Inferno Canto I, The Dark Wood
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita,
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la via diritta era smarrita.
[Midway through our life's journey / I found myself in a dark wood/ for I had lost my way (the correct path).]
Dante looks up from the darkness of the forest; he sees a beautiful mountain and decides to walk toward it. But each attempt is blocked by a beast—first a leopard, then a lion, and finally a wolf. As he is about to be beaten back for the last time, a ghost in human form appears. He is Virgil, who "at first seemed to fade as though from long silence" (Pinsky's Inferno, I, 47-8). He soon regains a healthy verbosity and explains to Dante that he has been sent by three ladies of Heaven to help Dante out of the forest and on to the straight path to salvation, which begins on the other side of Hell. And so begins the decent that has intrigued, confounded, and inspired generations of admirers, imitators, interpreters, artists, donkey drivers, and even women (Cf. Il Convivio, I. Also, Gensini, 170, 175).
Hell for Dante is both real and allegorical. It is situated in the center of the earth directly under Jerusalem and is shaped like a colossal upside-down cone made up of nine circles where the dead have come to wallow in various degrees of eternal misery. Hell is the state of the soul after death, the final judgment. It is not God's judgment, however; it is the souls themselves who choose to enter this chasm. Dante and Virgil arrive in the Vestibule of Hell, or Limbo, which is home to Virgil and ancient figures such as Noah, Aristotle, Plato, Ovid, and others who were born before the coming of Christ. They proceed to the banks of the river Acheron where the demon Charon tirelessly transports eternal boatloads of sinners to Mainland Hell. It is here that we read the famous warning, "Abandon hope all ye who enter here."
Perhaps the most famous Last Judgment is the fresco by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. Like Dante's Inferno, it's rich in misery and grotesqueries. But, according to Nassar, "the Charon-Minos scene is also the only scene in the Last Judgment directly related to Dante's poem" (Nassar, 18). The scene, on the lower right of the fresco, depicts Charon beating an entangled, miserable crowd of sinners as they attempt to disembark from his boat:
Caron dimonio, con occhi di bragia
loro accennando, tutte le raccoglie;
batte col remo qualunque s'adagia.
[There demon/ Charon beckons them, with his eyes of fire; / crowded in a herd, they obey if he should summon, / and he strikes at any laggers with his oar] (Pinsky's Inferno III, 109-11).
One of the doomed grasps his own face, his mouth contorted in anticipation of the horrors awaiting him; another dives head first from the heap of human refuse; two others seem to sprint, air-born, from the boat, while others are crushed under the rush of the damned to begin their eternal damnation. Charon's ears are long and spike up from the sides of his dark and grimacing face. His eyes are great round circles with two black irises that contain not a hint of light. His body, like that of the sinners, is extremely muscular, but, unlike the symmetrical musculature of Michelangelo's David, it is unnaturally contorted and coarse. His right foot, placed on the edge of the boat to give him balance as he swings his oar, is foreshortened to the point that it might well be a hand grasping the boat, for the toes are extremely long, with a wide, prehensile spread. No one looks back. The sinners are spilling out of Charon's boat, not so much to escape his blows, but because they are impatient to enter eternal misery.
'Figliol mio,' disse 'l maestro cortese,
'quelli che muoion ne l'ira di Dio
tutti convegnon qui d'ogne paese;
e pronti sono a trapassar lo rio,
ché la divina giustizia lì sprona,
sì che la tema si volve in disio.
['My son, the gracious master said to me, / 'those who have died beneath the wrath of God, / all these assemble here from every country; / and they are eager for the river crossing / because celestial justice spurs them on, / so that their fear is turned into desire'] (Mandelbaum's Inferno, III, 131-6).
Charon was a well-known character in Greek mythology who was brought to the Inferno from the Virgil's Aeneid:
Ed ecco verso noi venir per nave
un vecchio, bianco per antico pelo,
gridando: 'Guai a voi, anime prave!'
