Recapping Dante: Canto 16, or the Pilgrim’s Progress


Arts & Culture


Giovanni Stradano, Canto XVI, 1587.

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

At this point in The Inferno, as Dante continues to test, stretch, and deplete Virgil’s patience, let us imagine for a moment what Virgil might say given the opportunity to write a performance review for the pilgrim.

Performance Review

Pilgrim name: Dante Alighieri
Occupation: Poet/expert stalker/political commentator (fascist?)
Age: Roughly halfway through the journey of his life

Supervisor’s notes:

Dante has done well on this divine quest so far, especially considering the fact that I found him lost in a forest not long ago. When we reached the end of this most recent section of Hell, Dante confessed that he’d intended to use a belt to fight off the leopard I saved him from—it’s safe to say that he has made considerable progress since he first came on. 

I still worry about him, however. He seems to listen to me almost blindly—I’m fairly certain that if I told him to jump off a bridge, he might actually do it. He can’t think for himself, and he’s not exactly a self-starter; he has middle management written all over him. He’d make a great lifelong employee, though I recommend putting him through purgatory before sending him up high. He still has a lot to learn.

He is prone to pity, and when we passed through the realm of the sodomites, I instructed him to treat the few sinners we would encounter with respect and kindness. This exercise came naturally to him, perhaps because the three sinners we met were fellow Florentines and Guelphs. I’d like to see how he might have handled himself in a room full of Ghibellines. Not too well, I imagine.

Dante can be irritating, but he has strong interpersonal skills—they almost make me wish I were a Florentine myself.  Any Florentine can recognize another by his clothes or by his accent. They’re a loyal group, bound by a love for one another and their city, and an arbitrary hatred for opposing political factions. When the three sinners asked if valor and courtesy still existed in Florence, the pilgrim informed them quickly and poetically about the current state of their beloved city.

I should also mention that Dante has a habit of using similes to describe situations, and he seems to be using them more and more. In one particular instance, he said the approaching sodomites were like “oiled and naked” wrestlers, which I felt was sort of unnecessary.  He also has an unhealthy fascination with rivers. Every time we come to a body of water, he can’t focus on anything else—just recently he stood and made an extended metaphor about a few different rivers, which, frankly, I thought was a bit of a stretch.

Dante admired all of the sinners, but the one who spoke to him, and with whom he seemed most affectionate, was a man named Jacopo Rusticucci, who blames his wife for his damnation. It is still unclear whether Rusticucci turned to sodomy because his wife denied him, or if he engaged in sodomy with his wife in an attempt to indulge her desire for anal play and ended up in hell for trying to keep his bedroom alive. Dante didn’t press the matter: he simply allowed the sinner to go on talking without getting to the, uh, bottom of it. He’s not a detail-oriented worker and gets distracted easily. He also leaps between states of extreme modesty and paroxysms of unrestrained arrogance. Here, for example, he allowed himself to go unnamed before his three fellow citizens, but later he will address an imaginary reader, as though somehow he’s in the middle of telling some epic story. Between these asides and the barrage of similes, I’m beginning to worry that his literary aspirations might get in the way of his future performance.

At the time I would not recommend him for a promotion, but I’m more than willing to train him until we reach the end of the Inferno. Perhaps by then he will think for himself and learn to interrogate the sinners more efficiently. I also recommend that he speak to HR, as he’s in sore need of help for his anxiety. He scares and faints easily, and this job, of all jobs, is not for the faint of heart.

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.