The poets near a waterfall at the edge of the third round of Circle VII, and they can hear the rumbling of its water falling into the next circle. Three shades run to Dante, recognizing his Florentine dress. Virgil has a great deal of respect for these shades and tells Dante to speak with them. Because they are in the realm of the Sodomites and cannot stop walking, they form a circle and continue walking to speak to Dante.
One shade tells Dante who they are, and tells him that they should not be looked upon with contempt because of their present condition, for in life they were famous. Dante recognizes them and tells them that he has always had affection for them. Dante tells them of his journey. They wish him luck, and entreat him to speak of them in the upper world.
The poets continue toward the waterfall and Virgil asks Dante for his cord, which Dante wears around his body. Virgil tosses the cord into the pit. Dante expects a strange event, and Virgil reads his mind, telling him that an unusual event will indeed occur. Dante is astonished — surprised enough to swear on his whole poem — when he sees a strange shape fill the air.
Canto XVI holds less interest, in comparison to the sincerity and sorrow of the preceding canto. Whereas the preceding canto was very lyrical and poetic, the allusions in Canto XVI are almost all politically motivated.
The three souls that Dante meets in this circle are all famous Guelph nobles and party leaders from just before Dante's time. During his life, Dante would have heard great stories about these people, and clearly their power and nobility follow them to Hell, or at least they continue their greatness in Dante's mind.
Dante informs them of what is happening in Florence. As Dante draws closer to the end of Hell, he becomes numb to sin and sinners; he is willing to accept their fate.
The main dramatic action in Canto XVI is the tossing of Dante's cord into the pit. This cord seems to come from nowhere; it is not mentioned previously and there is no reason why Dante should be wearing a cord. Dante needed a dramatic device at this moment of the poem to aid in the calling of Geryon, who will deliver the poets to the eighth circle. He mentions that he hoped to use the cord at one time to snare the leopard with the gaudy pelt, one of the beasts from the beginning of the journey, which is the symbol of the Fraudulent and the Malicious (the residents of the Circle VIII, which the poets are about to enter).
There is no definitive reading of the tossing of the cord. Certainly, the action functions to call the monster, which propels the narrative forward. Dante said that the reading of the Comedy should first and foremost be literal, which is a good enough reason at this point in the poem to say simply that the cord is a device.
Guido Guerra a leader of the Guelphs; the last name means "war."
Gualdrada legendary modest woman, used as a model of womanhood.
Tegghiaio Aldobrandi a knight and a Guelph noble.
Jacopo Rusticucci respected Florentine knight.
Borsiere courtier arranger of marriages and a peacemaker.
San Benedetto dell'Alpe a monastery close to Florence.