something is grotesquely incongruous does not, strictly speaking, proceed
from the elements themselves, but from what is understood as incongruous
and perceived as such. The simplest notion, or the classical idea of the
grotesque is of a subverted natural order resulting in monstrous forms
and themes of an intermingling human, animal and vegetal world,
from which develops a strong tendency of dehumanization. Therefore the
feeling of the bizarre, the unnatural, the estranged is created. The incongruity
between the perceived image and its juxtaposition to the natural world
is such as to cause a mixed feeling of contradictory sensations: amusement
and fear, awe and disgust, fun and terror, the comic and the tragic, the
base and the elevated.
1.1. The understanding of the incongruous aspects of the world is by no
means a modern invention and goes back far beyond the discovery of the
grotteschi. Curtius (1953: 95) mentions the concept of adynata (impossibilia)
already in connection with Archilochus and the famous eclipse of the sun
in 648 B.C. Through Virgil, the adynata were also well known to the medievals,
being a common topos of Latin mock songs (e.g. Carmina burana) and the
troubadours (e.g. Arnaut Daniel). What is, of course, of primary importance
is the interpretation of the incompatible phenomena (the topsy-turvy world)
within a larger system and this varies with space and time. Therefore
the modern “grotesque” is of a different nature compared to the ancient
or medieval adynata. It is probably because of the difficulty of collocating
a single notion into a clearcut cell within a general structure that scholars
have never entirely agreed upon its definition. For example Kayser ( op.
cit.) stresses the overwhelmingly uncanny and unfathomable nature of the
grotesque which should distinguish it from the sensation of the
coarsely comic on the one hand and from the tragic on the other. One who
witnesses an example of the grotesque cannot help but be torn between
amusement and puzzlement, hilarity and terror, although the sinister,
the ominous component seems to prevail in the end, despite a certain
playfulness on the part of the author. Bakhtin (1965) on the
other hand has pointed to the comic and liberating effect of the
grotesque in connection with Rabelais and the spirit of the Renaissance.
The carnival tradition, rooted deeply in medieval and renaissance popular
culture, is of an ambivalent nature, uniting death and rebirth, chaos
and new order, the individual body and the collective body of Nature.
Kayser himself, in an earlier work (1965: 384-385), has suggested that
the way in which the grotesque is integrated into the general structure
of a work should be carefully studied. Gurevich (1984: passim) shows the
possible method of finding reasonable interpretations of outwardly grotesque
elements in medieval iconography, where the grotesque is subjected to
symbolic hierarchy. As to “image” and “concept” or the two sides of a
poetic unit, Frye (1990: 136) maintains that “the meaning or pattern of
poetry is a structure of imagery with conceptual implications.” All this
highlights the problem of the grotesque as a phenomenon, a method
and an objective to be viewed within the framework of macrostructures.
2. The aim of this paper is to discuss some problems connected with the
imagery of the grotesque in Dante`s Inferno and to define its nature within
the conceptual structure of that work. An attempt will be made at a kind
of typology of the manifestations of the grotesque in the Inferno. To
this end the general setting, the characters, their statics and dynamics,
some elements of composition and a number of situations will be
observed. The grotesque will be viewed as a phenomenon, as a method
and as an objective.
