As Virgil and Dante descend into the seventh pocket of the Eighth Circle of Hell, they arrive at a collapsed bridge that forces Virgil and Dante to navigate through a steep slope littered with crags and rocks. On the way up the rigorous terrain, Dante loses his breath, becomes fatigued, and flops to the ground. Virgil scolds Dante’s indolence, and urges him onward, stating that a long and steep climb still awaits him. Once they arrive in the Seventh Pocket, Dante and Virgil come across an arch which forms a wide span across the pocket. Dante moves to the edge of the cliff, to gaze downward into the deep abyss but is unable to see anything. He asks Virgil to take him deeper so that he may understand the sounds he hears coming from beneath. Virgil takes Dante down into the gorge.
Once there, Dante witnesses the seventh pocket: The pocket of thieves. Dante watches as the sinful thieves are punished by masses serpents that chase and attack them. First, they coil like ropes around the hands and legs of the naked sinners, binding them completely. Once the hands are bound, another snake emerges to bite the bound sinner on the nape of his neck, the sinner then explodes into flame dissolves into a pile of ash. However, their punishment does not end there. From the ashes, the sinner re-forms and must endure the same torment again and again. Virgil spots one soul, a Tuscan named Johnny (Vanni) Fucci, whom Dante in fact knew back on the surface of Earth. Johnny, reluctantly, tells his story of how he was placed in the seventh pocket. Johnny explains that he robbed a sacristy, and blamed it on another soul, thereby earning his divine justice in the pocket of thieves.
In Canto 24, Dante introduces the political antagonist, Johnny Fucci, who’s particular crime was stealing silver ornaments from the sacristy of Pistoia, only to lay the blame on someone else. Johnny Fucci was the bastard son of Fuccio de’ Lazzari, and a militant leader of the Blacks in Pistoia. His infamy as a man of rage was widespread. Around 1923, the treasury of San Iacopo in the church of San Zeno at Pistoia was robbed. The person was unjustly accused of the theft was Rampino Fresi. Later, the truth was discovered about Vanni’s deeds, and one of his conspirators named Vain Della Mona, was sentenced to death (Musa 296). We meet Johnny Fucci in the final phase of the canto, as Dante once more follows the recurring theme throughout Inferno of transitioning from myth to history. However, psychologically and linguistically, canto 24 presents a complete contrast to the beginning cantos.
Where the damned and frustrated sinner both submits to and profits from their encounter with Virgil and Dante, Johnny Fucci sets himself in violent opposition to that order (Kirkpatrick 405). Most of the shades whom Dante and Virgil have encountered have been ones who still cling to, or have some connection to, the outside surface of Earth. Despite this, Johnny Fucci wishes to erase the memory of his life from the Earth’s surface, and even expresses his anger of Dante and Virgil witnessing his punishment openly. In place of the delicate reciprocations of emotion and conversation between Dante, Virgil, and other shades of Hell, in Canto 24 we find a sort of malicious determination to “steal” from Dante any pleasure he may take at the sight of sin so justly encountering the due order of its punishment. Johnny Fucci rejoices in being rude and barbaric- suggested by his brutal, rhythmically disrupted words.
His deliberate determination not to be involved with others, and the punishment he suffers (which is constantly to have his sole possession of form reduced to ashes) parodies the productive change that Virgil, Dante and the classic sinners of hell are all part of (Kirkpatrick 406). Johnny Fucci is compelled by the poets to answer truthfully, as he utters his prophecy to Dante as many shades before him have explained. However, Johnny abruptly ends his prophecy, with the malicious addition of deliberately wishing that his prophecy may inflict grief upon Dante: “I tell you this. I hope it hurts” (151).
As Dante observes the punishment that Johnny is subjected to, he immediately references a mythical creature known as a Phoenix: “Compare: the phoenix (as the sages say) will come to its five-hundredth year, then die, but then, on its own pyre, be born anew” (106). Dante scholar Robin Kirkpatrick states that Dante’s mention and description draws directly on roman poet Publius Ovidius Naso’s Metamorphoses, as the Pheonix is a familiar medieval figure for the Resurrection- in which, according to Christian beliefs, humans are finally assured eternal possession of their own physical identities. The punishment of this canto, in this sense, is an irony underlying all the metamorphoses of form that are suffered by Johnny and the thieves of the seventh pocket.
Their punishment, is a mirror image of that ultimate transformation, yet they are to experience it for an eternity, with no hope of ever receiving the true eternal life. Of the contrapasso, the hands of thieves are the causes of their crimes; therefore they are bound forever (Kirkpatrick 406). And as the thief destroys his victims identity by making their substance disappear, so is he painfully destroyed and made to disappear, over and over again.
One of the most notable aspects of this canto, however, is the large simile which opens canto 24. Dante uses the simile to illustrate the changes of expressions of Virgil’s face. He invokes the weathering changes that occur on a winter day as frost prevents a man from his work, on which his survival depends on then, as the sun appears, allows him to finally go to work with his flock of lambs. Dante uses this simile to mirror the expressions of Virgil’s face in previous cantos: first, Virgil’s frosty disapproval of the lies of the devils of hell’s gates; then a more encouraging expression which he first showed to Dante during their first encounter in canto 1. The simile spans an extensive fifteen lines, and its rhetorical level is extremely elevated. The simile is also pastoral in tone, not only focusing on the daily regiment of the “poor sod,” but also referring to the inner fluctuations and shifts of doubt and anxiety between Dante and Virgil (11).
As in other Cantos, we find Dante struggling once more physically, and spiritually in the depths of hell towards the beginning of canto 24, Virgil must aid him up the steep pinnacle leading to the seventh pocket. Dante describes his misery in the canto; “My lungs by now had so been milked of breath that, come so far, I couldn’t make it further. I flopped, in fact, when we arrived, just there” (45-46), after which he is immediately scolded by his guide, Virgil, for resting on the ground. This can be seen as a direct correlation between Dante’s weak soul and body during his experiences and trials in hell. Virgil reproaches Dante, telling him that “There’s yet a longer ladder you must scale. You can’t just turn and leave all these behind” (55-56). Virgil’s mention of the “longer ladder” may allude to the immense mountain of purgatory which Dante has still yet to encounter, however, Virgil may very well be referring to Dante’s mental and spiritual strength as they have not yet witnessed the worst that hell has yet to offer (55). If Dante is unable to handle what he has encountered so far, he has no choice but to become stronger and press on as he is told by Virgil that he simply “cant just turn and leave all these behind,” he can only move forward (55).