|NUMBER 1||FALL 1987|
Canto VI of the Inferno lends itself well to the traditional format of a lectura Dantis, in which one canto is lifted from the context of the whole work, and considered as a single poetic entity. This canto is one of the shortest in the Comedy: only one other, Inferno XI, has as few as 115 lines. Canto VI can be regarded as a self-contained unit, since it holds the complete description of one circle of Hell, the third, where Gluttons are punished. The action of the canto is symmetrically framed by two mythological demons, Cerberus and Plutus, who preside over its opening and closing scenes respectively. At the center, a single character emerges, standing out vividly from nameless crowds of prostrate sinners. He is the Florentine glutton, known only as Ciacco. Ciacco's conversation with Dante the Pilgrim focuses on Florence, and his political prophecies foretell the strife that will soon tear the city apart. This is the first of a series of prophecies occurring throughout the Comedy, predicting events that deeply concern and personally affect Dante. During his journey, the Pilgrim will meet a number of other characters who make prophetic revelations. Finally in Paradise his great-great-grandfather, Cacciaguida, will explain what personal consequences the darkly hinted-al future events will have for Dante himself.
The political theme has a central place in Inferno VI, where it is introduced for the first time. The theme will flow through the entire Comedy with ever widening implications. As has often been pointed out, there is a certain parallelism in the fact that Inferno VI deals with Florence, while Purgatorio VI ends with a vehement apostrophe to Italy, and Paradiso VI contains the history of the Empire.
These observations belie my earlier remarks: true, Inferno VI is a complete poetic unit, but it cannot be read in isolation from the whole work, at least not with equal insight. Almost inevitably, in considering a single canto, one will range beyond its confines to related parts of the tightly integrated whole. But now let us go to the text.
The canto opens abruptly at the moment of an awakening. The Pilgrim regains consciousness (mente) after having fainted with pity for the eloquent Francesca and her lover, Paolo, among the Lustful. The return to consciousness firmly links this canto to the preceding one: its opening is transitionless only in the sense that the reader is not told how the descent from one circle of Hell to the next lower one is accomplished. A similar violent awakening had marked the Pilgrim's arrival in Limbo ("Ruppemi l'alto sonno ne la testa / un greve truono" IV, 1-2). Even the very opening of the Comedy itself represents a return to self-awareness ("Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita / mi ritrovai...": I found myself again, as if after a deep sleep). But whereas in Canto I Dante's consciousness focuses on his inner state, in the circle of the Gluttons his mind, which had been confused with pity and sadness, is assailed from the outside by the sight and sounds of strange torments from which there is no turning away. The lines, "come ch'io mi mova / e ch'io mi volga, e come che io guati," preannounce the constant restless motion that is characteristic of this place in Hell. The present tense brings into sharp focus the Pilgrim's being there, and heightens the shock of the awakening:
The senses are assailed by cold, heavy rain, coarse hail, dirty water and snow, which fill the dark air. Foul-smelling earth soaks up the precipitation. Barking and howling strike the ears. The submerged souls and their guardian are in ceaseless agitation. In the description, the present tense reflects the eternal duration of the scene. Paradoxically, the relentless movement and frenzied activity of the elements, of Cerberus and of the sinners, are the very essence of the monotony of Hell.
Peculiar to the Third Circle, however, is the disharmonious uproar, the sound of madly barking and howling dogs. The doglike monster, Cerberus, the guardian and torturer of the Gluttons, introduces the canine imagery that dominates the beginning of the canto. It is well known that Dante's Cerberus only partially resembles the mythological beast of the Aeneid (VI, 419 ff.). As in Virgil's poem, he is described not as three-headed, but as barking with three throats and devouring sop with three gullets. But in Dante he has humanoid features such as hands with nails, a greasy beard, a large belly, and red eyes. These features, along with the violent punishment he inflicts on the sinners, transform the classical Cerberus into a medieval demon. The most striking part of his description is the line, "con tre gole caninamente latra." By focusing on the throats, "tre gole," the poet prepares for the identification of the sin punished here. But the key word is the long drawn-out, rhythmically disturbing caninamente. Syntactically displaced, the adverb precedes rather than follows the verb it modifies. One is forced to linger on this word while reading the line, and the line points to the essence of the beast: Cerberus is recognizable as a dog-like monster by his voice. (It is interesting to keep in mind that in Purgatory, on the terrace of the Gluttons, Dante recognizes his friend, the poet Forese Donati, by his voice.) Cerberus' voice is his most non-human trait, and its decisive characteristic is its angry, irrational inarticulateness. The sinners also howl like dogs as they are battered by the incessant rain. Their lack of comprehensibility, the general acoustic effect of demonic and human voices producing disharmonious animal noises, contrasts sharply with the articulate speech of Francesca in the preceding canto.
