1842: Behold the Beast with the Sharpened Tail!

Title: Illustrazioni sulla Divina commedia di Dante [in 4 portfo

In cantos XVI and XVII of the Inferno, Dante and his guide Virgil meet the monster Geryon, who alights on the edge of the abyss after Virgil has summoned him. In front, he has the face of an innocent man, but, behind, his body is a hideous combination of reptile, beast, and scorpion. After he lands, Virgil tells Dante to go and meet the sinnersusurersin this circle of Hell. After doing so, Dante returns to Virgil, who has already mounted the creature. Dante mounts in front, Virgil’s arms around him, and Geryon ascends into the air, finally dropping the poets off  in the next circle down.

Geryon has always been identified as an allegorical figure for fraud, but the specific language Dante uses tells us that he is particularly worried about how art can used to defraud. It must be “quel ver c’ ha faccia di menzogna”a truth with the face of a lieinstead of what Geryon is: a lie with the face of truth. Geryon “venir notandocomes swimmingthrough the air, but notare also means to note down, to write. He is an “imagine di froda—an image, a representation, who is “dipinti“—painted—with knots and spirals and he has, like all art that leads astray, a poisonous “coda”: a deceitful lesson at the end.

There is also a weird metaphor about Germans and beavers:

I’ vidi per quell’aere grosso e scuro
venir notando una figura in suso,
maravigliosa ad ogne cor sicuro

sì come torna colui che va giuso
talora a solver l’àncora ch’aggrappa
o scoglio o altro che nel mare è chiuso

che ‘n sù si stende e da piè si rattrappa.

“Ecco la fiera con la coda aguzza,
che passa i monti e rompe i muri e l’armi!
Ecco colei che tutto ‘l mondo appuzza!”

Sì cominciò lo mio duca a parlarmi;
e accennolle che venisse a proda,
vicino al fin d’i passeggiati marmi.

E quella sozza imagine di froda
sen venne, e 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;

due branche avea pilose insin l’ascelle;
lo dosso e ‘l petto e ambedue le coste
dipinti avea di nodi e di rotelle.

Con più color, sommesse e wov
non fer mai drappi Tartari né Turchi,
né fuor tai tele per Aragne imposte.

Come talvolta stanno a riva i burchi,
che parte sono in acqua e parte in terra,
e come là tra li Tedeschi lurchi

lo bivero s’assetta a far sua guerra,
così la fiera pessima si stava
su l’orlo ch’è di pietra e ‘l sabbion serra

Nel vano tutta sua coda guizzava,
torcendo in sù la venenosa forca
ch’a guisa di scorpion la punta armava.

*****

Trova’ il duca mio ch’era salito
già su la groppa del fiero animale,
e disse a me: “Or sie forte e ardito.

Omai si scende per sì fatte scale;
monta dinanzi, ch’i’ voglio esser mezzo,
sì che la coda non possa far male”.

Qual è colui che sì presso ha ‘l riprezzo
de la quartana, c’ ha già l’unghie smorte,
e triema tutto pur guardando ‘l rezzo,

tal divenn’io a le parole porte;
ma vergogna mi fé le sue minacce,
che innanzi a buon segnor fa servo forte.

I’ m’assettai in su quelle spallacce;
sì volli dir, ma la voce non venne
com’io credetti: ‘Fa che tu m’abbracce’.Wrapped

Ma esso, ch’altra volta mi sovvenne
ad altro forse, tosto ch’i’ montai
con le braccia m’avvinse e mi sostenne;

e disse: “Gerïon, moviti omai:
le rote larghe, e lo scender sia poco;
pensa la nova soma che tu hai”.

Come la navicella esce di loco
in dietro in dietro, sì quindi si tolse;
e poi ch’al tutto si sentì a gioco,

là ‘v’era ‘l petto, la coda rivolse,
e quella tesa, come anguilla, mosse,
e con le branche l’aere a sé raccolse.

Maggior paura non credo che fosse
quando Fetonte abbandonò li freni,
per che ‘l ciel, come pare ancor, si cosse;

né quando Icaro misero le reni
sentì spennar per la scaldata cera,
gridando il padre a lui “Mala via tieni!”

che fu la mia, quando vidi ch’i’ era
ne l’aere d’ogne parte, e vidi spenta
ogne veduta fuor che de la fera.

