Inferno Canto XII lecture - English subtitles

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Inferno Canto XII
Professor Andrea Mazzucchi
Università di Napoli ‘Federico II’
Critical treatments of Inferno Canto 12 have
expressed serious reservations, and even quite
negative assessments, that it is discordant in
tone and lacks organic structure.
Although there are more balanced evaluations
of the canto, especially in the last decade, the
traditional assessment of it is still to be found in
some more recent authoritative commentaries.
Therefore before proceeding to a new reading
of the canto, which, - I clarify now – in no way
shares such reservations, it is apt that we ask
about the reasons behind so widespread and
reductive an evaluation.
The poor critical fortune of this canto must
be attributed above all to a narrative structure
which is articulated in a variety of ways, and
has given rise to the erroneous impression of a
certain dissipation of themes and motifs not
entirely coherently resolved around a central
focal point.
This multiplicity of narrative sequences must
have been obvious to those responsible for the
illustrations of early manuscripts of the
Commedia, such as ms33 of the Library of the
University of Budapest, or the Codice Filippino
of the Oratoriana in Naples.
In them, the miniatures which depict the
fundamental stages of the ‘iter per mortuos’,
the journey through the dead, of Dante and
Virgil and which, have on average two or, at
most, three vignettes per canto. However they
reach a total respectively of 4 and 6 for canto
One may add that the traditional tendency to
condense the material of the Dantean cantos in
an eponymous formula, generally that of the
most prominent character, has heavily
conditioned many readers of this canto,
including recent ones, so that it has become
the “canto of the centaurs”.
This has led to an undeserved and in many
aspects misleading and arbitrary interpretation
of the episode carried out in an excessively
aestheticising and emotive key, linking it to the
‘maladetti / nei nuvoli formati’, “damned formed
in the clouds” of Purg. XXIV 121-22, in an
attempt to soften or completely erase its
savagery and monstrousness.
The episode, held to be empty of any
intrinsic connection with the rest of the text has
been judged to be as single poetic nucleus of
the canto.
The author has chosen an expressive narrative
strategy which strongly reduces the role of the
‘agens’, whose function is limited exclusively to
the narrative slant and whose role is exhausted
in the meticulous recording of visual experience
alone, conceding nothing to sentimental
suggestions: not one word is uttered by Dante
the character.
This choice has certainly contributed, I
believe in decisive measure, to rendering the
enjoyment and estimation of this canto
problematic for a critical approach which is
particularly sensitive to the lyrical effects and
emotional seductions of the poem.
This difficulty of reducing an articulated
narrative score to a single motif, with the
consequent expansion of the importance and
functions of a single episode, that of the
centaurs, and a strategy of exposition which
privileges, at least in the relationship of the
‘agens’ with the other actors/agents the
descriptive register over the dramatic,
are thus the elements which have conditioned,
albeit with some notable exceptions, the
interpretation of readers and commentators of
this canto XII of the Inferno.
It will be fitting therefore to start again from just
these elements in order to attempt a different
evaluation of them, less conditioned by
anachronistic aesthetic prejudices, except then
to test them in a comprehensive ‘explication du
2. First of all, the narrative splintering is more
apparent than real and is rather the result of a
skilful expositional strategy which aims to
reproduce, articulating the stages and ably
varying the perspectives, the progress of Dante
and Virgil through the first subcircle of the
seventh circle, almost a mise en abîme, a
portrayal in a minor key, of the full journey.
The whole structure has movement as its
foundation with verbs of motion recurring in
verses 1-2; 28; 58; 76; 100; 113; 115; 126; and
139. Narrative suspense and tension is
produced by the appearance before the two
‘viatores’ of ever new, unexpected, unusual,
and astonishing objects:
the ruin; the unnaturally produced landslide
– a unique historical event in the immobile
infernal world; the Minotaur; the centaurs; the
river of boiling blood - the name of which will
only be revealed later - and in which the
damned are immersed to be boiled. The
centaur Nessus will then list them, attractive to
mediaeval tastes, as he points them out to
Dante with a wide-ranging use of deictics.
But it is not only the representation of
Underlying the poetic-narrative composition of
the canto, its syntagmatic structure, is a
hypodiscourse based on the recurrence of
lexemes and images which refer back to the
common denominator of the bestialisation of
the human and degradation towards the feral :
Thus “the infamy of Crete conceived in the
false cow” (vv. 12-13), the Minotaur (v. 25),
beast (v. 19), which is prey to an “bestial anger”
and leaps in a grotesque fashion to the
slaughter; and the “cenataurs armed with
arrows” (v. 56), the great Chiron, the impetuous
and vengeful Nessus, the irascible Pholus, (v.
Pholus, whose double-nature, human and
equine the narrator insistently underlines (v. 84;
94; 96); and again the images and lexemes
referring back to the horrific perverting of the
human form, With a strong realistic flavour the
parts of the body are revealed, discordantly and
deceptively isolated:
il «ciglio» “the brow” (v. 103), the «fronte»
“forehead” (v. 109), «’l pel» “skin” (v. 109) , «la
gola» “throat” (v. 116), «lo cor»”heart” (v. 120),
«la testa» “head” (v. 122), «’l casso» “chest” (v.
122), «li piedi» “feet” (v. 125), dominated by
four (or maybe five, as we will see)
appearances of the motif of blood. (vv. 47, 75,
101, 105; 120).
Man thus reduced to his physical materiality
and having become violent, has lost his rational
faculties and so, as Dante says in Convivio II 7.
4 «non vive uomo, ma vive bestia»: “he lives
not as a man but as a beast”: in an emblematic
overturning of roles, the bestial centaurs shoot
the damned who are reduced to being the
animal prey of ranks of sadistic hunters. (v. 74).
In this way the canto translates the notion of
“matta bestialitate” (mad bestialità), introduced
in an expository and didactic mode in Inferno XI
into efficacious images (the mountainous and
horrifying infernal topography, the zoomorphic
monsters, the damned immersed in the river
Phlegethon and hunted by the centaurs).
Violence corrupts the original profile of
human nature, introducing into man a bestial
trait and thus reducing the individual from the
condition of ‘humanitas’ to that of ‘feritas’.
