(Canto 13, lines 143-144)
"That city" is Florence. There is no consensus on who the speaker is here, and many have suggested that Dante does not intend a specific figure, because of how frequent suicides were in Florence during this time. There have been speculations that the speaker might be Lotto degli Agli, a judge mentioned in historical records at the end of 13th century, who was bribed to judge unfairly in a case and later committed suicide in regret; or Rucco de' Mozzi, who hanged himself after squandering his fortune.
Florence's first patron was the Roman god Mars. After the advent of Christianity, its patron saint instead became John the Baptist. According to early Florentian lore, this would have so angered the god of war that he doomed the city to the never-ending conflicts it was subject to. In Dante's time, there was still an old, broken statue of Mars standing at "the pass of Arno", actually at Ponte Vecchio. Later evidence points to that the statue, which was washed into the river in 1333, was actually not of Mars, but of the Ostrogothic king Totila (by early historians confused with Attila the Hun) who invaded and razed the city in 542, and that nothing but its base remained in Dante's time.
(Canto 14, line 15)
This is Cato the Younger (95-46 BC), also known as Uticensis for Utica, the location where he committed suicide. A republican, Cato (full name Marcus Porcius Cato) was opposed to dictatorship, earned fame for his resistance against the dictator Sulla and was elected tribune in 63 BC. After having strongly opposed the "Triumvirate" of Pompey, Caesar and Crassus, he became a supporter of Pompey. In 46 BC, after Caesar's victory at Thapsus in North Africa against the remainder of Pompey's forces, Cato, an adherent of Stoic philosophy, gave up the defense of Utica, which was under his command, and killed himself. The "sand" mentioned in the poem refers to Libyan desert which Cato led his forces through after the Pompey's forces had been defeated. Cato's wife Marcia was mentioned in Canto 4.
(Canto 14, lines 22-24)
Here are described three types of sinners: the "supine" are the violent against God; the "sitting" are those violent to "art", that is, usurers; and those who "went about" are those violent to "nature", that is, homosexuals.
(Canto 14, line 30)
This metaphor seems to be borrowed from a sonnet by Dante's poet colleague Guido Cavalcanti: "and white snow falling windlessly".
(Canto 14, lines 31-32)
This story about Alexander the Great's adventures in India comes from Albertus Magnus' works, referring to a letter (later proved spurious) from the Emperor to Aristotle. It tells how snow started falling during Alexander's exploits in India, which turned into a rain of fire after his soldiers stamped the it under their feet. Alexander therefore let his men put out the fires with their clothes. Like his source, Dante mixes things up slightly when he instead says Alexander told his men to "trample down the soil".
(Canto 14, line 46)
This is Capaneus, one of the Seven Kings against Thebes. For sources to his defiant attitudes against the gods, see Statius' Thebaid, for example book 3: "Valour and the good sword in my hand are the gods I worship ... Fear first created gods in the world!" The same poem treats memorably (in book 10) his death by a divine thunderbolt on the walls of Thebes after he has challenged the guardian gods of the city (Alcides and Bacchus) together with Zeus himself.
(Canto 14, lines 55-56)
According to tradition, Vulcan, the "smith of Jove", had his smithy at Mt. Etna, (in Italian also known as Mongibello, a name derived from Arabic) where he manufactured Jove's lightning bolts with the help of Cyclopes ("the others" mentioned here). "The fight of Phlegra" further down refers to Zeus' war against the Giants as they tried to climb Mt. Olympus. According to this myth, the Giants tried to overthrow the gods of Mt. Olympus by stacking the mountain ranges Thessaly, Ossa and Pelion on each other and chase the Gods down - in the end they were defeated by Zeus instead.
(Canto 14, lines 79-80)
The Bulicame was a hot spring north of Viterbo. It is said that the stream flowing from it supplied water for the prostitutes ("sinful women") of the area for washing, cleaning, cooking etc.
