|NUMBER 1||FALL 1987|
For the contemporary reader of Dante's masterpiece, arrival at the bottom of hell is apt to bring some surprises. Nowadays, one is likely to think of the netherworld as a hot place. Dante, himself, contributed to such a view in the upper circles where he showed us sinners being toasted, pelted with tongues of fire, and dipped in boiling pitch. Here, where we can go no deeper, we encounter not more intense heat but frigid cold. The stream of tears and blood that flowed from the damned in canto XIV and became superheated with the sins of violence has turned into an icy lake where the worst of sinners __ the traitors __ are entrapped. In Dante's view, treachery is an outrage against the very essence of humanity. It violates every dimension of the human soul and takes the sinner as far from the warmth of divine love as he can get.
With the start of canto XXXIII we find ourselves in Cocytus, in lower hell, at the very bottom of the City of Dis. The sinners here have all transgressed against justice. Lucifer reigns supreme here in his capacity as the greatest traitor of all, having formed the very pit of hell with his fall from God. Around him lie human traitors frozen in various attitudes. Dante's ire at recognizing who they are is expressed with an intensity found nowhere else in the Inferno. Since the only brotherhood traitors can know is that of other traitors, they lie coupled with each other, eager to vent their hatred. The opening lines of the canto present us with a grizzly depiction of cannibalism:
That sinner lifted his mouth from his savage meal and wiped it with the hair of the head that he had been eating.
Dante had already encountered these two at the end of the last Canto and had given the ghastly eater a chance to redeem himself among the living by telling his story. Nevertheless, words do not come easily to this sinner:
Then he began: «You want me to feel anew that desperate grief that mere thought can bring to weigh heavy upon my heart. But if my words can be the seed of infamy's fruit to the traitor that I gnaw, you will have me both speak and weep».
Since Dante was given no name tag when he began his excursion through this dolorous vale, its denizens have no way of knowing who he is. They rely, instead, on appearance and manner of speaking. This sinner is as skilled as others before him in speech recognition:
«I don't know who you are or how you have managed to come here, but hearing you speak I am certain that you are a Florentine».
Having ascertained Dante's provenance, the sinner identifies himself and the hapless object of his wrath:
«You are to know that I was Count Ugolino and this one is Archbishop Ruggieri. I will tell you why I am so close to him. There is no need to say how I trusted him and was taken and killed through his evil devices. What you cannot know, however, is how cruel my death was. What you will hear and know now is how he offended me».
The story of Count Ugolino and Archbishop Ruggieri comes down to us more or less intact. We know that neither one is without sin. Count Ugolino was a Gherardeschi, a member of one of the most prominent families of Pisa. According to one account, he tried to retain political power when his faction was losing by arranging to let some castles belonging to Pisa fall into the hands of Lucca and Florence. Archbishop Ruggieri degli Ubaldini was an equally prominent Pisan of the Ghibelline party. According to Cristoforo Landino, an early commentator on Dante, Ruggieri had a nephew who was killed by a relative of Count Ugolino in an affair involving a woman. To avenge this death, the archbishop used the underhanded dealings of Ugolino to incite the Pisans against him. In another version of the story, Ruggieri was a rival of Ugolino who plotted to lead him into a trap. In any event, Ugolino was taken from his house, along with four of his sons (or with two sons and two grandsons), and imprisoned in a tower in the Piazza degli Anziani. As a portent of the horrible fate that awaited Ugolino and his sons, the door was locked and nailed shut and the key was thrown into the Arno. The prisoners were left to suffer death by starvation.
When the tower door was finally unsealed and the remains of the prisoners taken out, some of the bodies showed signs of having been eaten. It is likely that the bites were from rats. Nevertheless, the story spread quickly that the prisoners who lived the longest must have sustained themselves by cannibalizing those who died before them. Accounts of cannibalism under dire circumstances are not unknown in the world. During the long siege of Leningrad by the Germans in the Second World War, there were reports of human flesh being eaten. Other reports of survival cannibalism have been published about people lost in the wilderness after airplane disasters. In some parts of the world ritualistic cannibalism continues to be practiced in the belief that consuming parts of a deceased relative somehow continues that loved person's life. As we shall see in Dante's account of the Ugolino episode, elements of both survival and ritualistic cannibalism are discernible.
Ugolino recounts the events of those days of desperation in the tower. He likens his prison to a mew or "molting cage" in which falcons and other birds of prey were placed in order to force them to shed their plumage.
«I had already seen several moons through the small slit in the mew which on account of my imprisonment now carries the title of Hunger and which is yet to entrap others when I had the nightmare that lifted the veil of the future from my eyes».
The reference to hunting is built into an even more explicit metaphor as Ugolino describes the role played by Ruggieri in capturing him:
«This man appeared to me as master and lord hunting the wolf and its young on the mountain which blocks Lucca from Pisa's view. He put his hounds before him. They were lean, trained and eager, and had the names Gualandi, Sismondi and Lanfranchi. After a short run, it seemed to me that the father and his sons became tired and I thought I could see their flanks being torn open by the dog's sharp fangs».
