In the summer of 1373 the Florentine Commune commissioned Giovanni Boccaccio to deliver a series of public lectures on Dante's Divine Comedy, and these readings and commentaries on individual cantos which were presented in the church of Santo Stefano di Badia between October 1373 and April 1374 are the first in a tradition which continues vigorously in many parts of the world in our own day.1 We do not know exactly when Boccaccio gave his lectures on the eighth canto of the Inferno, but in retrospect we may note that they fall roughly at the midpoint of his series, which was regrettably interrupted at the beginning of canto 17. Boccaccio begins his reading of Inferno 8 by remarking its unusual opening:2

[Dante] says therefore in the first part: «I say, continuing». We may be somewhat perplexed by these words since everyone readily understands that the poet perforce continues the subject matter already begun and needs not note this fact; and we are even more perplexed because up to this point he has not employed this technique to continue his narrative. And, therefore, in order to dispel this state of perplexity, it must be made known that Dante had a sister, who was married to one of our fellow citizens....

      True to his reputation as a master racconteur, Boccaccio tells how, after Dante had left his native city of Florence in exile, his wife, Gemma, fearful that harm would come to their property, placed certain valuable items in several strongboxes for safe keeping, and among these were copies of some of her husband's writings, including the first seven cantos of the Inferno. As Boccaccio reports, these cantos eventually came to light and were read by several people who, appreciating their excellence, recommended that they be sent to their author so that he might continue and complete this wonderful undertaking. And so, learning that Dante was then residing with Moroello Malaspina in Lunigiana, these interlopers forwarded him the seven cantos, and, as Boccaccio tells the story, Dante, having received such encouragement, set himself about his task and began the eighth canto with the words «Io dico seguitando...» __ or, as we might say today, «Well, as I was saying...».

      While providing an interesting though less than satisfactory explanation of the apparent disjuncture in the text, Boccaccio's tale does help us to focus our attention on a distinctive feature of this particular canto, namely that canto 8 is set off, suspended as it were, different from the others because of the double halt in the forward movement.3 At the close of canto 7 Dante and his guide Virgil stopped at the foot of the mysterious tower:4 «venimmo al piè d'una torre al da sezzo» (v. 130), and canto 8 concludes with our wayfarers stopped __ dead in their tracks __ before the closed gate of the City of Dis.

      The abrupt end of canto 7 and the suspense generated by the sudden mention of the tower necessitate the Poet's explanation at the beginning of canto eight:

      Io dico, seguitando, ch'assai prima
che noi fossimo al piè de l'alta torre,
li occhi nostri n'andar suso a la cima
      per due fiammette che i vedemmo porre,
e un'altra da lungi render cenno,
tanto ch'a pena il potea l'occhio tòrre.

To preserve narrative continuity Dante must backtrack to that time and place __ in Hell and in his text __ where he and Virgil observe first the lighting of the fires atop the tower and then the responding signal from across the Stygian marsh. In addition to clarifying these matters, this retrograde movement also serves to isolate the main action of canto 8 from what immediately precedes it. At the end of canto 8, we find a similar halt in the narrative; there, while Virgil attempts, without success, to deal with the fallen angels who jealously guard the gate, Dante the Pilgrim finds himself in a suspended state (vv. 109- 111):

      Così sen va, e quivi m'abbandona
lo dolce padre, e io rimagno in forse,
che sì e no nel capo mi tenciona.

      The use of the present tense in this passage underscores the immediacy of the events and their dramatic quality. Moreover, there is the interesting textual variant in certain manuscripts where instead of «yes and no» («sì e no») we find «no and yes» («no e sì»).5 This seemingly minor change would reinforce the uncertain, almost pessimistic atmosphere that prevails. Indeed, so great is Dante's doubt and fear that he even suggests that they abandon their mission and retrace their steps: «e se 'l passar più oltre ci è negato, / ritroviam l'orme nostre insieme ratto» (vv. 101-102).

      Through this double use of the technique of suspension Inferno 8 is set off from the cantos that precede and follow it. We have already seen some partial examples of this sort of break in the narrative flow. Cantos 3 and 5, for example, end abruptly with the Pilgrim's swoon. But this is the first canto which follows the structure of pause __ movement __ pause and which is, in a very special way, self-contained. There are several possible reasons for this. One might be found in Dante's ordering of sins in Hell according to the three main categories __ Incontinence, Violence, and Fraud __ and their subdivisions. We have already passed through three circles of Incontinence __ lust, gluttony, and avarice/prodigality __ and, having been introduced to the fifth circle __ the marsh of the Styx __ where anger is punished, we are now ready to traverse its dark waters. Incontinence is, of course, the lack of control over the passions, the failure to observe moderation in one's desires and appetites, and both Aristotle and St. Thomas divide appetites into two categories: concupiscible and irascible. Anger is an excess of this irascible element which destroys the individual. In the Summa Theologiae6 St. Thomas distinguished wrath into three classes: 1) the acuti who are quick tempered, 2) the difficiles who strive for revenge, and 3) the amari, those sullen individuals who harbor their rage within, and Dante appears to follow this classification. Thomas further clarifies the dual nature of wrath which manifests itself both as a sin of incontinence when it is occasioned by an external element and committed through weakness and excess of passion (ex infirmitate and ex passione) and as a sin of violence when it is occasioned by an intrinsic disorder and committed through deliberate intention and choice (ex intentione and ex electione).7 Thus, in his arrangement of the infernal circles Dante is careful to show the transitional nature of anger, which links the realm of incontinence __ Upper Hell __ with that of violence __ the first division of Lower Hell. One might object that this scheme does not account for the sin punished in the sixth circle __ heresy __ but heresy is a defect of the intellect not of the will, and anger then serves as the proper bridge between these major divisions in the realm of perverted will.