2.1. That Inferno itself is an image of utmost estrangement is obvious.
This results from the unchangeable monstrous order (read: deviated life,
disorder) of existence in Hell compared to life on earth (real life),
and its opposition to the divine order of life in Paradise (ideal
life). Existence in Hell is also a kind of life, yet it is subverted life,
both really and ideally. On the other hand, the fantastic and the
grotesque cannot be simply opposed to the real, for it is only in
relation to reality that the fantastic and the grotesque may be perceived
at all. It is not coincidental that one of Auerbach`s most convincing
arguments in his Mimesis (1991: 194 ) is that despite the fantastic imagery,
we must see the underlying realism in Dante`s Comedy. Technically this
is only natural, for Dante (or anybody else) could not have
depicted the maledicted underlife but by recourse to his knowledge
of this world and by reversing its natural order, so producing deviation
and chaos within the framework of some higher order. Kayser (1981: 180)
maintains that the essential nature of the grotesque is not concerned
with the moral order, which may dilute its effect. Yet we must remember
that even if this order is established on a universal, macrotextual
level, grotesqueness does not necessarily dissolve on the microtextual
level and the conflict between various contexts will never be resolved
in full. When we observe, for example, the punishments which are inflicted
upon the miserable, we see an intermingling of natural and unnatural nightmarish
elements. To be more exact, the elements taken individually are real;
it is their combination which creates the feeling of the bizarre, the
estranged, the uncanny, the comic, the sinister, the horrific. There is
nothing strange in being naked, yet it is unorthodox to imagine
crowds of naked people in a large space except, perhaps, in a
sauna. It is stranger still that in their naked state they do curious
things, or that curious things are done to them. They cannot prevent this.
They chase a banner which they will never reach (the Vestibule), they
are bitten continually by flies and wasps (natural elements in themselves),
or they are turned head first into burning ditches, their feet kicking
out of the ditch until another sinner is pressed upon them and they pierce
further into the burning earth (Malbowges, Subcircle III). Alternatively
they are pressed into ice so that they cannot even weep, as their very
tears freeze (the frozen lake of Cocytus, Circle IX). Ice is natural.
Crying is natural. That a liquid should freeze is natural. Lying forever
alive in ice with your tears turning into ice and blocking your eyes
for good seems absurd. In general the four elements - water, air, fire,
earth - are all depicted in extreme alienation from their natural state.
However, in Dante`s Inferno all things, despite having a wild, chaotic
appearance and uncanny nature, have a fixed pattern and a fixed order.
Therefore we must ask, if we do not actually deal with the instances of
apparent grotesque, is the grotesque then resolved and overcome? We shall
try to answer this question after discussing some manifestations of the
through which we shall try to construct a kind of typology.
The grotesque in the Inferno may be considered according to the following
three basic types:
1. character grotesque;
2. pattern grotesque
or structural grotesque;
3. situational and plot
3.1. As to the character grotesque the following constituents may
Let us begin our limited and rather selective survey of the immense gallery
of grotesque character images with Minos, whose function in the
second circle (the first circle proper) of Hell is that of infernal judge.
Stavvi Minòs orribilmente, e ringhia:
esamina le colpe nell`entrata;
giudica e manda secondo ch`avvinghia.
Dico che quando l`anima mal nata
li vien dinanzi, tutta si confessa;
e quel conoscitor delle peccata
vede qual luogo d`inferno è da essa:
cignesi con la coda tante volte
quantunque gradi vuol che giù sia messa.
Dante has transformed this Virgilian character into a monstrous
being, a strange human, animal and demonic mixture. Minos has a tail which
has become itself the instrument of weighing sins and pronouncing
just sentence. The procedure seems rather bizarre, even comic. The number
of times Minos wraps the tail round his body, that number of circles
has the sinner to descend through the subverted cone of Hell to his final
place of torture. We witness here the doubleness of the image. The first
is of an ad hoc character, something which coincides with the impression
of the sinner who comes before Minos and feels the inevitable necessity
to reveal the whole truth about himself. That is the effect of both
Minos` function and his horrible appearance, and there is an element
of the grotesque through the addition of a tail and a terrible snarling
grin (the Italian ringhia creates both visual and acoustic associations).
