Canto XVII is like a busy railroad station, where many tracks end and many new ones originate. These tracks are themes, motives, and narrative segments. The appearance of Geryon is conjured up through a magic action retold in the previous canto. The roaring of the Phlegethon's waterfall, which is important to guide Dante's trip, is also heard first in Canto XVI. The episode of the usurers is thematically introduced by the invective against «i sùbiti guadagni» (XVI, 73: «the fast earning») and the explanation of their sin is given way back in canto XI, vv. 94-111). Among the themes which culminate in canto XVII, the most obvious one is that of the monstrous combination of two different natures. The Minotaur, the Centaurs, the Harpies and the suicides combine human, animal and vegetable natures; Geryon, combining two natures and three animal species, brings to a climax the monstrosity. Another conspicuous theme related to this one and pervading the seventh circle is the presence of unnatural phenomena which rhetoricians call adynata; such are the talking plants of the suicides; the fire that falls as rain does, and a weeping statue. These impossibilia seem to culminate in the «downward» flight of Geryon. Several themes that will be developed in the eighth and ninth circles are introduced in this canto. One of them is explicitly mentioned by Virgil when, ready to ride Geryon, he says «omai si scende per sifatte scale» («from now on we will descend by such ladders», v. 82) alluding at the «lifts» provided by Geryon, Antaeus, and Lucifer. In all three cases the pilgrim experiences a physical contact with his «means of transportation». Geryon's triune nature reminds us of Cerberus' three heads, but it also introduces the three giants who guard Cocytus, and the three-headed Lucifer. Dante's flight on Geryon's back may foreshadow Ulysses' «folle volo» («foolhardy flight», XXVI, 125). Finally, Geryon's fraudulent image introduces us to the world of Malebolge.

      Do we have, therefore, a «transitional» canto? Such is the traditional perception which is also based on the fact that a good third of the canto actually describes a trip between two circles. Moreover the canto's narrative is discontinuous, giving the impression of a loose structure. Also it lacks a great character whose story (e.g., Francesca, Farinata, Brunetto, Ulysses, Ugolino, etc.) often determines a canto's unity. Yet, despite all the ties to other cantos and the peculiar organization of its materials, canto XVII does not represent a «transitional» moment in Dante's journey. It has in fact a strong poetic unity, and its remarkable features make of it one of the most memorable cantos of the entire Comedy. Its exceptionality may be proved by the fact that the author in announcing the extraordinary event which has to take place in this canto gives for the first and only time the title of his work (comedìa: XVI, 128).

      The first and the last line correspond to each other almost in a specular way, as if they were to mark the autonomous space and the poetical unity of the canto. In both lines the image of the «tail» appears, «coda» and «cocca», combining synonymy with alliteration. More interesting than the acoustic echo and the similarity of meaning is the fact that both times this image appears as a synecdoche, a rhetorical figure by which the part indicates the whole. It could be taken as a mere coincidence, but it happens to be a major stylistic feature in a canto which teems with tropes indicating a dislocation from the abstract to the concrete, from the whole to the detail. These figures are mostly synecdoches, metonymies, catachreses and periphrases. They are all found in the first terzina:

      «Ecco la fiera con la coda aguzza,
che passa i monti e rompe i muri e l'armi!
Ecco colei che tutto il mondo appuzza!»

«Behold the beast who bears the pointed tail, who crosses mountains shatters weapons, walls! Behold the one whose stench fills all the world» (vv. 1-3).

Coda could be taken as a part for the whole (synecdoche); monti, muri, and armi stand for «obstacles»: the concrete substitutes for the abstract __ thus we have a metonymy; appuzza stands for «destroys», «ruins», so that we have a catachresis or abusio because the word is used improperly; finally the whole terzina is a periphrasis because it indicates Geryon without mentioning him directly.

      In order to see how pervasive this stylistic feature is, it would be useful to point out just a few examples of each figure, bearing in mind that the difference between them is often thin and that at times they can be interchangeable.

