Walking away from the walls of the City of Dis near which the encounter with Farinata and Cavalcante had taken place (canto X), Virgil and Dante arrive (in the opening of canto XI) at «the upper rim of a high bank / formed by a ring of massive broken boulders» (1-2). They have reached the limit of the sixth circle, and here they seek shelter behind the tomb of Pope Anastasius. An «outrageous stench» is coming from the circles below, and they must wait in order to get used to it. During this pause Virgil explains to Dante the criteria underlying the ordering of the realm they are visiting. This is the canto in which the structure of Hell is given __ moral structure or moral ordering are the traditional terms. One reason for the placement of this classification of sins at this point of the poem might be found in the symbolism of number eleven: «since the law is symbolized by the number ten (and hence the designation of the famous decalogue), surely the number eleven, passing ten as it does, stands for trespassing against the law and consequently for sin» (Saint Augustine XV. xx). The tutorial occupies most of the 115 lines of the shortest canto (together with Inferno VI) of the Divine Comedy. Later, during a pause on the cornice of the Slothful, Virgil will explain the moral topography of Purgatory (Purgatory XVII).

Below is the table of contents from Boccaccio's lectura:

And the present canto is divided into seven parts. In the first he [the author] describes the place where they arrived and stopped and what they found there. In the second the author describes the whole ordered arrangement of the Inferno and the kinds of sinners they will encounter. In the third the author presents Virgil with an unanswered question __ why are the sinners of the following circles punished within the City of Dis rather than outside, like those about whom he has spoken? In the fourth Virgil uncovers the cause for that and resolves the question. In the fifth the author presents Virgil with another question. In the sixth Virgil resolves the question. In the seventh Virgil exhorts the author to follow him (Boccaccio, 1965, 538).

      To start, let's focus on parts two to four, which can be considered the core of Virgil's lesson. The master begins by looking forward and backward __ that is, he mentions the three circles (VII, VIII and IX) he and his pupil will visit, relating this new information to what they have recently seen (16-18):

      «My son, within this ring of broken rock»,
he then began, «there are three smaller circles;
like those that you are leaving, they range down...».

      The circles they are leaving are those inhabited by 1) the Unbaptized and the Virtuous Pagans (Limbo), 2) the Lustful, 3) the Gluttonous, 4) the Hoarders and Squanderers, 5) the Wrathful and 6) the Heretics. The three smaller circles to be visited «are full of cursed spirits; / so that your seeing of them may suffice, / learn now the how and why of their confinement» (19-21). It is here that Virgil introduces the notion of malizia, malice. In all the following circles, sins of malice («malice that earns hate in Heaven», 22) are punished. Malice is the equivalent of evil wrongdoing, wrongdoing «secundum electionem». It is that sphere of human behavior which causes the violation of a right (ingiuria, injustice; 22-27):

      Of every malice that earns hate in Heaven,
injustice is the end; and each such end
by force or fraud brings harm to other men.
      However, fraud is man's peculiar vice;
God finds it more displeasing __ and therefore,
the fraudulent are lower, suffering more.

      The passage echoes Cicero's De Officiis: «While wrong may be done, then, in either of two ways, that is, by force or by fraud, both are bestial: fraud seems to belong to the cunning fox, force to the lion; both are wholly unworthy of man, but fraud is the more contemptible» (I.xiii). Those who have sinned by force, the Violent, are to be found in the first of the remaining three circles (the seventh in a comprehensive view of Hell), and the Fraudulent occupy the two lower circles, the eighth and the ninth.

      The circle of the Violent is divided into three rings:

      1) Violent against others, «thus, murderers and those who strike in malice, / as well as plunderers and robbers __ these, / in separated ranks, the first ring racks» (37-39);

      2) Violent against themselves and their own properties, «so within / the second ring repents though uselessly, / whoever would deny himself your world, / gambling away, wasting his patrimony, / and weeping where he should instead be happy» (41-45);

      3) Violent against God. «One can be violent against the Godhead, / one's heart denying and blaspheming Him / and scorning nature and the good in her; / so with its sign, the smallest ring has sealed / both Sodom and Cahors and all of those / who speak in passionate contempt of God» (46-51).

There are two kinds of fraud: it «is practiced by a man against another / who trusts in him, or one who has no trust» (53-54); the latter sort is less grave (fraud without treachery). Thus, one can find «hypocrisy and flattery, sorcerers, / and like trash» (58-60) in the second of the remaining circles (the eighth). In the last circle (the ninth) the traitors are punished; traitors are those who practiced the worst kind of fraud, in which «not only / the love that nature forges is forgotten, / but added love that builds a special trust» (61-63).

