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Lectura Dantis

Lectura Dantis: Inferno: A Canto-by-Canto Commentary

Copyright Date: 1998
Edition: 1
Pages: 490
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    Lectura Dantis
    Book Description:

    The California Lectura Dantis is the long-awaited companion to the three-volume verse translation by Allen Mandelbaum of Dante'sDivine Comedy. Mandelbaum's translation, with facing original text and with illustrations by Barry Moser, has been praised by Robert Fagles as "exactly what we have waited for these years, a Dante with clarity, eloquence, terror, and profoundly moving depths," and by the late James Merrill as "lucid and strong . . . with rich orchestration . . . overall sweep and felicity . . . and countless free, brilliant, utterly Dantesque strokes." Charles Simic called the work "a miracle. A lesson in the art of translation and a model (an encyclopedia) for poets. The full range and richness of American English is displayed as perhaps never before." This collection of commentaries on the first part of theComedyconsists of commissioned essays, one for each canto, by a distinguished group of international scholar-critics. Readers of Dante will find thisInfernovolume an enlightening and indispensable guide, the kind of lucid commentary that is truly adapted to the general reader as well as the student and scholar.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92053-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-xii)
  3. Introduction Dante in His Age
    (pp. 1-8)

    The proud Florentines inscribed this epigraph in stone on the Palazzo del Podestà (now the Bargello) around 1255. It echoed the spirit of the Florentine commune—or commonwealth or republic—during the decade of republican government from 1250 to 1260, the period of thePrimo Popolo,or First Republic. Florence energetically reaffirmed her economic independence, was jealous of her own political establishment, and was proud of the representative democracy she had constructed. The First Republic was followed by an interval of six years of antirepublican rule, but it was restored in 1266 as the Second Republic, which lasted until the...

  4. CANTO I The Hard Begin
    (pp. 9-24)

    The “possessive of human solidarity” (Spitzer)—“our life’s way”—links the particularity of Dante the wayfarer to the universality of humanity. And nothing in the work Dante called hisComedyor other works, his poems, letters, and treatises, suggests that “our” is to be understood as applying to other than both men and women. In theConvivio(IV, xxiii, 6–10) Dante fixes thirty-five years as the midpoint of human life, following Psalm 89:10 (90:10 in the King James), which sets seventy years as the length of our days. Thus, for Dante himself, who was born in 1265, the year...

  5. CANTO II Dante’s Authority
    (pp. 25-35)

    The opening canto of theComedysweeps us into the perilous situation of its protagonist. No matter how artificial its action may seem, it is intense, focusing our attention on events and their consequences. Canto II, in comparison, is more distant and discursive. In Canto I, we were caught up with Dante in his sense of mortality, and in his vulnerability, like ours, to sin. As Canto II opens, we immediately become aware that he is a being altogether different from us, a poet:

    The day was now departing; the dark air

    released the living beings of the earth


  6. CANTO III The Gate of Hell
    (pp. 36-49)

    Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. At the end of the second canto ofInferno,Virgil’s rhetoric, wedded to his vatic stature, is instrumental in converting the pilgrim’s “cowardice” of heart into “daring and . . . openness” (122-123). The journey, whose end is the salvific bonding of the free will of the creature with his Creator, must begin with the moral bonding of the guide and the pilgrim:

    “Now go: a single will fills both of us:

    you are my guide, my governor, my master.”


    The steep and savage path at the end of Canto II leads the...

  7. CANTO IV A Melancholy Elysium
    (pp. 50-62)

    Dante arrives on the banks of Acheron after a fearful passage through turbid, timeless air that quivers from the whirlwind tumult of cowardly and despairing souls. He has seen tormented crowds cry against their fate. He has heard the threatening address of the demon Charon. There follows a moment of respite from terror, as brief as the interval between the red flash that menacingly illuminates the close of the third canto and the “enormous thunderclap” (IV, 2) that opens the fourth canto of theInferno, awakening the poet. Coming to his senses, he hesitates—along the margins where he finds...

  8. CANTO V The Fierce Dove
    (pp. 63-83)

    The ritualistic apologetic references at the beginning of so many Dante essays about the gigantic Dantean industry, and the heavy bibliographical stratifications accumulated on every word written (or perhaps written) by the poet, are becoming by now rather tiresome. Such caveats, already topical in the times of Francesco De Sanctis, could remain meaningful when they were expressions of creative modernistic impatience, for instance from Gabriele d’Annunzio, Giovanni Papini, and, most virulently, from Filippo Tommaso Marinetti when he wrote: “Who can deny that theDivine Comedytoday is nothing but a filthy verminous heap crawling with compilers of footnotes? What is...

  9. CANTO VI Florence, Ciacco, and the Gluttons
    (pp. 84-100)

    It is well known that political issues mark the sixth canto of all three parts of Dante’sDivine Comedy.This sequence gradually unfolds his denunciation of the ruin that threatens the political universe. Dante, the new Aeneas, aims to restore thebonum mundi.

    InInfernoVI Florence offers the first example of misgovernment. Very few righteous people live in this city. In truth, only two righteous men(giusti) can be found, yet nobody listens to them (73). The fire of “envy, pride, and avariciousness” burns in the citizens’ hearts (74-75). The counsel offered by the twogiustifades away like...

  10. CANTO VII The Weal of Fortune
    (pp. 101-110)

    Canto VI closes portentously on the prospect of encountering “Plutus, the great enemy,” a note of melodramatic suspense commensurate with the radical primacy given to greed by I Timothy 6: 10, which warns that “the desire of money is the root of all evils” (cf.Purg.xx, 43). But in theConvivio(IV, x-xii) Dante had reflected less on the consuming power of avarice than on the base “imperfection” of riches, incomprehensible in their origins and growth. The anticlimactic nature of the encounter with Plutus in this canto, his unintelligibility, vagueness of form, and quick deflation are more in keeping...

  11. CANTO VIII Fifth Circle: Wrathful and Sullen
    (pp. 111-122)

    In Canto VII of theInferno, Dante and Virgil cross the dark marsh of the Stygian fifth circle and arrive at the gates of the City of Dis. The canto thus marks the important transition between upper Hell, occupied by those whose sins were due to incontinence of desire or temper, and lower Hell, occupied by those whose sins were due to the graver evil dispositions of bestiality and malice. The incontinent of temper are divided into two groups: the wrathful, who attack each other on the surface of the Styx, and the sullen, who are sunk beneath the muddy...

  12. CANTO IX The Harrowing of Dante from Upper Hell
    (pp. 123-135)

    Just before the celestial messenger arrives and scatters the infernal forces impeding Dante’s and Virgil’s entry into the City of Dis, the poet interrupts the narrative and invites his readers to observe the doctrine hidden “beneath the veil of verses so obscure” (Inf. IX, 63). Dante’s hermeneutic imperative has certainly not gone unheeded. Indeed, in their eagerness to interpret, the commentators have thoroughly allegorized the episode. I shall not attempt to summarize the various interpretations here. Suffice it to say that there is no general agreement as to what the episode and its main images mean. By way of example,...

  13. CANTO X Farinata and Cavalcante
    (pp. 136-149)

    This canto has always been recognized as one of the summits of Dante’s art. Full of human drama, it touches on Dante’s exile and the fate of his friend Guido Cavalcanti; it is also, as recent scholarship demonstrates, theologically precise and rich in iconographic allusions. After the suspensefilled events of the two previous cantos—when Dante and Virgil are barred by “more than a thousand” (VIII, 82) devils from entering the city of Dis and are menaced by the Medusa, and after “Heaven’s messenger” (IX, 85) has unlocked the gates with his “wand” (IX, 89)—the poets enter, to see...

  14. CANTO XI Malice and Mad Bestiality
    (pp. 150-164)

    At the end of Canto x Dante and Virgil have traversed the entire fiery circle of the heretics without incident, when they arrive at the brink of the seventh circle. Their initial perception is olfactory, of a wall of stench thrown up by the abyss. The ensuing description of what they see is brief and stark: a rim that is an isolating barrier of massive boulders. There is no indication at this point that they perceive the rock slide leading downward into the seventh circle. At the end of this canto we are given one of theInferno’srare time...

  15. CANTO XII The Violent against Their Neighbors
    (pp. 165-177)

    The exordium to Canto XII of theInfernopicks up the same narrative situation that occupied the entirety of Canto XI: that is, the pause by Dante the pilgrim and his guide Virgil on the edge of a “high bank” (XI, I) “formed by a ring of massive broken boulders” (2) that divide the sixth circle from the “deep abyss” (5) of lower Hell from which rises a noxious smell (X, 136) so strong that the travelers draw back and pause on their way until they can accustom themselves to the “outrageous stench /thrown up in excess” (XI, 4-5):


  16. CANTO XIII The Violent against Themselves
    (pp. 178-184)

    Canto thirteen, which treats the second ring of the seventh circle, where the violent against themselves are punished, both those who kill themselves and those who squander their possessions.” So says the ancient rubric of the so-called type a, found in Trivulziano 1080 and many other Florentine manuscripts.

