A strange scene at the end of Inferno 16 contains Dante’s confession. Dante and Virgil have just concluded their tour through the 7th circle of Hell, crossing the sandy plain upon which the blasphemers (the violent against God), sodomites (the violent against nature), and usurers (the violent against art) are scorched alive. They are currently waiting to descend to the penultimate circle, but because a violent waterfall separates the 7th and 8th circles (upper and lower Hell), the two poets must wait for the hybrid monster of fraud, Geryon, who will transport them down below.1 But in order to summon Geryon, Virgil does a curious thing, one that Dante goes out of his way to elaborate upon: after Virgil instructs Dante to hand him the cord girding his waist, Dante places it in Virgil’s hands, which he then throws into the deep ravine to summon Geryon. And half a moment later, Geryon veritably emerges (Inf. 16.106-114). 

But what is interesting about Geryon’s appearance is that Dante is lying, and he wants the reader to know it. At the very moment Geryon arrives, instead of continuing with the narration, Dante abruptly suspends his fiction and exits the poem’s diegesis to invade the reader’s space. And it is here, in his address to the reader, that the Florentine poet unexpectedly utters his confession: 

Before the truth that has the face of a lie (ver c’ha faccia di menzogna), 
a man should always shut his lips as long as he can—
To tell it shames him, even though he’s blameless; 

But here I can’t be silent; and by the lines 
of this comedy, reader, I swear…

I saw, emerging through the thick and dark air, 
a figure ascending, swimming, 
bringing wonder to the firmest hearts. (Inf. 16.124-132) 

What interests me here is how Dante doesn’t so much describe Geryon’s arrival as he announces it by way of his confession to the reader. Rather than allow Geryon to ascend organically, Dante inserts his authorial presence into the narrative, clearly calling the reader’s attention to the fictive template of this entire experience. What this gesture exposes, all that said, is the true fraud, who is not Geryon, but his inventor—Dante, the conjurer of this fiction.

Before Geryon even appears, we get a sense that he is related to Dante in some way because it is Dante’s cord that will manifest him. Even the way the cord is placed in Virgil’s hands only emphasizes the link between the two: “knotted and coiled” (aggroppata e ravvolta), serpentine descriptors that foreshadow Geryon’s serpentine body. But it is only after Geryon appears that we understand why Dante confesses here before the beast of fraud. Because that is what Dante’s poem is: a fiction, a lie.

Dante’s gesture of identifying as a fraud in the realm of fraud is a consistent gesture throughout Inferno and has happened right before, in fact, in Canto 15. When Dante’s tour of Hell goes through the ring of sodomites in the 7th circle, we meet the Ciceronian humanist and former teacher of Dante, Brunetto Latini. Except there is one thing: Brunetto himself was not a sodomite. And still more interestingly, there is nothing about this canto, and the punishments that the souls here suffer, that clarifies that we are in the circle of sodomy even though the punishments in each circle of Hell are designed to illuminate the mechanism of the vice itself (the law of contrapasso: the punishment fits the crime). But rather than clarify, Dante’s presentation of the sodomites obscures the sexual dimension and, instead, offers a strangely intimate and personal mood (in dramatic contrast to the preceding canto). So why does Dante de-sexualize sodomy here?2

Brunetto Latini was not a literal sodomite, but he was a sodomite of another kind: a linguistic sodomite, or one who practiced “unnatural” speech. Though he was Italian, Brunetto abandoned his native tongue and wrote his encyclopedia, Li Livres dou Trésor (Book of Treasures), in what was for him an unnatural tongue, the langue d’oïl. He also abandoned his earlier verse work, Tesoretto (Little Treasure), in order to write his prose encyclopedia because he believed that poetry was incapable of absorbing encyclopedic knowledge. Despite this, his Trésor sired an offspring, however artificially, through Dante’s Commedia, which is an encyclopedic foray into the central themes and experiences of human life in poetic form.3 Dante acknowledges as much in this canto, when he offers a paean to Brunetto:

you taught me how man makes himself eternal (m’insegnavate come l’uom s’etterna): 
and while I live, my gratitude
will always be discerned in my tongue (Inf. 15.85-87) 

This surprising moment of intimacy in one of Hell’s deepest cavities is the scene that exposes Dante’s literary sodomy, his contaminated text. In Canto 14, for example, Dante’s style is noticeably Latinate: elevated and erudite, Dante shows no concern defiling scriptural myths, merging them with pagan ones (e.g., the towering image of the Old Man of Crete in Canto 14). In Canto 15, by contrast, the Latin erudition is gone, and Dante has reverted to the lowly vernacular style with its local images. The same again in Inferno 20 and 21, where Virgil’s reference to his “high tragedy” (lalta mia tragedìa, Inf. 20.113) is immediately contrasted to Dante’s reference to his humble comedy in the next canto (la mia comedìa, Inf. 21.2). What exactly is natural about this strange literary mixture that Dante indulges in? Not only does he mix high and low, tragedy and comedy, but he also blends scriptural history into pagan mythology. Brunetto is guilty of a literary sodomy, sure, but Dante especially. And his is far more impure. Thus, his confession: “truth that has the face of a lie.”

  1. In the next canto, Geryon’s hybridity—that “filthy image of fraud”—is described like so: he has the head/face of a man (and he looks just and noble), a serpentine body with hairy paws attached, and an envenomed scorpion’s tail (Inf. 17.7-27). His alloyed constitution is meant to image fraud itself: he only ever appears to be just, since in reality he is an instrument of death.
  2. See Teodolinda Barolini’s astute commentary on Inferno 5 and 15 in www.digitaldante.columbia.edu
  3. The beginning of Latini’s unfinished Tesoretto, for example, shows his inestimable influence on Dante’s famous opening scene in the Inferno
    “And I, in such anguish,
    thinking with head downcast, 
    lost the great highway, 
    and took the crossroad 
    through a strange wood” 
    (E io in tal corrocto/pensando a cap chino/perdei il gran cammino/e tenni a la traversa/d’una selva diversa.)

Stephen Surh is a visiting professor at Wellesley, teaching in their Medieval and Renaissance Studies Program.