Rome: Paolo and Francesca (Inferno 5)

Dante and his guide Virgil are in the second circle of Hell, where lust, one of the sins of incontinence, is eternally punished in the ‘hellish squall.’ Here, the two poets meet Dido, the Carthaginian queen who loved Aeneas, and Paolo and Francesca, two contemporary lovers.


Highlights

  • The Inferno is a poem of exile (10:08)
  • Dante teaches the reader how to read the poem (21:30)
  • Dante’s use of simile alludes to the sinners’ “instinctual animal desire that is not governed by reason” (29:40)
  • We are supposed to read between the lines in order to understand Dante’s complex characters (33:50)
  • “Dante creates incredibly complex characters and we are supposed to read between the lines and interpret their speeches so as to learn ourselves to become more skeptical and more understanding of the ethical errors that we as humans are apt to make” (Cachey, 33:50)
  • The power of literature as a theme in Inferno (44:40)
  • “One of the themes is the power of literature and I think Dante is continuing [what] he started in Canto 4 where [he puts himself amidst the wisdom of the great poets of antiquity] but [conversely] what he is referring to here is a kind of literature he wants to leave behind” (Sbordoni 44:40)

Event Recap

In the second edition of the Rome Global Gateway’s Book Club, professors Professors Ted Cachey, Chiara Sbordoni and David Lummus discussed the fifth canto of Dante’s Inferno. They began the discussion by answering questions from the group. Next, they went on to speak about the significance of the contrapasso, the canto’s striking similes drawn from bird life, as well as the complexity of the character of Francesca and the implications of her speeches in canto 5. 

The first audience question the professors discussed was about Dante’s exile from Florence and its impact on the poem. Cachey explained that the poem is a poem of exile and that from its first lines we can see that the exile is both personal to Dante (the use of “io” or, “I”) as well as common to all Christians. According to Cachey, we can read the poem as “an aspiration of return from exile” (10:08). The second question concerned the terza rima rhyme scheme and whether or not its function of driving the poem was lost in translation in the English editions. Sbordoni explained that there have been hundreds of translations in the English language, some of which attempted to translate the terza rima into iambic pentameter, but it was a difficult task as the Italian language offers more opportunity for rhymes than English. The final question asked about Dante’s conception of justice. Lummus spoke about the difference in how sinners in the Inferno and sinners in Purgatorio are portrayed. In Dante’s conception of hell, the sinners completely rejected God and did repent, while in purgatory, the sinners (even at the last minute)  acknowledged their sins and accepted God’s grace. 

Next, Cachey highlighted how “Dante teaches the reader how to read the poem” (21:32). In the earlier cantos, there is an obvious relationship between sins and punishments. Cachey made the example of how in Canto 3, the “neutrals” or those who never took a side in life, were regarded extremely harshly by Dante, and their punishment was to run behind a banner for eternity “almost as though they had never voted in an election and for all of eternity were made to run around with ‘vote for Joe Biden’ or ‘vote for Trump’ posters” (23:45). However, Cachey mentions that the deeper Dante brings the reader into hell, the more convoluted and complex the punishments become, and the more Dante relies on our ability to read the poem. 

Sbordoni continued the conversation on symbolism with a discussion on Canto 5’s striking similes drawn from birdlife. Sbordoni stated, “there are 3 fundamental similies in Canto 5 in which Dante compares the souls of the second circle to starlings” ( 29:40). These similes allude to the sinners’ “instinctual animal desire that is not governed by reason” as well as make an interesting allusion to a missed opportunity to elevate themselves (through flight). The professors remarked that to anyone who has ever witnessed the flight of starlings in the skies of Rome, the idea of uncontrolled movement is an easy parallel to draw. 

Lastly, the panel discussed the character of Francesca. Cachey said that “Dante creates incredibly complex characters and we are supposed to read between the lines and interpret their speeches so as to learn ourselves to become more skeptical and more understanding of the ethical errors that we as humans are apt to make” (33:50). Examples include calling Dante/the pilgrim “a living creature” and the repetition of the word “love” in her first speech. In her second speech, Francesca tells the story of her and Paolo reading about Lancelot and Guinevere and how the kiss in the story inspired their own lust. According to the professors, one of the themes of the poem is the power of literature. In Canto 4, Dante puts himself among the great poets of antiquity, but the kind of literature he is referring to through Francesca’s story is a kind of literature he wants to leave behind. 


View the live discussion recorded on Wednesday, January 20, 2021, with Ted Cachey and David Lummus, co-directors of the Notre Dame Center for Italian Studies, and Chiara Sbordoni, Italian faculty at the Notre Dame Rome Global Gateway. Register to receive information about how to join future live events.


Listen to the discussion wherever, whenever, on The ThinkND Podcast:


Other Recaps:

Part 1: From the dark wood to Rome
Part 3: Hell’s Vineyard (Inferno 13)

Learn more about the series and register here.

Art and HistoryReligion and PhilosophyRome Global GatewayDante and Italian StudiesDante AlighieriTheodore J. Cachey Jr.David LummusChiara SbordoniItalyRomeCenter for Italian StudiesCollege of Arts and LettersLiterature