April 2012

One very subtle but insidious effect of TV shows and movies is that they accustom us to seeing real things and taking them as false.

On the Figure of Stone in the Comedy

The Stoniness of Damnation and the Damned

The damned in Cocytus are locked in stone. Dante calls the lowest circle, which closes around traitors like a vice, “the dreadful hole toward which all other rocks point their weight” (Inf. 32.2–3). The floor is the delta of Hell’s bloody rivers frozen into a lake so solid that if a mountain fell on it, it wouldn’t budge (Inf. 32.28–30). The damned are fixed in this ice, virtually become stones themselves. Their tears harden in their eyes so that “weeping itself prevents weeping there, and the sorrow that finds a block over the eyes turns back within to increase the pain” (Inf. 33.94–96). In an image that takes my breath away, the souls in Inferno 34 are completely covered over, locked into the ice “like straws in glass” (Inf. 34.12). And, so as to speak more horribly of this cold, miserable hole, the narrator invokes those muses “who helped Amphion enclose Thebes” with massive stones (Inf. 32.11).

    It is not just Cocytus that is stony, however: all of Hell is underground, under miles of rock. And it is certainly not only the traitors in Cocytus who are stony. But because it is the deepest, nastiest region of Hell, it is where Dante will stage most explicitly what might be called the stoniness of damnation and the damned. Continually mixing theology and science into his poetry, Dante finds many ways to conflate literal stone with certain psychological and spiritual states.

    The figure of stone in Dante’s poem is elaborate, so I will explore a few specific aspects of it in turn. Perhaps the most obvious of these is hardness because the relevant connotations of psychological hardness are very much alive today. We describe someone as “hard-headed” if they cannot be easily persuaded. We call a person “hard-hearted” if they are emotionally unmoved. Because it imprisons iron-willed traitors, Dante describes Cocytus as “the place of which it is hard to speak” (Inf. 32.14). Ugolino, too emotionally dead to cry or console his frightened children, instead “turned to stone within” (Inf. 33.49). Again, it is not only the traitors. Dante portrays all the damned as hardened in that they refused to be moved from whatever sin ultimately damned them. An excellent image of this occurs on the Cornice of the Avaricious, where the shade of a once-greedy pope explains that since his eyes were “fixed on earthly things,” now, in Purgatory, he must atone by lying face-down on the earth (Purg. 118–19). On the threshold of Dis, which separates those merely seduced by evil things from those who willfully chose them, Virgil shields Dante from the Medusa, telling him that if she turned him to stone, “there would never be any going back up”—he would be damned (Inf. 9.57). The pilgrim himself is scolded at a few points when his attention has become fixed [fisso] upon something inappropriate (Inf. 29.19, Purg. 2.118).

    Another trait Dante figures with stone is heaviness, though what heaviness entails is less than immediately obvious. One must understand it in terms of the Aristotelian physics Dante’s cosmos runs on, the gist of which is that every substance is moved by its attraction (literally its love) to its rightful place in the universe. Thus do stone and water fall, and air and fire rise. Beatrice explains that this is the principle that “compresses and unites the earth” (Par. 1.17). Dante relies on the traditional moral associations of up and down to do the rest: to sin is to fall, to be saved is to rise. Hence is Cocytus the place where “all weight collects” (Inf. 32.73–74). That Dante speaks of humans as made of dust—of stony material—suggests we are inherently drawn to sin (Par. 2.133, 13.82). Virgil even conflates the pilgrim’s living body with the original sin it bears, speaking of “the burden of Adam’s flesh that clothes him” (Purg. 11.33–34). Thus on the Cornice of the Proud, the penitent, in “the heavy condition of their torment [that] buckles them toward the earth,” are made to carry back-breaking boulders (Purg. 10.115–16).

    The last aspect of stone I will emphasize is its impenetrable opacity—or, in Dante’s characters, a kind of spiritual blindness. This also requires some theoretical background in order to understand properly. Dante holds that in order to love something, one must first know it: “the good . . . as soon as it is known kindles love” (Par. 26.28–29). Bearing in mind the central figuration in Paradiso, knowledge as light, one sees that opacity figures an impairment or destruction of one’s ability to discern the good from the bad. All the damned, Virgil says, have “lost the good of the intellect” (Inf. 3.18). This, which alone constitutes damnation, means that they can never see God, the “Light . . . that, when seen, alone and always kindles love” (Par. 5.8–9). Another way of describing what the damned have lost is the ability to detect, interpret, and produce signs, where

a sign is a thing which, over and above the impression it makes on the senses, causes something else to come into the mind as a consequence of itself. (Augustine, Christian Doctrine 2.1, quoted in Durling and Martinez, Inferno, 579)

Signs are the basis of all communication between human beings: we cause perceptible effects for one another—usually sights and sounds—so that we may mutually understand things that are not immediately perceptible.

