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Did Satan's fall form hell? A persistent misreading in Inferno XXXIV.

As Dante and Virgil reach the center of the earth and finish climbing down Satan's shaggy flank, they emerge on the "picciola spera" (Inf. 34.116) (1) which forms the reverse side of Judecca, part of the pit at the bottom of hell. At this point in the Commedia, Virgil describes Lucifer's fall in one of the poem's most magnificent passages of imaginative invention. In Dante's conception, as Satan plummeted to earth, the lands of the southern hemisphere rushed to the north. In addition, material within the center of the earth, in a similar revulsion from the source of all evil, was ejected into the southern hemisphere to form the mountain of purgatory, the void being left by Satan's impact forming the cavern of hell. Thus, by a very satisfying irony, Satan's act of rebellion resulted in the formation not only of a pathway by which erring humanity could hope to re-ascend to God, but also of the dungeon in which the devil and all his followers were to be forever punished.

Or, at least, this was what I told my classes for the first several years I taught the Inferno, until one day a student made the obvious objection that the inscription on the Gate of Hell says God, not Satan, made hell. After a hasty re-examination of the passage, I was able explain, by a narrowly literal interpretation, that what the inscription says is that God made the gate, but not necessarily all of hell.

Having escaped this immediate difficulty, however, I decided to research the student's question further.

The view that Dante imagined Satan forming hell is supported by a long tradition. Only 17 years after Dante's death, a note by the author of L'Ottimo Commento asserted that the earth fleeing from Satan "lasciasse lo inferno voto" (Torri, 1827-1829). (2) The reading soon received Boccaccio's imprimatur in his lectures on the poem in 1373-1375. Although ill health prevented him from reaching Canto XXXIV, Boccaccio's remark on the gate of hell makes the point: God hurled Satan down to the center of the earth, where he "la sua prigione fece." That the whole of hell is implied by "prigione" is made clear by Boccaccio's subsequent comment that this place would "finalmente esser prigione di tutti quegli li quah contro alla sua deita perassero" (Boccaccio, 1965: note on Inferno 3.4-6). (3)

The view remained popular through the 20th century, until in 1986 Carla Forti made a concerted objection to it in her "Nascita dell'Inferno o nascita del Purgatorio: Nota sulla caduta del Lucifero dantesco" (Forti, 1986). In this study, Forti enumerates the many modern Italian commentators who assert that Dante presents hell being formed by Satan's fall, among them authors of articles in the authoritative Enciclopedia dantesca (Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 1970-1978) (4) as well as in such widely distributed reference works as the Storia della letteratura italiana (Sapegno, 1990). (5) She goes on to focus on the theological problems the misinterpretation entails, arguing that the idea that Satan made hell is contradicted by the inscription over its gate, and pointing out that the eternity of hell affirmed by the gate's inscription rules out anything but creation directly by God. (6)

Because Forti's article focused on complex theological arguments whose validity can be (with difficulty) contested, her refutation of the traditional interpretation was unheeded--especially by American Dantisti--and the idea that Dante imagined Satan excavating hell through his fall has persisted in the writings of some of the most eminent specialists of recent years, among them Remo Ceserani (1998), Lino Fertile (2007), Teodolinda Barolini (2010), Molly G Morrison and Richard Lansing (2010), and Giuseppe Mazzotta (2014). (7) The reading has also found its way into a recently published handbook of medieval literature. (8) On the other hand, equally respected 20th century scholars have explicitly rejected the idea, including GA Scartazzini and G Vandelli, Charles Singleton, Daniele Mattalia, Mark Musa, and Allen Mandelbaum. In fact, editor-commentators in the 20th and 21st centuries, with their eyes fixed on the text, exclude the possibility of Satan's fall forming the pit of hell by a proportion of 10 to one. (9) As early as the beginning of the 20th century, Hermann Oelsner expressed frustration at the popularity of the misreading:
This passage has generally been taken to establish a connection between
the cone of the Mount of Purgatory and the funnel of Hell. It is
obvious, however, that Hell was in existence ready to receive Satan,
and that the "loco voto" of v. 125 and the "tomba" of V. 128 refer not
to Hell, but to the cavern into which the nether bulk of Satan is
thrust. (Oelsner, 1900)

