Dante varies his presentation greatly throughout Malebolge. Each bolgia has its own particular atmosphere, and the abrupt tonal and structural shifts between them make the move from bolgia to bolgia a medley of styles and techniques. But no shift is so striking as that between the eighth and ninth, in which the reader leaves a bolgia marked by two eloquent, searching dramatic monologues for one characterized by pithy, epigrammatic comments. The heroic exhortation of Ulysses and the sinuous self-revelation of Guido da Montefeltro give way to the truncated, compressed rhetoric of Mohammed, Pier da Medicina, Mosca, and Bertran de Born. The earlier bolgia begs for psychological readings; the latter frustrates them.

      The structures of these cantos present a similar incongruity. Ulysses and Guido are given ample opportunity for leisurely expansion, and their stories have a smooth development and denouement. Each is the absolute star of his canto, and Dante records both their coming and going with reverent attention. Inferno XXVIII, however, presents a rapid succession of scenes, and the cuts between them are as savage and inexorable as those delivered by the devil to the damned. The canto seems unified only by Dante's desire to present the contrapasso in as many ways as he can. Those who sowed discord in life are hewn in imaginative ways __ Mohammed split from chin to anus, Ali sliced from chin to hairline, Pier da Medicina clipped and nicked in different places, Curio's tongue hacked out, Mosca's arms lopped off, and Bertran de Born neatly decapitated __ a near Baroque variation on a single theme. One horror follows on the heels of another, and each permutation replaces the memory of the earlier one.

      Despite this profusion in the particulars of the punishments, the structure of the twenty-eighth canto is relentlessly schematic. The canto can be easily divided into six compact episodes, four of which are fundamentally identical __ even somewhat repetitive. The canto begins with a familiar epic gesture: the ineffability topos. Dante despairs of ever doing justice to what he must describe (vv. 1-6):

      Chi poria mai pur con parole sciolte
dicer del sangue e de le piaghe a pieno
ch'i' ora vidi, per narrar più volte?
      Ogne lingua per certo verria meno
per lo nostro sermone e per la mente
c'hanno a tanto comprender poco seno.

He then attempts to fill the gap between what he must say and what he can with the mutilated and dead from prominent Italian battles. He heaps wounds on limbs on bones, but nothing will serve to measure the difficulties presented by the ninth bolgia. As so often in Malebolge Dante prefaces a particularly difficult representation with what amounts to a kind of boast of or a reveling in his own powers as a poet. This has the effect of flattening the other aspects of the text: if, as has been suggested by some critics, we are to treat the personages in Inferno as signs to be read, this move suggests that we are to stay on the level of the signifier, enjoying the linguistic pyrotechnics of this production

      The ensuing episodes in this canto do little to counter this bias towards the visual. Dante's encounter with Mohammed serves as a pattern to all his encounters in this bolgia: his wounds are described in gruesome detail, Mohammed then calls attention to his wounds, he gives a summary of his crime, and he abruptly gives way to the next speaker. There is no psychological depth to these episodes; each character speaks of himself and others as moral exempla, insisting on the full attention of the pilgrim, eagerly showing their wounds, and stating their sins in the clearest of terms.1 Unlike the previous bolgia, there is no attempt at extenuation or concealment. In fact, the sinners rush to disclosure calling attention to their wounds, ironically, in much the way a proud military veteran might show his scars. Dante presents each of the damned two-dimensionally, and each refers to himself primarily as an expression of the contrapasso. This pattern is marked by insistent, near formulaic repetitions in their addresses to Dante. Mohammed begins by calling the pilgrim's attention to his gaping wound: «Or vedi com'io mi dilacco! / vedi come storpiato è Mäometto!» (vv. 30-31). Pier da Medicina seeks Dante's attention with a plaintive «rimembriti di Pier da Medicina» (v. 73). Mosca vies for Dante's look with «ricordera'ti anche del Mosca» (v. 106). Bertran de Born is even more insistent: «Or vedi la pena molesta ... vedi s'alcuna è grande come questa» (vv. 131-132) Their speeches have a chiseled, compact quality; they are more like the reductive morals to Aesop's fables than the complex, profound revelations of Ulysses or Guido.

