One has only to examine the disorienting omission of Inferno XVIII in the XVth-century manuscript Canonici Italiani 104 at Oxford's Bodleian Library to appreciate the pivotal role of the canto. Considering Inferno I an introduction to all three canticles of the Commedia, If XVIII's central position underscores the importance of the canto's internal structure both for Hell and the eighth circle where the sin of Fraud is punished. Introduced in If XI:25-27 and more precisely delineated in If XI:52-60, Fraud is singled out as one of the sins most distasteful to God, second in gravity only to Treachery (the «apex of infamy» [Suitner, 69]), punished in the ninth circle at «the universe's center, seat of Dis». As Ferrante (456) has noted, Fraud is «the sin most harmful to society because it destroys the faith among men on which social order must rest», undermining public trust and drawing the innocent into the workings of the deceit. Words and reason, those qualities which distinguish humanity as the thinking, political beings, are perverted to deceive others and lead them to sin.

      Thus, If XVIII serves to give a clear sense of order (that quality which is destroyed by Fraud) both to Hell and to the eighth circle proper. With its reminiscently classical, topographical placement («Luogo è in inferno» [«Locus est»]), If XVIII splits Dante's narrative of Hell into those sinners whose fault rests in the sphere of passion over reason (If XVIII-XXXIV) and the calculated abuse of reason (If XVIII-XXXIV). Bertoni saw this watershed canto more as a moral than a poetic exercise whose aesthetic value was flawed by what we will discover to be the severely symmetrical structure of If XVIII's episodes. Yet, it is precisely the poetically balanced presentation of If XVIII which establishes the narrative groundwork for the thirteen cantos of Dante's newly coined Malebolge or «evil sacks» (Anonimo Fiorentino).

      The presence of the eighth circle of Hell invades the closing lines of If XVII as the poet describes his frightening ride on the back of Geryon. Dante's own introduction to the Malebolge reveals itself slowly, like Geryon's circling flight, moving from the depiction of the harshly reduced visibility (If XVII:113-4) and the noise of the waterfall to his slow recognition of the drop below him and the fires and cries that issue from the eighth circle (XVII:118-123):

      Io sentia già da la man destra il gorgo
far sotto noi un orribile scroscio
per che con li occhi 'n giù la testa sporgo.
      Allor fu' io più timido a lo stoscio,
però ch'i' vidi fuochi e senti' pianti;
ond'io tremando tutto mi raccoscio.

      Drawn from the severely rhetorical poetics of the preceding generation, the harsh rhymes in -oscio __ used only once by Dante __ and -orgo are designed to forewarn the reader of the virulent torments and evil contained in the Malebolge. As it unfolds, this slow revelation intensifies the pilgrim's fear as he seeks to orient himself. The power of this fear causes Dante to hug his unorthodox mount close, poetically shifting from the past tense (fui) to the vivid present (mi raccoscio).

      These introductory lines to the episodes of Dante's Malebolge establish two systems which prepare us to understand the new and shocking nature of this region where fraud, deception and obfuscation reign. The first code is linguistic. Employing unusually harsh rhymes which Dante himself will deplore in the De Vulgari Eloquentia (II,xiii,12), the poet signals a new language necessary to record and communicate his experiences in the eighth and ninth circles of hell. The rough talk and obscenities of characters such as Vanni Fucci (If XXIV-XXV), Barbariccia (XXI), and Thais (XVIII), require a kind of «poetics of vulgarity» so strong and offensive that later in the canticle Dante will declare himself, quite falsely, incapable of achieving such a taxing and aberrant style (If XXXII:1-12).