      Among the synecdoches can be considered: «lo dosso e 'l petto e ambedue le coste» (v. 14: «his back and chest as well as both his flanks»), an enumeration of parts that stands for the whole (the bust); «la fiammella» (v. 33: «the fire»), and «lo bivero» (v. 22: «the beaver») both are singular for plural; «tele» (v.18: «webs») and «marmi» (v. 6: «marbles») where the material is given for the product; «omeri» (v. 42: «shoulders»), «reni» (v. 109: «kidneys», meaning «the back») where the part stands for the whole.

      Examples of metonymy are: «la pelle» (v. 11: «the skin») which stands for «the appearance»; «i passeggiati marmi» (v. 6: «the walked on marbles») for «the passageway»; «la destra mammella» (v. 31: «the right breast») for «the right side»; «sinistro fianco» (v. 69: «the left flank») for «the left side»; «al piè al piè» (v. 134: «right at the foot») for «to the very margin» __ all these metonymies substitute the concrete for the abstract; «doloroso foco» (v. 53: «the painful fire») meaning «the fire that causes pain»; «tra li tedeschi lurchi» (v. 20: «among the guzzling Germans») for «Germany».

      Examples of catachresis are: «proda» (v. 5: «ashore», but there is no real sea or lake or river); «guerra» (v. 22 «war») for «hunting»; «testa» (v. 43: «head») for «extremity»; «si cosse» (v. 108: «was cooked») for «was burned»); «notando» (v. 115: «swimming») for «flying». An interesting series of catachreses are used to indicate Geryon's back: at first it is called «omeri» which is appropriate for a man; then «groppa» (v. 78: «the haunch») which is more appropriate for a donkey or a pack-animal; then «spallacce» (v. 91: «enormous ugly shoulders») which is tilting toward a brute. Indeed the composite nature of Geryon makes it difficult to find the «appropriate» word.

      The cases of periphrasis are frequent and quite interesting. Many of them refer to Geryon. He is mentioned by name only twice, just at the beginning and at the end of the flight, otherwise he is always presented through periphrasis: «quella sozza immagine di froda» (v. 6: «that filthy effigy of fraud»); «la fiera pessima» (v. 23: «the worst of the beasts») in which periphrasis and antonomasia coincide. Another set of periphrases will be seen in the episode of the usurers who are not better identified than as «Paduans» and «Florentines»; for the time being we can remember «il cavalier sovrano» (v. 72: «the sovereign knight») and «la gente mesta» (v. 45: «melancholy people»). Also Virgil is presented through periphrasis: «lui, che di poco star m'avea 'mmonito» (v. 77: «he who warned me to be brief»).

      The high frequency of these figures of speech gives us the clue to the way in which Dante the pilgrim lives through the experience of this canto. On the one hand he sees things in the most concrete way; and on the other, he is incapable or unwilling to define them. Synecdoche, metonymy, and catachresis are figures that aim at the concrete, material representation whereas periphrasis exists to avoid precise definition or identification. The presence of both tendencies reveals a situation in which fascination and repulsion go together. It is a situation dominated by horror and disgust, which are the main themes of the canto. Things talk to the senses with their strong physical evidence; the mind, almost paralyzed by the horror they cause, refuses to comment upon them. This canto, thus, is eminently descriptive. Another rhetorical feature which corroborates this finding is the unusually high number of similes. They are fifteen in all, mostly taken from the animal world. They not only belong to the same kind of tropes as the periphrases, but they also thicken the physical texture of the canto as a whole.