Despite its novelty in relation to the Minos whom we know from Greek Mythology,
this would not suffice to create a true image of the grotesque (at least
not for the reader accustomed to the monstrous imagery of pagan myths),
if it were not shortly afterwards accompanied by the bizarre, even comic
behaviour . This “connoisseur of all transgression`s” (conoscitor delle
peccata) strange manner of sentencing (focusing on the tail as well)
transforms the initial image. The discrepancy between the solemn, fierce
function of Minos and his bizarre gesture turns him into a caricature
of a judge. The comic element is later reinforced by Virgil`s words in
answer to Minos, who greets this newcomer, who has ignored the “rules
of the house” by coming there alive with the following speech:
“O tu che vieni al doloroso ospizio”,
“guarda com`entre e di cui ti fide:
non t`inganni l`ampiezza di entrare!”
(ibid. 16, 19-20)
to which Virgil replies,
“ Perchè pur gride?”
The elevated style of Minos, epitomized by his words “the house
of pain” (“il doloroso ospizio”) is congruous with his function and incongruous
with his method of sentencing. Virgil`s style is also elevated,
yet there is a comic undermining of Minos` authority.
The comic seems to reach an extreme and result in a complete caricature
when we learn, much later, in Canto XXVII (124-127) from Guido da Montefeltro,
who has been condemned to the eighth subcircle of Malbowges (Malebolgia)
for evil counselling, that when Minos measured his placement he
girded himself eight times and bit his tail ferociously while doing it.
Yet this is not comic despite its comic element. The gesture itself, the
biting of the tail, is symbolically very suggestive as it closes the circle
(ourobros - the snake biting its tail) and indicates a final decision.
It is an omen and, as such, ominous, something which appals. We
must not forget that it is the sinners themselves that confess all their
wrong-doings when seeing Minos, who has also been interpreted as their
own conscience. This is, then, a kind of allegory of conscience,
yet it does not lessen the insinuated feeling that “you will be judged
in this way too”. In any case it is very difficult, if not impossible,
to remain impartial and not feel personally and directly involved
in the scene. And that is what, according to Kayser (1981: 118), differentiates
the grotesque from a manifestation of the purely comic, in which a certain
distance is maintained. Let us recall that Aristotle defined the
comic as the ugly without pain. Indeed there is in the figure of
Minos an element of the horribly comic, of bizarre derision, but this
transforms into another feeling when we realize that behind the mockery
of the infernal judge stands God`s judgement and punishment.
That this is really so is affirmed by the grim stories and terrible tortures
which the sinners have to suffer and which we, following Dante and Virgil,
witness. The immediate and irrevocable conviction, the insubvertable order
on the macrotextual level does not allow the liberating laugh which is
permitted in many instances of the grotesque in later renaissance works.
Here the grotesque transforms into tragedy. We probably have to observe
the phenomenon from different positions. If we take the standpoint
of Dante the protagonist, we are initially appalled and amused and perceive
the sense of the grotesque. If we take the standpoint of Dante the author
and theologian, we are appalled again, yet this is different, as we now
perceive primariliy the tragic side of the punishment and its relation
to divine order. And it is this perspective which seems to remain with
us. Alienation is overcome in spirit and becomes sublime.
So, here we have a case of the two-stage transformation of the initial
image. Minos is not what he is, yet he is what he is not, albeit on another
level. This presents a double paradox. The bestial, demonic, mythological
character Minos, fierce judge, of whom we expect dignity, acquires a grotesquely
comic hue, very much in accord with the subverted character of the general
atmosphere of the passage, and restores tragic dignity on the macrotextual
level. We actually have three different stages of one and the same image
in its dynamic development, resulting in an image of the grotesque vanquished.
Moral allegory dilutes the power of the grotesque. However, the grotesqueness
of Minos will never dissolve completely, for despite the idea that Minos
forms a link in the general chain of order, we shall never understand
fully why he is as he is and thus the grotesque image remains. Although
overcome in spirit, the grotesque remains in body.
In the same way we could, by departing from the phenomenon and the
perception of the grotesque, observe the whole gallery of the characters
which the Inferno offers. As this is clearly impossible within the scope
of the present article, let us therefore dwell upon only a few cases-in-point.