      The repetitive nature of each of these encounters gives each episode in Inferno XXVIII a sealed, hermetic quality. There is little or no transition between speakers: Mohammed bursts onto the narrative after the pilgrim's initial twenty-one lines on the ineffability of the bolgia through the pilgrim's tersely direct «io vidi un» (v. 23). The description of Pier da Medicina begins in line 64 with another abrupt transition: «Un altro, che forata avea la gola / e tronco 'l naso infin sotto le ciglia». Mosca's entrance in line 103 is marked only by the slightest of conjunctions: «E un ch'avea l'una e l'altra man mozza». The fifth section of the canto (vv. 112-117) prepares us for the climactic horror __ the decapitated Bertran __ with a short meditation in which Dante makes another of his problematic truth-claims concerning the status of his representation. This digression is succeeded by the fourth and final encounter, which repeats the structure set out by the previous three: description, eager disclosure of wounds and pain, admonitory speech which recalls monumental inscription, and abrupt departure.

      But beneath this rather heavy-handed structural pattern lies a profusion of echoes, links, and parallels between each episode.2 There is a tension between the blocky structure of the canto and the subtle, often mysterious connections between the presentations, the speeches, and the gestures of the damned. The first two speakers both make prophecies of impending death: Mohammed about Fra Dolcino's capture and Pier da Medicina about Malatestino's murder of two men from Fano. Both also draw Dante's attention to another damned soul who does not speak: Mohammed points out his follower Ali, whose punishment is a continuation of his own, and Pier da Medicina pulls open Curio's mouth for Dante's edification, exposing the Roman's split tongue, which is consonant with Pier's own wounds. The second two speakers, Mosca and Bertran, press their wounds on Dante in much the same gesture: Mosca raises his arms __ minus the hands __ to the bridge for the pilgrim's inspection, and Bertran lifts his head close to the bridge to speak. Other links are present as well. In raising his arms Mosca spews blood on himself; similarly, when Pier speaks through his windpipe, he sprinkles blood everywhere. The descriptions of Mohammed and Bertran begin with memorable extended similes: the former, who opens his wound wide to allow his guts to fall around his knees, is compared to a cask that has lost a stave, and the latter's head, which he carries in his hand, is compared to a lantern. These two are also linked by the word they use to call Dante's attention to their punishments: each uses the formal command «vedi» twice in their speech. The other two sinners are similarly linked by their choice of words: Dante is accosted by: «rimembriti di Pier da Medicina», and later by: «ricordera'ti anche del Mosca» Curio's epigrammatic response to Caesar (v. 99), to which Pier alludes but does not quote fully (tolle moras: semper nocuit differre paratis), finds echo in Mosca's succinct, quasi-Machiavellian formulation: «Capo ha cosa fatta» (v. 107). Finally, both Mohammed and Bertran explain the contrapasso they manifest in crisply concise language (vv. 34-36 and 139-142):

      E tutti li altri che tu vedi qui,
seminator di scandalo e di scisma
fur vivi, e però son fessi così. ...
      Perché io parti' così giunte persone,
partito porto il mio cerebro, lasso!,
dal suo principio ch'è in questo troncone.
      Così s'osserva in me lo contrapasso.

These links and echoes set up a series of reverberations which undermine the episodic structure of the canto. Despite the overt separation between episodes, there is a sense of subterranean connection between schismatics and between schisms. Despite the cuts, the splits, and the bifurcations of structure, the text, much as the bodies of the damned, which heal as they circle the pit, seems to cleave and adhere in odd places, forming new relations and lines of connection. The canto is split into episodes only to reorganize in mysterious ways as Dante progresses visually through the crowd of the damned.

      This canto offers cleavage in both senses of the word __ a grand structural cleavage between episodes and the subsequent cleaving together of details from separate episodes. This double sense is figured by the punishment as well: the devil's sword cleaves each of the damned, and each wound cleaves as the damned walk. This motif of separation and recombination finds even more subtle expression in the verbal echoes of Bertran de Born's own poetry that Dante weaves into the fabric of this canto. Almost every edition of the Commedia mentions Dante's use of Bertran's work. Sapegno, among others, notes the echo of lines from the opening of Bertran's famous «Si tuit li dol» (tr. by T. Barolini): «If all the sorrow, tears, anguish, pain, loss, and misery which man has heard of in this sorrowful life were heaped together, they would all seem light compared to the death of the young English king». Dante's opening to Canto XXVIII parallels this in both form and content. Later, in describing the blow delivered by the devil, he uses the word «n'accisma» which recalls Bertran generally, in that it derives from the Provençal «acesmar», and specifically, in that Betran uses the word in one of his poems. Mohammed's punishment finds echo in one of the troubadour's poems, in which one of the wounded is «unseam'd from the nave to th' chops». To this traditional list of sober correspondences Michelangelo Picone adds a comic one: canto XXII's presentation of the devils as an army moving out to the sound of their leader's unusual trumpet shares many structural similarities with a poem by Bertran that celebrates the virtues of a well-ordered military encampment. Bertran's poetry, while dissolved in Dante's work, is very much present.

      Three critics have addressed these intertextual echoes, and their readings of the canto are similar. Marianne Shapiro, in a 1974 article, notes as do the other critics that the presentation of Bertran in Inferno XXVIII is radically different from Dante's discussion of the poet in De vulgari eloquentia and in the Convivio. Earlier, Dante praised Bertran's command of the martial theme and presented him as a noble example of a poetic practice largely unknown among Italian writers. Bertran's fall from his exemplary position is all too clear in Inferno. Shapiro, noting the echoes of Bertran's poetry throughout his canto, suggests that they are «severed from his fictionalized persona and reabsorbed into a general tradition of war poetry» (107), and that this «revision» of Bertran's role is part of «an askesis of the entire troubadour tradition» (109). Bertran's poetry is punished in much the same way he and other schismatics are: in each case a body, be it human or textual, is split and scattered. This amounts to a ritual of expiation for Dante as poetic pilgrim (113).

      Michelangelo Picone, in a 1979 article, begins at much the same spot as Shapiro, but he reads the canto as an allegory of religious rather than poetic revision. Through a searching study of Bertran's poems he locates their meaning for the Dante who praised him in De vulgari eloquentia. In Bertran Dante found an acme of individual affirmation and integrity; Bertran's poetry glorifies, in strictly human terms, battle as the only remaining proving ground for individual worth. But the challenge for Dante in the Commedia is not human, not secular: he must «orient the linguistic, stylistic, and thematic inventio according to an eternal, divine optics» (86). Accordingly, the encounter with Bertran must be palinodic, an erasure and rewriting of the martial troubadour ethos. The approving depiction of De vulgari eloquentia, seen in providential light of the Commedia, becomes one of horrifying alienation from God.

      Teodolinda Barolini (1979 and 1984) places this canto in a political allegory that encompasses Dante's prophecy in Inferno VI, his treatment of Farinata in Inferno X, and his presentation of Sordello in Purgatorio VI-VIII. Bertran is a good example of the tension between «textuality and truth» in Dante's work: the earlier, favorable assessment of him is a product of the critical, more even-handed tenor of De vulgari eloquentia; the more yielding constraints of textuality in the Commedia allow the later, drastic revision of his significance. The infernal Bertran, who counseled division and disunity, becomes the counterpart to the purgatorial Sordello, whose admittedly inferior poetry sought unification and healing (402).

      These three interpretations carefully collect and examine the scattered echoes of Bertran's poetry, and they do much to explain the poetic, religious, and political components of Dante's revision of Bertran. Dante's earlier acceptance of Bertran in De vulgari eloquentia and in the Convivio, where he commends the troubadour's liberality and magnificence (IV, ix, 14), admits to the efficacy of his verse and example. Even in the providential light of the Commedia, the lure of Bertran's martial ethos for Dante was strong, and he accordingly arranges the meeting with his predecessor on terms of safety. He scatters and parodies his poetry, neutralizing its power, and he meets a decapitated Bertran, further insulating himself through horror and shock from the poet of integrity. Through the presentation Dante cautiously seeks to mitigate Bertran's possible influence.

      But there is more to this dispersal of Bertran's poetry throughout the canto, more than a subtle parallel of the contrapasso, more than the subtext for a palinodic rewriting of the martial troubadour tradition, and more than an intertextual mark of Bertran's presence. Inferno XXVIII is as much about recombination as it is about dispersal and separation: wounds are given by the devil with the sword, but the rest of the circular journey concerns the closure of these wounds (vv. 37-41):

      Un diavolo è qua dietro che n'accisma
sì crudelmente, al taglio de la spada
rimettendo ciascun di questa risma,
      quand' avem volta la dolente strada;
però che le ferite son richiuse
prima ch'altri dinanzi li rivada.

Other circles and bolge feature sinners eternally on the move, but none, with the possible exception of the avaricious and the prodigal, has so mechanical a moment of retribution. Indeed, part of the nature of the other punishments is either the random application of whips, hooks, or transforming snakes or the continuous, unchanging torment of lead-cloaks, fire, or immersion in excrement. In no bolgia does the punishment take on so cyclical or periodic a character __ one so regular in its action at specific intervals. Dante's description of Bertran __ «due in uno e uno in due» __ is a compact expression of this cycle of separation and recombination: Mohammed's insides will be inside again, Pier da Medicina's wounds will heal, silent Curio will find his tongue and Mosca will have his hands again, even if only momentarily. The separation of Bertran from his poetry __ as Shapiro notes, his speech in the canto is not beautiful or heroic poetry, but «vague and generic tropes which say nothing of him as a master of words» (108) __ on the one hand so absolute, is only apparent. As the schematic, episodic structure of the canto is undermined by the numerous and subtle links between the gestures and speeches of the schismatics, so is the dismembering of Bertran's poetry only a part of a cycle. Although we do not see Bertran whole in this episode, our awareness that he will be made so again suggests that these poetic membra disjecta retain a seminal power to sow discord and to influence Dante.

      Dante has figured not only the neutralization of schism and schismatic by dispersal and dismembering, but their recombination and reactivation. The structural separation of the encounters in the canto, the scattering of limbs, and the dispersal of Bertran's poetry are as apparent to the reader as the visual horrors of Mohammed's intestines, Mosca's stumps, and Bertran's head; but just as evident, if not so immediately obvious, are the unseen recombinations of poetic and bodily integrity. If the contrapasso figures schism's action in the cuts of the sword, it also figures schism in its unseen restoration. And if the attractions of Bertran's martial and humanistic ethos for Dante are figured negatively in their encounter through the cautious presentation of a decapitated Bertran, the unseen restoration of his integrity and power suggests a less than complete victory over the poetic Other represented by the troubadour.

      This unseen closing of wounds upsets the ritual of expiation critics have seen in the encounter. Despite the visceral immediacy of the presentation, and despite its overwhelming appeal to the visual (inherent in the repetition of «vedi» and «osservare»), what is not seen in this canto has a hold on Dante the pilgrim. On one level, the recombination suggests an ominous extension of the effect of schismatics and schism. No cut will separate them, and no scattering will disperse them. Schism, it seems, is by nature periodic. Moreover, recombination implies that though the effects of schism are obvious, the parade of looking, seeing, and remembering in the canto is not heeded; memory and example do not hinder schism's cycle of return. Finally, for Dante the poet taking measure of influence, the restoration of Bertran suggests a more complex attitude toward this poetic predecessor than toward others.

      Revisionary encounters between poets have been the focus of recent criticism, from W. Jackson Bate's study of the psychological «burden of the past» placed on poets by their predecessors to Harold Bloom's analysis of what he calls the «anxiety of influence». Each of these critics describes the process of writing as a kind of competition with Oedipal overtones between the poet and past poetic masters. The encounter between the two is played out in the poems produced by the belated modern __ each literary work becomes a kind of blank page on which the strain of writing and competing is writ large. The heavily psychological components of this encounter often, according to Bloom, take the form of certain revisionary ratios, which are like the defense mechanisms posited by Freud. In his discussion of the revisionary mode of askesis, Bloom maintains that the relation between Dante and Virgil displays none of the anxiety of influence his book speaks of, and given their actions in Inferno, it would be difficult to argue the point. But there is, as Teodolinda Barolini has pointed out, a high level of anxiety between Dante and his contemporaries (1984, 175). Accordingly, Bloom's definition of askesis is helpful to an examination of Dante's relation to Bertran:

...a movement of self-purgation which intends the attainment of a state of solitude... The later poet does not, as in kenosis, undergo a revisionary movement of emptying, but of curtailing; he yields up part of his own human and imaginative endowment, so as to separate himself from others including the precursor, and he does this in his poem by so stationing it in regard to the parent-poem as to make that poem undergo an askesis too; the precursor's endowment is also truncated (15).

Dante's encounter with Bertran follows this pattern closely, but with one important difference. While the marks of revision __ Bertran's truncated body and his scattered poetry __ are here to see, the revision itself is without finality, without ultimate purgation. By presenting a seen, truncated Bertran at the same time that he intimates that there is an intact, unseen Bertran, whose «wounds have closed again», Dante seems to ask whether such a revisionary move can be final, whether there would not be a return of the repressed. The encounter, apparently so conclusive with respect to what is seen, proves by turns inconclusive through what is unseen, and the cycle is interminable. Dante's relation to Bertran is not simply one of curtailment or repression, not simply the blinded, Oedipal gesture common to many later poets, but a move which, while including this element, provides an overview of the revision. What the pilgrim sees in his poetic encounter with Bertran could be called an askesis, but what the poet sees in addition, the unseen, situates the askesis by presenting the repressed as well as the revision.