      Next, the pupil congratulates the teacher on the clarity of his account: Virgil has described well the sections of the Underworld they have not yet seen. But Dante, beginning with the «But tell me», the «Ma dimmi» he had used with Francesca (V, 18) and Ciacco (VI, 46), raises an issue regarding sinners of areas of Hell they have seen (70-75):

      «But tell me: those the dense marsh holds,
or those driven before the wind, or those on whom
rain falls, or those who clash with such harsh tongues,
      why are they not all punished in the city
of flaming red if God is angry with them?
And if He's not, why then are they tormented?»

The reference is, of course, to the Wrathful, the Lustful, the Gluttonous as well as to Hoarders and Squanderers. Virgil, drawing on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, mentions «those three dispositions / that strike at Heaven's will: incontinence / and malice and mad bestiality» (80-82). Incontinence is «the fault that is the least condemned / and least offends God» (83-84). The sinners Dante just mentioned are sinners of incontinence. Therefore, it should be clear why they are separated from the «unrighteous ones» of Lower Hell and are punished outside the City of Dis by a less angered divine vengeance. Malice appears in this passage. Is it the same malice encountered in line 22? Let's see the two passages together (22-24 and 79-82):


      Of every malice that earns hate in Heaven,
injustice is the end; and each such end
by force or fraud brings harm to other men.


      Have you forgotten, then, the words with which
your Ethics treats of those three dispositions
that strike at Heaven's will: incontinence
      and malice and mad bestiality?

Several critics attribute a broad connotation to malice in passage A: evil act (D'Ovidio); evil activity, any malicious act of violence and fraud (Casini-Barbi); will of doing evil, ill will (Momigliano); evil act, conscious and deliberate evil doing (Bosco-Reggio); intention to hurt (Montanari). They treat malice in passage B as fraud. They also see the mad bestiality of B as the equivalent of force in A. Therefore they can provide a perfect parallel between the two passages. Malice (injustice) can be accomplished through force or fraud (A, 24), that is to say, through mad bestiality or malice (B, 82). Hell is thus divided into 1) sins of incontinence and 2) sins of malice. Sins of malice are divided into 1) sins of force (the mad bestiality of line 82) and 2) sins of fraud (the specific malice of line 82). Perhaps one should say sins of fraud and sins of force, since this is the order given in passage B: «incontinence and malice and mad bestiality».

      Other critics (Aurigemma, Sapegno, Pagliaro, Grassi) do not see this perfect correspondence. They are unwilling to attribute to malice in B a meaning different from that (evil act) it has in A. Therefore they cannot link mad bestiality (which is presented as separated from malice in B) with force, which in A appears to be related to malice. According to Nardi, Dante's intention in putting forward the three sinful dispositions, incontinence, malice and mad bestiality, was «to demonstrate, with the authority of the Ethics that incontinence is a less grave sin than malice and mad bestiality and therefore is less offensive to God» (204). Sapegno bases his comment on Nardi and contends that by quoting Aristotle Dante did not mean to establish an exact organization of his Hell (127-128). These critics, then, argue that it is not necessary to find a perfect correspondence between A and B. They are not concerned with finding a precise place in the structure of Hell for mad bestiality.

      For Ferretti, Foster and Meersseman mad bestiality is heresy, an hypothesis, according to Mazzoni, «among the least acceptable, if one only thinks that Aristotle knew nothing about heresy and that therefore it would be very strange that Dante should present him as an auctoritas on it» (Dante Alighieri, 1972, 219). Mazzoni puts forward an hypothesis of his own: mad bestiality is in the IX circle, where «we see the traitors, those who, by repudiating the law of human consortium, madly repudiate their essence of social animals» (213). Mazzoni deems it important to find an exact correspondence of all three of Aristotle's dispositions with areas of Hell: incontinence, outside the City of Dis; malice, (the violent in circle VII and simple fraudulent malice in circle VIII); mad bestiality (a graver form of fraudulent malice, treachery, circle IX). He also wants that Dante's sequence (incontinence, malice, mad bestiality) be respected. Those who consider the malice of line 82 the equivalent of fraud, see mad bestiality as the equivalent of violence, and give an exact correspondence with areas of Hell, propose a system ordered in 1) incontinence, 2) fraud, 3) force.

