Canto 16

NOW came I where the water's din was heard,
As down it fell into the other round,
Resounding like the hum of swarming bees:
When forth together issu'd from a troop,
That pass'd beneath the fierce tormenting storm,
Three spirits, running swift.  They towards us came,
And each one cried aloud, "Oh do thou stay!
Whom by the fashion of thy garb we deem
To be some inmate of our evil land."

Ah me! what wounds I mark'd upon their limbs,
Recent and old, inflicted by the flames!
E'en the remembrance of them grieves me yet.

Attentive to their cry my teacher paus'd,
And turn'd to me his visage, and then spake;
"Wait now! our courtesy these merit well:
And were 't not for the nature of the place,
Whence glide the fiery darts, I should have said,
That haste had better suited thee than them."

They, when we stopp'd, resum'd their ancient wail,
And soon as they had reach'd us, all the three
Whirl'd round together in one restless wheel.
As naked champions, smear'd with slippery oil,
Are wont intent to watch their place of hold
And vantage, ere in closer strife they meet;
Thus each one, as he wheel'd, his countenance
At me directed, so that opposite
The neck mov'd ever to the twinkling feet.

"If misery of this drear wilderness,"
Thus one began, "added to our sad cheer
And destitute, do call forth scorn on us
And our entreaties, let our great renown
Incline thee to inform us who thou art,
That dost imprint with living feet unharm'd
The soil of Hell.  He, in whose track thou see'st
My steps pursuing, naked though he be
And reft of all, was of more high estate
Than thou believest; grandchild of the chaste
Gualdrada, him they Guidoguerra call'd,
Who in his lifetime many a noble act
Achiev'd, both by his wisdom and his sword.
The other, next to me that beats the sand,
Is Aldobrandi, name deserving well,
In the' upper world, of honour; and myself
Who in this torment do partake with them,
Am Rusticucci, whom, past doubt, my wife
Of savage temper, more than aught beside
Hath to this evil brought."  If from the fire
I had been shelter'd, down amidst them straight
I then had cast me, nor my guide, I deem,
Would have restrain'd my going; but that fear
Of the dire burning vanquish'd the desire,
Which made me eager of their wish'd embrace.

I then began: "Not scorn, but grief much more,
Such as long time alone can cure, your doom
Fix'd deep within me, soon as this my lord
Spake words, whose tenour taught me to expect
That such a race, as ye are, was at hand.
I am a countryman of yours, who still
Affectionate have utter'd, and have heard
Your deeds and names renown'd.  Leaving the gall
For the sweet fruit I go, that a sure guide
Hath promis'd to me.  But behooves, that far
As to the centre first I downward tend."

"So may long space thy spirit guide thy limbs,"
He answer straight return'd; "and so thy fame
Shine bright, when thou art gone; as thou shalt tell,
If courtesy and valour, as they wont,
Dwell in our city, or have vanish'd clean?
For one amidst us late condemn'd to wail,
Borsiere, yonder walking with his peers,
Grieves us no little by the news he brings."

"An upstart multitude and sudden gains,
Pride and excess, O Florence! have in thee
Engender'd, so that now in tears thou mourn'st!"
Thus cried I with my face uprais'd, and they
All three, who for an answer took my words,
Look'd at each other, as men look when truth
Comes to their ear.  "If thou at other times,"
They all at once rejoin'd, "so easily
Satisfy those, who question, happy thou,
Gifted with words, so apt to speak thy thought!
Wherefore if thou escape this darksome clime,
Returning to behold the radiant stars,
When thou with pleasure shalt retrace the past,
See that of us thou speak among mankind."

This said, they broke the circle, and so swift
Fled, that as pinions seem'd their nimble feet.

Not in so short a time might one have said
"Amen," as they had vanish'd. Straight my guide
Pursu'd his track.  I follow'd; and small space
Had we pass'd onward, when the water's sound
Was now so near at hand, that we had scarce
Heard one another's speech for the loud din.

E'en as the river, that holds on its course
Unmingled, from the mount of Vesulo,
On the left side of Apennine, toward
The east, which Acquacheta higher up
They call, ere it descend into the vale,
At Forli by that name no longer known,
Rebellows o'er Saint Benedict, roll'd on
From the' Alpine summit down a precipice,
Where space enough to lodge a thousand spreads;
Thus downward from a craggy steep we found,
That this dark wave resounded, roaring loud,
So that the ear its clamour soon had stunn'd.