      Another reason for isolating this canto would be to have it serve as a sort of summary of cantos 1-7, to have it be both a recapitulation of past events and a preface to a new beginning. And, appropriately, in numerological terms eight indicates regeneration, baptism, and renewal.8 The first two cantos in the Inferno are also characterized by the struggle between movement and stasis, between confidence and doubt. Inferno 1 concludes with movement, but in the second canto before he can undertake his journey, the Pilgrim needs assurance concerning its divinely-ordained nature. Once that obstacle is overcome through Virgil's account of Beatrice's descent into Limbo __ her Harrowing of Hell9 __ and the operation of the chain of grace, they move forward to and through the Gate of Hell. In the second half of canto 8 we are thrust once again back into the atmosphere that prevailed in the first two cantos, and there are many textual clues as well. After inviting Virgil to approach the gate of Dis, the devils voice their wish for the Pilgrim (vv. 89-92):

                 ...quei sen vada
che sì ardito intrò per questo regno.
      Sol si ritorni per la folle strada:
pruovi, se sa...

and these words echo those in Inferno 2 where Dante first wondered if his journey were «folle» (v. 35: «wild and empty») and finally, after numerous assurances, found within himself the boldness (v. 131: «buono ardire») to embark on his mission. To quell the Pilgrim's present fear, Virgil refers to two events: 1) the devils' unsuccessful attempt at the first gate to block Christ's Harrowing of Hell (vv. 124-127):

      Questa lor tracotanza non è nova;
ché già l'usaro a men segreta porta,
la qual sanza serrame ancor si trova.
      Sovr' essa vedestù la scritta morta...

and 2) Beatrice's promise of divine assistance when she commissioned him this task: «Non temer; ché 'l nostro passo / non ci può tòrre alcun: da tal n'è dato» (vv. 104-5).


In terms of its overall structure, canto 8 divides into two equal parts: vv. 1-63 deal primarily with Phlegyas and Filippo Argenti, and vv. 67-130 with the approach to Dis and the opposition mounted by the devils. The central tercet is pivotal, looking both backward and forward (vv. 64-46):

      Quivi il lasciammo, che più non ne narro;
ma ne l'orecchie mi percosse un duolo,
per ch'io avante l'occhio intento sbarro.

      As critics have often remarked, there is a distinct difference between the two parts of the canto. The first part is charged with vibrant physical activity and confrontational dynamics; the psychological drama is externalized. The second part, though equally confrontational, presents the conflict in a more subdued manner, the drama is internalized.

      Two moments define the first half of the canto: the arrival of Phlegyas, the infernal boatman, and the encounter with Filippo Argenti. The lighting of the signal fires atop the tower and the single response received from across the marsh are perceived but not understood by Dante the Pilgrim, and we, as readers, share in his bewilderment: «Questo che dice? e che risponde / quell'altro foco? e chi son quei che 'l fenno?» (vv. 8-9). Virgil to whom all knowledge is ascribed __ the «mar di tutto 'l senno»10 __ replies in a way that does not help to clarify the mystery: «Su per le sucide onde / già scorgere puoi quello che s'aspetta, / se 'l fummo del pantan nol ti nasconde» (vv. 10-12). The Virgilian subtext present throughout the Divine Comedy surfaces here on several occasions. The image of the arrow used to describe the rapid approach of Phlegyas' boat: «Corda non pinse mai da sé saetta / che sì corresse via per l'aere snella» (vv. 13-14:) reflects the verses in the Aeneid which describe the quickness of Aeneas' ship: «on it speeds over the wave, fleeter than javelin and wind-swift arrow» («fugit illa per undas / ocior et iaculo et ventos aequante sagitta»: 10. 247-48).

      Just as Aeneas made Charon's boat cut more deeply through the waters of the Acheron,11 so does Dante's earthly weight cause this vessel to sink more deeply in the water (vv. 25-30):

      Lo duca mio discese ne la barca,
e poi mi fece intrare appresso lui;
e sol quand' io fui dentro parve carca.
      Tosto che 'l duca e io nel legno fui,
segando se ne va l'antica prora
de l'acqua più che non suol con altrui.

      Phlegyas' initial words __ «Or se' giunta, anima fella!» (v. 18) __ add to our confusion, for they suggest that he expected to find only one soul. If this is the case, we might ask, why should two fires have been lit on the tower? If we recall Dante's three questions __ «Questo che dice? e che risponde / quell'altro foco? e chi son quei che 'l fenno?» (vv. 8-9) __ we find that we have an answer to only the first, and a partial answer at that, since the relationship between the number of fires (does it equal the number of souls?) and Phlegyas' understanding is not completely clear. The mystery that enshrouds the other two unanswered questions can only add to the dramatic tension present in the entire episode.