Manfredi Porena's comment on the passage shares Oelsner's tone of exasperation: "Da scartare senz'altro l'opinione che la terra che si ritrasse e formo il Purgatorio sia quella che riempiva prima la cavita infernale" (Porena, 1981). Among the most recent translator-editors, the Hollanders do not raise the question (Alighieri, 2000), presumably in the conviction that their translation, which accurately mirrors the meaning of the original passage, is by itself clear enough, while the note in the Durling and Martinez edition (Alighieri, 1996: 548) states that the matter which formed the mountain of Purgatory came only from "the cavity" where the poets are standing at the time Virgil describes Satan's fall. The position taken in Robin Kirkpatrick's version (Alighieri, 2006) of the Commedia is unclear: he provides no note on the passage, and his translation--"left an empty space" (Alighieri, 2006)--omits an adverb of the original text of Virgil's description (qui), which, as will be discussed below, is an essential clarification of its meaning.

Scholars who assert that Dante imagined Satan's fall as forming hell do not defend their interpretations, but then neither do those who reject this interpretation of the event described by Virgil in Infeno XXXIV. As Forti points out, even Bruno Nardi's (1959, 1990) detailed discussions of the canto do not address the question directly: "la sua attenzione e focalizzata su altri problemi" (Forti, 1986: 241, fn. 2).

Although the hypothesis that Dante presents Satan bringing about the formation of hell by his impact on the earth has been attractive to scholars both medieval and contemporary, the view has at least three serious problems.

The first is that this conception of the origin of hell is found nowhere in early Christian or medieval thought and is in fact contradicted by passages of both the Old and New Testaments. In Isaiah 14:9 we are told concerning Lucifer's fall that "Infernus subter conturbatus est in occursum adventus tui," implying that hell was in existence when it was disturbed by his arrival, (10) and in the Parable of the Sheep and Goats, Jesus says that the cursed shall depart into everlasting fire, "qui paratus est diabolo, et angelis eius" (Matt. 25:41). Augustine was probably thinking of this verse when he wrote concerning Satan and the fallen angels that "Scripture, which deceives no man, says that God spared them not, and that they were condemned beforehand by Him, and cast into prisons of darkness in hell" (Augustine, 1886: 21.23). (11) As the "widely diffused" Glossa Ordinaria also explains, in an interlinear note over the Gospel phrase "paratus est," hell was "preordained from the establishment of the world" ("preordinatus a constitutione mundi"). (12) An additional biblical text asserts "Deus angelis peccantibus non pepercit, sed rudentibus inferni detractos in tartarum tradidit cruciandos, in judicium reservari" (2 Peter 2:4), clearly implying that the fallen angels were passively "drawn down" ("detractos") into a hell which was already in existence. Perhaps because of the explicitness of this scriptural testimony, none of the many Patristic and later medieval discussions of hell find it necessary to explicitly treat how hell came into being: it was assumed to have been created by God at the time he created the earth in his foreknowledge that some of the angels would rebel; it was prepared beforehand in order to receive them. Hell may have been disturbed by Satan's fall (Isaiah, "conturbatus est"), but it was not thought to have been formed by that event. (13)

Of course, Dante's poetic imagination does not always conform to the teachings of the church--his unorthodox assignment of the virtuous pagans to limbo and his proactive condemnation to Ptolomea of sinners who are still alive on earth are only two examples. But there is a second major problem with the view that Satan's fall formed hell--what seems to be Dante's own explicit statement to the contrary in the inscription over its gate:
Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore:
fecemi la divina podestate,
la somma sapienza e 'l primo amore.
Dinanzi a me non fuor cose create
se non etterne, e io etterno duro.
(Inf. 3.4-8)