      The stylistic homogeneity of the canto seems to be in contrast to the non-linear organization of its materials. This, too, is a fallacious impression. The canto follows a mortise technique. Its parts balance each other in length, not so as to achieve a mere external sense of proportion but to create suspenseful increments of fear, repulsion and horror. The canto can be divided as follows: vv. 1-42, contain the description of and the encounter with Geryon; vv. 43-78, meeting with the usurers; vv. 79-136, the flight. Each one of these three sections could be further subdivided as follows: a) vv. 1-27, description of Geryon; vv. 28-42, Dante and Virgil walk toward Geryon and Virgil encourages his pupil to visit with the usurers; b) vv. 43-75, description of the usurers; vv. 76-84, return of Dante to Virgil; c) vv. 85-99, Dante mounts on Geryon's back; vv. 100-126, recount the actual flight. The three major parts __ all of them descriptions __ balance each other in a rhythm that goes from 27 to 32 lines. On the whole, however, Geryon dominates the canto, for he is present in two of those three major parts. The usurers play a lesser role, almost an incidental one; but it is precisely in this treatment that Dante's indifference and scorn is fully shown. At this point it is useful to notice that the episode of the usurers not only interrupts the main narration but it also creates a lacuna of information. While Dante visits the usurers, Virgil parleys with Geryon. We know nothing about what they say to each other and consequently we do not see how Reason succeeds in overcoming Fraud. The function of this lacuna is understood better if we recall that what we know about the usurers' sin is explained in another canto rather than where it would seem proper. These are two forms of lacuna which have a similar function __ one through absence and the other through distance remove from our canto any intellectual complication, so that the «descriptive» nature of the canto can be sustained throughout. Style and content work for each other. The warp of the canto is clearly set. It is now time to see how Dante weaves his narration into it: to see how our observations become meaningful in the poetical discourse. We are ready now to read this canto which, as all indications have it, is quite closely knit.

      The opening of the canto is abrupt and dramatic. In the anaphora «ecco ... ecco» (vv. 1-3) one can see how the tension created by the hurling of the knotted and coiled cord to conjure up Geryon explodes in this deictic presentation: the sortilege has worked and the beast is now in sight of the two wayfarers, having surfaced from darkness. Virgil immediately calls Dante's attention to the tail of Geryon: this recurring motif (the «tail» will be mentioned no less than five times: vv. 1, 9, 25, 84, 103) is introduced from the first line and it will always underline Dante's fear and horror. Virgil signals Geryon to come «a riva» which literally means «ashore» (catachresis). This word introduces the motif of the «edge» which dominates the first half of the canto. Its synonyms, such as «proda» (v. 5) «fin» (v. 6 «end»), «riva» (vv. 9 and 19), «orlo» (v. 24: «edge»), «lo stremo» (v. 32: «the extremity»), «strema testa» (v. 43: «extreme point»), sustain it throughout. This «edge» is the boundary between a solid terrain and the emptiness («loco scemo»: v. 36). The sense of that limit, which will substitute walking with flying, is constantly present like an obsession in the mind of the wayfarer even when the episode of the usurers seems to remove it temporarily from his concerns. It has been marked in such a firm way that it cannot be erased: actually, a temporary distraction increases the expectation and the tension for the feared experience of aereal navigation.

      This «edge» is also the point in which Geryon rests occupying __ as is proper for his ambiguous nature __ both spaces. Geryon «docks» (the verb «arrivò» which normally means «arrived» is used here etymologically as «brought to the shore»: another catachresis) the upper part of his body. This part of Geryon remains perfectly immobile, or so it appears in the detailed and composite description by the poet which follows a classical pattern: it begins from the head and it is supposed to end at the feet. Geryon's face looks like that of a just man. His chest, unexpectedly for us, changes nature: it is the bust of a snake with the paws of a lion. In those paws Dante doesn't notice, as we would expect, the claws, but points out their hairiness, almost an extension of Geryon's human nature; and Dante's eyes follow it up to the armpits (catachresis) where several natures __ man, quadruped and reptile __ meet. This sequence of vignettes continues describing the snake part: not its length or width, but the circlets and knots on its skin. They constitute the visualization of an idea; they allegorize the entanglements of Fraud; yet the intensity of the vision is such that no rational faculty seems to be engaged. Reason, however, cannot be totally absent, it functions with its weakest and yet the most imaginative tool, namely analogy. Those colors and the immobility of Geryon awake visual and literary memories. A chain of not less than four similes seem to convey the sense of Dante's tardy awakening to an intellectual perception. The first two comparisons say that neither Turks nor Tartars ever fashioned fabric more colorful than Geryon's snake-skin, nor did Arachne ever spin comparable webs. Men, historical or mythological, cannot match the demoniac craft. It should be underlined that these two comparisons and those of Icarus and Phaeton, which will be seen later on, are the only ones to involve persons, and they are all negative. Essentially these comparisons are hyperboles which emphasize the exceptionality of what is seen and experienced in this canto.

