Presentation on theme: "Inferno Canto XII Professor Andrea Mazzucchi Università di Napoli ‘Federico II’"— Presentation transcript:
Inferno Canto XII Professor Andrea Mazzucchi Università di Napoli ‘Federico II’
Critical treatments of Inferno Canto 12 have expressed serious reservations, and even quite negative assessments, that it is discordant in tone and lacks organic structure. Although there are more balanced evaluations of the canto, especially in the last decade, the traditional assessment of it is still to be found in some more recent authoritative commentaries.
Therefore before proceeding to a new reading of the canto, which, - I clarify now – in no way shares such reservations, it is apt that we ask about the reasons behind so widespread and reductive an evaluation.
The poor critical fortune of this canto must be attributed above all to a narrative structure which is articulated in a variety of ways, and has given rise to the erroneous impression of a certain dissipation of themes and motifs not entirely coherently resolved around a central focal point.
This multiplicity of narrative sequences must have been obvious to those responsible for the illustrations of early manuscripts of the Commedia, such as ms33 of the Library of the University of Budapest, or the Codice Filippino of the Oratoriana in Naples.
In them, the miniatures which depict the fundamental stages of the ‘iter per mortuos’, the journey through the dead, of Dante and Virgil and which, have on average two or, at most, three vignettes per canto. However they reach a total respectively of 4 and 6 for canto XII.
One may add that the traditional tendency to condense the material of the Dantean cantos in an eponymous formula, generally that of the most prominent character, has heavily conditioned many readers of this canto, including recent ones, so that it has become the “canto of the centaurs”.
This has led to an undeserved and in many aspects misleading and arbitrary interpretation of the episode carried out in an excessively aestheticising and emotive key, linking it to the ‘maladetti / nei nuvoli formati’, “damned formed in the clouds” of Purg. XXIV , in an attempt to soften or completely erase its savagery and monstrousness.
The episode, held to be empty of any intrinsic connection with the rest of the text has been judged to be as single poetic nucleus of the canto.
The author has chosen an expressive narrative strategy which strongly reduces the role of the ‘agens’, whose function is limited exclusively to the narrative slant and whose role is exhausted in the meticulous recording of visual experience alone, conceding nothing to sentimental suggestions: not one word is uttered by Dante the character.
This choice has certainly contributed, I believe in decisive measure, to rendering the enjoyment and estimation of this canto problematic for a critical approach which is particularly sensitive to the lyrical effects and emotional seductions of the poem.
This difficulty of reducing an articulated narrative score to a single motif, with the consequent expansion of the importance and functions of a single episode, that of the centaurs, and a strategy of exposition which privileges, at least in the relationship of the ‘agens’ with the other actors/agents the descriptive register over the dramatic,
are thus the elements which have conditioned, albeit with some notable exceptions, the interpretation of readers and commentators of this canto XII of the Inferno.
It will be fitting therefore to start again from just these elements in order to attempt a different evaluation of them, less conditioned by anachronistic aesthetic prejudices, except then to test them in a comprehensive ‘explication du texte’.
2. First of all, the narrative splintering is more apparent than real and is rather the result of a skilful expositional strategy which aims to reproduce, articulating the stages and ably varying the perspectives, the progress of Dante and Virgil through the first subcircle of the seventh circle, almost a mise en abîme, a portrayal in a minor key, of the full journey.
The whole structure has movement as its foundation with verbs of motion recurring in verses 1-2; 28; 58; 76; 100; 113; 115; 126; and 139. Narrative suspense and tension is produced by the appearance before the two ‘viatores’ of ever new, unexpected, unusual, and astonishing objects:
the ruin; the unnaturally produced landslide – a unique historical event in the immobile infernal world; the Minotaur; the centaurs; the river of boiling blood - the name of which will only be revealed later - and in which the damned are immersed to be boiled. The centaur Nessus will then list them, attractive to mediaeval tastes, as he points them out to Dante with a wide-ranging use of deictics.
But it is not only the representation of movement. Underlying the poetic-narrative composition of the canto, its syntagmatic structure, is a hypodiscourse based on the recurrence of lexemes and images which refer back to the common denominator of the bestialisation of the human and degradation towards the feral :
Thus “the infamy of Crete conceived in the false cow” (vv ), the Minotaur (v. 25), beast (v. 19), which is prey to an “bestial anger” and leaps in a grotesque fashion to the slaughter; and the “cenataurs armed with arrows” (v. 56), the great Chiron, the impetuous and vengeful Nessus, the irascible Pholus, (v. 76),
Pholus, whose double-nature, human and equine the narrator insistently underlines (v. 84; 94; 96); and again the images and lexemes referring back to the horrific perverting of the human form, With a strong realistic flavour the parts of the body are revealed, discordantly and deceptively isolated:
il «ciglio» “the brow” (v. 103), the «fronte» “forehead” (v. 109), «’l pel» “skin” (v. 109), «la gola» “throat” (v. 116), «lo cor»”heart” (v. 120), «la testa» “head” (v. 122), «’l casso» “chest” (v. 122), «li piedi» “feet” (v. 125), dominated by four (or maybe five, as we will see) appearances of the motif of blood. (vv. 47, 75, 101, 105; 120).
Man thus reduced to his physical materiality and having become violent, has lost his rational faculties and so, as Dante says in Convivio II 7. 4 «non vive uomo, ma vive bestia»: “he lives not as a man but as a beast”: in an emblematic overturning of roles, the bestial centaurs shoot the damned who are reduced to being the animal prey of ranks of sadistic hunters. (v. 74).
In this way the canto translates the notion of “matta bestialitate” (mad bestialità), introduced in an expository and didactic mode in Inferno XI into efficacious images (the mountainous and horrifying infernal topography, the zoomorphic monsters, the damned immersed in the river Phlegethon and hunted by the centaurs).
