October 31, 2006
"Della Vigna was disgraced and blinded for his betrayal of the emperor's trust through his avarice," Dr. Lecter said, approaching his principal topic. "Dante's pilgrim found him in the seventh level of inferno, reserved for suicides. Like Judas Iscariot, he died by hanging. Judas and Pier della Vigna and Ahithophel, the ambitious counselor of Absalom, are linked in Dante by the avarice he saw in them and by their subsequent deaths by hanging."
"Avarice and hanging are linked in the ancient and the medieval mind: St. Jerome writes that Judas' very surname, Iscariot means 'money' or 'price', while Father Origen says Iscariot is derived from the Hebrew 'from suffocation' and that his name means 'Judas the Suffocated. . . "
Dr. Lecter resumed his podium voice. "Avarice and hanging, then, linked since antiquity, the image appearing again and again in art." Dr. Lecter pressed the switch in his palm and the projector came to life, throwing an image on the drop cloth covering the wall. In quick succession further images followed as he spoke:
"Here is the earliest known depiction of the Crucifixion, carved in an ivory box in Gaul about AD four hundred. It includes the death by hanging of Judas, his face upturned to the branch that suspends him. And here on a reliquary casket of Milan, fourth century, and an ivory diptych of the ninth century, Judas hanging. He's still looking up."
"In this plate from the doors of the Benevento Cathedral, we see Judas hanging with his bowels falling out as St. Luke, the physician, described him in the Acts of the Apostles. Here he hangs beset by Harpies, above him in the sky is the face of Cain-in-the-moon; and here he's depicted by your own Giotto, again with pendant viscera."
"And finally, here, from a fifteenth-century edition of the Inferno, is Pier della Vigna's body hanging from a bleeding tree. I will not belabor the obvious parallel with Judas Iscariot."
"But Dante needed no drawn illustration: It is the genius of Dante Alighieri to make Pier della Vigna, now in Hell, speak in strained hisses and coughing sibilants as though he is hanging still. Listen to him as he tells of dragging, with the other damned, his own dead body to hang upon a thorn tree:"
Surge in vermena e in pianta silvestra:
l'Arpie, pascendo poi de le sue foglie,
fanno dolore, e al dolor fenestra.
Dr. Lecter's normally white face flushes as he creates for the Studiolo the gargling, choking words of the agonal Pier della Vigna, and as he thumbs his remote control, the images of della Vigna and Judas with his bowels out alternate on the large field of hanging cloth.
Come l'altre verrem per nostre spoglie,
ma non pero ch'alcuna sen rivesta,
che non e giusto aver cio ch'om si toglie.
Qui le strascieneremo, e per la mesa,
selva saranno i nostri corpi apessi,
ciascuno al prun de l'ombra sua molesta.
"So Dante recalls, in sound the death of Judas in the death of Pier della Vigna for the same crimes of avarice and treachery. Ahithophel, Judas, your own Pier della Vigna. Avarice, hanging, self-destruction, with avarice counting as self-destruction as much as hanging. And what does the anonymous Florentine suicide say in his torment at the end of the canto? Io fei gibetto a me de le mie case. - - And I - I made my own house be my gallows."
"On the next occasion you might like to discuss Dante's son Pietro. Incredibly, he was the only one of early writers on the thirteenth canto who links Pier della Vigna and Judas. I think, too, it would be interesting to take up the matter of chewing in Dante. Count Ugolino chewing on the back of the archbishop's head, Satan with his three faces chewing Judas, Brutus and Cassius, all betrayers like Pier della Vigna."
"Thank you for your kind attention."
From Hannibal by Thomas Harris, New York, 1999, 221-234.