This metaphor is especially appropriate because Gualandi, Sisrnondi and Lanfranchi were the Ghibelline families of Pisa who were persuaded by Ruggieri to take Ugolino and his sons into imprisonment. Ugolino's dream is prophetic in hindsight for it configures the actual events of his capture and provides a frame for retelling the story to Dante. The dream ends as Ugolino awakes in his prison and faces the grim fate that he shares with his children:
«When I awoke before the morning's light, I heard my children who were with me crying in their sleep and asking for bread. You are heartless indeed if you do not already grieve at the thought of what I knew in my heart; and if you do not weep now, at what would you ever weep?»
As we shall learn later in this canto, traitors are not allowed to weep on account of the cold that freezes their tears within their eyes. Ugolino's suffering must certainly touch Dante who nevertheless gives us no inkling as to his reaction to this plaintive tale. Ugolino continues his narration:
«My sons were awake now and, as the hour drew near when our food was to be brought to us, each feared the worst through his dream. Then I heard the tower door of that horrible tower being nailed shut and I looked speechless into the faces of my children».
Ugolino is yet to show his emotion, possibly because the realization of what has been done to him has angered him beyond words:
«I did not weep, so turned to stone was I inside. They wept instead and my Anselmuccio said: What is wrong with you, father, you seem so troubled? Still I shed no tears nor answered all that day and the following night, until another sun came forth on the world».
Having reached the second day without nourishment and seeing the effects on his sons, Ugolino finally breaks down and displays his anger and frustration. He does so with the still-used Italian gesture of simulating a bite of the thick of his hand. He does it twice and his sons interpret his gesture as a wish to eat. They beseech him to nourish himself by eating of their flesh.
«As soon as a little ray of sun made its way into that wretched prison I could discern my own features in the four faces that looked back at me. Anguish made me bite both my hands and they, thinking that I did it out of a wish to eat, got up suddenly and said to me: "Father, it would hurt us much less if you ate of us. It was you who gave us this miserable flesh and you should be the one to take it from us."».
This macabre scene is an inversion of the Last Supper when Christ offered his flesh and blood to his disciples to grant them eternal life. Rather than have the disciples eat of the father's body, it is Ugolino, the father, who is asked to eat of the sons' flesh. Rather than the promise of eternal life, there is only the continuance of life in a prison, to be followed by death and damnation to hell. Ugolino is able to gather some composure as he and the others wait for the inevitable end:
«I calmed myself then so as not to sadden them more; we remained silent that day and all the next. Oh, hard earth, why didn't you open up? When we reached the fourth day Gaddo threw himself at my feet saying: "Oh father, why don't you help me?"».
We cannot help but feel Ugolino's anguish as his sons die before him, one after the other:
«He died there, and as you see me, I saw the three fall, one by one, during the fifth and the sixth day; then, blinded (from lack of nourishment) I was reduced to groping over each. For two days I called out to them after they were dead: finally, my fasting overwhelmed my grief».
We are left to imagine the worst. Did hunger finally spur Ugolino to an act of cannibalism? Many literary analysts have found an interpretation of this scene that keeps Ugolino from violating such a deep-seated taboo. We must view such interpretations in the same light that people who have practiced cannibalism today for whatever reasons are loathe to admit to it. In any event, we are led to feel as much compassion here as we felt with the two hapless lovers Paolo and Francesca who were killed as they read together.
The recounting of his demise fills Ugolino with even greater wrath toward the one who captured him and whom he is now devouring:
When he had said this, his eyes became wild and he took hold of that wretched skull again with his teeth, which were strong on the bone like a dog's.
Dante does not limit his wrath to Ruggieri but extends it to all of Pisa:
Oh Pisa, shame of those who live in the beautiful land where «yes» is sì, since your neighbors are slow in punishing you, may (the isles of) Capraia and Gorgona move to bar the Arno at its mouth so that it drowns everyone within you!
Perhaps we can agree with Dante that the punishment meted out to Ugolino should not have included his children:
Even if Count Ugolino was said to have betrayed your fortifications, you should have not put his sons to such punishment. (I say to you who are the new Thebes that) their young years made them innocent __ Uguiccione, Brigata and the other two already named above. (Thebes was renowned as the ancient city of serious crimes and murders. This hell is a new Thebes.)
But since traitors deserve no compassion, Dante has nothing to say. Instead, he takes us on:
We passed on to where the ice coarsely enfolds another group of people who were not face-downward but all turned up.
Dante describes a very special kind of torment that afflicts the traitorous sinners encased here: they cannot vent their pain in weeping. As much as they would like to let the tears flow, the cold freezes the water within their eyes:
The very weeping there does not let them weep and the pain which is blocked within their eyes turns inward to make the anguish even greater. For their first tears form a cluster and, like a crystal visor, fill the hollows under their brows.
