Avoiding Fraudulent Flight: Dante’s Journey in the Alto Passo

Reading Time: 16 minutes

By Zach Watters, Yale University

In Dante’s Inferno, Virgil takes the pilgrim where he does not want to go. After being rescued from besetting beasts in his ascent out of the dark wood, Dante the pilgrim finds himself descending, intentionally, into the depths of Hell. The pilgrim, however, is not the only character in the Inferno whose dangerous ascent precipitates an even more dangerous fall. Throughout the later cantos, the myth of Icarus appears by way of allusion several times. Something is markedly different, though, between the pilgrim’s and Icarus’ journey into the deep. I argue that, by alluding to the Icarus myth in the context of several key characters, Dante creates a foil for the pilgrim’s descent into Hell. 

When Dante finds himself lost in the dark wood, he naturally looks for higher ground: “like one with laboring breath… so my spirit… turned back to gaze again at the pass that has never yet left anyone alive… I took my way again along that deserted slope.” However, it is on this ascent that he is waylaid by ferocious animals and forced back “to where the sun is silent.” Dante the pilgrim loses all hope for “reaching the heights.” While retreating, Dante is rescued by his “master and author,” Virgil. The Latin poet asks Dante, bewildered, “why do you return to so much suffering? Why do you not climb the delightful mountain that is origin and cause of all joy?” To Virgil, Dante seems, for reasons as yet unclear, complicit in his suffering, for he is in fact returning to the “pass that has never yet left anyone alive” instead of going up the mountain. Why does Virgil accuse the pilgrim? Is he not trying to leave the place of suffering? Is he not trying to climb a mountain? Virgil counsels the pilgrim by telling him that if he wants to escape from this “savage place,” he must “hold to another path.” What other path might Dante follow, who wishes to reach the heights? Virgil’s answer is not intuitive. After warning Dante of the she-wolf from Hell, Virgil proposes that Dante follow him to where he “will hear the desperate shrieks… see the ancient suffering spirits, who all cry out at the second death.” In other words, Virgil proposes to take Dante down and away from the heights he desires to reach. He proposes absolute descent. Virgil offers hope, though, when he says that after the descent, he will reach the blessed people, “to whom then if you shall wish to rise, there will be a soul more worthy of that than I.” This rising seems to refer to the “delightful mountain” Virgil has just mentioned, but somehow, it will only come after Dante has walked away from the mountain he is climbing now and descended deeper than the “pass that has never yet left anyone alive.” Thus, by leading him back down lo passo, Virgil leads Dante on a literal contrapasso, where he must turn around and walk away from his original orientation, the heights of the steep slope, in order to rise to the delightful mountain. The contrapasso on which Virgil leads the pilgrim is not, over the course of the Inferno, an obviously redemptive motion like the ones so evident in Purgatorio. The souls walking up the mountain there endure their suffering while heading towards Paradise. Here, however, the only obvious destination for Virgil and the pilgrim is the bottom of Hell. The contrapasso seems nothing more than a journey away from the mountain. 

Yet, paradox of the contrapasso is hinted even at the beginning of the pilgrim’s infernal journey. Before he enters the gate of Hell, Dante calls this journey “alto passo” and “alto e silvestro.” The word, alto, which is translated as “deep” in both contexts, encompasses both height and depth, and so Dante’s descent is already characterized by this paradox. His journey is both high and deep. By descending, he will somehow ascend. Dante’s paradoxical relationship to the heights is compounded by the poet’s invocation of his high wit, or “alto ingegno”, to aid him in remembering his journey. Further, even the shades in Hell recognizes that the pilgrim is led through the “blind prison” because of his “altezza d’ingegno.” The polysemous allusions to the heights show that Dante is no stranger to climbing high, but his initially aborted journey up the mountain bespeaks his ambivalence towards some aspect of that climb, which is not yet clear.