      The challenge that Phlegyas presents to the two wayfarers is not unlike those posed by the other infernal guardians encountered so far __ Charon, Minos, Cerberus, and Plutus __ , but here Virgil does not resort to any set verbal formula or physical expedient. Indeed, he overcomes this new obstacle by referring simply to the fact that Phlegyas will have them in his power only for the duration of the passage across the Styx: «Flegïàs, ... più non ci avrai che sol passando il loto» (vv. 19 and 21).

      Virgil's naming of Phlegyas without elaboration and the general lack of descriptive detail trouble the already muddied waters even further «Flegïàs, Flegïàs, tu gridi a vòto / ...a questa volta» (vv. 19-20). Also in the Aeneid, a physical description of Phlegyas is lacking: he resides in grim Tartarus, and his words disclose his exemplary function (6:618-620):

      Phlegyasque miserrimus omnis
admonet et magna testatur voce per umbras:
«Discite iustitiam moniti et non temnere divos»

(And Phlegyas most unblest, gives warning to all and with loud voice bears witness amid the gloom: «Be warned; learn ye to be just and not to slight the gods!»).

      Phlegyas remains a shadowy figure without a clear identity. According to most commentators, Phlegyas is a king of the Lapithae who, enraged by Apollo's seduction of his daughter Coronis, set fire to the god's temple.12 However, other critics have proposed that he is the Pisan discus thrower who, in Statius' Thebaid, lost the athletic contest and through words and deeds becomes an exemplary figure of immoderate hope (6.691-692: «spes...immodicas»).13

      Whatever Phlegyas' mythological identity may be, Dante makes him the guardian of the fifth circle with the apparent task of distributing wrathful souls at various places in the marsh. The absence of specific individualizing features allows Dante to focus attention on his one very pronounced trait __ he is easily angered __ thus making him exemplary of the sin (vv. 22-24):

      Qual è colui che grande inganno ascolta
che li sia fatto, e poi se ne rammarca,
fecesi Flegïàs ne l'ira accolta.

The Passage Across the Styx

As Dante and Virgil are crossing the Styx in Phlegyas' boat, a soul befouled with mud __ Filippo Argenti __ suddenly rises from the murky depths and challenges the Pilgrim with an intemperate question __ «Chi se' tu che vieni anzi ora?» (v. 33) __ which implies that Dante is so evil that he has descended to Hell while still alive. This concept is presented in greater detail in canto 33 (vv. 124-147), where we find the soul of Branca Doria whose body still lives on earth __ in Genoa, to be precise __ possessed and powered by a demon. Refuting the implications of the question, Dante replies brusquely and with a question of his own: «S'i' vegno, non rimango; / ma tu chi se', che sì se' fatto brutto?» (vv. 33-34). Filippo's response __ «Vedi che son un che piango» (v. 36) __ has been alternately interpreted as either plaintive in tone or purely descriptive. While some critics would construe these words as an attempt to elicit pity from the Pilgrim for his wretched state, other commentators have more correctly interpreted piango to mean «I pay the punishment of my sin», taking their cue from other similar uses in the Comedy and from Dante's own words in response, where piangere and lutto are paired (vv. 37-39):

      Con piangere e con lutto,
spirito maladetto, ti rimani;
ch'i' ti conosco, ancor sie lordo tutto.

      At this point in the episode words yield to actions, and the dark, foreboding atmosphere with its latent dangers suddenly explodes with the fury of a volcano (vv. 40-42):

      Allor distese al legno ambo le mani;
per che 'l maestro accorto lo sospinse,
dicendo: «Via costà con li altri cani!»

      After this outburst the scene returns to a relatively calm state. Let us read the remainder of this episode before continuing our commentary (vv. 43-63):

      Lo collo poi con le braccia mi cinse;
basciommi 'l volto e disse: «Alma sdegnosa,
benedetta colei che 'n te s'incinse!
      Quei fu al mondo persona orgogliosa;
bontà non è che sua memoria fregi:
così s'è l'ombra sua qui furïosa.
      Quanti si tegnon or là sù gran regi
che qui staranno come porci in brago,
di sé lasciando orribili dispregi!»
      E io: «Maestro, molto sarei vago
di vederlo attuffare in questa broda
prima che noi uscissimo del lago.»
      Ed elli a me: «Avante che la proda
ti si lasci veder, tu sarai sazio:
di tal disïo convien che tu goda.»
      Dopo ciò poco vid'io quello strazio
far di costui a le fangose genti,
che Dio ancor ne lodo e ne ringrazio.
      Tutti gridavano: «A Filippo Argenti!»
e 'l fiorentino spirito bizzarro
in sé medesmo si volvea co' denti.

