DANTE'S SUBLIME COMEDY: HELL, Chapter 29
Chapter 29: Forgers
The sight of all these mutilated souls
made my eyes drunk with grief. I stood and wept,
pondering long upon the crowd below, 3
till Virgil said, “Come – we have far to go,
much more to see. The sun is overhead,
the moon under our feet. Why linger here? 6
No malebolge before has held you long.”
“I hope my Uncle Geri will appear,”
said I. “He must be in this dismal throng. 9
For starting one of the feuds that dislocate
every Italian state.” “True,” said he.
“While you were talking with de Born 12
he pointed a stern forefinger at you
who did not see him, so he went away.”
“He was stabbed,” said I, “so thinks I betray 15
our family by not avenging him.
I sympathize but have to disagree.”
Talking, we left the dyke, climbed the next bridge 18
and heard such piercing cries that from pity
I pressed hands hard on ears, almost thinking
we neared a street in a plague-struck city. 21
The truth was much more horrible. Suppose
each hospital there is in Italy,
Sardinia and Sicily and Crete 24
flung every inmate crippled by putrid sores
into a mighty trench. I saw that sight.
The stench of it also attacked my nose. 27
Two weeks to sit up, half the souls lay flat.
The rest sprawled over them or feebly crawled.
The quickest movements were their frenzied hands. 30
They would have welcomed flame or scalding pitch
to stop the endless itch they had to scratch.
A pair propped back to back at the ditch side 33
were thickly blotched with scabs from head to toe.
No stable boy or one wakened by lice
ever employed so fast a curry-comb 36
as fingernails with which each scratched his hide,
stripping off scabs as cooks scrape skins from bream
or fish with bigger scales. To one of these 39
my master said, “You who distress your skin
with fingers used like pincers, do you know
Italians here?” Weeping, he replied, 42
“We are, although disfigured. Who are you?”
Virgil announced, “I am an escort sent
by One on high to lead this living man 45
down through the rings of Hell and up again,
so that he can report upon your pain.”
The sinners, trembling, broke apart to look. 48
My master murmured, “Tell them what you like.”
I faced them and declared, “If it’s your wish
to be in history for years to come, 51
don’t let your foul damnation keep you dumb
but tell your tale to me.” At this one said,
“I, Griffolino of Arezzo was 54
burned by a bishop as a sorcerer,
though that was not my sin. Purely for fun
I told his idiotic bastard son 57
I’d teach him how to fly like Daedelus.
I could not so I died for nothing done.
Albert of Siena was the fool’s dad. 60
My burning was that bishop’s mad decree.
Minos, a better judge, sent me down here
for I had truly practiced alchemy.” 63
I said, “The Sienese are silly folk –
even the French are not so light of mind.”
The other leper cried, “Unfair! Unkind! 66
You have forgot their great academy –
the Spendthrifts Club where wise Sienese
teach poorer citizens to pawn their goods 69
to buy rich clothes, exotic whores and foods
and booze and horses shod with silver shoes.
But Dante, I am one you used to know. 72
When students, I was called Capocchio.
Physics for you led to philosophy,
for me, knowledge of metal under heat 75
feeding fantastic dreams of alchemy,
and turning lead to gold and sour to sweet,
making my body live eternally, 78
but what I made was always counterfeit.”