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.