|NUMBER 1||FALL 1987|
Inferno X is one of the Comedy's most brilliant and memorable cantos. It is here that Dante speaks with one of the most famous inhabitants of Inferno, Farinata degli Uberti, the powerful leader of the Florentine Ghibellines.
Dante has long been anticipating their meeting. In his encounter with Ciacco, the Glutton, he had expressed his eagerness to learn the whereabouts of Farinata, Tegghiaio, Jacopo Rusticucci, Arrigo and Mosca __ all important and influential political figures in Florence of the last generation. When Dante asks him whether they are in heaven or in hell, Ciacco informs the Pilgrim that they are among the blackest souls in Hell, thus heightening Dante's expectation of seeing these men, of whom he had heard so much as a child.
And we too anticipate this meeting with Farinata. Such an elaborate preparation is seldom used in the Comedy: Dante leads us to expect something extraordinary out of the encounter with Farinata, and we are not disappointed.
This careful build-up recommences when Virgil leads Dante to the tombs of the heretics in Canto IX. Dante al once has a strong suspicion that the circle of the heretics is where he will find Farinata, and Virgil, as he does frequently in the poem, intuits Dante's desire:
Virgil answers that Dante's queries will soon be answered in addition to the «disio ancor che tu mi taci» __ Dante's desire to see Farinata.
Since his meeting with Ciacco, we have been anticipating Dante's encounter with Farinata. How Dante responds, however, upon seeing Farinata, comes as somewhat of a surprise. He is so excited that he seems to display a bit of stage fright. Part of his initial confusion could be due to the fact that in this circle, unlike most others, the souls are not immediately visible; they are in the tombs. Virgil has to prompt him __ he orders him to turn, to look at Farinata, and goes so far as to push Dante toward Farinata's tomb with the exhortation «Le parole tue sien conte».
«Make your words count», Virgil instructs Dante: «speak aptly, make what you say appropriate to the situation». What follows, however, is anything but a dignified and courteous exchange. Farinata immediately wishes to establish to what party Dante's ancestors belonged. He brusquely asks Dante: «Chi fuor li maggior tui?» Once he establishes that Dante's family were enemies to him, to his ancestors, and to his party, the exchange degenerates into a fierce series of insults and taunts along party lines:
Gone is Farinata's initial courtesy to a fellow Florentine; gone too is Dante's initial confusion at meeting Farinata. Both are now furiously engaged in a heated debate along strictly partisan lines. What takes place is a fierce re-enactment __ a dramatization __ of the political debate between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. Farinata boasts of having dispersed the Guelphs twice. He haughtily makes this declaration in the first person, as if he had single-handedly driven them out. As Sapegno points out in his commentary (p. 116), Dante retorts by correcting him, maintaining that they were «cacciati» and not «dispersi» as Farinata put it, and by reminding him that the Guelphs returned each time while the Ghibellines did not learn that art so well.
Dante has automatically taken up the rhetoric of his Guelph ancestors. He participates in and perpetuates a schism that plagued Florence even before he was born. One could easily imagine just such retorts taking place between other members of the different factions at any time; there is nothing particular to Dante and Farinata in this. Virgil has urged Dante to make his words appropriate, but Dante seems to have lapsed into timeworn political slogans __ a kind of automatic response. Dante strikes home with a remark about what torments Farinata most in Hell __ not his punishment, but the inability of his party to return to Florence:
The ferocity of Farinata's convictions show that even in Hell his concerns are still bound up with the political situation in Florence.
At the moment Dante reminds Farinata of what most torments him in Hell, their conversation is suddenly interrupted by the appearance of Cavalcante de' Cavalcanti, father of Dante's best friend and fellow poet Guido Cavalcanti. Unlike the entrance of Farinata, for which the poem amply prepares us, Cavalcanti's appearance is unexpected. He interrupts the debate between Farinata and Dante, an action which effectively emphasizes the point at which Dante delivers a stinging blow to Farinata. Although present, Farinata remains silent during the entire conversation between Cavalcante and Dante. One highly charged exchange is replaced by another, and the level of dramatic interest in the canto is constant, but we might ask what function Cavalcante's entrance serves? How does Cavalcante's exchange with Dante, embedded within Dante's debate with Farinata, relate to the over-riding political concern of the canto up to this point? His sudden appearance makes for good theater, and it is an effective way of punctuating and emphasizing the last point Dante makes in the exchange, but we need to examine the relation of these two parts of the canto rather than treating them as separate episodes.
Commentators on this passage tend to assume that the sudden change in the presentation encourages us to examine the canto in terms of the contrasts presented in it: that is, the different personalities of Cavalcante and Farinata, how each reacts to pain, political obsession versus familial obsession, Guelph versus Ghibelline, the complementary personalities of the two. Dante's portrait of these two men, however, goes beyond the mere presentation of two character types. Cavalcante's exclusive preoccupation with his son acts as a catalyst to the conversation between Farinata and Dante which he interrupts. Cavalcante dramatizes something omitted in the exchange between Farinata and Dante __ a keen sense of family. Thus the dramatization of Guelph/Ghibelline positions has been superseded by a dramatization of familial concerns. And it is Cavalcante's symbolic value which will ultimately allow Dante and Farinata to transcend the narrowly partisan positions they embodied earlier. Cavalcante represents the personal pain attendant upon party strife.
