Canto 29: Alchemy as a Disease

teniers_alchemist3.18262531_stdBy Robert Rice

Canto 29 is unusual. It seems to lack a central theme or controlling idea; Virgil seems to know and understand less than Dante at the beginning of the canto; the serious moral question of the familial obligation of private revenge in opposition to the Christian law of forgiveness is raised but not resolved; the damned in the tenth bolgia are initially described as extremely lethargic, though once they learn that their auditor is a living person, they become quite animated; the stylistic register moves quickly from the more formal to the low and vulgar; and the canto ends in medias res, the bolgia of the falsifiers having been only tangentially explored.

The opening of the 29th canto presents Dante weeping for the soul of a murdered relative in the ninth bolgia, thus receiving a rebuke from Virgil for wasting time. That the kinsman, Geri del Bello, suffered a violent death, “which hasn’t been avenged by anyone / who should be party to his shame,” said Dante, which “[m]akes him indignant,” and “[t]hat made me feel more pity for his fate” (lines 32-34, 36). The obligation of private revenge, apparently weighing so heavily on Dante, is prohibited by Catholic moral theology, but is left without discussion, as Dante and Virgil continue to the tenth bolgia, where falsifiers, particularly here of metals, i.e., alchemists, are punished.

Dante presents two similes (lines 46-51 and 58-66) containing imagery of multitudes of the sick, dead and dying with the painful laments and stench they produce, to evoke the misery in this bolgia of disease. The first pair Dante and Virgil accost are two falsifiers who are propped together “as one fry pan / leans on another fry pan in the oven, / spotted from head to toe with scabby crusts” [lines 73-75]. Yet the narrative of this canto quickly moves to a low style, where even Virgil’s invocation of one of these two is a parody of epic style:

“O you whose fingers strip your sheet mail off,”
   my guide began to speak to one of them,
   “and sometimes dig the nail to tug and pinch,
Tell us if an Italian in this ditch
    is to be found—so may your nail suffice
    to do this labor for eternity.”  [lines 85-90]

Dante and Virgil learn that both of these damned are Italian and willing to tell their stories that their names not be lost “from human memory in the former world” [line 104]. One, identified by commentators as Griffolino da Arezzo, tells that though he suffers in the tenth pouch for practicing alchemy, he was burnt at the stake by Albert of Siena who couldn’t take a joke.  Griffolino had claimed that he could fly, and Albert demanded that he teach him the art. “For this alone— / I did not make him Daedelus—he had / me burned” [lines 115-117]. Dante then remarks, “Now was there ever a folk / as vain and stupid as the Sienese?” [lines 121-122]. This comment leads to the last fifteen lines of the canto being devoted to Griffolino’s partner, the Sienese alchemist Capocchio, who ironically makes observations about the foolishness of other citizens of Siena.

The damned in this pouch are initially described as laying “sprawled, while others dragged their shifting forms / on all fours” [lines 68-69]; and the diseased “could not raise their persons from the ground” [line 70]. Yet once they learn that Dante is a living person, suddenly they speak with jocularity and a kind of equanimity about how they came to be damned. Their lethargy inexplicably seems to be gone.

What are we to make of this canto? If there is indeed a central theme, it may be hidden in plain sight: that alchemy, the falsifying of metals, is a sin analogous to a disease that afflicts the whole body and may be contagious. Furthermore, like Stricca, Niccolò, Caccia and other members of the Squanderers’ Brigade [line 125 ff.], alchemists waste their substance in vainly trying to transmute base metals into gold. The whole misconceived enterprise was an exercise in futility, an attempt to get something for nothing, often by hoodwinking others, though often first by hoodwinking oneself. The practice of alchemy can be seen as an offense against the Eighth Commandment, since it is essentially an offense against the truth and involves the intention to deceive. The contrapasso of debilitating disease and the characterization of alchemists, vain and profligate hit the mark. 

Dr. Robert Rice received his B.A. from U.C.L.A. and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Oregon. He was Associate Editor of the Middle English Dictionary at the University of Michigan, 1976-1981. He is now Professor Emeritus of English Language and Literature at Christendom College in Front Royal, VA. In addition to teaching in the English Lang. & Lit. Dept. for 32 years, he held the positions of Chairman of the English Language & Literature Dept. and Vice President for Academic Affairs. During that period he taught Dante’s Divine Comedy entire, as part of the core curriculum, numerous times.

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