      The dangerous, seminal power of the archetypal «seminator di scandalo e di scisma» (v. 35), at once neutralized and ratified by Dante's cyclical presentation, finds its providential counterpart, as so often in the Commedia, in the corresponding canto of Purgatorio. It is only here and on these terms that there can be a resolution of the tension between Dante and Bertran. The pilgrim, having taken leave of Virgil in the previous canto by walking through the flames, finds himself in Eden. The change from the previous canto is as great as the change between the corresponding cantos of Inferno: the pilgrim's release into the locus amoenus after his trial by fire rivals the disparity in tone between Guido's stately, profound meditation from his flame and the clipped, superficial announcements of the damned in the next canto. In Purgatorio XXVIII he meets Matelda, who explains in rather technical terminology the function of the plants in the garden (vv. 103-120):

      Or perché in circuito tutto quanto
l'aere si volge con la prima volta,
se non li è rotto il cerchio d'alcun canto,
      in questa altezza ch'è tutta disciolta
ne l'aere vivo, tal moto percuote,
e fa sonar la selva perch'è folta;
      e la percossa pianta tanto puote,
che de la sua virtute l'aura impregna,
e quella poi, girando, intorno scuote;
      e l'altra terra, secondo ch'è degna
per sé e per suo ciel, concepe e figlia
di diverse virtù diverse legna.
      Non parrebbe di là poi maraviglia,
udito questo, quando alcuna pianta
sanza seme palese vi s'appiglia.
      E saper dèi che la campagna santa
dove tu se', d'ogni semenza è piena,
e frutto ha in sé che di là non si schianta.

The infernal dissemination of Bertran's poetry and example becomes in Purgatorio the propagation of virtues. The latter is obviously a revision of the former; the parallels between these two passages are numerous: the circular movement of the sinners becomes that of air; «l'aura fosca» becomes «aere vivo»; the devil striking the damned with a sword becomes air striking plants; the scattering of limbs becomes scattering of diverse virtues. More important, however, are the figures who preside over these disseminations. Bertran, celebrant of individual integrity and probity, gives way to the selfless Matelda, a conduit for the will of God. The terrific self-affirmation of the troubadour, so attractive to Dante, gives way, finally, to the providential rewards of the journey.*

Randolph-Macon College

*Lecture given at the University of Virginia on April 15, 1988.


1 Psychological readings are pursued by Momigliano, Niccolai, Rossi, and Sapegno. Fubini, following De Sanctis, counters this tradition with a rhetorical reading. See also Paratore for an anti-psychological reading. Bosco's commentary strikes a balance between these two positions.

2 Bosco points out many of these connections («Legami ora sottili ora più consistenti stringono tra loro gli episodi», 409) but he does not provide an interpretation of this unusual presentation.


Alighieri, Dante, La divina commedia, ed. Umberto Bosco & Giovanni Reggio, Firenze, Le Monnier, 1985; La divina commedia, ed. Natalino Sapegno, Firenze, La nuova Italia, 1955; The Divine Comedy, tr. Allen Mandelbaum, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1980; La divina commedia, ed. Francesco Mazzoni, comm. Attilio Momigliano, Tommaso Casini, S. A. Barbi, Firenze, Sansoni, 1979.

Barolini, Teodolinda, «Bertran de Born and Sordello: The Poetry of Politics in Dante's Comedy», PMLA, 94 (1979), pp. 395-405; Dante's Poets. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1984.

Bate, W. Jackson, The Burden of the Past and the English Poet, New York, Norton, 1970.

Bloom, Harold, The Anxiety of Influence, New York, Oxford UP, 1973.

De Sanctis, Francesco, Lezioni sulla Divina Commedia, Bari, Manfredi, 1955.

Fubini Mario, «Il canto XXVIII dell'Inferno», in Lectura Dantis Scaligera, Firenze, Le Monnier, 1962, pp. 7-29.

Niccolai, Giovanni «Il canto delle 'ombre triste smozzicate'», in Letture dell'Inferno, ed. V. Vettori, Milano, Marzorati, 1963, pp. 230-254.

Paratore, Ettore, «Il canto XXVIII dell'Inferno», in Inferno: Letture degli anni 1973-76, ed. Silvio Zennaro, Roma, Bonacci, 1977, pp. 683-704.

Picone, Michelangelo, «I trovatori di Dante: Bertran de Born», Studi e problemi di critica testuale, XIX (1979), pp. 71-94.

Rossi, Vittorio, «Maometto, Pier da Medicina e compagni nell'Inferno», in Saggi e discorsi su Dante, Firenze, Sansoni, 1930, pp. 157-175.

Shapiro, Marianne, «The Fictionalization of Bertran de Born (Inf. XXVIII)», Dante Studies, XCII (1974), pp. 107-116.