Feritas does not affect him however only as an
individual, but, insofar as it is an obstacle to
civil life , it extends to the collective/community:
rather it is an eminently political sin.
The tyrants, not by chance immersed up to
their brows in the Phlegethon, are therefore,
like the Minotaur and centaurs, monstrous at
the level of community, insofar as they destroy
the harmony between the parts and deform the
social order, removing themselves, through
their evil (malvagità) from the natural political
They are, as St Thomas writes in his
commentary on Aristotle’s Politics, more like
beasts than men. In the connection in Dante’s
imaginary between bestiality and those who
«dier nel sangue e nell’aver di piglio»”took to
blood and plunder” (v. 105) the etymology of
beasts cannot have been extraneous.
The 14th century commentator Guido da
Pisa makes the connection in his Expositiones:
«Bestie quasi vastie dicuntur et signant divites
et potentes qui terram devastant». “Beasts
sounds like waste (vastie) and signifies the rich
and powerful who devastate the earth.”
3. Having restored then to the narrative
fabric of the canto a certain ideological density
and a certain imaginative uniformity, I believe
that the episode of the centaurs must also be
removed from the splendid isolation to which it
had been condemned by a strong cohort of
Instead we must recover its intimate
coherence with the general picture traced by
Dante in this canto of tragic monstrous demonic
bestiality, which carries out the double function
of rhetorically symbolising the sin, and
providing an exemplary warning to the reader
The sentiment of aesthetic admiration seems
to me difficult to sustain, and above all
divergent from the aim of a correct
reconstruction of the ‘intentio auctoris’. Even
less admissible is the slide into moral
admiration which many commentators and
readers of this canto have and do believe they
see in the description of the centaurs.
In order to capture the authentic aesthetic
dimension of Dante’s centaurs we must ignore
the equilibrium and harmony of the marbles of
Phidias on the Parthenon, or the anachronistic
group sculptures of humanism and the
renaissance, evoked respectively by Ernesto
Parodi or Guido Mazzoni.
Instead, we must turn to mediaeval sculpture
and engraving, the grammar and logic of the
Roman and Gothic tetramorph, in which, as the
studies of Baltrušaitis have shown, the
monstrous is founded upon the addition of
parts, on combination and encrustation of
heterogeneous material, on mixture, distension
and emphasis
We may recall here the insistence on the
adjective “grande” used of the centaurs by
Dante, of living forms belonging to diverse
The mediaeval monster must then suggest,
through the association of incompatible
elements, of antimonies (such as that of
humanitas and feritas) a discord in which the
hybrid marrying of human and animal traits as it
gives life to contemptible and aberrant bodily
transformations, must provoke an immediate
The ranks of armed centaurs, hunting along
the banks of the Phlegethon must therefore
have suggested to the first readers of the
Commedia not so much an aesthetic
satisfaction foreign to the infernal situation
portrayed, as rather,
as Achille Tartaro, has recalled, going back
to those unsettling monstrous epiphanies in
which the devil, assuming the appearance of a
hippocentaur or an onocentaur (its inferior
variant in the middle ages) appeared in order to
tempt devout hermits, as in Jerome’s Life of St
Paul, or Athanasius’ Life of St Antony, retold by
Jerome and Jacobus de Voragine in the
Legenda Aurea, thereby enjoying wide
Alongside the hagiographic texts we may
also consider the symbolic significance
attributed to the ‘figurae mixtae’ in the
bestiaries: this in the second version of the
Latin Physiologus, the archetype for later
analogous texts, the onocentaur,
The onocentaur has the upper part like a
man and the lower part like an ass, and is
assimilated into the «vecordes atque bilingues
homines informes», and this allegorical
decodification is supported with reference to
Ps., 48 21: «Homo cum in honore esset non
intellexit; comparatus est iumentis insipientibus,
et similis factus est illis».
In confirmation of the demonic characterisation
of the centaur, fruit of the risemanticisation (in
which Dante also participated) of classical
echoes an suggestions in Christian mediaeval
culture, one could cite, without wishing to
attribute to such comparisons any intertextual
but evaluating them prudently as simple
threads useful for the reconstruction of an
interdiscursive cultural patrimony by no means
foreign to the creative route of Dantean
invention, the depictions of such monsters in
the iconographical cycles linked to the motif of
the Universal Judgement,
as for example in the centaur positioned at
the feet of Lucifer in the mosaic in the Baptistry
in Florence datable to 1260/70, attributed to
Coppo di Marcovaldo and often noted as a
possible model from which “Dante took
important cues and suggestions for the
construction of his own Inferno”.
The attention of the reader is constantly
brought back to the chest of the centaurs by
Dante, as Singleton has well observed, to the
point where the human descends into the
So too the insistence on disharmony, on the divergence
of limbs, and an emphasis on size, through
intensification (e.g.«il gran Chiron» v. 71; «la gran
bocca» v. 79; «il gran centauro» v. 104); the sadistic
activity of the centaurs and their connection (also
phonemic) with the Minotaur; the entire negative
consideration of these monsters in mediaeval culture
(uniformly received in the 14th century commentaries,
despite their variety of exegetical positions);
and, finally, but perhaps most revealing of all,,
the place in which Dante has placed the
centaurs (noted by Francesco da Buti) - are not
insubstantial arguments. The characterisation
of the centaurs in a demonic or tetramorphic
sense, as symbols, emblems of bestial violence
is a characterisation perfectly coherent with the
overall tonality of the canto.
In conclusion, before tracing the articulated
diegetic plot of Inferno XII, we come to the last
element which could, even implicitly, have
conditioned, critical judgements on the canto.
I refer to the limited, almost suspended,
emotional participation of Dante agens, evident
in his total absence of speech.
This is an intentional representational strategy,
the consequences of which do not seem to me
to have been noted in previous studies of the
canto. Subjective and aesthetic judgements
aside, it has serious implications, coherent with
the entire atmosphere of the canto, especially
when we consider how unusual the use of such
a technique of representation is in the Inferno.