    In the transition from the boiling stream of blood in the preceding canto to an arid, smooth, and silent landscape in Canto XIII, there lies a countryside compared to the wild Maremma and echoing the robber baron of Corneto (Inf. XII, 137) and the wasteland bordered by Cecina and Corneto (XIII, 8)....

  17. CANTO XIV Capaneus and the Old Man of Crete
    (pp. 185-196)

    The canto is an outstanding example of the importance of classical myth and its fusion with biblical elements and moral themes in Dante’s poem. Before we consider the canto overall—in its main themes—a line-by-line analysis will highlight details of structural or linguistic interest.

    1-3: like Cantos VI and IX, Canto XIV opens with a backward-glancing reference to the narrative: in this case, to the anonymous Florentine suicide who had entreated the pilgrims to gather the torn branches and place them at the foot of the bush in which his soul is imprisoned (XIII, 139-142). In an instinctive reaction...

  18. CANTO XV The Canto of Brunetto Latini
    (pp. 197-212)

    When the poet invites the reader to follow him over the sandy plain on which the blasphemers, sodomites, and usurers are punished, he has already passed through the complex narrative apprenticeship represented by the didactic opening of Canto XI, the violent iconography of the canto of the Centaurs, and the invention of the wood of the suicides. The architecture of the landscape, firm and peremptory in its contours, gains secure relief from the rich range of events and moods that precede its appearance. It is distinguished into a foreground dominated by groups of souls and a background fixed within the...

  19. CANTO XVI From Other Sodomites to Fraud
    (pp. 213-224)

    Any reader who encountersInfernoXVI for the first time is likely to be haunted by the canto’s concluding episode (106-136); the atmosphere Dante creates there, when he depicts Virgil throwing the pilgrim’s “cord” into the abyss and then the emergence from that abyss of “a figure swimming” through the air, inevitably fascinates with its mystery. Moreover, if this final, puzzling incident transfixes the attention of novice readers, it has become a veritable obsession for numerous scholarly readers, who have proposed a plethora of symbolic interpretations of the “cord” and the “figure,” none of which has attained wide acceptance. To...

  20. CANTO XVII Geryon’s Downward Flight; the Usurers
    (pp. 225-237)

    Canto XVII is like a busy railroad station, where a number of tracks end and new ones originate. These tracks are themes, motives, and narrative segments. Geryon owes his appearance to a magic stratagem recounted in the previous canto. The roaring of the Phlegethon waterfall, an important landmark for Dante’s trip, also sounds first in Canto XVI. The episode of the usurers begins thematically with the invective againsti sùbiti guadagni(“quick gains” [XVI 73]), and the explanation of their sin comes in Canto XI, 94-111. Among the themes that meet in Canto XVII, the most obvious is that of...

  21. CANTO XVIII Introduction to Malebolge
    (pp. 238-261)

    “What brings you to sauces so piquant?,” Dante asks the pander he meets in Canto XVIII, the pungentsalseapparently naming what was once a criminals’ unhallowed burial pit near Bologna.¹ How did the poet’s old acquaintance get into such a pickle? Or come under such a sentence? The trembling of the earthquake in the third canto, the threatened onset of the dreadful Gorgon in the ninth, the gyres of the Leviathan fished up in the sixteenth, and the icy blast from Satan’s wings in the last canto of theInfernoare all effects in the guise of causes, veiling...

  22. CANTO XIX Simoniacs
    (pp. 262-274)

    Inf. XVIII, canto of panders, seducers, and flatterers, ends with the sight of the whore Thaïs standing in filth; Virgil points her out in a tone of contemptuous mockery. The theme of seduction persists in Canto XIX, where a greater and more abstract whore is invoked, and so does the tone of mockery, this time in a more mordant key. The canto begins (I–21) with an apostrophe from Dante the poet denouncing simony, and exalting the divine art for creating the hideous hellscape of livid rock full of round, fiery openings that Dante the pilgrim now beholds. It ends...

  23. CANTO XX True and False See-ers
    (pp. 275-286)

    This canto, devoted to the seers and diviners, elicits disproportionate reactions from its readers. Streams of critical ink have been spilled on a canto routinely omitted from their syllabi by harried pedagogues, who, at the very least, pass over the digression on the founding of Mantua that takes up 42 of the canto’s 130 lines. This same digression is an integral factor in the fascination the canto exerts on its professional interpreters, since it is a key feature in the aberrant behavior that overcomes Dante’s guide at this point of the journey, signaling an intertextual node of particular bumpiness in...

