David Bruce: Dante’s INFERNO: A Discussion Guide — “Canto 29: The Falsifiers (Alchemists)”

“Canto 29: The Falsifiers (Alchemists)”

  • Who is Geri del Bello, and what can we learn from his story?

Geri del Bello, a first cousin of Dante’s father, was murdered in a blood feud between families. Geri del Bello is angry at Dante because his murder — probably at the hands of the Sacchetti family — has not been avenged. Geri del Bello wants Dante to murder a member of the Sacchetti family to avenge his death. That is why Geri del Bello makes threatening gestures at Dante, who does not notice them or Geri del Bello because he is busy noticing Bertran de Born. Of course, if Dante were to avenge the death of Geri del Bello, a member of the Sacchetti family would kill either Dante or a member of Dante’s family in retaliation, and the blood feud would continue. In addition, Dante would most likely end up in the Inferno when he died.

  • Which examples of extreme factionalism between families are you aware of?

Of course, the extreme factionalism between the Guelfs and the Ghibellines started as a disagreement between families, one that led to murder and a blood feud.

The Hatfields and the McCoys had a real-life fuel in the United States. In Mark Twain’sAdventures of Huckleberry Finn, the feud between the Shepherdsons and the Grangerfords is partly based on historical feuds like that between the Hatfields and the McCoys.

In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, extreme factionalism exists between the Capulets and the Montagues. These families and their factionalism actually existed. The Romeo and Juliet story also plays a role in the feud between the Shepherdsons and the Grangerfords in Mark Twain’sAdventures of Huckleberry Finn.

  • What is the punishment given to the Falsifiers, and why is it fitting?

In the 10thand final bolgia are punished those who are Falsifiers of various kinds, including Counterfeiters. These sinners are punished with various illnesses, including insanity. This may reflect the idea that sin is a kind of illness or disease.

Various kinds of falsification are punished with various kinds of illness:

Alchemists

The Alchemists have leprosy (the Alchemists tried to change lead into gold, and now their skin turns from healthy to diseased).

Evil Impersonators

The Evil Impersonators are insane (the Evil Impersonators made other people confused about who the Evil Impersonators were; now the Evil Impersonators, who are insane, are confused about who they are).

Counterfeiters

The Counterfeiters — who made what they had bigger than it should be — have dropsy (which makes part of their body swell up and be bigger than it should be).

Liars

The Liars — whose testimony stank — are feverous and stink.

  • What are the four kinds of falsifiers found in the 10thbolgia?

John Ciardi identifies four kinds of falsifiers in the 10thbolgia:

Alchemists: Falsifiers of Things (225)

Evil Impersonators: Falsifiers of Persons (232)

Counterfeiters: Falsifiers of Money (232)

False Witnesses: Falsifiers of Words (232)

The Alchemists are written about in Canto 29; the other kinds of falsifiers are written about in Canto 30.

  • What is Alchemy?

Alchemy is a bastard form of chemistry. Alchemy is the study of how to turn base metals into gold; for example, an alchemist would love to turn iron, which is cheap, into gold, which is expensive.

Many alchemists, of course, were tricksters. They would get money from other people whom they would trick.

In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer attacks alchemy in “The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale” and in the Prologue to that Tale.

  • Who are some Alchemists being punished in this part of the Circle?

Here are some of the alchemists:

Griffolino

Griffolino da Arezzo told a bishop’s son that he could teach him to fly, so that then the bishop’s son could fly through the window of any woman. Alberto da Siena paid him well to teach him how to fly, but of course Arezzo could not deliver on his promise; therefore, Albert reported him to the authorities as a magician, and he was burned at the stake. This, of course, makes him guilty of fraud, but he is punished in the Inferno for another kind of fraud — that of being an alchemist.

Interestingly, this fraud of claiming to be able to teach people to fly continues today. You can pay money to people who claim to be able to do this. If you pay the money, you will spend a lot of the time sitting on the floor and using your buttock muscles to try to launch yourself into the air. The claim is that eventually you will learn how to fly. (Don’t do this, or you will be silly as Albert the Sienese man, aka Albert da Siena.)

Capocchio

Dante apparently knew him when they both were students. Capocchio was burned at the stake for alchemy. Capocchio likes to make jokes about silly the Sienese are.

  • Can Minos make mistakes?

We find out that Minos cannot make mistakes, and the sinners know it, although some may try to deny it. Of course, since Minos works for God, we would not expect him to make mistakes. Griffolino da Arezzo says,

“But unto the last Bolgia of the ten,

For alchemy, which in the world I practised,

Minos, who cannot err, has me condemned.”

(Longfellow 29.118-120)

  • What was the Spendthrifts’ Brigade?

This was a club of wealthy Sienese who deliberately wasted their fortunes. Capocchio greatly criticizes the Sienese, and he does criticize these Sienese.

One member of the Spendthrifts’ Brigade was Niccolo de’ Salimbeni. At the time, cloves were very expensive. He introduced the use of this spice to Siena, and he used to set a bed of cloves on fire and roast pheasants over them.

  • How does Virgil describe his purpose as a guide for Dante the Pilgrim (Musa, Inferno29.94-96)?

One of the sinners in this canto asks Virgil who he is. In answering, Virgil describes his purpose as a guide for Dante the Pilgrim:

And said the Guide: “One am I who descends

Down with this living man from cliff to cliff,

And I intend to show Hell unto him.”           

(Longfellow 29.94-96)

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INFERNO: CANTO 27 RETELLING

INFERNO: CANTO 28 RETELLING

INFERNO: CANTO 29 RETELLING

INFERNO: CANTO 30 RETELLING

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INFERNO: CANTO 33 RETELLING

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