Farinata by John Flaxman
This fall, we’re recapping the Inferno. Read along!
There is a circle in hell reserved for the people who stop reading Dante and never make it to canto 10.
If there’s ever been any question as to whether the Inferno is really a great work of art, the answer lies in canto 10. If there is ever any doubt that Dante is worth rereading always—perhaps every year, like the Torah—canto 10 will remind us. If somehow we forget what sorrow, or remorse, or horror, or despair looks like—if we forget that sometimes human beings are at once so callous, and strangely tender, there again is canto 10.
If canto 10 is magnificent, it is perhaps because Dante takes two characters who have fizzled out of history almost entirely—real nobodies, by twenty-first-century standards—and has made them immortal. After Dante, could we ever forget Farinata, the Ghibelline who took Florence from the Guelphs and defended Florence with his own sword as the city was about to be razed? Can we complete the Inferno without remembering Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti, whose heart breaks right before us? If ever I forget what exactly it is about art that I love—or worse, begin to feel disillusioned by it—canto 10 reminds me.
Imagine that you are walking through a field of sepulchers, lids propped open, and all of the sudden a voice speaks to you in your native dialect. The voice belongs to Farinata. Who are your ancestors, he asks. Dante identifies himself as a Guelph, and the sinner tells Dante with a sort of unabashed pride that he twice chased his ancestors from Florence. Dante retorts that his ancestors returned twice—a skill the Ghibellines had struggled to learn. There’s something charming about this witty Dante—Dante later reminds the reader that there is also a pope and a cardinal in the sepulcher. You’ll see in the Inferno that there are countless bishops, popes, and cardinals in hell; Dante got political with his commentary.
Farinata is interrupted by Cavalcanti, who asks Dante why his son, Guido Cavalcanti, is not with him. Dante responds that he and Virgil are on their way to visit other sinners, some of whom Guido probably “held in scorn.” Cavalcanti bursts out—What? Did you say “he held?” Lives he not still? The moment in which Cavalcanti mourns the death of his son is one of high tragedy—Cavalcanti has, in an instant, lost everything at the hands of something as simple and as pathetic as a verb tense. Dante has broken away for a moment from his lyricism and into a sort of colloquial tone, almost as if he’s trying to elbow us in the rib, lean over, and whispering hey, remember, this is poem second, and it is art first. Of course Guido isn’t dead yet, but Cavalcanti is so overwhelmed by sadness that he falls back. Virgil warned Dante not to feel pity for the sinners, and with the exception of Pier delle Vigne, who will appear in a later canto, Cavalcanti may the easiest sinner to fall for.
But after Cavalcanti falls back, Farinata continues, and responds to Dante with a powerful premonition. Yes, he says, Farinata’s own faction, the Ghibellines, hadn’t yet found a way to get back into Florence, but soon enough, Dante would learn just how hard it really is to figure out such a thing. Dante too would be exiled.
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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.