  24. CANTO XXI Controversial Comedy
    (pp. 287-296)

    Many commentators point out that Canto XXI might be said to take its tone from the final word of Canto XX,introcque(“meanwhile”), a Florentine dialect word recorded inDe vulgari eloquentiaI, xiii, 2. Canto XXI is thebolgiaof the barrators, those who buy or sell public office, or exploit such office for private gain through crimes like embezzlement or bribery (42); and the sense of a municipal corruption that is widespread and almost, so to speak, everyday, leads Dante here to a portrayal of hell far less “elevated” than elsewhere in the canticle. In Canto XXI, in...

  25. CANTO XXII Poets as Scoundrels
    (pp. 297-305)

    The entrance to Malebolge marks a new stage within Dante’s hell. Terminological correspondences can be detected between the outset of the infernal voyage and the descent into the pouches of fraud:cammin(o) silvestro(II, 142; XXI, 84),selva(I, 2; XX, 129),oscura(I, 2; XXI, 6). Domenico De Robertis observes that the episode of the barrators, which spans cantos XXI-XXIII, represents Dante’s “longest stay, at least as regards number of lines, in the same place of punishment,” calling it “a representation, in a minor key, of the general voyage” (De Robertis, 1-2). This structure, like an intricate puzzle box,...

  26. CANTO XXIII The Painted People
    (pp. 306-315)

    The single file in which the wayfarers enter and leave this narrative segment functions like a top and bottom frieze: it delimits the space of Canto XXIII, separating its vast and varied subject matter from that of the canto preceding and following it. The key words aredinanzi(before) anddopo(after) in the first lines of the canto: “Silent, alone, no one escorting us, / we made our way—one went before, one after—” (1–2). The canto closes withdietro(behind; following): “at this I left those overburdened spirits, / while following the prints of his dear...

  27. CANTO XXIV Thieves and Metamorphoses
    (pp. 316-327)

    The formal category of sin presented in Canto xxiv is theft, the fraudulent appropriation of others’ property, which is the seventh division of fraud. That this section has a particular importance for Dante is indicated by his devotion to it of two cantos (XXIV and XXV), and by his display of literary virtuosity through both, culminating in the assertion that he has surpassed two of his major classical models, Ovid and Lucan (XXV, 94 and 97). Obviously, Dante is concerned with much more here than the simple stealing of material objects. Theft may involve material goods or money (it includes...

  28. CANTO XXV The Perverse Image
    (pp. 328-347)

    The most dramatically memorable (and controversial) individuals in theInferno— Francesca da Rimini, Farinata degli Uberti, Pier delle Vigne, Brunetto Latini, among those we have already encountered, and Ulysses, Guido da Montefeltro, and Ugolino, to cite a few we will encounter soon—are memorable (and controversial) because of their eloquence, their skillful and intriguing (in every sense) use of speech. Oblivious, if not of where they are or how they came to be there, of the fundamentalwhy,they persist in their former earthly assumptions, plead their special causes, syllogize from apparently impeccable premises, not infrequently enlisting the reader’s unsuspecting...

  29. CANTO XXVI Ulysses: Persuasion versus Prophecy
    (pp. 348-356)

    Canto XXVI tells mainly the story of Ulysses’ tragic shipwreck as the hero ventures beyond the pillars of Hercules into uncharted seas. It is also true, however, that, perhaps more than any other canto in theComedy,Canto XXVI cannot really be read separately from the others. In fact, so fascinated are the pilgrim and the poet by their encounter with the Greek hero that it will play a pivotal role in the dramatic economy of the entire poem: at key points of the narrative—from Dante’s initial hesitation and fear lest his own journey provefolle(“wild and empty”...

  30. CANTO XXVII False Counselors: Guido da Montefeltro
    (pp. 357-367)

    In Canto XXVII ofInferno, Dante and Virgil are in the samebolgiaas in Canto XXVI, usually called thebolgiaof the fraudulent counselors, although the sin punished in this section is never explicitly stated: We hear rather of the specific sins of individuals. Fraudulent counsel is, however, the sin of the main character here, Count Guido da Montefeltro, hidden like his fellow sinners in a tongue of “thieving” flame (127). Guido, count of Montefeltro and lord of Urbino, was a Ghibelline military leader, active mainly, but not exclusively, in Romagna, where he was a constant opponent of papal...