      The mode of analogy is also used to describe Geryon's position. Two similes describe him as a sort of amphibious animal, quite fittingly for his ambiguity. The first comparison, taken from the realm of inanimate things, suggests the perfect immobility of the beast. The second, taken from the animal world, implies the tension of the snare, and suggests the presence of a hidden tail which entraps fish. Thus, announced by these two comparisons, the extreme part of Geryon's body appears at last:

      Nel vano tutta sua coda guizzava,
torcendo in sù la venenosa forca
ch'a guisa di scorpion la punta armava.

And all his tail was quivering in the void while twisting upwards its envenomed fork, which had a tip just like a scorpion's (vv. 25-57).

The four comparisons have delayed the description of Geryon's tail; they have severed, as it were, from the rest of his body this tremendous part. This delay is a narrative strategy that creates a powerful effect of estrangement. Not only does the tail quiver in contrast to the immobility of the rest of the body: it also brings into Geryon's composite nature another animal species: we were expecting the tail of a serpent, and we now see the tail of a scorpion. The reptile turns into an arachnid. Wagging in the emptiness, ready to sting, this bifurcated tail completes and epitomizes the presentation of Geryon.

      Who was Geryon? This mythological character was a giant, perhaps a King of the Balearic Islands. He fed his flock of sheep with the human flesh of his guests whom he treacherously killed. Hercules killed him. Geryon was said to have three bodies in one, but, as far as we know, all these bodies were of the same nature. Dante used this mythological detail and conflated it with others drawn from medieval zoology. Medieval bestiaries tell of monsters having three natures; they may be variations of the locusts found in Apocalypse IX, 7-11. Many paintings and miniatures also give instances of such kinds of hybrids. Scholars have repeatedly pointed out models for Dante's Geryon; but none of them coincide exactly with Dante's creature. The creation of this original demonic figure is certainly due to Dante's imagination.

      Geryon's triune nature symbolizes Fraud. He is, however, a living symbol, and Dante responds physically to his presence: he is fascinated by this monster just as a rabbit is fascinated by the charm of the snake. A sign of this mental paralysis is the total lack of any comment on the vision of the tail. Only the voice of Virgil breaks Dante's horrified attention, and he follows him mechanically. Master and pupil have to turn to the right in order to reach the beast, and in so doing they are deviating for the second and last time (the first happened in canto IX, 132) from the normal leftward pattern followed in Hell. Undoubtedly there is an allegorical meaning in this change of direction and it is quite clear: «one cannot go straight towards fraud; one must approach it askew» (Ottimo's comment). However, there is no insistence on this second meaning of the text; Dante proceeds mesmerized, automatically counting his ten steps toward the beast. There has never been such a precise spatial measurement: actually it is a psychological measurement because it indicates the distance from the dreaded beast and from the edge of the ravine as well as the need to test at each step the solidity of the soil.

      Reaching Geryon should represent the climax of the narration. But this dramatic encounter is postponed. Dante's attention is distracted by some sinners whom he sees sitting on the burning sand next to the edge. Virgil encourages his pupil to go and talk to them so that his knowledge of the sins punished in this seventh circle is a thorough one. Virgil parleys with Geryon and Dante goes all alone towards the group of sinners. The separation is exceptional; it has happened only once before (canto VIII) and in a similar situation, when, that is, Virgil must overcome diabolic resistance or prevent a diabolic danger. The separation from Virgil, the symbol of Reason, accentuates the lack of «mental» participation on Dante's part. Indeed the episode that follows presents an extreme case of mental indifference and non-commitment, and Virgil's warning not to waste any time gives a hint of it.

