Dante’s Inferno: Canto 10 Retelling — Heretics in Flaming Tombs

Chapter 10: Heretics in Flaming Tombs

As Dante and Virgil walked among the flaming tombs, Dante asked, “Can the people in these tombs be seen? After all, the lids are off the tombs. And the guards are not here, but on the tower and the walls of the City of Dis.”

Virgil replied, “Right now, the tombs are open, but on Judgment Day these sinful souls will be reunited with their sinful bodies, and then the tombs will be closed forever. Here you see the part of the cemetery where Epicurus and his followers lie. They committed heresy by not believing in life after death.”

This is another example of contrapasso, Virgil thought. These heretical sinners did not believe in life after death. They believed instead that when they died they would be in a tomb forever, and that is exactly what will happen to them.

“You ask: Can you speak to these souls?” Virgil continued. “That question will be answered for you very quickly. So will the question that you want to ask me but you have not asked yet.”

“I have not yet asked it because I am afraid of talking too much,” Dante said.

Just then, a figure stood up in the tomb, which was sunken into the ground. The top of his body was visible. The sinner said, “Oh, Tuscan, because of your accent I know that you are from Florence, my own city — a city on which I was perhaps too harsh while I was alive. Talk to me.”

Dante, startled, drew closer to Virgil, who said, “Turn around and look at Farinata degli Uberti, who while he was alive was a big man in your part of the world.”

Dante turned around and looked at Farinata, who stood like a statue. His face showed his disdain for the Hell he was in.

Virgil gently pushed Dante toward Farinata, the better for Dante to speak to the sinner, but Virgil also advised Dante, “Be careful which words you speak.”

Yes, Farinata, Virgil thought. You are standing like the statue that you wish the Florentines would raise to you. You are proud, and you wish to be impressive as you stand here. But half of your body is in the tomb and half of your body is sticking out of the tomb. Although you would like to tower over Dante, Dante stands higher than you do. Although you would like to look like a dignified statue on a pedestal, you look somewhat silly.

When Dante was standing alongside the tomb in which Farinata stood, the sinner said to him with contempt, “And just who are your ancestors?”

Dante told him. Because Dante was very familiar with Farinata’s biography, which was important in the history of Florence, he knew that Farinata’s family was very high born and much classier than Dante’s own family.

Farinata listened as Dante explained who his family was, and then Farinata said, “Your family was a bitter enemy of mine and to my family and my political party. I fought against them and scattered them not just once but twice.”

This is at least partly true, Dante thought. Farinata and his family were Ghibellines, while my family consists of Guelfs. The Ghibellines exiled the Guelfs from Florence twice: in 1248 and in 1260. However, my party, the Guelfs, came back from exile twice and as we speak they are in fact still in control of Florence.

A little angry, Dante said to Farinata, “You expelled them from Florence not just once but twice, but they returned to Florence not just once but twice. Returning from exile is an art that your family has not mastered.”

Just then, another shade popped his head above the tomb that Farinata was standing in. This sinner looked around as if he expected to see someone. That someone was not present, and the sinner began to cry. The sinner then said to Dante, “If your great genius as a poet makes it possible for you to visit the Inferno although you are still alive, then why isn’t my son here with you?”

Dante recognized the sinner. He was Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti, a Guelf. Farinata was a Ghibelline, so they were of opposing political parties. However, they were related by marriage — Cavalcante’s son had married Farinata’s daughter in a politically motivated marriage. This son was named Guido, and he was a poet whom Cavalcante considered to be at least the equal of Dante.

Dante replied, “Your son is not with me, but I am not alone. My guide is a poet whom Guido, your son, did not respect.”

Be careful here, Virgil thought. I see a lot of pride. Farinata is obviously proud, standing as he does in imitation of the statue he wishes the Florentines would erect to him. Cavalcante is obviously proud of his son — overly proud, in fact, since you, Dante, are much the better poet. But Dante, do you really think that your great poetic genius is the reason why you are here in the Inferno? That is not the reason. You are here because you messed up your life so badly that three Heavenly ladies are going out of their way to teach you the right way to live your life so that you may avoid being damned when you die. This trip through the Inferno is not a reward for your great genius — although you are in fact a great poet. Instead, this is a last-ditch effort to keep you from being damned to Hell when you die.

Cavalcante jumped up in the tomb and said, “You say that he did not respect your guide? Do you mean that my son is dead?”

Dante was surprised. The sinners were aware of the past, and he had heard them prophesy, so they knew the future. Why wouldn’t the sinners also know what was happening in the present? Because of his shock, he did not answer Cavalcante quickly, and the sinner disappeared back down in the tomb.

Farinata completely ignored Cavalcante. Instead, he started talking to Dante as if they had not been interrupted: “If they did not master the art of returning from exile, that causes me more pain than my damnation. But you yourself will learn within 50 months how hard such an art is to master. But tell me, why is your political party so hard on my family? Why won’t your political party allow my family to return to Florence?”

“Your question is easy to answer,” Dante replied. “It is because of the blood that stained the Arbia River red.”

