Chapter 29: The Falsifiers (Alchemists)
Dante kept looking at the sinners in the ninth bolgia, and Virgil said to him, “Why do you keep staring at these sinners more than you looked at other sinners? This Circle is 22 miles around, and you will not be able to see all the sinners here.”
Dante and Virgil moved toward the tenth bolgia, and Dante explained, “I was looking for someone in particular. A member of my family is most likely in that bolgia.”
“Think no longer of that member of your family,” Virgil replied. “You have other things to think of, and to see. I saw the man you are speaking of. His name is Geri del Bello, and I heard his name called out. You did not see him because you were busy looking at Bertran de Born, but Geri saw you and he was angry.”
“I know why he was angry,” Dante replied. “He was murdered at the hands of the Sacchetti family, and his murder has not been avenged. Geri del Bello wants me to murder a member of the Sacchetti family to avenge his death.”
Yes, Virgil thought, and if you avenge the death of Geri del Bello by killing a member of the Sacchetti family, then a member of the Sacchetti family will kill either you or a member of your family in retaliation, and the blood feud will continue. In addition, you will most likely end up in the Inferno when you die. I certainly hope that this trip through the Inferno is teaching you to avoid extreme factionalism.
Now Dante and Virgil reached the bridge over the last of the Malebolge. They looked down, and they saw many sinners who had been afflicted with illness. Imagine all the sick of all the hospitals in a sickness-infested country crammed into one ditch, and you can imagine what Dante and Virgil were seeing.
I have been here before, and I know what kind of sinners are being punished here, and why, Virgil thought. In the tenth and final bolgia are punished those who are falsifiers of various kinds. These sinners are punished with various illnesses. This is as it should be, for sin is a kind of illness or disease.
The alchemists have leprosy (the alchemists tried to change lead into gold, and now their skin turns from healthy to diseased). 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). 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). And the liars — whose testimony stank — are feverous and stink.
All of these sinners are falsifiers. The alchemists are falsifiers of things. The evil impersonators are falsifiers of persons. The counterfeiters are falsifiers of money. The liars are falsifiers of words.
Dante marveled at the numbers of the sinners who were afflicted with illness. Some sinners were lying against or on other sinners. Some sinners crawled on their hands and knees. Many sinners did not have the strength to stand up.
Dante saw two sinners, each leaning against the other’s back. They were scratching themselves, trying to kill a never-ending itch. Their skin was covered with scabs, and as they scratched the scabs collected under their fingernails. No curry-comb was ever applied to a horse faster by a stable boy eager for bed than the sinners applied their fingernails to their bodies.
Virgil asked the two sinners, “Are any of the sinners here Italian?”
“Both of us are,” answered one of the sinners. “But who are you?”
“I am the guide of this living man,” Virgil replied. “My purpose is to show him all the Circles of the Inferno.”
Both sinners turned to look at Dante, and Virgil said to Dante, “Ask them whatever you wish.”
“So that I may keep your memory from fading away in the Land of the Living,” Dante said, “tell me who you are and where you are from.”
One of the sinners said, “I am Griffolino da Arezzo, and I told a bishop’s son that I could teach him to fly, so that then he could fly through the window of any woman. The bishop’s son, whose name was Alberto da Siena, paid me well to teach him how to fly, but of course I could not deliver on my promise; therefore, Albert reported me to the authorities as a magician, and I was burned at the stake. Of course, this makes me guilty of fraud, but I am punished in the tenth bolgia of Circle 8 of the Inferno for another kind of fraud — that of being an alchemist. Minos sent me here, and Minos cannot err.”
Alchemy is a bastard form of chemistry, Virgil thought. 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. Alchemists, of course, are guilty of fraud. They get money from other people whom they trick.
“No people are as silly as the Sienese,” Dante said to Virgil.
Capocchio, who had been burned at the stake for alchemy, was the second of the two sinners. Dante had known him when he was alive and they both were students, and then as now Capocchio delighted in mocking the silly Sienese.
Capocchio said to Dante, “Remember the Spendthrifts’ Brigade — a club of wealthy Sienese who deliberately wasted their fortunes. One member of the Spendthrifts’ Brigade was Niccolo de’ Salimbeni. He introduced the use of very expensive cloves to Siena, and he used to set a bed of cloves on fire and roast pheasants over them.
“Dante, if you look closely at me, you will recognize me.”
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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