      The sinners in this group are the usurers. Since they are in this circle, we assume that they sinned against nature. Why usury is a sin against nature is not easy to explain. Dante's explanation in canto XI could need some clarification also because it might help us to understand the contrapasso suffered by the usurers. Without repeating what the commentators of canto XI say, we must notice that Dante's explanation is philosophical in nature. This is quite unusual, because usury __ a great sin with vast social implications __ is a sin studied above all by canonists and by theologians. But the first one to give a real philosophical explanation of it is St. Thomas, and Dante follows the gist of his argument. Usury is not just a sin against charity, but against Nature. In order to see how, we must understand that money is different from any other commodity because its very essence coincides with its use. Consider, for instance, a house or a horse or wine. Their nature is different from the use we make of them: they can and can not be consumed; money, on the other hand, is meant to be consumed, spent, and that is exactly its very essence. Usury is a sin because it gives away the substance and charges for its use as if these were two separable things: we would never sell a house and then charge for its use. Usury is a sin against the very nature of money, and it is, consequently, a sin against commutative justice and against mankind. Perhaps the behavior of the one usurer who talks to Dante in order to slander other usurers reflects his sinning against «commutative justice».

      No attempt is made to explain the contrapasso for the usurers. Their punishment has no self-evident reason, and Dante gives us no clues as to why they are sitting immobile under the fire rain. An explanation I would venture is provided by the literature on usury. Usurers are often depicted in collections of exempla or in sermons as wanderers who go from city to city, from nation to nation, to pursue earnings. They do not rest at any time: time for them is precious (remember Virgil's admonition). This typical portrait is even found in philosophical works, such as De peccato usure by Remigio de' Girolami, the Florentine Dominican who died just two years before Dante (1319) and whose work was probably known to Dante. At a certain point in his treatise, Remigio says that usurers operate in the opposite way of the four elements. A usurer, contrary to the fire that goes upwards,

semper vadit deorsum versus terram et infernum, nullo tempore quiesciens in itinere, nec die nec nocte, nec in feris nec in festis et comendo et bibendo et vigilando et dormiendo continue vadit. Unde in Psalmis [XVI, 11] «Oculos suos statuerunt declinare in terram» [always goes downwards, towards the earth and Hell, not resting at any time on his travels either during day or at night, either during working days or on holidays; and while eating or drinking or being awake or asleep he is constantly on the move. Therefore in the Psalm we read: «They have set their eyes bowing down to earth» (ed. O. Capitani, in Studi medievali, p. 629)].

Stereotype images like these perhaps prompted Dante to condemn the usurers to sit immobile and look down at their purses. It remains, however, to be explained why like the sodomites they are under the rain of fire. What do these two sins have in common? Paradoxically, they have in common what opposes one to the other. Sodomites make sterile what is supposed to be productive; usurers instead make productive a substance like money which by its nature is unproductive or sterile. Both groups of sinners are thus punished for their sterile life and their punishment is a rain of fire which burns life rather than fecundate it as natural rain is supposed to do.

      This explanation is just an hypothesis which further study may prove to be correct. For the time being, the only alternative thesis is that by André Pézard according to whom the rain of fire symbolizes the Holy Ghost __ the gift of tongues __ whom sinners like Brunetto (not a sodomite, according to Pézard) perverted in their writings by exalting a language other than their native tongue. The usurers, having sinned against «art» (as Dante says) would be punished in the same way. Pézard's thesis has not been universally accepted.