Violence corrupts the original profile of human nature, introducing into man a bestial trait and thus reducing the individual from the condition of ‘humanitas’ to that of ‘feritas’. Feritas does not affect him however only as an individual, but, insofar as it is an obstacle to civil life, it extends to the collective/community: rather it is an eminently political sin.
The tyrants, not by chance immersed up to their brows in the Phlegethon, are therefore, like the Minotaur and centaurs, monstrous at the level of community, insofar as they destroy the harmony between the parts and deform the social order, removing themselves, through their evil (malvagità) from the natural political structure.
They are, as St Thomas writes in his commentary on Aristotle’s Politics, more like beasts than men. In the connection in Dante’s imaginary between bestiality and those who «dier nel sangue e nell’aver di piglio»”took to blood and plunder” (v. 105) the etymology of beasts cannot have been extraneous.
The 14 th century commentator Guido da Pisa makes the connection in his Expositiones: «Bestie quasi vastie dicuntur et signant divites et potentes qui terram devastant». “Beasts sounds like waste (vastie) and signifies the rich and powerful who devastate the earth.”
3. Having restored then to the narrative fabric of the canto a certain ideological density and a certain imaginative uniformity, I believe that the episode of the centaurs must also be removed from the splendid isolation to which it had been condemned by a strong cohort of commentators..
Instead we must recover its intimate coherence with the general picture traced by Dante in this canto of tragic monstrous demonic bestiality, which carries out the double function of rhetorically symbolising the sin, and providing an exemplary warning to the reader
The sentiment of aesthetic admiration seems to me difficult to sustain, and above all divergent from the aim of a correct reconstruction of the ‘intentio auctoris’. Even less admissible is the slide into moral admiration which many commentators and readers of this canto have and do believe they see in the description of the centaurs.
In order to capture the authentic aesthetic dimension of Dante’s centaurs we must ignore the equilibrium and harmony of the marbles of Phidias on the Parthenon, or the anachronistic group sculptures of humanism and the renaissance, evoked respectively by Ernesto Parodi or Guido Mazzoni.
Instead, we must turn to mediaeval sculpture and engraving, the grammar and logic of the Roman and Gothic tetramorph, in which, as the studies of Baltrušaitis have shown, the monstrous is founded upon the addition of parts, on combination and encrustation of heterogeneous material, on mixture, distension and emphasis
We may recall here the insistence on the adjective “grande” used of the centaurs by Dante, of living forms belonging to diverse species.
The mediaeval monster must then suggest, through the association of incompatible elements, of antimonies (such as that of humanitas and feritas) a discord in which the hybrid marrying of human and animal traits as it gives life to contemptible and aberrant bodily transformations, must provoke an immediate rejection.
The ranks of armed centaurs, hunting along the banks of the Phlegethon must therefore have suggested to the first readers of the Commedia not so much an aesthetic satisfaction foreign to the infernal situation portrayed, as rather,
as Achille Tartaro, has recalled, going back to those unsettling monstrous epiphanies in which the devil, assuming the appearance of a hippocentaur or an onocentaur (its inferior variant in the middle ages) appeared in order to tempt devout hermits, as in Jerome’s Life of St Paul, or Athanasius’ Life of St Antony, retold by Jerome and Jacobus de Voragine in the Legenda Aurea, thereby enjoying wide iconographic circulation.
Alongside the hagiographic texts we may also consider the symbolic significance attributed to the ‘figurae mixtae’ in the bestiaries: this in the second version of the Latin Physiologus, the archetype for later analogous texts, the onocentaur,
The onocentaur has the upper part like a man and the lower part like an ass, and is assimilated into the «vecordes atque bilingues homines informes», and this allegorical decodification is supported with reference to Ps., 48 21: «Homo cum in honore esset non intellexit; comparatus est iumentis insipientibus, et similis factus est illis».
In confirmation of the demonic characterisation of the centaur, fruit of the risemanticisation (in which Dante also participated) of classical echoes an suggestions in Christian mediaeval culture, one could cite, without wishing to attribute to such comparisons any intertextual pertinence,
but evaluating them prudently as simple threads useful for the reconstruction of an interdiscursive cultural patrimony by no means foreign to the creative route of Dantean invention, the depictions of such monsters in the iconographical cycles linked to the motif of the Universal Judgement,
as for example in the centaur positioned at the feet of Lucifer in the mosaic in the Baptistry in Florence datable to 1260/70, attributed to Coppo di Marcovaldo and often noted as a possible model from which “Dante took important cues and suggestions for the construction of his own Inferno”.
The attention of the reader is constantly brought back to the chest of the centaurs by Dante, as Singleton has well observed, to the point where the human descends into the bestial.
So too the insistence on disharmony, on the divergence of limbs, and an emphasis on size, through intensification (e.g.«il gran Chiron» v. 71; «la gran bocca» v. 79; «il gran centauro» v. 104); the sadistic activity of the centaurs and their connection (also phonemic) with the Minotaur; the entire negative consideration of these monsters in mediaeval culture (uniformly received in the 14th century commentaries, despite their variety of exegetical positions);
and, finally, but perhaps most revealing of all,, the place in which Dante has placed the centaurs (noted by Francesco da Buti) - are not insubstantial arguments. The characterisation of the centaurs in a demonic or tetramorphic sense, as symbols, emblems of bestial violence is a characterisation perfectly coherent with the overall tonality of the canto.
In conclusion, before tracing the articulated diegetic plot of Inferno XII, we come to the last element which could, even implicitly, have conditioned, critical judgements on the canto. I refer to the limited, almost suspended, emotional participation of Dante agens, evident in his total absence of speech.
This is an intentional representational strategy, the consequences of which do not seem to me to have been noted in previous studies of the canto. Subjective and aesthetic judgements aside, it has serious implications, coherent with the entire atmosphere of the canto, especially when we consider how unusual the use of such a technique of representation is in the Inferno.