    Treason, then, is a twofold abuse of the intellect: it entails, one, the knowing production of false or pernicious signs, and, two, a willed ignorance of the signs of other people—where signs always entail the presence of a soul. Today we would say that the traitors objectified their victims, treating them like soulless stones. Traitors thus not only lose sight of God, but also suffer the mutilation of their ability to use the signs they once abused. They have “hard veils” of ice over their eyes (Inf. 33.112). Teeth chattering in the cold, each produces an unending stream of meaningless sounds (Inf. 32.36). The pilgrim asks Ugolino why he makes such a “bestial sign” to Ruggieri (Inf. 32.133). The phrase is an oxymoron—what defines a beast is its inability to use signs. The pilgrim is told that those who betray friends or guests, at the moment they do so lose all ability to receive and transmit any true sign whatsoever because their bodies are immediately commandeered by demons (Inf. 33.129–30).

    One sees that stone is Dante’s way of figuring whatever can and often does prevent humans from seeing, turning toward, and coming to God. It is now useful to observe that the Earth itself is nothing but a gigantic rock, and so it is reasonable to understand Dante’s sense of stoniness as extending to “worldliness”—and so describes those too concerned with material things to see the immaterial. In this way, stone comes to stand for the entire material universe. Because stone is dense, the most “matter-y” matter there is, Dante makes it a synecdoche of all matter, all physicality. The fate of those who don’t recognize that the universe is a vast and worthless stone without God is to be eaten up by a cold, hard, and silent earth.

Salvation by Stone

These negative qualities do not solely constitute the figurative sense of stone in the Comedy. There are a number of moments when stone is used not as an impediment to salvation but as a guidepost to it. One of the more obvious instances appears when, on the Cornice of the Proud, the pilgrim sees a series of divinely made etchings in the stone below his feet and on the cliff walls. Dante says these intaglios are perfect: “one who saw the true event did not see better than I” (Purg 12.68). They are there to instruct the penitent, each depicting a scene either of shattered hubris or admirable humility. Dante also speaks of himself as though, through his journey, he is becoming such an etching. In Eden, he tells Beatrice, “As wax is marked by the seal so that it does not change the figure stamped on it, so my brain has now been signed by you” (Purg. 33.79–81). In the first canto of Paradiso, the narrator asks for help to “make manifest [that which is] stamped within [his] head” (Par. 1.23–24).

    Dante also figures ambitious artistic endeavors as weights that must be borne. Statius says he “fell along the way while carrying the second burden” to describe his failure to complete the Achilleid (Purg. 21.93). The narrator, describing the difficulty of writing the Paradiso, says “whoever thinks of the ponderous theme and the mortal shoulder that has taken it on will not blame it for trembling beneath the burden” (Par. 23.64–66).

    Still more broadly, a capacity to remember and convey information is often figured in this way. In cantos 32 and 33 of each canticle, there is some discussion of what new truths the pilgrim must carry back with him to the benefit of those still alive. In Cocytus, the pilgrim offers to put Bocca’s “name among [his] other notes.” When Bocca is outed, the pilgrim tells him, “to your shame I will carry back true news of you” (Inf. 32.93,110–11). In Eden, Beatrice tells the pilgrim to “take note and just as they come from [her] write [her] words to those who live,” and tells him to pay attention to the pageant of the Church Militant so that he can “carry it back within [him]” (Purg 33. 33.52–53,77). In the celestial rose, he is told to “note the great patricians of this most just and merciful empire” (Par. 32.116–17). Preparing to describe for his readers what it was to look directly on God, the narrator asks for divine assistance that he might provide “a single spark of [God’s] glory to the people yet to be, / for, if it comes back somewhat to [his] memory . . . more will be conceived of [God’s] victory” (Par. 33.73–75).

    Even God’s most important signs to the living—the Bible and Christ—are figured this way. Bernard speaks of a truth “noted expressly and clearly for [readers] in Holy Scripture” (Par. 32.67–68). He also describes Christ’s incarnation as “when the Son of God wished to burden himself with our flesh” (Par. 33.113–14). Thus, keeping in mind both Christ’s “on this rock I build my church” and the stone tablets given to Moses, it seems clear that God does not abhor stone. To the contrary, it is the most enduring medium available in the transitory material universe. One does well to recall the Hell Gate’s “I ENDURE ETERNAL” and the pilgrim’s response, “[the] sense [of those words] is hard [duro] for me” (Inf. 3.8,12).

