Avarice and Usury: towards a Hypothesis about the ‘Greyhound’

For seven centuries, Dante exegetes have offered opinions about the prophetic figure of the hunting hound in Inferno I, ll. 101-102, who will free mankind from the ‘shewolf’ that symbolizes greed. All one has to do is look at the entry on ‘veltro’ (greyhound) in the Enciclopedia Dantesca to realize how many attributions commentators on the Divine Comedy have given it in an attempt to find its allegorical meaning, from historical figures who lived in Dante’s time such as Henry VII, Cangrande della Scala, Uguccione della Faggiola, or Pope Benedict XI, to those who would make history centuries later like Luther, Charles V, Garibaldi, Wilhelm I, etc., all the way up to Hitler and Mussolini. And not only these: alongside these interpretations there have been some who saw Dante’s greyhound as a Christ figure or even as Dante himself or the Divine Comedy. At present, following the work of Francesco Mazzoni, critics basically agree that with this figure of the greyhound Dante wanted to predict the coming of a political reformer – such as the emperor Henry VII – capable of restoring to mankind a social dimension freed from greed for money, that is to say, from the scourge that more than any other had condemned society to moral and civil disorder.

The association of ‘greyhound-emperor’ has often been supported by positing that the figure of the hound that will defeat the wolf should be identified with the numerological allegory of the “Five Hundred and Ten and Five” in Purgatorio XXXIII, 43, cited by Beatrice when she predicts to Dante the coming of one who will put an end to the criminal relations between the ‘giant’ and the ‘whore’. If in this case the “great puzzle” of the number refers in all probability to an emperor, the hypothesis that the greyhound should be associated with the “Five Hundred and Ten and Five”, and consequently to him, does not seem plausible to us. If, in Beatrice’s prophecy, the task of ‘DXV’ (515 in Roman numerals, and an anagram of the Latin word DVX, which means military leader) is to put an end to the historical situation of a corrupt Church (the “whore”) taken prisoner by France (the “giant”) after the events involving Pope Boniface VIII and King Philip IV, in Virgil’s prophecy the greyhound’s task will be, as we have said, to fight and defeat the wolf, symbol of greed. To identify the Greyhound, then, we should reflect more carefully on the importance assumed in the Divine Comedy by greed for money and in particular by the question of avarice and usury.

In Dante’s time a doctrinal dispute was going on between the religious orders of the Franciscans and the Dominicans about the legitimacy of charging interest on loans; with the Dominicans being totally opposed and the Franciscans in favor, Dante could not avoid being on the side of the friars of Saint Dominic. Besides, right there in Florence, even a Spiritual Franciscan influenced by Joachim of Flora like Pierre Jean Olivi, a supporter of absolute poverty, had asserted during the 1280s the possibility that a sum of money placed on the financial circuit could earn interest.

The only ones left to create a defensive front to keep the “ancient she-wolf” from prevailing were the Dominicans, and the fact that they were well aware of this task is demonstrated by a precise detail in the fresco cycle in Florence in the Spanish Chapel, the old chapter house of Santa Maria Novella where, in 1235, Dante’s works were condemned. In the lower part of the right-hand side, where Andrea di Bonaiuto depicted the ‘Church militant and triumphant,’ is an allegory that in our opinion could be helpful in explaining the meaning of Dante’s greyhound: the Dominicans are shown as black and white dogs (the colors of their habits) biting, and killing, some other dogs whose gray-brown coat recalls – as fate would have it – the color of the Franciscan habit. Right in the midst of the fight with the order of Saint Francis over the question of lending money out at interest, in other words the avarice-greed symbolized by Dante’s she-wolf, Andrea di Bonaiuto pictured, between 1365 and 1367, the ‘Domini canes’ (the hounds of the Lord, a play on the Dominicans’ name) in the act of defending the city of Florence, and more generally the entire community of believers, from the scourge of usury and avidity for money.

In light of this, why shouldn’t we think that the ‘greyhound’ symbolizes the arrival of a Dominican who by his preaching would bite and kill the beast that had spread so much woe throughout the world? When Dante wrote the Divine Comedy, the ‘greyhounds’ who were fighting against the spread of usury were precisely these followers of Saint Dominic whose mother, Juana de Aza (mentioned by Dante in Canto XII of the Paradiso and whom, according to legend, the poet certainly knew), had dreamed a vision of giving birth to a dog who would defend God’s flock. Who better than a Dominican could carry out the revenge longed for in Canto XX of the Purgatorio by Hugh Capet, whose descendant Charles of Anjou, corrupted by avarice, had killed the celebrated Thomas Aquinas of the order of Saint Dominic? If we look at the socio-economic context in which Dante lived and which certainly influenced his most famous work, the figure of the ‘Dominican-greyhound’ appears fully plausible because only Dominican doctrine condemned in toto the idea that it was legitimate to gain wealth by lending out money at interest; conceding this meant, for them as for Dante, justifying and opening the way to an insatiable greed for money.

From this viewpoint, the Divine Comedy can be considered a work written to take part in this fight that opposed ‘hounds’ against ‘wolves,’ and Dante himself, in Canto XXV of the Paradiso, declared himself to be an enemy of these cruel beasts. Certainly we do not believe he meant to see in this ravenous animal the Franciscan friars (as perhaps Andrea di Bonaiuto did in the allegory in the Spanish Chapel), but rather the political-mercantile class that had abandoned the sober customs described by his ancestor Cacciaguida in favor of the depravity of greed. Thus if we look at the context of the time, Dante’s hopes for a definitive abolition of economic doctrines and practices that would allow the “ancient she-wolf” to spread the sin of greed with impunity could count only on the preaching of the ‘Hounds of the Lord’, the greyhounds who, especially in Florence, were thundering from the pulpits against the spread of usury, the fount of avarice.

What Dante could certainly not have imagined was that two centuries later, the prophecy of the greyhound with which the Divine Comedy began would wreck on the shoals of a decision made by a Florentine; the son of Lorenzo il Magnifico, Giovanni de’ Medici, elected pope with the name of Leo X, issued a papal bull in 1515 (Inter Multiplices) granting the opening of pawn agencies (Monti di Pietà) which would lend money at an interest rate of 5%. From Dante’s point of view, the wolf had devoured the greyhound.