      The second system is literally set in motion by Geryon's flight, which Virgil recalls (Pg XXVII:23) as one of the most dramatic events of the Inferno, amounting to a new sense of narrative visualization not encountered before If XVII. As Panofsky has noted, the emergence of «a perspective interpretation of space», a founding principle in Giotto's work, was especially attuned to the way a particular object was seen «under particular conditions» (p.16). In his innovative description of flight, Dante offers a cinematic succession of images designed to establish a «perspective vision» (Grana 18) for the architectural complex of the eighth circle where, as we shall see, the variation in Dante's original topography with its «pouches», «ridges» and «bridges» requires __ in modern terms __ a clarity and precision of camera angles, depth of field, lighting and dimension. From Dante's timid aerial look down from Geryon's back into the pit below (XVII:120-22) to numerous and even risky positionings on the little bridges to catch sight of a particular sinner (cf. If XVIII:109-11, XXIV:67-75, XXIX:40-42 and especially XXVI:43-45), the narrator becomes even more insistent in his techniques of the «zoom to close-up» («E mentre ch'io là giù con l'occhio cerco, / vidi un col capo sì di merda lordo» [XVIII:115-6]), the «wide pan» («Di qua, di là, su per lo sasso tetro / vidi demon cornuti con gran ferze» [XVIII:34-5]) and the «aerial shot» (cf. XVIII:1-18 cited below), making the reader at times even conscious of the «stage directions» of this visualization (If XVIII:127-30 [cf. also XVIII:75-76]):

      Appresso ciò lo duca «Fa che pinghe»,
mi disse, «il viso un poco più avante
sì che la faccia ben con l'occhio attinghe
      di quella sozza e scapigliata fante».

      Dante's visualization of the entire Malebolge, recalled only after the frightening ordeal is over, opens Canto XVIII in a descriptive parenthesis (1-18) reminiscent of the place descriptions in the Aeneid and Statius's Thebaid and now incorporated in medieval poetics as a lofty rhetorical styleme. Skillfully linked to the close of If XVII (stagliata rocca __> ripa dura [8]), this bird's-eye description offers the pilgrim a momentary pause of safety after the harrowing flight and the reader a quick overview of the ten valleys which form the geographical framework of the Malebolge, whose pattern resembles the layout of a castle or fortress. The shapes that Dante presents («la cerchia ... volge», «cinghio ... tondo», «piú e piú fossi cingon») create a narrative landscape, giving the ordering principle of details («principium importans ordinem ad actum» [Aquinas]) upon which the poet will rely throughout the Malebolge to describe his journey.

      In fact, the most salient structural feature of If XVIII remains its severely architectural vocabulary. Dante spares neither geometrical nor architectural terminology in order to set the geographical stage for the action which will follow in the next twelve canti. From the extensive buildup of structural synonyms (bolge = valli = fossi; scogli = ponticelli, etc.) to the continual clarification of movement and incline («Assai leggeramente quel salimmo» [70]) and direction (20-22: «e 'l poeta / tenne a sinistra, e io dietro mi mossi. / A la man destra vidi nova pieta»), If XVIII supplies a narrative model which requires only minor refinement in subsequent episodes (for ex., the angle of the slope of the Malebolge in If XXIV:61-3). This geographical code facilitates an efficiently telegraphic means of orienting the reader to the landscape and sense of movement in the pilgrim's journey through the uncharted territory of Malebolge (If XXI:1-3: «Così di ponte in ponte ... venimmo»). Included in this narrative landscape are Dante's precise indications of spatial depth and vantage point (If XVIII:73-4: «Quando noi fummo là dov' el vaneggia / di sotto per dar passo a li sferzati»; and 79-80: «Del vecchio ponte guardavam la traccia / che venìa verso noi da l'altra banda»). And while, as Momigliano has suggested, the plan of Malebolge seems occasionally contradictory and vague, Dante insistently sculpts his new landscape to give his reader a schematic view of the architectural signposts upon which he will construct his narration. This «incomplete design» stresses, in accordance with the tenets of medieval architecture, the funstional essence of the Malebolge's structure in order to guide the reader with a kind of «visual logic» (Panofsky 58). Yet this «visuality» does not confine the poet to a rigidly patterned presentation of the ditches. Rather, with this skeletal vocabulary Dante can allow himself great latitude in variation, from the number of canti to be dedicated to each pouch to the instances in which the poet plays upon the reader's «landscape memory», substituting a contextually significant term («Quando noi fummo sor l'ultima chiostra / di Malebolge» [If XXIX:401; cf. also If XXV:142 - zavorra]) or reporting a part of the journey not even witnessed by Dante himself (in If XXIX:25-6, Virgil reports having seen Geri del Bello: «ch'io vidi lui a piè del ponticello / mostrarti e minacciar forte col dito»).