(Canto 14, line 96)
This passage alludes to the mythical era when mankind was ruled over by the god Saturn, traditionally viewed as a sort of paradisic time on the Earth. According to the myth of Zeus' birth referred to below, his mother Rhea gave birth to him on mount Ida on Crete (now known as Mt. Psiloritis). Because his father, Cronus (the Greek equivalent of Saturn) was prophesized to be overthrown by one of his children, he had devoured all the previous children born by Rhea. To save the life of Zeus, Rhea hid him in a cave on the mountain and let her Kouretes, dancers, make noises whenever he started crying.
(Canto 14, line 103)
This "old man" represents a gradual degradation of the state of mankind. The image of the old man is taken from the dream dreamt by Nebuchadnezzar in the Book of Daniel: "Thou, O king, sawest, and behold a great image. This great image, whose brightness was excellent, stood before thee; and the form thereof was terrible. The image's head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass, his legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay". A passage at the beginning of Ovid's Metamorphoses provides a detailed gloss: Ovid writes of a "golden age" followed later by a "silver age", characterized as "more somewhat base than golde, More precious yet than freckled brasse", which was to follow. The brass age, then, was "More hard of nature, somewhat bent to cruell warres and rage", though not altogether "wicked." Last of the ages is the iron age, wherein "all mischief rushed forth" and mankind lost "faith, truth and honest shame" only to gain "Craft, Treason, Violence, Envie, Pride and wicked Lust to win".
Damietta is located at the mouth of the Nile in Egypt - the old man has his back turned to the oriental origins of civilization. Rome should probably be taken to represent the monarchy and the Church. Most commentators interpret the old man's two feet to represent spiritual and worldly authority of the church and the monarchy respectively - the iron foot of monarchy already in a state of depravation, but not as entirely corrupt as the clay foot of the Church, the most important reason for the state of society.
(Canto 14, lines 130-131)
Dante and Virgil have already passed Acheron and Styx (while Cocytus, the frozen lake in the ninth circle, will appear in a later Canto), and the boiling river in the seventh circle is now revealed to be Phlegethon. Lethe, the fifth river of the underworld, was the river of forgetfulness, which souls drank of to forget their earthly life. Dante puts Lethe at the summit of Purgatory mountain, where the purged souls finally wash off the last fragments of sin and are allowed into Paradise.
(Canto 15, line 4-9)
The land of the Flemings loosely refers to an area spanning parts of present-day Belgium, Netherlands and France that historically has been ruled by many different states and peoples. The original Italian for this line says "tra Guizzante e Bruggia": Guizzante was the Italian name for the modern village of Wissant in the extreme northern coast of France, which used to be an important port for trade with England in Dante's time. Bruges, in the northwest of modern Belgium, was likewise an important trading port where merchants from Italy and Florence almost surely would go. The modern flood control structures, for which the Netherlands are famous, trace their roots to Dante's time and before.
Brenta is a river in Northern Italy which passes by Padua. The area called "Carentana" in Dante's original Italian probably refers to the Carnic Alps, including the area today called Carinthia (a state in southern Austria). When the mountain snows melted in spring, the waters would have swelled the streams, often causing floods. Carinthia was also the name of a duchy in modern Austria and Slovenia.
(Canto 15, line 30)
This is Brunetto Latini (1220-1294), politician, poet and scholar. A Guelf, he was quite influential in Florentine politics for some time. Though he was probably not Dante's teacher in a literal sense, Dante's immense respect for him is apparent in this passage. In 1260, he was sent as an envoy to Alfonso X of Castile, pleading for help against the Ghibellines, by this time allied with Manfred of Sicily. However, after the Guelf defeat at Montaperti and subsequent Ghibelline overtake of Florence, he was unable to return and was exiled in France until the Guelf victory at Benevento in 1266. After his return to Florence, he held various important positions, among them secretary to Guido di Monfort, Tuscan ambassador to the Sicilian king Charles I of Anjou. In 1273, he was appointed Secretary to the Council in Florence, and helped mediating the Guelf-Ghibelline conflict in 1280. In 1287, he finally became prior of Florence. He was noted for his learning and especially for his work "Li Livres dou Trésor", composed in French during his stay there. He also composed poetic works, among them the "Tesoretto" and the "Favoletto". The question of his "sodomy" is somewhat disputed, since it is not supported by any historical sources apart from the Comedy - this has led various commentators to suppose that his actual sin was contempt of his mother tongue (since he wrote in French), serving the city and not the monarchy, or even supporting a religious sect at the time; explanations which are perhaps not all that satisfying.