      In addition to the intense drama which is accentuated by the rapid verbal exchanges and by the presence of three interlocutors,14 this episode highlights several important matters. The recurring image of mud is the external sign of its moral correlative __ the stain of sin, of anger, the internal blemish. Thus, the Styx is rightly described as the loto (v. 21: «muddy sluice»); the souls found therein are described twice as genti fangose (7.110 and 8.59), and Filippo himself is called «a sinner thick with mud» (v. 32: «un pien di fango»). The ugliness of the particular sin is manifest in the physical appearance of the sinners. Dante questions Filippo's identity by referring to his befouled exterior: «Ma tu chi se', che sì se' fatto brutto?» (v. 35). The filthiness of the place and the animalesque qualities of the sinners __ a common trait of all the sinners in the circles of incontinence __ are underscored by references to «dogs» (v. 42: «cani») and «pigs in slime» (v. 50: «porci in brago»). The idea that anger ultimately destroys the individual is readily apparent in the final image of Filippo Argenti, who, assailed on all sides by his fellow sinners and «gone wild with spleen, / began to turn his teeth against himself» (vv. 62-63: «spirito bizzarro, / in se medesmo si volvea co' denti»), thus becoming an emblematic figure of wrath and its self-destructiveness.15

      Let us return for a moment to the suggestion made earlier concerning the significance of the number 8 and its possible relevance to the eighth canto. If Dante is consciously playing on the baptismal significance of the number 8, then he is doing so with the full force of irony. The clear, flowing baptismal waters of Jordan that cleanse one of sin are here transformed into their infernal opposite __ the muddy, stagnant waters that are the metaphorical correlative of the sin itself and represent not the salvation, but rather the torment of the damned souls.

      Although in a very real sense all sinners are buried, «submerged» (20. 3: «sommersi») in Hell, actual immersion in one of the infernal rivers is limited to the wrathful (Styx), the violent against others (Phlegethon), and the traitors (Cocytus). There is, of course, the important further contrast between these stagnant bodies of water which signify death and those flowing, life-giving streams __ Lethe and Eunoé __ in the earthly paradise atop the Mountain of Purgatory.16

      Two other interrelated and important problems arc raised by Dante's encounter with Filippo Argenti. The first concerns the extent of (auto)biographical intrusions in the Comedy, and the second deals with the thorny issue of Dante's wrath and whether it is rightly or wrongly motivated. And from this second matter a third problem arises __ the overall unity of the canto.

Autobiographical Intrusions

The sense of mystery with which the canto began continues in the episode of Filippo Argenti, for we remain ignorant of his identity until the chorus of sinners yells his name at the conclusion of the episode. The Pilgrim's quick and harsh rebuke of Filippo and his eagerness to see him «soused within this broth» (8.53) smack of personal vendetta, of Dante's extreme hatred toward his fellow townsman. Bits and pieces of unrecorded and perhaps imaginary Florentine history, gleaned from the remarks of the early commentators on Dante's poem and from the stories of Boccaccio (Decameron IX:8) and Sacchetti (Trecentonovelle CXIV), would suggest that the Poet's animosity may have its origin in real historical events. Some sources say that Filippo once gave Dante a slap in a quarrel, while others relate that one of Filippo's brothers assumed possession of Dante's property following his exile. According to others, Filippo's family energetically opposed any possibility that the exiled poet might one day return to Florence.17 However, beyond the Pilgrim's visual recognition of Argenti no other distinctive personal element is present in the text. It has also been argued that Filippo may serve here as a representative of the new class of Florentines, those whom Dante held responsible for the social and political problems of his native city, and thus the Pilgrim's reaction here would be directed more toward the social class than toward the individual.18

Dante's Wrath

Dante's violent outburst at the sight of Filippo causes Virgil to embrace the Pilgrim and to praise him for his words: «Alma sdegnosa, / benedetta colei che 'n te s'incinse!» (vv. 44-45). Encouraged by these words of high praise, the Pilgrim then expresses his desire to see Filippo punished more severely, and, according to his wise guide, «di tal disïo convien che tu goda» (v. 57). In response to the torment inflicted on Filippo by the other sinners and by himself __ «in sé medesmo si volvea co' denti» (v. 63) __ the voice of Dante the Poet enters the text to add that he still praises and thanks God for it: «che Dio ancor ne lodo e ne ringrazio» (v. 60). Critical opinion on this episode is divided: some critics have called the Pilgrim's outburst a prime example of ira bona (= righteous indignation), while others have termed it ira mala (= sinful wrath).19 Has Dante the Pilgrim demonstrated the proper response to sin __ bona ira, as St. Thomas calls it __ by recognizing and rebuking it for the evil that it is?20 Or has he rather given himself over to wrath and thus become guilty of the sin punished in this circle? Given his reaction to the sinners encountered in the three previous circles __ he faints out of pity for the plight of lustful Francesca, he weeps for the fate of Ciacco the glutton, and his heart was «almost pierced through» (7. 36: «quasi compunto») and saddened by the sight of the avaricious and prodigal __ I believe it would be surprising if the Pilgrim suddenly knew how to treat a sinner in an appropriately detached manner, if he knew at this early point in his long journey how to recognize sin and judge sinners.

