Inferno, Canto 16
Dante is already within earshot of the waterfall at the end of the path, when he meets the shades of three distinguished Florentine noblemen and gives them news of their city. At the edge of the cliff, Virgil throws Dante's girdle into the gulf below, and in answer to this signal a strange form comes swimming up towards them.
The Prepatory Lecture
Questions for Reflection
Canto 16, © Jan Hearn
The Rope girdle. Much controversy has raged about this. For the story, it is perhaps enough to say that something was needed to serve as a signal, and that the story-teller pitched upon this as one of the few detachable objects which his character might be supposed to have about them. Dante, however, goes out of his way to tell us (for the first time and rather surprisingly) that he had once hoped to catch the Leopard of Canto i with the rope. The Leopard is the image of the sins of Youth, or Incontinence; and it seems likely that the girdle has something to do with Chastity - it may, e.g., symbolise some vow of chastity which failed in its object. The Circles of Incontinence are now left behind, and the girdle is therefore available for another purpose.
This time it does “catch” something - a thing variegated and gay like the Leopard, but infinitely more dangerous, brought up from the Circles of Fraud. Allegorically, this may suggest that when the earlier and more obvious temptations seem to have departed, they may recur, disguised and more insidious, provoked by the very safeguards originally erected against them.
Mark Vernon's Lecture