Dante the character remains completely silent in only two other cantos of the first cantica: in XVII (91-93) where the motif of the blocked word is an explicit theme, attributing the cause to the horror provoked by the downward flight of the monster Geryon (note the analogous, unusual astonishing figura mixta with its strong demonic connotations); and in XXV, the canto of the metamorphosis of the damned into serpents, beasts noted in the Middle Ages as having the power to cause a destructive fascination.,
In canto XXV once again a form of perversion of the human image is condemned, a mixture of humanitas and feritas, one anticipated by the appearance in the opening verses of Cacus «centauro pien di rabbia» “ a centaur filled with rage”. Nor is it irrelevant to note that, though not lasting the entire canto, the character Dante suffers an analogous loss of communication at the sight of Lucifer, in Inferno XXXIV
The loss of speech of the character will also be used intentionally by the narrator to characterize the crucial, decisive stages of the psychological and representational itinerary of the agens in the lower Inferno. Canto XII, which, with the Minotaur and the centaurs marks the beginning of a new part of the journey with a more demanding and arduous experience of the knowledge of evil.
Canto XVII in which Geryon transports the two travellers into the world of fraud: Canto XXXIV at the end, in which the presence of Lucifer closes not only the series of Dantean demons but also the investigation into the essence of evil.
In canto XII in particular this iterated silence is functional for the representation in a hyperbolic key of the intense feelings, of fear and horror of the pilgrim, not made explicit elsewhere. It is an expressive choice capable of translating very effectively the first anguished encounter of the protagonist with the zones of lower hell.
The monstrous epiphanies of the Minotaur and centaurs, with their connected strangeness and instability of form, and the repertoire of the horrific and marvellous, with the ferocious tormented human beasts, the horrible stench, the shrill screams of the damned echoing, the horror of the landscape and the unusual Phlegethon induce in the protagonist a general condition of fearful astonishment.
His senses are dulled and he loses the power of speech. Indeed Virgil constantly has to solicit his participation and attention: in v. 26 the alert guide has to “shout” because the pilgrim, who should be staying quite close, rushes off to escape from the enraged Minotaur through an “opening” in the ruins;
and in verse 46 another command from Virgil directs the terrified gaze of Dante towards the new suffering; and up to v. in front of the three centaurs who menacingly confront the new arrivals, Virgil’s exhortation can no longer be simply verbal, but, with studied variatio, also physical.
Nor should recourse to notions of stupefaction to characterise and define the psychological condition of the agens in this canto appear like a curious modern critical excogitation, surreptitiously introduced to account for the particular expressive strategy adopted by Dante in this canto.
S tatements to be found in the Summa Theologica of St Thomas are convincing. According to Aquinas stupor “which is caused by an unusual image” comes from the consideration of a malum insolitum, an unusual evil: and the monstra which appear in the horrifying infernal scene of the first subcircle of the seventh circle are certainly uncommon manifestations of evil.
5. We have now recovered some constitutive elements of the compositional strategies of the canto from frequent, unmerited, and reductive assessments, and returned to an evaluation, one hopes, which follows the internal logic of the text and the imaginary of mediaeval culture, and of Dante himself, more closely.
W e move on finally to examine the narrative fabric, pausing inevitably only on some of the questions which the marvellous workings of Dantean discourse offer the reader.
Through the detailed and precise topographical description of the savage nature of the place and the announcement, played with calculated narrative tension, of an event as yet unspecified but already charged with strongly disturbing elements condensed in the pronoun “tal”, the narrator right from the first tercet proposes the motif of horror which will dominate the entire atmosphere of the canto (vv1-3)
The altering of the ordo naturalis of the sentence, with the subject positioned after the verb and the violent hyperbaton which noticeably distances the nominal predicate from the copulative, governing both «alpestro» and «tal», the syntactic split between two relative clauses, the enjambement of verses 1-2,
and finally a rhythmical phonematic structure made of a series of suspensions and reprises which does not try to avoid harsh consonantal clashes – all of these features show that the whole formal structure is charged with reflecting the sense of a disturbed and violent reality.
The cliff which will allow the transition from the sixth to the seventh circle is immediately qualified as “alpine”, empty that is, as Boccaccio puts it, “of any path or road as we mostly see the ravines of the Alps and of wild places”.
This adjective of a topographic sort, is also a usage characteristic of the poetry of Guittone d’Arezzo, and has strong political connotations in denouncing the degeneration of the citizen to an animal, provoked by the exercise of violence and factional strife, and the reduction of the city, a public community par excellence, to a savage place in accordance with the decisive problematic nucleus of this canto.
The description of the landslide, which defers the release of the narrative tension of verse 3, is carried out with the characteristic Dantean technique of a simile with places, which exist and can be seen (v. 4-10)
The infernal ravine is thus compared to a landslide caused either by an earthquake or erosion of the rocks, which struck the bank of the Adige downstream from Trent, so that it provided a path, albeit an uncomfortable one, for anyone coming down from the top of the mountain. It refers to a place called the Slavini di San Marco, which Dante himself may have visited during his time in the Veneto.
This possible personal memory is here joined to a citation of Albert the Great’s De Meteoris, a reference first noted by Benvenuto da Imola and undoubtedly a source for this passage. On the formal level of the verse it is worth noting the inclusive rhyme in verses 8-10 which appears to phonetically suggest the effect of the landslide.
A later witness to the amazing capacity for association in Dante’s language is found in verses of canto XVI when the same rhyme (scesa : discoscesa) returns, again signalling a passage, this time from the seventh to the eighth circle of Hell.
6. In the rocky Alpine terrain, at the top edge of the broken slope “on the edge of the broken chasm”, and so at the border between two different worlds, a fitting place for monsters according to the Liber monstruorum, and perfectly in keeping with the horrifying scene just described the Minotaur makes it appearance, taken from the classical tradition, essentially from Virgil and Ovid. The verses which follow are dedicated to it (11-27).
The periphrasis utilised to defer the direct naming of the monster “the infamy of Crete that was conceived in the false cow” is constructed by Dante in a reworking of details from Virgil and Ovid, done with his usual freedom of adaptation. At the appearance of the two travellers the ugly bestial mass grotesquely comes to life, biting itself like someone overcome by a deep-seated anger.
Faced with this enraged reaction, Virgil addresses the Minotaur, reminding it of its death by the hand of Theseus following the instructions of Ariadne. Naming it “bestia”, “beast”, Virgil orders it to move away and allow Dante continue on his journey to acquire knowledge of evil, a necessary premiss for salvation: «ma vassi per veder le vostre pene», “journeys here to see your punishments” a formula in which the insistent alliteration seems to produce an effect of enchantment and suggest a peremptoriness not dissimilar that obtained in the preceding cantos, by the strongly alliterative and equally peremptory formula «vuolsi così colà dove si puote / ciò che si vuole».Canto 12 of the Inferno
“he journeys here to see your punishments” a formula in which the insistent alliteration seems to produce an effect of enchantment and suggest a peremptoriness not dissimilar that obtained in the preceding cantos, by the strongly alliterative and equally peremptory formula «vuolsi così colà dove si puote / ciò che si vuole», “thus it is willed there where that can be done which is willed”.
Virgil’s words to the Minotaur thus repeat, with slight variation, the characteristic schema of the meeting with demons in hell, whose vain opposition is rebuffed by the wise guide with his appeal to the will of God. Here, however they are concealed behind the mention of Theseus, traditionally regarded in the Middle Ages as a ‘figura Christi’.
Virgil’s stinging injunction uses the weapon of scorn and his provocation hits its target: the Minotaur is no longer able to block the path of the two travellers as it falls prey to a paroxysm of rage. Dante strengthens the bestial connotations of the scene with the simile of a bull which having been struck in its vital nerves “plunges this way and that.”
Virgil “having noted the momentary bewilderment which strikes the Minotaur” shouts to Dante - who, on the contrary, we must imagine is stunned, blocked by fear – to take advantage of the moment and quickly cross the “ford” created by the landslide.
Notable at the end is a reading, proposed first in the anonymous 14th century Chiose ambrosiane, then taken up again independently by Matteo Chiromono and Velluttello, but strangely omitted by modern commentators, which recognises in verse 27 an echo of Ovid’s Remedia amoris 119. «Dum furor in cursu est currenti cede furori». “while madness is in full flow, give way to the rush of madness”
If one accepts, as seems plausible to me, the influence of the Ovidian hexameter on the Dantean verse, the recovery of such a subtextual verbal connection would recommend a different textual reading of «mentre ch’è ’n furia», as in the 1921 edition of Dante’s text, and again in the recent edition by Sanguineti, with the recovery of the substantive furor, rather than Petrocchi’s reading «mentre ch’e’ ’nfuria».
Emblem, warning, precisely the mediaeval etymology of ‘monstrum’ – of mad bestiality, - which is is identified with violence in almost all the early commentaries, with the sole exception of Guido Da Pisa, and confirmed in large part by the modern commentators - the Minotaur is for Dante the first of the monsters encountered in the lower part of hell, and undoubtedly the guardian of the seventh circle.
Nonetheless the major part of the 14th- century commentators on this canto (Lana, Guido Da Pisa, the Ottimo Commento, Pietro Alighieri, Maramauro, Benvenuto da Imola, Francesco da Buti, the Anonimo Fiorentimo) mention in their glosses a rationalising interpretation of the mythical story.
This is found in, to cite texts presumably known to Dante, the commentaries of Servius and Bernardus Silvestris on the Aeneid, of Arnulph of Orleans and John of Garland on Ovid, and in the Historia Scholastica of Peter Comestor (Pietro Mangiadore of Paradiso X)
The early commentators on Dante are valuable not only in marking more or less pertinent intertextual adaptations, but mainly because they allow us to reconstruct Dante’s interdiscursive library and so the patrimony of knowledge common to authors and readers of the time.
I do not believe that it can be excluded that Dante, whilst rejecting a reading in a euhemeristic key, of mere poetic fictio of the myth, was in some way conditioned by it when he chose to locate the Minotaur in the subsection of circle of the violence containing cruel tyrants.
Afetr his account of the stor. Jacomo della Lana clarifies: “The allegory of the fable is that the said King Minos of Crete was a just person and so fought just battles … The Minotaur depicts the son who succeeded him in the kingdom and ruled for a time according to the counsel of base bestial men, and was a tyrant.
And the poets say that since he followed bestial counsels he was half ox and half man: as a he was tyrant they depict him as eating human flesh” concluding in a way that seems to me acceptable in substance, that “since he led a tyrannical life so Dante introduces him in this canto which is that of the tyrants.”
Despite the efforts of Guido Mazzoni and many other modern commentators to dig up clues from Dante’s text that would suggest the latter figure, we must recognise with Steven Botterill that “the text of Inferno XII offers no conclusive grounds for accepting a human- headed Minotaur”. The question therefore remains open.
Nor can it be resolved by recourse to ambiguous formulations («mixtum genus», «proles biformis», «discordem fetum», «monstri biformis», «parte virum […] parte bovem», «taurique virique», or the very famous «semibovemque virum semivirumque bovem» “A man, half ox, an ox, half man”) of classical sources available to Dante.
Nor can the mention of the horn in Ovid (Heroides X. 107) and in Statius (Theb. XI 671) necessarily have suggested a bull’s head to Dante, as Botterill maintains. The alternative hypothesis of the Minotaur depicted as a horned centaur, cannot be excluded.
This would be similar for example to onewhich stands along with Theseus in the mosaic floor depicting a labyrinth in the Church of San Michele Maggiore in Pavia, bearing the unambiguous inscription: «Theseus intravit monstrumque biforme necavit» “Theseus entered and killed the two-formed monster.”