Ella sen va notando lenta lenta;
rota e discende, ma non me n’accorgo
se non che al viso e di sotto mi venta.

Io sentia già da la man destra il gorgo
far sotto noi un orribile scroscio,
per che con li occhi ‘n giù la testa sporgo.

Allor fu’ io più timido a lo stoscio,
però ch’i’ vidi fuochi e senti’ pianti;
ond’io tremando tutto mi raccoscio.

E vidi poi, ché nol vedea davanti,
lo scendere e ‘l girar per li gran mali
che s’appressavan da diversi canti.

Come ‘l falcon ch’è stato assai su l’ali,
che sanza veder logoro o uccello
fa dire al falconiere “Omè, tu cali!”

discende lasso onde si move isnello,
per cento rote, e da lunge si pone
dal suo maestro, disdegnoso e fello;

così ne puose al fondo Gerïone
al piè al piè de la stagliata rocca,
e, discarcate le nostre persone,

si dileguò come da corda cocca


I saw through the thick air,
Swimming toward us in the dark,
A figure wondrous even to a guarded heart

Rising like a diver returning from the depths
After freeing an anchor caught on a reef
Or something else hidden in the sea,

Who stretches, drawing up his legs.

*****

“Behold the beast with the sharpened tail!
He flies over mountains, he breaks through walls and armies!
His stench fills the whole world!”

Thus my guide said to me
Giving a sign for the beast to land
Close to the edge of our flagstone path.

And that repulsive figure of fraud
Came close, his head and his chest in front
And his tail hidden below the ledge.

His face was the face of a righteous man,
His skin so smooth and serene,
But behind, he had the body of a snake.

His two arms were hairy up to the armpits,
His back and breasts and ribs
Painted with knots and spirals

Tartars or Turks never wove fabric
With more colors entwined and overlapping,
Nor did Arachne ever weave such webs.

Just as boats sometimes lie on shore
Half in the water and half on land,
And just as in the land of drunken Germans

The beaver sits to prepare its attack,
So did that terrible beast wait
On the edge of stone bordering the sand.

His tail flashed out in the void
Twisting in the air its venomous fork—
a point armed like a scorpion.

*****

I found my guide already mounted
On the hindquarters of that feral animal,
And he said to me, “Now be strong and brave!

“Our way down is by stairs like these.
You mount in front: I’ll take the middle part
So his tail can’t hurt you.”

As one who, shivering with a fever
And fingernails turning pale
Trembles just at the sight of shade,

So I was at these words,
But then I felt the fear of shame which makes
A servant bold before his lord

I hunched on those horrible shoulders
Wanting to say— but my voice not coming—
“Hold me tight.”

But he who helped me so many other times
Facing other dangers, as soon as I was mounted,
Wrapped me in his arms and gave me comfort.

Said he: “Get up, Geryon!
Make your circles wide and descend with care;
Account for the strange weight you carry.”

Just as a little boat backs out from its berth
Slowly, slowly, so the creature left
And when he felt himself free,

There where his chest had been he turned his tail,
Stretching it and twirling it like an eel,
Coiling his limbs into the air.

I cannot believe a greater fear
Greeted Phaethon when the sun’s reins fell away
And the sky burned—as it is today,

Nor when wretched Icarus felt the feathers
Falling from his sides as the wax meltled
To his father’s cry: “You’ve taken the wrong way!”

Thus was mine when I saw
Only the air all around me, and nothing in sight
Save the beast himself.

He swam, slowly, slowly,
Spiraling, then descending—
But I knew this only by the wind in my face from below.

I heard on my right a vortex
Roaring below with such a horrible sound
That I bent my head and strained my eyes to see.

Then I became more frightened at our descent
For I saw fire and heard anguished cries,
And, trembling, I pressed my legs in tighter.

And then I saw what I had not seen:
His descent was spiraling down into horrors
Closing in around on every side.

Just as the falcon, after a long time in the air,
Spotting its lure or its pray
—and making the falconer say “Ah, there you are”—

Descends, lazily, winding down
with a hundred loops and dives
And perches at a distance from its master, disdainful and aloof,

So at the bottom Geryon set us down
Next to a wall of jagged rock
And, shedding our bodies,

He disappeared like an arrow from a bow.

Image: illustration by Francesco Scaramuzza (c. 1842)

 

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s