The four afore-mentioned devices of grotesque character building cannot
always be equally seen. There are characters in whom the outward
grotesque appearance is prevalent: these are, for example, the Cerberus,
the Minotaur, the Harpies, some centaurs, some Christian devils,
some giants. There are other examples where the characters` speech
is as relevant as the appearance. For example Pluto speaks in the
fourth circle (the misers and the spendthrifts) in a strange language:
“Papè Satan, papè Satan aleppe!”
cominciò Pluto con la voce chioccia;
The menace of the name of Satan in an unidentified tongue, which vaguely
resembles Greek, and the sound image of the cackling or clucking voice,
suggesting a hen, with which the frightful menace is uttered, are
in a strange and comic opposition. The incongruity reaches an extreme
when we discover that this sound comes from the mouth of a creature who
is very much like a wolf, as Virgil says,
Poi si rivolse a quella infiata labbia,
e disse: “Taci, maladetto lupo;
consuma dentro te con la tua rabbia.(”)
Pluto's reaction to Virgil's assertion that they move in the infernal
space with the consent of the celestial will is a mixture of a disappointed
dog dropping flatly down and the fall of broken rigging:
Quali dal vento le gonfiate vele
caggiono avvolte, poi che l`alber fiacca,
tal cadde a terra la fiera crudele.
Yet we cannot enjoy the comedy for long, for a few moments later we witness
a joust between the two rows of sinners, the misers and the spendthrifts,
who roll heavy stones against each other and clash, flinging reciprocal
insults. The incongruous character manifesting in the appearance, the
speech and the behaviour of the guardian of the circle- Pluto -
is nevertheless in keeping with the incongruous characters of its inhabitants.
The coarse comic of the strange battle and insults, during which even
Virgil falls from his elevated style to a coarser tongue, is juxtaposed
with the horror of the invincible rage of the contenders. Again, the infinite
quality of the punishment destroys the comic hue. The grotesqueness of
the image, mitigated and transformed when placed and understood within
the general hierarchy of punishment, will nonetheless never disappear
The same may be observed in many other circles. In the third circle, where
there is the Cerberus and punishes the gluttons, the latter howl very
much in the same way as their oppressor does. In this connection
we might recall the howl of Anita Eckberg in Fellini`s La dolce
vita when she hears a dog howling nearby. The phenomenon is clearly
grotesque, for it comprises both a humorous angle and the strange, uncanny
and menacing feeling this begets. That is exactly what the look of Marcello
Mastroianni tells us. The howls of the miserable within the reach of the
claws of the Cerberus are certainly grotesque, despite being understood
in the framework of the contrappasso - the punishment sentenced in accordance
with the nature of the sin.
An example of a grotesque, thoroughly meaningless speech is the speech
uttered by Nimrod in the Well of the Giants. Nimrod, the biblical king
who undertook the construction of a tower climbing to Heaven
(as a result of which God mixed human tongues) now, as huge as huge can
be, supports the structure of the Well - through which the poets may reach
the bottom of Hell, where traitors are settled - along with those other
giants who have rebelled against God`s will. In spite of his almost immeasurable
gigantic form, he is unable to produce a meaningful utterance.
“Raphèl maì amèch zabì almì”
cominciò a gridar la fiera bocca,
cui non si convenia più dolci salmi;
e `l duca mio ver lui: “Anima sciocca,
tienti col corno, e con quel ti disfoga,
quand`ira o altra passion ti tocca!
Cercati al collo, e troverai la soga
che `l tien legato, o anima confusa,
e vedi lui che `l gran petto ti doga.”
The horn referred to is the one whose terrible plaintive sound had made
Dante the protagonist think of Orlando`s horn blowing out in a vain call
for help. The idea is that Nimrod`s horn can speak more than his mouth,
although both call to no avail. The sound grotesque is emphasised by the
contradiction between the gigantic body of Nimrod and his idiocy. He is
both stupid and helpless. There is even something childlike about him,
though it is that terrifying childliness that we witness in an insane
person. The perception is both bizarre and sad, repulsive and tragic,
all of it at the same time. And again, explained or not, we will never
escape the feeling that this may happen to us. We will be inflicted if
we trespass, yet this only lessens the effect of the grotesque, it does
not abolish it.