It is certainly not by accident that dog-like sounds resound in an opaque landscape of impure rain, hail, and snow, which combine with stinking soil and the people submerged in it. A common metaphor for eloquence in classical and medieval literature is pure, clear, flowing water. Dante frequently uses the symbolism of clear streams in this way. In the Vita Nuova (XIX), the poet is walking along a limpid brook when his tongue, almost as if moved by itself, speaks the first line of his great canzone, "Donne ch'avete intelletto d'amore"; in Inferno I (79) the poet, Virgil, is metaphorically "quella fonte / che spandi di parlar sì largo fiume"; the beautiful little stream that surrounds the noble castle in Limbo is considered by many commentators to symbolize eloquence (Inf. IV, 108).
But what is the connection between articulate speech (or the lack of it), and Gluttony? Once again I want to look beyond the limits of our canto, and consider the sixth terrace of Purgatory, where Gluttony is expiated. As Dante and his two companions, the poets Virgil and Statius, arrive at this terrace, they see a strange, upside-down tree, through whose foliage flows a clear liquid. Leaving the tree behind, they hear singing: only the words, Labia mea, Domine ("My lips, O Lord"), are quoted. As usual, when a mere fragment of verse appears, the reader is expected to have the whole text in mind. These words come from the Fiftieth Psalm, and the crucial verses are, "Open my lips, O Lord, and may my mouth announce your praise." The connection between Gluttony and eloquence now turns out to be very simple, very obvious and unsophisticated. Eating and speaking are both activities of the mouth: through it, food enters the body in a purely material way; or words come forth, and those that praise the Lord are the most worthy. Gluttony is the very antithesis of what clear, rational speech should be, of true eloquence, of poetry. On the sixth terrace of Purgatory, while Virgil and Statius look on, Dante converses with two of his contemporaries, Forese Donati and Bonagiunta da Lucca, both gluttons and both versifiers who do not quite measure up to the name of poet. Bonagiunta asks if the Pilgrim is the author of "Donne ch'avete intelletto d'amore" (the verse Dante's tongue pronounced as if moved by itself), and in reply Dante formulates the famous definition of his own way of writing poetry: "I' mi son un che, quando / Amor mi spira, noto, e a quel modo / ch'e' ditta dentro vo significando" (Purg. XXIV, 52-54). The love that inspires Dante's poetry is divine love. The Lord opens his lips (Labia mea, Domine, aperies). His work, the Comedy, is the highest example of poetic praise. If Forese and Bonagiunta appear among the Gluttons in Purgatory, it is because they failed as poets. But now let us return to the howling Gluttons of the Inferno.
Once the general scene has been described, a shift from the present tense to the preterit marks the continuation of the narrative at the moment when Cerberus confronts the wayfarers.
