Battaglia di Köse Dağ (1243), i mongoli sconfiggono i turchi Selgiuchidi di Anatolia, miniatura del secolo XIV

The first burgeoning of the present day Turkish state does not go back far beyond Dante’s time, after Turkish people of the Seljuq dynasty, which came from lands to the north of the Caspian Sea and Lake Aral (in present day Kazakhstan), had started their gradual conquest of Anatolia, detaching it from the Byzantine Empire and founding their sultanate there.  In 1243 the Seljuq sultans were, however, forced to succumb to the advance of the Mongols and became their vassals, remaining as such during Dante’s lifetime.

Dante’s knowledge of Turkey at that time was fairly sketchy and was probably derived from accounts by Florentine merchants with whom there were trading relations, especially for the importation of brightly coloured woollens.


It is not by chance that the only place in the Divine Comedy where the Turks are mentioned is the one in which Dante remembers those variegated drappi (drapes) produced by them:  the poet compares them – together with the tele (cloths) of Arachne – to the multicoloured phantasmagoria of the body of Gerione, a winged monster who was guardian of the eighth circle of Hell (Hell, XVII, 17-18).

The opportunity arises when Dante and Virgil go down the abyss which separates the seventh circle of Hell from the eighth (Malebolge) where the souls of the fraudulent are punished.  The two poets let themselves be carried to the bottom of the abyss on Gerione’s very back which Dante describes at this point, presenting him as a monster which symbolises Fraud and infects the whole world: he has the face of an honest man who inspires confidence but has two paws covered in fur up to his armpits and the body of a snake armed with a scorpion’s tail at the end.

It is at this point in the description that the reference to Turkey and to its variegated cloths is inserted.  Gerione’s body is flecked with knots and roundels of such bright colours that they exceed the phantasmagoria of the multicoloured drapes made by Turks and Tartars, besides the precious cloths woven by Arachne.

We reproduce below Sandro Botticelli’s depiction of Gerione.  Dante’s original verses  follow describing the monster and mentioning the variegated drapes referred to here (Hell, XVII, 1-18).[2] Finally we reproduce the same verses in the Turkish translation of Rekin Teksoy.

«Ecco la fiera con la coda aguzza,
che passa i monti e rompe i muri e l’armi!
Ecco colei che tutto ‘l mondo appuzza!».
Sì cominciò lo mio duca a parlarmi;
e accennolle che venisse a proda,
vicino al fin d’i passeggiati marmi.
E quella sozza imagine di froda
sen venne, e arrivò la testa e ‘l busto,
ma ‘n su la riva non trasse la coda.
La faccia sua era faccia d’uom giusto,
tanto benigna avea di fuor la pelle,
e d’un serpente tutto l’altro fusto;
due branche avea pilose insin l’ascelle;
lo dosso e ‘l petto e ambedue le coste
dipinti avea di nodi e di rotelle.
Con più color, sommesse e sovraposte
non fer mai drappi Tartari né Turchi,
né fuor tai tele per Aragne imposte.

«İşte dağları delen, surları, zırhları deşen,
kuyruğu sivri canavar,
işte dünyayı kokutan canavar!»
Ustam bunları dedi bana; sonra,
üzerinde yürüdüğütmüz kayaların kenarına
yaklaşmasını işmar etti ona.
O iğrenç dalavereci yanımıza geldi,
başıyla gövdesini gösterdi,
ama kuyruğunu kıyıya çekmedi.
Yüzü dürüst insan yüzü gibiydi,
yanıltıcı bir uysallık içindeydi,
yılan vücuduydu vücudun geri kalanı;
koltuklarına dek kıllı iki pençesi vardı,
sırtı, göğsü, iki yanı
renkli yumrularla, halkalarla kaplıydı.
Türkler de, Tatarlar da, renkleri daha canlı
kumaşlar işleyip dokuyamazlardı,
Arakhne bile böyle kumaş yapamazdı.

Here is Henry W. Longfellow’s English translation of the same verses:

«Behold the monster with the pointed tail,
Who cleaves the hills, and breaketh walls and weapons,
Behold him who infecteth all the world».
Thus unto me my Guide began to say,
And beckoned him that he should come to shore,
Near to the confine of the trodden marble;
And that uncleanly image of deceit
Came up and thrust ashore its head and bust,
But on the border did not drag its tail.
The face was as the face of a just man,
Its semblance outwardly was so benign,
And of a serpent all the trunk beside.
Two paws it had, hairy unto the armpits;
The back, and breast, and both the sides it had
Depicted o’er with nooses and with shields.
With colours more, groundwork or broidery
Never in cloth did Tartars make nor Turks,
Nor were such tissues by Arachne laid.


The mythological figure of the incomparable weaver, Arachne, can to some extent be linked to Turkey.  Colophon, Arachne’s homeland, was a city in Lydia in the neighbourhood of Ephesus (in modern Turkey) and its ruins can be visited today on the banks of the Aegean Sea opposite the island of Samos, about seventy kilometres south of Smyrna (Izmir).

Arachne had had the temerity to challenge Athene to a weaving competition.  The goddess, protector of that art, had accepted the challenge but had then ripped up Arachne’s nonetheless beautiful cloth and had punished her act of arrogance by turning the young woman into a spider, thereby condemning her to pursue her art hanging from a thread.

Dante takes up the myth of Arachne in Purgatory in the circle of the arrogant where the floor is paved with bas-reliefs showing examples of arrogance which has been punished.  In one of the bas-reliefs Dante sees a representation of Arachne, already partially turned into a spider, on the shreds of her cloth (Purgatory, XII, 43-45):

O folle Aragne, sì vedea io te
già mezza ragna, trista in su li stracci
de l’opera che mal per te si fé.

Verses which Rekin Teksoy has translated into Turkish as follows:

Ey çılgın Arakhne, kötülüğün
için dokunan kumaşın  kıvrımlarında, seni üzgün
Ve artık yarı örümcek gibi gördüm.

This is what the same verses sound like in Allen Mandelbaum’s English translation:

O mad Arachne, I saw you already
half spider, wretched on the ragged remnants
of work that you had wrought to your own hurt!

And this is how Arachne is depicted in a famous illustration by Gustav Doré:

[1] Guido Rispoli, in Enciclopedia Dantesca, Vol. V, p. 759.

[2] The two terms used by Dante [sommesse and sopraposte (“underlaid” and “superimposed”)] serve to designate the two different decorations effected by directly colouring the underlying weft of the cloth (sommesse) or by superimposing embroidery or designs in relief (sopraposte).