Dante the character remains completely silent in only
two other cantos of the first cantica: in XVII (91-93)
where the motif of the blocked word is an explicit
theme, attributing the cause to the horror provoked by
the downward flight of the monster Geryon (note the
analogous, unusual astonishing figura mixta with its
strong demonic connotations); and in XXV, the canto of
the metamorphosis of the damned into serpents, beasts
noted in the Middle Ages as having the power to cause
a destructive fascination. ,
In canto XXV once again a form of perversion of
the human image is condemned, a mixture of
humanitas and feritas, one anticipated by the
appearance in the opening verses of Cacus
«centauro pien di rabbia» “ a centaur filled with
rage”. Nor is it irrelevant to note that, though
not lasting the entire canto, the character Dante
suffers an analogous loss of communication at
the sight of Lucifer, in Inferno XXXIV 22-24.
The loss of speech of the character will also be
used intentionally by the narrator to
characterize the crucial, decisive stages of the
psychological and representational itinerary of
the agens in the lower Inferno. Canto XII,
which, with the Minotaur and the centaurs
marks the beginning of a new part of the
journey with a more demanding and arduous
experience of the knowledge of evil.
Canto XVII in which Geryon transports the
two travellers into the world of fraud: Canto
XXXIV at the end, in which the presence of
Lucifer closes not only the series of Dantean
demons but also the investigation into the
essence of evil.
In canto XII in particular this iterated silence
is functional for the representation in a
hyperbolic key of the intense feelings, of fear
and horror of the pilgrim, not made explicit
elsewhere. It is an expressive choice capable
of translating very effectively the first anguished
encounter of the protagonist with the zones of
lower hell.
The monstrous epiphanies of the Minotaur
and centaurs, with their connected strangeness
and instability of form, and the repertoire of the
horrific and marvellous, with the ferocious
tormented human beasts, the horrible stench,
the shrill screams of the damned echoing, the
horror of the landscape and the unusual
Phlegethon induce in the protagonist a general
condition of fearful astonishment.
His senses are dulled and he loses the power
of speech. Indeed Virgil constantly has to solicit
his participation and attention: in v. 26 the alert
guide has to “shout” because the pilgrim, who
should be staying quite close, rushes off to
escape from the enraged Minotaur through an
“opening” in the ruins;
and in verse 46 another command from Virgil
directs the terrified gaze of Dante towards the
new suffering; and up to v. in front of the three
centaurs who menacingly confront the new
arrivals, Virgil’s exhortation can no longer be
simply verbal, but, with studied variatio, also
Nor should recourse to notions of stupefaction
to characterise and define the psychological
condition of the agens in this canto appear like
a curious modern critical excogitation,
surreptitiously introduced to account for the
particular expressive strategy adopted by
Dante in this canto.
Statements to be found in the Summa
Theologica of St Thomas are convincing.
According to Aquinas stupor “which is caused
by an unusual image” comes from the
consideration of a malum insolitum, an unusual
evil: and the monstra which appear in the
horrifying infernal scene of the first subcircle of
the seventh circle are certainly uncommon
manifestations of evil.
5. We have now recovered some constitutive
elements of the compositional strategies of the
canto from frequent, unmerited, and reductive
assessments, and returned to an evaluation,
one hopes, which follows the internal logic of
the text and the imaginary of mediaeval culture,
and of Dante himself, more closely.
We move on finally to examine the narrative
fabric, pausing inevitably only on some of the
questions which the marvellous workings of
Dantean discourse offer the reader.
Through the detailed and precise topographical
description of the savage nature of the place
and the announcement, played with calculated
narrative tension, of an event as yet
unspecified but already charged with strongly
disturbing elements condensed in the pronoun
“tal”, the narrator right from the first tercet
proposes the motif of horror which will
dominate the entire atmosphere of the canto
XII 1-3
The altering of the ordo naturalis of the
sentence, with the subject positioned after the
verb and the violent hyperbaton which
noticeably distances the nominal predicate from
the copulative, governing both «alpestro» and
«tal», the syntactic split between two relative
clauses, the enjambement of verses 1-2,
and finally a rhythmical phonematic structure
made of a series of suspensions and reprises
which does not try to avoid harsh consonantal
clashes – all of these features show that the
whole formal structure is charged with reflecting
the sense of a disturbed and violent reality.
The cliff which will allow the transition from the
sixth to the seventh circle is immediately
qualified as “alpine”, empty that is, as
Boccaccio puts it, “of any path or road as we
mostly see the ravines of the Alps and of wild
This adjective of a topographic sort, is also a
usage characteristic of the poetry of Guittone
d’Arezzo, and has strong political connotations
in denouncing the degeneration of the citizen to
an animal, provoked by the exercise of violence
and factional strife, and the reduction of the city,
a public community par excellence, to a savage
place in accordance with the decisive
problematic nucleus of this canto.
The description of the landslide, which
defers the release of the narrative tension of
verse 3, is carried out with the characteristic
Dantean technique of a simile with places,
which exist and can be seen (v. 4-10)
The infernal ravine is thus compared to a
landslide caused either by an earthquake or
erosion of the rocks, which struck the bank of
the Adige downstream from Trent, so that it
provided a path, albeit an uncomfortable one,
for anyone coming down from the top of the
mountain. It refers to a place called the Slavini
di San Marco, which Dante himself may have
visited during his time in the Veneto.
This possible personal memory is here joined
to a citation of Albert the Great’s De Meteoris, a
reference first noted by Benvenuto da Imola
and undoubtedly a source for this passage. On
the formal level of the verse it is worth noting
the inclusive rhyme in verses 8-10 which
appears to phonetically suggest the effect of
the landslide.
A later witness to the amazing capacity for
association in Dante’s language is found in
verses 101-3 of canto XVI when the same
rhyme (scesa : discoscesa) returns, again
signalling a passage, this time from the seventh
to the eighth circle of Hell.
6. In the rocky Alpine terrain, at the top edge of
the broken slope “on the edge of the broken
chasm”, and so at the border between two
different worlds, a fitting place for monsters
according to the Liber monstruorum, and
perfectly in keeping with the horrifying scene
just described the Minotaur makes it
appearance, taken from the classical tradition,
essentially from Virgil and Ovid. The verses
which follow are dedicated to it (11-27).
