22 – THE TOWER OF MEN AND THE HOUSE OF GOD – PART 3

Continued from part two.

In a passage from Canto 14 of the Inferno, Dante evokes the place where those who rebel against God are punished.[1] Among them is the giant Capaneus who, having rebelled against Jupiter, was struck by lightning. The description of the scene reveals many similarities with the House of God card:

The ground was a dry, deep sand […] Over all the sand, huge flakes of fire were falling slowly, like snow in the mountains without a wind. As the flames, which Alexander, in those hot regions of India, saw fall upon his army, entire to the ground, whereat he had his legions tramp the soil because the flakes were better extinguished before they spread, so did the eternal burning descend there, and the sand was kindled by it like tinder under the flint, to redouble the pain. The dance of the wretched hands was ever without repose, now here, now there, as they heat off the fresh burning.[2]

Nicolas Conver, House of God, 1760 (flakes and soil highlighted)

On the card, the ground is as yellow as dry sand. The colored spheres that hang in the air seem to evoke the huge flakes of fire falling slowly. The characters’ hands are touching the ground, and they are in contact with pointed shapes grown from the earth, which may be taken for tufts of grass, but might as well be the flames that have fallen onto the ground. Just as in some optical illusions, the image can be read in two ways. The most obvious lets one see characters falling down with their hands forward. In the light of Dante’s verse, one can discover two men trying to put out the flames with their hands: The dance of the wretched hands was ever without repose, now here, now there, as they heat off the fresh burning.

Nicolas Conver, House of God, 1760 (the dance of the wretched hands)

The latter reading may seem far-fetched; however, Cristoforo Landino’s commentary on this passage of Inferno contains several elements that corroborate it. Indeed, dwelling on Jupiter’s lightning, Ficino’s friend provides lengthy comments about the atmospheric phenomena observed during thunderstorms:

I think one should neglect neither the diversity of clouds containing thunder, nor the diversity of the fires contained in them, nor the diversity of ways by which the lightning falls. Sometimes, the cloud is black because it is condensed by its coldness in such a way that the lightning does not penetrate it and consequently cannot whiten it […] Sometimes the black turns to red, which shows that in the thick cloud, there already is some inflamed vapor. And this gives a more powerful strike than the black one, but the worst is the one that mixes green, black, and a touch of red because black reveals that it contains much vapor, green much water and red much fire. Because in them, the hot and the cold, the dry and the wet, fight strongly, from them fall thunderbolts of powerful stone, which knock down all high edifices.[3]

Landino goes on for several pages, describing several varieties of thunder, colors, powers, and effects.

 The House of God card appears to faithfully illustrate Landino’s naturalist descriptions. In it, lightning appears to be composed of several parts, seemingly with varying natures – some shaped like flames, others like clouds, and some seeming to be fluid – all with various colors.

Nicolas Conver, House of God, 1760 (Lightning highlighted)

Another intriguing detail of the card goes unnoticed at first, but after it has been observed, one wonders how it could have remained invisible for such a long time. To locate it, one needs to carefully observe the man in the foreground, who seems to be falling, head first, in front of the tower. Strangely, his doublet appears to be composed of diversely colored elements: The left sleeve’s dark blue contrasts with the red of the right one. The front part is also red, while the back is light blue, as are the legs. In fact, this blue dorsal part has the same width as the legs of the character and presents the same black hatchings (highlighting the member’s roundness). Moreover, this part is prolonged at the bottom by a yellow shape that merges with the character’s head and whose black outline has the same shape as the feet. Taking a closer look at it, we realize that the man possesses three legs that seem to rotate around an axis. How is this to be interpreted?

Nicolas Conver, House of God, 1760 (three legs highlighted)

This particular figure, the three legs running around an axis, has been known since antiquity. It is the triskelion. It can be found on antique Greek coins.

Triskelion (Syracuse silver drachma, 317 B. C.)

It remains an emblem of Sicily to this day, and it decorates the flag of Malta. In its center, the head of Medusa, the Gorgon, of Greek mythology sometimes appears. Why does it show up on the House of God card?

In Canto 9 of Inferno, Dante, one more time, describes a setting with a high tower in flames.[4] At the top of its blazing summit, the three Furies suddenly appear, who then are joined by Medusa. Cristoforo Landino, in his commentary on this passage, writes that the Furies appeared at the top of the tower because furor cannot remain hidden and is never without pride and extreme inflammation.[5] Here again, thus, the tower evokes human pride, and its highest part is inflamed. Landino reveals the identity of the three Furies through an analysis of their names:

Alecto means “restless,” and worry is the principle of furor; Tisiphone, in Greek, means “avenger of murder” and it is the remorse of conscience […]; Megaera derives its meaning from “hate,” by which an extreme furor is attained. The Furies should be understood as the disordered appetite that sets ablaze the human spirit as a Fury and blinds it and precipitates it helplessly into vice. I think it is nothing else than amorous desire, wrath, hate, ambition and all unrestrained greed, not to say furors, which, as a runaway horse, bolt the man through ravines and escarps until he breaks his neck.[6]

On the card, the third leg of the hidden triskelion steps on the falling man’s head, as if to accelerate his fall to the ground. If we represent the triskelion as a rotating system, we can imagine that the kicks would succeed each other on the man’s head. In this way, the design seems to illustrate the idea that divine punishment is exerted by the victim himself as a consequence of his unrestrained appetites.

[1] Dante, Inferno, XIV, 13-66.

[2] Dante, Inferno, XIV, 13-42.

[3] Landino, Comento, Inferno, XIV [43-60], 108-120, p. 667-668.

[4] Dante, Inferno, ix, 36.

[5] Landino, Comento, Inferno, IX [31-42], 81-82, p. 551.

[6] Landino, Comento, Inferno, IX [31-42], 47-56, p. 550-551.

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