I had a cord that brac'd my girdle round,
Wherewith I erst had thought fast bound to take
The painted leopard.  This when I had all
Unloosen'd from me (so my master bade)
I gather'd up, and stretch'd it forth to him.
Then to the right he turn'd, and from the brink
Standing few paces distant, cast it down
Into the deep abyss.  "And somewhat strange,"
Thus to myself I spake, "signal so strange
Betokens, which my guide with earnest eye
Thus follows."  Ah! what caution must men use
With those who look not at the deed alone,
But spy into the thoughts with subtle skill!

"Quickly shall come," he said, "what I expect,
Thine eye discover quickly, that whereof
Thy thought is dreaming."  Ever to that truth,
Which but the semblance of a falsehood wears,
A man, if possible, should bar his lip;
Since, although blameless, he incurs reproach.
But silence here were vain; and by these notes
Which now I sing, reader! I swear to thee,
So may they favour find to latest times!
That through the gross and murky air I spied
A shape come swimming up, that might have quell'd
The stoutest heart with wonder, in such guise
As one returns, who hath been down to loose
An anchor grappled fast against some rock,
Or to aught else that in the salt wave lies,
Who upward springing close draws in his feet.


  1. Virgil tells Dante that if a man tells a truth the listener believes to be a lie, that man would be better off not saying anything at all. He will ultimately suffer the same scorn as if he had told a lie. Virgil is often a dispenser of moral wisdom.

    — Stephen Holliday
  2. This refers to the spotted leopard that Dante encounters in canto 1 as he enters the dark forest, shortly before he encounters Virgil.

    — Stephen Holliday
  3. The following passage is great example of Dante creating verisimilitude, or the semblance of reality. Dante depicts this area of the underworld in terms that readers who are familiar with Italian geography will be able to visualize.

    — Stephen Holliday
  4. The Acquacheta is a stream in Northern Italy.

    — Stephen Holliday
  5. The "Apennines" are a mountain range in central Italy and serve as the source of most of Italy's rivers.

    — Stephen Holliday
  6. "Vesulo" is most likely a mountain in the territory of Vesulum, which is in modern-day eastern France.

    — Stephen Holliday
  7. In other words, they moved so fast that their feet seemed to have "pinions," or birds' wings.

    — Stephen Holliday
  8. Speaking together, the men punished for sodomy express the perspective that, though they sinned, they led good lives otherwise. Therefore, they wish to be remembered for their goodness, not their sins.

    — Stephen Holliday
  9. This refers to Guglielmo Borsiere, also among the sodomites. He has recently arrived among these sinners and therefore is able to tell them about Florence, which has been nearly destroyed by the struggles between Gibellines and Guelphs.

    — Stephen Holliday
  10. Dante's reaction of grief, rather than scorn, is not his acceptance of their sexual sins, but his knowledge of the good these men tried to do while alive. That they are all Guelphs, and therefore politically aligned with Dante, undoubtedly influences Dante's reaction to them.

    — Stephen Holliday
  11. The speaker describing the three men is Iacopo Rusticucci, another Guelph, but from a lower class than either Aldobrandi or Guido Guerra. His comment that "his savage wife destroyed me" recounts an incident in which has brought a young boy up to his room for sexual relations, and his wife, in order to denounce him as a sodomite, opened the window and yelled, "Fire!," which brought neighbors to the rescue. Iacopo told them the fire was out. After that, he is reputed to have forced his wife, as punishment for her treachery, to engage in "unnatural" sexual behaviors.

    — Stephen Holliday
  12. This is Tegghiaio Aldobrandi, another 13th-century Florentine man. Aldobrandi was related to the powerful Adimari family and was, like Dante, a Guelph. After the defeat of the Ghibellines at Benevento, Aldobrani advised the victorious Guelphs against attacking the Ghibellines in Siena.  The resulting battle at Montaperti in 1260 was a disastrous defeat for the Guelphs.

    — Stephen Holliday
  13. Guido Guerra, the son and grandson of well-known Tuscans, is of Dante's party, the Guelphs, and was instrumental in defeating the Ghibellines in 1266 at the Battle of Benevento.

    — Stephen Holliday
  14. Dante is comparing the stance of the three men to the way wrestlers prepare to wrestle, looking for the most advantageous hold on an opponent.

    — Stephen Holliday
  15. Dante and Virgil remain in the Seventh Circle but have entered the second zone of the Third Ring, the realm of "other sodomites."

    — Stephen Holliday