O r like those reproduced in the miniatures of the manuscript Arsenal 8530 in Paris; or the famous Riccardiana 1035 of Florence, believed by some to have been transcribed and drawn by Boccaccio. Mediaeval Latin lexicographic and encyclopediac texts give varying responses and this uncertainty is reflected in the earliest Dante exegesis.
Francesco Da Buti demonstrates a knowledge of the classical representations, as opposed to Jacopo Alighieri for whom the Minotaur is «dal petto in su uomo, e l’altro busto d’un toro», “From the chest up a man, and the rest a bull”. So too the Anonimo Fiorentino and, finally and rather strangely given his usual reliance on Buti’s commentary, Guiniforte Barzizza.
Nor do the illustrations which decorate the 14th and 15th century illustrated manuscripts of the Commedia make a decisive contribution, in the absence of a concrete reference, except to testify to the diffusion and plausibility of certain iconographic models. They always depict, the Minotaur with a human upper body and taurine lower body. with the single exception of the already cited ms 33 of the Library of the University of Budapest.
This choice is influenced perhaps by the presence in the same canto of the centaurs whose morphology is not open to question. We can add to our considerations so far, - without wishing to accuse Dante himself of uncertainty about the shape of the Minotaur – simply that this could have been influenced by the figurative association of the Cretan monster with the centaurs, as with the miniaturists.
T here is also the proximity of the mention of both monsters in works by St Augustine and Isidore of Seville. Finally, one further consideration might be proposed, with the necessary caution.
The assimilation of the morphology of the Minotaur to that of the centaur could have occurred in Dante’s prodigious memory, according to a route analogous to that which saw the apparently even more inexplicable transformation of the undefined monster Cacus into a centaur.
This was the fruit of a contamination between the Virgilian «semihominis Caci facies» of Aeneid VIII 194, and the Ovidian «semiferi» e «semihomines», in Metamorphoses XII 406 and 546, which apply precisely to the centaurs, as Benvenuto da Imola was the first to recognise.
Why then not speculate on a similar association between these same expressions and the Ovidian «semivirumque bovem semibovemque virum», with was widely used to designate the Minotaur?
7. Having overcome the obstacle of the Minotaur, the two visitors make their way down the mass of rock with difficulty, down the “scarco”, “debris”, a hapax, rhyming with “carco”. The rocky debris, in a touch of realism, moves under the unexpected weight of Dante’s body (v.28-30)
Certainly, the movement of the stones is a realistic touch, but Benevento proposes a rather thought-provoking meta-literary reading, a subtle claim if Dantean primacy «Potest etiam dici allegorice, quod autor movebat istos lapides descriptione sua, qui prius erant immoti», “It can also be said allegorically that the author moved those stones which had not been moved before, through his description”,
This to suggest, without too much subtlety, that no-one before Dante had been capable of crossing and, which counts even more, describing such a ruined landscape. A ruin heavy with a unique significance which is then explained in the five tercets which follow (vv ).
Virgil provides Dante with an explanation of the origin of the infernal landslide. Its cause is to be found in the miraculous earthquake (mentioned by Matthew, 27:51 «et terra mota est, et petrae scissae sunt» “The earth moved and the rocks were split”) which followed the death of Christ.
The prodigious cataclysm, a sign of how much the earth was moved by the death of the son of God, was felt even in the foul (“feda”) depths of the chasm of hell, suggesting to the pagan Virgil the erroneous hypothesis that “the universe” felt “love”, i.e. that coming together of the elements which led Empedocles (known to Dante through Aristotle) to believe that the world returned to a state of chaos.
The consequences of that marvellous event were the landslides, the “ruine” in this and other places in hell, and indelible sign of a wounded nature and the violence perpetrated on God by man.
But also correct is the evangelical “ego sum via”, “I am the way” (John 14: 6), sign of the possible redemption of man obtained through the death of Christ, sign therefore of the love of God for humanity, and, in Dante’s infernal topography, a path, albeit uncomfortable, in the chasm created by the death of Christ, which renders possible a way through evil, a necessary premiss to overcoming it.
8. With Virgil’s important digression Dante demonstrates his narrative skill in creating a momentary pause. This paves the way for the new and horrific infernal scene which now confronts the two viatores (vv ): As they climb down the rubble of the landslide Virgil invites Dante to fix his gaze on the river of blood in which those violent against others are immersed to be boiled.
A metaphorical chain of culinary humour begins here (Küchenhumor as identified by Ernst Robert Curtius) which is repeated in this canto in verses 101, 102 and 125, and to greater descriptive effect in the later cantos dedicated to the barraters (XXI-XXII).
The spectacle is dominated by the «riviera del sangue» “river of blood”, which with varying definitions («bollor vermiglio» “boiling crimson”, v. 101; «bulicame»” stream”, v. 117; «quel sangue» “that blood”, v. 125) crosses the subcircle of the violent against others; skirts the wood of the suicides (XIV 10-11); and re- emerges in the subcircle of the violent against God (XIV e XV 1-3).
There it is finally (v. 116) recognised and named as the Phlegethon; then it falls with a crashing noise into the circle below (XVI ), thus constituting an authentic fil rouge, a strong connective element throughout the entire section dedicated to violence.
Phlegethon, already an infernal river in antiquity, was consistently imagined as a river of fire in the classical tradition, first by Virgil and Statius (Aeneid VI and Thebaid IV 523), and in the etymology elaborated by Servius and confirmed in Uguccione da Pisa’s Magnae Derivationes. Macrobius further confirmed this image, with moral connotations of which Dante was most likely aware, as the always well- informed Pietro Alighieri was first to indicate.
The motif associated with that of immersion also has biblical antecedents: we can think of the “stagnum ignis” (Apocalypse 20.14) the lake of fire in which the damned perish, an image frequently reproduced in the iconography of the last judgement. The addition of blood would seem to be entirely Dante’s invention and a conscious ‘novitas’ in emulating and adding to the subtexts.