[And here, advancing toward us, in a boat, / an aged man--his hair was white with years-- / was shouting: 'Woe to you, corrupted souls!']
Quinci fuor quete le lanose gote
al nocchier de la livida palude,
che 'ntorno a li occhi avea di fiamme rote.
[Now silence fell upon the woolly cheeks / of Charon, pilot of the livid marsh, / whose eyes were ringed about with wheels of flame](Mandelbaum's Inferno, III, 83-5).
There is an engraving (ca. 1587) by Federico Zuccaro at the Uffizi in Florence in which Charon is shown beating a group of the damned who are trapped on his boat. His body is naked, two horns grow from his forehead, and sparse hairs sprout in all directions from the back of his head. Charon appears to be much more massive and much taller than his fated charges, and the oar with which he beats them is at least three times his own size. The motif is believed to have been copied from Michelangelo (cf Nassar 65). In the foreground, we see Virgil standing over Dante, who has fainted from the horror he has witnessed.
La terra lagrimosa diede vento,
che balenò una luce vermiglia
la qual mi vinse ciascun sentimento;
e caddi come l'uom cui sonno piglia.
[Then, the earth of that grim shore/ began to shake: so violently, I shudder / and sweat recalling it now. A wind burst up / from the tear-soaked ground to erupt red light and batter / my senses—and so I fell, as though seized by sleep.](1)
William Blake's "Vestibule of Hell and the Souls Mustering to Cross the Acheron" is a masterful rendering of Dante's vision. The spirits of the Uncommitted—those who had lived sanza 'infamia and sanza lodo [without infamy or praise]—are assembled in the foreground. Since they had expressed no opinions and fought for nothing during their lifetime, they are not welcome in Heaven and they are rejected even by Hell. Instead, they are doomed to an eternity thrashing about in the winds of Hell's vestibule, enduring the stings of wasps and hornets. A long queue of souls emerging from their earthly tombs begins on the horizon line of the left side of the watercolor; it winds across the sky to the right and down again to the banks of the Acheron. Charon has just deposited a boatload of souls and is sailing back to the Vestibule to pick up another. The print has no relief, no peaceful corner, and no central focus. Sinners are crushed into every corner of the canvas, creating a claustrophobic effect; the sky is blackened and the frieze of hell-bound sinners seems to press down onto the horizon, compressing the atmosphere, and underscoring the aloneness of each doomed character while warning the viewer that there is no possible escape from this Hell. Just as Dante's rhymes and images interlock,(2) so do Blake's images and incidents interlock in the Vestibule of Hell. Among the lost souls are kings and paupers, generals and foot soldiers, men and women from every stratum of society. Freccero observes that the characters in Dante's Inferno are all given equal treatment based, not on their earthly status, but on their most grievous sin.(3)
There is movement in Hell, but here movement is circular. The formation of sinners curving around, over, and below the horizon in Blake's "Vestibule" never changes, never ends. We know that the condemned will enter Charon's boat, and we know that they will be ferried across the river to await Minos's judgment. But they have not embarked on a journey; rather, they remain locked in their individual and collective eternities where there is no real movement, no change, no hope. Blake has recreated this enmity between movement and stagnation, which is not unlike a dream in which one tries to escape some horror only to find oneself paralyzed.
Michelangelo's Minos has the same massive, coarsely defined musculature as that of Charon. The two figures, one in the boat and the other on shore, are the sentries whose presence imprisons the crowd of entangled souls. No one dares defy Charon's authority and no one may pass Minos without obeying his judgment call. Minos occupies an interesting place in Michelangelo's fresco, for if the fresco were to be read as a book, Minos would be the last word. Indeed, Minos is the last word, for once the sinners have reached the shores of Hell, his tail encircles his body as many times equal to the circle in Hell to which each doomed spirit must go. In Michelangelo's fresco, he has just sent a sinner to the second circle of Hell; this is the circle of the incontinent, guarded by Minos himself.