Although in the first terzina and final line of the inscription the gate refers to itself only ("Per me si va.... Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate"), commentators almost universally agree that the central lines of the gate's speech quoted above refer to hell as a whole. (14) And these lines assert that hell was a result of the "triforme effetto" (Par. 29.28) by which the Christian God created everything in the world which is everlasting. Pertile recognizes the apparent obstacle presented by the gate's words to his conviction that Dante imagined Satan's fall forming hell, and therefore suggests that the gate is speaking only of its own creation by God. (15) He then goes on to assert that "we must imagine that it was erected and that the inscription was dictated at the moment in which Lucifer, the first and greatest sinner, fell from Heaven and crashed down into the center of the earth, creating the crater of Hell" (Pertile, 2001: 70-71). Although Pertile's suggestion is ingenious, it might be objected that it is odd that such a majestic description of divine creation should be expended on a mere gate rather than characterizing the more important realm to which it leads. It is also odd that God's justice would only be involved in the creation of a gate rather than in creation of the place in which that justice is to be exacted. (16)

Whatever the gate may be thought to say becomes moot, however, given Virgil's unequivocal assertion at the beginning of the poem that hell is a "loco etterno" created for the ancient spirits in their pain (Inf. 1.114). As will now be discussed, a seemingly insuperable problem for the idea that Satan formed hell arises from this (and perhaps the gate's) assertion that hell is eternal.

"Creation" in Dante's understanding included "first creation"--creation ex nihilo--which could only be accomplished by God, as well as creation through the forces of nature by action of the angelic intelligences. Could Satan's forming of hell through his fall be seen as a kind of mediated creation, that God foreordained hell only in the sense that he foresaw it, and that he used Satan's fall as the instrument, the material agent for its formation? Fertile (2001) seems to be hinting at this. But established doctrine, followed by Dante, held that things that are eternal could only be brought about by God's first creation ("Cio che da lei sanza mezzo distilla/non ha poi fine, perche non si move / la sua imprenta quand'ella sigilla," Par. 7.70-72), (17) and by the later middle ages almost all theologians agreed that hell was to last forever. (18) Of course, Dante did imagine Satan's fall as the instrumental agent in forming an important part of the world: the mountain of purgatory. But, as a result of a form of creation that was not directly the work of God, purgatory would not last forever. (19) Patrick Boyde, one of the most reliable guides to Dante's philosophical and theological thought, explains that Dante intended the creation of hell to be understood as having occurred "sanze mezzo." However, he still seems to want to salvage the misreading of Canto XXXIV by somewhat cryptically remarking in another context that Dante "tells us that Hell was made by God, and that it assumed its definitive shape at the time when Lucifer and the rebel angels fell from Heaven" (Boyde, 1981:288,69).

Whatever one may think of the two objections discussed in the preceding paragraphs to the interpretation that Dante imagined Satan's fall forming hell--which are argued at length in Forti's article--the view faces a final and, in my opinion, insuperable problem that Forti mentions but does not treat in detail. (20) This problem is simply the passage itself in which Virgil describes the results of the impact of Satan on the earth:
Da questa parte cadde giu dal cielo;
e la terra, che pria di qua si sporse,
per paura di lui fe del mar velo,
e venne a l'emisperio nostro; e forse
per fuggir lui lascio qui loco voto
quella ch'appar di qua, e su ricorse.
(Inf. 34.121-126)

Virgil's first words deal with the escape of the land, previously equally distributed over the globe, to the north, explaining the paucity of dry land in the southern hemisphere. There is no disagreement about the meaning of this part of Dante's grand myth. But the remainder of the passage, "e forse/per fuggir lui lascio qui loco voto," raises the key question of the location of the place that Virgil refers to as "qui" (125).

