There is a moment in the Inferno, the first of the three canticles of the Divine Comedy, in which Dante Alighieri, as we would say, “loses it.” This comes directly after the story of Ugolino and the Archbishop Ruggieri, in Canto 33, which takes place largely in Pisa and narrates deeds of pitiless cruelty. “Ahi Pisa, vituperio delle genti,” Dante cries—“Ai Pisa, decried by all the peoples”—thereby beginning a pair of stanzas that have long delighted readers with their unrestrained rage and unintended humor. “May, then, Caprara and Gorgona move/ and build a hedge across the Arno’s mouth,/ so that it may drown every soul in you.” Unlike any other verses in the Inferno, this is, simply, a curse, and moreover a curse called down upon an entire...


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