      However, let us assume for a moment that Dante may have learned something about sin and that his initial response to Filippo is correct. What about his desire for further punishment? Does he desire vengeance to correct the vice and maintain justice?21 Or does he rather desire further revenge to inflict personal injury on Filippo? Do Virgil's laudatory remarks cause the Pilgrim to become overconfident, to cross over the fine line dividing ira bona from ira mala, and therefore to desire that additional punishment be meted out to Filippo Argenti? And how should we interpret Dante the Poet's words __ «che Dio ancor ne lodo e ne ringrazio» (v. 60)? Is the Pilgrim's desire for additional punishment justified? St. Thomas reminds us that, while we «can and ought to be like God in desiring good, yet the manner of our desiring cannot be entirely his».22 Or rather, is the Poet simply confessing that he still suffers from ira mala, at least vis-à-vis the Adimari family? And Cacciaguida's negative remarks on the Adimari in Paradise 16 would corroborate this attitude of the Poet (vv. 115-118):

      L'oltracotata schiatta che s'indraca
dietro a chi fugge, e a chi mostra 'l dente
o ver la borsa, com' agnel si placa,
già venìa sù, ma di picciola gente.

Or perhaps we should note the distinction between the voice of the Poet and that of the Pilgrim, and the different motivation and level of understanding in the two moments __ then and now? The superior, retrospective judgment of the Poet properly expresses pleasure at the sight of evil punished, whereas the Pilgrim's desire for punishment can not be wholly justified. On the matter of ira bona versus ira mala, Gregory the Great notes the limitations of both when he states that «anger through zeal (ira per zelum) blurs the vision of reason, whereas anger through vice blinds it».23

      In order to judge the appropriateness of Virgil's words of praise for Dante, we must ask the following questions: Does Virgil know everything? Does he always do or say the right thing? How much knowledge does he have? At the end of this canto Dante's guide meets an obstacle he cannot overcome. In cantos 21-23 Virgil will be duped by the grafters. Indeed, that Virgil is not always right in the Comedy should lead us to suspect that perhaps here, too, his words of praise for the Pilgrim __ which are, moreover, couched in uncharacteristic biblical language __ are perhaps not entirely justified. This suspicion is confirmed when we investigate the biblical analogue to these verses.24

      As many critics have noted, Virgil's words of praise __ «benedetta colei che 'n te s'incinse» (v. 45) __ roughly translate those addressed to Jesus in the gospel of Luke, 11:27: «Beatus venter qui te portavit» («Blessed is the womb that bore thee»). And these commentators believe that with them Virgil pays Dante a very great and richly deserved compliment. However, virtually all critics have ignored a crucial element in their comparative reading of the passages, and this concerns the context in which they appear, or, more precisely, the rest of the biblical allusion. A consideration of the whole biblical episode would suggest that Virgil's praise is perhaps wrongly motivated and, consequently, that Dante's reaction to Filippo Argenti in this canto is equally erroneous. The text in the gospel of Luke (11:27) is as follows: «Factum est autem, cum haec diceret: extollens vocem quaedam mulier de turba, dixit illi: Beatus venter qui te portavit, et ubera quae suxisti» («And it came to pass, as he spoke these things, a certain woman from the crowd, lifting up her voice, said to him: Blessed is the womb that bore thee, and the paps that gave thee suck»). Jesus replies sharply to the woman's words by saying: «Quinimmo beati qui audiunt verbum Dei, et custodiunt illud» (11:28: «Yea, rather, blessed are they who hear the word of God, and keep it»). While these words of praise are obviously correct in their glorification of Mary and Jesus, they are not appreciated, because they are inappropriate to the occasion. Indeed, their force is undercut by Jesus himself, who reprimands the woman for her sentimental effusion and cautions her __ and the others in the crowd __ regarding the proper response to God's word. If this praise is inappropriate to Jesus, does it not logically follow that, given the parallel context evoked by the reference, such praise should be considered equally inappropriate to Dante the Pilgrim? Are Virgil's words then really complimentary? Or do they rather serve the higher purpose of Dante the Poet by highlighting their initially well-intentioned, but ultimately misunderstood nature and that of the response? Dante the Pilgrim's response first to Filippo Argenti's challenge and then to Virgil's praise is basically no different from his response to the sinners encountered in the previous cantos: he responds in a direct and personal way, having not yet learned to deal with the reality of sin in a detached, impersonal manner. He thus falls victim yet another time to the snare of sin, yielding, as he did with Francesca, to his passions, to the excessive attraction of the human and earthly, albeit here in a totally different context, one of anger and rage and not of carnal passion.

The Unity of Canto 8

On another level, this episode in the Inferno raises the more general question of the nature and limits of the proper Christian response to evil. The seemingly paradoxical coexistence of humility and violence in the obedient miles (Christian soldier) who must actively combat evil is, I believe, central to Dante's emblematic presentation in this section of the Inferno where biblically-inspired figures of humility and violence abound. Virgil's words of praise __ «benedetta colei che 'n te s'incinse» (v. 45) __ are directed toward Dante's mother, who becomes thereby associated with the Virgin Mary. In the Annunciation Mary obediently assumed her role __ her response to Gabriel, we will recall, was «ecce ancilla Domini» (Luke 1.38: «behold the handmaid of the Lord») __ and in this act she becomes emblematic of humility. Mary's obviously maternal conception of Christ and the metaphorically analogous condition of Dante's mother __ «s'incinse» __ are linked verbally to Virgil's paternal embrace of the Pilgrim __ «cinse» __ who is described as «alma sdegnosa», as, at least potentially, a righteously indignant soul. There is thus a joining together of humility and righteous anger, an emblematic union that Virgil's embrace encloses and approves. The second half of canto 8 continues this central extended metaphor on a higher level. Virgil's anger __ «perch'io m'adiri» (v. 121) __ at being denied admittance to the City of Dis is ultimately ineffectual, and he returns to the Pilgrim in a humble and pensive manner: «Li occhi a la terra e le ciglia avea rase / d'ogne baldanza» (vv. 118-119).