      I find Mazzoni's proposal worthy of serious consideration. On the other hand, the reader who is not disturbed by the possibility of a lack of perfect correspondence in Dante's text is advised to go back to Nardi's and Sapegno's position. The purpose of quoting Aristotle is that of separating the sinners of incontinence from all others. Here Virgil does not give a precise account of the divisions of Lower Hell. Why should he? He has already given such an account earlier in the canto. Dante has compelled his teacher to conceive a simplified version of Hell with his question on the Incontinent. Hell is now a binary structure: Incontinents outside the City of Dis, all others inside it. This is what counts. «All others» form, at the moment, a blurred entity «down there». In this case the Aristotle reference gives Dante the writer more than he needs for his topography. I am not arguing that mad bestiality does not belong in Hell. Of course it does, but it is, so to speak, «somewhere down there».

      In the fifth part of the canto (following Boccaccio's division) Dante asks why usury offends divine goodness. The reference is to what the master had said about Sodom and Cahors (46-51). The usurers (the city of Cahors in the region of Guienne was famous for its usurers) appeared within the third ring of the circle of the Violent together with the Lustful against nature («Sodom»). Nature takes her course from God's intellect and art (his «way of operating», Bosco-Reggio 173). Since human art (industry, craft, labor) follows nature, it can almost be considered God's grandchild. It is through nature and art that man should sustain himself and progress. The usurer's hope, on the other hand, is in the fruits that come from lending money. Earning from money, generating money from money, he offends (is violent against) nature and art and, indirectly, God. The gloss on usury concludes Virgil's lesson: it is time to proceed (112-115):

      «But follow me, for it is time to move;
the Fishes glitter now on the horizon
and all the Wain is spread out over Caurus;
      only beyond, can one climb down the cliff».

      We have read a canto in which philosophical issues are discussed with technical philosophical language and in which there is plenty of room for systematic reasoning but little for dramatic movement and lyrical inspiration. In this canto we do not find «the three dimensional figures, so alive and present in other parts of the poem» (Rosadi, 7). Consequently the existing body of criticism is mostly concerned with trying to understand the workings of a puzzling theoretical machine. There are however occasional aesthetic assessments. Buttrini, at the beginning of this century, wrote:

Canto XI of Inferno seemed, and not without reason, if one looks superficially, the cold scholastic exposition of a moral doctrine, with two objections of the pupil for the master, easily rebuffed in the light of philosophy; but he who ponders and penetrates more deeply, will find in the rigid and precise coordination of the canto the wonderful correspondence, the perfect coincidence of form and matter, and therefore a sublime work of art (435).

      Enthusiastic assessments are exceptional in the history of the criticism of canto XI. In La poesia di Dante, Croce denies poetic value to it and confines it to the realm of «struttura».

What follows, the famous exposition of the infernal punitive system, that is to say the definition and classification of human faults according to the philosophy of the schools, is dictated by structural reasons, and, even though it retains the quality of intense and concise discourse, it lacks the intimate life perceivable in other doctrinal passages of the Comedy. The author had to pay a debt to the readers of the theological-ethical novel, and he paid it at the first opportunity, all at once, in order not to have to think about it anymore (84).

Croce observes that there is an attempt to give movement to the exposition «with appropriate interruptions of the listener» (84); and Vossler sees artistic achievement in those exchanges: «This delight in questioning and knowing, in learning and teaching, gives poetic life even to the driest science» (258). Vossler also elaborates on the function of the canto: «The eleventh canto is an intermezzo in its proper place, artistically introduced and organized, and, as a link in the poem, indispensable. Imagine it omitted, and the plan of the journey loses its visible unity, Virgil is bereft of a good bit of his wisdom and foresight, the pilgrim is cheated out of his insight and of an opportunity to manifest his thirst for knowledge, and we, the sympathetic readers, are deprived of our restful pause, which we need after so many multicoloured pictures and thrilling impressions» (257). Similar considerations can be found in Bosco who adds that «the pause also has the structural function of division between the Incontinent and the more despicable sinners» (163).

      In the lectura published in 1963 Grassi noted that the critics of his day were «more prepared and more open to the infinite aspects of poetry»; they were following the aesthetic criterion of «claiming for poetry as much as possible what once was defined structural and therefore considered non-poetic matter in the Comedy» (93). There is a passage in Sapegno's introduction to the canto republished in his annotated edition of the Inferno which seems to illustrate the voyage of Dante criticism from observance of Crocean guidelines to the more magnanimous practices of criticism mentioned by Grassi. In Sapegno, the Crocean dichotomy (structure / poetry) of the opening sentence dissolves, at the end of the paragraph, into a formula in which structure, logic and imagination cooperate in the definition of Dante's poetry:

The canto is all didactic, and it responds more to the dictates of structure than to those of poetry; but in its kind, it is a model of clear, orderly, well distributed exposition and helps the reader to better comprehend the specific quality of Dante's art and the presence in it of a strong and not irrelevant doctrinal skeleton. In pages like these it is easier to grasp __ at its roots __ the pristine process of adaptation of a human reality, infinitely varied and complex, to a strong conceptual scheme, in which it is ordered and simplified. It is easier to comprehend that continuous operation of correspondence and connection between images and concepts, individuals and types, whence the myth and the example are born; that is to say, we can appreciate the very form of Dante's poetry with its logico-imaginative structure (122).

