Summary: Canto XXIV
Making their way to the Seventh Pouch of the Eighth Circle of Hell, Virgil and Dante face many dangers. Because of the collapsed bridge, they must navigate treacherous rocks, and Virgil carefully selects a path before helping his mortal companion along. Dante loses his breath for a moment, but Virgil urges him onward, indicating that a long climb still awaits them. They descend the wall into the Seventh Pouch, where teeming masses of serpents chase after naked sinners; coiled snakes bind the sinners’ hands and legs. Dante watches a serpent catch one of the sinners and bite him between the shoulders. He watches in amazement as the soul instantly catches fire and burns up, then rises from the ashes to return to the pit of serpents.
Virgil speaks to this soul, who identifies himself as a Tuscan, Vanni Fucci, whom Dante knew on Earth. Fucci tells them that he was put here for robbing a sacristy—the Seventh Pouch holds Thieves. Angered that Dante is witnessing his miserable condition, he foretells the defeat of Dante’s political party, the White Guelphs, at Pistoia.
Summary: Canto XXV
Cursing God with an obscene gesture, Fucci flees with serpents coiling around him, and Dante now relishes the sight. Moving further along the pit, he and Virgil behold an even more incredible scene. Three souls cluster just beneath them, and a giant, six-footed serpent wraps itself so tightly around one of them that its form merges with that of its victim; the serpent and soul become a single creature. As the other souls watch in horror, another reptile bites one of them in the belly. The soul and the reptile stare at each other, transfixed, as the reptile slowly takes on the characteristics of the man and the man takes on those of the reptile. Soon they have entirely reversed their forms.
Summary: Canto XXVI
Having recognized these thieves as Florentines, Dante sarcastically praises Florence for earning such widespread fame not only on Earth but also in Hell. Virgil now leads him along the ridges to the Eighth Pouch, where they see numerous flames flickering in a deep, dark valley. Coming closer, Virgil informs Dante that each flame contains a sinner. Dante sees what appear to be two souls contained together in one flame, and Virgil identifies them as Ulysses and Diomedes, both suffering for the same fraud committed in the Trojan War.
Dante desires to speak with these warriors, but Virgil, warning him that the Greeks might disdain Dante’s medieval Italian, speaks to them as an intermediary. He succeeds in getting Ulysses to tell them about his death. Restlessly seeking new challenges, he sailed beyond the western edge of the Mediterranean, which was believed to constitute the rim of the Earth; legend asserted that death awaited any mariner venturing beyond that point. After five months, he and his crew came in view of a great mountain. Before they could reach it, however, a great storm arose and sank their ship.
Analysis: Cantos XXIV–XXVI
Early in Canto XXIV, Dante clarifies the geographical structure of Malebolge (the Eighth Circle): it slopes continuously downward, so that, after the Tenth Pouch, it runs right into Hell’s central pit. Virgil and Dante have thus not been simply progressing around the underworld’s circumference but descending deeper and deeper into the Earth’s core.
Virgil emphasizes the importance of fame when he urges Dante to persevere through the difficult descent, telling him that only persistence can win a person fame and glory. We have seen Dante the poet ascribe great importance to earthly fame before, particularly in the figures of the several shades who have asked Dante to recall their names and stories on Earth. This concern for the preservation of one’s legacy represents one of Dante’s most surprising departures from conventional medieval Christian morality: Christ urged His disciples to shun worldly glory and focus themselves on the glory of God’s Kingdom. In Dante’s mind, however, the two are intimately connected: as long as one’s glory arises from honest work, it can improve one’s lot in the afterlife. One encounters this notion more frequently in classical Greek and Roman poetry than in medieval Christian texts; its inclusion here underscores The Comedy’s debt to classical tradition (though, in general, Dante’s attitude toward the ancients remains ambiguous; ensuing passages contain rebukes of the old civilization).
While Dante notes that fame stemming from honest achievements can benefit a soul for eternity, he warns that fame stemming from crime earns the criminal no happiness. The poet makes this point with the figure of Vanni Fucci, who is the first sinner to ask that Dante not spread his story on Earth. He cringes with shame when Dante sees him, and, unlike the other sinners, would prefer not to interact with the traveler. Fucci’s singularity lies also in his defiance, as Dante notes: the shade obscenely gestures into the sky.
Amidst his discussions of fame and reputation, Dante takes the opportunity to advance his own glory. Never modest about his own poetic gifts, he uses the power of these scenes to support his claim of superiority over the ancient poets. He devises an affecting and grotesquely fitting penalty for the Thieves: having stolen in life, they must constantly steal one another’s forms and constantly have their own forms stolen from them. He portrays the punishment with vivid language and imaginative detail. Halfway through his description of these horrors, however, Dante declares outright that he has outdone both Ovid and Lucan in his ability to write scenes of metamorphosis and transformation. (Ovid’s Metamorphoses focuses entirely on transformations; Lucan wrote the Pharsalia, an account of the Roman political transition and turmoil in the first century b.c.) Dante touts both his ingenuity in envisioning these monstrous transformations and his poetic skill in rendering them. In both aspects, he claims to surpass two of the classical poets most renowned for their mythological inventions and vivid imagery, thus again attempting to subsume the classical tradition within his own poem. These claims hearken back to the subtle note of self-congratulation that Dante includes in Canto IV, when he meets these poets face to face; his attitude toward them combines respect and condescension.
In Canto XXVI, Dante makes another strike at antiquity by placing its last remaining hero, Ulysses (known as Odysseus to the Greeks), in the Eighth Pouch of the Eighth Circle of Hell. Dante explains Ulysses’ presence in this section of Hell by referencing his role in the ruse of the Trojan Horse, which enabled the sacking of Troy by the Achaeans. But Dante probably had a number of different motivations for placing Ulysses so deep in Hell. First, we have seen that Dante reveres Rome; Ulysses, as an enemy of Aeneas, who later founded Rome, can be seen as an enemy of Rome as well. Dante may be reaping revenge on him. Additionally, he may intend the great Greek hero’s spiritual defeat here to remind readers of the Greeks’ eventual defeat by the Romans on Earth. But, as evidenced by his dismissal of Lucan and Ovid in the previous canto, Dante finds that even Roman antiquity contains flaws. Here, he implies that the advent of Christianity has constituted an invaluable improvement for civilization: notwithstanding his honored place within Greek and Roman tradition, Ulysses behaved recklessly and fraudulently by Christian standards, and, in Dante’s Hell, Christian morals always take precedence over ancient values.