To find grotesque expressed most impressively we may observe the figure
of Geryon in Canto XVII. In Greek mythology Geryon was a monster,
killed by Hercules, who had a human form with either three heads or three
conjoined bodies. Dante presents him as the image of Fraud with the face
of a just man and an iridescence of beautiful colour, the paws of a beast,
sharp wings and a poisonous sting in his serpent`s tail (Inferno
transl. & comm. by Sayers: 178). The behaviour of the beast is congruous
with his incongruous body. He does not show himself in full. Virgil and
Dante see first his just face and bust, i.e. his apparently human
part, as he hides the beastly side.
E quella sozza imagine di froda
sen venne, ed arrivò la testa e `l busto
ma `n su la riva non trasse la coda.
La faccia sua era faccia d`uom giusto,
tanto benigna avea di fuor la pelle,
e d`un serpente tutto l`altro fusto;
Geryon's conduct is as grotesque as his appearance. We should also remember
the bizarre way in which Virgil had managed to contact the beast - letting
the girdle of Dante`s garment down into the abyss so that Geryon could
climb up and face them. Yet the height of the grotesque is reached when
it appears that the two poets cannot experience Malbowges (Malebolge)
where the fraudulent are punished until they sit on his back
and let him carry them like a flying ship, or a swimming snake (“eel”
- “anguilla”- is actually the word Dante uses) or a falcon which circles,
circles and suddenly drops into Circle VIII.
The modern image would be that of an airplane landing in smooth cirles
over a town where red lights (the lights of the tall fires in which some
of the fraudulent are being punished in Malebolge) are burning and
we do not know what they mean. Dante the character is truly appalled at
the sight. Even if we discover later that the red lights are the flames
in which the fraudulent burn, we cannot rid ourselves of the image of
this grotesque vision. It has been suggested that within the figure of
Geryon is the image of Antichrist and this should explain Dante`s feeling
of terror. Yet an image as such will always remain grotesque.
Here we certainly come across situational and plot grotesque alongside
Another example of behaviour grotesque is that of the Christian
devils who may, besides their vulgar and base ways, also act and
speak like scolastici. Let us observe the epsiode in Canto XXVII with
Guido da Montefeltro. Guido had been a counsellor of fraud to Pope Boniface
VIII on condition that the Pope would give him absolution from his sins.
Before death he had retired to a franciscan monastery. Guido tells the
two poets how it had happened that he had come to Inferno:
Francesco venne poi, com`io fu`morto,
per me; ma un de`neri cherubini
li disse: Non portar: non mi far torto.
Venir sen dee giù tra`miei meschini,
perché diede il consiglio frodolente,
dal quale in qua stato li sono a` crini;
ch`assolver non si può chi non si pente,
né pentére e volere insieme puossi
per la contradizion che nol consente”.
O me dolente! come mi riscossi
quando mi prese dicendomi: “Forse
tu non pensavi ch`io loico fossi!”
This is in striking contrast with the vulgar and ferocious activities
we witness in the conduct of the devils in the previous cantos
which describe Malebolge.(It rather resembles the educated style of the
later Renaissance devils who philosophise and preach, advising more frequent
visits to the mass). In the previous cantos they behave vulgarly
and basely, reminiscent of the coarse and burlesque images of the medieval
imps we know, for example, from the De Babylonia infernali of Giacomino
da Verona, very much in accord with Bakhtin`s theory of the grotesque
of popular culture. Yet this aspect of a (feigned or real) ability to
reason like a logician makes the image of the Christian imp decidedly
uncanny. This is also stressed by Dante`s term “neri cherubini”
which suggests that, monstrous or not, we do have the fallen angels or
intelligencies, the once glorious cherubins, next in glory to the seraphs.