Cerberus has been given a new epithet, "il gran vermo." The term, "worm," is a biblical pejorative. Here, it specifically links the minor three-headed demon with Lucifer, "vermo reo" (Inf. XXXIV, 108), making him an early prefiguration of the three-headed arch-demon. Cerberus threatens the wayfarers, baring his fangs and quivering with excitement. Virgil placates the beast by throwing fistfuls of mud into his triple gullets, not the drugged honey and wheat cakes that the Sybil casts to Cerberus in the parallel scene of the Aeneid. Virgil's hands are somewhat inelegantly described as spanne, pugna, in keeping with the harsh vocabulary of this part of the canto. Cerberus, ironically, has mani, and these hands are instruments of torture whose nature is reflected in the harshness of the words that earlier described the demon's actions: graffia ... ed iscoia ed isquatra. The word isquatra occurs only twice in Dante's works, here and in the canzone, "Così nel mio parlar voglio esser aspro." In both places it rhymes with atra and demonstrates the deliberate use of grating, disharmonious sounds. In Inferno VI, of course, such a choice of vocabulary is in harmony with the idea of the sin and its punishment.
Cerberus is nowhere referred to as a dog. He barks in a dog-like manner, caninamente, he is a beast, fiera, a worm, vermo, and now a demon, demonio. The simile, "Qual è quel cane," compares the demon to a dog with respect to restless craving for food, and ear-splitting barks. Cerberus is a portrait of uncontrolled nervous energy, uncontrolled sound, the epitome of irrationality and disharmony. If he functions literally as the guardian and torturer of the sinners, on another, perhaps more important level, he serves as the concrete embodiment of their spiritual condition.
The narrative now continues in the imperfect tense to set the stage for an encounter between Dante and an individual sinner.
As the wayfarers walk over the rain-battered shades, one of them suddenly rises to a sitting position. For the first time in the Comedy, the poet here refers to the fact that the souls, portrayed so concretely, are nothing but emptiness, "vanità che par persona." The reader does not question the poetic necessity of depicting incorporeal souls as flesh and blood individuals. After all, the drama of Hell depends on their objective presence. Nevertheless, the poet leaves no strange phenomenon unexplained and will provide a scientific lesson on the bodily form of shades much later, in Canto XXV of Purgatory. The Comedy is a fiction that demands of the reader not a willing suspension of disbelief, but rather belief based on authority and reason.
The soul who rises from the mud to address the Pilgrim adopts a familiar, confrontational stance. In clear, concise words that stand out sharply from the background noise, he challenges Dante:
There is a hint of scorn in the imperious command, "riconoscimi, se sai." The incisive and colloquial "O tu ..." is worlds removed from Francesca's mellifluous greeting, "O animal grazioso e benigno." The antithetical "Disfatto, fatto" establishes a temporal relationship between the two men in a single line: Dante is the younger of the two and might have met the shade before he died. Dante's reply contrasts with the stark brevity of the words spoken to him, and seem to retain traces of the gentility that prevailed during his meeting with Francesca. Could it be that the Pilgrim has not quite grasped the reality of Hell?
Commentators generally consider the Pilgrim's attitude towards this hitherto unidentified Glutton to show respect and pity. It may be worth while to reexamine this opinion. Dante's reply, though it seems to be sympathetic, could be calculated to take up the sinner's challenge in words sufficiently polite to obtain information about his identity, for it shows little heart-felt sorrow. If Dante is being drawn through Hell ("per questo 'nferno tratto"), Hell's pain draws the sinner from Dante's memory ("ti tira fuor de la mia mente"). Tirare is a more popular form of trarre. The Pilgrim reiterates the sinner's own words, turning them against him, though his "perhaps" (forse) does soften the impact. "Non par ch' i' ti vedessi mai" is a polite way of saying: Your disfigurement makes you unrecognizable! In this case, the imperfect subjunctive softens the statement. As for the sinner's suffering, "s'altra è maggio, nulla è sì spiacente": it could be greater or perhaps more tragically grand. The sinner's pains are above all disagreeable. So far, Dante has seen very little of Hell, but he cannot imagine anything more repulsive. I fail to see the respect and pity that critics so frequently read into the Pilgrim's feelings. However, he may be learning that by maintaining a semblance of respect, he can elicit an answer to questions that are important to him. In this case, turning the tables on the unknown Glutton, Dante quickly induces the shade to reveal his identity.