Yes, Dante thought, we Florentines remember that battle well. The Arbia River flows by the hill named Montaperti. In 1260, five years before I was born, you and the Ghibellines, including Ghibellines you had recruited from Siena, fought the Battle of Montaperti. You Ghibellines defeated the Guelfs and stained the Arbia River red with Guelf blood. But the Guelfs later regained control of Florence. In 1280, many Ghibellines were allowed to return to Florence; however, your family — the Uberti family — was not allowed to return to Florence. Why not? Because you got so many Florentines killed.

Farinata sighed and said, “I was not the only one fighting in the battle. But after the battle, when everyone else was thinking of destroying Florence, I was the only one who opposed the city’s destruction.”

Yes, you did, Virgil thought, but why did you do that? You fought against the Guelfs because you wanted political power in Florence. If Florence were totally destroyed, you would not be able to have power there. Like the other sinners in the Inferno, you are self-serving. You don’t want to take full responsibility for the blood shed in the Battle of Montaperti, and you do want to take full credit for saving the city of Florence when actually you wanted to save Florence just so you could rule it.

“Can you answer a question for me?” Dante asked. “I have been wondering for a while and have refrained from asking my guide how it is that you and the others here know the future but do not seem to have knowledge of the present.”

“We in Hell have faulty vision,” Farinata replied. “We do see the future, but we do not know what is happening in the Land of the Living at the present time. Only when a new sinner arrives here do we get news of present events in the Land of the Living. When Judgment Day comes and the tombs are closed forever, we will have no knowledge at all.”

This is true, Virgil thought. After Judgment Day, no future events will occur. Every soul will be in its proper place, enjoying bliss eternally or suffering torment eternally.

Dante then requested, “Will you tell Cavalcanti that his son is still alive? I did not answer him earlier because I was surprised that sinners here could have knowledge of the future and yet not have knowledge of the present.”

Dante, you are still naïve, Virgil thought. Do you think that Farinata will ever acknowledge the existence of Cavalcante, even though Cavalcante’s son married his daughter? They will be tombmates forever, and they will not acknowledge each other’s existence forever. Farinata is not going to deliver your message.

Also, note that Cavalcante misunderstood you. He thought that you were saying that his son is dead, but you were not saying that. Heretics misunderstand God and religion.

Also, note that the sinners in the Inferno have faulty vision. They certainly had faulty vision when it came to the Supreme Emperor.

Finally, note the interruptions that we have seen here. Farinata interrupted you and me as we were talking, and Cavalcante interrupted you and Farinata as you two were talking. Obviously, we have people not communicating well here. People who oppose each other do not communicate well with each other — and sometimes they do not communicate at all.

Virgil then called to Dante to come — they must continue their journey. Still, Dante asked one more question of Farinata: “With whom do you share your tomb?”

Farinata replied, “More than a thousand souls are here, including Emperor Frederick II and Cardinal Ottaviano degli Ubaldini. The others I shall not mention.”

You are still proud, even in Hell, Virgil thought. You mention the names of two VIPs, but not the names of your other tombmates. Pride is a deadly sin, and look where it got you.

Dante looked troubled as he remembered what Farinata had said about him — “you yourself will learn within 50 months how hard such an art is to master” — and Virgil said to him, “You have heard a prophecy of your future life. Remember it. Later, you will meet one who will clearly explain your future to you.”

The two continued their journey.

Dante, I don’t think that you learned what you should have learned here, Virgil thought. Whenever you speak to a sinner, you have something that you should learn. Here you talked to two sinners who are guilty of heresy. You are not a heretic, and so you did not speak specifically about heresy here, but about something that is related to heresy: factionalism — specifically factionalism in politics and in poetry. Factionalism, or parties battling each other, can be seen in politics, in religion, and even in art, including poetry. Obviously, factionalism exists in politics, as we see with the Ghibellines and the Guelfs, and with the White Guelfs and the Black Guelfs. Extreme factionalism can be very bad, indeed. When a new faction comes into power in Florence, it bans the opposing faction, exiling them from Florence. Although factionalism can be seen in politics, as in the struggle between the Ghibellines and the Guelfs, or between the White Guelfs and the Black Guelfs, we also see factionalism in other areas. For example, we can see factionalism in religion, as when we see the heretics being combated by those who have the true beliefs concerning religion and God. Factionalism can also exist in poetry. A new kind of poetry can replace the old style of poetry. A modern poet can disrespect an ancient poet.

Dante, what you should have learned here is to avoid extreme factionalism. I hope that you will learn that lesson as we continue our journey. I don’t think you have learned that lesson yet. Instead, you and Farinata were battling each other verbally. Farinata pointed out that he had exiled your political party twice, then you pointed out that your political party had returned from exile twice but that his family had not returned from exile, and then Farinata prophesied that you would be sent into exile. Instead of your learning to avoid extreme factionalism, you and Farinata were engaging in it. Instead of talking together as citizens of the same city, you and Farinata were battling each other verbally. Farinata engaged in extreme factionalism during his life, and he ended up in the Inferno. Dante, unless you learn to avoid extreme factionalism, you may end up in the Inferno.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce

This is an excerpt from Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Retelling in Prose by David Bruce, available here:

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