Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Inferno V: Into the unseeing world

We are at the edge of the second circle of Hell, finally stepping into il cieco mondo, the unseeing world. But we are also in a high school classroom in late 1987. It’s winter, and the large rotating windows of the old, early Fascist-era building are kept closed to prevent the heating system from being overwhelmed. The atmosphere inside, where twenty-five kids of the approximate age of sixteen sit at their desks, is stifling. Our teacher starts to introduce the canto.

If you know an Italian of adult age, try to come up behind them and whisper or shout: “Canto Quinto!”. Chances are they will turn around and reply: “Paolo e Francesca!” For the fifth canto of the Divine Comedy is all about them, the murdered lovers, and it has been drilled into students with particular fervour for many generations. Partly because the topic is likely to appeal to the cohort – after all, isn’t it at this age that Dante burned for young Beatrice? – and partly because it’s still early enough in the poem for the attention of students not to have waned, and teachers try to take advantage.

But first, stavvi Minos.

This is how the great Romantic era engraver Gustavo Dorè imagined Minos, the mythical king of Crete who – per the medieval Christian practice of using ancient Pagan bestiaries to populate Satan’s demon army – stands in judgment of the souls that have passed through the river Acheron. Dante explains that he and Virgil have moved to the second circle, which girds a smaller space, but houses much greater pain. Thus, in three lines, he has explained how the Inferno works: namely, as a concentric series of circles, each getting smaller and less populated, but increasing in the severity of the punishment to fit progressively more serious crimes. The fourth line is memorable and menacing:
Stavvi Minòs orribilmente, e ringhia
There stands Minos horribly, and growls
We should all practice standing horribly. But Minos’ function is not merely decorative. Each soul that come before him volunteers the full list of his or her transgressions. Then he, conoscitor delle peccata – a true connoisseur of sin – giudica e manda secondo ch’avvinghia. That is to say, he points them to the right circle by wrapping his tail around himself a corresponding number of times. This is Minos sending some folks into the second circle in Michelangelo’s Buonarroti Last judgment fresco in the Sistine Chapel.

In other words, he’s sending them right here. We are among the lustful che la ragion sommettono al talento – who allow their appetites to prevail over reason – and who are at the mercy of an everlasting wind that di qua, di là, di giù, di sù li mena (‘hither, thither, downward, upward, drives them,’ per Longfellow).

There is the customary catalogue of figures from history and myth. Semiramis, Cleopatra, Dido, Helen of Troy, Tristan (of Tristan and Isolde). Achilles is here, because Dante – who had no direct access to Homer’s Iliad – followed the apocryphal embellishment according to which the hero fell in love with Priam’s daughter Polyxena, a fact that the Trojans exploited to draw him into a fatal ambush. But these arch-famous names are a mere appetiser. The stars of the show are these two.

As drawn by Dorè 
Or if you prefer these two.

As painted by William Dyce, during the Romantic period but in the style of the Renaissance

We say Paolo and Francesca, but by rights it should be Francesca and Paolo, seeing as she’s the one who does all the talking in the canto. They are Francesca da Polenta (aka Francesca da Rimini) and Paolo Malatesta. Francesca was the wife of Paolo’s brother Gianciotto, to whom she had been married to bring peace between the powerful rival families. This true crime story would have been very familiar to contemporary readers, and Dante tells it sparingly, allowing instead Francesca to fill it with psychological detail.
Amor, ch'al cor gentil ratto s'apprende,
prese costui de la bella persona

che mi fu tolta; e 'l modo ancor m'offende.

Amor, ch’a nullo amato amar perdona,

mi prese del costui piacer sì forte,

che, come vedi, ancor non m’abbandona.
These are some of the most famous lines in our literature. In prose: Love, which swiftly seizes the tender hearts, caused him to fall for my fair body, which was taken for me in a manner that still offends me (meaning, probably: that I relive constantly). Love, that exempts no one beloved from loving, filled me with a longing for this man so strong, that as you can see it has not yet abandoned me.

It’s a tale that makes the poet weep, and the modern reader balk. Judged by our standards, there is very little shame in the momentary, almost accidental falling of the two lovers into a trembling kiss while reading together in Francesca’s house. The young Dante had built a career out of putting such stories in verse, minus the bloody ending.
Amor condusse noi ad una morte.
Caina attende chi a vita ci spense.
‘Love led us both to the same death,’ a possible reference to the fact that Gianciotto, having surprised Francesca and Paolo together, reportedly killed them both with a single thrust of his sword. ‘Caina awaits the murderer,’ meaning that Gianciotto – who at the time when the poem is set, the year 1300, was still alive – is destined to take residence in a much lower circle. But it’s a small consolation, and I think it was small even for us, poorly invested teenage students of Dante, who failed to see the justice, or the divine love (which the believers among us were taught about), in the fate of the two lovers.

For the mature Dante, however, there could be no mercy, only sorrow. And of his sorrow, the famous pietas, the canto is full, until finally, all it takes to push him over the edge is the realisation that while Francesca was talking to him, Paolo was quietly weeping. Down goes Dante, again, come corpo morto cade, like a dead man falls.

Back in 1987, the bell rings, calling us to a different task.

Previously: Inferno I, Inferno II, Inferno III, Inferno IV.