Once again, Ciacco's words are brief and antagonistic. He defines his own former existence in terms of Dante's Florence, of Dante and his fellow citizens: "La tua città ... Voi cittadini ...," distancing himself from the place and its inhabitants. He points to the unfortunate conditions in Florence in a crudely outspoken manner that is bound to cause pain to the Pilgrim: "è piena / d'invidia sì che già trabocca il sacco." Like other sinners, however, he looks back nostalgically to the brighter life he once led in an imperfect world. He further obliges the Pilgrim by explaining the sin for which he and the others are being punished, and then falls into seemingly irreversible silence: "E più non fé parola." But the Pilgrim will succeed two more times in drawing words from the Glutton.
Who the historical Florentine Ciacco may have been is impossible to say. "Ciacco" may be a name or a nickname, but it also carries the derogatory meaning, "hog." Some have attempted to identify the Glutton with the minor thirteenth-century poet, Ciacco dell'Anguillaia, a theory firmly rejected by others, including the Enciclopedia dantesca. Nevertheless, to see a poet in Ciacco is a pleasing hypothesis, as it would give the canto a built-in irony.
Now that Ciacco's name is known, Dante addresses him more cordially:
The opening words invite comparison with those spoken earlier to Francesca, because of their almost parallel construction: "Ciacco, il tuo affanno / mi pesa sì, ch'a lagrimar mi 'nvita; / ma dimmi ...," and: "Francesca, i tuoi martiri / a lagrimar mi fanno tristo e pio. / Ma dimmi ..." Certainly, both addresses serve as a captatio benevolentiae preceding a request. But the words spoken to Francesca, martiri, tristo e pio, are more tragic, more weighty in tone than affanno, mi pesa. We know that the Pilgrim wept and fainted for Francesca. In the case of Ciacco he says, "Your trouble invites me to weep," but does he actually shed tears? There is no indication of that in the text. The Pilgrim seems to offer both sympathy and a challenge ("ma dimmi, se tu sai ...") in order to elicit more words from the now wordless Glutton. With Francesca, he had been moved by her personal fate and wished to hear more about her most intimate feelings. Here, he is interested not in Ciacco, but rather in Florence __ in the city's future, the moral state of its citizens, and the cause of its tribulations. He succeeds in rousing Ciacco from silence and drawing the desired information from him.
At this point, he reader simply takes for granted the ability of the damned to foresee the future. But the poet will not leave it at that. As in the case of the empty shades, he provides a logical explanation, for the sake of the Pilgrim (and of the reader). We will learn from Farinata in Inferno X (100-108) that the damned have a kind of defective vision: they can see far-off events but not what is near. At the end of time they will see nothing at all. In concise language, appropriately enigmatic for a prophecy, Ciacco therefore predicts political strife in Florence after the year 1300, the fictitious date of the Pilgrim's journey. He alludes to the power struggles between the White and Black factions of the Guelphs, their varying fortunes, and the ultimate expulsion of the Whites from Florence. Implicit in this event is Dante's own exile. Ciacco relates the subjugation of the Whites by the Blacks using vocabulary already heard earlier in the canto. The Whites will be held under gravi pesi, re-evoking the greve pioggia that prostrates the Gluttons. Moreover, the Whites will suffer discomfort similar, at least figuratively, to that of the Gluttons who turn and twist under the rain. The White faction will be weighed down no matter what its pain, shame or vexation: "come che di ciò pianga o che n'aonti." The syntax closely reiterates that of an earlier verse, "come ch'io mi mova / e ch'io mi volga, e come che io guati." These words had introduced the restless commotion of the Third Circle when the Pilgrim first saw the torments there. The parallel syntax conveys the inescapable offense caused by two very different situations. Such verbal constructs accurately reflect the conceptual content of the poetry, particularly when they occur repeatedly in the same context
There is, moreover, a relationship between Gluttony and Florentine politics, for the warring factions are motivated by pride, envy and avarice, all higher manifestations of the elemental craving for food that spurs the Gluttons. In this political climate, there are few just men, and they are not listened to. Although some commentators have attempted to identify two honorable Florentines, it is generally agreed that "Giusti son due" simply refers to their scarcity. Not all Dantean puzzles need to be solved.