This functions within the logic of the ‘contrapasso’ and thus is strongly linked to the idea of violence and the punishment of tyrants, murderers, bandits and robbers. This can be traced back through interconnected biblical references, certainly known to Dante and carefully linked by his early commentators, to the scriptural category of “homines sanguinis” “men of blood”) (Sirach )
Dante’s ability to modify his own sources, disguising them through combinations and allusive games will certainly not be dimiiinished by some other possible links that may have suggested to him, perhaps by synergy, the substitution, to great figurative and structural effect, of the classical burning river with immersion in a river of boiling blood.
Another possible influence is in the epiisode of Thamyris the queen of the Scythians, who for revenge immersed the head of Cyrus in a skin full of human blood, according to the story in Orosius (II 7 6). This is recalled by Dante in Purgatorio XII 57, and widely cited by the earliest commentators.
Also the citation recovered by Pascoli, but already linked by Pietro Alighieri, of Seneca’s De Ira, II 5 4, in which, faced with Hannibal’s enthusiasm on seeing a ditch «sanguine humano plenam» “full of human blood”, the narrator adds «Quanto pulchrius illi visum esset, si flumen aliquod lacumque complesset!» “How much more beautiful would it have seemed to him, had it filled a river and a lake.”
The connection of blood with anger, recognised, in the next tercet, and a decisive co-cause of violence, should then have recommended Landino’s comment to modern readers (which doesn’t seem to me to have happened).
Commenting on the violent punished in blood, after having cited the episode of Thamyris, Landino notably adds «Preterea bollono nel sangue e’ violenti, perché sono incitati da ira la quale è bollimento di sangue», “So the violent boil in blood, because they are incited by anger which is the boiling of the blood”, which takes in a literal sense the aristitotelian-thomistic definition of anger as «accensio sanguinis circa cor» burning of the blood around the heart”.
Whatever the intertextual process which led to the “river of blood”, there is no doubting Dante’s ability to anticipate in the short space of a tercet the hair-raising setting for a new narrative sequence, preceded again with his customary delaying technique, by a brief apostrophe from the narrator (vv )
Blind greed and senseless rage are to be understood here not simply as sins of incontinence, but in a Thomistic sense as dispositions of the soul which generate violence towards others (in the Summa Theologica and even more clearly in the De Malo). The chiasmus at v. 49 and at vv translate the connection between these actions into formal expression.
9. Marked by two verbs of vision (in v. 52 and v. 58) the next sequence (vv ), filled with classical echoes, opens with the picture of the centaurs (vv ). Between the river and the foot of the rocky slope the centaurs appear to Dante, galloping “in ranks” and “armed with arrows”, their attitude is just as it was when they went hunting in life.
The military characterisation of the centaurs is clear from the first tercet describing them, they advance in ranks, and are armed with arrows), and will be recalled in subsequent verses. They move in formation (v. 59 and v. 99), they carefully ready their weapons (v. 60), block the path of the intruders (v ), quickly carry out their commander’s orders (v ) and promptly complete precise missions (v. 139).
This characterisation is probably the origin of the opinion, quite widespread in 14th century commentaries, (Pietro Alighieri, Maramauro, Boccaccio, Benvenuto, the Anonimo Fiorentino, Serravalle) that «allegorice hii Centauri pro stipendiariis equitibus summuntur» “the centaurs can be taken allegorically to represent mercenary cavalry”;
They “symbolise paid soldiers and predatory military men” for Boccaccio: «i masnadieri e ’ soldati e i seguaci de’ potenti uomini, essecutori de’ loro scellerati comandamenti», “Robbers, soldiers, and followers of powerful men […] who carry out their wicked orders” who «fanno le violenze e le ’ngiurie a’ subditi», “commit acts of violence and harm to their subjects”.
and in terms of the contrapasso Boccaccio observes, «come furono strumento alle malvage opere de’ tiranni, così sieno alla lor punizione» “as they were the instruments of the evil deeds of tyrants, so are they now their punishment”.
However such an interpretation must be placed in relation to ademythologising explanation of the centaurs, common in the 14th century commentaries and analogous to that of the Minotaur. According to explanations which Dante could have read in Servius, Isidore of Seville and Rabanaus Maurus, the centaurs were the result of a banal optical illusion.
Recalling the mythical union of Ixion and the cloud which adopted the appearance of Juno, The Ottimo Commento tells us “The truth is that Ixion was the first to arm 100 horsemen in Greece, and he waged war with them. When ignorant people first saw them on horseback they thought that man and horse were a single animal, and they were called centaurs because there were 100 of them, and they destroyed the land like a mighty wind (aura)”
“Or it was the first ruler of Greece, not a noble ruler but one who held power through tyranny and desired glory an honour […] He had as his guard 100 archers on horseback, and this is the origin of the Centaurs.”
If their position at the threshold of Avernus in Virgil and Statius was enough for Dante to admit the centaurs among the monsters of his Inferno, and if Ovid’s story of the centauromachia testified to their impulsive character, it seems reasonable to believe that their specific function as punishers of tyrants and the violent toward others is due to the widespread rationalising interpretation of the myth (as in the case of the Minotaur).
The Ottimo Commento again: “and since the Centaurs were first found by tyrants, i.e. soldiers, so in this canto of the tyrants the Centaurs are mentioned as guarding the tyrants in their punishment.”
There has been insufficient emphasis, I believe, on the influence of this tradition on some of the miniaturists. As well as having depicted the Minotaur as a centaur, they also depict the centaurs of Inferno XII simply as archers. This is the case in the codices of the University of Budapest library and the Oratoriana in Naples, and also in the splendid Egerton 943 manuscript in London.
The centaurs then, are committed to their sadistic task of punishment and oblivious to the visitors until now - it is only from v. 58 that they are aware of the two poets – and Dante in particular - making their way down the landslide into the valley (vv ).
