Dante's Inferno Canto 13: Summary & Quotes

Instructor: Laura Foist

Laura has a Masters of Science in Food Science and Human Nutrition and has taught college Science.

Dante's story 'The Inferno' takes Dante through the levels of Hell. In canto 13 Dante and Virgil find those who acted in violence against themselves, and we will learn what the punishment is.

Chapter 13 Overview

Frequently throughout 'The Inferno' we can see that the punishment (or reward) fits the crime. Often it almost feels as though it is the natural consequence of the actions people made while on Earth. When Dante first enters this ring (the second ring within the seventh circle), he can't quite figure out how the punishment fits the crime. These are people who had committed suicide, and they were turned into trees. But as he goes through this forest of trees, he begins to better understand how the two are related.

Suicide, committing violence against oneself, was seen as a sin, because someone who commits suicide has destroyed one of the greatest gifts that God gave to man, life. Since they didn't want their bodies in life, they were not privileged to have their bodies after death.

Walking Into the Woods

As soon as they cross over the river of blood from the first ring, Dante and Virgil find themselves within the woods. These woods were 'not marked by any path whatever. No green leaves there, but leaves of gloomy hue; no smooth and straight, but gnarled and twisted, twigs; nor was there any fruit, but poison-thorns.' It wasn't a peaceful and happy woods; this was a scary, creepy woods.

Dante hears moans all around him, but he can't figure out where the sounds are coming from. At first he thinks that everyone is just hiding, so he tries to walk more quietly. But Virgil, his Teacher, knows what he is thinking, and says 'If thou break off a little twig from any of these trees, the thoughts thou hast will all be proven false.'

Dante breaks off a twig, and to his surprise the tree cries out in pain 'Why dost thou rend me?'. The tree continues to explain, 'Men were we once, and now are stocks become; thy hand ought surely to have had more pity, even if the souls of serpents we had been.' Dante then realizes that all of the trees around him were once men. And from the broken limb he sees blood spilling out.

Virgil, Dante's wise leader and Sage, replies for Dante, saying 'Had he been able to believe, O wounded soul… what in my verses only he has seen, he had not set his hand on thee; whereas the thing's incredibility has made me lead him to do what I myself regret'. Virgil explained that he knew Dante wouldn't have believed him if he had simply explained what the trees were, so although he regrets telling him to cause the tree pain it is the only way that Dante would believe.

But Virgil does have a bit of comfort for the tree, telling him 'But tell him who thou wast, that he, by way of compensation, may refresh thy fame up in the world, where he can still return'. Dante is able to return to the mortal world, and if he hears the tree's story then he can repair his reputation in the world of the living.

The Stories of the Trees

The tree reveals himself as 'the man who once held both the keys of Frederick's heart, and he who turned the round so gently, locking and unlocking it, that most men from his secrets I withheld'. He was accused of betraying the emperor and he saw his 'glad honors turn to wretched grief'. And so he took his own life.

From history we can tell that this man was Pietro della Vigna, the Chancellor to Frederick II, the King of Sicily. He was accused of treason and heresy. And, just as he told Dante, he was disgraced and killed himself. Dante (the author) decided that Pietro was an honest man, and thus puts him in the circle of hell for those who committed suicide, but not in the circle of traitors. Thus, according to Dante, he was a good and honest man.

Dante meets Pietro della Vigna who has been turned into a tree
Pietro della vigna

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