The periphrasis utilised to defer the direct
naming of the monster “the infamy of Crete that
was conceived in the false cow” is constructed
by Dante in a reworking of details from Virgil
and Ovid, done with his usual freedom of
adaptation. At the appearance of the two
travellers the ugly bestial mass grotesquely
comes to life, biting itself like someone
overcome by a deep-seated anger.
Faced with this enraged reaction, Virgil
addresses the Minotaur, reminding it of its
death by the hand of Theseus following the
instructions of Ariadne. Naming it “bestia”,
“beast”, Virgil orders it to move away and allow
Dante continue on his journey to acquire
knowledge of evil, a necessary premiss for
salvation: «ma vassi per veder le vostre pene»,
“journeys here to see your punishments” a
“he journeys here to see your punishments” a
formula in which the insistent alliteration seems
to produce an effect of enchantment and
suggest a peremptoriness not dissimilar that
obtained in the preceding cantos, by the
strongly alliterative and equally peremptory
formula «vuolsi così colà dove si puote / ciò
che si vuole», “thus it is willed there where that
can be done which is willed”.
Virgil’s words to the Minotaur thus repeat,
with slight variation, the characteristic schema
of the meeting with demons in hell, whose vain
opposition is rebuffed by the wise guide with his
appeal to the will of God. Here, however they
are concealed behind the mention of Theseus,
traditionally regarded in the Middle Ages as a
‘figura Christi’.
Virgil’s stinging injunction uses the weapon
of scorn and his provocation hits its target: the
Minotaur is no longer able to block the path of
the two travellers as it falls prey to a paroxysm
of rage. Dante strengthens the bestial
connotations of the scene with the simile of a
bull which having been struck in its vital nerves
“plunges this way and that.”
Virgil “having noted the momentary
bewilderment which strikes the Minotaur”
shouts to Dante - who, on the contrary, we
must imagine is stunned, blocked by fear – to
take advantage of the moment and quickly
cross the “ford” created by the landslide.
Notable at the end is a reading, proposed
first in the anonymous 14th century Chiose
ambrosiane, then taken up again independently
by Matteo Chiromono and Velluttello, but
strangely omitted by modern commentators,
which recognises in verse 27 an echo of Ovid’s
Remedia amoris 119. «Dum furor in cursu est
currenti cede furori». “while madness is in full
flow, give way to the rush of madness”
If one accepts, as seems plausible to me,
the influence of the Ovidian hexameter on the
Dantean verse, the recovery of such a
subtextual verbal connection would recommend
a different textual reading of «mentre ch’è ’n
furia», as in the 1921 edition of Dante’s text,
and again in the recent edition by Sanguineti,
with the recovery of the substantive furor, rather
than Petrocchi’s reading «mentre ch’e’ ’nfuria».
Emblem, warning, precisely the mediaeval
etymology of ‘monstrum’ – of mad bestiality, -
which is is identified with violence in almost all
the early commentaries, with the sole exception
of Guido Da Pisa, and confirmed in large part
by the modern commentators - the Minotaur is
for Dante the first of the monsters encountered
in the lower part of hell, and undoubtedly the
guardian of the seventh circle.
Nonetheless the major part of the 14thcentury commentators on this canto (Lana,
Guido Da Pisa, the Ottimo Commento, Pietro
Alighieri, Maramauro, Benvenuto da Imola,
Francesco da Buti, the Anonimo Fiorentimo)
mention in their glosses a rationalising
interpretation of the mythical story.
This is found in, to cite texts presumably
known to Dante, the commentaries of Servius
and Bernardus Silvestris on the Aeneid, of
Arnulph of Orleans and John of Garland on
Ovid, and in the Historia Scholastica of Peter
Comestor (Pietro Mangiadore of Paradiso X)
The early commentators on Dante are
valuable not only in marking more or less
pertinent intertextual adaptations, but mainly
because they allow us to reconstruct Dante’s
interdiscursive library and so the patrimony of
knowledge common to authors and readers of
the time.
I do not believe that it can be excluded that
Dante, whilst rejecting a reading in a
euhemeristic key, of mere poetic fictio of the
myth, was in some way conditioned by it when
he chose to locate the Minotaur in the
subsection of circle of the violence containing
cruel tyrants.
Afetr his account of the stor. Jacomo della
Lana clarifies: “The allegory of the fable is that
the said King Minos of Crete was a just person
and so fought just battles … The Minotaur
depicts the son who succeeded him in the
kingdom and ruled for a time according to the
counsel of base bestial men, and was a tyrant.
And the poets say that since he followed
bestial counsels he was half ox and half man:
as a he was tyrant they depict him as eating
human flesh” concluding in a way that seems to
me acceptable in substance, that “since he led
a tyrannical life so Dante introduces him in this
canto which is that of the tyrants.”
Despite the efforts of Guido Mazzoni and
many other modern commentators to dig up
clues from Dante’s text that would suggest the
latter figure, we must recognise with Steven
Botterill that “the text of Inferno XII offers no
conclusive grounds for accepting a humanheaded Minotaur”.
The question therefore remains open.
Nor can it be resolved by recourse to
ambiguous formulations («mixtum genus»,
«proles biformis», «discordem fetum», «monstri
biformis», «parte virum […] parte bovem»,
«taurique virique», or the very famous
«semibovemque virum semivirumque bovem»
“A man, half ox, an ox, half man”) of classical
sources available to Dante.
Nor can the mention of the horn in Ovid
(Heroides X. 107) and in Statius (Theb. XI 671)
necessarily have suggested a bull’s head to
Dante, as Botterill maintains. The alternative
hypothesis of the Minotaur depicted as a
horned centaur, cannot be excluded.
This would be similar for example to onewhich
stands along with Theseus in the mosaic floor
depicting a labyrinth in the Church of San
Michele Maggiore in Pavia, bearing the
unambiguous inscription: «Theseus intravit
monstrumque biforme necavit» “Theseus
entered and killed the two-formed monster.”
Or like those reproduced in the miniatures of
the manuscript Arsenal 8530 in Paris; or the
famous Riccardiana 1035 of Florence, believed
by some to have been transcribed and drawn
by Boccaccio. Mediaeval Latin lexicographic
and encyclopediac texts give varying
responses and this uncertainty is reflected in
the earliest Dante exegesis.