Having prophesied, Ciacco once again ends his words with a sense of finality, and one last time Dante prompts him to speak.
Dante's final question concerns certain worthy, politically upright Florentine citizens: are they in Heaven or in Hell? He learns that they are among the blackest souls, in the deeper parts of Hell. Evidently, good actions in civic life do not necessarily lead to salvation. Now Ciacco makes one request of Dante, before putting a definite end to the dialogue. He wishes to be remembered in this world, "nel dolce mondo," which seems so sweet and serene to those who remember it from the perspective of Hell. Dante will hear the same wish from other damned souls who hope to perpetuate their life at least in the memory of the living. These are Ciacco's final words, there is no more rousing him.
With the cessation of speech, the shade loscs clarity of vision as well. It was Dante's persistent questioning that made him become a reluctant prophet. Now all communication is cut off. Ciacco's straight gaze turns into a twisted, uncomprehending grimace, a comic imitation of the human countenance. In the preceding canto, Dante had fallen into a dead faint; here Ciacco falls, returning to his usual state of spiritual blindness. Ciacco's eternal isolation had been broken by a brief moment of lucid speech, created, as it were, by the Pilgrim who caused him to prophesy, using him as an instrument of truth. Certainly, if the historical Ciacco was not a poet, Dante made him speak as a poet in Hell. The Latin word vates and its Italian equivalent, vate, prophet, also means poet. To speak the truth is the poet's highest mission, as Cacciaguida reveals to Dante in Paradise, in the final prophecy of the Comedy.
The remainder of the canto is taken up with calm, rational talk about eternity, the true future life, as Virgil teaches and Dante questions and listens while they proceed on their journey.
Ciacco will not awaken until the trumpet sounds at the Second Coming of Christ, "la nimica podesta." Then all souls will put on the flesh again, the empty shades will regain their corporeality. Engaged in such talk the master and pupil walk with slow steps through the filthy mix of shades and rain, utterly calm, totally indifferent to their surroundings. What a contrast! Will the torments of the damned increase or decrease at the Last Judgment, or stay the same? Virgil refers his pupil to his science, that is, Aristotelian-Thomistic doctrine: the more a thing is perfect, the more keenly it will feel both pleasure and pain. Even the damned will be more perfect than they are now as shades, and will feel their pain more sharply. With such philosophical musings, the wayfarers continue on their way.
They come to the place where one descends, and there find Plutus, Cerberus' counterpart, poised at the exit of the Third Circle. He is the god of wealth, the arch-enemy because he embodies greed, the craving for material goods (power, fame, etc.), which the poet considers to be the greatest cause of troubles in this world. But these remarks belong to the next canto. The sixth is cut off unexpectedly by the sudden but low-key appearance of this new antagonist, for whom the reader is not at all prepared.
Not only is the sixth canto cut short, but the demon Plutus is cut off from his own incomprehensible words, which will open Canto VII. If Plutus' appearance is in a sense displaced, causing him to project into the territory of the Gluttons, it is because Avarice and Prodigality, the sins over which he presides in the next circle, are close kin to Gluttony. All such sins involve an inordinate, dehumanizing desire for material things. Both Cerberus and Plutus are labeled "fiera crudele" (VI, 13; VII, 15), and both of them objectify a spiritual condition whose far-reaching consequences affect the civic life of society as a whole.
As we have seen, Canto VI cannot be isolated from the two adjacent ones. Its opening and closing lines, which seem so abrupt, tie it firmly to what precedes and what follows. Together, the group of three cantos deals with the lesser sins of concupiscence, Lust, Gluttony, and Avarice, all of which involve related human weaknesses. In this group Canto VI is the central one. It is not incongruous that its harsh, comic realism should provide an appropriate setting for a discussion of weighty political and philosophical topics that mean very much to the poet, and that continue to be important themes throughout the Comedy.*
*Lectura Dantis delivered in Jefferson's Rotunda at the University of Virginia on February 29, 1987.