It seems to me that Dante could hardly be more explicit in defining the situation of the poets at the time of Virgil's description. First, the pilgrim emphasizes his mistake in assuming that he and Virgil are still in hell by reporting his confusion as they pass the center of gravity at Satan's hip and Virgil turns head to foot: "si che 'n inferno i' credea tornar anche" (81). "Inferno"--the place to which Dante-pilgrim mistakenly thinks he is returning--and the place to which Dante is actually now going are clearly identified as two different locations. Then Dante-pilgrim goes on to describe the new setting in which he finds himself:
Non era camminata di palagio
la 'v' eravam, ma naturai burella
ch'avea mal suolo e di lume disagio.
(Inf. 34.97-99)

Finally, Virgil further clarifies this new location, correcting any doubts that Dante may still have, by explaining that although he believes he is still "di la dal centro" where Virgil gripped the fur of Satan, they have now arrived underneath the hemisphere that is opposite the one covered by land (that is, having revolved head to foot, they are now underneath the southern hemisphere), and that they are standing on a "picciola spera" which forms the other face of Judecca (the lowest division of hell, 34.106-117).

Thus Dante provides the reader with no fewer than three indications that the location of the poets is outside of hell before he utters the phrase "loco voto" that the common misreading of the passage identifies with the cone of hell itself. Is it plausible that Dante would report his mistake in thinking that he was "going back to hell" if a few lines later the "here" of the "loco voto" were again to refer to hell? Are the locations which Dante-pilgrim describes as "la 'v' eravam" and the "qui" of Virgil's "loco voto" two different places? Is it probable that the poet would confusingly change the meaning of his pilgrim's "where we were" and Virgil's "here" within a few dozen lines at a time in which the poets are not described as moving? After Virgil's clarification for Dante that they are now in the southern hemisphere, on a little sphere or circular space (21) opposite the pit of hell, could a reference to "qui" only eight lines later, plausibly refer to hell as a whole? Finally, the commentators agree that the word burella (used nowhere else in the poem) means something like "cellar" or "subterranean vault" (Singleton). Would this word be appropriately applied to the vastness of the whole of hell, one circle of which is imagined to be 22 miles in circumference (Inf. 29.9)?

When Virgil describes the "loco voto" caused by Satan, the place he refers to as "qui" cannot be the whole of hell, but only the smaller cavity immediately surrounding Satan's lower body and legs in which the poets are standing (see Figure 1). As the journey continues, Dante-pilgrim describes the most remote location of this "burella" (now called a "tomba," the tomb of Satan), where there is a passageway that leads upwards to the shore of purgatory:
Luogo e la giu da Belzebu remoto
tanto quanto la tomba si distende,
che non per vista, ma per suono e noto
d'un ruscelletto che quivi discende
per la buca d'un sasso, ch'elli ha roso,
col corso ch'elli avvolge, e poco pende.
(Inf. 34.127-132)

To summarise: a reader who wishes to believe Dante imagined Satan forming hell by his impact on the earth must make the following assumptions: 1) Dante departed from biblical authority and established church doctrine; 2) the part of the inscription on the gate of hell that speaks of God's creation pertains only to the gate itself, not to all of hell; 3) although Virgil speaks of hell as a "loco etterno" and although Dante believed only God can create things which are eternal, hell was the result of some kind of mediated creation; 4) the "qui" which Virgil utters as the poets stand in the "burella" beneath Satan's legs refers not to the "burella" but to hell in general; and 5) the "qui" of "lascio qui loco voto" does not refer to the same place as Dante's "1 'v' eravam" of two dozen lines earlier, despite the fact that the poets have not moved.

As pointed out at the beginning of this article, the perennial appeal of the view that Dante imagined Satan's fall forming hell is the satisfying relationship it establishes between the devil's rebellion and his punishment, the same irony famously expressed by Adam's exclamation in Paradise Lost: "That all this good of evil shall produce;/And evil turn to good; more wonderful" (12:470-471). Of course, the irony of Satan's fall creating "good" remains powerfully expressed in Dante's audacious conception of the origin of purgatory. But, as I hope the evidence presented here has demonstrated, a reading of Inferno XXXIV which ascribes the formation of hell to Satan's fall is one which teachers and scholars of Dante will in future need to forego. (22)


(1.) All quotations from the Commedia are from the Petrocchi edition (Alighieri, 1966-1967).

(2.) Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations from the commentators follow the notes on the relevant passage (Inf. 34.121-126) as presented in the Dartmouth Dante Project, conceived and co-directed by Robert Hollander, in collaboration with Stephen Campbell, Dartmouth College Computing Services, and Simone Marchesi.