Therefore we perceive the combination of a strange feeling of some
awe and fright, in the same way as Guido does, which broadens the hitherto
base image of the fiends who shout, fight and tell lies in the fifth subcircle
of Malebolge where the barrators are forked by the imps in the boiling
There are certainly quite a few manifestations of the comic in these
cantos of Malebolge in which Christian imps appear. It has even
earned the name of the Rhapsody of Devils (“la rapsodia dei diavoli”)
(Pagliaro 1967: 311 etc.). They are disciplined like soldiers. To show
to their troop leader Barbariccia (Barbiger) that they are ready to obey
his command they pull out their tongues. And the vulgar signal which the
leader gives is that of a “bugle of his breech”. Thus the wide gamut of
impish behaviour combines ferocity, comedy, vulgarity, wit, fallen and
transformed dignity. The comedy and the derision of these cantos have
often been connected with Dante`s personal fate and his being accused
of and exiled for barratry. For example Pirandello has called the
episode “the grotesque representation of Dante`s own condemnation.”
Now let us consider some cases of metamorphosis. This is often a characteristic
of the tortured spirits in hell. It is more than a mere transformation,
it is a complete change and rechange in substance, although in Hell there
is no bodily matter but the spiritual substance of the sinners until they
regain their bodies after the Last Judgement, which will make suffering
worse. For example, in the second sub-circle of Circle VII, where the
violent against their own bodies, suicides, suffer, we discover that they
are transformed into plants. The two poets find themselves walking in
a dry wood where the Harpies make their nests. The trees enclose the souls
of the suicides. When Dante by chance breaks a branch, it begins to bleed
and Pier delle Vigne tells his sad story. He had been honoured in King
Friedrich`s court in Sicily. Accused of conspiring against the King, he
was disgraced, imprisoned and stabbed blind and he took his own life in
despair. Suicide is sin against one`s own body. Therefore there is the
metamorphosis of the human bodies to trees and bushes.
Metamorphosis and the transformance of substance creates an extreme perception
of estrangement, which reaches its height in the seventh subcircle
of Malebolge (Circle VIII) where the spiritual bodies of thieves transform
into snakes and other reptiles (XXV, 49-79).
Here we witness the transubstantiation of Agnello o Agnolo Brunelleschi,
a Florentine thief. The utmost transformation - metamorphosis -
certainly suggests the idea that the essence of a thief transforms itself
into a beast, in this case a terrible snake, and gives us an utterly grotesque
image of the thief`s nature. It is as impossible to believe one`s eyes
as it is to trust the thief`s nature. We see both, man and beast (as with
Geryon), yet we are not sure where the one ends and the other begins.
This is said in a nutshell in verse 77: the perverse image - both at once
and neither which, indeed, comprises the essence of the feeling of the
grotesque. You have both things in their extremes and neither, i.e. nothing,
which causes terror and bewilderment. This is the image of the destruction
of the self .
Right after the image of this grotesque transformation there comes another,
even more suggestive image of a double metamorphosis: the intermingling
of a man and a snake, in the course of which the man transforms into a
snake, and the snake transforms into a man. The snake becomes the mask
of the thief, and man`s mask becomes the mask of the snake.
Dante the author is proud of his ability to compete with and exceed in
skill the ancient masters of metamorphosis. Dante the protagonist is bewildered
at the sight. Orwell`s Animal Farm ends with the same kind of bewilderment
when the animals who go to the Farmhouse and peep through the window cannot
make out the faces of the participants in the feast, for both the pigs`
and the men`s faces have blurred and transformed into each other
and it it impossible to make out which is which. A powerful grotesque!
In the case of the metarmorphosis depicted by Dante, we are invited to
discern the reasons for this transformation, and we may make an attempt
at understanding it as a symbol, yet we cannot dismiss the image as such.