      Dante's resumption of his journey recapitulates the details of Geryon's dumping his cargo at the close of If XVII and announces this new region of hell (19-24), accenting the new and harrowing nature of the misery, torture and torturers of the first bolgia. Moving from the confused and frightening first impression of the ditch, Dante summarily describes the sinners divided into two-way lanes (25-7):

      Nel fondo erano ignudi i peccatori
dal mezzo in qua ci veníen verso 'l volto,
di là con noi, ma con passi maggiori.

Dante orders the scene's details to make us see first the entire, though confusing, picture (manifestatio). The verbal economy in the description of the lanes quickly moves the reader's eye across this scene of swift movement. The rapid pan of these sinners running in opposing directions is then clarified by Dante's recollection of the two-way traffic on the bridge which led to the castle of Sant'Angelo, a plan devised to handle the heavy volume of pilgrims coming for Boniface VIII's first Jubilee in 1300 (28-33).

      Panning across these new sinners, torments and tormentors («Di qua, di là, su per lo sasso tetro»), Dante further elaborates our view of this first ditch, filling the scene with horned devils whose «enormous whips» (gran ferze) seem present and echoing throughout the entire canto. The harshness the devils' first whipcrack on the sinners' backs accentuates the speed and frenzy of the scene, which is interrupted by Dante's «stayed steps» to zoom in on the face of a sinner he believes he met among the living (42-3).

      The first citizen of this ignoble castle, Venèdico Caccianimici, a main figure in local Bolognese politics whom Dante assumed to be dead at the historical date of the pilgrimage (d.1302), attempts to hide his face from the poet, provoking Dante to devote an entire line to his name and then to goad the sinner with a cruel play on the word salse («sauces» [51]). Though Venedico contends that he responds only because he is compelled by Dante's plain speech that recalls the old world to him it seems likely that what Venedico recognizes as Dante's chiara favella rests with the stinging joke of salse, meaning both «sauces» and the «unconsecrated burial pit outside Bologna». This inside linguistic jab reveals to Venedico Dante's knowledge of Bologna, Venedico, and the ugly rumor that Venedico had sold his sister, Ghisolabella, to Obizzo d'Este for political favors. Venedico, as intimidated as he is compelled announces his sin of pandering and then justifies his presence by noting that the ditch is filled with more Bolognesi than have learned to say «yes», ironically the panderer's trade word.

      The encounter is interrupted by a devil who beats the sinner with his horsewhip and then adds his own obscene and cruel play on the word conio, alluding to Venedico's greedy profit from his sister's prostitution and to other women who might be fooled, as was his sister, by his fraud. The polysemous nature of conio seems assured by what Lo Cascio (565) has called the «dual reality» of the Commedia, whereby we must consider both the obscene character and speech of this demon that cracks his whip and on another level the linguistic fantasy of the poet who, after all, reinterprets the verbal images of the characters he encounters during his journey (cf. also Contini 341-2).

      The episode of Venedico ends abruptly and Dante directs us to the first natural bridge which joins the high banks of the ditches (67-9). In the next verses, Dante clarifies more geography and introduces the seducers, whose faces have been hidden from Dante (70-8):

      Assai leggeramente quel salimmo;
volti a destra su per la sua scheggia,
da quelle cerchie etterne ci partimmo.
      Quando noi fummo là dov' el vaneggia
di sotto per dar passo alli sferzati,
lo duca disse: «Attienti, e fa che feggia
      lo viso in te di quest'altri mal nati,
ai quali ancor non vedesti la faccia
però che son con noi insieme andati».

The long-standing debate on the interpretation of cerchie etterne is partially resolved by Petrocchi, who relies on the poets' vantage point in relation to the topography: «climbing onto the bridge, [they] leave the double lane and put themselves at a greater and thus more distant height. Thus, Dante can talk with Venedico from close up, while the line of seducers is shown to him by Virgil» (304, n. 72). The early commentator Buti's reading of the «continuous paths that the two groups of sinners follow for eternity» seems preferable to Sapegno's suggestion (after Porena) that the term designates the entire space of the ditch and its rocky walls. In the subsequent verses, the reader senses the realism of the unfolding visual perspective in Virgil's explanation of the mal nati («ill-born»), a scornful term long in use in Dante's day (see Cielo d'Alcamo's «Contrasto», 98), in the «other lane». Dante, the poet and the pilgrim, seems fascinated by this new problem of perspective and angle presented by the bridges and the enveloping darkness, as he again explains in 80 the direction of the seducers who now face him. Dante's focus is again changed by the crack of another whip (81) and Virgil's unsolicited explanation not of the entire herd of sinners that approaches but the «mighty one who comes in our direction» (83).