Francesco Da Buti demonstrates a knowledge
of the classical representations, as opposed to
Jacopo Alighieri for whom the Minotaur is «dal
petto in su uomo, e l’altro busto d’un toro»,
“From the chest up a man, and the rest a bull”.
So too the Anonimo Fiorentino and, finally and
rather strangely given his usual reliance on
Buti’s commentary, Guiniforte Barzizza.
Nor do the illustrations which decorate the 14th
and 15th century illustrated manuscripts of the
Commedia make a decisive contribution, in the
absence of a concrete reference, except to
testify to the diffusion and plausibility of certain
iconographic models. They always depict, the
Minotaur with a human upper body and taurine
lower body. with the single exception of the
already cited ms 33 of the Library of the
University of Budapest.
This choice is influenced perhaps by the
presence in the same canto of the centaurs
whose morphology is not open to question.
We can add to our considerations so far, without wishing to accuse Dante himself of
uncertainty about the shape of the Minotaur –
simply that this could have been influenced by
the figurative association of the Cretan monster
with the centaurs, as with the miniaturists.
There is also the proximity of the mention of
both monsters in works by St Augustine and
Isidore of Seville.
Finally, one further consideration might be
proposed, with the necessary caution.
The assimilation of the morphology of the
Minotaur to that of the centaur could have
occurred in Dante’s prodigious memory,
according to a route analogous to that which
saw the apparently even more inexplicable
transformation of the undefined monster Cacus
into a centaur.
This was the fruit of a contamination between
the Virgilian «semihominis Caci facies» of
Aeneid VIII 194, and the Ovidian «semiferi» e
«semihomines», in Metamorphoses XII 406
and 546, which apply precisely to the centaurs,
as Benvenuto da Imola was the first to
Why then not speculate on a similar association
between these same expressions and the
Ovidian «semivirumque bovem semibovemque
virum», with was widely used to designate the
7. Having overcome the obstacle of the
Minotaur, the two visitors make their way down
the mass of rock with difficulty, down the
“scarco”, “debris”, a hapax, rhyming with
“carco”. The rocky debris, in a touch of realism,
moves under the unexpected weight of Dante’s
body (v.28-30)
Certainly, the movement of the stones is a
realistic touch, but Benevento proposes a
rather thought-provoking meta-literary reading,
a subtle claim if Dantean primacy «Potest etiam
dici allegorice, quod autor movebat istos
lapides descriptione sua, qui prius erant
immoti», “It can also be said allegorically that
the author moved those stones which had not
been moved before, through his description”,
This to suggest, without too much subtlety, that
no-one before Dante had been capable of
crossing and, which counts even more,
describing such a ruined landscape.
A ruin heavy with a unique significance which is
then explained in the five tercets which follow
(vv. 31-45).
Virgil provides Dante with an explanation of the
origin of the infernal landslide. Its cause is to be
found in the miraculous earthquake (mentioned
by Matthew, 27:51 «et terra mota est, et petrae
scissae sunt» “The earth moved and the rocks
were split”) which followed the death of Christ.
The prodigious cataclysm, a sign of how much
the earth was moved by the death of the son of
God, was felt even in the foul (“feda”) depths of
the chasm of hell, suggesting to the pagan
Virgil the erroneous hypothesis that “the
universe” felt “love”, i.e. that coming together of
the elements which led Empedocles (known to
Dante through Aristotle) to believe that the
world returned to a state of chaos.
The consequences of that marvellous event
were the landslides, the “ruine” in this and other
places in hell, and indelible sign of a wounded
nature and the violence perpetrated on God by
But also correct is the evangelical “ego sum
via”, “I am the way” (John 14: 6), sign of the
possible redemption of man obtained through
the death of Christ, sign therefore of the love of
God for humanity, and, in Dante’s infernal
topography, a path, albeit uncomfortable, in the
chasm created by the death of Christ, which
renders possible a way through evil, a
necessary premiss to overcoming it.
8. With Virgil’s important digression Dante
demonstrates his narrative skill in creating a
momentary pause. This paves the way for the
new and horrific infernal scene which now
confronts the two viatores (vv. 46-48):
As they climb down the rubble of the landslide
Virgil invites Dante to fix his gaze on the river of
blood in which those violent against others are
immersed to be boiled.
A metaphorical chain of culinary humour begins
here (Küchenhumor as identified by Ernst
Robert Curtius) which is repeated in this canto
in verses 101, 102 and 125, and to greater
descriptive effect in the later cantos dedicated
to the barraters (XXI-XXII).
The spectacle is dominated by the «riviera del
sangue» “river of blood”, which with varying
definitions («bollor vermiglio» “boiling crimson”,
v. 101; «bulicame»” stream”, v. 117; «quel
sangue» “that blood”, v. 125) crosses the
subcircle of the violent against others; skirts the
wood of the suicides (XIV 10-11); and reemerges in the subcircle of the violent against
God (XIV 76-84 e XV 1-3).
There it is finally (v. 116) recognised and
named as the Phlegethon; then it falls with a
crashing noise into the circle below (XVI 91105), thus constituting an authentic fil rouge, a
strong connective element throughout the
entire section dedicated to violence.
Phlegethon, already an infernal river in
antiquity, was consistently imagined as a river
of fire in the classical tradition, first by Virgil and
Statius (Aeneid VI 550-51 and Thebaid IV 523),
and in the etymology elaborated by Servius and
confirmed in Uguccione da Pisa’s Magnae
Derivationes. Macrobius further confirmed this
image, with moral connotations of which Dante
was most likely aware, as the always wellinformed Pietro Alighieri was first to indicate.
The motif associated with that of immersion
also has biblical antecedents: we can think of
the “stagnum ignis” (Apocalypse 20.14) the
lake of fire in which the damned perish, an
image frequently reproduced in the
iconography of the last judgement.
The addition of blood would seem to be entirely
Dante’s invention and a conscious ‘novitas’ in
emulating and adding to the subtexts.
This functions within the logic of the
‘contrapasso’ and thus is strongly linked to the
idea of violence and the punishment of tyrants,
murderers, bandits and robbers. This can be
traced back through interconnected biblical
references, certainly known to Dante and
carefully linked by his early commentators, to
the scriptural category of “homines sanguinis”
“men of blood”) (Sirach 34. 25)
Dante’s ability to modify his own sources,
disguising them through combinations and
allusive games will certainly not be dimiiinished
by some other possible links that may have
suggested to him, perhaps by synergy, the
substitution, to great figurative and structural
effect, of the classical burning river with
immersion in a river of boiling blood.
Another possible influence is in the epiisode of
Thamyris the queen of the Scythians, who for
revenge immersed the head of Cyrus in a skin
full of human blood, according to the story in
Orosius (II 7 6). This is recalled by Dante in
Purgatorio XII 57, and widely cited by the
earliest commentators.
Also the citation recovered by Pascoli, but
already linked by Pietro Alighieri, of Seneca’s
De Ira, II 5 4, in which, faced with Hannibal’s
enthusiasm on seeing a ditch «sanguine
humano plenam» “full of human blood”, the
narrator adds «Quanto pulchrius illi visum
esset, si flumen aliquod lacumque
complesset!» “How much more beautiful would
it have seemed to him, had it filled a river and a
The connection of blood with anger,
recognised, in the next tercet, and a decisive
co-cause of violence, should then have
recommended Landino’s comment to modern
readers (which doesn’t seem to me to have
Commenting on the violent punished in blood,
after having cited the episode of Thamyris,
Landino notably adds «Preterea bollono nel
sangue e’ violenti, perché sono incitati da ira la
quale è bollimento di sangue», “So the violent
boil in blood, because they are incited by anger
which is the boiling of the blood”, which takes in
a literal sense the aristitotelian-thomistic
definition of anger as «accensio sanguinis circa
cor» burning of the blood around the heart”.
Whatever the intertextual process which led to
the “river of blood”, there is no doubting Dante’s
ability to anticipate in the short space of a tercet
the hair-raising setting for a new narrative
sequence, preceded again with his customary
delaying technique, by a brief apostrophe from
the narrator (vv. 49-51)
Blind greed and senseless rage are to be
understood here not simply as sins of
incontinence, but in a Thomistic sense as
dispositions of the soul which generate violence
towards others (in the Summa Theologica and
even more clearly in the De Malo).
The chiasmus at v. 49 and at vv. 50-51
translate the connection between these actions
into formal expression.
9. Marked by two verbs of vision (in v. 52 and v.
58) the next sequence (vv. 52-75), filled with
classical echoes, opens with the picture of the
centaurs (vv. 52-57).
Between the river and the foot of the rocky
slope the centaurs appear to Dante, galloping
“in ranks” and “armed with arrows”, their
attitude is just as it was when they went hunting
in life.
The military characterisation of the centaurs is
clear from the first tercet describing them, they
advance in ranks, and are armed with arrows),
and will be recalled in subsequent verses.
They move in formation (v. 59 and v. 99), they
carefully ready their weapons (v. 60), block the
path of the intruders (v. 61-63), quickly carry
out their commander’s orders (v. 97-99) and
promptly complete precise missions (v. 139).
This characterisation is probably the origin of
the opinion, quite widespread in 14th century
commentaries, (Pietro Alighieri, Maramauro,
Boccaccio, Benvenuto, the Anonimo Fiorentino,
Serravalle) that «allegorice hii Centauri pro
stipendiariis equitibus summuntur» “the
centaurs can be taken allegorically to represent
mercenary cavalry”;
They “symbolise paid soldiers and predatory
military men” for Boccaccio: «i masnadieri e ’
soldati e i seguaci de’ potenti uomini, essecutori
de’ loro scellerati comandamenti», “Robbers,
soldiers, and followers of powerful men […] who
carry out their wicked orders” who «fanno le
violenze e le ’ngiurie a’ subditi», “commit acts of
violence and harm to their subjects”.
and in terms of the contrapasso Boccaccio
observes, «come furono strumento alle
malvage opere de’ tiranni, così sieno alla lor
punizione» “as they were the instruments of the
evil deeds of tyrants, so are they now their
However such an interpretation must be placed
in relation to ademythologising explanation of
the centaurs, common in the 14th century
commentaries and analogous to that of the
Minotaur. According to explanations which
Dante could have read in Servius, Isidore of
Seville and Rabanaus Maurus, the centaurs
were the result of a banal optical illusion.
Recalling the mythical union of Ixion and the
cloud which adopted the appearance of Juno,
The Ottimo Commento tells us “The truth is that
Ixion was the first to arm 100 horsemen in
Greece, and he waged war with them. When
ignorant people first saw them on horseback
they thought that man and horse were a single
animal, and they were called centaurs because
there were 100 of them, and they destroyed the
land like a mighty wind (aura)”
“Or it was the first ruler of Greece, not a noble
ruler but one who held power through tyranny
and desired glory an honour […] He had as his
guard 100 archers on horseback, and this is the
origin of the Centaurs.”
If their position at the threshold of Avernus in
Virgil and Statius was enough for Dante to admit
the centaurs among the monsters of his Inferno,
and if Ovid’s story of the centauromachia testified
to their impulsive character, it seems reasonable
to believe that their specific function as punishers
of tyrants and the violent toward others is due to
the widespread rationalising interpretation of the
myth (as in the case of the Minotaur).
The Ottimo Commento again: “and since the
Centaurs were first found by tyrants, i.e.
soldiers, so in this canto of the tyrants the
Centaurs are mentioned as guarding the
tyrants in their punishment.”
There has been insufficient emphasis, I believe,
on the influence of this tradition on some of the
miniaturists. As well as having depicted the
Minotaur as a centaur, they also depict the
centaurs of Inferno XII simply as archers.
This is the case in the codices of the University
of Budapest library and the Oratoriana in
Naples, and also in the splendid Egerton 943
manuscript in London.
The centaurs then, are committed to their
sadistic task of punishment and oblivious to the
visitors until now - it is only from v. 58 that they
are aware of the two poets – and Dante in
particular - making their way down the landslide
into the valley (vv. 58-75).
The exceptional nature of the event determines
the sudden halt of all the centaurs. Three of
them break away from the formation. They
advance only after they have prudently readied
their bows and arrows.