  31. CANTO XXVIII Scandal and Schism
    (pp. 368-377)

    After the exordium ofInfernoI–III, the first five circles of Hell are presented in as many cantos (IV-VIII). The subsequent sins of heresy and violence require progressively longer treatments. Once Dante and Virgil reach lower Hell and Malebolge (Cantos XVII-XXIX), the relation between text and terrain has become roughly that of one canto for each of the ten forms of fraud. Though the reasons for this dilation are formal and expressive, they are also ethical and reflect Dante’s conviction that the sins of malice require particularly scrupulous attention, also because those who commit them are the most potentially...

  32. CANTO XXIX Such Outlandish Wounds
    (pp. 378-391)

    Strictly speaking, Canto XXIX ofInfernohas no narrative unity of its own. It consists of two segments: the first (1–39) is a continuation of the matter of Canto XXVIII, while the second (40–139) is a preamble to the matter of Canto XXX.

    As the canto begins, Dante and Virgil are on the point of leaving the ninth ditch of Malebolge where the sowers of discord, who spread division within the Church, the state, and the family, are punished by being literally cut, cloven, divided in their own bodies. The last voice to be heard was that of...

  33. CANTO XXX Dante among the Falsifiers
    (pp. 392-405)

    The second of the cantos devoted to the falsifiers occupies a special place because it is the last of the thirteen cantos of the Malebolge. As we shall see, it ties together and develops with particular intensity themes and motifs that have been important throughout this longest section of theInferno.If Canto XXIX was oppressively static, Canto XXX gives a certain interlude of action— utterly purposeless action that gradually turns into a mere exchange of taunts between two of the damned—against thebolgia’sbackground of general hebetude and paralysis. A first phase is introduced by an extended epic...

  34. CANTO XXXI The Giants: Majesty and Terror
    (pp. 406-412)

    In hisprologoto Valery’sLe cimetière marin,Borges comments on the fact that Christian poetry feeds on our amazed incredulity. He observes that Dante, ignoring our ignorance, had to stick to thenovelescoand the extraordinary varieties of destiny.¹ The defiant certainty required by the author of otherworldly fiction is thematized in Canto XXXI and developed in a varied and complex way.

    After an initial reference to the crucial ambivalence (or ambiguity) of life and death (“The very tongue that first had wounded me . . . was then to cure me with its medicine” [1–3]), the canto...

  35. CANTO XXXII Amphion and the Poetics of Retaliation
    (pp. 413-423)

    1–15. Following many classical writers on rhetoric, Dante believed that speech generates society. Brunetto Latini, whose works he admired in his youth (InfernoXV, 79–87), states the position succinctly: “Tully [i.e., Cicero] says that the greatest science of governing cities is rhetoric, which is the science concerned with speaking; without speech there would be neither cities, nor stabilized justice, nor an established human society” (Li livres dou trèsor,III, I). In this canto Dante’s subject is the “foundation of the entire universe” (XXXII, 8), an expression to take in its fullest possible sense, not merely as the center...

  36. CANTO XXXIII Count Ugolini and Others
    (pp. 424-431)

    Bridging the space between Antenora and Ptolomea, Canto XXXIII contains the poet’s final conversations with the souls of the damned (Virgil will merely point to the three sinners in the jaws of Lucifer in theInferno’sultimate canto). The canto features the bare tale of Count Ugolino, whose earlier introduction allows him to be isolated here along with Fra Alberigo, who points out the silent presence of a third soul, that of Branca Doria. Each of the two sections of the canto (the technical term “canto” is included in the text at line 90) is followed by an invective against...

  37. CANTO XXXIV Lucifer
    (pp. 432-440)

    Most of the last canto of theInfernois devoted to the grandiose depiction of Lucifer— the enormous antihero, emperor of the world of Hell, and genuine incarnation of evil—immobilized in the midst of a dark and frozen landscape in the deepest recesses of the abyss. The canto also contains a narration of the difficult and painful progress of Dante and Virgil, as they make their way out of the infernal world and ascend toward the more serene regions of Purgatory.

    Here we encounter the most original and inventive part of Dante’s cosmography. Although the Ptolemaic system is his...

  38. Bibliographical Note and Suggestions for Further Reading
    (pp. 441-448)
  39. Contributors
    (pp. 449-452)
  40. Index
    (pp. 453-461)
  41. Back Matter
    (pp. 462-462)