      A few final considerations are in order. This canto is a celebration of scholastic endeavors. We cannot just consider it one of the many teacher-pupil exchanges to be found in Dante's poem. We are confronted with a lesson that encompasses almost all of the 115 lines, a long lesson with a large scope. I cannot think of any other teaching episode in the Divine Comedy that produces so effectively the sense of a coherent whole. Virgil's speech is ennobled by quotations from Aristotelian philosophy and the Book of Genesis and is couched in scholastic mannerisms: «Philosophy, for one who understands, / points out, and not just in one place...» (97-98); «and if your read your Physics carefully, / not many pages from the start...» (101-102); «you recall how Genesis begins» (107).

      When the teacher has completed the first part of the lesson the pupil congratulates him on the clarity of his thought: «"Master, your reasoning is clear indeed," / I said, "it has made plain for me the nature / of this pit and the population in it"» (67-69). The original Italian text conveys a much stronger appreciation of the teacher's clarity: «assai chiara procede / la tua ragione, e assai ben distingue / questo baràtro e 'l popol ch' e' possiede». After he has solved Dante's doubt regarding the Incontinent, Virgil receives another grateful acknowledgment: «O sun that heals all sight that is perplexed, / when I ask you, your answer so contents / that doubting pleases me as much as knowing» (91-93). These are instances of subtle self-referentiality. The comment on the excellence of the character is a comment on the excellence of the book. Virgil thinks well and speaks eloquently, that is to say, the book is good.

      Similar instances of subtle self-referentiality are found in Boccaccio's Decameron. In the third story of the third day, the unhappily married lady succeeds in having the unwitting friar act as a go-between on her behalf. When her lover, following the friar's directions, reaches her, she exclaims: «A thousand thanks to our dear friend the friar for instructing you so impeccably how to get here» (456). In the original we find: «Gran mercé a messer lo frate, che così bene t'insegnò la via da venirci» (358). The line that seals the triumph of the woman's craftiness is an evaluation of the story. The praise for the scheming woman is praise for the plotting author. Pinuccio and Adriano (IX 6) after a busy stay at the hostelry of the valley of Mugnone return to Florence «feeling no less delighted with the manner than with the outcome of the night activities» (714). It was a memorable night, thus it is a well-crafted story. The events of the story of Ruggieri d'Aieroli and the trunk (IV 10) are so entertaining that one of its characters wants to hear them over and over: «The judge was greatly entertained by what he had heard and made Ruggieri and the maid and the carpenters and the money-lenders repeat their stories several times over» (401).

      What else can we say about Virgil's lesson? The lesson takes place amidst the offensive smell coming from the lower circles, and we are struck by the curious contrast between foulness and the sophisticated workings of the mind. The scenery is one of stone: the boulders of the «high bank», the tomb of Pope Anastasius. There are no encounters with souls in this canto; we know of the presence of the Pope only through the inscription on his tomb: «I hold Pope Anastasius, / enticed to leave the true path by Photinus» (8-9). The opening metaphor of the Inferno, that of losing the «diritta via», reappears. In the XI canto, Dante employs the same imagery for the usurer who «prefers another pathway» (109-10).

      The doctrinal exchange is not interrupted by any account on the immediate surroundings. Having answered Dante's final question, that on usury, Virgil urges the pupil to follow him: «Ma seguimi oramai che 'l gir mi piace; / ché i Pesci guizzan su per l'orizzonta, / e 'l Carro tutto sovra 'l coro giace, / e 'l balzo via là oltra si dismonta» (112-115; see above for the translation). With these final words Virgil does more than just give his pupil the time of day. It is as if he had opened the crust of the earth to let him gaze at the stellar vault. At the end of the long doctrinal probing of the infernal regions, the celestial vision is a reminder of the final goal. Before he will reach that goal, the pilgrim's way is still the one down the abyss. In the final line the landscape of stone reappears. The Fishes «guizzan per l'orizzonta» but the «balzo via là oltra si dismonta».*

Johns Hopkins University

*Lecture given at the University of Virginia on October 5, 1988.