Cavalcante's behavior toward Dante, just as Farinata's speech earlier, betrays the extent to which these two men are still caught up in earthly matters. Their heretical attitude is underscored by their continual obsession with what they held most dear on earth: Farinata is still greatly occupied with Florentine politics, and Cavalcante's greatest concern is for his son, Guido. Upon recognizing Dante, Cavalcante anxiously looks about for his son:
Cavalcante's remarks show that he does not understand why Dante is making this journey. Dante's journey is a providential one __ a privilege which is only possible through the grace of God.
Dante's explanation of why he is making the trip contains one of the most enduring controversies in the criticism of this canto __ the object of Guido's disdain:
Cavalcante is devastated by Dante's use of the passato remoto «ebbe», which he interprets to mean that Guido is dead. Critics, on the other hand, are divided over the antecedent of the relative pronoun «cui». Until the late nineteenth century commentators believed that the vexingly ambiguous «cui» of line 63 referred to Virgil; critical opinion of late has tended to opt for Beatrice (my interpretation is clear from my translation in which I render «cui» not as «quem», i. e. Virgil, but as «ad eum quem», which effectively makes God, and by extension Beatrice, the means to salvation the goal of the journey), that is, at the possibility that a real woman may be a divine signifier and thus a carrier of beatitude.
Cavalcante is stunned by Dante's words:
Dante himself is stunned and his failure to answer Cavalcante immediately causes him to fall back into his tomb. Cavalcante's ignorance about his son causes Dante some confusion: he is surprised about the damned's ignorance about the present. This is Dante's second moment of confusion in the canto __ the second time which he does not respond (the first time was when he was momentarily dumbstruck at the prospect of seeing Farinata). Farinata explains their faulty vision to him later __ they have some knowledge of the future but no knowledge of present events unless some new soul brings them information.
This entire episode is rendered all the more poignant by the fact that at the time of the poem's composition Guido was already dead (although he was still alive on April 7, 1300, the fictional date of the poem). Guido died in August of 1300, and Dante himself was indirectly responsible for his death, having exiled him along with the other heads of the Black and White parties for having fomented unrest in Florence. While Guido was exiled to Sarzana in Lunigiana he contracted malaria. He died shortly after being allowed to return to Florence. Thus Guido's death was a direct result of the party strife.
The effects of the Cavalcante episode as catalyst are obvious at once. Farinata resumes his conversation with Dante precisely at the point where it left off, but his tone is decidedly different. It is not an immediate conversion, which would run counter to the realistic and dramatic vein of the previous exchanges in the canto, but a gradual one in which the recognitions are shown us.
Although Farinata has been present all along during this exchange between Dante and Cavalcante, he registers no emotion whatsoever at Cavalcante's suspicion that his son might be dead, despite the fact that Guido Cavalcante was also his son-in-law:
Initially, the resumed conversation takes place along the same partisan lines drawn before: Farinata matches Dante's stinging observation that the Ghibellines never reentered Florence by predicting Dante's own expulsion from Florence:
But the concerns next expressed by Farinata reveal a shift from the exclusively political to what might be termed the familial. In short, his concerns begin to echo those of Cavalcante. He next asks Dantc, «perché quel popolo è sì empio / incontr' a' miei in ciascuna sua legge?» («tell me why that people is so pitiless against my kindred in all its laws»). His remarks take a personal cast; they represent a departure from the programmatic positions set out by the Guelph/Ghibelline split. Farinata is just as worried about the welfare of his «semenza», his family, as Cavalcante is about his son. (Vindictive hatred remained toward the Uberti's after Farinata's death. The Ghibellines never returned to Florence as a party, and in the peace of 1280, the most powerful Ghibelline families, among them the Uberti, were excluded from the agreement. They were denounced as enemies of the state and sentenced to decapitation if captured.) Dante then reminds him of the battle of Montaperti in 1260, in which the Ghibellines defeated the Guelphs in one of the bloodiest battles of that time. Farinata tries to extenuate his actions, claiming that he was not solely responsible for the massacre, and pointing out that at the parliament which look place at Empoli after the Guelphs were defeated, when the Ghibellines wished to destroy the city completely, he alone stood against the complete destruction of Florence:
At this point Farinata has once again defined himself above all as a Florentine and not only a Ghibelline __ just as he had done in his first words to Dante, a fellow Florentine.
Dante too seems conscious of this common bond between them __ they are reaching toward an accord, no longer fighting the battles of their ancestors. The accord is, however, a tenuous one as Dante expresses his compassion for Farinata's «semenza» («Deh, se riposi mai vostra semenza...»). Their last words about the state of their beloved city demonstrate their transcendence of the partisan strife which so dominated the beginning of their exchange.