(3.) Other early commentators who shared this view were the authors of L'Ottimo Commento (1338) and the Anonimo Fiorentino (1400?). On the other hand, Pietro Alighieri (1359) explains: "forsan ut fugeret ipsum luciferum ilia tantulla terra dicti mentis et eius insule Purgatorii cucurrit illuc et dimissit edam ilium locum vacuum ubi tunc auctor se fmgit fuisse remotum" (Alighieri, 1845). Benvenuto da Imola (1375-1380) summarizes Virgil's words as "terra montis purgatorii, quern ascendere volumus, lascio qui luogo voto, scilicet, istam viam foratam per quam exire volumus" (Benvenuto da Imola, 1887); and Francesco da Buti (1385-1395) asserts that the material where the devil now is "lascio lo luogo intorno al Lucifero vacuo" (Da Bud, 2001).

(4.) M Aurigemma's ardcle on "Inferno," 343, and A Ciotd's article on "Lucifero," 721.

(5.) N Sapegno's (1990: II, 92) article on "Dante Alighieri."

(6.) Ford (1986: 241-260). Ford draws attention to the biblical evidence for the creadon of hell by God in Matthew, points out the fact that according to the gate inscription hell is eternal and only things created by God last eternally, and devotes two-thirds of her article to a discussion of the time of the angels' creation and the theology of primary and mediated creation. Concerning the theological and commentary tradidon, she concludes, "Si limita a dire dunque che l'Inferno e opera della giustizia divina; che durera in eterno; che nessuna creatura temperaneo e corruttibile lo ha preceduto" (Forti, 1986: 246).

(7.) Ceserani (1998: 432): Dante "conceived the idea that Hell formed following the fall of Lucifer, when the infernal chasm opened right below the point where Christ was crucified"; Pertile (2007: 71): Satan "crashed down into the center of the earth, creating the crater of Hell that would contain all future sinners"; Barolini (2010: 475): "Dante's Hell is a hollow cone excavated by Lucifer's fall; the displaced matter became Mount Purgatory"; Morrison and Lansing (2010: 190): "Dante envisions Hell as an immense conical cavity--spanning from a point directly below Jerusalem to the center of Earth--which was formed when Lucifer and his angels were thrown from Heaven"; and Mazzetta (2014: 116): "Purgatory came into existence as Lucifer fell, causing the earth to tremble and retreat, thus causing the void that became Hades, the abyss, and the island of Purgatory, which emerges on the other side, in the southern hemisphere."

(8.) Dante "depicts Hell as a great funnel-shaped cavern formed when Lucifer fell from heaven. The land displaced as a result of the formation of Hell became Mount Purgatory" (Ruud, 2005: 186).

(9.) Of the 24 commentators in the period 1905-2003 whose notes on Inf. 34.124-126 are presented on the Dartmouth Dante site, 18 define the "loco voto" as the area immediately surrounding Satan's legs, four offer no comment, and only two seem to imply that Dante presents Satan's fall as forming hell. Ernesto Trucchi (1936) writes at first that "la terra centrale" was carved out by Lucifer, forming purgatory, but then goes on to assert more unambiguously "a tutto cio appare determinata l'origine e la ragion d'essere dell'Inferno, come dice il Carducci, con 'invenzione terribilmente meravigliosa per dinamica e morale sublimita." Likewise, Attilio Momigliano (1979) asserts that "la caduta di Lucifero, dunque, ha determinato la formazione dell'inferno e del purgatorio e scompaginato la consistenza stessa del globo."

(10.) This was the medieval understanding of the passage: "Vocat Nabuchodonosor vel diabolum... sub terra enim est inferus... unde Dominus vinctos suos emit, vinctum diabolum dimisit" (Biblia sacra, 1603: 4.162).

(11.) Chrysostom also notes in passing that God created human beings for heaven, and not that they should be cast into hell, "for this was made not for us, but for the devil" (Chrysostom, 1903: 1,9).

(12.) 5.417. "Widely diffused" is Christian Moevs' (2009: 18) phrase.