(Canto 15, line 55)
Latini probably means Dante's astrological sign, Gemini, in the Middle Ages often linked to scholarly or literary achievements.
(Canto 15, lines 61-63)
Fiesole is a mountain village located north of Florence. According to one account of the origins of Florence, the Roman Catiline (108-62 BC), one-time supporter of the dictator Sulla (138-78 BC), once tried establishing a patrician government through conspiracy in 63 BC and was forced to flee to Fiesole after the attempt failed. He was however surrounded by Caesar's forces, who razed Fiesole. Soon thereafter, he was killed in battle at Pistoia. To avoid further troubles in the future, Caesar built a new city on the banks of the Arno (Florence), where most of the former inhabitants of Fiesole settled along with some Roman troops - thereby mythically setting the scene for the many internal strifes to occur there during the centuries. The ancient historian Villani, for example, sees the reason for all the Florentian infighting in the opposition between, on the one hand, the highly civilized and noble Romans, and the rough, bellicose people of Fiesole on the other, who, as Dante says in the poem, "smacks still of the mountain and the granite".
(Canto 15, line 67)
Going back on a proverb about the blindness of Florentines, satirizing the contemporary rulers of the city. It is said that the Ostrogothic king Totila was able to taking Florence by first simply professing his good intentions, then razing the city. Villani notes of the Florentines (book 2, chapter 1): "and for this cause they were ever afterwards called blind in the proverb". Some commentators think of an episode where the Pisans fooled the Florentines: once, when Pisa went on a conquest to the Baleares islands, they asked Florence to help guard their city while away. For thanks, they presented the Florentines with a piece of cracked porphyry wrapped in red fabric, thereby fooling the Florentines into happily accepting the "gift", thinking it was a perfect stone. Of course, the proverbial blindness of the Florentines need not have only one explanation.
(Canto 15, lines 71-72)
These lines has been interpreted in two ways: either it means both the Blacks and Whites will want Dante on their side, or that both will want to devour him out of hatred. Remembering that the Blacks exiled Dante and the Whites were annoyed at how he was forced to turn his back on them after his exile, the latter is perhaps the most likely explanation, especially since Latini's prophecy deals with things that would occur during Dante's lifetime, and no historical evidence exists that either party ever made an effort to have Dante on their side.
(Canto 15, lines 76-77)
Dante does not directly say that his family stems from the Romans rather than the Fiesolans, but maybe we are supposed to understand that from his talk of "the beasts of Fiesole" and "the consecrated seed of those Romans". Dante's private mythology is full of the idea of the chosenness of Rome - see for example the Convivio, book 4, chapter 5 for his thoughts on the divine nature of Rome and its ruling lineage.
(Canto 15, lines 109-114)
Priscian (full name Priscianus Caesariensis) was a Latin grammarian during the 5th-6th century active in Constantinople. His "Institutiones Grammaticae" in eighteen books was a standard Latin grammar for much of the Middle Ages. There is no historical evidence for his sodomy, only a notation in the works of 13th century poet Ugoccione da Lodi calling him a "fallen monk". This has led some to believe that Dante actually mixed him up with Priscillian, a 4th century heretic executed for sodomy among other "sins". Others have pointed out that the link between Priscian and sodomy is strenghtened by the common contemporary association of this sin with men of learning and schools.
Francis of Accorso or Franciscus Accursius (1225-1293) was a famous lawyer, like his father Accursius. He was raised in Bologna, where he became an instructor of civilian law at the university until 1273. He was then invited to England by king Edward I, where he came to teach at Oxford. Returning to Italy in 1281, his property, confiscated from him as a Ghibelline in 1274, was returned to him. He died in Bologna in 1293.