      Stylistically, Jason receives from Virgil the same narrative reverence as other mythological heroes. Yet Jason's tragic flaw is that he perverted his persuasive powers in order to take advantage of Hypsipyle. Virgil is clear to point out that Jason deceived on three occasions («the men of Colchis», Hypsipyle, and Medea) for his own gain and pleasure. Worse, however, is the fact that Jason misused his heart and reason («che per cuore e per senno» [86]) to trick the Colchians and, as Brunetto Latini would say, false and evil rhetoric, «con segni e con parole ornate» (91), to fool Hypsipyle. Virgil's explanation of the Hypsipyle incident (91-3) relies heavily upon the repetition of the act of deception (ingannare) to distinguish between the positive and negative effects of language:

      Ivi con segni e con parole ornate
Isifile ingannò, la giovinetta
che prima avea tutte l'altre ingannate.

Jason's lies to Hypsipyle are stylistically balanced by the girl's benevolent deception of her Lemnian sisters who wanted all the men of the island put to death for negligence.

      Here Dante sees not only Virgil's simple story of love and abandonment but also an example for his reader of the sin of deception Verses 94-6 give the summary details of Virgil's narration:

      Lasciolla quivi, gravida, soletta;
tal colpa a tal martiro lui condanna;
e anche di Medea si fa vendetta.

The Hypsipyle story concludes with a stark and staccato presentation, tempered only by the diminutive form of sola (recalling the sympathetic «giovinetta» [«young girl»] of 92 [Sapegno]). Virgil's compassionate tone quickly changes to the matter-of-fact syntax of a judge sentencing a prisoner, echoing the righteously balanced formula of a legal pronouncement: X crime condemns the accused to X punishment. Virgil's mention of revenge for Medea brings the reader from the moving, personal story of Hypsipyle to the larger question of the agent of this revenge. Dante's fervent sense of justice comes across again in the impersonal construction si fa vendetta («revenge is taken»). In its cold and condemning enunciation, the -etta rhyme ending of vendetta plays off squarely against the pitying, diminutive forms of its previous rhymes (giovinetta - soletta), leaving no doubt in the reader's mind that the poet has no pity for Jason's condition. The agent of the revenge is the natural, balance-seeking retribution of sin itself. Jason's own wrongdoing dooms him to this eternal path.

      The first bolgia is sealed with a rapid summary of the seducers as the narrative focus moves back quickly from the close-up on Jason:

      Con lui sen va chi da tal parte inganna:
e questo basti della prima valle
sapere e di color che 'n sé assanna.

The present tense of ingannare (deceive) leaves the reader with a sense of the continuing and hopelessly eternal movement of these shades as Dante walks away. Further study of their ditch is useless. Rather Virgil must stress the urgency of their journey when he tells Dante, as he will do other times in the Malebolge (cf. If XVIII:136 and XXX:148), that they must press on.

      At the close of this first bolgia we can note that the canto is marked by a strict sense of geometrical symmetry and proportion. Both Sanguineti and Caretti believe that the canto's binary presentation of the first two bolge establishes the moral rigor of God's punishment and the architectural and geographical layout for subsequent episodes in the Malebolge. While Sanguineti emphasizes the larger construction of all ten valleys and the extended architectural vocabulary, Caretti dissects the symmetrical relationships between the two ditches in each of which Dante draws our attention to a contemporary and a mythological sinner, providing the same mirrored details for both sets of encounters. Yet this geometric structure demonstrates the variety of Dante's stylistic prowess (Caretti), moving from the ornately stylized and reminiscently classical rhetoric of the canto's opening description (1-18) to the burlesque tone of the depiction of Alessio and Thais immersed in excrement. This unusual juxtaposition of disparate styles reinforces the division between the eye of the author and the experience of the pilgrim in Hell (cf. Renucci). Yet we must also consider the montage effect of stylistically polarized language sets combined by Dante in a single poetic unit. Jacomuzzi (63-77) suggests that this combination of culturally antithetical language and similes creates a singular effect of estrangement, calling even greater attention to itself and underscoring the poetic density of the image. One example of these estranged aggregates occurs in Paradiso XVII when in a moment of high dramatic tension the stately Cacciaguida adopts an uncharacteristically colloquial expression, advising that Dante «lascia pur grattar dov' è la rogna» (129). This same estrangement functions throughout our canto as we move from highly technical, classical recall to the vile language of the demons.

