Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Inferno XII: Of false cows and rivers of blood

The Lavini di Marco (literally ‘slides of Mark’) are blocks of limestone created by prehistoric landslides and criss-crossed by the footprints of various species of dinosaurs. They are mentioned in a treatise by the late medieval scholar Albertus Magnus – who thought them to be of much more recent origin – and can be spotted today while driving along the Modena-Brennero motorway, near Rovereto, at the foot of the Italian Dolomites. Dante is unlikely to have visited them, but he read Albertus Magnus’ De meteoris (which is concerned with the weather and earthquakes, as opposed to meteorites) and uses the Lavini to describe the landscape of Hell. Or, more precisely, the steep rocky terrain that Dante and Virgil have to cross in order to descend into the seventh circle.

Image source
Hell is a place on earth, and places on earth resemble Hell. Few of Dante’s contemporary readers would have had the opportunity to visit the Lavini, so in all likelihood the reference is of a literary nature, aiming at readers of Albertus Magnus. In this and in other details, the Commedia appears to be written for an audience of Dante’s peers: fellow men of letters who took an active interest in political life, versed in classical sources and Christian theology and familiar with the Who’s Who of thirteenth-century Italy. Yet Dante also dared to imagine that the poem would be a future classic, written in a new language – the language of ordinary people – and building upon the towering learning of previous ages. Thus the references in the poem are like geological layers, each built on the existing bedrock of facts and stories slowly accreted before Dante’s time. And the Commedia itself is an ark or storehouse of the knowledge accumulated up to the time of its production.

The Western tradition up to the two centuries immediately before the Christian reformation was a system of beliefs with an absolute claim to universality. Dante would not have conceived that this knowledge could ever be departed from. He didn’t know about the dinosaurs that left their mark on the limestone of the Lavini di Marco, and would have struggled to expand his stories to incorporate those monsters. Virtually all of the scientific knowledge of our time contradicts the foundations of his worldview, and he would barely recognise Catholicism itself. Yet the book survives, like the encyclopaedia of a dead world imagined by Borges.

However, this is not the book that Dante wrote. It can’t be. He wrote it for other thirteenth-century Christians who believed in the same natural world as he did. A world with ice in the middle, cored by the cone-shaped Hell, with a Southern (or ‘bottom’) hemisphere full of nothing but water except for the mountain-island of Purgatory. The book we read is a different book because we live in a different world. Only the words stay the same.

Dante’s intended reader commanded the knowledge of his time and needed few words to be reminded of the well-worn stories of that shared imaginary. Twelve lines into this canto, for instance, we come across l’infamia di Creti… che fu concetta ne la falsa vacca – the infamy of Crete, who was conceived inside the false cow. This is the Minotaur, the part-bull, part-man monster whose origin story – as told by Ovid – is as follows: having gifted a magnificent white bull to Minos, king of Crete, as a sign of his favour, the god Poseidon expected that Minos in turn would sacrifice it to him. But the sacrifice never came. Poseidon therefore cursed Minos’ wife Pasiphaë, causing her to fall madly in love with the bull. In order to consummate this love, Pasiphaë asked Daedalus to build a wooden cow for her to hide inside, and presented it to the bull (as it were). From this union came the Minotaur, a monster child with the head of a bull whom Pasiphaë tried in vain to nurse, for the child’s only sustenance was human flesh. After seeking advice from the oracle at Delphi, Minos asked Daedalus to build a labyrinth in which to imprison the Minotaur in his palace at Knossos. At this time, Crete was at war with Athens, and for every battle won Minos would exact a tribute of young men and women to the feed to the monster. Finally Theseus, son of the king of Athens, volunteered to be one of the sacrifices, slayed the Minotaur and found his way out of the labyrinth thanks to the thread gifted to him by the Minotaur’s half-sister, Ariadne.