Blake's watercolor of Minos allows him to reign at center stage. His hair cascades down his back and down the steps before his throne of flames. His white beard is forked; his right hand is raised in the same gesture of judgment as that of Michelangelo's Christ in the Last Judgment; in his left hand he grasps a large spear. But his appearance is not quite as daunting as Dante's description of him:
Stavvi Minos orribilmente, e ringhia:
esamina le colpe ne l'intrata;
giudica e manda secondo ch'avvinghia.
[There stands Minos horribly, and grinning: / he examines the guilty who enter; / then judges and dispatches them with his coiling tail.](4)
His mouth is open, but not in a grin; instead, it is full-lipped, softly ugly and pliable. His body, like Michelangelo's Charon, is thick, asymmetrical, and graceless. The figures who surround him in their various states of helplessness function only to attest to his powers. Nevertheless, they effectively represent Dante's oxymoronic stagnant movement. None move of their own volition. Undeniably, the painting's energy is spurred by Minos himself, but even he is bound to his throne; the only movement is the circular motion of his tail as he remands each sinner to the final, eternal state of wretchedness.
Dante understood that all art is the translation of a vision, and he discussed the unavoidable "discrepancy between [the author's] words and his vision."(5) The idea is not restricted to literature, but to all expressions of art. Dante's description of Minos is but a translation of his vision of this demon judge, and he must contain his description of him within the confines of the terza rima. Just as the position of a figure in a painting is vital to its success, so the position of a word is vital to the success of a poem. Look at the placement of orribilmente between the words stavvi and ringhia. Here Dante is using an adverb to define both "to be" and "to grin." Minos is there horribly; and the word's proximity to "grin" implies that he also grins horribly.
Inferno, Canto V: Paolo and Francesca
Canto V recounts the tale of Francesca and Paolo, whose story is so sad that Dante faints after hearing it. Giovanni Malatesta had tricked Francesca into marrying him, even though she was in love with his younger brother Paolo. One day, Giovanni discovered them making love and he promptly murdered them. Their spirits were sent to the Circle of the Incontinent to spend eternity bound together, helplessly tossed about by a whirlwind. According to Nassar, "the Paolo and Francesca episode has been the theme for illustrations, art, and music far more than any other Dantean motif."(6) Blake's engraving depicts numerous pairs of lovers, some asunder and others locked together, as they are blown out of a river up into a large swirl. The Pilgrim Dante has fallen into a faint and Virgil stands over him. Behind Virgil, there is a huge sun in the center of which two lovers sit side by side. But, despite the sun, the sky is black. We are reminded of Francesca's lament, "Nessun maggior dolore / che ricordarsi del tempo felice / ne la miseri." [There is no greater sorrow / than to recall times of happiness / in wretchedness].(7)
When Francesca tells her story, Dante's style shifts to that of medieval love poetry. A number of artists have captured that style in their portrayals of the doomed lovers. Gustave Dore's 1861 engraving depicts Francesca and Paolo surrounded by a myriad of couples blown through the darkness as Dante and Virgil look on. Their embracing bodies are supported by a cloth that non-so-discreetly covers their nakedness, which certainly did not appear in the Inferno. Ary Shaeffer's 1834 oil similarly clothes the lovers. In Dante's Inferno, the doomed spirits are naked, but Francesca's speech—specifically, her diction and her interaction with Dante—allows her to reveal a humanness that nakedness often strips away. She is clothed and protected by her words; thus, her nakedness is not apparent. Schaeffer's and Dore's use of drapery to protect and uplift Francesca and Paolo has the same effect of recalling both their humanness and their vulnerability.