Translations from Italian critical sources are mine. __ I thank Professor Victoria Kirkham for providing me with the Augustinian source on the significance of number eleven. __ The passages from the canto are from: Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. Inferno. Trans. Allen Mandelbaum. Toronto: Bantam, 1982.

Dante Alighieri. La Divina Commedia. Con i commenti di Tommaso Casini, Silvio Adrasto Barbi e di Attilio Momigliano. Introduzione e aggiornamento bibliografico-critico di Francesco Mazzoni. __ La Divina Commedia. Inferno. A cura di Umberto Bosco e Giovanni Reggio. Firenze: Le Monnier, 1981. __ La Divina Commedia. Inferno. A cura di Natalino Sapegno. Vol. 1. Firenze: La Nuova Italia, 1977.

Aurigemma, Marcello. «Inferno (Ninferno)». Enciclopedia Dantesca. 1971.

Bacci, Orazio. Il canto XI dell'Inferno letto da Orazio Pacci nella sala di Dante in Orsanmichele. Firenze: Sansoni, n.d.

Boccaccio, Giovanni. Decameron. A cura di Vittore Branca. Torino: Einaudi, 1984. __ Esposizioni sopra la Comedia di Dante. A cura di Giorgio Padoan. Milano: Mondadori, 1965. __ The Decameron. Trans. G. H. McWilliam. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982.

Buttrini, F. «Canto decimoprimo». I canti I-XI dell'Inferno. «Lectura Dantis» genovese. Firenze: Le Monnier, 1904. 411-439.

Cicero. De Officiis. Trans. Walter Miller. Cambridge-London: Harvard UP and Heinemann, 1961.

Croce, Benedetto. La poesia di Dante. 2nd ed. Bari: Laterza, 1921.

D'Ovidio, Francesco. «La topografia morale dell'Inferno». Studii sulla Divina Commedia. Milano-Palermo: Sandron, 1901.

Ferretti, Giovanni. «La matta bestialità». Saggi danteschi. Firenze: Le Monnier, 1950.

Foster, Kenelm. «The Theology of the 'Inferno'». God's Tree. London: Blackfriars, 1957.

Gilbert, Allen H. «Can Dante's Inferno Be Exactly Chartered?» PMLA 60 (1945): 287-306.

Gonella, Guido. «Il canto XI dell'Inferno». Letture degli anni 1973-'76. A cura di Silvio Zennaro. Casa di Dante in Roma. Roma: Bonacci, 1977. 283-292.

Grassi, Giacinto. «Il canto XI dell'Inferno». Lettura dell'Inferno. A cura di V. Vettori. Milano: Marzorati, 1963. 93-114.

Haines, Charles. «Patient Griselda and matta bestialitade». Quaderni d'italianistica 6.2 (1985): 232-240.

Hatcher, Anna and Mark Musa. «Aristotle's matta bestialitade in Dante's Inferno». Italica 47 (1970): 366-372.

Mazzoni, Francesco. Review of «Il canto XI dell'Inferno». by Bruno Nardi. Studi danteschi 31.1 (1953): 209-214.

Meersseman, Gilles G. «Il canto XI dell'"Inferno"». Nuove letture dantesche. Vol. 2. Casa di Dante in Roma. Firenze: Le Monnier, 1968. 1-16.

Montanari, Fausto. «Canto XI». Inferno. Lectura Dantis scaligera. Firenze: Le Monnier, 1963. 367-385.

Moore, Edward. «The Classification of Sins in the Inferno and Purgatorio». Studies in Dante. Second series. Miscellaneous Essays. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 152-208.

Nardi, Bruno. «Il canto XI dell'Inferno». Letture dantesche. A cura di Giovanni Getto. Firenze: Sansoni, 1955. 191-207.

Pagliaro, Antonino. «Le tre disposizion...». L'Alighieri 5.2 (1964): 21-35.

Reade, William Henry Vincent. The Moral System of Dante's Inferno. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1909.

Rosadi, Giovanni. Il canto Xl dell'Inferno letto da Giovanni Rosadi nella sala di Dante in Orsanmichele. Firenze: Sansoni, n.d., but read in 1906.

Saint Augustine. The City of God Against the Pagans. Vol. IV (Books XII-XV). Trans. Philip Levine. London-Cambridge: Heinemann and Harvard UP, 1966. 7 vols.

Vossler, Karl. Mediaeval Culture. An Introduction to Dante and His Times. Vol. 2. New York: Harcourt, 1929. 2 vols.