June 30, 2014 | by Alexander Aciman
My relationship with Dante can be traced back to a Saturday morning in 1994. My dad and I were standing in the rain on Sixty-Sixth and Broadway, and I suspected he was taking me to Lincoln Center for a concert. Instead, we stopped at a small park where a large, bronze statue was shrouded by nearby trees, hidden away from the city. That, he told me, is Dante.
The night before, my dad had told me the story of Count Ugolino, the sinner of canto 33 who may or may not have eaten his children during his imprisonment in Pisa; and later that day, he’d take me to the courtyard at St. John the Divine, where a statue of a crab-like creature pinches off the head of a demon—a scene that bears a striking resemblance to the end of Dante’s Inferno, when the three-headed Lucifer gnashes his teeth around the bodies of the three greatest sinners: Judas, Brutus, and Cassius. Here, in canto 34, the final chapter, Dante and Virgil meet Lucifer and climb up his back in order to slip through a crack in the universe and leave the Inferno.
It wouldn’t occur to me for many more years that these weren’t stories from my dad, but the work of the better craftsman, or il miglior fabbro, as T. S. Eliot writes in the dedication of “The Waste Land,” paraphrasing Dante himself. In fact, if I look hard enough, I find traces of Dante throughout my life—a description of the wolf, lion, and leopard in the elevator of 765 Amsterdam Avenue, the building where my grandparents lived; the story of Paolo and Francesca, which I read in an illustrated, abridged Inferno for children; the fiberglass tyrannosaurus in Riverside Park, which I climbed as though I were Virgil scaling Lucifer’s back with Dante in order to reach Purgatory at the end of canto 34; a twig from a tree that I passed on a field trip in a botanical garden, which I tore off à la Dante in canto 13, so that my dad, a reluctant chaperone, would know that I wanted to be there as little as he did. As far as I knew, I wasn’t alluding to Pier delle Vigne but to a character from my father’s bedtime mythology. None of these tales came without embellishments, and so even today, when I reread passages of the Inferno and notice departures from the stories I heard growing up, I cannot help but think that Dante Alighieri’s versions are slightly inaccurate. Even so, by the time I reach someone like Ugolino, I feel as if I’m meeting an old friend. Read More »
June 23, 2014 | by Alexander Aciman
Here we meet the last great sinner of the Inferno: Count Ugolino. Like the others, he’s a historical figure remembered today chiefly for his appearance in Dante’s poem; and in spite of everything he confesses in these few verses, we inevitably pity him.
At the end of canto 32, Dante finds Ugolino gnawing violently at the head of another sinner, Archbishop Ruggieri. Ugolino tells Dante that he will describe his own crime, and allow Dante to determine which of the two of them is the greater sinner.
Ugolino, a magistrate, was charged with betraying the city of Pisa—he gave three of their fortresses to a neighboring town—and for this he was locked, along with his four children, in a tower there (not the one you’re thinking of). One night, he dreamed that he and his young children appeared as wolves; they were hunted and torn to shreds. He awakes to find his children crying in hunger for food, but when mealtime in the tower arrives, Ugolino hears the doors being nailed shut.
He understands that he and his children will starve to death. Seeing them in agony, he begins to gnaw at his own hands, and his sons say, “Father, we would suffer less if you would feed on us.” Ugolino composes himself and watches his children die slowly of hunger over the course of the fourth, fifth, and sixth days. For two days, Ugolino, who has gone blind from hunger, wails over his children, speaking to them as though they were still alive. And then he speaks one of the most haunting and also perhaps most memorable lines in the Inferno: “Then fasting had more power than grief.” This line has been interpreted variously; some believe it means that he continued to starve, whereas others contend that Ugolino ate his dead children. Read More »
June 16, 2014 | by Alexander Aciman
INFERNO—After traveling nonstop for many hours through an array of chthonic geological obstacles, local political activist Dante Alighieri has found that the apocalyptic landscape has actually frozen over.
“I was supposed to be traveling through hell,” says Dante, who has seen everything on his journey from demons to the elusive and heavily mythologized lonza. “I thought the fire and brimstone would only get hotter as we journeyed farther toward Lucifer. There’s no way I could have predicted this—the ice, the chill, the subzero temperatures.”
The discovery will undoubtedly cause an iconological fiasco, challenging our contemporary of notion of hell altogether.
Dante, who has been gathering material for a yet-unnamed “hell project,” claims he was so caught up in seeing the sights around him—notably a giant wall—that he didn’t notice the floor made of ice in hell until a strange voice warned him to watch his step. “It’s a good thing a mysterious voice warned me,” he says. “I could have slipped through a thin patch.” Roman poet and limbo-dweller Virgil, who has accompanied Dante on the journey, added that, in Dante’s defense, the giant wall was indeed very, very large. Read More »
June 2, 2014 | by Alexander Aciman
By now it is clear that this season’s sleeper star is the breakout show-runner, Dante Alighieri. His show The Inferno, an unlikely gem of narratological genius, has consistently stood out from the televisual pack, relying for the most part on the rarefied taste of its audience and the poignant, lyrical style of the head writer. This most recent episode, canto 31, is no exception.
This divine segment uses, as ever, a canny rhetorical device to dispense with exposition: the question. In this case, our hero, Dante, entering the next circle of hell, gazes through a thick fog, through which he can faintly perceive the outline of various towers. So what does he do? He asks a question about them, of course, and his companion Virgil helpfully informs him—and us—that these are giants, not towers. Simple! Elegant! Where other shows go in for flash and gimmickry, The Inferno just tells us what’s what. Read More »
May 26, 2014 | by Alexander Aciman
Dante has shown that almost every canto in the Inferno obeys a certain logic. First, Dante and Virgil enter a new circle or ditch; Dante notices a small cluster of sinners being subjected to a gruesome, albeit clever punishment (shit-eating for the flatterers, amputation and disembowelment for the schism-makers); then Virgil will encourage him to approach a sinner, who inevitably ends up being an Italian eager to tell the story of his life in a way that downplays the gravity of his sin. Virgil and Dante move on afterward. Salt, pepper, and serve. This formula is so apparent that had Dante been less skilled, his stories less heartrending, the Inferno would’ve been a heavy-handed entertainment instead of a lyrical masterpiece.
The opening of canto 30 abandons this formula. We pick up where canto 29 left off, as Dante meets the alchemists and the Falsifiers of Others’ Persons. In order to convey exactly how psychotic these sinners are, Dante compares their violence to two famously macabre stories from the ancients. First he tells the story of the goddess Juno, who arranged the death of Ino by sending Ino’s lover into a fit of madness during which he took Ino’s son and “whirled him round and dashed him on a rock.” Ino jumped into the ocean after her dead son and drowned. That’s plenty gruesome, but then Dante tells a second story, this one about Hecuba of Troy, who saw her two sons killed and went mad with grief. These mad Thebans and Trojans, Dante writes, are nothing compared to the crazed sinner we encounter here, in the Tenth Pouch of the Eighth Circle of Hell, who bites into the neck of a fellow sinner.
Capocchio, one of Dante’s former classmates who was introduced in Canto 29, is the guy being bitten; Griffolino, another sinner who was introduced in 29, explains that the aggressor—the biter—is Gianni Schicchi, who, when he was on earth, pretended to be the late Buoso Donati in order to help his own family inherit a sum of money. Griffolino also points out Myrrha, who appears in The Metamorphoses as the daughter of the King of Cyprus. She so lusted for her father that she put on a disguise and seduced him. Oops! Read More »
May 12, 2014 | by Alexander Aciman
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.Read More »