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!
This canto is dedicated to those guilty of falsification. Dante dedicates the canto to Ovid, whose Metamorphoses he cites throughout—those opening stories of Thebes and Troy are also from Ovid.
As Dante moves on, he sees a sinner “fashioned like a lute”:
He had been sundered at the groin
From the joining where a man goes forked.
The man is Master Adam, who counterfeited coins. His physical condition leaves him parched and unable to move, and so he must sit, mutilated, dreaming of his home and the cool green hillsides near the Arno. He hears that some of his countrymen are also in hell, and says that if he could move only one inch in one hundred years, he would already be on his way to find the people he knows.
Master Adam starts ragging on the other sinners. One of them, in earshot, takes offense and flings an insult back at Adam, thus beginning a stichomythian exchange in which lyrical quips devolve into to Odd Couple–style insults. Dante is engrossed—he wants to see how the rest of the argument unfolds. This feels very much like pausing in the street to see just how far a fight between two bickering cab drivers will go.
Virgil intervenes to tell Dante that his rubbernecking has gone on long enough and that if they don’t move on, he’s going to get very upset. (Virgil’s relative absence in this canto is another reason it’s so unusual—the Hollanders point out that this is Virgil’s longest silence so far.) Dante, whose feelings are hurt by Virgil’s stern language, scurries off and tries to make things right with his guide, who probably wasn’t thrilled about being snubbed for the first 130 lines of the canto.
The Hollanders cleverly point out that the verbal tiff between the sinners is similar to the sort of petty bickering Dante was known for in his interactions with another poet of the time, Cecco Angiolieri. Cecco’s most famous poem is “S’i Fossi Foco”; its opening line goes, “If I were fire, the world, I’d set ablaze”—an ode to sinister intentions. But one of Cecco’s less studied poems is the equivalent of a dis-track aimed at Dante:
Dante, if I’m head fool it’s by a narrow
margin, you are right there at my heels.
I chew the fat and you suck out the marrow:
if I’m the houseguest, you appear for meals.
If I seem virtuous, you’re canonized;
if I hold forth, you’re burning to butt in;
I’m stuck in Rome, and you get Lombardized—
I hang the suit up, you brush off the lint.
It looks, praise God, like neither one of us
can justly act superior about
the other’s lack of sense or adverse fate,
and now if you persist in this debate,
Dante boy, I’ll simply wear you out:
since I’m the cattle-prod that drives your ox.
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