Inferno XXV, 142-144

The Five Florentine Thieves. Illumination by Bartolomeo di Fruosino (ca. 1420). Parigi B. N. It 74, 74r
The five Florentine thieves of Inferno XXV

I penna abborra

    In The verb abborrare occurs three times in the Divine Comedy, twice in Inferno and once in Paradiso2. For the purpose of this note I will take into consideration only the first occurrence, the one in Inferno 25.

    Here a brief background is necessary. We are in the eight circle of Hell—precisely in the seventh Pouch—and the thieves are the object of Dante's Canto. At the beginning there is Vanni Fucci, then Cacus the Centaur, and finally five Florentine thieves: three in human form and two as serpents. Dante observes astonishing metamorphoses undergone by them. He describes these fantastic changes and then formulates a critical judgment. Dante says that the metamorphosis of the first two sinners he has been witnessing is far more remarkable than anything found in ancient writers. He affirms moreover that his own ability to invent and describe it by far surpasses the talent of the ancients:

Inferno 25, 94-102

Taccia Lucano omai dov'e' tocca
del misero Sabello e di Nasidio,
e attenda a udir quel ch'or si scocca.

Taccia di Cadmo e d'Aretusa Ovidio,
ché se quello in serpente e quella in fonte
converte poetando, io non lo 'nvidio;

ché due nature mai a fronte a fronte
non trasmutò sì ch'amendue le forme
a cambiar la materia fosser pronte

Let Lucan now fall silent where he tells
of poor Sabellus and Nasidius,
and let him wait to hear what comes forth now!

Let Ovid not speak of Cadmus or Arethusa,
for if his poem turns him into a serpent
and her into a fountain, I grudge it not,

for never did he change two natures, face to face,
in such a way that both their forms
were quite so quick exchanging substance.

    Dante continues the description and a few lines later apologizes to the reader (ll. 142-44):
Così vid'io la settima zavorra

mutare e trasmutare; e qui mi scusi

la novità se fior la penna abborra.
Thus I saw the seventh rabble change

and change again; and let the newness of it

be my excuse if my pen has gone astray.

    The object of my inquiry here is the expression "la penna abborra" of the last line. Abborra is a form of the verb abborrare mentioned above. There is a common consensus among the critics that this is a denominal verb—from the noun borra— and that Italian borra comes from the Latin BURRA. The problem is that so far BURRA has been documented as having only two meanings: (1) 'reddish color", and (2) "shreds of wool or other material used to stuff various things'. It is from this second meaning that commentators have given Dante's borra the sense of "mettere le cose alla rinfusa, confusamente"3, that is 'to put things in a confused manner'. This is an old interpretation, and all the English and French translations I have seen use the word 'confusion' or an equivalent4. Now, it seems incomprehensible that Dante, having boasted of his superiority over Lucan and Ovid, is now overcome by confusion. My research then is to try to find another meaning of the Latin noun BURRA.

    If we open Papia's Elementarium we find burrae, in the plural form. Papia explains to us that such a noun means 'foolish', 'dumb' or 'stupid'; and that it derives from a prostitute named Burra, the Redheaded, from a comedy written by a republican author by the name Vatronius. Vatronius is practically unknown to us, except for a brief sentence in which the word appears. But judging from the many manuscripts that carry the phrase, it must have had a fairly large audience in antiquity as well as during the Renaissance5.

    In Uguccione burrus and balbus become synonyms, and pertain to the semantic area relating to defects in linguistic articulation and expression6. But this meaning is connected to one of the two semantic poles of burrae, namely stupidae (and stupidus)—which can be seen on top of the Table below, to the right, and to Uguccione's terms stultus and stupor, in the same Table7. A defect of this nature can be caused not only by old age—as Dante himself tells us in the Paradiso8or by natural imperfection, but also by certain emotional stimuli which influence the phono-articulatory apparatus. One of these stimuli is, indeed, stupor which may produce an impediment of the tongue and may even erase temporarily memory and judgment. Stupor is a "stordimento d'animo", or 'a bewildering of the mind', as Dante writes in the Convivio (IV xxv 5).

    In this canto Dante tells us that he is confuso e smagato, 'blurred and bewildered" (ll. 145-46), observing things that he himself would hardly believe

Inferno XXV, 45-47:
Se tu se' or, lettor, a creder lento
ciò ch'io dirò, non sarà maraviglia
che io che 'l vidi, a pena il mi consento.
If, reader, you are slow to credit
what I'm about to tell you, it's no wonder;
I saw it, and I myself can scarce believe it.

