Sandro Botticelli, Canto XVIII, colored drawing on parchment, c. 1480
Canto 18 is perhaps the unsung workhorse of the Inferno—at only 136 lines, it is filled to the brim with political commentary, mythology, personal attacks, and feces. There’s a distinct energy in the way this canto is written; even the obligatory geographical descriptions feel alive, and Dante, when he sets the scene, uses the word new: new suffering, “new torments,” “new scourgers.” In short, this is a sort of broad-spectrum dis track that deals with two different kinds of sinners: the panderers/seducers and the flatterers.
After Dante and Virgil get off Geryon’s back, they end up in the eighth circle of hell. (The seventh really dragged on, didn’t it?) This is Malebolge, where sinners are made to run through a series of ditches; if they slow down, demons descend to flog them. As grim as this might sound—running naked through a ditch in hell, being whipped by demons—Dante uses the occasion to showcase his wit. “How they made them pick their heels up / at the first stroke! You may be certain no one waited for a second or a third.”
Dante meets Venedico of Bologna—a sinner, and as such, not exactly a model human being. (He sold off his sister.) Venedico identifies himself and his fellow Bolognese as those who use the word sipa to mean yes in their dialect. (Dante frequently uses this sort of indirect revelation, especially when it comes to hometowns. Francesca, for example, doesn’t say she is from Rimini, but she says she is from where the river Po slows down. Using a linguistic idiosyncrasy as a form of ID is classic Dante.) Venedico’s words suggest this is precisely the sort of thing one can expect from a Bolognese: “I’m not the only Bolognese here … this place is so crammed with them,” he says.
Dante scurries over to Jason, a sinner marching nobly through the pain. Jason traveled to Lemnos, home to a bunch of unattached women—unattached because they’d murdered their husbands—and then he seduced one of them and left her when she was pregnant. Dante judges Jason, but I’d like to see him stick around after accidentally impregnating a murderer.
Finally, Dante shifts his focus to the other ditch: this one’s for the flatterers, who are smeared in shit and busy devouring it. I’m sure scholars have debated, and may be presently debating, whether Dante means to suggest that flatterers are full of shit or that they are shit-eaters. My personal verdict? Both.
Dante recognizes one of the sinners through the veil of crap—in case there was any ambiguity regarding Dante’s feelings about the church, he even notes that the sinner is so ridiculously lathered in feces that it’s hard to tell if he’s a priest or a layperson. As it turns out, the sinner is Alessio Interminei of Lucca, a noble member of the White Guelph party, whom Dante apparently found worthy of direct attack.
Writing canto 18, one can only imagine, must have offered some form catharsis. Dante is unabashed and unreserved. And indeed, the poetry here is remarkable, and the story full of lessons: namely, never trust anyone from Bologna.
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.
Last / Next Article