All of this, the model reader of the Commedia would recall by a mere mention of the infamy of Crete and a false cow. Funnily enough, however, Dante seems to get the Minotaur the wrong way around: not a fearsome man with the head of bull – as is represented in all of the classical iconography – but a bull with the head and possibly the torso of a human, similar to a centaur. This reminds us that his sources were not the ancient statues or the pictures on black figure pottery, but books with few or now illustrations. Whereas we, who know about the dinosaurs and that the earth revolves around the Sun and all the other things, can instantly call up hundreds of visual sources to test and if necessary contradict the poem. This is another of the paradoxes of the Commedia: that a book that produced and continues to produce so many images was written by a man who lived in a world were pictorial representations were almost incomprehensibly scarce.

Image source
How’s this for a picture: this is the canto of the river of boiling blood, in which those who committed violent acts against others are left to cook, each at a depth commensurate to the gravity of their crimes. So the tyrants are almost completely submerged – all that sticks out is the hair – whereas common highway robbers are soaked merely to the ankles. This is a purely visual scene: gone is the stench that overpowered Virgil and Dante before they came down the landslide, forcing them to repair behind a block of marble. Or rather, it’s not gone but it no longer rates a mention. From now on, as the horrors of the lower Hell pile upon one another, Dante will tell us of the things he has seen.

Previously: Inferno I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Inferno XI: The geography of crime and punishment

Hell is a place on Earth. And although it is inhabited by spirits that are non-corporeal, they too will be reunited with their bodies after the Day of Judgment – whereupon they shall have to endure a second eternity, longer than the first, except now they’ll be endowed with an even greater capacity to feel pain, and even less hope of future relief. A sentence, mind you, that can never be served in full: for the debt is not to society, but to God.

The Divine Comedy is a poem about crime and punishment, as well as virtue and reward. God’s justice consists in punishing the dead in order to educate the living, and its geography recalls a concentrationary universe as opposed to a prison system, precisely because it does not allow for rehabilitation or redemption.

The eleventh canto of the Inferno, like the third, is devoid of action or movement, and takes the form of a discussion between its leading actors – or more precisely a lecture by Virgil to Dante – concerning the geography of Hell: that is to say its spatial organisation, which is highly symbolic and allegorical but nonetheless also concrete and physical. For Hell is a place on Earth. And to remind us of this earthly nature is the setting of the conversation: for the two poets, having walked away from the open graves in which the Epicureans are crammed by their thousands, are now standing behind the upturned stone of the tomb of another heretic – an early medieval Pope by the name of Anastasius – to seek protection from a prodigious stench. ‘We had better delay our descent,’ proposes Virgil, ‘to give time to our senses to get used to the tristo fiato’, the ‘doleful breath’ emanating from the depths of Hell.

This stench is another mix of body and spirit: as much physical (there are rivers of boiling blood just below) as it is moral. The three lowest circles of Hell are where the violent spirits are housed. This violence includes not just physical assaults but also theft, robber, deception and fraud: anything that causes injury, whether to people or their possessions, or to the self (suicide, gambling), or to God – which includes blasphemy, of course, but also subverting the order of nature. So, not only sodomy (as we might expect) but also usury. For – as Virgil explains to Dante, who questioned him on this particular placement – the worldly labour of humans (be they farmers of tradespeople) mirrors the celestial work of God, and is thus descended from it, whereas trying to get monetary wealth to reproduce itself, without labour, perverts the purpose of creation.

I’m not going to attempt to discuss here the minutiae of Dante’s penal code, with its synthesis of Aristotelean ethics and Christian theology. This is the Comedy at its most obscure, opaque and ultimately distant to the modern reader – so much so that not even the Italian school system, with its passion for testing students on arcane knowledge, expected us to seriously delve into Virgil’s dissertation. Besides, there will be further opportunities to go over the catalogue of the damned in some detail, for the last three circles span the remaining 23 cantos of the Inferno. As the upside-down cone of Hell narrows down, the poem will progressively expand.

