Week 8: Dante's Inferno

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Canto 29-30: Griffolino the Alchemist

Reading time: 5 minutes. Word count: 900 words.

Dante and Virgil are now in the tenth chasm, where the "falsifiers" are punished. Here he meets Griffolino and Capocchio. Griffolino, from the city of Siena near Dante's hometown of Florence, was burned at the stake as an alchemist. He had pretended that he could teach people how to fly. Capocchio was an alchemist in Florence who was also burnt at the stake in Siena; his execution took place in 1293. Dante then alludes to several mythological stories of how human beings who in their madness turned into fierce punishing spirits - but even those spirits were not as fierce as the spirits who torment Griffolino and Capocchio. One of those rabid spirits tormenting Griffolino and Capocchio is Gianni Schicchi, a man from Florence, and the other is Myrrha, whose story is found in Ovid's Metamorphoses: she went mad when she fell in love with her father and shared his bed. What Myrrha and Gianni both have in common is that they pretended to be someone else, which is how they ended up here in the chasm of the "falsifiers."

Griffolino and Capocchio

I saw two sitting, leaning on each other, as one pan is leant to warm against another: they were marked with scabs from head to foot, and I never saw a stable lad his master waits for, or one who stays awake unwillingly, use a currycomb as fiercely, as each of these two clawed himself with his nails, because of the intensity of their itching, that has no other relief.

And so the nails dragged the scurf off, as a knife does the scales from bream, or other fish with larger scales. My Guide began to speak: 'O you, who strip your chain-mail with your fingers, and often make pincers of them, tell us if there is any Latian among those here, inside: and may your nails be enough for that task for eternity.'

One of them replied, weeping: 'We are both Latians, whom you see so mutilated here, but who are you who enquire of us?'

And the guide said: 'I am one, who with this living man, descends from steep to steep, and mean to show him Hell.'

Then the mutual prop broke, and each one turned, trembling, towards me, along with others that heard him, by the echo.

Griffolino's narrative

The good Master addressed me directly, saying: 'Tell them what you wish,' and I began as he desired: 'So that your memory will not fade, from human minds, in the first world, but will live for many suns, tell us who you are, and of what race. Do not let your ugly and revolting punishment make you afraid to reveal yourselves to me.'

The one replied: 'I was Griffolino of Arezzo, and Albero of Siena had me burned: but what I died for did not send me here. It is true I said to him, jesting, "I could lift myself into the air in flight," and he who had great desire and little brain, wished me to show him that art: and only because I could not make him Daedalus, he caused me to be burned, by one who looked on him as a son. But to the last chasm of the ten, Minos, who cannot err, condemned me, for the alchemy I practised in the world.'

The Spendthrift Brigade

And I said to the poet: 'Now was there ever a people as vain as the Sienese? Certainly not the French, by far.'

At which the other leper, hearing me, replied to my words: '[...] so that you may know who seconds you like this against the Sienese, sharpen your eye on me, so that my face may reply to you: so you will see I am Capocchio's shadow, who made false metals, by alchemy, and you must remember, if I know you rightly, how well I aped nature.'

Schicci and Myrrha

At the time when Juno was angry, as she had shown more than once, with the Theban race, because of Jupiter's affair with Semele, she so maddened King Athamas, that, seeing his wife, Ino, go by, carrying her two sons in her arms, he cried: 'Spread the hunting nets, so that I can take the lioness and her cubs, at the pass,' and then stretched out his pitiless talons, snatching the one, named Learchus, and, whirling him round, dashed him against the rock: and Ino drowned herself, and her other burden, Melicertes. And after fortune had brought down the high Trojan pride, that dared all, so that Priam the king, and his kingdom were destroyed, Queen Hecuba, a sad, wretched captive, having witnessed the sacrifice of Polyxena, alone, on the sea-shore, when she recognised the body of her Polydorus, barked like a dog, driven out of her senses, so greatly had her sorrow racked her mind.

But neither Theban nor Trojan Furies were ever seen embodied so cruelly, in stinging creatures, or even less in human limbs, as I saw displayed in two shades, pallid and naked, that ran, biting, as a hungry pig does, when he is driven out of his sty. The one came to Capocchio, and fixed his tusks in his neck, so that dragging him along, it made the solid floor rasp his belly.

And the Aretine, Griffolino, who was left, said to me, trembling: 'That goblin is Gianni Schicci, and he goes, rabidly, mangling others like that.'

I replied: 'Oh, be pleased to tell us who the other is, before it snatches itself away, and may it not plant its teeth in you.'

And he to me: 'That is the ancient spirit of incestuous Myrrha, who loved her father, Cinyras, with more than lawful love. She came to him, and sinned, under cover of another's name, just as the one who is vanishing there, undertook to disguise himself as Buoso Donati, so as to gain the mare, called the Lady of the Herd, by forging a will, and giving it legal form.'

When the furious pair, on whom I had kept my eye, were gone, I turned to look at the other spirits, born to evil.

Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • what physical torment did Griffolino and Capocchio suffer from?
  • why was Griffolino executed?
  • why is the woman Myrrha condemned to suffer here in this chasm of "falsifiers"?

Source: Dante's Inferno, translated by A.S. Kline (2000). Website: Dante and Others.

Modern Languages MLLL-2003. World Literature: Frametales. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:48 PM