      The episode of the usurers is like a sequence of frames. The congestion of verba videndi and semantically related words («occhi», «eyes»; «viso», «sight»; and the crude metonymy in v. 61, «di mio sguardo il curro»: «the dolly of my sight») underlines once again the merely visual engagement on the pilgrim's part. The first frame presents the eyes of the sinners, eyes that show pain and see only the cause of their condemnation. The second frame catches the movement of the usurers' hands to ward off the flakes of fire and the burning sand. This motion prompts an analogy (another frame) from the animal world: dogs that with their muzzles or paws defend themselves against insects. This degrading simile introduces a series of animal images. Dante looks intently at some of the individuals trying, but without success, to recognize someone. He then realizes that each sinner carries a pouch or money bag hanging from his neck. Every sinner's eye (singular for plural) is fixed on his pouch and the intensity of his glance seems to the poet (but it is a sarcastic remark) due to the fact that usurers get pleasure from looking at it. On each pouch there is a family emblem representing animals. Dante sequentially observes and describes three of them, one per terzina; a fourth, belonging to a forthcoming inmate of Hell, is described by one of the usurers. We have therefore no family names, but only visible signs of their identity. Technically these emblems cannot be considered periphrases even though they look so; but they could be considered metonymies, since each name (the abstract) is indicated through a picture (the concrete). The only person called by name (Vitaliano) has no emblem. The poet's and the pilgrim's disdain for these sinners is shown in the (partial) anonymity in which they are kept, like the «ignavi» and the avaricious and the prodigal; the poet's and pilgrim's sarcasm is shown in the presentation of aristocratic families through animal imagery. The only usurer who cries against Dante plays into his observer's technique: he indicates through periphrasis («Paduan», «Florentines») and through an emblem (a purse with three bucks) the identity of his companions. At the end of his talk, he twists his mouth and sticks his tongue out like an ox that licks its nose. He becomes an emblem.

      With this perfect identification of sign and referent (we do not know whether a man has become a grotesque emblem of himself or whether an emblem has taken life) the review of the usurers is concluded. The visual survey of so many animals hardly makes us aware that the pilgrim has moved away from Geryon: indeed Dante's sight switches from the Beast to some bestial emblems. There are, naturally, some changes: Geryon is one individual with three natures; the usurers have one nature which, however, is identified through another one. Thus the sight of Geryon produces horror, while that of the usurers causes physical disgust. The lack of mental engagement remains constant; but in front of Geryon it is caused by a paralysis of the mind; in front of the usurers it is caused by disdain. In neither case does Dante say a word. The way of making a transition to the last part of the canto («E io...»: «And I...», v. 76) shows his detachment from the usurers' moral world. The delayed trip must now take place.

      The crescendo of disgust and horror built through the persistent vision of animality touches a higher note when Dante actually has to have physical contact with it. Upon leaving the usurers he finds that Virgil is already seated on Geryon's rump. Virgil's encouragement actually increases tension and fear because the trip sounds, in his words, unusual and dangerous. He asks Dante to sit in the front so that he can shield him against Geryon's tail. The allegorical meaning of this seating (Reason prevents Fraud from stinging) does not diminish in the least the drama of the poetic situation. The theme of Geryon's tail and with it the theme of Dante's terror, come again to the fore; this time, however, the terror is higher because Geryon's tail is closer and still quivering. Dante's physical and mental paralysis is almost absolute as the comparison with a man taken by the chills of malaria suggests. But fearing Virgil's reproach (it is a dim sign of moral awareness), Dante gets on the monster's back. He wants to ask Virgil to hold him; but his attempt at speech (the only one in the whole canto) is choked by fear. It is worth noticing that this is one of the very few cantos in the whole Comedy in which the pilgrim utters not a word. In this instance, it proves once more that Reason is completely removed in order to emphasize the crude physicality of Dante's whole experience. Virgil __ just as an omniscient author knows all the needs of his characters __ understands his pupil's fears and embraces him. He gives orders to Geryon (it is the first time the monster is called by its name) to start off and to proceed slowly, considering that he is carrying a real body.