Dante’s ambivalent relationship to the heights is magnified by repeated allusions to the Icarus myth. The first appearance is in Canto seventeen. Dante and Virgil are in transition between the seventh circle of violence and the eighth circle of fraud, and the two circles are separated by a chasm of “thick dark air.” The only way across the chasm is to fly, mounted upon a “figure… fearful to the most confident heart,” named Geryon. The canto begins with Virgil exclaiming, “Behold the beast with the pointed tail… Behold the one that makes the whole world stink!” Geryon has the face of a man with the torso of a serpent, hairy paws and tail with an armed tip like a scorpion. This creature is the “filthy image of fraud.” When Dante first ascends the beast, he is gripped by terror. He positions himself upon the “monstrous shoulders” and when Geryon flies, he says, “I believe there was no greater fear… when the wretched Icarus felt his loins unfeathering because of the heated wax, as his father shouted to him, ‘You’re on a bad course!’ than was mine, when I saw that I was in the air on every side, and every sight put out save that of the beast.” Though some of his fear is directed towards the beast, he is most afraid “of falling, for I saw fires and heard weeping.” Even though Dante had intended to climb up the mountain, and even though he calls upon his high wit to help him remember the journey, Dante is terrified of flying. However, this flight, like the ascent up his ultimate destination, the delightful mountain, is also a descent. Virgil tells Dante that on Geryon, “we descend by stairs like these.” Geryon is part of the alto passo, which is a journey of both height and depth. This time, Dante must ascend in order to descend, fly high in order to go deep. 

In the air, Dante compares himself to the “wretched Icarus” (Icaro misero) at the moment the winged climber realizes his hubristic high-flying is his undoing. To add to the terror, Dante imagines Icarus hearing his father tell him that he is not on the right path. This scene is familiar to Dante the pilgrim. When ascending the hill of the dark wood he “looked on high [in alto] and saw its shoulders clothed already with the rays of the planet”, and he turns back to the “perilous water and stares,” his spirit “still fleeing, turned back to gaze again at the pass [passo] that has never yet left anyone alive.” Here, as in the chasm before Malebolge, Dante is afraid of the deep. The difference, however, is that in the first canto, Dante desires to ascend the shoulders of the hill, whereas he can barely give his assent to climbing the “monstrous shoulders” of Geryon. In the dark wood, Dante’s high climb bares hope, and only when he is obstructed by the beasts of the forest is he prevented from going further. The most notable similarity is that, like the words of Icarus’ father at the moment of catastrophe, Dante’s crisis in the dark wood is followed by Virgil telling him, “you must hold to another path.” Dante’s ascent, like Icarus’, is fraught with a danger which behooves a father and guide to re-direct him. Although, Dante’s re-direction in the dark wood does not come too late, as it does for Icarus. Perhaps Dante is saved because he says something that Icarus does not: “Miserere on me.” Dante utters the confessional words of the Psalmist, and so confesses that his path upwards has landed him in a deadly locale. 

While it is not yet clear what ascending the hill in the first canto might mean to Dante the poet, the imagery of his flight upon the back of Geryon is more transparent. The pilgrim is flying upon the frightening image of fraud. Geryon’s brightly colored torso is reminiscent of the “gaily painted hide” of the leopard, one of the beasts that waylay the pilgrim’s journey up the hill. Perhaps, then, one of the dangers which beset upon Dante’s initial, attempted ascent is the threat of fraud. Geryon might also shed light on how Dante understands the Icarus’ failed flight. Icarus and his father imitate what they are not when they fly, but Daedalus at least has the sense to stay low while doing it. Icarus, on the other hand, has no qualms about reaching the heights by means which are not naturally his. Perhaps, Icarus is an exemplary fraud. Though Dante is terrified to ride upon Geryon’s back, with Virgil’s help, he does not imitate Icarus’ fraudulent flight but rather tames the beast, to a certain extent. Virgil tells Geryon to “make your wheelings large, your descent slow: consider the new weight you carry.” In other words, Geryon must not circle too large or descend too slowly. Rather, he must fly in media, the Daedalian advice which Icarus disobeyed by flying too high. The impetus for Virgil’s request is that Geryon is carrying a new weight. The pilgrim, unlike those who normally mount Geryon, is not a fraud. Or at least, he is a fraud on the mend who is learning to curb the arc of his wheelings, descents, and, with respect to Icarus, ascents. The poetic pilots’ successful flight in media is marked by Geryon’s “disdain and spite” when alighting upon the ground, and the alacrity with which he shoots away from his striders “like the notch from the bowstring.” Dante the pilgrim, unlike Icarus, is learning not to climb the heights of fraud. 