    Dante's visual perception is before something totally new, strange and powerful, hence the stupor. It follows, as briefly mentioned above, "a stordimento d'animo per grandi e meravigliose cose vedere", 'a bewildering of the mind seeing new and marvelous things'. We must mention again that this passage from the Convivio is precisely the definition of "stupor" given by Dante. In addition, we must take notice that in this short passage from Convivio the adjective "stupido", 'stupefied', is repeated three times. In the canto of Inferno, also Uguccione's definition of stupor fits very well with its psychosomatic effects on the memory, reason and judgment. And, consequently, the Poet's impossibility to express his thoughts through the tongue or the pen: "stupor, casus memoriam et rationem auferens, linguam impediens", 'stupor is a situation that takes away memory and reasoning, and that impedes the tongue' (Uguccione).

    Here comes to mind the "rough and rustic mountaineer" of the Purgatorio (XXVI 67-70) who, seeing the city for the first time, is overcame by stupor and becomes speechless:

Non altrimenti stupido si turba
lo montanaro, e rimirando ammuta
quando rozzo e selvatico s'inurba,

che ciascun ombra fece in sua paruta;
Not less astounded is the mountaineer,
struck dumb and staring all around him
when rough and rustic he comes into town,

than each shade seemed from its expression.

    In Inferno XXV Dante's pen 'si ammuta un poco', falls bit silent. And for this reason the Poet excuses himself with the reader. Obviously, this is a poetical trick. Dante has described the metamorphoses of two thieves out of five. He has surpassed in this the ancient writers and therefore, poetically, he is justified to go no further. Yet, in the zavorra of the seventh bolgia, the changing and rechanging continue in an extraordinary fashion

Inferno XXV 142-48:

Così vid'io la settima zavorra
mutare e trasmutare; e qui mi scusi

la novità se fior la penna abborra.

E avvenga che li occhi miei confusi
fossero alquanto e l'animo smagato,
non poter quei fuggirsi tanto chiusi,

ch'i' non scorgessi ben Puccio Sciancato;

Thus I saw the seventh rabble change
and change again, and let the newness of it
be my excuse if my pen has gone astray.

And though my eyes were dazed
and my mind somewhat bewildered,
these sinners could not flee so stealthily

but I with ease disherned that Puccio Lameshanks,

     These lines hide a technical vocabulary. It is the aesthetic language pertaining to sensation and perception. Dante's vision becomes blurred and hence his perceptive functions are diminished. This is due to the "novità", the extraordinary power, the magnitudo of the object of perception. In classical Latin writers the term novitas has the meaning of 'strange', 'singular', 'unusual', 'unheard of'. But Uguccione, in his dictionary, also registers the new medieval meaning of novitas, as 'grand', 'mighty', 'weight', 'momentous': Nota quod "novus" quandoque dicitur 'inusitatus', quandoque 'magnus' (Note that "novus" sometimes means extraordinary, and sometimes mighty)9. As I mentioned, here we on technical grounds, and strictly in accordance with a passage from Aristotle's De anima where he says that "sentient impressions in excess destroy the organ of sense"10. Aristotle's passage was interpreted by all medieval commentators; and the idea became a common place among the scholastics who formed the phrase, "sensibilium excellentia corrumpit sensum" (an excess in the sensibles overpowers the sense).

     Such an idea was very well-known by Dante who express it in several parts of his Comedy, including canto VIII of the Purgatorio where he uses the same verb confondere ('to be bewildered')

Purgatorio VIII 34-36:

Ben discernea in lor la testa bionda
ma ne la faccia l'occhio si smarria
come virtù ch'a troppo si confonde

I could discern the angels' flaxen hair,
but looking at their faces dazzled me,
my power of sight undone by so much brightness.

Or in the XV canto of the Purgatorio where the word "stupor" is used in connection with the idea of "soverchio visibile", or 'excessive visible'11.



     Returning now to our canto XXV and concluding, it is the "mutare" and "trasmutare" of the "zavorra", or the thieves, that blurred Dante's vision, and therefore diminish his perceptive function. There is no jumble in Dante's poetry and there is no confusion in his pen here—as commentators and translators are inclined to interpret Dante's lines in question, with the inevitable and unacceptable critical assessment that his verses "constitute a strategically—and somewhat hilariously—placed disclaimer, considering the claim made in lines 94-102 and Dante's bravura in this canto"12. On the contrary, as we have seen, line 144 ("se fior la penna abborra"), doesn't mean 'if my pen is confused', but rather 'if my pen is somewhat stupefied' by the continuous change and rechange of the thieves, and consequently it becomes dumb, it cannot "speak", it cannot describe anymore.

     The last three thieves try to flee secretly from Dante, but they cannot. Even though the Pilgrim's vision is blurred and his perceptive power diminished ("smagato"), he can still recognize and name them. The contrapasso of the thieves is that of being bitten by serpents13,and of going "naked... without any hope of a hole in which to hide or eliotrope"14, the stone that makes you invisible. This is the contrapasso because in life they have operated secretly and hidden. Therefore the Poet unmasking them by revealing their names is in fact a part of their punishment.

Created, maintained and © by Gino Casagrande
  10.X.2005 —  Mail:  Click here.