      Geryon moves back from the edge like a boat that undocks. Making an about-face he puts his tail where his chest was before. He moves his tail __ the obsessive motif of this canto __ as if he were an eel. The attention paid to the minimal detail of this aquatic operation spells suspension and fear. The beast slowly transforms itself as its functions seem to change. At first, it is a boat, then it is a fish, then it is a bird; or a bird that immerses itself like a fish, moving its paws as if they were wings. The slowness of Geryon's motion makes irrevocable and more suspenseful the detachment from the solid ground. Dante and Virgil travel now through a new medium; they have left the earth (burning sand) and the fire (the two dominant elements in the first part of the canto) and move through the air which is thick as water (the other two elements which pervade this second part).

      The psychological suspension has become a physical one. Dante is now in the vacuum. He needs some point of reference in order to assess, even though vaguely, his exceptional experience. Literature provides two analogues of his predicament: the myths of Phaeton and Icarus. Dante could have chosen other literary examples such as the aerial journey of Alexander the Great, of Cleomedes and others; but these journeys were all successful. He needed examples of failure because they explain his fear. There may be, however, a further motivation for the choice of the Ovidian examples. Both of them represent cases of «folle volo» («foolhardy flight»), whereas Dante's flight is just a moment in his journey to Beatrice. On the literal level, thus, the two similes convey a sense of hyperbole; on the allegorical level, they justify Dante's flight. This justification makes the flight necessary but does not make it less fearful. We must remember that Dante's flight, contrary to any model he may have had in mind, is retold in the first person. In announcing the arrival of Geryon (canto XVI) he reminds his readers that his trip is real; its dangers are no less so.

      Introduced by the statement of the highest imaginable fear, the description of the actual trip begins. It is one of the most memorable episodes of the entire Comedy. The sense of sight, so acute in the first part of the canto, is now impeded. In that empty darkness Dante sees only the unreliable beast; Dante and Geryon are the only presences for a while because Virgil is completely forgotten. It is a blind flight with no perception of space and time. Only through his own skin does Dante feel the downward movement of Geryon. The beast swims «lenta lenta» («very slowly», v. 115). This is a notation of speed and time: on the one hand the slow speed makes the trip safer; on the other it prolongs the suspension in the air. It takes the power of a unique genius to create a highly dramatic situation through only the feeling of breeze on the skin. In such blind, silent, and lonely suspension in an unknown place in Hell, it is the sense of touch __ if we can call it so __ to provide the coordinates of space and time which are so necessary to the journey. But this sense provides only the feeling of movement; so that the traveler's psychology can magnify those coordinates to an ineffable degree. Indeed the intensity of this drama is sustained precisely by the lack of any attempt at explaining any further. In line with the rest of the canto, things and situations speak for themselves.

      After an indefinable time and distance another sense provides a new element of orientation. Dante hears the noise of the water falling to the bottom of the pit. The sound gives a vague indication of distance. Dante wants to see. He stretches his neck to see the bottom (literally: «I "leaned" my eyes out with my head», which is a powerful synecdoche, v. 120). He sees fires and hears laments. His fear increases and he holds fast to Geryon's skin. The recovery of vision confirms the perception that the descent has been done in hundreds of circles. Now the descent is finally coming to its end. As at the beginning of the trip, Geryon's movement is described in great detail through an elaborate comparison. Geryon is now compared to a falcon whose hunting has not been successful. Geryon unloads the two persons at the very foot of the wall of rock (which, retrospectively, appears as being perpendicular) and sets himself, «embittered and enraged» (v. 132), far from them. These two adjectives have a human connotation: Geryon's «face of a just man» mentioned at the beginning, shows its real nature which is epitomized in his bifurcated tail and the canto cannot end without mentioning it. Geryon who glided very slowly now leaves with the speed of an arrow. The last image that Dante has of him, through a final simile, is that of the bifurcated tail: «he left like the knock (of an arrow) leaves the bowstring» (v. 136). Fortunately the tail is now departing. What a sense of liberation!*

The University of Chicago

*Lecture given at the University of Virginia on October 30, 1987.


