Academic journal article Italica

Cupiditas, the Medusean Heresy of Farinata

Academic journal article Italica

Cupiditas, the Medusean Heresy of Farinata

Article excerpt

In my examination of the myth of the Golden Age I showed how Dante enlisted the emblematic figures of Saturn and Astraea, on one hand, and the figure of the Siren, on the other, as actors in his personal and universal drama of salvation. The former represents essential qualities of peace and justice and the latter an impediment to the attainment of the social, political and religious reform that the poet sought to engender in the world through his Divine Comedy. I pointed out how Astraea represents the Iustitia that is an essential element for the happiness of man and how the Siren's lascivious and seductive powers, characterized as cupiditas, a widespread obsession with the things of this earth, represent the nemesis of justice and the most pernicious sin of man. (1) The Siren, however, is not the only figure in the Divine Comedy who embodies cupiditas. There is another equally powerful incarnation of this sin whom Dante meets along the journey whose power of entrapment was such that it threatened the success of his mission. In his journey through hell, the most stubborn, indeed, the most dangerous obstacle Dante had to overcome presented itself at the gate of the City of Dis, after his crossing of the Stygian swamp on Phlegias' skiff. I am referring to the figure of the Medusa who dominates Canto IX even though she actually never appears. The Gorgon is, in fact, a coordinate of the Siren and as an embodiment of cupiditas, understood as a symbol of the seductive power of earthly concerns. My analysis of the Medusa will shed light on the nature of the heresy shared by the two Florentines Dante meets upon entering the City of Dis, Farinata degli Uberti and Cavalcante dei Cavalcanti.

Having crossed the Stygian marsh, Virgil and Dante are unceremoniously put ashore by Phlegias only to be met by thousands of devils who aggressively and vociferously show their displeasure on seeing the living intruder. Virgil's attempt to secure passage is unsuccessful as the recalcitrant devils shut the gate of the city of Dis in his face. This is the first time that the forces of Hell do not accept Virgil's magic formula ("vuolsi cosi cola dove si puote cio che si vuole ...') (Our passage has been willed above, where One / can do what He has willed) that had been so effective in past encounters (with Charon, Minos and Phlegias). Virgil is powerless against the obstinate devils. Their insistence to talk to him alone heightens the sense of fear that grips the pilgrim's heart whose resolve to continue the journey begins to waver. When Virgil returns with the look of defeat in his face, Dante declares himself ready to abandon his journey. Virgil's anger at the stubbornness of the devils, his hesitation and momentary lapse of confidence do not reassure Dante, whose fear increases when on the high tower above the gate of the City the Furies appear, shouting in anger at the intruder and tearing their flesh with their nails. They summon Medusa to come punish the pilgrim who has dared to enter their realm.

   'Vegna Medusa: si '1 farem di smalto'
   dicevan tutte riguardando in giuso:
   'Mal non vengiammo in T'eseo l'assalto' (IX, 52-54).

   ('Just let Medusa come; then we shall turn
   Him into stone,' they all cried, looking down;
   'We should have punished Theseus' assault.')

It is clear that the Erinnyes by themselves present no danger to Dante, even though they include themselves in the punitive action of the Medusa. They possess the same serpentine attributes as the Medusa, but they do not have her power. In fact, Virgil had leisurely taken the time to identify them by name one by one. Their appeal to the Medusa, however, prompts an immediate response from Virgil. His actions confirm that she is the dangerous one. Thus he orders Dante to turn away from where she might appear and cover his eyes. Not satisfied with how quickly Dante obeys his command, Virgil actually places his hands over Dante's to make sure that he does not see the Medusa if she should appear, for as he said, gazing on the Gorgon's face would result in his being petrified right there, imprisoning him forever in hell. …

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