That such a transcendence has taken place is clearly seen by the way each asks questions of the other after Cavalcante's departure. Farinata prefaces his query about the lack of pity shown his descendants with an optative __ a formulaic wish perhaps, but nevertheless a great shift from his earlier rancorous tone:
The emphasis on seeing again the «sweet world», coming as it does from an Epicurean such as Farinata, is quite kind: for one of Farinata's sect the world was everything. Dante's own question about infernal vision has a similar preface: «Se riposi mai vostra semenza», echoing the syntax of Farinata and carefully singling out for compliment what Farinata has shown himself most concerned with, his «semenza». This accord between Dante and Farinata is then further extended by Dante to include Cavalcante. He asks Farinata to tell Cavalcante that his son is not dead __ that his failure to respond earlier was the result of his having been perplexed by what Farinata has just explained __ that the damned have some knowledge of future events, but no knowledge of the present. Dante was stunned by Cavalcante's not knowing that Guido was still alive:
In asking Farinata to tell Cavalcante this news, Dante is symbolically trying to effect yet another accord __ between Farinata, a Ghibelline, and Cavalcante, a Guelph, and also between two men who are connected to one another through the marriage of their children. (In 1267 there were attempts to reconcile the two factions by means of matrimonial alliances __ Guelph Guido Cavalcanti was betrothed to Farinata's daughter.)
The over-riding concerns of these two men, politics and family, poignantly dramatize why they are in Hell. In having focused all their attention on earthly matters they are forever damned. Dante himself is perhaps momentarily guilty of just this sin, at the end of the canto. Just as Farinata and Cavalcante had shown themselves to be obsessed with their past, Dante is now preoccupied with the meaning of the prophecy pronounced by Farinata. Virgil advises him to store such thoughts until his meeting with Beatrice who will offer the final glosses to all the allusions regarding his future.
The episode, in a crucial way, brings us full circle. The encounter with Farinata began with the recognition of the common bond of Florence. After Cavalcante's interruption, the tension of the partisan debate resolves into a recognition __ this time deeper __ of this same fact. The two see that party strife is not so deep as their common citizenship __ that the basis for unity is stronger than that for division.
Dante the poet has taken great care to emphasize this point by increasing the pilgrim's level of participation in the exchange: he is not simply informed or told; he experiences as we read a kind of conversion. It is essentially a political reorganization.
We can see the degree to which Dante the pilgrim's attitude has changed by comparing previous encounters with Florentines (Ciacco) to those which come after Inferno X (Tegghiaio, Guido Guerra, and Jacopo Rusticucci __ the three Florentines and Brunetto Latini).
In Inferno VI, when he identifies Ciacco, Dante at once displays his immersion in party strife by asking Ciacco what will happen to the citizens of his divided Florence, if any of the citizens in Florence is just, and what is the cause of all this discord. This exchange does not have the bitterness or the intensity of the encounter with Farinata, but it shows, because it is his first question, how preoccupied with party strife Dante is.
When he meets Brunetto Latini in Inferno XV, however, it is clear that Dante's position has shifted from that displayed when he meets Ciacco. Brunetto's prophecy of Dante's exile __ a matter closely bound up with the political situation __ and his castigation of the Fiesolan «beasts» are met not with the partisan rejoinders employed by Dante in Inferno X, but by a wish that Brunetto had lived longer and a philosophic resignation to endure whatever fortune may bring. Brunetto presents Dante with a golden opportunity for more discussion on party strife, but Dante lets the occasion pass.
But it is in Inferno XVI that the true measure of Dante's shift is evident. The way in which the three Florentines hail Dante recalls the Farinata episode __ Farinata's recognition of Dante's citizenship was through his speech, and here the recognition is through his clothes. Here, too, Virgil must direct Dante, urging him to show them courtesy («a costor si vuol essere cortese») reminding us of his earlier admonition on how to speak to Farinata: «le tue parole sien conte». Dante's first words to Jacopo are an indication of his conversion: he stresses his citizenship, but displays his new attitude: «Lascio lo fele, e vo per dolci pomi» (Inf. XVI, 61). To their question about the situation in Florence, Dante replies with an indictment of the entire city, not of one party. Dante does not see the problems of Florence through the grid of the Guelph/Ghibelline split __ he stresses the problems of the city as a unit. Their response, to stare at each other as men stare on hearing truth, gives support to Dante's new position, as does their instant recognition of this truth. Their choral reply is a fitting and emphatic punctuation to Dante's new attitude.
Farinata and Cavalcante are obsessed with politics and family respectively, to the exclusion of all other issues. Inferno X, however, ends with Virgil recalling to Dante the absolute priorities of his journey. Farinata has just made a disturbing prophecy regarding Dante's worldly future. This, like Ciacco's, Brunetto Latini's, and Vanni Fucci's prophecies __ is a prediction of Dante's imminent exile from Florence which took place in 1302. Virgil tells Dante, however, that this is not the appropriate time to meditate upon such matters. He must wait until he sees Beatrice for ultimate clarification of this and other prophecies he hears. It is, of course, Cacciaguida, Dante's great-grandfather, who ultimately provides the gloss for the disturbing prophecies Dante hears throughout his journey, Virgil's advice puts everything into perspective. He reminds Dante and the reader that it is the journey to Beatrice that is paramount.*
*Lectura Dantis delivered in Jefferson's Rotunda at the University of Virginia on February 17, 1986.