The cold is intense. Dante finds that his own face has frozen and yet he senses a movement of air which puzzles him.
And it happened that I felt some wind even though all feeling had left my face as hard as a callus. So I asked: Master, who causes this wind to move? Isn't all heat spent down here? And he answered me: «Soon you will be where your eye will give you the answer and you will see the reason for this breeze».
The answer is not given immediately. We realize later that this particular circulation of air is caused by the beating of Satan's wings. A traitor frozen in the ice now speaks to Dante and Virgil, apparently believing that they are recently arrived sinners:
And one of those wretches within the frozen crust shouted to us: «Oh, cruel spirits, since you are the last to arrive, lift the hard covering from my face so that I may give vent to the pain that fills my heart before my weeping freezes once again».
Surprisingly, Dante appears ready to help:
So I said to him: «If you want me to help you, tell me who you are, and may I sink to the bottom if I do not relieve you».
The sinner identifies himself as Brother Alberigo, an evil monk who is guilty of treachery to his own kin. He had an argument with his cousin Manfredo and then, seemingly as a gesture of reconciliation, invited him to dine. At a signal given by Alberigo, assassins rushed in and killed Manfredo and a young son who had accompanied him to dinner.
He answered then: «I am Fra Alberigo; I am the one of the fruit from the evil garden, and here I am paid a date for a fig».
With he expression "date for a fig," a double allusion is made. Fra Alberigo gave the signal to kill his cousin by calling for the fruit to be served at the end of the meal. Just as the date was considered to be a more valuable fruit than the fig, the reward of punishment given to Alberigo is greater than the dessert he served to his cousin. The "mal orto" is possibly an allusion to Faenza, the site of this particular instance of treachery. Dante then expresses surprise that Alberigo is here since he was supposedly still alive. The explanation is modeled on John XIII, 27, where we are told that deceitful people make themselves unfit for human company. After their acts of treachery, their souls go immediately to hell and their bodies are taken over by devils who stay with them through the remainder of their days on earth.
«Oh», I said to him, «are you dead already?» And he answered «I have no knowledge of how my body is doing in the world above. This Ptolemy's hell has the advantage that often the soul falls into it before Atropos sends it here. And so that you will more willingly shave the glazed tears from my face, know that as soon as the soul betrays, as I did, its body is taken over by a demon who rules it until its time on earth has run out. The soul falls into this tank and perhaps you still see in the world above the body of the shade who is wintering behind me».
It was Ptolemy who killed Pompeus but also his father-in-law Simone Maccabeo and his two sons, Matatia and Giuda. To make his point, Fra Alberigo identifies another traitor who may still be among the living. This one is Branca d'Oria of Genoa who murdered his father-in-law, Michel Zanche, at a banquet. Michel Zanche is also in hell, in the ditch with barrators and swindlers (canto XXII).
«You should know if you have just come down here that he is ser Branca d'Oria and he has been encased here for many years». «I believe», I said to him, «that you are deceiving me. Branca d'Oria is not yet dead. He eats, drinks, sleeps and wears clothing». «Michel Zanche had not yet arrived above, in the ditch of the Malebranche where the sticky pitch is made to boil, when this one left his body to the devil as did a near-relative of his who joined him in the treacherous act».
Having given Dante an explanation of how living people can have their souls in hell and then identifying yet another traitor of the times, Fra Alberigo expects Dante to hold to his promise of removing the ice from his eyes. Dante refuses on the grounds that traitors do not merit altruistic and humanistic acts. Indeed, our poet feels that his inaction is proper under the circumstances. The requests of traitors are not to be honored. Dante ends this canto inveighing against the Genoese people whom he finds to be especially corrupt.
«But now reach out with your hand and open my eyes for me». I didn't do it and it was a courtesy to be a churl to him. Ah, people of Genoa, alien to all good custom and full of every corruption, why haven't you been driven from the world? For I have found one of you whose soul is bathed in Cocytus along with the worst spirit of Romagna and whose body appears yet alive in the world above.
The banquet or convivium was an extremely important social happening in the medieval world. As food and drink were enjoyed over the banquet table so were ideas shared among trusted and sincere friends. The theme of food is important in each of the episodes of this canto. In Ugolino's case, it was deprivation of food and the ultimate gruesome scene of cannibalism. With Fra Alberigo and Branca d'Oria, il was treason committed at banquets and against relatives __ a cousin and his son in Alberigo's case and a father-in-law in Branca's case. To commit acts of treachery under the guise of hospitality is so evil in such a cultural context that we can understand why Dante would not feel even a modicum of compassion for those souls who must remain frozen in this godless lake for all eternity.*
*Lectura Dantis delivered in Jefferson's Rotunda at the University of Virginia on April 27, 1987.