Summary Cantos XXVII–XXIX

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. 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. 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.

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.