Many critics perceive a certain ambiguity in the fact that Francesca and Paolo have been confined to Hell by Dante's pen, and yet the sadness of their plight makes him swoon. Klonsky is not alone in his condemnation of the frequency with which Dante sentences his friends and relatives to eternal doom:
"Cavalcanti . . . . is condemned to be roasted eternally in one of the fiery tombs . . . for having believed, as an Epicurean, that the soul dies with the body. Item, in the seventh circle . . . Dante recognizes his once revered teacher and counselor, the statesman-poet Brunetto Latini, and greets him with: 'Are you here, Ser Brunetto?' . . . surely one of the most profoundly moving and yet disingenuous lines in literature, since, after all, it was Dante himself who put him there.(8)"
Yet, it must be noted that there are two Dantes in the Commedia: Dante the pilgrim, who is descending into the pit of Hell to begin a journey to salvation; and Dante the poet, who explains that Hell's denizens have one thing, and only one thing, in common: their refusal to accept responsibility for their earthly deeds. In the case of Francesca and Paolo, the book made them do it. For this reason, every depiction of them during their lifetime includes the famous story of Lancelot that brought about their downfall. Let Francesca tell it:
Noi leggiavamo un giorno per diletto
di Lancialotto come amor lo strinse;
soli eravamo e sanza alcun sospetto.
. . .
Quando leggeremmo il disïato riso
esser basciato da cotanto amante,
questi, che mai da me non fia diviso,
la bocca mi basciò tutto tremante.
Quel giorno più non vi leggemmo avante.
[Once day, to pass the time, we were reading / about Lancelot and how he was overcome by love; / we were alone and suspected nothing. . . . When we had read how the desired smile / was kissed by such a lover, he (Paolo), who will never be separated from me, / trembled as he kissed me on the mouth. . . . That day we read no more.](9)
In Dante Rossetti's watercolor in three panels, Paolo and Francesca are locked in an embrace; the book lies open between them. We are reminded of Francesca's angry words: "Galeotto fu 'l libro e chi lo scrisse" [That book--and its author--was a pander!"].(10) In the second panel, Dante and Virgil walk hand in hand, grim-faced through the darkness of Hell. They are gazing to the left, for in the nether world there is no other direction, except down. The third panel places the couple in Hell, but it fails to convince the viewer of the horror of eternal suffering. Instead, the hailstorm only frames their weightless, fully clothed bodies that float unharmed within an invisible, protective bubble. Paolo, who can only weep in Dante's Inferno, wears a halo that remains untouched by the tempest.
Blake succeeds in portraying the hopelessness that reigns in Hell. The motif of the whirlwind appears in a number of Blake's watercolors and engravings of the Inferno. "The Angel Crossing Styx" recalls Canto IX in which Dante and Virgil are prevented from entering the City of Sorrows, or Dis, where hellish Hell begins. This is one of the rare occasions in Hell where Virgil's powers of reasoning are not enough to ensure the safe passage of the poets, and a divine messenger must rescue them from the demon's clutches.
Come le rane innanzi a la nimica
biscia per l'acqua si deleguan tutte,
fin ch'a la terra ciascuna s'abbica,
vid' io più di mille anime distrutte
fuggir così dinanzi ad un ch'al passo
passava Stige con le piante asciutte.
[As frogs confronted by their enemy, / the snake, will scatter underwater till / each hunches in a heap along the bottom, / so did the thousand ruined souls I saw / take flight before a figure crossing Styx / who walked as if on land and with dry soles.](11)
The whirlwind appears again in Blake's "Jacapo Rusticucci and His Comrades," but this time it encompasses almost the entire engraving and contains only three of the spirits confined to the Circle of the Violent.
Ricominciar, come noi restammo, ei
l'antico verso; e quando a noi fuor giunti,
fenno una rota di sé tutti e trei.