One of the three, with an abrupt tone and
demeanour asks the new arrivals to declare the
reasons for their presence, threatening them
with his bow.
Virgil replies, equally brusquely, informing his
rash interlocutor that he intends to respond only
to Chiron. The lightly derisive tone Virgil uses
recalls his words against the Minotaur. As he
reminds the centaur of the harm his rashness
has already done “to your own hurt was your
will ever hasty” a reworking of Ovid’s «“Quo te
fiducia” clamat “vana pedum, violente, rapit?”»
“Where is your vain confidence in your swift
feet carrying you, you ravisher.” (Met. IX 120-1)
Then having regained Dante’s attention he
reveals the names of the three centaurs,
condensing the important details regarding
them into a marvellous summary.
The first, the one who spoke, is Nessus,
charged whilst alive with ferrying travellers
across the river Euenos, according to Ovid
(Met. IX 98 ff).
When he carried the “Beautiful Deianira”, the
betrothed of Hercules, across the river he fell in
love with her and tried to capture and rape her.
When the Greek Hero realised what was
happening he wounded the centaur with an
arrow which soaked his shirt with a lethal
poison and killed him.
Nessus however, before dying prepared his
revenge, giving the poisoned shirt to Deianira
and convincing her that although Hercules had
betrayed her it would be possible to restore
their first love if he were to put on the shirt.
As is well-known Deianira, jealous of Iole,
followed Nessus’ instructions and
unintentionally poisoned Hercules, then
overcome with grief killed herself.
And so Nessus «fé di sé la vendetta elli
stesso», a hendecasyllable which alludes once
more to Ovid «Neque enim moriemur inulti»
“For I will not die unavenged” (Met., IX 131).
Positioned prominently in the centre is the most
famous of the centaurs and, according to the
tradition reported by Statius, their chief, the
“great” Chiron, the “huge centaur” (Achilleid. 1.
195-6). He is specified solely through physical
description, and the moral connotations which
have been linked to him (unduly in my opinion),
such as Statius “ingenti magistro”, “the great
teacher”, are absent here.
The use of “gran” in reference to the mouth of
Chiron (v. 79) and to the centaur Nessus (v.
104), and the realistic observation in v. 83-84,
that Virgil only comes up to the Chiron’s chest
so that the human part of the centaur towers
above him, are mainly physical descriptions.
The excessive length of their limbs has the
centaurs defined as giants by Bambaglioli in
the 14th century, though gigantism as a
characteristic of the monstrous is not only a
mediaeval idea.
The image of Chiron with his head bowed
looking at his chest bears witness, according
one interpretative tradition, of his reflective and
thoughtful character. However we may return,
with Charles Singleton, to the intention of the
narrator to direct the reader’s gaze towards the
pinot at which Chiron’s human nature descends
into the bestial and thus shows the monstrous
dehumanisation of these infernal creatures.
Third in the series and occupying a single verse
is the irascible Pholus. Ciafardini noted in 1925
that Dante could not have drawn this detail
from Ovid since the mention of Pholus in
Metamorphoses VIII provides no detailed
characterisation, he is simply named among
the participants in the battle. Nor do other
classical texts yield much more information as
Pholus is generally only mentioned tangentially.
Boccaccio’s uncertainty in his Esposizioni
exemplifies the issue, as he candidly states:
“Regarding this Pholus we have nothing to add
except that he was the son of Ixion and the
cloud, like the other centaurs”
Pietro Aligheiri, in the first version of his
commentary has recourse to an improbable
etymology in an attempt to explain the
description ‘irascible’, “Pholus the other centaur
was so angry that today stupid and angry
people are called ‘Fools”.
Pietro edited this out of his later versions.
The grouping of the three centaurs Nessus,
Chiron and Pholus, who stand out from the
various other ‘semihomines’ mentioned in
sources known to Dante, comes from Lucan’s
Pharsalia (VI 391-93) In book VI Lucan reviews
the peoples of Thessaly and when he comes to
the «issionidi Centauri», “Ixion’s centaurs”
records Dante’s three centaurs in sequence.
The evident intertextual connection (in no other
classical text known to Dante are the three
centaurs associated) is not enough by itself,
however, to clarify all the implications and
valences of such a choice, also because
literary memory is never assimilated in an
acritical way by Dante, but is always in keeping
with the “reasons of a calculated revision of the
myth […] between continuity and Christian
surpassing of the classics”.
Among the thousands of centaurs who inhabit
for all eternity the first subcircle of the seventh
circle of hell Dante brings forward only Nessus,
Chiron and Pholus. Perhaps, as Jacopo
Alighieri and Buti would have it, because they
are better known than the others, but also
because they share a common fate: all three
are victims, voluntary and involuntary, of
Nessus, intentionally shot by the bank of the
river Euenos while he tried to rape Deianeira;
Chiron, as Ovid relates (Met. II 633f.) struck by
accident by a poisoned arrow which Hercules
had shot at other centaurs, and in such terrible
pain that he asked the gods to let him die; and
Pholus, as Virgil briefly recalls (Aen. VIII 393-5),
and as Servius fully explains, died from a
wound inflicted whilst he was examining the
deadly arrows of his host Hercules
All three centaurs named here, and not only
Nessus, recall for mediaeval readers the
“stories of Hercules”, as mentioned by Dante
himself in the ‘Convivio’ III 3. 7.
After the explicit reference to Theseus,
responsible for the death of the Minotaur and
decisive on the side of the Lapiths in the fight
against the centaurs, Nessus Chiron and
Pholus allow a clear allusion to Hercules,
that is to the personification of reason and
virtue capable of overcoming adversity – as
suggested by a solid tradition of allegorical
reading (taken up by, to name a few, Augustine,
Lactantius, Servius, Macrobius and Fulgentius).
In mediaeval culture too,, Herculaes is
sometimes identified on an equal footing with
Theseus as a figura Dei, “a figure of God”, sent
to earth from heaven to combat evil.
The allusion to Hercules thus constitutes further
proof of Dante’s characterisation of the
centaurs in demonic terms. The run in great
numbers in the space between the river and the
escarpment cruelly striking the souls of the
damned who come out of the Phlegethon. They
display a bestial and inhuman delight as they
inflict greater pain than the punishment
In the imprecise and hyperbolic enumeration of
the centaurs (thousands and thousands), we
may catch an echo of Apocalypse 9:16 «Et
numerus equestris exercitus vicies milia dena
milia», ‘The number of the mounted troops was
two hundred million’ both phonically in the
repetition of mille / milia, and figuratively in the
analogy between the formations of centaurs
and armies of cavalry.
10. After the rapid exchange between Nessus
and Virgil and the presentation to a still
dumbstruck Dante of the threatening rank of
centaurs, the narration is taken up (vv. 76-99):
While the two poets approach the centaurs,
Chiron takes an arrow and using the notch on
the end like a comb, combs his beard back
behind his jaws, with a rough militaristic
With his large mouth now revealed, the chief of
the centaurs addresses his underlings, making
them take note that the steps of Dante «quel di
retro», “the one behind”, most unusually cause
the stones to move, which doesn’t happen with
the other souls.
Virgil, who had come up to Chiron’s chest, the
crucial point of conjunction of his double nature,
with precision but in a tone not dissimilar to that
used by the two infernal guardians, confirms
their impression that Dante is alive and that he
is travelling through the “valle buia”, dark valley
of Hell alone with his guide. He is moved by
divine will and not his own wishes.
Nor does he conceal the pre-history of the
journey, recalling the office entrusted to him by
Beatrice. Whom he doesn’t name directly (as is
also the case for Christ in Hell) but with a
periphrasis that has a strong connotative
Having clarified everything, in particular that
neither he nor Dante are damned souls, Virgil
calls upon the divine authority which allows him
to follow this «selvaggia strada» “savage road”
(echoing the «selva selvaggia» of Inf., I 5), and
presents his requests to Chiron:
He must supply one of his subordinates to
accompany them, and point out the ford over
the Phlegethon, and carry Dante across the
river of boiling blood on his back. As in the case
of Phlegyas, then later Geryon, Antaeus and
Lucifer himself, one of the constant features of
the first cantica is not just that the will of God
prevails, but the forces of evil are forced to
assist in the divinely willed journey.
Thus Chiron cannot disobey and turning to
Nessus, who is expert in fording rivers (scitus
vadorum (Ovid Met., IX 108), orders him to
accompany them and move aside any other
groups of centaurs who try to block their path.
The harsh rhyme in -oppa of groppa : poppa :
intoppa, occurs in three other parts of the
Inferno - VII 23-27 , XXI 11-15, and XXV 2024, this latter referring to Cacus, another
centaur «pien di rabbia» filled with rage.
11. Only the final rapid sequence in the canto is
given to the sinners immersed in the
Phlegethon, trapped in a degrading immobility.
There is no contact with them, and the mention
of them is often reduced to a mere naming,
mediated by Nessus. This expository strategy is
calculated to produce a strong ethical
distancing. The main elements of this final
section have been fully explained by Ezio
Raimondi and, more recently, Umberto Carpi.
Dante and Virgil take up their journey again,
along with the centaur Nessus, ironically
described as a “scorta fida” a “trustworthy
escort”. They travel alongside the bank of
“boiling crimson”, and the sense of horror is
increased by the screams of the “bolliti”, boiled
The rapid review of the souls, conducted
according to a technique typical of the
‘serventese’ form for dealing with political
material and already used in the enumeration
of the souls in Limbo will be reutilised in the
listing of negligent rulers in Purgatorio VII.
Verbs of seeing predominate (v. 103; 118; 121)
and numerous deictics (v.104; 106; 107; v. 109;
110; 119) which Nessus uses to carry out his
task as guide.
The listing of these souls is rapid for reasons of
narrative verisimilitude (the short span of the
ford). But Dante also wishes to give an almost
anonymous image of violence, and show the
distance and disdain the author has for the
sinners immersed in Phlegethon, shown by the
haste with which he deals with these character.
There are difficulties in identifying some
individuals, (e.g. in v. 107, is it Alexander King
of Jerusalem, or Alexander of Macedonia, or
Alexander of Pherae; is it Dionysius the elder or
younger? In v. 135 which Pyrrhus is it, and is
Sextus Pompeius, or Nero?), However the
series is not incidental, and is constructed
symmetrically, in three sections.
The central section condemns the souls there
to anonymity, which also functions to highlight
how widespread this particular sin is. «di
costoro assai riconobb’io», “I recognised many
of them” v. 123).
The two final sections collect together five
characters each, arranged in a sort of
chiasmus: in the first part two ancients,
Alexander and cruel Dionysius, and three
moderns, Ezzelino III da Romano, Obizzo II
d’Este and Guy de Monfort, vicar of Charles of
Anjou in Tuscany in 1272; in the second three
ancients, Pyrrhus, Sextus and Attila, and
corresponding to them the two homonymous
moderns Rinier da Corneto and Rinier Pazzo.
The modern souls, at least those who can be
identified more precisely, constitute a distinctive
group of characters, and their names identify a
precise historical-political geography with
important implications for the political strategies
of the Commedia
The mention of Ezzelino and Obizzo together,
individuated by the colour of their hair, is not
due to some criteria of equality as Raimondi
has noted. The greater insistence on the
inglorious death of Obizzo seems to lessen the
severity of the common judgement on Ezzelino,
whose condemnation is, so to speak
The expressive high point in the list of the
damned comes in the isolation to which the
soul of Guy de Montfort is condemned. In
revenge for the death of his father he killed the
young Henry of Cornwall during the celebration
of the mass in Viterbo, in the presence and
possibly with the tacit approval of Philip III of
France and Charles of Anjou.
There is an interesting exegetical crux here,
which, unfortunately, we do not have time to
examine in detail.
His task completed, having carried Dante
beyond Phlegethon, Nessus crosses back over
the ford: the canto closes in a brusque manner,
with a perfect correspondence of formal unity
and topographical division.
The reader is left with the image of the centaur
who…«mostra in primo piano la parte equina,
bestiale del suo corpo».
The brusque effect of caesura will be
diminished however in verse 1 of canto XIII,
(«Non era ancora di là Nesso arrivato»), as if it
were an example of “coblas capfinidas”, and
narrative continuity with the preceding canto
will be restored.