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Recapping Dante: Canto 29, or Don’t Trust the Midas Touch

May 12, 2014 | by

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William Blake, Canto XXIX

We’re recapping the Inferno. Read along! This week: The price you pay for turning stuff into gold.

Having read the incandescent poetry of cantos 26-28, it’s difficult not to feel as though Dante really phoned it in with canto 29. In fact, canto 28 is so hard to shake that Dante dwells on it for the first thirty or so lines of canto 29, weeping at the thought of the mangled sinners he’d met. Virgil rebukes him for his compassion, as always, and emphasizes the importance of moving on: he tells Dante they’re running out of time to complete their quest, which must have been Dante’s way of upping the stakes. Will our heroes beat the clock?

Virgil also points out that this is the first time Dante has wept for sinners in such a way. Dante has an explanation—he isn’t weeping for all the sinners, but for his cousin, Geri del Bello, who was among those undergoing tortured back in canto 28. Geri was killed but never avenged, and for this Dante weeps. Virgil, ever quick with the quips, suggests that Dante doesn’t really care all that much about his cousin—instead of talking to him when he had the chance, Dante instead decided to chat with Bertran de Born.

As Dante and Virgil proceed over the last bridge of this circle, Dante describes the foul smell of the following ditch—rotting limbs, putrid skin, and all the stench of dead patients in plague-stricken hospitals. It is a powerful image, especially since one can imagine that by now, Dante is very familiar with the smell of rotting body parts. What Dante smells are the falsifiers, the corpse-like shades under punishment for forgery. Dante will speak with the alchemists, who are afflicted with a sort of super-leprosy.

As they cross the ridge and descend among the sinners, Virgil calls to two shades who are propped up against each other and scratching the skin from their own bodies. They are mangled and viciously maimed: think of the face-melting scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Virgil asks if any among them are Italians—indeed, these two are. The first sinner is Griffolino D’Arezzo, who was punished for his alchemy but killed for a different reason: he swore to Albero di Siena that he knew how to achieve flight, and when it was revealed that he was lying, Albero had him burned. At that point, Dante turns to Virgil and makes fun of the Sienese by saying they’re even more fatuous than the French. Ouch! I hope health insurance in Hell covers burns.

Another Sienese alchemist, Capocchio, speaks up—he was also burned alive. Capocchio is believed to have been an early acquaintance of Dante’s; the two may have met when they were both students. He speaks with the same sort of dark wisdom and ethereal regret that all the great sinners of the Inferno have mastered—but Capocchio does it in just a few lines, as opposed to, say, Ulysses, who required a whole monologue. Capocchio gives us an abridged version of the classic Inferno sinner’s memoir.

To catch up on our Dante series, click here.

Alexander Aciman is the author of Twitterature. He has written for the New York Times, Tablet, the Wall Street Journal, and TIME. Follow him on Twitter at @acimania.

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