"That one" is Andrea dei Mozzi, born into a noble family and a chaplain to Popes Alexander IV and Gregory IX. Later he was a follower of Cardinal Latino and was sent as a representative of Pope Nicholas III to mediate the Guelf-Ghibelline conflict. He was a priest in Florence from 1272 and was promoted to bishop in 1287. It was during his time as bishop in Florence that work began on the famous Basilica of Santa Croce - construction of the subsidiary hospital is said to have been supervised by Folco Portinari, the father of Dante's love Beatrice. In 1295, Andrea was transferred by Pope Boniface VIII to Vicenza, where he died the same year (or in the beginning of the next). His transfer occasioned quite an uproar at the time, and since he was widely condemned for his scandalous life, it was even speculated that his transfer was caused by his brother Tommaso dei Mozzi, in order to rid Florence of his bad influence.
The "Servant of the Servants" is an appellation sometimes used for the Pope, here Boniface VIII. Arno is the river flowing through Florence, while Bacchiglione flows past Vicenza.
(Canto 15, line 122)
The running race in Verona started in 1207 to commemorate the victory of Verona's lord Azzo d'Este over the Counts of San Bonifacio and Montecchio. It was held every year on the first Sunday of Lent on a field close to the village of Santa Lucia. The winner was decorated with a flag of green cloth, while the one who finished last received a rooster.
(Canto 16, line 4)
These three men are Guido Guerra VI, Tegghiaio Aldobrandi and Jacopo Rusticucci. The former, born in 1220, was from a prominent Guelf family and served at the court of Frederick II before returning to Florence and becoming a central figure among the Tuscan Guelfs. In 1241 he participated in the siege at Faenza against Frederick's forces; in 1255 he led the Florentine army in battle against the Ghibellines of Arezzo. After the Guelf defeat at Montaperti in 1260 he was exiled, and returned to Florence only after the Guelf victory at Benevento in 1266. He died at Montevalchi in 1272. For the two others, see an earlier bookmark to Canto 6.
(Canto 16, line 37)
Gualdrada di Bellincione Berti dei Ravignani, married in 1180 to Guido Guerra's grandfather, was something of an example of womanly virtues during her time.
(Canto 16, lines 41-42)
Before the battle at Montaperti, Tegghiaio tried to dissuade the Florentine Guelfs from combat with the Ghibellines of Siena, thinking that they would surely lose. His advice was not heeded, and accordingly, the Guelfs were defeated at Montaperti.
(Canto 16, line 45)
Rusticucci did not come from an influential family but had a good reputation for his talent and likable manners. His wife is said to have been his opposite, forcing him to eventually divorce her - perhaps we are supposed to understand this as the reason for Rusticucci's sodomy.
(Canto 16, line 70-71)
This Guglielmo does not figure in historical works, but ancient commentators all describe him as a man of a generous and unbound spirit. Boccaccio even mentions him as a "knight", and he is supposed to have been famous for eloquence and diplomatic skill. In the Decameron, he figures "censuring avarice" in a merchant of Genoa. He may have died in 1300, prompting the comment "with us of late".
(Canto 16, line 94)
The river Montone, running down from the Apennines, in the Romagna region. Dante's geographical specification might be a little confusing and should be understood like this: Mount Viso (Monte Veso), much further to the west, is where the Po, the major northern Italian river, starts, flowing eastwards, and the first river east and south of this point not to join the Po, but to flow directly into the Adriatic Sea, ("holdeth its own course") was the Montone. Today the Montone's course has changed by human intervention and it now joins the Ronco. In its upper reaches, the Montone is known by the name Acquacheta, but when it enters the plain of Forli ("its low bed") it changes this name into Montone. The waterfall referred to here is the Romiti falls, near the monastery San Benedetto dell' Alpe.
Dante's comment "a single leap, where for a thousand there were room enough" has been interpreted as a veiled attack on the monastery mentioned, said to be rich enough to accommodate a thousand monks but only admitting a few. This explanation is however not generally accepted.