At the beginning of Canto 32, Dante expressed to us his hesitancy to speak about the inner circle of Hell through whose second and third rounds we continue in Canto 33. He does not have “the bitter and crack-throated rhymes fit for [this] miserable hole,” and thus “not without fear I bring myself to speak.” [32.1-2, 6] What Dante describes now in Canto 33 are hideous and frightful scenes. The first principle speaker will be Count Ugolino whom we find gnawing like a dog on the brains and skull of Ruggieri. This is how Ugolino avenges himself and his kin for being starved to death by Ruggieri. By means of this gruesome image, Dante sets before the reader the full savagery and repulsiveness of sin. For Count Ugolino, the punishment for his sin is not only the ice in which he is submerged; the ugliness of his hatred, the completion of his own sin of betrayal, is perhaps his greatest punishment of all.
In life, Ugolino and Ruggieri conspired together to gain control of the city of Pisa, eventually betraying each other and the city for their own personal interests. Their placement in Hell as a pair reminds us of the other two individuals we have seen punished together, Francesca and Paolo, the illicit lovers from the second circle. However, Francesca and Paolo’s sin is very different from that of Ugolino and Ruggieri and this difference gets to the heart of why it is not the lustful but the fraudulent who are punished in Hell’s deepest and most terrible pit.
Sins of lust are committed out of misdirected and ill-formed love of another or of self, but sins of betrayal are necessarily sins of hatred. Francesca and Paolo move the reader to pity in recounting their story of misbegotten love, but the story of Count Ugolino and Archbishop Ruggieri can only move us to disgust and scorn. The other fraudulent souls Dante has depicted, such as forgers of money, act out of inordinate love for self and not necessarily out of hatred of another. To betray another, though, is to contemn, and it is contempt and hatred that deserve the harsh punishment of the ninth circle.
This hatred of another that Dante describes helps to explain his interactions with the damned souls in this canto and the previous one. Earlier in the Inferno, Dante has succeeded at getting the souls to speak to him about their lot by promising to immortalize them in the world above, which promise he fulfills in writing the Divine Comedy. In Canto 32, though, he is rejected by Bocca degli Abati, who does not want Dante to reveal the nature of his crimes nor his final destiny. Bocca tells him, “You don’t know how to flatter for this pit.” [32.96] Nevertheless, just one more round in, after Dante’s promose of fame, Count Ugolino agrees to share his story precisely out of hatred for Ruggieri. Ugolino tells Dante that it will be hard to recount the story of his demise, but he will endure that agony in order to ruin the reputation of his nemesis: “But if my words must be the seed to sprout / infamy for this traitor whom I gnaw, / you’ll see me weeping, speaking through my tears.” [lines 7-9] Words more full of spite and hatred have rarely been spoken.
A rather confusing and disconcerting episode takes place in this canticle when Dante breaks his promise to Brother Alberigo to break the icy tears from his eyes. Dante justifies himself: “to be villainous to him was a courtesy.” [149-150] Various interpretations of this passage can be found, most seeking to justify Dante’s conduct by interpreting it as a simple expression of God’s justice. This seems to ignore, though, that Dante is not just the narrator of the Divine Comedy but its principle character. The whole work is about Dante’s recovering his right place with God. We should expect, then, to see him grow and change throughout this journey. So what is going on here? Well, perhaps Dante’s progress is not as linear as we’d like it to be. As Dante entered this round, he felt an icy wind upon his face. He is confused about this because winds are caused by the sun, something that can’t be found in Hell. We will see in the next canto, though, that the wind comes from the fruitless beating of Satan’s enormous wings. Dante, then, in his treachery has begun to feel the icy chill of Hell. One commentator writes, “There is a danger lest what seems a righteous indignation against evil—the ‘doing well to be angry’—should lead us on to an evil like in kind to that which we condemn. Men may become false through their scorn of falsehood, cruel in their hatred of cruelty, and, we may add, treacherous in their abhorrence of treachery.” (John S. Carroll, Exiles of Eternity) The horror of the sins we find at the bottom of Hell should indeed provoke our disgust, but unlike the character Dante, we must never allow our righteous feelings to betray us into similar sins. Mercy is always the antidote to betrayal.
As disgusting as Count Ugolino is, Dante expects the story of Brother Alberigo already to be known to his readers and to be even more repulsive. Alberigo invited his relatives to a banquet, only to have them killed as desert was to be served. Here we have a betrayal that is particularly cruel because it has all the appearances of hospitality, and worse yet, of mercy. Brother Alberigo had been feuding with his relations, so the invitation to dinner would be an invitation to peace and reconciliation—that is, an act of mercy. That he uses precisely that moment to lure them to their doom is a most perverse betrayal of those he ought to have loved. It is also a betrayal of mercy itself. And so it is fitting that we find him here frozen into the ice lake of Cocytus.
Brother Alberigo shares a surprising bit of information. Ptolomaea, the region where souls who betray their guests are punished, contains the souls not only of those who are dead but also of those whose bodies remain alive on earth. Their bodies are now animated not by their souls, but rather by a demon (cf. Lk 22:3; Jn 13:27). While on the one hand this is a rather fantastical invention on Dante’s part, it is, in a poetic fashion, an apt description of the soul in a state of mortal sin. The soul that has rejected God and chosen creatures rather than the Creator as its final end is spiritually dead, lacking life-giving charity. The soul in mortal sin is like the living dead. The body walks around as if alive, but the soul is already in hell. Implicit in this grim metaphor, though, is the power of God’s forgiveness shown to the soul in mortal sin. The forgiveness of mortal sin and the restoration of charity is nothing less than a lifting up of the soul from the depths of hell. It is, as it were, a resurrection from the dead. It shows us that nothing—not death, not hell—is more powerful than God’s mercy.
Fr. Royce Gregerson is a priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, IN. He is a candidate for the License in Sacred Theology in moral theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Before beginning studies for the priesthood, he studied literature at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana.