Summary: Canto XXVII

After hearing Ulysses’ story, Virgil and Dante start down their path again, only to be stopped by another flame-immersed soul. This soul lived in Italy’s Romagna region, and now, hearing Dante speak the Lombard tongue, he asks for news of his homeland. Dante replies that Romagna suffers under violence and tyranny but not outright war. He then asks the soul his name, and the sinner, believing that Dante will never leave the abyss and thus will be unable to spread word of his infamy, consents to tell him.

He introduces himself as Guido da Montefeltro and states that he was originally a member of the Ghibellines. After a time, he underwent a religious conversion and joined a Franciscan monastery, but he was then persuaded by Pope Boniface VIII to reenter politics on the opposing side. At one point, Boniface asked him for advice on how to conquer Palestrina (formerly called Penestrino, it served as the fortress of the Ghibelline Colonna family).

Da Montefeltro showed reluctance, but Boniface promised him absolution in advance, even if his counsel were to prove wrong. He then agreed to give his advice, which turned out to be incorrect. When he died, St. Francis came for him, but a devil pulled him away, saying that a man could not receive absolution before sinning, for absolution cannot precede repentance and repentance cannot precede the sin. Such preemptive absolution he deemed “contradictory,” and thus invalid. Calling himself a logician, the devil took da Montefeltro to Minos, who deemed the sinner guilty of fraudulent counsel and assigned him to the Eighth Pouch of the Eighth Circle of Hell.

Summary: Canto XXVIII

Virgil and Dante continue on to the Ninth Pouch, where they see a line of souls circling perpetually. Dante sees they bear wounds worse than those suffered at the battles at Troy and Ceparano. A devil stands at one point of the circle with a sword, splitting open each sinner who walks by. One of the sinners speaks to Dante as he passes—it is Mohammed, prophet of the Muslims. These are the Sowers of Scandal and Schism, and for their sins of division they themselves are split apart. Worse, as they follow the circle around, their wounds close up so that they are whole by the time they come back to the sword, only to be struck again.

Many others in this line look up at Dante, hearing his living voice. The Italians among them beg Dante to carry messages to certain men still living on Earth. They make predictions of a shipwreck and give a warning for Fra Dolcino, who is in danger of joining them when he dies. Finally, Dante sees a man carrying his own head in his hands: it is Bertran de Born, who advised a young king to rebel against his father.

Summary: Canto XXIX

Virgil reprimands Dante for staring so long at the wounded souls, reminding him that their time is limited; this time, however, Dante stubbornly follows his own inclination. He takes note of one more soul, an ancestor of his who died unavenged.

Finally, Virgil and Dante follow the ridge down and to the left until they can see the Tenth Pouch below them. This pouch houses the Falsifiers, and it is divided into four zones. In the First Zone, souls huddle in heaps and sprawl out on the ground. Scabs cover them from head to foot; they scratch at them furiously and incessantly.

Dante locates two Italians in this zone. Since his journey will take him back to the world of the living, he offers to spread their names among men if they will tell him their stories. The two souls oblige. One of them is Griffolino of Arezzo, who was burned at the stake for heresy but has landed here in the Tenth Pouch for his practice of the occult art of alchemy. The other is a Florentine, Capocchio, who was likewise an alchemist burned at the stake. We learn that the First Zone holds the Falsifiers of Metals.

Analysis: Cantos XXVII–XXIX

Although Dante’s discussion of the Italians in his Hell aims to point out their political wrongs, he frequently acknowledges their possession of what he deems a minor, if misguided, virtue—that of patriotism. We see in the Eighth and Ninth Pouches how many Italians, like Farinata and Cavalcanti in Canto X, retain their concern for their homeland even after death. Da Montefeltro pleads desperately for news about Romagna, despite the fact that no news, however good, could possibly bring him peace of mind. Dante seems to take pride in the devotion of his compatriots to their fatherland, for their concern speaks to the glory of the nation and the fidelity of Italians.

Da Montefeltro’s tale about his dealings with Boniface establishes a theological point and allows Dante to apply one of his Aristotelian convictions to Catholic doctrine. Although Boniface had given da Montefeltro absolution according to the proper rite, Dante still holds him accountable for his sin. He does so not because he does not believe in the true power of confession or because he thinks Boniface’s corruption renders him unable to absolve sins; rather, the absolution fails because it violates the fundamental Aristotelian principle of contradiction—that an entity cannot simultaneously be both of a specific nature and not of that specific nature. Absolution from sin requires one to be repentant; absolution received before a sin has been committed proves invalid because, at the moment that absolution is being issued, the person still intends to commit the sin—indicating a lack of repentance.

Read more historical context on Boniface.

Dante’s invocation of Aristotelian philosophy speaks to his belief in the importance of reason in moral decision-making. He implies that Christians who find themselves in moral dilemmas must use their reason rather than blindly follow the directions of a church figure. Dante does not question here the spiritual authority of the church, to which he shows steadfast respect throughout Inferno. However, he does not believe that this authority should overrule logic—especially given the church’s frequent descent into corruption. The devil’s reference to himself as a logician invokes the idea of the indisputability of divine justice.

The opening of Canto XXVIII, which describes the wounds of the Sowers of Scandal and Schism, instances Dante’s effective use in The Comedy of starkly contrasting styles. He opens the canto by stating that no one would be able to properly describe what he saw there and that anyone who tried to do so would certainly fall short. He goes on, nevertheless, to use a mixture of the high classical mode and the low medieval idiom to present the image compellingly. He begins with allusions to great historical battles, such as those at Troy, claiming that the wounds suffered during these Trojan battles, which Virgil catalogued in the Aeneid, pale in comparison to the wounds he now glimpses.

Read more about Inferno and its references to epic poetry like The Aeneid.

This manner of referencing events from epics and other legends characterized much of classical literature. Just a few lines later, however, Dante enters into a realistic catalogue of the wounds, complete with scatological references to “the farting-place” and “shit” (XXVIII.25–28). Drawing on the nobility of classical tales of war, while also evoking the earthly physicality of medieval comedy, Dante creates a doubly intense impression of violence, at once both epic and visceral, lofty and penetrating.

Read more about Dante's use of bawdy comedy.

The request of the Italian souls in the Ninth Pouch that Dante bring warnings back to certain living men seems an attempt, like that made by the souls who ask Dante to spread their names, to forge some sort of existence outside of Hell. To be in contact with the mortal world would allow them to escape, in some small way, the eternal, atemporal realm that they now occupy. But the character Dante does not oblige them, for spiritual reasons. In the New Testament, God refused the rich man in Hell who wanted to have Lazarus go back to Earth and warn his sons about their sinful lives. Perhaps fearful of seeming presumptuous, the character Dante makes no answer to their request. Of course, the poet Dante seems to have his own agenda; his poem takes the recounting of their stories as a central part of its project.