      The opposition mounted by the devils __ «que' nostri avversari» (v. 115) __ is described as «tracotanza» (v. 124) and «gran disdegno» (v. 88), and the infernal demons speak «stizzosamente» (v. 83). In canto 9 Virgil refers to Dis as the «città dolente, / u' non potemo intrare omai sanz'ira» (9. 32-33), and this «anger» is precisely that which properly belongs to Christ, who employed it once before in the Harrowing of Hell (as Virgil reminds us) and who, in the figure of the heaven-sent messenger (9. 85: «da ciel messo»), will come, in a manner that symbolically reenacts the descensus ad inferos, to overcome the obstacle that evil has presented. In an attempt to resolve the problem of righteous anger which controls the dramatic tension in this episode, Dante suggests first through his depiction of the divinely-ordained punishment of Filippo Argenti and then in the appearance of the divine messenger that in the end it is up to God to use His might to crush the enemy. Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.25 Man's power is limited, as is his judgment, and the successive encounters with Phlegyas, Filippo Argenti, and the devils illustrate the increasingly difficult obstacles that anger presents to the Christian pilgrim and to his guide. Virgil is able to overcome Phlegyas' challenge with words and Filippo Argenti's threat with physical force. Reason, however, is powerless in the face of the final challenge presented by the devils and must yield to the divine. The pattern of success followed by failure which we observed in the Pilgrim's being made the sixth member of the group of poets in limbo26 and his collapse in response to Francesca's words in canto 5 is repeated here, for Dante's exaltation of Virgil as the «sea of all good sense» is undercut by his guide's failure with the devils before the gate of Dis.

      Through its isolated, suspended nature the eighth canto is strategically located, looking both retrospectively and prospectively, and the events described therein are crucial for the continuation of the journey. How will the present drama be resolved? Is this the end of the voyage? Or is it just the expectant pause before, the necessary prelude to a new beginning? In this canto whose number signifies baptism, regeneration, and renewal the astute reader may have already guessed the answer. But even if we, as Dante the Pilgrim, find ourselves in a suspended state at the end of canto 8, we must recognize one important fact that our initial reading experience and response to the poem is as direct and immediate, as awe-inspiring and terrifying, as puzzling and revealing as that of the Pilgrim. And if, in subsequent readings, we are able to perceive more of the meanings with which the text abounds, then, and perhaps only then, can we begin to understand the greatness of the Divine Comedy and the reasons for its continued vitality and importance today, some six and one half centuries after it was written.*

University of Wisconsin

*Lecture given at the University of Virginia on April 6, 1988.


1 For precise biographical information on these matters see Vittore Branca, «Giovanni Boccaccio: Profilo biografico», in Giovanni Boccaccio, Tutte le opere, a cura di Vittore Branca, vol. I (Milano: Mondadori, 1967), 184-90.

2 «[Dante] dice adunque nella prima: "Io dico, seguitando." Nelle quali parole si può alcuna ammirazion prendere in quanto, senza dirlo, puote ogni uom comprendere esso aver potuto seguire la materia incominiciata; e sì ancora perchì insino a qui non ha alcun'altra volta usato questo modo di continuarsi alle cose predette. E perciò, acciò che questa ammirazion si tolga via, è da sapere che Dante ebbe una sua sorella, la quale fu maritata ad un nostro cittadino...» From: Giovanni Boccaccio, Esposizioni sopra la Comedia di Dante, a cura di Giorgio Padoan, vol. VI of Giovanni Boccaccio, Tutte le opere, a cura di Vittore Branca (Milano: Mondadori, 1965), 446-447 (translation mine).

