Inferno I: The Three Beasts
Ink on paper, 2016
22 x 15”
As he begins his journey, Dante is three times turned back for fear of attack by three wild beasts: a leopard (representing lust), a lion (pride) and a she-wolf (avarice).
* * *
What began as my favorite Inferno image in my sketchbook—indeed, the one that kicked off the project in an exciting way for me—has lately haunted me in its lack of sophistication and gravitas since I committed it to larger scale. I drew this spread no less than five times before arriving at this version and I'm intent on developing an improved iteration, once the whole series is finished and I have time to backtrack and fix things. It's driving me nuts. It's too playful and disarming.
Providing narrative context is important if one is to understand the relevance of Dante's encounter with the leopard, lion and she-wolf, set early in the poem, shortly after Dante awakens in the forest, filled with regret and fear. As he makes his way through the landscape, he encounters three savage beasts. In almost all scholars' minds, these animals represent three grave sins of man, but there's sometimes disagreement about which transgressions they are.
I'm most familiar with the edition of La Commedia that was translated and glossed by Robert and Jean Hollander in 2000. They eloquently discuss the animal metaphors in their notes:
“The early commentators are strikingly in accord; for them the beasts signify (1) three of the seven mortal sins: lust, pride, and avarice. Modern interpreters mainly—but not entirely, as we shall see—reject this formulation. One of these interpretations is based on Inferno VI. 75, the three “sparks” that have lit evil fires in the hearts of contemporary Florentines, according to Ciacco, who is seconded by Brunetto Latini [Inf. XV. 68]): (2) envy, pride, and avarice. Others suggest that the key is found at Inferno XI. 81–82, where, describing the organization of the punishment of sin, Virgil speaks of (3) “the three dispositions Heaven opposes, incontinence, malice, and mad brutishness.” Even within this approach there are strong disagreements as to which beast represents which Aristote-lian/Ciceronian category of sin: is the leopard fraud or incontinence? is the she-wolf incontinence or fraud? (the lion is seen by all those of this “school” as violence). For instance, some have asked, if the leopard is fraud, the worst of the three dispositions to sin, why is it the beast that troubles Dante the least? A possible answer is that fraud is the disposition least present in Dante.”
Excerpt From: Dante, Robert Hollander & Jean Hollander. “The Inferno.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/sBENE.l
I would be perfectly content if scholars could reach some consensus on these interpretations, if only for my stumbling on the convenient formal metaphor that associates the leopard's camouflage with the concept of "fraud." Nothing's easy in hell.