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.

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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.

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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.