Canto XVII has been unevenly studied. There are not many traditional «lecturae» worth mentioning, whereas the bibliography on some aspects of the canto, especially those which are deemed to be symbolic or allegorical, is luxuriant. Much of this literature, however, deals with the meaning of Dante's «cord» and Virgil's hurling it. __ For the scriptural and iconographic models of Geryon, see bibliographical references in A. R. Chisholm, «The Prototype of Dante's Geryon», in Modern Language Review, IV (1929), pp. 451-54; J. Block-Friedman, «Anti-Christ and the Iconography of Dante's Geryon», in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institute, XXXV (1972), pp. 108-122; M. Bregoli-Russo, «Per la figura di Gerione», in L'Alighieri, XVII (1977), pp. 51-52. __ On Geryon's triune nature in relation to Cerberus, Lucifer, and the Holy Trinity, see G. Pascoli, «Minerva oscura», in Prose, ed. A. Vicinelli, Milan 1971, p. 401 (who sees in the three natures the allegory of intellect, evil will, and sensible appetite); and P. Priest, Dante's Incarnation of Trinity, Ravenna 1982, p. 29ff. __ On the myths of Icarus and Phaeton, and their figural rapport with Ulysses and Dante, see P. Renucci, Dante juge du monde gréco-latin, Paris 1954, p. 208ff; R. Hollander, Allegory in Dante, Princeton 1969, p. 249. __ On all the above as well as on many other topics which are considered allegorical (the animals on the bags of the usurers; the simile of the falcon; the flight of Geryon; the designs on Geryon's skin; the ten steps of Dante and Virgil, etc.) exhaustive bibliographical information is provided by R. Mercuri, Semantica di Gerione: Il motivo del viaggio nella Divina Commedia di Dante, Rome 1984. This is a very well informed book which is typical of the subtlety (and, alas, of the wildness) inspiring the hermeneutics of this canto. __ Other problems in this canto, some of them very important ones, are practically left untapped. One of them is the usurers' contrapasso. Pézard who has written extensively on the fiery rain (Dante sous la pluie de feu, Paris 1950) hardly touches upon this problem, nor does R. Kay, Dante's Swift and Strong: Essays on Inferno XV, Lawrence (Kansas) 1978. For an ample survey of the literature on usury, J. T. Noonan, The Scholastic Analysis of Usury, Cambridge (Mass.) 1957, is very useful. __ Another neglected problem is that of the language. The only valuable observations are those by G. Cambon, «Examples of Movement in the Divine Comedy: An Experiment in Reading», in Italica, XL (1963), pp. 108-31, where the imagery and the language of Geryon's moving away from the edge are studied with great finesse. On the specific technique of periphrasis in Dante there are two important studies: one by E. R. Curtius in his Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Romanischen Philologie, Bern-Münich 1960, pp. 321-333; the other by E. N. Girardi, «La perifrasi nella Divina Commedia», in Italianistica, VIII (1979), pp. 514-538 (neither one of these studies quotes a single example from canto XVII). __ Concerning the «lecturae» of the whole canto as a poetic unity, much is wanting. The «lecturae» by G. Getto (in Letture Dantesche, ed. G. Getto, Florence 1964, pp. 335-352), or by P. Soldati (in Lectura Dantis Scaligera, Florence 1967, pp. 565-577), or by F. Lanza (in Nuove Letture Dantesche, Florence 1970, pp. 117-135), just to mention the most recent ones, are impressionistic and of little help. The best «lectura», which aims at seeing the canto's construction is that by E. Pasquini, «Il Canto di Gerione», in Atti e Memorie dell'Accademia dell'Arcadia, 1967, pp. 346-368. An interesting attempt at examining Geryon's episode from a narratological and psychoanalytic point of view is that by F. Gabrieli, «Gerione tra mito e favola: Dante attraverso Propp», in Psicoanalisi e strutturalismo di fronte a Dante, Florence 1972, pp. 65-89.