Robert Hollander
(Princeton University)
5 July 2013

The Trouble with Ciacco

Before he resumes his customary role, the protagonist's guide is silent from Inferno 5.111 until 6.106. This silence contrasts with a more usual verbal presence – Virgil had spoken some two hundred and forty verses in the roughly four cantos of poetic space between Inferno 1.66 and 5.78. In each of the following episodes, those involving Francesca and Ciacco, the reader is abandoned by the poet to draw his or her own conclusions about the nature of the "correct" response to these two particular sinners.

In Inferno 6, all the first contributing details lead us to believe that the sinner whom we meet amidst such squalid surroundings must be squalid himself. However, our author has turned the tables on us. While Francesca is allowed, at least to a certain degree, to surmount her physical condition (if flying around hell forever in the company of the man with whom you lost your chance at heaven is hardly what most of us would choose for our eternities), Ciacco and his co-gluttons are seen in what, many will concur, is one of the most disgusting situations of any group of sinners in hell. The stinking downpour that sluices eternally down on him and on his colleagues in gluttony puts some commentators in mind of vomit.[1]

This study will examine only briefly what has become perhaps the most problematic aspect of Ciacco’s canto, the debate over his name. Was this his orthographically-derived nickname or a coinage of scornful intent, based on the Florentine vernacular for "pig"? That is, was his actual name, probably Jacopo (or possibly Giacomo, as some have suggested), simply transformed to "Ciacco," without any necessarily negative piggish implications? Or are we supposed to make out in that nickname a clear porcine resonance? Further, whatever the actual circumstance, what did Dante hear in the appellation? Whether Ciacco's acquaintances were only using what they took for a shortened form of his Christian name or whether they were knowingly following a local tradition that associated him with piggishness is not knowable. Further, it is at least possible that Dante is merely repeating the nickname as he had heard it from others and without knowing whether its at least possible nasty reference was intended by its users. It is conceivable that Ciacco was the object of a demeaning sobriquet of which the poet was unaware; it is equally possible that Ciacco was merely a shortened version of his name, while the poet was indeed aware of the possibility of the porcine reference it bears. We hear the name twice (at vv. 52 and 58), first as the character identifies himself ("Voi cittadini mi chiamaste Ciacco") and then as the protagonist calls out to him: "Ciacco, il tuo affanno /  mi pesa sì, ch'a lagrimar mi 'nvita." While we may imagine that Ciacco's self-identification is rueful, remembering his only fitting vernacular tag, his old friend's use of the name – whatever its origin – seems without any negative feeling.[2] In any case, while it seems possible, even probable, that Dante was aware that the nickname of his dead friend (the first former acquaintance whom the protagonist meets in the afterworld) was the equivalent of "Piggy" or "Hogface," we cannot be certain that such was the case; further, Dante may have been aware of the gross origin of the nickname, but both poet and protagonist think of it and of its bearer in kindly terms, if with less sympathy than the protagonist displays for Francesca.[3] In any case, even if we could be sure that the poet thought of "Ciacco" as an essentially insulting pig-derived nickname (as I happen to believe he did), it is nonetheless clear that the character is treated in a perhaps – given his situation and the grossness of his punishment – surprisingly positive light. Campi (1888-93, comm. 6.52-54) briefly reviews the history of the question of Ciacco's name and then resolves it as follows: "chi lo tiene per corruzione del nome proprio Jacopo, e chi per soprannome e sinonimo di porco; e sto per quest'ultimo intendimento, parendomi chiaramente espresso dal chiamaste Ciacco." One understands the drift of this thought: his fellow Florentines called Jacopo not by that name but by his porcine nickname. On the other hand, could not his use of the past definite indicate that Ciacco is remembering his time on earth, when he was happy to be recognized by his Florentine nickname, Ciacco, short for Giacomo, and without any piggish implication? I confess I lean strongly toward the other interpretation, but insist that we really do not have the grounds on which to base a final decision.

This configuration, that of the "contrastive neighbors" Francesca and Ciacco, is repeated at least once more in the Inferno, with Ulysses and Guido da Montefeltro (Inf. 26 and 27).[4] Like Francesca, Ulysses has enjoyed a "good press" – certainly among Romantic readers and into our own time. In the run-up to the scene, it is notable that Virgil, as guide, refers to both of these two sinners who are wrapped in flame, Ulysses and Diomedes (Inf. 26.55-63, 74-75, 79-83), if he eventually calls on one of them to speak rather than the other (26.83-84). Once Ulysses begins to speak, however, Diomedes is never mentioned again (26.85-142). Ulysses cares little for anyone but himself; his "brothers" ("O frati," he remembers calling out to them [27.112]) are in fact only dear to him as pliers of oars. This positive use of the noun "frate" as a vocative is unique in Inferno, although it becomes a key word in the direct addresses of Purgatorio (where it appears nine times) and in Paradiso (where it enjoys five such appearances).[5] It is used by Ulysses as part of his "con" to encourage his nameless shipmates to row him toward venturesome discovery. This is not the place to offer my non-Romantic reading of Ulysses, along with Francesca a much-loved and supposedly sympathetic figure. For example, according to Francesco De Sanctis, Dante has created in Ulysses "a statue to this precursor of Christopher Columbus, a pyramid set in the mud of hell."[6] Suffice it to say that we by now ought to have learned to see through Ulysses, whose self-praising bluster may sound like heroism to many readers, but which, examined carefully, turns out in fact to be vainglorious bravado, thoroughly fitting in one found at this depth of hell. What of Guido? Unlike Ulysses (and like Ciacco), he is straightforward about the nature of his sin. Where Ciacco had confessed to "la dannosa colpa de la gola" (the pernicious fault of gluttony –  Inf.  6.53), Guido similarly identifies himself as a sinner, one who had offered up "consiglio frodolente" (27.116). The precision of these two self-describing and honest revelations set Ciacco and Guido apart from many of their colleagues in eternal punishment. They at least know and own up to the crimes they had committed and were condemned for. I am not arguing that we readers are supposed to feel sympathy for either of them in their eternal punishment, only that their honesty is sharply contrastive when we look back to consider the comportment of both their predecessors, Francesca and Ulysses, who somehow never allow themselves to communicate the reason for their presence in hell. In Francesca's case, it was apparently the fault of another that she had sinned, the god of Love (V.100-106) and/or that damnable author of a French romance (5.124-138). Further, she claims that her husband will occupy the deepest part of hell (5.107) and thus, a reader is asked to believe, was guilty of a more heinous crime than she and Paolo. It would have been easy enough for the poet to have confirmed this claim, when he described that zone, had he mentioned one of its future tenants, thus potentially valorizing Francesca's right to our sympathy. He did not choose to do so. As for Ulysses, he employs words for "I" or "me" or "mine" a total of eleven times in his first twenty-two verses (91-112). It is difficult not to grasp the poet's strategy in this respect; nonetheless, most readers even today prefer a nobler portrait of this figure and so supply it, despite our poet's craft in constructing this heroic confidence man, one capable of leading his companions to their deaths without feeling much by way of acknowledgment of having done so.

Francesca and Ulysses (along with perhaps Farinata and Cavalcante, Pier delle Vigne, Brunetto, and Ugolino) are among the most beloved of Dante's sinners. I have long ago tried to argue that the poet has organized the parade of sinners and their sins that is Inferno in five cycles of pity and fear, in which these "sympathetic sinners" test the developing moral resolve of the protagonist (and of the reader) as the poem describes a descent into this underworld of sinners.[7] This is an attempt to broaden that understanding by demonstrating that Ciacco, for all his filth, is preferable, on at least one ground --his honesty-- to his apparently more attractive neighbor.

[1] See Robert Dombrowski, "The Grain of Hell: A Note on Retribution in Inferno VI," Dante Studies 88 (1970): 103-8, for the notion that the hellish downpour takes, as its central and antithetic model, the manna promised by God to Moses in the Bible (Exodus 16:4): "Ecce ego pluam vobis panes de caelo" (Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you). See, for a similar view, Simone Marchesi, "'Epicuri de grege porcus': Ciacco, Epicurus and Isidore of Seville," Dante Studies 117 (1999): 117-31, citing, for the history of interpretation of this scene, José Blanco Jimenez, "Rassegna bibliografica su 'Voi cittadini mi chiamaste Ciacco'," Critica letteraria 14 (1977): 148-55.

[2] Perhaps the attempt to resolve this problem that is most sympathetic to Ciacco is the one offered by Grabher (1934, comm. 6.52 [cited, as are other commentators, from the DDP]): "[D]ice il Buti che secondo 'alquanti... è nome di porco'; ma Dante, che dimentica in Ciacco il goloso per farne una figura tanto più seria, non poteva chiamarlo così, tanto più che egli stesso pronuncerà il nome di lui in un tono pieno di pietà al v. 58: 'Ciacco, il tuo affanno' [...]. Dunque è nome di persona."

[3] I find that I am in essential agreement with Scartazzini (1872-82, comm. 6.59): "Mi pesa: mi rammarica tanto che mi induce a piangere. Ciacco merita compassione avendo avuto delle buone qualità; vedi il passo del Boccaccio nella nota al v. 52. Ma questa compassione non è tanto affettuosa come quella che il poeta sentiva per l'infelice Francesca. Più i due poeti vanno in giù, e più la compassione di Dante va scemando."

[4] Farinata and Cavalcante (Inf. 10), Pier delle Vigne and Capaneus (Inf. 13 & 14), Ugolino and Branca d'Oria (Inf. 33) offer other possible pairings of a similar kind but, in my opinion, less notably than do Ulysses and Guido.

[5] See Hollander (2003, comm. Purg. 4.127 & 19.133). And see the negative use at Inf. 28.109.

[6] Storia della letteratura italiana, 4th ed. (Bari: Laterza, 1949 [1870], 201-2); my translation.

[7] See Allegory in Dante's "Commedia" (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 301-7).