    It is also worth noting that Purgatory itself is a stone that helps the penitent climb toward Heaven. In such an image, stone is depicted both as a tool to help the soul climb to God and as inert matter to be forgotten and left behind. Perhaps this is why, at the beginning of the Paradiso, the narrator, summoning poetic strength to himself, calls for another mountain so he can reach still greater heights: “Until now one peak of Parnassus has been enough for me, but now with both of them I must enter upon what of the field remains” (Par. 1.16–18).


In the final cantos of each canticle are moments of explicit petrifaction (or something like it). I mentioned the Inferno’s above: Ugolino’s turning to stone [impetrai]. By Purgatorio 33, the pilgrim has reformed his will but not his mind—and Beatrice berates him, “I see that your intellect has turned to stone [fatto di pietra], and, petrified [impetrato], is so darkened that the light of what I say dazzles you” (Purg. 33.73–75). In Paradiso 32, moments before the pilgrim looks directly upon God, Bernard tells him, “lest perhaps you fly backward moving your wings, believing you move forward, [you] must gain grace by praying [s’impetri]” (Par. 32.145–47). It is very interesting to ponder what Dante intends to signify by using a word that means “to gain through praying” to echo those previous instances where someone had turned to stone.

    I think a good answer can be made by speaking of Daedalus and Ugolino. Like Daedalus, Ugolino is shut up with his progeny in a tower—in fact, Ugolino even calls it a mew, a cage in which hawks are kept (Inf. 33.22). The sky is open to him through a hole [pertugio] in the roof. Unlike Daedalus, Ugolino cannot craft himself a set of wings. Still, Dante, in the vertical logic of the poem, insists that Ugolino could have flown away. Not from death—who does?—but from Hell: in the echoing canto, Paradiso 33, Bernard prays to Mary, “if anyone wishes grace and does not turn to you, his desire seeks to fly without wings” (Par 33.14–15); in the echo in Purgatorio 33, the pilgrim, seeking to understand Beatrice’s holy words without God’s help, finds that her words “fly so far above [his] sight that the more [his] sight strives, the more it loses it” (Purg 33.82–84). Both moments deal with a soul’s ability to fly upward to salvation in God. This possibility of escape is emphasized by the fact that the hole through which the pilgrim escapes Hell is also called a pertugio (Inf. 34.138). Hollander does a good job describing what I imagine Dante thought Ugolino should have done:

When we ask ourselves what we would do in [Ugolino’s] situation, we probably know. We would speak, not be silent; we would weep with our children, not show stoic reserve; and, if we were thirteenth-century Italians, we would pray with them after having sought their forgiveness for having involved them, innocent, in our political machinations. (Hollander, Inferno, 619) [bold mine]

How was Ugolino to know? He received many signs from Heaven: the crucifixion is reenacted before him by not one but four child Christs (Durling and Martinez, Inferno, 578–80); “the next sun came forth into the world” (Inf. 33.54); and a ray [raggio] of light even joins them in the room (Inf. 33.55)—where Dante uses “raggio” only (so as far as I can tell) when referring to God’s influence in the world. Thus, Dante has spun the word for “petrify” into the word for “to gain through prayer” because he intends to show them as opposites: to petrify is to succumb to the physicality of the world; to impetrate God is to escape into the haven that lies before and beyond it. When Ugolino dreams of escape—“that day and the next we were all mute: ah, hard earth, why did you not open?”—he doesn’t think to use a sign; all he can think of is stone (Inf. 33.66). The vertical logic of the poem mocks his folly: “it seemed to me that the earth opened between the two wheels, and I saw a dragon come forth” (Purg. 33.130–31).

    The facts of Ugolino’s death by starvation and enraged gnawing of Ruggieri afford, I think, another interesting angle on the scene. There are many instances in the poem when the human condition, the relentless search for good, is figured as a kind of insatiable hunger. My favorite example is when Virgil tells the pilgrim he will soon be in Heaven: “That sweet apple which the zeal of mortals goes seeking along so many branches, today will bring peace to your hungers” (Purg. 27.115–17). This, a reference to the first sin, portrays fallen human life on earth as an unending and fruitless search for real nutrition. In life, Ugolino must have been obsessed with earthly goods—fame, wealth, power, probably all of them. Regardless, whatever he “consumed,” it never brought him lasting or true satisfaction. His sin—perhaps all sin—is anticipated by Adam’s (another ill-fated attempt to become lofty independently of God, and another instance of treason). In light of this figure, one can see that Ugolino’s damnation is to devour eternally the substance that “contains” knowledge—human brain matter. In this, Dante seems to have said of Ugolino that, rather than binge on what God told him he shouldn’t eat at all, he ought to have used his mouth to pray to Mary to free him from the many binds he’d gotten into.