3 For this canto as for most of the cantos of the Comedy a large body of criticism has grown up over the centuries. Among the works I have consulted are all the major commentators __ early (Guido da Pisa, Benvenuto da Imola, Ottimo, Pietro di Dante, Anonimo Fiorentino, et al.) and modern (Sapegno, Momigliano, Casini, Grandgent, Singleton, Sinclair, Gmelin, Scartazzini, Bosco-Reggio, et al.) __ as well as the following general letture or specific studies of this canto: Mario Apollonio, «Il canto VIII dell'Inferno», Nuove letture dantesche, vol. I (Firenze: Le Monnier, 1966): 209-35; Emilio Bigi, «Moralità e retorica nel canto VIII dell'Inferno», Giornale storico della letteratura italiana 154 (1977): 346-67; Giuseppe Antonio Borgese, «The Wrath of Dante», Speculum 13 (1938): 183-93; Umberto Bosco, Il canto VIII dell'«Inferno» (Roma: Signorelli, 1951); Amerindo Camilli, «Quattro chiose all'Inferno», Lettere italiane 4 (1952): 127-29; Lanfranco Caretti, «Una interpretazione dantesca», Studi e ricerche di letteratura italiana (Firenze: La Nuova Italia, 1951): 3-14; Gino Casagrande, «Dante e Filippo Argenti: Riscontri patristici e note di critica semantica», Studi danteschi 51 (1978): 221-54; Daniel J. Donno, «Dante's Argenti: Episode and Function», Speculum 40 (1965): 611-25; Francesco D'Ovidio, «Flegiàs» and «Filippo Argenti e gli altri cani», Nuovo volume di studi danteschi (Caserta-Roma: A.P.E., 1926): 193-228 and 229-271; Fiorenzo Forti, «Filippo Argenti», Enciclopedia dantesca 2:873-76; Rocco Montano, «I modi della narrazione in Dante», Convivium 26 (1958): 546-67 (esp. 551f); Paolo Nicosia, «Il più calunniato dei personaggi danteschi ovvero il canto della vendetta», Alla ricerca della coerenza: Saggi d'esegesi dantesca (Messina-Firenze: D'Anna, 1967): 135-67; A. Novara, «Canto ottavo», Lectura Dantis genovese (Firenze: Le Monnier, 1904): 299-326; Filippo Piemontese, «Filippo Argenti fra storia e poesia», Studi sul Manzoni e altri saggi (Milano: Marzorati, 1952): 169-85; Giovanni Pischedda, «Motivi provinciali nel canto VIII dell'Inferno», Dante e la tematica medioevale (L'Aquila: Japadre, 1967) 35-40; Luigi Pietrobono, «Il canto VIII dell'Inferno», L'Alighieri 1.2 (1960): 3-14, and Il poema sacro. Saggio d'una interpretazione generale della «Divina commedia»: Inferno, vol. 2 (Bologna: Zanichelli, 1915) esp. 13-37; Ettore Romagnoli, «Il canto VIII dell'Inferno», Letture dantesche, ed. Giovanni Getto (Firenze: Sansoni, 1955) 133-50; Mario M. Rossi, «Il canto VIII dell'Inferno e la sua problematica», Le parole e le idee 3.3-4 (1961): 109-32; Edoardo Sanguineti, «Dante, Inferno VIII», Il realismo di Dante (Firenze: Sansoni, 1966) 31-63; Michele Scherillo, «Il "Flegias" di Dante e il "Phlegyas" di Virgilio», Rendiconti. Reale Istituto Lombardo di Scienze e Lettere, ser. 2, vol. 42 (1909): 327-365; Marino Szombathely, Il canto VIII dell'«Inferno» (Torino: Società Editrice Internazionale, 1959); Giuseppe Toffanin, «Il canto VIII dell'Inferno», Lectura Dantis Scaligera: Inferno (Firenze: Le Monnier, 1960).

4 All passages from the Comedy follow the text established by Giorgio Petrocchi, La Commedia secondo l'antica vulgata, 4 vols., Società Dantesca Italiana, Edizione Nazionale (Milano: Mondadori, 1966-67).

5 For further discussion on this point, see Petrocchi's note in his edition (Inferno, p. 140).

6 1a 2ae quaes. 46, art. 8, and 2a 2ae quaes. 158, art. 5, resp. In the latter passage we find the following: «Potest autem inordinatio irae ex duobus attendi. Primo quidem ex ipsa irae origine; et hoc pertinet ad acutos, qui nimis cito irascuntur et ex qualibet levi causa. Alio modo ex ipsa irae duratione, eo scilicet quod ira nimis perseverat: quod quidem potest esse dupliciter. Uno modo, quia causa irae, scilicet injuria illata, nimis manet in memoria hominis; unde ex hoc homo diutinam tristitiam concipit: et ideo sunt sibi ipsis graves et amari. Alio modo contingit ex parte ipsius vindictae, quam aliquis obstinato appetitu quaerit; et hoc pertinet ad difficiles sive graves, qui non dimittunt iram quousque puniant». [The disorder of wrath can be considered in respect both to its origin and its duration. As to the first; here come sharp-tempered people who flare up too hastily and on any slight provocation. As to the second; here come those who harbour anger. They are of two sorts. The first may be taken in relation to the cause of anger, namely an injury done; this sticks in their memory, a lasting grievance is cherished, and they become to themselves burdensome and are people of sullen or bitter temper. The second may be taken in relation to the object of anger, namely hurting back in return; this they obstinately pursue, like harsh-tempered people who do not put off their anger until they have exacted punishment.] The Latin text and English translation of the Summa follow those of Thomas Gilby, O.P., Summa Theologiae, vol. 44 (New York and London: McGraw-Hill and Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1972).

7 For a discussion of these matters and the appropriate references to St. Thomas, see the notes by Charles S. Singleton to his translation and commentary, Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy: Inferno, 2: Commentary (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970) 165-66 (notes to vv. 23-24) and 176-78 (notes to vv. 83-84).

8 For a recent study of numerology in Dante, see John J. Guzzardo, Dante: Numerological Essays (New York-Bern: Peter Lang, 1987), and for the number 8, see esp. pp. 131-34.