Geryon’s flight is not the last time that the poet alludes to a flight gone wrong. When Dante pilgrim and Virgil descend to the eighth bolgia, where dwell the counselors of fraud in war, the poet opens the canto with a caustic address to the comparably hellish city: “Rejoice, Florence, since you are so great that on sea and land you beat your wings, and your name spreads through Hell!” In a sardonic parody of joyful tidings for Jerusalem, the poet addresses the city whose winged infamy flies throughout its native Hell. Here, Dante takes a step towards his converted orientation of the pilgrim, when considering what he saw, he reins in his ingegno more than is his custom, “that it may not run without virtue guiding it.” Dante the poet talks about his genius, or wit, as something to be tamed by the guiding of virtue. Like the pilgrim’s flight on Geryon’s back, Dante deprives his wit from too large a wheeling in obedience to the Aristotelian dictum, in media virtus. The reason for this self-control is so that “if a good star or something better has given me what is good, I may not deprive myself of it.” If he were to let his wit fly unimpeded, Dante might lose Fortune’s gift of what is good. Such restraint is central to the canto, literally. The line at the exact center contains Virgil’s admonition: “see that your tongue restrain itself” when speaking to Ulysses, whose conversation in this bolgia the pilgrim asks for with flaming desire. Ulysses, because of his angry fraud, is punished by burning in the flame that burns him inwardly. The pilgrim obeys Virgil’s command because Ulysses’ speech fills the rest of the canto. Ulysses tells him, nothing “could conquer within me the ardor that I had to gain experience of the world and of human vices and worth.” This desire causes Ulysses to set out on a journey familiar to the pilgrim’s, a journey out on l’alto. Ulysses’ journey begins with coming upon Hercules’ warning at the straights of Gibraltar: “so that one should not go further; on the right hand I had left Seville, on the other I had already left Ceuta.” Ulysses is faced with the same Daedalian warning given to Icarus to journey in media

Ulysses rouses the courage of his companions by reminding them that they are not “made to live like brutes, but to follow virtue and knowledge.” Dante began the canto by reining in his wit and submitting it to virtue. Here, Ulysses also invokes virtue. However, his invocation appears in the middle of a rallying cry to go further, the very thing that the warning says not to do. Once permitted, his crew members are so zealous for the voyage that Ulysses “could hardly have held them back.” Clearly, what Ulysses means by virtue is not what Dante means by virtue, because it is being invoked as a principle for opposite kinds of action. The difference between the two is highlighted by another allusion to Icarus. Ulysses, narrating his fateful decision to carry on, says, “we made wings for the mad flight, always gaining on the left side.” Ulysses is another Icarus. He ignores the warning to stay in the middle and goes on a mad flight in the alto. By gaining on the left side, whatever the poet’s intended meaning for it might be, Ulysses’ journey is uneven and not submitted to the virtuous mean. 