[As soon as we stood still, they started up / their ancient wail again; and when they reached us / they formed a wheel, all three of them together.](13)
Feuerbach painted a portrait of Francesca in profile, gazing at the open book on her lap, her thoughts on the beautiful Paolo sitting next to her. It is a touching portrayal, rich in color, with strong diagonal lines that bring the viewer's eye from the youthful, flawless faces of the young people down to the book and up again to their faces. Paolo's left hand is poised under his chin ready to fall on Francesca's slender hands. There is no hint in this romantic portrayal of the sorrow to come. In Amos Cassioli's richly hued painting of the lovers, the book has just fallen from Francesca's hands and lies upside down, ignored, on the floor. Paolo and Francesca are lost in their physical and emotional oneness.
Inferno, Canto XXXIII, Count Ugolino
Just as Paolo and Francesca are locked together for eternity, so are two other figures in Hell—Count Ugolino and his executioner, the Archbishop Ruggieri. And just as the story of Francesca and Paolo has inspired the production of soft, romantic portraits of love, Ugolino's story has inspired portraits of horror. Robert Cimbalo is said to have fixed "the stamp of witty literalism"(14) in his 1984 mixed media portrayal of Ugolino munching on the back of Ruggieri's neck.
La bocca sollevò dal fiero pasto
quel peccator, forbendola a' capelli
del capo ch'elli avea di retro guasto.
[Pausing in his savage meal, the sinner raised / his mouth and wiped it clean along the hair / left on the head whose back he had laid waste.](15)
Aldo Greco's 1974 sculpture of the Count surrounded by his sons is poised in that nebulous zone between horror and humor. His figures, in various poses of pleading and desperation, look like petrified flesh, or Claymations, frozen in an instant of time. Humor and horror are not unrelated in life and, certainly, have more than a passing relationship in the Ninth Circle of Dante's Inferno. We meet Caccianemico (Enemy Hunter) who justifies his pimping activities by observing, "I'm not the only one." There is Alessio Interminei who is submerged up to his head in a lake of excrement because, during his lifetime, his tongue could not stop its flattery. And Dante could not refrain from reminding the reader that even priests are not without sin:
E mentre ch'io là giù con l'occhio cerco,
vidi un col capo sì di merda lordo,
che non parea s'era laico o cherco.
[. . . I saw deep down in the fosse / people immersed in filth that seemed to drain / from human privies. Searching it with my eyes / I saw one there whose head was so befouled / with shit, you couldn't tell which one he was--layman or priest.](16)
In Canto VIX, Dante and Virgil discover Pope Nicholas III "planted like a fence post upside down."(17) Nicholas mistakes Dante for Pope Boniface VIII and is surprised at his early arrival in Hell—"Se' tu già costì ritto, Bonifazio?" [Are you here already, Boniface?"]. In Canto XX, the spirits of soothsayers and astrologers walk with their heads on backwards, and are forced to gaze continuously at their kidneys so that their "eyes' tears fell to wet the buttocks of the cleft."
As we descend lower into the Inferno, spirits lose their human qualities, become more and more beastly, and finally assume a demonic semblance. In Canto XXI, we meet demons whose names, loosely translated into English, are Nasty Dog, Bad Tail, Hog Face, and Snarley Head.(18) By Canto XXV, the spirits have indeed lost the essence that made them human and suffer an eternity metamorphosing in and out of monstrous shapes as they are ripped apart by demons or left to flounder in the boiling blood that forms the River Phlegethon. Here, humor loses some of its protective powers, but never is it entirely relinquished in the bowels of Hell.
Ugolino and Ruggieri are traitors confined to the icy bolgia of the Ninth Circle. Some critics believe that because Ugolino cannibalized his children, he is eternally doomed to dine on Ruggieri's skull. But, Dante does not state this. Indeed, it is unlikely since, by Ugolino's own admission, he groped over his children's bodies for two days after they had died, calling to them: "And then hunger had more power than even sorrow had over me."(19) Two-day-old dead flesh exudes a protective stench that is paradise for maggots, but persuasive enough to repel even the starving Count. He simply died.