3.2. At the same time we cannot help but admire the grotesque in
the technical sense which Dante has managed to paint. It is a splendid
image of a grotesque ornament, in perfect symmetry, surely the very best
in the Inferno and has thus merited being quoted here in full. Such
pattern or structural grotesque is actually visible in the whole construction
of the Inferno. This is determined by the rigid structure of its spiral
construction which Dante the author now and then admires despite its great
horror, as perceived by himself as protagonist. This structure is everlasting,
yet the elements of the general pattern undergo certain transformations
which are of local character and dynamics so that the general statics
of the macropattern do not change. The observer perceives this fluctuation
of ornamental elements before his very eyes. If it were a mere arabesque,
he could enjoy its aesthetic effect, yet when he thinks himself
within the frame he cannot help being appalled. The perceived discrepancies
are those of the grotesque.
Among other examples of pattern grotesque (micropatterns), we may
recall the imaginary pattern of the joust in Circle IV, mentioned before,
where the misers and the spendthrifts, positioned in two semicircles,
clash together rolling before them heavy rocks like two semicircles
of knights jousting with lances. Then they move back again and everything
is repeated. Or we may picture the mirror-like surface of the frozen river
Cocytus from where the heads of the traitors of relatives and homeland
stick out like the the snouts of frogs with teeth that clatter like storks`
beaks. A pattern of frogs and storks in a cold aesthetic mirror.
Yet there and then Count Ugolino tells a most terrifying story of the
gruesome starving to death of his sons and grandsons, and the aesthetic
pattern gives way to a mixed feeling of the cruelty of the human world
and a deep compassion for the human being within him, though he may have
erred, a feeling which, despite its most contradictory nature, is absolutely
3.3. Last but not least let us observe some cases of situational and plot
grotesque. We already perceived the absurdity of Virgil and Dante, both
haters of fraud, having to journey on the back of its very image
- on Geryon. Despite its absurdity, this is congruous with the whole
plot of the Inferno. In order to get out of the wood of sin (Canto I),
Dante has to witness personally what is the fate of the sinner, for which
he has to let Virgil lead him into the Underworld. Besides plot grotesque
there are many occurrences of situational grotesque. For example
in Circle III, where the gluttonous suffer, the poets have to tread on
the spiritual bodies of the miserable which are lying under the
While walking amongst the heads that stick out like those of frogs from
the frozen pond of Cocytus (Circle IX), Dante stumbles into the face of
a traitor. The face belongs to Bocca degli Abati who had betrayed the
Florentini in the battle of Montaperti (won by the Senesi) by cutting
off the hand of the Florentine standard-bearer thus throwing the Florentine
army into panic. It may be a kind of personal vengence on Dante`s part
against the traitor of his native city, yet the situation is very confused.
It may as well have been fate or chance and this makes us puzzled. The
walk among the doggish faces is of course grotesque par exellence.
Perhaps one of the best examples of situational grotesque is to be found
in Canto XXX (the tenth subcircle of Malebolge) where the impersonators,
the falsifiers of persons, run here and there and bite others. Gianni
Schicchi, a will forger, attacks ferociouly Capocchio, a falsifier
of metals. This scene, which in its ferocity resembles that of Cocytus
where Count Ugolino bites the nape of his enemy bishop Ruggieri, is already
grotesque in itself. Yet when Dante asks for an explanation of another
person (Griffolino d`Arezzo) he does it with the following words:
“Oh!” diss`io lui, “se l`altro non ti ficchi
li denti a dosso, non ti sia fatica
a dir chi è, pria che di qui si spicchi”.
“If there is no one to bite you for the moment” is extremely grotesque.
It suggests that violence is a norm in Inferno. Therefore the deviation
from this norm, although a grotesque norm, is unexpected. and the whole
situation is entirely grotesque. The grotesque in this situation is created
by the discrepancy between expected violence and its being suddenly
missing, whereby something which is normal within a normal order
of things is pereceived in inversion. This should make us extremely cautious.
