Notes on Objects & Places from The Inferno

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The Inferno Objects/Places

The dark wood: In the middle of the path of his life Dante finds himself lost in a dark wood where he spends a night in fear and confusion before attempting to scale a mountain at the top of which he sees the sun. However, his attempt to escape the wood is futile without the divine intervention of Beatrice and the guidance of Virgil.

Leopard, Lion, She-wolf, and Greyhound: Heading in the direction of the sun to escape his confusion and fear of the dark forest, Dante attempts to scale a mountain but is impeded by three animals. A playful leopard distracts him from his journey and then a lion and a wolf terrify him. He flees back down the dark side of the mountain, where he meets Virgil who tells him the she-wolf is vicious and insatiably greedy and will slay everyone who tries to climb the mountain. Virgil continues to say that a greyhound will eventually come to slay the wolf, which represents the corrupt papacy, and unify Italy.

Blank banner: The souls on the outskirts of Hell were never sinners but also never followed God. Their punishment is to run in a group after a blank banner.

The abyss: Dane’s hell is formed in the shape of an inverted cone whose point is at the center of the earth, which is the furthest place from God who is in the heavens. Virgil suggests that Hell took this shape because when Lucifer was flung into the earth, all the soil fled away from his face.

Castle: In the first circle, called Limbo, noble heathen dwell in castle on a lit plain. These souls were born before Christ, but lived their lives for other noble causes. The castle is surrounded by seven walls with seven gates and a rivulet. The walls may represent the seven virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance, wisdom, knowledge, and understanding.

Water: There are various rivers and streams and lakes and marshes in Hell that all derive from the same source, a mountain spring ion the island of Crete, and so in some sense link together the different levels of Hell. There is no explanation for why sometimes the water becomes blood and vice versa. The river Acheron marks the boundaries of Hell. The sinners wallow in the marsh Styx and they boil in the bloody river Phlegethon. All the waters pool in the basin of Hell and there form the frozen marsh named Cocytus. The river Lethe also shares the same source and empties into Cocytus but it traverses Purgatory where the repentant sinners wash in it.

The Furies and Medusa: Mythological characters. The Furies represent a guilty conscience and Medusa represents stubbornness that turns the heart to stone. Virgil tries to protect Dante from these beings but only divine power can remove them from Dante’s path.

City of Dis: The city of Satan is guarded by fallen angels and the three Furies. It encompasses all of the circles below the fifth. Sins of incontinence are not punished in the City of Dis, because they are only an indulgence of natural desires, whereas the sins that are punished within the City are considered by God as perversions of what he ordained for man.

Old Man: A symbolic image appropriated by Dante from the Bible. All the waters that flow through Hell derive from the fissures in the body of this man-shaped mountain. His head is made of gold, his arms and breast of silver, his abdomen of brass, his legs and left foot of iron, and his right foot, upon which he leans, of baked clay. This image is an allegory of the history of the human race. The four metals represent the four ages of man, and the iron and clay feet represent secular and spiritual authority respectively.

Baptistery of Florence: The third ring of the eighth circle holds simonists, those who used their spiritual offices to make money. The walls of the chasm are lined with niches in which souls are imprisoned upside down. This design of this chasm resembles the Baptistery of Florence, whose walls where lined with niches in which priests could preach protected from the crowd.

Baptistery of Florence: The third ring of the eighth circle holds simonists, those who used their spiritual offices to make money. The walls of the chasm are lined with niches in which souls are imprisoned upside down. This design of this chasm resembles the Baptistery of Florence, whose walls where lined with niches in which priests could preach protected from the crowd.

Whore: In the book of Revelation, the evangelist, John, has a vision of a whore sitting on many waters. That whore represents the Catholic Church. Her seven heads and ten horns represent the seven virtues and ten commandments. Dante condemns Pope Nicolas III for making the Church, which was once virtuous, a whore to wealth and power.

Islands of Caprara and Gorgona: Two islands off the coast of Tuscany, but belonging to the province of Pisa. Dante, revolted by the gruesome story of treachery told by Count Ugolino of Pisa, condemns Pisa and suggests that these two islands move to block the river Arno, thereby drowning the city Pisa in a sort of geographical betrayal.

Figs: A rather unremarkable fruit in the modern English language, but in ancient and modern Italian the fig is a fruit loaded with connotative possibilities. Vanni Fucci makes the gesture of the fig as a contemptuous insult toward God. The gesture of the fig is made by placing the thumb in between the first and middle finger when making a fist thereby creating a phallic symbol. Friar Alberigo says that in Hell he receives dates for his figs. Some say this means that he receives a heavy punishment since dates were worth more than figs. Dante uses fruit imagery in this case because the Friar killed his guest as the fruit course was being brought out.

Satan’s Wings: Dante opens the last canto of the Inferno with a parody of the opening line of a Latin hymn that announces advancing regal banners. Dante adds the adjective “infernal.” In this way Dante ironically refers to the giant bat-like wings of his version of Satan, who has a pair of them under each of his three gruesome heads. They flap slowly and impotently through the freezing air of the ninth circle.

Stars: Each of the three canticles Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso end with the word “stars.” As Dante and Virgil exit the other side of the earth after their journey through Hell they are again able to see the stars. Their journey, which continues up the mountain of Purgatory and then through the heavens, is a continuous path towards these stars.

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