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Dante’s Devine Comedy Essay

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The figure of Dante who roams through the infernal reaches of hell encounters a number of characters who endure terrible suffering, apparently because of sins which they have committed during their lives on earth. This paper examines the depiction of two such characters, Filippo Argenti (Inferno: Canto 8) and (Inferno: Canto 24) and shows that the former is relegated to hell because of personal animosity that the author Dante has against this person, while the latter suffers this fate for reasons that the Catholic Church of the time would have approved.

Dante and Virgil encounter a nameless character while travelling through the Inferno in their boat and it is significant that he is described at the outset as “one full of mire” (Inferno: Canto 8, line 32). Again and again an impression of dirtiness is given as Dante says “But who art thou that has become so squalid?” (Inferno: Canto 8, line 35) and “For thee I know, though thou art all defiled” (Canto 8, line 39). Vergil likens him to an animal, by crying out that he should go away “with the other dogs!” (Inferno: Canto 8, line 42). Dante explains that he is an arrogant person, which makes him furious to be in hell, and contrasts his high position on the earth with his lowly fate in hell: “who here shall be like unto swine in mire” (Inferno: Canto 8, line 50). The image of a pitiful, unnamed character wallowing in the mud, and finally being hunted down by other characters in that squalid place shows that Dante wants to the reader to think of this person in the lowest possible terms. Dirt is unpleasant to look at and symbolic of moral and physical degradation. It seems rather a harsh punishment just for being a proud person, but all becomes clear when the narrator Dante reveals that his name is Philippo Argenti.

Commentators have noted that this person’s name “Argenti” may have derived from “an ostentatious habit of shoeing his horse in silver (argento)” and that he was a Black Guelph which meant he was a political enemy of Dante (University of Texas, n. d.). Certainly the narrator Dante has little sympathy for the man, and even goes so far as to wish him further punished by the people in the mid, and then to praise and thank God when he sees this come to pass (Inferno: Canto 8, lines 52-60). This satisfaction at the man’s fate shows an element of revenge in Dante’s depiction.

In Canto 24 of the Inferno the two visitors Dante and Virgil hear another unnamed person, this time shouting in a voice “not well adapted to articulate words” (Inferno: Canto 14, line 78). This reference shows that the very gifted poet looks down on the speaker, because of a lack of intellectual ability. Being cast into the pit of snakes is another terrible destiny and the character reveals himself as Vanni Fucci from the town of Pistoia which is located in the Italian region of Tuscany. The depiction of this character is more sympathetic than that of Philippo Argenti, because is called “the sinner” whose face “with a melancholy shame was painted” (Inferno: Canto 14, lines 152-154). This man acknowledges his sin which he confesses has been to rob the sacristy of ornaments and let the blame be taken by another person.

Stealing is clearly a sin in the morality of the Catholic Church, and stealing from the sacred buildings is all the more serious, because it shows a contempt for God and the holiness of a place of worship. The man’s melancholy acceptance of his fate confirms that it is an act of justice, and not of revenge. He is referred to as a “mule” and a “Beast” (Inferno: Canto 14, lines 47-48) but in this case it is the man himself who uses these words, as an acknowledgement of his own state, and not Dante or Virgil, issuing any critical comment against him. Part of his punishment appears to be to suffer the misery of knowing that he has sinned, regretting his actions, and observing how other people view him in this pitiful condition.

These two cases are both examples of people who have sinned in their earthly life, and who now suffer punishment in hell after death. The political context of Argenti, and the narrator’s insulting language show that there is personal animosity in the relationship between the two men. In the latter case there is a gentler depiction, with more sympathy for the thief, and a sad, unspoken agreement that he deserves this righteous fate, which reveals the morality of the Catholic Church at work in the depths of hell.

References
Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy. (1308-1321) Translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. . Web.
University of Texas at Austin. Dante’s Worlds. Circle 5, cantos 7-9. (n. d.).

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