What is then grotesque and what is normality? Where is the grotesque:
in things or in the way we see them?
The possible typology of the grotesque (the grotesque overcome, yet never
in its entirety) in Dante`s Inferno comprises thus 1. character
grotesque (or elements of the grotesque in the greneral setting); 2. pattern
or structural grotesque (or the postioning of different characters
in their determined cells, as in a grotesque ornament); 3. situational
grotesque (or the relative shifting and fluctuation of these elements
within a fairly fixed pattern); 4. plot grotesque (or the movement
of the observer`s eye through the grotesque structure).
4. Our final task in this article is to discuss the grotesque as a phenomenon,
a method and an objective. Let us therefore observe the final grotesque
image beheld by Dante and Virgil in Inferno before coming out to see the
stars again (“a riveder le stelle”). Our aim is not the mere
description of the fallen bearer of light - il Lucifero - in his terrifying
degradation, his three terrible faces in three colours devouring the three
biggest traitors ever - Judas, Brutus and Cassius- he himself crying from
his six eyes, waving his bat wings , and so producing the ice down at
the bottom of Hell. We certainly recall in this connection the image which
Goya has painted of the Saturnus devouring his children. But let us leave
it for the time being and follow Dante and Virgil who, in order to get
out of Hell, have to climb down his body, for Lucifer, after having been
cast out of Heaven, down into the middle of the Earth, from the other
side, that of the Southern Hemisphere, has pierced half through
the centre of the Earth. Thus in order to get through the centre of the
Earth into the Southern Hemisphere, where Mount Purgatory lies (the only
piece of land remaining after all the rest had fled from it in fear of
the fallen angel), they have to climb down Lucifer`s furry body. When
they reach the very centre of the Earth, Virgil and Dante, clinging to
him, make a sudden turn, so that their heads are now in the direction
where their feet were before (Cf. Frye 1990: 238-239). When Dante now
looks back he sees to his bewilderment that Lucifer is standing on his
head. This is another powerful image of the subverted order of the normal
state. Yet Virgil explains to him why it is so and Dante understands that
it is normal. It is not that Dante has seen wrongly. To him Lucifer really
stood on his head. In order to have restored the previous perspective
he should have now himself stood on his head, and this would have been
absurd. He perceived it as a phenomenon of the grotesque, until receiving
a satisfactory explanation from Virgil. The explanation enables him to
understand that the grotesque is part of the divine order. Disorder,
or subverted order is a kind of order within the divine perspective, on
the macrotextual level. Seen in the universal perspective, infernal disorder
is order too, although only in Inferno. Inferno is order in its
grotesqueness, as it is also realistic in its grotesqueness. Dante
the protagonist sees the grotesque. Dante the author (expressed
mainly through Virgil) sees the order and harmony of the Universe. Both
the grotesque and realism, though contradictory,are methods by which Dante
shows the underlying divine order, even in Inferno. Dante`s language,
combining different styles, is a perfect language to create the feeling
of both the grotesque and the sublime. Virgil, for example, generally
speaks in an elevated style. The overall vision is that of a sublime master,
the embodiment of alienation overcome in spirit. And it is under his guidance,
conceded by the celestial grace, that Dante observes the grotesque imagery
of the Underworld, which is very realistic in its suffering, to reach
higher spheres and perfect order. For Dante the grotesque is a method.
It may even be an objective on the microtextual level, localized to Inferno,
but it can never be the overall objective, the objective on the
macrotextual level - in the order and harmony of the Universe. Therefore
we may say that within the general conceptual structure, on the level
of reason, we deal with the grotesque overcome. Yet, on the level
of physical perception, grotesque images remain, at least as far as we
read the Inferno. They continue to lurk deep down at the bottom of our
consciousness like the spirit of Mahomet, who - after explaining to Dante
his being punished for sowing religious discord, with his foot in the
air like that of a halted marionet - continues his walk.
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