a gossipy conclusion. Capocchio is a nickname which means “blockhead” in Italian. Like his companion, Griffolino, we don’t know much about him, except that he was an alchemist/counterfeiter and that, according to an official city document, he was burned at the stake in Siena in 1293. He subtly claims to have known Dante, and some commentators suggest that they were school fellows early on. Some scholars also suggest that he was from Siena, while others say from Florence. In the Italian text, he tells Dante he was a good ape of nature, obviously touting his skills as an alchemist.
But in his sarcasm, Capocchio tells us about more than himself. He agrees with Dante that the Sienese are effete, but sarcastically excepts several men who may have been his companions and members of the notorious Brigata Spendereccia or “Spendthrift’s Brigade.” This group was made up of twelve young, very wealthy rascals who sought to outdo each other in extravagantly wasting their money. It wasn’t long before they ended up as paupers. We know hardly anything else about them. Stricca, or Baldastricca di Giovanni de’Salimbeni, was apparently a Sienese lawyer and Podestà of Bologna for some time, and Niccolò had gourmet tastes. About Caccia d’Asciano and Abbagliato we know hardly anything. Caccia apparently squandered a fortune in vineyards and property. Abbagliato is a nickname which means “dazed.” Musa seems to be alone among scholars who adds this information about him.
“[He] has been identified as one Bartolomeo dei Folcacchieri, who held office in Siena until 1300, when he died. He was another member of this ‘fashionable club,’ which in less than two years succeeded in squandering its members’ pooled wealth of 216,000 gold florins.”
In the end, Musa also offers an excellent summary as this canto comes to a very sociable end: “The general atmosphere of the scene is that of a group of friends trying to top one another’s ability to poke fun at another group. The travelers and the sinners, it seems, are all on the same side in this canto. They copy one another indiscriminately—like the counterfeiters and alchemists they are.”