For now, I just want to hint at this geography, and at its double nature – both actual and symbolic, both physical and metaphysical – because reading the Comedy is also a journey into understanding how these categories operated in the psyche of medieval Europeans. To repeat a point I’ve already made and will continue to make in this series of posts: Dante knew the things he imagined to be true.

And then those things had to be represented, that is to say reimagined. From the crude, naïve schematism of Priamo della Quercia, the miniaturist who illustrated the poem a little over a century after Dante’s death (and who hear compresses the entire contents of this canto, including a spurious Pope Anastasius, whose spirits does not in fact appear).

Through the expressionistic and already modern map that Sandro Botticelli drew for an edition commissioned to him by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici and completed around the year 1500.

Via William Blake.

Down to the present day textbook diagrams

and the infographics

Click here for the full-size image

Click here for the full-size image

or the printable study posters.


The history of these representations is also a history of the readings of Dante and of the uses of the comedy – from quasi-sacred poem to text you have to study in order to demonstrate competence at school, and that some read for pleasure.

This very limited gallery shows how Botticelli’s extraordinary cross-section map is still the dominant model for thinking of the Inferno. This seminal illustration has become the subject of a documentary released in Italy and Germany last year, which I wish I had an opportunity to see but so far has not been screened in this country. So the best I can do is to point you to the highest resolution image I could find, so you can pore over the details if you wish. For the record, we are roughly here, at the edge of the living cemetery of the heretics, under the flaming walls and towers of the city of the Dis. Midway down Botticelli’s map.

All of these pictures fuse the mental structure of the poem with the physical shape of Hell, which is appropriate since in Dante’s imagination they were one and the same. The Comedy is both fantasy and vision, both poem and prophecy. And for the justice it describes to be realised, the reader must believe that its punishments are real. Hell is a place on Earth.

Previously: Inferno I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Inferno X: The circle of me

In 1985, just as I enrolled at high school, the new law on the teaching of religion came into effect. Instruction in the history and practice of Catholicism had been part of the compulsory state curriculum since the Lateran Treaty signed by Mussolini and Pope Pius XI in 1929. Now as before, every state school would have to offer an hour per week of the stuff, under the supervision of a teacher nominated by the local dioceses. However, the process of opting out had been simplified. During our first year, in my class of 33, only two students chose to sit it out, of which I was one. That number may have risen by one or two units – if that – by the time we entered the third year, when we began studying the Divine Comedy. The alternative to the teaching of religion was… nothing. By law, schools were not allowed to dismiss students early or let them start late, so we had to remain in the building. But there were no replacement activities or teachings. We just spent an hour in an empty classroom.

Picture the breakfast club, but for atheists.

Individual reasons for not opting out of what we called ‘the hour of religion’ might have been complex, so one shouldn’t read too much into those numbers: I suspect social anxiety played as big a part in the decision as the strength of a family’s Christian faith. All the same, when it came to Dante, our teacher could rely on the fact that he was presenting the poem to a class that by a very large majority identified as Catholic. Albeit Catholics of a different era.

The sixth circle of Hell is where the heretics dwell. They were introduced at the end of the ninth canto as a vast population of souls twice dead, sentenced – that is – to spend eternity in a cemetery of open graves – some of which, though not all, are on fire. And since this cemetery is encircled by walls, like a city, Dante told us specifically to think of contemporary examples, such as the still surviving cemetery of Arles. The famous Alyscamps, pictured above.

The scene, then, is that of a necropolis, or city of the dead. But the contrappasso only makes sense for a specific subset of heretics: namely, atheists. The taxonomy is somewhat questionable, seeing as members of different contemporary religions don’t count for Dante as either unbelievers or heretics (remember how he placed a number of famous Muslims as well as ancient Pagans in a rather heaven-like region of limbo?). But the atheists are here, including Epicurus – who lived three centuries before Christ, hence could have been grouped with Pagans and more specifically with the eminent Greek philosophers of limbo – because those who l’anima col corpo morta fanno, ie believe that the soul perishes at the same time as the body, commit an actual sin. And a mortal one at that.

