Summary Cantos XII–XIII

At this point, two young men run crashing through the wood, interrupting Dante’s conversation with the tree-soul. One of the men, Jacomo da Sant’Andrea, falls behind and leaps into a bush; vicious dogs have been pursuing him, and now they rend him to pieces. Virgil and Dante then speak to the bush, which is also a soul: it speaks of the suffering that has plagued Florence ever since it decided to make St. John the Baptist its patron, replacing its old patron, Mars (a Roman god). The bush-soul adds that he was a Florentine man in life who hanged himself.

Analysis: Cantos XII–XIII

When Virgil comments in Canto XII about the broken rocks he and Dante must navigate, he alludes to the earthquake that, according to the Gospels, occurred upon Christ’s crucifixion. Noting that the rocks had not yet fallen when he first descended into Hell, in the late first century b.c., Virgil reasons that they must have broken during the abovementioned earthquake, after which Christ came down to Hell to free a number of souls, including the Old Testament prophets (“The great spoil of the upper circle” [XII.33]). Virgil thus reasons that the earthquake seen by evangelists on Earth in fact penetrated to the underworld as well. Dante implies that Christ’s death shook Hell to its very roots, both literally and figuratively.

Virgil’s comment also seems to suggest that Hell experiences the effects of the passage of time: Virgil can remember a physically different Hell, and the souls can anticipate the return of their bodies. This notion of Hell possessing a past, present, and future would seem to contradict the eternal nature of the place. However, Hell does not seem vulnerable to the force of time per se, but rather to the force of God’s will over time. The changes in Hell mentioned here correspond to two divine events: the Harrowing and the Last Judgment. After this second event, time will disappear altogether.

The pool of boiling blood serves as an allegorically apt punishment for those who were violent toward others: they sit eternally submerged in the blood after which they lusted in life. This punishment, like so many in Dante’s Hell, proves impeccably flexible according to the sinners’ degrees of sin, allowing for individualized penalties of excruciating exactitude. The soul of an individual who killed only one person, for example, stands with his legs in the burning blood, while the soul of a tyrant such as Alexander stands with his entire head covered. The scene also provides Dante with an opportunity to voice his politics: while a more objective view of history might rank many other leaders among these tyrants, Dante exempts them from punishment here. The conspicuous absence of Roman leaders in particular testifies to Dante’s great reverence for Rome.

It seems odd at first that the Suicides’ punishment is to be turned into trees; the reader does not see how this punishment fits into Dante’s usual pattern until one of the trees begins his speech about the Last Judgment. Then we see how the punishment fits the crime: having discarded their bodies on Earth, these souls are rendered unable to assume human form for the rest of eternity. In committing suicide, these souls denied their God-given immortality and declared that they did not want their bodies; their punishment is to get their wish only after they have recognized the error in it.

Finally, at the end of Canto XIII, the bush-soul gives us some interesting information about the history of Florence. When Florence was Christianized, it abandoned the god Mars as its patron and turned its allegiance toward John the Baptist. The “art” of Mars is war; his resentment at being replaced, the bush asserts, causes Florence to be plagued by infighting. Dante here employs the common classical device of using mythological legend to account for earthly events, a device found frequently in ancient Greek and Roman literature. Yet he is only half-serious about this explanation: Inferno’s frequent political jabs make it clear that Dante has plenty of flesh-and-blood enemies on whom to blame Florence’s civil strife.