9 On this point see Amilcare Iannucci, «Beatrice in Limbo: A Metaphoric Harrowing of Hell», Dante Studies 97 (1979): 23-45 (modified Italian versions of the essay: «Dante e il Vangelo di Nicodemo: la 'discesa di Beatrice agli Inferi'», Letture Classensi 12 (1983): 39-60; and «La 'discesa di Beatrice agli Inferi'», Forma ed evento nella Divina Commedia (Roma: Bulzoni, 1984): 51-81.

10 This appellation conforms to the standard medieval interpretation of Virgil's name: Maro / mare. See Domenico Comparetti, Vergil in the Middle Ages, tr. E.F.M. Benecke (New York: G.E. Stechert, 1929) 147.

11 Aeneid 6: 412414: «...simul accipit alveo / ingentem Aeneam. Gemuit sub pondere cumba / sutilis et multam accepit rimosa paludem» [«the while he takes aboard giant Aeneas. The seamy craft groaned under the weight, and through its chinks took in a marshy flood»] .

12 For the diverse interpretations, see Manlio Pastore Stocchi, «Flegias», Enciclopedia dantesca 2:945-946.

13 See Scherillo, «Il 'Flegias' di Dante e il 'Phlegyas' di Virgilio».

14 Borgese («The Wrath of Dante» 184) remarks the novelty of this manner of presentation: «Structurally, Dante proves able for the first time to handle three persons at once: Argenti, Vergil, and himself. Thus far he had not surpassed the flat or Byzantine technique of straight dialogue between himself and Vergil, or between himself and a shade, or between Vergil and an official of the underworld. Even in the most elaborate episode of the preceding cantos, Vergil acted simply as stage director, introducing the Dante-Francesca dialogue, during which the most pertinent reason for the famed silence of Paolo is the inability of the poet to manage a third personage. Now, in the eighth canto, it is as if he at one stroke had achieved in his dramatic technique a transition like that from the two-actor to the three-actor performance in Greek tragedy».

15 The translation is by Allen Mandelbaum. __ Cf. the description of the Minotaur (12. 11-15): «e 'n su la punta de la rotta lacca / l'infamïa di Creti era distesa / che fu concetta ne la falsa vacca; / e quando vide noi, sé stesso morse, / sì come quei cui l'ira dentro fiacca».

16 Purgatory begins with the reference to the metaphorical ship of Dante's genius («la navicella del mio ingegno») that courses over «more kindly waters» («miglior acque»), and this signals the vast difference between the movement characteristic of Purgatory and the static quality of Inferno, which is summed up in the phrase «morta poesì» («dead poetry» or «poetry of Hell's dead realm», 1.8).

17 For an overview of these stories see, among others, Donno, «Dante's Argenti» 613f, and Forti, «Filippo Argenti» 873f.

18 The political overtones in the conflict between Filippo Argenti and Dante are stressed by Pietrobono, «Il canto VIII» 3-14, and Il poema sacro 20-27. See also Bigi, «Moralità e retorica» 349.

19 This topic is discussed or touched upon in most of the works cited above in note 3. In addition, see Antonietta Bufano and Fausto Montanari, «Ira», Enciclopedia dantesca 3:513-16.

20 Summa Theologiae 2a 2ae, quaes. 158, art. 1-8, esp. art. 1, resp. 2: «Ad secundum dicendum quod ira dupliciter se potest habere ad rationem. Uno quidem modo antecedenter, et sic trahit rationem a sua rectitudine, unde habet rationem mali. Alio modo consequenter, prout scilicet appetitus sensitivus movetur contra vitia secundum ordinem rationis: et haec ira est bona, quae dicitur ira per zelum». [«Anger may be antecedent to or consequent on a judgment of conscience. Unpremeditated anger may drag reason from its rightness, and so have the quality of wrongfulness, whereas the anger which follows the ordinance of reason in attacking anything vicious is good, and is called anger through zeal»]. Dante shows his awareness of this distinction when he has the angel on the terrace of anger say «Beati / pacifici, che son sanz'ira mala» (Purg. 17: 68f).

21 In St. Thomas' words (Summa 2a 2ae, quaes. 158, art. 1, resp. 3): «Ad tertium dicendum quod appetere vindictam propter malum ejus qui puniendus est illicitum est; sed appetere vindictam propter vitiorum correptionem et bonum justitiae conservandum laudabile est» [To desire revenge precisely as bad for the victim is unlawful, to desire it for the correction of vice and the maintenance of justice is laudable].

22 Summa 2a 2ae, quaes. 158, art. 1, resp. 4: «...Deo assimilari possumus et debemus in appetitu boni; sed in modo appetendi ei omnino assimilari non possumus». Translation follows Gilby.

23 Summa 2a 2ae, quaes. 158, art. 1, resp. 2: «Unde Gregorius ibidem dicit quod ira per zelum turbat rationis oculum, sed ira per vitium excoecat». Translation follows Gilby.

24 Part of the material presented in these pages on Filippo Argenti and on the more general question of the relationship between Dante and the Bible first appeared in my article, «Dante and the Bible: Intertextual Approaches to the Divine Comedy», Italica 63 (1986): 225-36.

25 Romans 12.19: «Mihi vindicta; ego retribuam, dicit Dominus».

26 The passage is as follows: «e più d'onore ancora assai mi fenno, / ch'e' sì mi fecer de la loro schiera, / sì ch'io fui sesto tra cotanto senno» (4. 100-102).