In their descent into the depths of Hell, Virgil and Dante have just entered circle eight, which is for those who committed fraud in its broadest sense. This consists of what Dante refers to as malebolge, best translated as rottenpockets, a series of ten deep trenches each of which caters for a different type of fraud. Dante compares these to the defensive earthworks which surrounded the outer walls of castles of the day.
Virgil leads Dante into the first of these rottenpockets, where souls are being lashed by demons to keep them moving constantly. These are pimps and seducers, among whom is a Bolognese man, a Guelph, who pimped his sister, the beautiful Ghisolabella, for political gain.
The pair move on past other sinners being scourged, where they see Jason, who seduced then abandoned the young Hypsipyle, queen of Lemnos, and later did likewise with Medea. They then enter the second rottenpocket, for flatterers, who are wallowing in excrement.
They find a contemporary figure from Lucca, and see Thaïs, a Greek courtesan who notoriously flattered her partners. She is now covered in filth and utterly crabby.
In the third rottenpocket, Dante and Virgil come across Simonists, corrupt religious leaders, who are trapped headfirst in rock holes, their protruding feet being toasted with flames. The key figure here is Pope Nicholas III, who initially confuses Dante with Pope Boniface VIII, who happens to be in the same rottenpocket. Pope Nicholas was known for his nepotism, which included appointing three of his family as cardinals.
Virgil carries Dante on to the fourth rottenpocket, reserved for soothsayers. Their heads are turned to face backwards, so that the tears streaming from their eyes wet their buttocks.
Virgil identifies several of them from classical times, including the Theban Tiresias; Dante recounts how he became a soothsayer after he had twice changed gender, as told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The list concludes with three near-contemporaries: Michael Scot, a scholar and astrologer to Emperor Frederick II, and two well-known Italians.
The fifth rottenpocket they find to be filled with corrupt public officials, or barrators, who are immersed in a sea of boiling pitch, and further tormented by a pack of vicious devils known as malebranche, ‘evil-claws’.
The latter are armed with long hooks, which they use to push the souls down into the pitch, much as you might push down lumps of meat which rise to the surface of a stew. Those devils are so evil as to threaten Dante, so Virgil whisks him on to the next rottenpocket, for hypocrites.
William Blake (1757–1827) was a British visionary painter and illustrator whose last and incomplete work was an illustrated edition of the Divine Comedy for the painter John Linnell. Most of his works shown in this series were created for that, although he did draw and paint scenes during his earlier career. I have a major series on his work here.
Gustave Doré (1832–1883) was the leading French illustrator of the nineteenth century, whose paintings are still relatively unknown. Early in his career, he produced a complete set of seventy illustrations for translations of the Inferno, which were first published in 1857 and continue to be used. These were followed in 1867 by more illustrations for Purgatorio and Paradiso. This article looks at his paintings.
Giotto di Bondone (c 1267–1337) was one of the great masters who bridged between the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance. He was born near Florence, and is reputed from about 1296 to have painted a cycle of frescoes in the Basilica di San Francesco d’Assisi, in Assisi. This is hotly disputed though, and these may have been painted by Cimabue instead. The scene of The Devotion of the Devils from Arezzo shows what may, directly or indirectly, have been an inspiration to Dante, although I don’t know whether there is any evidence that the poet ever visited Assisi.
Jan van der Straet, also commonly known by his Italianised name of Giovanni Stradano (1523-1605), was a painter who started his career in Bruges and Antwerp in Belgium, but moved to Florence in 1550, where he worked for the remainder of his life. Mannerist in style, he worked with printmakers in Antwerp to produce collections of prints, including an extensive set for The Divine Comedy.
Robin Kirkpatrick (trans) (2012) Dante, The Divine Comedy, Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso, Penguin Classics. ISBN 978 0 141 19749 4.
Richard Lansing (ed) (2000) The Dante Encyclopedia, Routledge. ISBN 978 0 415 87611 7.
Guy P Raffa (2009) The Complete Danteworlds, A Reader’s Guide to the Divine Comedy, Chicago UP. ISBN 978 0 2267 0270 4.
Prue Shaw (2014) Reading Dante, From Here to Eternity, Liveright. ISBN 978 1 63149 006 4.