“And she, whose loose hair covers her breasts unseen
On the side away from you, where other hair grows,
Was Manto–who searched through many lands, and then
Settled in the place where I was born[…]
And when they built their city
Over her bones, with no lots or divination
They named it Mantua.”1
The action of Dante’s Inferno unfolds in the depths of Hell, but the character Dante’s conversations with punished sinners and his guide Virgil create a detailed catalogue of locations throughout Italy. As Dante and Virgil reach the fourth bolgia of the eighth circle, the malebolge, they encounter the fortune tellers, whose punishments include having their heads twisted backwards and their eyes filled with tears. Here Virgil takes the opportunity to tell about the founding of his birthplace, Mantua. One of the sinners he identifies for Dante is Manto–the daughter of Tiresias, the famed seer of Greek mythology and the Oedipus plays–who traveled to Italy after her father’s death and found a dry patch of land in the center of a marsh formed by the Mincio and Po Rivers. Virgil explains how she lived out her days on this island away from all but her servants. After she died and her body was buried on the island, people from the surrounding area, recognizing the defensive advantages of the location, settled there and named it Mantua after the prophetess.
While the character Virgil gives a lengthy and detailed explanation in this section, the description of the origins of Mantua do not even match the poet Virgil’s account of the same event in the Aeneid, which credits Manto’s son, Ocnis, with the founding of the city. Mantua is, however, an ancient settlement. Archeological evidence suggests that people inhabited this area as earlier as 4000 BC. In Dante’s time the waters that flow around Mantua had been controlled to create four lakes, further bolstering the city’s defenses. One of the lakes was drained in the 18th century, but the other three remain. Mantua has a rich cultural history including its contributions to opera, and was named a Unesco World Heritage site in 2007. Virgil is perhaps the city’s most famous son though technically he was born in a nearby village now named Virgilio in 70 BC.
1Alighieri, Dante. The Inferno of Dante: A New Verse Translation. Trans. Robert Pinsky. New York: Noonday, 1997. Print. 203-05.
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