Thus the contrappasso of atheists is to ‘live’ (to exist, to think, to feel) forever as dead people. Or at least until Judgment Day, when the open tombs will be sealed, presumably with their regained bodies inside, but – also presumably – there to continue to suffer in the knowledge that others would enjoy eternal life in the timeless post-apocalyptic universe.

Back to our room (nearly) full of sixteen year old Catholics, where I was being taught these lines, it occurs to me now that had we believed those scenarios to be literal – as some young men and women of Dante’s age would have, or might have – then the vast majority of the class could have pointed its collective finger at the three or four of us who opted out of the weekly religion hour and declared: ‘There. This is where you’ll end up.’ And maybe I did think it, something along the lines of: this is my circle. The circle of me.

But my friends and I were not written into the canto. Frederick II was – he, who my mother venerated precisely because he had tried to make knowledge, and not religion, the business of the state; he who built, among many other things, the incomparable Castel del Monte.

Here is also a Cardinal, Ottaviano degli Ubaldini, because making open professions of atheism didn’t disqualify one from highest ranks of the Catholic hierarchy at a time when the power wielded by Cardinals was above all temporal and political. Here is also – and I mean quite literally, all these souls and a thousand others are crammed into a single grave – Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti, father of Guido, a great poet and great friend of Dante, who feverishly asks the pilgrim if his son still lives. For that is the second part of the punishment: the souls of the atheists, along with some others in the great prison system of the Inferno, can see some way into the future, but not the present, like old people whose sight and whose memory can only focus on distant things. They, the Epicureans, who when they lived, lived only for the present moment.

However, the tenth canto is above all the canto of Farinata degli Uberti, the great Florentine Ghibelline (to simplify: supporter of the Holy Roman Emperor, that is to say first Frederick II, then his illegitimate son Manfred, King of Sicily, as he vied for the succession), who triumphed at Montaperti against the Guelphs of Florence and, at the great council of Empoli, cast the deciding vote against those who wanted to destroy the city; and who yet, after Manfred’s death and the rise of the Guelphs, was exhumed from the grave where he had spent the previous two decades and summarily thrown into the Arno, while two of his living sons were beheaded in the public square (a macabre feast to which Dante would have been a spectator, as a young man, long before his own disgrace and exile), and three more were burned at the stake, along with his widow Adaletta. His family’s palace, then destroyed, lies under the paving stones of what is now Piazza della Signoria.

Dante and Farinata, members of feuding families – though the Ubertis were of far higher rank and importance than the Alighieris – engage in this canto in one of literature’s great dialogues. Farinata, who is disdainful of Hell and of his fate, is still somehow defiant, yet humbles himself to ask why the Florentines of Dante’s generation hate his family with such ferocity. Dante, who is desperate to hear a prophecy of his own future, is also moved by compassion for the fallen enemy and his butchered progeny. It’s a great dramatic conversation, a piece of theatre. But, as always, it must end swiftly. And, as if to undercut the parole conte – the high, ornate words thatVirgil counselled Dante to use when addressing Farinata – the two proceed to the edge of the next circle, and are immediately overcome by its stench.

So there’s something to look forward to for next time.

Previously: Inferno I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Inferno IX: God is late

God is late. And because of the lateness of God, the poet and his guide are left outside the walls of the city of Dis, stranded and worried that the divine help will never come.

Remember, the army of demons that guards the iron-walled city had closed its doors on Virgil’s face. Up to this point, whenever they encountered a roadblock, all he had to say was Vuolsi così colà…, a formula roughly equivalent to ‘We’re on a mission from God’, and the ways would part before them. But not this time. And if Dante is afraid, which is common, so too does Virgil hesitate, which is not. ‘Still we should win this fight,’ he declares. Se non…

Dante calls it a parola rotta, literally a 'broken word', less literally a truncated phrase. Either way, there is a world of sense in those two words, and even more so in the ellipsis. Se non. If not. Or else. Or else… The ellipsis dilates time. How long does the doubt last? Long enough for Dante to question not only his own fortitude, but the wisdom of his guide. He asks, almost innocently: Say, did you ever come down here before, you who live in the first circle, among those whose only sentence is to have no hope of ever seeing God? By which he means: Are you sure you know the way? To which Virgil replies that yes, he travelled the full depth of Hell once, not long after his death, having been sent by the witch Erichtho to collect the soul of a dead soldier who resided in the ninth circle – the circle of Judas.

Lots of questions here. The literary reference is to the De Bello Civili (‘Concerning the Civil War’), an epic poem by Lucan which covers the events of the civil war between Julius Caesar and the army led by Pompey. In the episode of the summoning, Lucan makes no reference to Virgil or anybody else venturing through the underworld to pluck the soul of the dead soldier. More to the point: Virgil was still very much alive. Even more to the point: Judas wasn’t even born at the time. The Hell that Dante alludes to here was still in its primitive state, waiting to be remodelled following the death of Christ. So for Virgil to claim that he knows that way makes little sense. However, let’s just assume that Dante simply got a bit confused here – although it’s hard to fathom how he wouldn’t know that Virgil died more than two decades after Caesar, hence the events depicted by Lucan. There is still the question of why Virgil obeyed the command of an evil sorceress, and what power she may have held over his not-quite-dead-yet soul.

The hasty and somewhat incongruous digression is interrupted when – in very modern fashion – Dante-the-narrator tells us he can’t quite recall what Virgil said next because a horrific sight distracted him. They are the Furies, rapidly advancing. Their female-shaped bodies stained with blood, with serpents for hair, tearing at their own bodies with claws and beating them with the palms of their hands. Megaera, Alecto and Tisiphone, plus, not far away, their absent cousin, the Gorgon known as Medusa.

As painted much later by Caravaggio

The threat of the possible arrival of Medusa makes Virgil warn Dante to quickly cover his eyes – lest he be turned to stone at the sight – and then, in a rather beautiful and tender image, wrap himself around him and put his own hands over Dante’s, for extra safety.

There is something zombie-like in the way that all these souls appear to be attracted by the scent of Dante’s living body, is there not?

So on one side we have the Furies, behaving as women in ancient times did at funerals – including professional mourners, which in some countries (including mine) existed as late as one hundred years ago. On the other, Dante and Virgil united in a fearful embrace, awaiting the coming of a fourth, more dangerous monster.

And then God arrives.

This is the ‘problem’ with the Divine Comedy: that it literally takes place inside Deus’ own machina, so every threat to the safety of the travellers – no matter how theatrically elaborate – can never be truly suspenseful. The only way Dante will be lost is if he strays from the path. The appearance of danger, then, can only exist within occasional moments of (self-)doubt, in which to condense both the horror of the hero’s surroundings and the fear for his life. Such is the predestined nature of the pilgrim’s progress.

When God arrives, it is in the form of an angel that strides imperiously over the Styx while fending and fanning with his left hand the air made thick and greasy by the presence of so many condemned souls. Having reached the iron, red-hot doors of Dis, he opens them with the slightest touch of the reed he carries in his right hand. Then, after briefly haranguing the demons – off stage, as it were, since they fled the scene – and without deigning either Dante or Virgil of so much as a glance, he leaves again.

This particular God is like a cheat sheet for one of the videogames I played with my friends at the time we did Dante at school, in the mid to late eighties, and we got stuck on a level, either because we couldn’t solve a riddle or defeat a particular monster. Its function is to make it possible to advance. And, like the next level of the videogame after the enemies have been cheated out existence, the city of Dis appears at first empty. Una campagna, a countryside, like a walled city turned inside out. But, really, upon further inspection, a graveyard, its open tombs brimming with fire, each containing not just one corpse – souls of souls, people twice dead – but a whole army. Of whom and why, we’ll have to get into next time.

Previously: Inferno I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII.