by Alyssa Granacki

In Inferno 31, Dante descends from the eighth to the ninth (and final) circle of Hell. Connecting these two circles are a ring of Giants whom Dante initially misidentifies as towers: “I’d only turned my head there briefly when/ I seemed to make out many high towers” [Poco portai in là volta la testa/ che me parve veder molte alte torri] (Inf.31.19-20). Virgil corrects Dante, but the architectural motif continues throughout the canto. In one instance, Dante compares the giant Antaeus to Bologna’s Garisenda tower (Inf.31.136-141):

Just as the Garisenda seems when seen
beneath the leaning side, when clouds run past
and it hangs down as if about to crash,
so did Antaeus seem to me as I
watched him bend over me—a moment when
I’d have preferred to take some other road.

Qual pare a riguardar la Carisenda
sotto ’l chinato, quando un nuvol vada
sovr’ essa sì, ched ella incontro penda:
tal parve Antëo a me che stava a bada
di vederlo chinare, e fu tal ora
ch’i’ avrei voluto ir per altra strada.

Due Torri, Bologna Italy. Juan Antonio Segal. CC 2.0. Available via Flickr.

This accurate and evocative description of the Garisenda suggests that Dante had likely seen the tower in person. Through the mention of a historical landmark, Dante grounds his otherworldly journey in the material world he shared with his readers. Today, the Garisenda – alongside the Asinelli tower – still stands in Bologna’s historic center, leaning just as Dante described. In fact, the two towers [due torri] now serve as a symbol of the city itself. At the time of Dante’s composition of the Divine Comedy, about one hundred similar towers would have dotted the city’s landscape, each a statement of the power and influence of the family that financed its construction.

Medieval Bologna, full of towers, as imagined by Toni Pecoraro. Engraving, 2012. CC 3.0. Available via Wikimedia.

Dante understood the political and social significance of these towers. His reference to the Garisenda not only crafts a vivid image, but also invokes the concerns about power, pride, and politics that permeate the Inferno. Additionally, Dante mentions the fall of the Tower of Babel, an episode that reminds the reader of the dangers of human hubris. A parallel emerges between the ancient collapse of community represented by the Tower of Babel and the political and social divisions of Dante’s day. These allusions lead us to the final circle as well, where Dante meets the sinners who betrayed their social ties – kin, country, and benefactors.

The Garisenda also appears in an early sonnet of Dante’s, Non mi poriano zamai far emenda, commonly known as ‘Sonnet for the Garisenda.’ The earliest attestation of this poem (which is also the earliest surviving example of Dante’s poetry) is found in the Memoriali Bolognesi (1287), the official records of Bologna’s government. Between legal transactions and contracts in Latin, vernacular poetry fills the blank space of these pages, presumably inserted to prevent illegitimate changes to the existing documentation. The presence of the “Sonnet for the Garisenda” in such an archive speaks to the role that the professional, urban classes – such as merchants and notaries – played in the diffusion and development of Dante’s poetry (Steinberg). Dante himself may have accessed the poetry of his contemporaries in similar record or register books.

Non mi poriano zamai, from Memoriali Bolognesi. Archivio di Stato di Bologna. © All rights reserved.

The sonnet and its presence in the Memoriali Bolognesi also affirm Dante’s connections with Bologna’s poetic tradition and its poets (such as Guido Guinizelli who appears in Purgatory 26). In the Memoriali Bolognesi, the sonnet appears in the Bolognese dialect (a Florentine version can be found in other fourteenth century manuscripts). The transcription is attributed to Enrichetto delle Querce, a Bolognese notary who would later serve as an ambassador to the Republic of Florence.

In his sonnet, Dante offers a less detailed description of the tower; it is simply “the tower of Garisenda with its lovely view” [torre miraro cum li sguardi belli]. The tower distracts the poet to the point that he does not recognize “the one… who ranks supreme” [quella… ch’è la maçor]. This “one” may be a reference to a lady or even to the Garisenda’s companion tower, the Asinelli. Anticipating the Inferno, Dante masterfully mixes the historical world with the abstract language of the dolce stil novo [sweet new style] (Barolini). And the Garisenda remains a landmark to which he will return.

Due torri, Bologna. Garisenda on the left, Asinelli on the right. Pablo Cabezos, 2017. CC 2.0. Available via Flickr.

Selected Bibliography

Antonelli, Armando. “Dante e Bologna. Un omaggio a Emilio Pasquini.” In Bolletino Dantesco per il settimo centenario, edited by Alfredo Cottignoli and Emilio Pasquini. No. 4. Ravenna: Giorgio Pozzi Editore, 2015.

Barolini, Teodolinda, ed. and Richard Lansing, trans. Dante’s Lyric Poetry: Poems of Youth and the Vita Nuova (1283-1292). Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014.

Gargan, Luciano. Dante, la sua biblioteca e lo studio a Bologna. Rome: Editrice Antenore, 2014.

Pecoraro, Marco. “Non mi poriano gia mai fare amenda” in Enciclopedia Dantesca, 1970. Available via Treccani.

I poeti di Dante” and “Il sonnetto della Garisenda.” Archivio di Stato di Bologna, 2017.

Saccenti, Mario. “Enrichetto delle Querce” and “Memoriali Bolognesi” in Enciclopedia Dantesca, 1970. Available via Treccani.

Steinberg, Justin. Accounting for Dante. Notre Dame, Ind: Notre Dame University Press, 2007.

Usher, Jonathan. “Memoriali Bolognesi.” In The Oxford Companion to Italian Literature. Online version. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.