It has been suggested that Ugolino's sons were images of Dante's own sons whom he was forced to abandon when he was exiled from Florence. "These were the voices that Dante himself heard in the long nights."(20)
Padre mio, ché non m'aiuti?
[My father, why don't you help me?]
Delacroix is one of many artists who capture the tragedy of the children and even make us forget that Ugolino had betrayed not only his party, but his own nephew. In the darkness of the prison cell, a dim light from the tiny barred window falls across the prostrate figures of Ugolino's sons. Two appear to have died, and one stretches out his arm to his father, who sits with his knees tucked up to his chest, his head resting on his arms; he is too weak and too crushed to move. The four figures form a pyramidal bond at the bottom left quarter of the painting. Except for the window at the upper left, the rest of the painting reveals only shadowy tones of gray.
Ugolino and Ruggieri were real people, as were Francesca and Paolo, Pope Boniface and Nicholas, Sordello, Simon Magus, and all Dante's human characters. While Dante delivered them from the obscurity that eventually buries all mortals, other artists have taken them beyond the confines of the written word into a world of tangible color, texture, and three-dimensional stone. Nevertheless, without Dante's poem, which is both modern and ancient, timeless and timely, historical and mythological, literary and visual, it is certain they would not have been reborn by Rodin's chisel, Delacroix's brush, or Blake's burin. All must bow to Dante's inspiration.
The Commedia is an adventure in which readers can see their individual reflections. It is the story of humanity, from its lowest levels of bestiality to its highest intellectual and spiritual realization. But Dante's poem is not just a poem; it is a sculpture that moves; it is a painting whose colors are tinted with all gradations of gray, from the deepest black to the brightest, sun-kissed reds, blues, and yellows. The story continues to be told and retold in translations, paintings, sculpture, music. The Commedia transcends time, defies literary dissection, and enriches itself each time it is brought to life in a new medium. While Dante's great gift to humankind is his Commedia divina, each fresh rendering of the poem is humankind's tribute to the poet.
Alghieri, Dante. Dante's Inferno. ed. Daniel Hall. Hopewell, NY: Ecco Press, 1993.
_______. The Divine Comedy. Trans. James Finn Cotter. New York: Amity House, 1995.
_______. Inferno. Trans. Allen Mandelbaum. New York: Bantam Books, 1980.
_______. The Inferno of Dante. Trans. Robert Pinsky. New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1994.
Freccero, John. Introduction, The Inferno of Dante. trans. Robert Pinsky (above).
Klonsky, Milton. Blake's Dante. New York: Harmony Books, 1980.
Gensini, Stefano. Elementi di storia linguistica italiana. Milano: Minerva, 1992.
Mazzotta, Giuseppe. Afterword. Dante's Inferno. ed. Donald Hall. Dante's Inferno. ed. Hopewell, NY: Ecco Press, 1993.
Nassar, Eugene Paul. Illustrations to Dante's Inferno. London: Associated University Press, 1994.
Rizzatti, Maria Luisa. The Life and Times of Dante. London: Drury, 1967.
1. Inf. Canto III, 98-102 (Pinsky).
2. cf, Mandelbaum's Introduction, xi.
3. cf. Freccero's Introduction to Pinksky's translation, vii.
4. Inf. Canto V, 4-6
5. cf. Mazzota.
6. Nassar, 87
7. Inf. Canto V, 121-2.
8. Klonsky, 8-9
9. Inferno, V, 127-9, 133-5.
10. Inferno V, 137 (Cotter).
11. Inf. Canto IX, 76-80 (Mandelbaum).
12. Inf. Canto IX, 10-12.
13. Inf. Canto XIV, 19-21(Mandelbaum).
14. cf. Rizzatti, 56-7.
15. Inferno, XXXIII, 1-3 (Mandelbaum).
16. Inf. XVII, 115-117 (Pinsky).
17. Pinsky"s trans.
18. cf. Pinsky's notes, 407.
19. Pinsky, 76.
20. Rizzatti, 65.