      The transition of verses 100-2 («Già eravam là»), plants us right at the edge of the second ditch, in which those who used false words to flatter are sunk in human excrement (103-11):

      Quindi sentimmo gente che si nicchia
ne l'altra bolgia e che col muso scuffa
e sé medesma con le palme picchia
      Le ripe eran grommate d'una muffa
per l'alito di giú che vi s'appasta
che con li occhi e col naso facea zuffa.
      Lo fondo è cupo sí, che non ci basta
luogo a veder sanza montare al dosso
dell'arco, ove lo scoglio piú sovrasta.

As we have already noted, the masterful revelation of this scene mimics Dante's own reaction to the second pit: the poet's eyes and nose are slow to adjust while his ears try to distinguish the unusual sounds of the sinners he cannot see. Thus just as Dante was given a foretaste of the Malebolge during his descent on Geryon's back, the poet's senses are bombarded by the horrible sounds and stench of the second bolgia before he and his guide actually arrive at the ditch. Dante displays some of his most effective language to communicate the nauseating state of the place. Dante's rhyme words, initiated by the clucking sound of incrocicchia, allow us to hear the whining and snorting and splatting which assault his ears. The aural intensity of nicchia, muso scuffa, palme picchia overrides our need to visualize Dante's verses, forcing us like the poet himself, to continue on toward this revolting scene to satisfy our visual curiosity.

      Dante provides more visual details as he himself begins to make out the mold which encrusts the banks of the ditch (106). The very structure of the terzina mirrors Dante's process of apprehension as he realizes that the mold is the product of the condensation of the steamy stench that rises from the lower regions of Hell. He extends the traditional description of the «breath of hell» (Le Don 368) with strange words («s'appasta» [in hapax], «zuffa») intended to depict what one can imagine to be the burning repugnance which strikes the pilgrim's eyes and nose.

      By the time we reach the highest point of the bridge over the bolgia, our senses grope to pinpoint the source of this powerful smell Dante's precise description shocks the reader with its terse and violent economy required to fit the vile scene he encounters: «gente attuffata in uno sterco / che da li uman privadi parea mosso» (1134). This plebeian or realistic style is signalled by the poet's reduction of his own imitation of the elevated Latin introduction locus est (If XVIII.1) with «Quivi venimmo» (112). In this semantically diversified canto we are about to reach a new and effective low in Dante's poetics of vulgarity

      The poet's eye quickly zooms in on a sinner whose head is so covered with filth that Dante cannot tell if he carries the telltale bald pate of a cleric or is, in fact, a layman. When the sinner challenges Dante's prying stare, the poet answers again with stinging irony:

      «già t'ho veduto coi capelli asciutti
e se' Alessio Interminei da Lucca
però t'adocchio più che li altri tutti».
      Ed elli allor, battendosi la zucca:
«Qua giù m'hanno sommerso le lusinghe
ond'io non ebbi mai la lingua stucca».

Dante matches Alessio's angry rebuke with spiteful words which recall Alessio's shameful past existence on earth and his present torment in the putrid excrement which soaks his hair. His state of torment is acoustically echoed in the splatty slap which resounds in the word zucca (124), clarifying in retrospect the sound that Dante heard in verse 105 as the noise of sinners slapping themselves with wet palms. Alessio's speech is equally terse, most unlike his wholesale flattery. The baseness of the sin is emphasized by Alessio's use of Florentine slang for «tired» or «fed up» (126: stucca). This example of the sinner's punishment and explanation of his sin comes in reaction to Dante's verbal jab at the shade, as the poet carefully devotes line 122 to the enunciation of Alessio's name, adding the insult of infamy to the sinner's punishment. Indeed, Inferno XXXII:91-114 clarifies this pain as Dante varies his encounters with damned fraudulents who, as contemporaries, are quite anxious to cite their crimes for redress in Dante's work (Francesca, Brunetto Latini, Ugolino) or to withhold their shame-ridden names and sins from the poet («altre note» [If XXXII:93]) just as they attempted to conceal their fraud on earth to assure their success.

