Two hundred years after Dante wrote canto 29, the Venetian cardinal and literary scholar Pietro Bembo effectively banned the low style of vulgar imagery and sound adopted by Dante in cantos like this one, which teems with festering scabs and scraping claws. In his most famous work, Prose della volar lingua, Bembo writes:
It would have been far more praiseworthy if he [Dante] had set out to write about a less lofty and wide-ranging subject matter, and kept to its appropriate middle ground; having chosen, however, to range wide and high, he could not help demeaning himself by writing very often about the most base and vulgar things.
(Prose della volgar lingua II, xx, 178)*
Bembo’s criticism reminds us how Dante’s style mirrors his journey’s structure: the poet must descend into the guttural depths of his language, and do so with technical mastery, in order to ascend to the heights of his project, his “lofty and wide-ranging subject matter.” To make a work of lasting imprint, Dante cannot dwell only at the Parnassian summits of mythology and theology (with more invocations of Ovid), but must stoop down to earth to the stable and the dock. The pair of alchemists who are punished here with leprous sores are likened to stableboys, their scratching fingers to the metal teeth of the grooming comb; they are compared also to knives slicing the scales off a carp. Pinsky’s translation retains some of the consonantal harshness. Hear the some of the English: Scabs, scales, skin, scratching, rake, slake, snagging, dragging; and now some of the Italian: l’unghie, scabbia, scardova, scaglie, dismaglie, talvota tanaglie. Those g’s and c’s, sounds of cankering clinics and gangrenous sickbeds, are far from the angelic, pillowy Petrarchan melodies that Bembo elevates.
Did anyone else find it amusing that this far into Hell, having just passed through a valley of sinners sliced open, dismembered, and decapitated, that we encounter this jocular moment of the pilgrim and these two scabrous alchemists taking jabs at the Siennese? “Has there ever been another people as vain as the Siennese?” the pilgrim asks Virgil. There’s an uncanny sense of relaxation here. And it’s funny. It makes we wonder if the usual town gossip and chatter didn’t transpire at the Last Supper? After the words of institution perhaps, did Christ and a few of the disciples wink on about the buffoonery of the village down the street?
It’s fitting that this canto comes into our reading schedule near Palm Sunday. On this day, the church celebrates the union of the kingly and the common. The new Cyrus, the messiah-king, comes riding into town on the colt of an ass. Moreover, he comes riding to the inverse throne of the cross. We might call this vulgarized triumph a successful bit of alchemy. The incarnation (of which Phillipians 3 speaks) is a tale of gold turned to lead so that lead might be gold. Leaden God, golden man. Suffering Servant, King of Kings.
*I found this quoted in Lino Pertile’s chapter on this canto in Lectura Dantis (University of California Press, 1998.)