Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Inferno XVII: Of flying beasts and student loans

The full text of the canto in Italian/English

It’s been a while since I attended to this with any regularity, so it may pay to state when and where we are.

It’s the early morning of 9 April 1300, a mere hours after the beginning of Dante’s journey into Hell. The place is the third and lowest ring of the seventh circle, where those who committed the sin of violence against god and nature serve their sentence. More precisely, we are situated next to the drop where the river of boiling blood which runs through this circle – the Phlegethon – turns into a crimson fall. And since there is no apparent staircase or passage for Dante and Virgil to descend safely into the next circle, the pair have just summoned a flying beast by throwing Dante’s belt into the abyss.

Like uber, but for winged demons.

Except Geryon, the beast in question, is not described as having any wings. Not for the first time, an illustrator of the poem (in this case, Doré) has failed to read it properly. Indeed the first thing that Dante notices, as Geryon perches on the edge of the cliff, his tail dangling into the abyss, is that la faccia sua era faccia d’uom giusto – ‘his face was the face of a good person’. Deceptively, for Geryon is the allegory of Fraud, and is thus the appropriate vehicle for transporting the two poets among the most wretched and culpable of all the damned.

The wingless monster has the body of a serpent, the tail of a scorpion, and the legs of a lion, covered in fur. His torso, back and sides dipinti avea di nodi e di rotelle, are ‘decorated with knots and circles’, in the manner of Arabian tapestries, but far more intricately. His way of perching, as if preparing for an ambush, reminds Dante of the beavers that lie on the river banks of Northern Europe, waiting to catch their prey.

Instead of pointing out to him that this is really not how beavers work, Virgil encourages Dante to move towards a small group of souls that is standing nearby, while he negotiates with Geryon the terms of their ride.

Illustration by a 14th Century Neapolitan illuminator

Another reminder: all souls which have retained their human form are naked folks. These few are no exception, save for the fact that they are carrying colourful purses around their necks. But otherwise their skin is exposed to the burning sand under their feet, and to the fiery rain that falls everywhere on this circle, except along the path that Dante is allowed to tread. The twin torment gives the souls no rest, and the purses adds to their contrappasso. For on them par che ’l loro occhio si pasca – roughly, their eyes seem to be feeding, meaning: they gaze at them with constant, insatiable hunger.

These purses or pouches are emblazoned: one with a blue lion on a yellow background; one with a white goose on a red background; one with a blue sow on a white background. The owner of this last one breaks from the small group to address the poet, gruffly. He says he hails from Padua, while his companions are Florentines. Together, they await a chap called Vitaliano. But instead of telling Dante about his sin or circumstances, as we have come to expect, the nameless soul cuts proceedings short but poking his tongue at him, obscenely, come bue che il naso lecchi – like an ox licking its nose.

Thus ends the short scene, leaving just enough clues for Dante’s contemporaries – and for scholars thereafter – to figure out the context and fill in the blanks. We know that we must be among usurers, because we were told to expect them in this circle six cantos ago, and Dante and Virgil are about to leave for Malebolge. Those emblazoned purses must contain gold, or IOUs, but above all the all-important ledger of the debtors, main tool of the usurer’s trade. And while it’s not absolutely clear who might have counted as an usurer in Dante’s eyes – whether anyone who lent money to anyone, as canonical law dictated, thereby including all bankers, or just those who lent money at disproportionate interest (the most likely answer being closer to the former) – at least we know the business of these particular ones, thanks to those blazons. They belong, respectively, to the families of the Gianfigliazzis, the Obriachis and – the guy who speaks, with the yellow sow or scrofa – to the Scrovegnis. And if it’s a Scrovegni and a usurer, it’s going to be Rinaldo, innit?

We met Rinaldo Scrovegni before: he’s the father of Enrico Scrovegni, who built a chapel in Padua and had it painted by Giotto with the possible intention of atoning for his father’s sins, or at least converting part of the money he made into a magnificent and lasting public relations exercise. Giotto painted the chapel in the very same years Dante was writing the Divine Comedy. How cool is that? This is Enrico:

Both the Obriachis (in Bologna) and Rinaldo Scrovegni (in Padua) were in the same business: lending money to university students. Those two cities have the honour of being regarded as among the birthplaces of this modern institution, but what may not be equally well-known is that even in those early days not all university students came from wealthy families, and that many students – rich and poor – relied on loans from the very beginning, under terms dictated by the cities that hosted them. Beyond that, there was the unregulated market of the usurers, and clearly it was a booming business that kept you into chapels. Then sent you to Hell.

(Though interestingly one theory about the genesis of the Scrovegni Chapel is that Enrico thought that his father must have been sent to Purgatory, and was trying to ‘buy him’ a discount. It’s kind of commerce that eventually precipitated the Reformation.)

Sandro Botticelli
It’s time to go: Dante is afraid that Virgil might be losing his patience, and re-joins him to find he’s already sitting on Geryon’s back. He instructs him to sit in front, so that the beast won’t be able to poke him with his presumably poisonous tail. Dante obeys, but he’s shaking, as if in the throes of a quartan fever. There is a tender moment, when he confesses to the reader that he planned to say to his guide – but for his voice failing him – Fa che tu m’abbracce, ‘put your arms around me.’

There’s no time. Geryon takes off. As per Virgil’s entreaties, he doesn’t dive headlong, but rather flies in sweeping circles, following the perimeter of the crater that is Hell.

How do you conceive of or describe a human flying in the fourteenth century? The sun is dawning, but offers no light at these depths. Maggior paura non credo che fosse… che fu la mia, quando vidi ch’i’ era ne l’aere d’ogne parte, e vidi spenta ogne veduta fuor che de la fera. ‘Never was fear, I think, greater than mine, when I saw that air was all around me, and that there was nothing to see save for the beast.’ This fearful uncertainty, this disorientation, is matched by the reticence we have come to expect at the end of these cantos, as Dante stops short of setting the scene with which the next canto will begin. He has landed, but where?

Previously: Inferno I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV, XV, XVI.