Dante and Virgil speak with other falsifiers. A fight breaks out between two sinners.
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In times long past, when Juno was furious at the Thebans because of Jupiter’s affair with Semele, she also caused King Athamas to go mad. One day his wife came to him with her two baby sons. In his deranged mind he thought she was a lioness with her cubs, and cried out: “Spread the nets! I want to trap the lioness with her cubs!” Then, with his merciless claws, he rushed at her, snatched his son, Learchus, out of her arms, and whirling him in the air, smashed his head against a rock! In the madness of her grief, his wife threw herself into the sea with her other son and drowned!Having left the previous canto in a somewhat jovial spirit, the horror of this opening scene brings us back to the reality of the tenth bolgia where madness reigns among the sinners here. The reader … Continue reading
And when Fortune turned against the arrogant Trojans, destroying both their king and their kingdom, the victorious Greeks enslaved the Trojan queen, Hecuba, and her daughter, Polyxena. But when Polyxena was brutally slain as a sacrificial offering to Achilles who had been killed in battle, and when the grieving Hecuba later discovered the body of her murdered son, Polydorus, washed up from the sea, she went stark-raving mad and was turned into a barking dog!For a third time in as many cantos, Dante has prepared the scene for his readers by multiplying stories of battles, themes of sickness and disease, and now two tales of madness and grief. In this … Continue reading
With these scenes of madness in mind, though, I have to tell you that never in Thebes or in Troy were people driven to such maniacal fury against their victims – animal or human – as two wild naked sinners I saw rushing around with rabid ferocity, snapping at everything like wild pigs broken out of their pen. One of them flew at Capocchio, sank his fang-like teeth into the back of his neck, and dragged him away with his belly scraping on the rocky ground!With two mythological stories Dante sets the stage for the reality of madness we see played out here. And he amplifies this reality by wanting us to believe that what he witnessed here was the worst … Continue reading
Frightened out of his wits, the one from Arezzo said to us: “See that crazed one over there? That’s Gianni Schicchi. He’s like a mad dog and treats everyone like that!”The frightened sinner here is Griffolino who, along with Capocchio, we met in the previous canto. Both were alchemists. Gianni Schicchi, along with Myrrha whom we will soon meet, are here because … Continue reading
Taking advantage of the moment, I said quickly: “I surely hope that other spirit over there never attacks you like that, so please tell me who she is before she runs off.”
“Oh,” he replied, “That’s the ancient shade of Myrrha. So depraved was she in her incestuous desires for her father, that, disguised as her mother, she took her place in his bed and made love with him! That other one over there, running off, disguised himself too. He wanted a prized she-mule so badly that he pretended he was his uncle, Buoso Donati. He had a perfect new will made, and named himself as heir to the animal.” And with that, those rabid ones, whom I never stopped watching, ran off, and I turned my attention to other evil spirits in that reeking place.Interestingly, Dante has Griffolino tell the story of Myrrha before he tells him about Gianni Schicchi, who just grabbed Capocchio by the back of the neck and ran off with him. As already … Continue reading
As I looked around, I caught sight of one – how do I say it – if his legs had been cut off he would have looked just like a lute! His stomach was so horribly bloated by dropsy that the rest of him was all disproportioned. His puny face matched his skinny legs, and his pushed-out lips were wide apart like someone in a fever or dying of thirst – the top one curled up and the other one hanging downward. “Hey, you there,” he shouted to us, “you, walking without punishment through this world of pain (and I don’t know why), stop for a while and see how I suffer. I’m Master Adamo. When I was alive, I had everything you could possibly want. And now – look at me – craving for just one drop of water! I’m haunted by the thought of those little streams that flow from the lush countryside of Casentino down to the Arno. Imagining their cool, wet banks leaves me more parched than the bloat that fills my belly and leaves my face dry and shriveled.
“What you see in me is Divine Justice, relentless, tantalizing in how clever it works: the more I imagine the beauty of the place where I sinned, the more I groan in pain! It’s right in front of me – the Romena castle where I learned how to counterfeit gold florins with the Baptist’s head on them. For that they burned me at the stake! But, you know? I’d gladly forget the sight of Branda’s fountain if I could see even one of those wretched Conti Guidi brothers down here in Hell – Guido or Alexander or the other one! Actually, I’m told that one of them is already here – if you can believe these mad dogs running wild down here. But, what good will it do me? My legs are useless. How I wish I was lighter. Even if I could crawl just one inch every hundred years – I would have started looking for him long ago among this grisly bunch (even though this place circles around for eleven miles and sits about half a mile across)! My being here with this rotting crowd is all their fault. They’re the ones who encouraged me to make those impure florins.”We now come to the third group of falsifiers, those who falsified money. Counterfeiting money is a way of bloating out of proportion something that is already rotten. The end product seems to have … Continue reading
Curious, I asked him: “Those two over there on your right, who are they? It looks like steam is coming off them.”
“Those two?” he replied. “They were here when I was thrown down into this place. I’ve never seen either of them move – they’ll probably be like that forever. One of them is the wife of the Egyptian, Potiphar, who accused young Joseph of trying to seduce her. The other one is Sinon the Greek from Troy, who lied to the Trojans when he was captured and convinced them to bring in the great horse. They both suffer from such a burning fever that it makes them stink and steam like that.”All the while Master Adamo has been speaking, one might imagine that Dante was staring curiously at two other falsifiers nearby. Adamo identifies them, but tells Dante he’s never seen them move … Continue reading
Sinon, probably angered by the way he was introduced, smacked Adamo’s huge belly, which sounded like a drum when he hit it.Now begins the great “cat fight:” Sinon and Adamo engaging in tit-for-tat insults that will bring this canto to a nasty conclusion. All the while, note, Potiphar’s wife is silent. Sinon, … Continue reading
Not to be outdone, Adamo swung out his arm and hit Sinon square in the face, saying: “I may not be free to move around, swelled up as I am, but I’ve got a ready arm as you can see!”His legs, arms, and head, as noted in the initial description of him as a lute, were not bloated.
“A ready arm?” said Sinon. “How ready was it when you went to the stake? Oh, but it was always ready to counterfeit, wasn’t it?”Master Adamo was bound and burned at the stake by the Florentines in 1281 after a house in Florence caught fire (an irony). Amid the ruins were many partially melted florins. They were discovered to … Continue reading
The bloated Adamo quickly replied: “Now you tell the truth, but where was your truth at Troy?”
“Yes, my words were false. But so were your coins,” said Sinon. “I’m here for one lie. But you? For more than any devil here in Hell!”This is a clever retort on Sinon’s part. He admits to the truth of Adamo’s slam that he told one grand lie to the Trojans when he was captured (the story is well worth reading in the Aeneid). … Continue reading
“Well, don’t forget the horse, you damned liar!” that great belly hollered back. “I hope your guts burn and burn every time the world remembers what you did at Troy!”In this retort, Adamo goes beyond the pains of Hell already wreaked upon them, and hopes that every time the story of Sinon’s treachery is read he will feel the pain of it – most likely the shame … Continue reading
“My guts?” shouted Sinon. “Let yours burn with such thirst that your tongue cracks! Let them burn with all those foul humors that blow you up so big you can’t see in front of you!”
Adamo let him have it again: “Keep it up! Nothing but filth pours out of your mouth. If I thirst and swell up, you burn all the more, and your headache hurts so bad you could easily slurp Narcissus’ pond dry!”Sinon’s “blows” on Adamo’s “drum” come to a close in this final exchange. He refers to the “foul humors” – the foul fluids – that bloat his opponent, but Adamo throws those humors … Continue reading
Well, there I was listening to this wonderful fight, completely taken in by those sinners and their nasty jousting. But then I heard Virgil’s angry words: “Go ahead! Enjoy yourself more while I lose all patience with you!” Oh, my…there was no missing the annoyance in his voice. I was so ashamed when I turned to face him that it still burns me to this day. For a moment it was as if I were dreaming that I was in trouble, and wishing in the dream that I was just dreaming. Of course, I was speechless with shame, but longing to ask him to forgive me. And the whole time I was already asking him but not realizing it – my shame had so confounded me.Suddenly, Dante (and the reader?) is utterly and unpleasantly surprised because his attention has dropped from the lofty purpose of his heaven-mandated journey to a foul row between two equally foul … Continue reading
But Virgil was gentle with me. “Listen, now. Forget the whole thing. Less shame than yours would have washed away a greater fault. Don’t be downcast. But if you should ever find yourself in a situation like this, remember that I’m always here next to you. You see, people who like that kind of talk are really vulgar.”Virgil, who can read Dante’s mind, can see the great remorse in the Pilgrim’s heart – more than would be necessary for an even greater fault. Restoring his companion’s dignity, and assuring … Continue reading
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Notes & Commentary
|↑1||Having left the previous canto in a somewhat jovial spirit, the horror of this opening scene brings us back to the reality of the tenth bolgia where madness reigns among the sinners here. The reader will recall the jealous revenge of Juno from the previous canto where she sent a plague upon Aegina, an island named for her promiscuous husband’s lover. The plague killed virtually all its inhabitants, but Jupiter raised up new ones from the ants. Here Dante continues in the same vein, adapting his story from Ovid. Jupiter had an affair with Semele, the daughter of King Cadmus of Thebes, and she gave birth to Bacchus. In a rage of jealousy Juno had Semele killed by lightning, and then sent Tisiphone (one of the Furies; recall them from Canto 9) to strike Athamas, King of Boeotia, with madness. One day, Athamas saw his wife, Ino (sister of Semele), bringing him his two sons. In what seems to have been a fit of hallucination, he thought she was a lioness with her cubs. Athamas then killed Learchus and following that, the grief-stricken Ino threw herself off a cliff into the sea with her other son, Melicertes.|
|↑2||For a third time in as many cantos, Dante has prepared the scene for his readers by multiplying stories of battles, themes of sickness and disease, and now two tales of madness and grief. In this case we have the aftermath of the Trojan war. Hecuba, queen of Troy, and her daughter, Polyxena, were taken captive by the Greeks. Polyxena was later slain as a funeral offering for Achilles, and Hecuba, mourning for her by the seashore, there also discovered the washed-up body of her murdered son, Polydorus. She went mad with grief and, depending on which version of the story one reads, her mournful cries were like those of a mad dog, or in another story she herself was turned into a mad dog.|
|↑3||With two mythological stories Dante sets the stage for the reality of madness we see played out here. And he amplifies this reality by wanting us to believe that what he witnessed here was the worst kind of maniacal behavior – ever! We’ve already been introduced to the wild animal theme in Athamas’ madness and Hecuba’s transformation. Now, two sinners take up the theme, rushing about like starved and rabid creatures, and Capocchio, who seemed so chatty in the previous canto, is dragged away by the nape of his neck like the prey of some wild beast. And to drop whatever may be left of human dignity at this point, Dante adds the rather embarrassing note that Capocchio’s (fat?) belly scraped along the ground as he was dragged away.|
|↑4||The frightened sinner here is Griffolino who, along with Capocchio, we met in the previous canto. Both were alchemists. Gianni Schicchi, along with Myrrha whom we will soon meet, are here because they were impersonators – falsifiers of people. Gianni (d. 1280) was a member of the famous Cavalcanti family of Florence (recall Cavalcante dei Cavalcanti and his son, Guido, in Canto 10. Guido was probably Dante’s closest friend.). He was a notorious impersonator and Griffolino will tell the most notable story about him in a moment. The earlier “fangs” in Capocchio’s neck, the “mad dog” here, and Hecuba howling like a wild dog (or having turned into one) all connect to the madness of this place. Cleverly, madness is the contrapasso for Gianni Schicchi the impersonator. He’s lost his real identity and rushes about like a rabid animal. Appearing out of nowhere and disappearing almost as quickly, Dante has Griffolino refer to him as a folletto, a spirit or goblin.|
|↑5||Interestingly, Dante has Griffolino tell the story of Myrrha before he tells him about Gianni Schicchi, who just grabbed Capocchio by the back of the neck and ran off with him. As already noted, both Myrrha and Gianni were falsifiers by impersonation. Musa notes that they are “the only two sinners in the Commedia who are mentally deranged.” Myrrha was the daughter of Cinyras, the King of Cyprus (thus Dante, who borrows this story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, refers to her as an “ancient” shade). She developed an unquenchable sexual passion for her father, and with the help of her old nurse, and in the absence of her mother, fooled the king – on several nights – into thinking she was someone else. Realizing one night that his mate was, in fact, his daughter, Cinyras ran for his sword in attempt to kill her. By now, already pregnant, Myrrah ran away and escaped the horrified king’s wrath. She prayed to the gods to take her from this life and was transformed into a myrtle tree.
Griffolino now returns to the famous impersonator, Gianni Schicchi, and tells Dante what has become the most famous story about him. Gianni’s uncle, Buoso Donati (ca. 1180-1250), died, but his death was concealed for a bit. His son, Simone, feared that he would be cut out of his father’s estate. Gianni was a good friend of Simone, who engaged him to impersonate the dying old man, call for the notaries, and change his will in Simone’s favor on his deathbed. This Gianni did with such perfection that the fraud apparently was never discovered. And before signing the false document, Gianni willed to himself a prized she-mule.
|↑6||We now come to the third group of falsifiers, those who falsified money. Counterfeiting money is a way of bloating out of proportion something that is already rotten. The end product seems to have value but, as the saying goes, it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on. Dante’s description of Master Adamo portrays his mid-body as so bloated by fluid (dropsy) that it might burst at any moment. He’s a physical representation of his sin. His comparison to a lute is both a nasty comment and appropriate. Adamo suffers physical pain because of his disease, but he suffers a deeper “dis-ease” as he remembers happier times in a world where he enjoyed all the comforts. All of these together comprise his contrapasso. Edema or fluid retention in the body is often caused by congestive heart failure, among other organ failures. In Dante’s time this would have been unknown, but the idea of “failure of the heart” is a good image for what Adamo’s counterfeiting has done to the currency. His edema is also ironic. He’s so filled with fluid that he could burst, but he’s also dying of thirst caused by his remembrance of the lovely Casentino region southeast of Florence where the Arno has its source. Recalling how, in the previous canto, Bertran de Born told Dante that the perfect contrapasso was epitomized in him there with his head cut off, Adamo suggests something similar about the clever contrapasso he experiences: the more he thinks of the lush watershed of the Casentino, the more pain he suffers.
Apart from the few facts he tells us, we don’t know much about Master Adamo. Dante calls him maestro Adamo or master because he was known as a consummate counterfeiter whose coins bore the same weight as an original gold florin. And, interestingly, it was the Florentines who eventually caught him and had him burned at the stake for his crimes. The Florentine florin was made of 24-carat gold and was first minted by the Republic in 1252. Because Florentine banks and businesses had operations all over Europe, the florin soon became one of the major currencies of Europe for the next three hundred years. One side of the coin had an image of St. John the Baptist, patron saint of Florence; and on the other side was a fleur-de-lis, the heraldic lily flower of Florence. The name fiorino or “florin” comes from the word fiore which means “flower” in Italian.
Some early commentators tell us that Adamo was from Brescia in northern Italy, but Musa states that modern scholarship shows that he was not, in fact, an Italian. As Adamo himself tells us, he worked as a counterfeiter for the Counts of Guidi (Guido, Alessandro, Aghinolfo, and Ildebrandino) at their castle at Romena in the Casentino region. The brother already here in Hell is most likely Guido, who died before 1300, the date the Poem is said to have taken place. The others were alive after that. Adamo, blaming the Guidi brothers for his crime (typical in Hell), strikes a vengeful note when he tells Dante that he would go looking for Guido if it weren’t for his incapacitating dropsy – even if he could only go an inch every hundred years. In the mean time, he dreams of drinking from the cool waters of the spring of Branda near Romena.
Finally, in his wishful thinking about catching up with Guido Guidi, Adamo reveals some more tantalizing structural information about Hell. This tenth bolgia is 11 miles in circumference and a half mile wide. The last measurement we had was given by Virgil near the beginning of the previous canto – and that was 22 miles in circumference. Not only does this add to the realism of Adamo’s comments, but Dante sneaks this in to give us a sense that we are nearing the bottom part of Hell because the diameter across it is getting smaller.
|↑7||All the while Master Adamo has been speaking, one might imagine that Dante was staring curiously at two other falsifiers nearby. Adamo identifies them, but tells Dante he’s never seen them move while he’s been there.
The first sinner is the wife of Potiphar. The story is in the Book of Genesis (39:6-23). Joseph’s jealous brothers sold him as a slave to some traders heading to Egypt. They, in turn, sold him to Potiphar, the chief steward of the Pharaoh. Seeing that Joseph was a very capable and upright young man, Potiphar soon put Joseph in charge of his entire house and all his affairs. Potiphar’s wife (she is never named in the biblical story) developed an inordinate passion for the young slave and sought to ensnare him on several occasions, but he always escaped. Once, when she grabbed him, he slid out of his cloak and ran away. Seeing that she could not seduce him, she called her husband, showed him Joseph’s cloak, and feigned that she had been raped. Potiphar immediately put Joseph in prison.
The second sinner Adamo identifies is Sinon the Greek. Actually, Adamo (Dante) calls him “the Greek from Troy” both as an insult and as a subtle announcement of his sin. His story comes from Virgil’s Aeneid (II,57-194) and is closely connected with the great Trojan Horse. Pretending that he had deserted the Greeks during their siege of Troy, the Trojans gave Sinon refuge. The great wooden horse the Greeks had dragged to the city, he told them, was supposed to be a peace offering to make amends for the theft of the sacred Palladium stolen from Troy by Ulysses and Diomedes (see Canto 26). The Trojans brought the horse into their city, and the rest is history. Interestingly, this story is not found in Homer’s epics; it is Virgil, the Roman who recounts it. It’s also fascinating to have Virgil here with Dante listening to one of the sinners tell Dante a story from his Aeneid.
Adamo ends by pointing to the contrapasso for this pair of immobile sinners who falsified by perjury: a terrible fever that causes them to stink because of the profuse amount of sweat (steam) it produces. Hollander notes: “Both suffer from high fever, seen not as a symptom of other ailments, but as a disease in itself; both worked treacherously against a ‘chosen people,’ the Hebrews and the Trojans.”
|↑8||Now begins the great “cat fight:” Sinon and Adamo engaging in tit-for-tat insults that will bring this canto to a nasty conclusion. All the while, note, Potiphar’s wife is silent. Sinon, no doubt, is angered by Adamo’s gossipy tattling on him in connection with the Trojan horse. But this mention of the horse is important because that ancient trick led to the fall of Troy which, through the destiny of Aeneas, led to the founding of Rome. That Sinon’s gut sounded like a drum when struck would not have been unusual, considering his terrible edema that both distorted his mid-section and completely immobilized him.|
|↑9||His legs, arms, and head, as noted in the initial description of him as a lute, were not bloated.|
|↑10||Master Adamo was bound and burned at the stake by the Florentines in 1281 after a house in Florence caught fire (an irony). Amid the ruins were many partially melted florins. They were discovered to be counterfeits when they were brought to the treasury to be re-minted.|
|↑11||This is a clever retort on Sinon’s part. He admits to the truth of Adamo’s slam that he told one grand lie to the Trojans when he was captured (the story is well worth reading in the Aeneid). But, he replies with exaggeration (to Adamo’s “exaggerated” body), each of the hundreds of counterfeit florins Adamo minted was a lie in itself. More lies than any devil in Hell!|
|↑12||In this retort, Adamo goes beyond the pains of Hell already wreaked upon them, and hopes that every time the story of Sinon’s treachery is read he will feel the pain of it – most likely the shame of perpetual recognition and the repetition of his deceit. In a subtle way, this is also a matter of exaggeration. If one reads the 157 lines in the Aeneid where Virgil tells the story of Sinon, it is clear that this pseudo-Trojan is a master at exaggeration as he spins his story for the gullible Trojans.|
|↑13||Sinon’s “blows” on Adamo’s “drum” come to a close in this final exchange. He refers to the “foul humors” – the foul fluids – that bloat his opponent, but Adamo throws those humors back. If they store up and bloat Adamo, they never stop flowing out of Sinon’s mouth. And for one last poke, he throws in their contrapasso. Adamo swells up out of proportion, but Sinon’s fever burns him so badly that even the pool that Narcissus stared into would not quench him. Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection, but neither Sinon nor Adamo would relish seeing theirs at this point. The story of Narcissus’ love affair with his own reflection is found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and the story of Sinon’s clever treachery comes from Virgil’s Aeneid. Earlier, Adamo longed for his previous life of comfort, and his familiarity with the great classics as he speaks with Dante shows that he was also well-educated. The vulgar bickering between these two sinners, certainly on the part of Master Adamo, contrasts with the elegance of the classical literature he quotes, and highlights again the sin of counterfeiting can involve even language itself.|
|↑14||Suddenly, Dante (and the reader?) is utterly and unpleasantly surprised because his attention has dropped from the lofty purpose of his heaven-mandated journey to a foul row between two equally foul sinners. The Poet’s language in this scene is amazingly convoluted, nightmarish, in and out of reality, and compounded with shame and embarrassment. He captures perfectly the humility we would feel at the moment when our closest friend, mentor, and guide, who has been so patient with us, and whom we have done everything in our power to please, loses his composure and yells at us. At the same time, we have an intense desire to apologize but we’re helpless to express our remorse adequately. What the Poet also captures so well at this moment is our dark human fascination with public fights, tragedy, misfortune, or even death, such that it is difficult to pull ourselves away from watching it. This contrasted with the classical elegance of his mentor. At the same time, being a master of language himself, Virgil’s angry sarcasm matches well with the scene Dante has been enjoying.|
|↑15||Virgil, who can read Dante’s mind, can see the great remorse in the Pilgrim’s heart – more than would be necessary for an even greater fault. Restoring his companion’s dignity, and assuring him that he will always stand alongside him, Virgil brings this highly emotional scene to a close with a tiny lesson in good manners.|