The exceptional nature of the event determines the sudden halt of all the centaurs. Three of them break away from the formation. They advance only after they have prudently readied their bows and arrows. One of the three, with an abrupt tone and demeanour asks the new arrivals to declare the reasons for their presence, threatening them with his bow.
Virgil replies, equally brusquely, informing his rash interlocutor that he intends to respond only to Chiron. The lightly derisive tone Virgil uses recalls his words against the Minotaur. As he reminds the centaur of the harm his rashness has already done “to your own hurt was your will ever hasty” a reworking of Ovid’s «“Quo te fiducia” clamat “vana pedum, violente, rapit?”» “Where is your vain confidence in your swift feet carrying you, you ravisher.” (Met. IX 120-1)
Then having regained Dante’s attention he reveals the names of the three centaurs, condensing the important details regarding them into a marvellous summary. The first, the one who spoke, is Nessus, charged whilst alive with ferrying travellers across the river Euenos, according to Ovid (Met. IX 98 ff).
When he carried the “Beautiful Deianira”, the betrothed of Hercules, across the river he fell in love with her and tried to capture and rape her. When the Greek Hero realised what was happening he wounded the centaur with an arrow which soaked his shirt with a lethal poison and killed him.
Nessus however, before dying prepared his revenge, giving the poisoned shirt to Deianira and convincing her that although Hercules had betrayed her it would be possible to restore their first love if he were to put on the shirt. As is well-known Deianira, jealous of Iole, followed Nessus’ instructions and unintentionally poisoned Hercules, then overcome with grief killed herself.
And so Nessus «fé di sé la vendetta elli stesso», a hendecasyllable which alludes once more to Ovid «Neque enim moriemur inulti» “For I will not die unavenged” (Met., IX 131).
Positioned prominently in the centre is the most famous of the centaurs and, according to the tradition reported by Statius, their chief, the “great” Chiron, the “huge centaur” (Achilleid ). He is specified solely through physical description, and the moral connotations which have been linked to him (unduly in my opinion), such as Statius “ingenti magistro”, “the great teacher”, are absent here.
The use of “gran” in reference to the mouth of Chiron (v. 79) and to the centaur Nessus (v. 104), and the realistic observation in v , that Virgil only comes up to the Chiron’s chest so that the human part of the centaur towers above him, are mainly physical descriptions.
The excessive length of their limbs has the centaurs defined as giants by Bambaglioli in the 14th century, though gigantism as a characteristic of the monstrous is not only a mediaeval idea.
The image of Chiron with his head bowed looking at his chest bears witness, according one interpretative tradition, of his reflective and thoughtful character. However we may return, with Charles Singleton, to the intention of the narrator to direct the reader’s gaze towards the pinot at which Chiron’s human nature descends into the bestial and thus shows the monstrous dehumanisation of these infernal creatures.
Third in the series and occupying a single verse is the irascible Pholus. Ciafardini noted in 1925 that Dante could not have drawn this detail from Ovid since the mention of Pholus in Metamorphoses VIII provides no detailed characterisation, he is simply named among the participants in the battle. Nor do other classical texts yield much more information as Pholus is generally only mentioned tangentially.
Boccaccio’s uncertainty in his Esposizioni exemplifies the issue, as he candidly states: “Regarding this Pholus we have nothing to add except that he was the son of Ixion and the cloud, like the other centaurs”
Pietro Aligheiri, in the first version of his commentary has recourse to an improbable etymology in an attempt to explain the description ‘irascible’, “Pholus the other centaur was so angry that today stupid and angry people are called ‘Fools”. Pietro edited this out of his later versions.
The grouping of the three centaurs Nessus, Chiron and Pholus, who stand out from the various other ‘semihomines’ mentioned in sources known to Dante, comes from Lucan’s Pharsalia (VI ) In book VI Lucan reviews the peoples of Thessaly and when he comes to the «issionidi Centauri», “Ixion’s centaurs” records Dante’s three centaurs in sequence.
The evident intertextual connection (in no other classical text known to Dante are the three centaurs associated) is not enough by itself, however, to clarify all the implications and valences of such a choice, also because literary memory is never assimilated in an acritical way by Dante, but is always in keeping with the “reasons of a calculated revision of the myth […] between continuity and Christian surpassing of the classics”.
Among the thousands of centaurs who inhabit for all eternity the first subcircle of the seventh circle of hell Dante brings forward only Nessus, Chiron and Pholus. Perhaps, as Jacopo Alighieri and Buti would have it, because they are better known than the others, but also because they share a common fate: all three are victims, voluntary and involuntary, of Hercules.
Nessus, intentionally shot by the bank of the river Euenos while he tried to rape Deianeira; Chiron, as Ovid relates (Met. II 633f.) struck by accident by a poisoned arrow which Hercules had shot at other centaurs, and in such terrible pain that he asked the gods to let him die; and Pholus, as Virgil briefly recalls (Aen. VIII 393-5), and as Servius fully explains, died from a wound inflicted whilst he was examining the deadly arrows of his host Hercules
All three centaurs named here, and not only Nessus, recall for mediaeval readers the “stories of Hercules”, as mentioned by Dante himself in the ‘Convivio’ III After the explicit reference to Theseus, responsible for the death of the Minotaur and decisive on the side of the Lapiths in the fight against the centaurs, Nessus Chiron and Pholus allow a clear allusion to Hercules,
that is to the personification of reason and virtue capable of overcoming adversity – as suggested by a solid tradition of allegorical reading (taken up by, to name a few, Augustine, Lactantius, Servius, Macrobius and Fulgentius). In mediaeval culture too,, Herculaes is sometimes identified on an equal footing with Theseus as a figura Dei, “a figure of God”, sent to earth from heaven to combat evil.
The allusion to Hercules thus constitutes further proof of Dante’s characterisation of the centaurs in demonic terms. The run in great numbers in the space between the river and the escarpment cruelly striking the souls of the damned who come out of the Phlegethon. They display a bestial and inhuman delight as they inflict greater pain than the punishment requires.