      One of Dante's poetic predecessors, Guittone d'Arezzo, noted that a man should forfeit his life before giving up his reputation (Ortalli). Accordingly, in Dante's day the ruination of a family's name and reputation was accomplished by officially sanctioned graffiti painted on public buildings. These paintings were explicit effigies of criminals usually convicted of fraudulent activities (bankruptcy, extortion, treason) and murder, and often accompanied by legal sanctions. Notably, these graffiti usually contained «bubbles» with short rhymes on the crime committed and the condemned man's name. This collective psychology functions symptomatically at the heart of the Alessio episode. While a paucity of historical information concerning Alessio denies us a clear understanding of his presence among the flatterers, it is not difficult to imagine Dante's transformation of this civic art of justice which he and his fellow Tuscans saw on the walls of even what is today the Bargello in Florence into a kind of justice imposed now in the City of Dis. The summary brevity of Alessio's confession and his punishment vaguely recalls the explicit tituli of the paintings always in the vernacular and usually reduced to simple but effective rhymes. Thus, the two simple lines which capture the essence of Alessio's crime publicly sentence him to an eternity of infamy and sewage.

      Since Dante seems to linger throughout Hell over fascinating scenes of civic life (here in the form of civil justice and later [If XXX:10647] in the form of the literary political debate), it is Virgil who must urge Dante on, directing him how to get a good look at the whore Thais («fa che pinghe»), a character from Terence's Eunuchus. We are now face to face with Dante's supreme example of flattery punished. Thais's beauty and empty words are perverted into an obscene image of a «bedraggled whore» who rakes her own body with «shitty fingernails» («sozza e scapigliata fante / che là si graffia con l'unghie merdose» [130-1]).

      There has long been confusion over Dante's seemingly erroneous ascribing directly to Thais lines given by Terence to Gnatho, Thais's servant. Most critics base this error on Dante's misreading of Cicero's commentary on Terence's play in his De Amicitia. There is little doubt that Dante relied on Cicero's version of the exchange. However, here one finds a Dante more concerned with the general sin of flattery than with the accuracy of the classical quotation (a concern far more modern than we might think). For Dante, it is the essence of the example of the verbal abuse provoked by the flatterer. The poet condenses the character of Thais and the overblown line of Gnatho into the negatively exemplary figure of Thais, heightening the poetic and moral impact of his scene with an obscenely ironic and telegraphic crescendo in maravigliose («hugely»). Dante concludes this canto devoted to the examination of the use of elaborated classical forms and vulgar speech with Virgil's own wrap-up of the canto as he urges Dante to move on: «E guinci sian le nostre viste sazie». Virgil's own emphasis in rhyme on sazie («satisfied») and its prudent import of moderation plays off his own narrative report of Thais's meretricious and intemperate maravigliose. The unusual plural in viste of Virgil's final line suggests those disparate scenes still present and so abstractly terrible that they are still being processed by the visual faculty. This revitalizing form of the plural helps to recall the still lingering assaults on so many of our faculties (sight, smell, sound and verbal sensibility) in this canto which seems to end in understatement and with the suppression of the nightmarish environment of these opening ditches. Virgil's final note of repulsion fittingly corroborates Dante's virtuosity in stylistic variation and his avant-garde poetics of vulgarity.*

Fordham University

*Lecture given at the University of Virginia on October 28, 1988. It is published here with the permission of the California Lectura Dantis.


Works cited in the text are noted below by the author's last name in upper case. __ Four of the most helpful commentaries are: Casini-Barbi, MOMIGLIANO (both in F. Mazzoni's edition of the Inferno [Florence: Sansoni, 1972], which includes up-dated and annotated bibliography), SAPEGNO (Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1979), and PETROCCHI (La Commedia secondo l'antica vulgata, vol 2. Verona: Mondadori, 1966) and, for the early commentaries, Biagi, La Divina Commedia. Torino: UTET, 1924, I:455-471.


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