(13.) Dante seems to be echoing this verse of Isaiah in Beatrice's explanation of the rapidity of the angels' fall which "turbio il suggetto d'i vostri alementi" (Par. 29.53), The interpretation of the majority of commentators holds that "suggetto" refers to the earth (Hollander and Hollander, in Alighieri, 2007, comment on Par. 29.51); the disturbance Beatrice mentions most likely refers either to the lands of the southern hemisphere fleeing Satan's approach, to his excavating the "loco voto" immediately surrounding his body, or to both. See Forti's (1986: 246-257) discussion, in which she also deals with the related question of whether there was an interval between the angels' creation and the fall of Lucifer. Dante's implication that there was a count of 20 between the two events (Par. 29.49-51) departs from Aquinas' exposition in Summa Theolgiae 1.63.6, but, as Alison Cornish (2000: 119-141) has argued, this seeming contradiction is resolvable.

(14.) Giorgio Padoan (Alighieri, 1967): "GIUSTIZIA... FATTORE.... Ora, piu che la porta, parla l'Inferno stesso." Charles Singleton (Alighieri, 1970-1975): "Giustizia.... From this point on, the inscription speaks not simply for the gate but for Hell in its entirety."

(15.) Bosco and Reggio's view (Alighieri, 1979) accords with Pertile's concerning the gate: "Nelle linee centrali dell'iscrizione si afferma che la porta e opera diretta di Dio.... prima della porta Dio non aveva creato se non cose etterne (i cieli, gli angeli, gli elementi), ed essa stessa dura eterna" (note on Inf. 3.1-15). However, these commentators do not agree that Satan's fall formed hell. Concerning the displaced earth, they say: "II vuoto... lasciato nelle viscere della terra e appunto la grotta in cui i poeti si trovarono, una volta abbandonato il corpo di Lucifero" (note on Inf. 100-126).

(16.) To borrow an example that Barolini uses in a slightly different context, when the computer screen of the automatic teller says, "Sorry, I am temporarily out of service," what is out of service is the whole machine, not just the screen (Barolini, 1992: 279, n. 43).

(17.) Ecclesiastes (3.14): "omnia quae fecit Deus perseverant in aeternum." See also Convivio: "le cose incorruttibili, le quali ebbero da Dio cominciamento di creazione [...] non averanno fine" (II.xiv.U, text from the Princeton Dante Project). For a detailed discussion, see Joseph Anthony Mazzeo (1957: especially 708 and fn. 12).

(18.) Origen as well as, in Dante's own time, Duns Scotus believed that ultimately the punishments of hell would cease and even the fallen angels would be saved, but this view was rejected by orthodox medieval theology.

(19.) See, among many others, Augustine (1886: 21.13 and 16).

(20.) Forti limits herself to the flat assertion that the misreading has been advanced "a dispetto del testo stesso" (Forti, 1986: 241).

(21.) The exact nature of this "sfera" has caused disagreement among commentators. Some say the word refers to a flat disc, corresponding to the icy plain of Judecca on the other side of Satan's body (Leonardi, in Alighieri, 1991-1997): "spazio circolare piano"; Singleton (Alighieri, 1970-1975): "small disc"). Dante calls the "sfera" picciolo because, like Judecca, it is smaller than the other divisions of hell. Others, Bosco and Reggio, for example, take the word literally. In this latter interpretation, the "sphere" would be identical with the "burella" and "loco voto" referred to before and after this passage. In either case, the location specified by Virgil is not part of hell itself.

(22.) The author would like to thank Massimo Verdicchio for advice and encouragement in the preparation of this study, along with former PKU student Ms Lin Boya for her depiction of the situation of Dante and Virgil in the "loco voto."


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Thomas Rendali

School of Foreign Languages, Peking University, China

Corresponding author:

Thomas Rendali, School of Foreign Languages, Peking University, New Foreign Languages Building, Beijing 100871, China.


DOI: 10.1177/0014585818812410
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Title Annotation:Article
Author:Rendall, Thomas
Publication:Forum Italicum
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:May 1, 2019
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