In the imprecise and hyperbolic enumeration of the centaurs (thousands and thousands), we may catch an echo of Apocalypse 9:16 «Et numerus equestris exercitus vicies milia dena milia», ‘The number of the mounted troops was two hundred million’ both phonically in the repetition of mille / milia, and figuratively in the analogy between the formations of centaurs and armies of cavalry.
10. After the rapid exchange between Nessus and Virgil and the presentation to a still dumbstruck Dante of the threatening rank of centaurs, the narration is taken up (vv ): While the two poets approach the centaurs, Chiron takes an arrow and using the notch on the end like a comb, combs his beard back behind his jaws, with a rough militaristic gesture.
With his large mouth now revealed, the chief of the centaurs addresses his underlings, making them take note that the steps of Dante «quel di retro», “the one behind”, most unusually cause the stones to move, which doesn’t happen with the other souls.
Virgil, who had come up to Chiron’s chest, the crucial point of conjunction of his double nature, with precision but in a tone not dissimilar to that used by the two infernal guardians, confirms their impression that Dante is alive and that he is travelling through the “valle buia”, dark valley of Hell alone with his guide. He is moved by divine will and not his own wishes.
Nor does he conceal the pre-history of the journey, recalling the office entrusted to him by Beatrice. Whom he doesn’t name directly (as is also the case for Christ in Hell) but with a periphrasis that has a strong connotative function.
Having clarified everything, in particular that neither he nor Dante are damned souls, Virgil calls upon the divine authority which allows him to follow this «selvaggia strada» “savage road” (echoing the «selva selvaggia» of Inf., I 5), and presents his requests to Chiron:
He must supply one of his subordinates to accompany them, and point out the ford over the Phlegethon, and carry Dante across the river of boiling blood on his back. As in the case of Phlegyas, then later Geryon, Antaeus and Lucifer himself, one of the constant features of the first cantica is not just that the will of God prevails, but the forces of evil are forced to assist in the divinely willed journey.
Thus Chiron cannot disobey and turning to Nessus, who is expert in fording rivers (scitus vadorum (Ovid Met., IX 108), orders him to accompany them and move aside any other groups of centaurs who try to block their path. The harsh rhyme in -oppa of groppa : poppa : intoppa, occurs in three other parts of the Inferno - VII 23-27, XXI 11-15, and XXV , this latter referring to Cacus, another centaur «pien di rabbia» filled with rage.
11. Only the final rapid sequence in the canto is given to the sinners immersed in the Phlegethon, trapped in a degrading immobility. There is no contact with them, and the mention of them is often reduced to a mere naming, mediated by Nessus. This expository strategy is calculated to produce a strong ethical distancing. The main elements of this final section have been fully explained by Ezio Raimondi and, more recently, Umberto Carpi.
Dante and Virgil take up their journey again, along with the centaur Nessus, ironically described as a “scorta fida” a “trustworthy escort”. They travel alongside the bank of “boiling crimson”, and the sense of horror is increased by the screams of the “bolliti”, boiled souls.
The rapid review of the souls, conducted according to a technique typical of the ‘serventese’ form for dealing with political material and already used in the enumeration of the souls in Limbo will be reutilised in the listing of negligent rulers in Purgatorio VII. Verbs of seeing predominate (v. 103; 118; 121) and numerous deictics (v.104; 106; 107; v. 109; 110; 119) which Nessus uses to carry out his task as guide.
The listing of these souls is rapid for reasons of narrative verisimilitude (the short span of the ford). But Dante also wishes to give an almost anonymous image of violence, and show the distance and disdain the author has for the sinners immersed in Phlegethon, shown by the haste with which he deals with these character.
There are difficulties in identifying some individuals, (e.g. in v. 107, is it Alexander King of Jerusalem, or Alexander of Macedonia, or Alexander of Pherae; is it Dionysius the elder or younger? In v. 135 which Pyrrhus is it, and is Sextus Pompeius, or Nero?), However the series is not incidental, and is constructed symmetrically, in three sections.
The central section condemns the souls there to anonymity, which also functions to highlight how widespread this particular sin is. «di costoro assai riconobb’io», “I recognised many of them” v. 123).
The two final sections collect together five characters each, arranged in a sort of chiasmus: in the first part two ancients, Alexander and cruel Dionysius, and three moderns, Ezzelino III da Romano, Obizzo II d’Este and Guy de Monfort, vicar of Charles of Anjou in Tuscany in 1272; in the second three ancients, Pyrrhus, Sextus and Attila, and corresponding to them the two homonymous moderns Rinier da Corneto and Rinier Pazzo.
The modern souls, at least those who can be identified more precisely, constitute a distinctive group of characters, and their names identify a precise historical-political geography with important implications for the political strategies of the Commedia
The mention of Ezzelino and Obizzo together, individuated by the colour of their hair, is not due to some criteria of equality as Raimondi has noted. The greater insistence on the inglorious death of Obizzo seems to lessen the severity of the common judgement on Ezzelino, whose condemnation is, so to speak dialectalised
The expressive high point in the list of the damned comes in the isolation to which the soul of Guy de Montfort is condemned. In revenge for the death of his father he killed the young Henry of Cornwall during the celebration of the mass in Viterbo, in the presence and possibly with the tacit approval of Philip III of France and Charles of Anjou.
There is an interesting exegetical crux here, which, unfortunately, we do not have time to examine in detail.
His task completed, having carried Dante beyond Phlegethon, Nessus crosses back over the ford: the canto closes in a brusque manner, with a perfect correspondence of formal unity and topographical division.
The reader is left with the image of the centaur who…«mostra in primo piano la parte equina, bestiale del suo corpo». The brusque effect of caesura will be diminished however in verse 1 of canto XIII, («Non era ancora di là Nesso arrivato»), as if it were an example of “coblas capfinidas”, and narrative continuity with the preceding canto will be restored.