Inferno XXVIII: Bertran de Born
Ink on paper, 2021
22 x 15”
In the pitch dark of the ninth bolgia, Dante meets the medieval French troubadour Bertran de Born, whose guileful political songs fomented conflict between Henry II and his son, Henry the Young King. Because de Born's words fueled political rebellion and war, Dante decapitates him, and dooms him to wander the eighth circle of Hell, head in hand like a lantern.
* * *
Bertran de Born caps off (heh) the XXVIIIth canto, following gruesome depictions of other sowers of discord that Dante meets in the 9th bolgia of the eighth circle of Hell. We are nearing the end of the penultimate circle of Inferno, where the poet has deposited innumerable cloven, decapitated, eviscerated and otherwise bifurcated souls,
as punishment for fomenting the world's greatest strife.
The imagery in this canto is vivid, to say the least, and for quite a while I eagerly looked forward to taking it on. One of the most profoundly disturbing and phantasmagoric images is of the prophet Mohammed, who appears early on, split from chin to groin in Gustave Doré's 19th century rendition—a gruesome display of visceral schism that reflects the view of Islam at the time. Dante believed that Islam was a threat to a unified Church, and—in his view—it founder must suffer hideous contrapasso. In his day, Doré was free to indulge his taste for the macabre in depictions of both Mohammed and de Born. Alas, I live in a different time, and I was ultimately forced to consider if I wished to endanger myself by representing the prophet in a way that may inflame radical thinkers with machetes, thereby ending up like one of the poor souls in Canto XXVIII. It's not that I necessarily agree with Dante's attitudes about Islam, but it was a reflection of his thinking, so it deserves acknowledgement. Rousing the fury of madmen isn't worth risking life and limb, so I have taken the cowardly route.
Instead, I opted for de Born, whom Dante believed agitated conflict and glorified war with his alluring, musical poetry. In Doré's depiction, de Born's decapitated head serves as a lantern, and there's much emphasis on his powerful, nude physique, perched on a rock like a squat lighthouse, boldly unaware of his nudity as he thrusts his own glowing head at Dante and Virgil. He grips it in darkness by its long locks, like a lantern, a startling symbol of the division between kingly father (the aged head) and son (his powerful, arrogant body).
My own conception of this moment tries to reference the prominence of language and song in de Born's divisive methods. He used the lyricism of music and of poetry to ensnare the Young King in treacherous machinations, so a hypnotic "guiding light"—emanating from the mind and projected by the voice—is what illuminates the scene.