Canto XIII: Piero delle Vigne

February 12, 2019 by Essay Writer

In Canto XIII of Dante’s Inferno, one of the most pitiful souls that Dante comes in contact with is Piero delle Vigne. Condemned to the second tier of hell for the sin of self-abuse and suicide, the reader, like Dante, is torn between sympathizing and feeling pity for delle Vigne, and understanding that he did commit a mortal sin against God. Throughout the canto, Dante really plays upon the reader’s emotions, making it almost impossible to dislike delle Vigne; nevertheless, in the end, he makes it very clear why he remains damned for his sin. In that sense, Dante forces the reader to emulate himself as the pilgrim – the reader is allowed to feel sorry for the damned, but never disregard the gravity of the sins in question. If Dante or the reader ever feels that the punishment is unjust, that itself would be a venial sin. Nevertheless, although Dante never says outright that delle Vigne should be pardoned, the way in which the character is presented almost makes the reader wish that he were.Dante creates a very realistic human portrait of Piero delle Vigne by making the reader sympathize with him and his fate. As sympathy is a truly human emotion, Dante could do no better than to play upon it with his audience. Just listening to the story of his life is quite sad. Here is a man who devoted his entire life to serving his master, but who was wrongly disgraced in the end. Of humble origin, he rose in power due to his own hard work, eventually becoming the “Emperor Fredrick’s famous Chancellor” (Dante. The Divine Comedy: The Inferno. John D. Sinclair, trans. New York: Oxford University Press, 1939. 176). One gets the feeling that he sacrificed everything for his master, which, while admirable, is also quite sad and pathetic – by neglecting himself, he killed himself every day of his life in service. As delle Vigne says, he “brought such faithfulness to the glorious office that [he] lost for it sleep and strength” (Dante 169). Such self-sacrificing earned him great fame and admiration, mostly because every man in power wants a servant willing to give up everything for him; yet, despite those honors, delle Vigne remained humble and loyal. His fidelity and hard work eventually also allowed him to become the “most influential statesman of his time in Western Europe” (Dante 177), fighting for the Emperor Fredrick’s cause against the tyranny of the papacy. In fact, he headed the emperor’s movement against the church for twenty years, hoping to end corruption within the clergy. He was also known for his fanatical reliance on manners. When delle Vigne first comes in contact with Dante, he is exceptionally polite, making sure as not to “burden” (Dante 169) Dante with his speech. Yet, despite all of his notably admirable characteristics, delle Vigne still ended up in hell.In 1249, the Emperor received word that delle Vigne was conspiring with the Pope against him and thereby had him blinded and imprisoned. Not being able to prove that he did not commit high treason, delle Vigne had no hope of being freed. More importantly to him, though, was that his name had been publicly disgraced. Having given up his life for his master, being suddenly told that that meant nothing was devastating. His history of loyalty and selflessness turned out to be for naught, leaving him with absolutely nothing to live for. Therefore, not wanting to face the shame of being formally charged with treason, he decided to bash his head against his cell wall until his brains splattered out. Here, Dante has presented the reader with a highly justifiable reason for suicide. Piero delle Vigne was definitely better off dead than humiliated – at least by killing himself he made a statement that he’d rather be dead than considered a traitor. Nevertheless, according to Dante, God would rather see one die a martyr than have one take his own life. To make it even more obvious to the reader that suicide is an unforgivable sin, Dante has delle Vigne still wrongly branded with his crime on earth even after his death, making his suicide completely in vain.And yet, the reader still feels absolute pity for delle Vigne. Despite his master utterly wronging him after a lifetime of loyal servitude, he cannot bring himself to say one unkind word against the Emperor. He refers to him as “Caesar,” “Augustus”, and his “lord, who was so worthy of honour” (Dante 171). Such deference to Frederick invokes two emotions from the reader. The first, that of admiration – he loves his lord, despite the wrongs he caused him; the second, that of pity – he is silly to care so much for someone who obviously did not care about him. Above all, though, it shows why the second round of hell is appropriate for delle Vigne, despite it being absolutely pitiful.In the second tier of hell, the souls which have committed suicide are forced to relive the act of inflicting pain upon themselves for eternity by being turned into trees that Harpies feed off of daily. Dante himself ends up adding to delle Vigne’s pain by breaking off one of his branches. This eternal punishment, while extreme, is somehow fitting to delle Vigne’s sin. For one, he put his master above himself throughout his entire career. Is that not like committing suicide every day, bit by bit? By never thinking about himself, delle Vigne neglected the soul and body that God gave him, thereby disrespecting God. As a final disgrace to God, delle Vigne took it upon himself to end his own life, a choice that, according to Christians, is up to God alone. Therefore, because he offended God in both his daily self-deprecation and the final tour de force of his own suicide, delle Vigne is condemned to forever wallow in the pain of self-neglect rather than be rewarded for it. On one hand, this is quite sad, for this man did nothing truly wrong in the world. Nevertheless, from God’s perspective, he committed a sin that he never repented for and would still go on committing if he were alive. That act of non-repentance is what brought delle Vigne to the second level of hell, not the sin itself. Therefore, although sad, it is quite understandable why he is condemned to an eternity of pain.Although clear that delle Vigne then deserves his punishment to some extent, Dante still provides him with the hope of the one blessing he has wanted since his imprisonment: a clean name. After breaking off the branch, Dante is confronted by the pained voice of delle Vigne, crying for mercy – “Why manglest thou me? Hast thou no spirit of pity?… thy hand might well have been more pitiful had we been souls of serpents” (Dante 169) – and, out of fear, drops the branch. To make it up to him, Virgil says that if he tells them his story, Dante will “revive [his] fame in the world above” (Dante 169) when he returns to the living world. Not wanting to miss his one chance at clearing his reputation, delle Vigne is quick to respond, “beguiled into talk[ing] for a little” (Dante 169). So caught up in amending his status on earth is delle Vigne that the last line in his tale reminds Dante of his promise, saying that “if either of [them] return to the world let him establish [his] memory” (Dante 171). Dante, however, cannot respond, “such pity [having filled] his heart” (Dante 169), leaving Virgil to say that he will carry through with his word.Overall, Dante provides a clear portrait of Piero delle Vigne’s character in this canto through his interaction with Dante as the pilgrim. Moreover, Dante masterfully influences the reader’s emotions, allowing for both pity and understanding to be felt regarding delle Vigne’s fate. Through use of this duality of emotions, Dante also brings the reader closer to the character of Dante, as he feels the same way about delle Vigne. Therefore, besides serving as simply a functional aspect in Dante’s descent into hell, the canto also acts as a method of bringing the reader further into Dante’s mindset. Above all else, though, Canto XIII is a beautiful rendering of a character with all the depth and human emotion of a real person, making it a masterpiece in and of itself.

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