Recapping Dante: Canto 13, or Please Refrain from Touching the Shrubbery


Arts & Culture


Gustave Doré, The Inferno: Canto XIII.

This winter, we’re recapping the Inferno. Read along!

Once again we find ourselves lost in a dark wood. Dante notes that in this forest there is no actual greenery. (This is hell, after all. Where does he think he is, the New York Botanical Garden?)

As Dante and Virgil pass through the woods, the Roman tells his disciple that what they are about to witness is unthinkable. Virgil, seeing that Dante can hear screaming but cannot tell where the sounds are coming from, tells him to tear a twig from one of the thorny bushes; the moment in which Dante finally removes the twig is one of the most memorable in all of literature. Blood pours from the tree, and a pained, hissing voice cries: Perché mi schiante? Perché mi scerpi? Why do you break me, why do you tear me? The voice belongs to Pier delle Vigne, chancellor to Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor. Virgil asks Pier to tell his story so that Dante can “revive his fame” up in the living world. Pier’s story is as tragic as the moment in which he loses one of his twigs. He was loyal to Frederick, and was later accused of stealing from him. Not long after his imprisonment, Pier killed himself.

This ring in which Dante finds himself is the realm of the suicides, who, ungrateful for their bodies on earth, are deprived of flesh in hell.

Pier is an unusual sinner. When we finish reading the Inferno, we do not think back to Homer or Odysseus; we think of sinners like Pier and Ugolino and Francesca. What makes for a memorable sinner? Yes, the brief mention of a pope here and there, or of Alexander, is interesting, but why is it that Alexander gets one line and this chancellor gets most of a canto? In fact, the sinners that stay with us, embedded not only in our memory but canonized in literary history, are not those whose damnation fills us with pleasure, but rather those whose stories fill us with pity. Their sins begin to seem like small pitstops along the route of their lives—trifles so easily overlooked, so easily forgiven, that we hardly dwell on them. The Francescas and the Piers of hell are the greatest sinners of the Inferno. After meeting them, we are mystified by the poetry of their speeches—Pier, a tree, hissing in pain, Francesca beating the word love into every verse—and as we stand before them, we forget that they are sinners at all.

Canto 13 is a shift from the river of blood and the tombs on fire. In canto 8, Dante shouts at a sinner who has come to the surface of the Styx, and Virgil applauds his scorn. Virgil has warned Dante not to feel pity, and scolds him often when he doesn’t obey. But here, Virgil doesn’t seem to take pleasure in watching Dante rip a branch from the tree, nor does he castigate him for pitying Pier. Even Virgil, the seasoned hell-traveler, feels differently before this scene.

Suddenly, after Pier stops speaking, two naked sinners run through the forest and knock a few leaves off a nearby shrub. Like Pier, the shrub cries, and in a moment of despair he asks to have his leaves gathered at his foot. This request is so lamentably pathetic that we cannot help but ask why he wants his leaves collected and placed nearby—to be more careful with his remains than he was with his body on earth, or to grab hold of the little he has, as meaningless as it is?

By making sinners like Pier so famously lamentable, Dante does exactly what Virgil promises he will do: he revives the fame of these sinners—or absolves them on earth. It is one thing to mention a name like Filippo Argenti and make them relevant (or even to punish them by dedicating so few lines to them), but characters like Pier become immortal. Dante has made good on his promise: the tragic and the forgotten are the stars of the Inferno.

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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.