The Emparadised Stone

There is no stone in the Empyrean. Besides the bodies of Mary, Christ, and the pilgrim, there is no trace at all of the physicality which, at its broadest, stone is a figure of. Dante has not, however, abandoned his scheme of vertical echoes; the traits of stone in Cocytus are indeed present—troped to the positive.

    In Heaven, fixity (which I earlier called hardness) is not unthinking inertness or intransigence, but instead an active, enraptured awe and adoration. This fixity is a state beautifully described by Augustine in the beginning of Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you” (trans. Chadwick), a passage which Dante references: “The King through whom this kingdom reposes” (Par. 32.61). There are too many instances of this figure to list them all, but here are a few: Bernard’s eyes are “fixed on his pleasure” (Par. 32.1); Mary is called “fixed term of eternal counsel” (Par. 33.3), and her eyes become “fixed on the supplicant [Bernard]” (Par. 33.41). This type of fixity is also juxtaposed with Ugolino’s stoniness toward his children via Christ’s pun on Peter’s name: “Opposite Peter [Pietro] see Anna sit, so happy to gaze on her daughter that she does not move her eyes” (Par. 32.133–35). Dante, describing his vision of God, explains that the more he stared, the more fiery his fixity became: “my mind, entirely lifted up, gazed fixedly, immobile and intent, and became ever more aflame to gaze” (Par. 33.97–99). God himself is, classically, the unmoved mover: Christ changed the world, but “none of his feathers were shaken loose” (Purg. 32.37).

    One might not say, exactly, that God is infinitely heavy, although the way all souls are drawn to him does recapitulate in bono the mortal weight that pulls all living humans down toward sin. Rather, the depths of Hell to which one can sink are troped into the unfathomable depths of the mind of God. Whereas Hell’s depth comes to a deepest, foulest point in Satan—a point at which there is no further point to existence—God’s loftiness is infinitely deep. Just as all weight collects in Cocytus, all else collects in God: “In its depths I saw internalized, bound with love in one volume, what through the universe becomes unsewn” (Par. 33.85–87). Virgil explains to Dante that at some point in his climb up Purgatory, physical gravity will be overcome by upward spiritual gravity: “your feet will . . . not only . . . feel no labor, but it will be a delight to them to be urged upward” (Purg. 12.124–26).

    Perhaps the most beautiful of these in bono recapitulations is what becomes of the figure of opacity. It is, firstly, inverted: everything becomes transparent and magnified because not only will there never be any physical matter in the Empyrean to mistake for the true substance that makes matter matter (God’s love), there are no time, distance, or infidelity to separate any two souls. More than that, though, Cocytus’s privation of meaning is inverted into an overwhelming provision of more clarity and meaning than any soul can handle. There are still things unseen, but this troubles no one. In fact, there is so much to be understood that the intellect is confounded here, too: “seeing was greater than speech can show, which gives way before such a sight, and memory gives way before such excess” (Par. 33.55–57). This deluge of light is so great that it can blot out even other spiritual substances, even the eyes of one’s true love: “I so placed all my love in [God] that it eclipsed Beatrice with forgetfulness” (Par. 10.59–60). There are many moments that figure this paradisal triumph over the material. Beatrice, prophesying in Eden, speaks of a sight “secure from all obstacle and all barrier” (Purg. 33.42). Praying for the pilgrim to attain to the vision of God, Bernard asks Mary to “dissolve every cloud of his mortality with your prayers” (Par. 33.31–32). In Paradiso 1, the poet asks God to pull him from his body just as he “drew Marsyas forth from the sheath of his members” (Par 1.20–21). The end-cantos of both earlier canticles contain an image of the eternal breaking through the material. Ugolino describes his dream as having “rent the veil of the future for [him]” (Inf. 33.27); in Eden, the pilgrim has fallen asleep, but “a brightness rent the veil of sleep for [him],” a tearing he compares to Jesus’s waking the disciples after the Transfiguration with the “[Word] that had broken deeper sleep than theirs” (Purg. 32.71–72,77–78).

Concluding Remarks

Dante knew it was impossible to depict Heaven as he understood it. He says as much in the first canto of Paradiso (Par. 1.70–71). Still, wholly committed to trying, he required some image to portray a boundless goodness. It is beautiful and touching to realize that the figure he chose was to look into the eyes of the person he fell in love with. Each time he ascends closer to God, he travels by looking into Beatrice’s eyes. Thus it is that the final image the pilgrim sees in God is a human face: “[God] seemed to me to be painted with our effigy” (Par. 33.131). There can be no doubt that this is Christ, the human in God. For Dante, the human face, although a material thing—although just dust—is the best sign God has to communicate with human beings. And just as Dante was shown God in a human face, in Beatrice’s eyes, Ugolino was shown God when “[he] perceived on four faces [his] own appearance” (Inf. 33.56–57). The tragedy is that he mistook God for himself.