Ulysses’ journey continues to be reminiscent of Dante’s and Icarus’ journey. Ulysses and his companions enter the alto passo, like the deep pass on which the pilgrim embarks at the end of the first canto, and they come upon a mountain which seems higher (alta) than any Ulysses has seen. Ulysses and his companions seem to have arrived at the heights, like the delightful mountain, and his “mad flight” has been vindicated. The company “rejoiced, but it quickly turned to weeping.” A whirlwind turns the ship so much its prow sinks while its stern rises, eventually taking the whole ship to its watery grave. Ulysses’ company is taken down by a beast which comes from the heights, and his ship sinks by one end rising higher than the other, a natural consequence of the ship being thrown off balance, or the ship’s virtuous mean. The response of the sailors whose joy turns into weeping, like Florence, is a parodic inversion of the joyful tidings to the holy city: “Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her…” Unlike the holy city Jerusalem, whose mourning turns into joy, Ulysses and Florence, both winged, fly from joy into mourning. The cause of turning consolation into desolation in this rung of Hell, similar to the seventeenth canto, is the counseling of fraud. The most ostensible occasion of Ulysses’ presence in this rung is his “deceit of the horse that made the gate to send forth the Romans’ noble seed.” However, Ulysses’ rousing speech to set out into the deep is also a deception, a counsel of fraud, which deceives both his men and himself. He says that going out beyond the straits is an act of virtue, and to stay behind would be to live “like brutes.” The consequences are to suffer the same fate as the fraudulent Icarus. Ulysses, then, is not only like Icarus, but by not reining in his wit and staying within the virtuous mean, he also takes others with him. He convinces others to participate in his fraud. Dante, on the other hand, by learning to control his genius, protects those who might be exposed to his alto ingegno

A third allusion to Dante’s winged foil appears in Canto twenty-nine. Dante and Virgil have arrived in the tenth bolgia of the fraudulent, where linger those punished for falsification. The falsifiers that Dante encounters in this canto are the fraudulent alchemists. Here, the spirits languish in heaps, laying on top of each other, using their nails to tear off their own scabrous skin. The pilgrim prompts one scaly soul to tell his story: 

I was from Arezzo, and Albero of Siena… sent me to the fire; but what I died for is not what leads me here. It is true that I told him, joking: ‘I could raise myself through the air in flight’: and he, who had eagerness but little sense, wanted me to show him the art; and only because I did not make him Daedalus, he had me burned by one who loved him as a son. But to the last pocket of the ten, for alchemy, which I practiced in the world, Minos damned me, who may not err.

The former alchemist, identified as Griffolino, takes care to note that the cause of his earthly condemnation is incongruous with his eternal damnation. Whereas he is in the tenth bolgia for fraudulent alchemy, he was killed because of overweening humor for the wrong audience. Yet, given his jesting self-comparison with Icarus, a fraud par excellence, his earthly end may have been more congruous than he realizes. In fact, Griffolino’s punishment is ironic. He pretends to be Icarus, refuses to make Albero a Daedalus, and then is imprisoned in Hell by Minos, whose labyrinth failed to hold the original Daedalus and Icarus. Though Griffolino mocks Albero for not having a sense of humor, he fails to notice the dark humor in his own punishment. Perhaps, Griffolino’s bumptious attitude towards alchemy may have led Albero to trust in his capacity for the preternatural. Indeed, Albero might be right that flight and fraudulent alchemy are not so dissimilar. Like Icarus’ dash towards the heavens, an alchemist like Griffolino has no qualms about being “an ape… of nature.” Both practice a form of imitation that crosses some boundary through hubris. Icarus and Daedalus make an art of imitating the flight of birds. Griffolino makes an art of imitating chemical change. Dante is clearly not against imitation in general, though, as he reminds the reader directly after Griffolino’s anecdote by calling Virgil the poeta. As has been seen, Daedalus’ imitation manages to fly in the virtuous mean between the heights and the depth, whereas Icarus trespasses. 

The fraudulent alchemists have trespassed because their imitations are falsifications, just like Griffolino’s joke. Their imitations are not real, and they know it. In this aspect, the fraud found here is the worst that Dante has encountered because it is so calculated, which is only highlighted by Griffolino’s disdain for his executor, Albero, who has “eagerness but little sense.” Griffolino, on the other hand, is all wit and sense. Furthermore, Griffolino’s deceptive joke falls directly under biblical censure, which condemns the man “who deceives his neighbor and says, ‘I am only joking!’” He lies to his neighbor and then lies about lying. Even if Griffolino’s intentions behind the joke were purely whimsical, he does not measure his audience, and therefore his wit still flies too high for the context. Griffolino, then, like Icarus and Ulysses, does not rein in his wit, but even more condemnably, he uses it to deceive intentionally, both as an alchemist and as a jester. 

Dante encounters one last character who resembles Icarus. In the final canto, Dante must arm himself with courage to behold Satan, the one from whom all grieving proceeds. The “emperor of the dolorous kingdom” is suspended in the ice with three faces, each devouring a traitor against God and against the state. Satan is a winged creature; and Dante has seen these many times before. Satan has six great wings because he belongs to the angelic choir of seraphim, the ‘burning ones,’ the highest and closest choir to God. Satan has flown higher than any other creature, and his nature was to burn with the fire of God’s love. Yet, here he dwells, inert, stuck in the ice without flight. Virgil tells the pilgrim that Satan “fell down from Heaven; and the dry land, which previously extended over here, for fear of him took the sea as a veil.” Satan, a great-winged seraph meant to burn with God’s love, fell down from the sky. The sea veils him from the sight of Heaven, like Ulysses and his companions, for whom the “sea had closed over us.” Though the poet does not explicitly tell Satan’s story, it is sufficiently suggestive that he describes Satan with parodic imagery of the Trinity while painting him as the source of all grieving. This imagery suggests that Satan had tried to mimic the Trinity and it went drastically wrong. 

Beneath each of Satan’s faces protrude “two great wings, such as befitted so great a bird: sea-going sails I never saw so large. They did not have feathers; their mode was like a bat’s; and he was fanning them, so that three winds went out from him: by them Cocytus was frozen.” The poet compares Satan’s wings to a great bird, a sea-going sail, and the featherless wings of a bat. These comparisons are evocative of some of the great winged pretenders the pilgrim has encountered in his journey through the alto passo. Satan, too, tried to fly too high. He has the wings of a great bird, like Icarus. They are sea-going sails, like the ship of Ulysses. His imitation of the Trinity is an “ape… of nature,” a cruel and deceptive joke, like Griffolino. Similar to the high-flyers of the upper levels, Satan is a fraud; and his audacious flight is the most fraudulent of all because he tried to be God. Since it is from Satan, though, that all grieving proceeds, the upper levels must be re-read as imitations of him, and not the other way around. In fact, the ice of Cocytus is cooled by the fanning wind of Satan’s wings, showing that his only use for what was once the instrument of flight is now to issue forth grief on all Hell’s souls. The pilgrim, here, sees an even more terrifying example of the destruction he witnessed with Griffolino’s fraud. The alchemist had used his high wit to deceive others, and now Satan uses his wings to torture the souls frozen in Cocytus. Again, the causality here must be seen as coming from Satan, whose evil use of the alto ingegno is in some sense causative of Griffolino’s deceptive wit. Similarly, Satan’s sea-going sails issue forth Ulysses’ corrupt understanding of virtue, which he thinks means to “gain experience of the world and of human vices and worth.” Satan is also the source of Icarus’ grieving. The son of Daedalus disobeys his father’s admonition and so plummets. Satan was the first one to disobey the words of his Father, maker, and the artisan of his instruments of flight. 

Nonetheless, Virgil still leads the pilgrim further down. In a recapitulation of the entire descent through Hell, Virgil leads him down the very body of Satan. The pilgrim clings to the neck of his leader in childlike surrender, and they wait for the moment when Satan’s “wings [are] fully open.” In other words, they must wait for when the full force of grievous pride is ready to issue forth, when they are at the nadir of the alto passo’s deathly threat, and then, like the monstrous shoulders of Geryon, they must mount another beast. In a mirror-image of the pilgrim’s ascent in the first canto, where he climbed like one with “laboring breath” and “turns back to gaze,” Virgil now takes the compliant pilgrim, and “with labor and difficulty, turned his head to where he had his shanks, and clung to the pelt like one who climbs.” Virgil repeats here a sentiment similar to his speech on the back of Geryon when he says, “Hold fast, for by such stairs… must we depart from so much evil.” Virgil and Dante must descend the very center and source of all evil in a consummation of Dante’s contrapasso, his journey down the alto passo which leads him to where he does not want to go. 

Here, though, is where the paradox of Dante’s descent in alto first starts to make sense to the pilgrim. While climbing down Satan’s furry side, he passes beyond the midpoint of Satan’s body and is disoriented by the sight he sees: “I raised my eyes, thinking to see Lucifer as I had left him, and I saw that he extended his legs upward.” The pilgrim is confused and asks, “Where is the ice? And he, how is he fixed so upside down? And how, in so little time, has the sun made the passage from evening to morning?” Virgil answers that in passing the midpoint of Satan’s body, they had passed the center of the earth, “the point toward which the weights all move from every direction,” and onto the other hemisphere. In climbing down Satan’s body, the pilgrim began a true ascent. The contrapasso has now turned into a walk in the direction that Dante has always wanted to go. He may now go up; he may now journey towards the true heights; he is now set towards the delightful mountain. This consummation of Dante’s reorientation is confirmed when, right after passing the midpoint, Virgil tells him, “Rise up… on your feet; the way is long and the path is difficult, and already the sun has reached mid-tierce.” Whereas the descent of Icarus, Ulysses, Griffolino, and Satan leads to death, Dante’s descent leads to a rising again, a resurrection. Though the journey is still going to be difficult, this time, the pilgrim’s path is under the sun. Why has the pilgrim been spared the fate of Icarus and all his exemplars? Because he chose the contrapasso. Rather than continue his initial ascent out of the dark wood, where the dangers were many, Dante follows Virgil downwards, trusting that this descent would lead, paradoxically, towards the heights he desires. Icarus flew high, and fell down. The pilgrim has gone down, and now he is raised up. 

The heights that Dante avoids at the beginning could mean many things. One of the possibilities examined here has been fraud. Each of Dante’s winged foils who chase the alto passo are examples of fraud. They pretend to be what they are not, they deceive others to do the same, and they injure others in doing so, all because they carelessly use the alto ingegno that the poet and the pilgrim slowly learn to wield carefully. A corroborative etymological clue is that in Dante’s Italian, the word for feather and the word for pen are the same: penne. When re-read through this polyvalence, each of the characters examined are also foils for Dante the poet. Their feathered flight is unwieldy and presumptuous in a way that the poet, who reins in his high wit and submits it to virtue, is trying desperately to avoid. Satan, the paragon of presumption, is himself a winged creature who does “not have feathers.” The consequence of flying too high for the poet may be similar to Satan’s fate; he may lose his penne, the instrument by which he uses his alto ingegno, and descend into the grieving silence. If the poet allows his alto ingegno to trespass the virtuous mean, he too can be guilty of fraud. In fact, his fraud may produce the deception from which grieving proceeds. Whether the poet successfully flies in media virtutis is not, of course, within the scope of this paper, but the polyvalent concern shared between the poet and pilgrim illuminates the fraudulent heights which Dante seeks to avoid. 

The descent of the pilgrim is a contrapasso because Virgil leads him where he does not want to go, but only in order to reorient him towards his true destination. Dante’s descent is parodied by the high-flying Icarus, whose story is exemplified in the flight on Geryon’s back, the voyage of Ulysses, the bitter joke of Griffolino, and the featherless wings of Satan. In each of these characters, the allusions to Icarus portray the very fraud that Dante seeks to avoid. As the Icarus myth is inflected by each character’s circumstances, the evil of fraud is shown to be pretentious, deceptive, and injurious. Dante the pilgrim avoids the high-flying hubris of Icarus by choosing virtue instead of fraud, to descend the alto passo and thereby to ascend the delightful mountain. 

Works Cited

Alighieri, Dante. Inferno. Translated by Robert M. Durling. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

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