Hook Dantes Inferno Essay

This winter, we’re recapping the Inferno. Read along! This week: demons horse around in canto 22.

William Blake, Two of the Malebranche quarrelling, Dante’s Inferno Canto XXII, c. 1824-27.

The opening lines of canto 22 have a two-sided brilliance to them. First, there’s the way Dante—who is, along with Virgil, now in the company of demons—breathlessly describes the movements of a cavalry unit, the way soldiers will tousle hand-to-hand on the battlefield with war horns sounding through the air. It’s a nice lyrical passage that sounds like a nineteenth-century Romantic poet trying to modernize Homer’s battlefield passages. But then, absurdly, Dante juxtaposes those battle scenes with this “savage” band of demons; “as they say,” Dante writes, “in church with the saints, with guzzlers in the taverns.” It’s his polite way of saying that one must behave differently in the presence of demons who make farting sounds with their mouths and gather to the less-than-noble sounds of an anus trumpet. (See canto 21.)

As in the last canto, Dante is spellbound by a pool of pitch, where, now and then, he will see a sinner expose his back above the boiling liquid to relieve his suffering for a brief moment before diving back down. If the sinner stays above the surface for too long, a demon swoops down and tears him apart. Suddenly, Dante sees an overzealous sinner who has taken an irresponsibly long coffee break above the surface. Almost instantly, one of the demons grabs a billhook and prepares his talons so he can swoop down and shred the sinner to pieces. Dante has Virgil stop the massacre in order to learn a bit more about the sinner—he is from Navarre and accepted bribes when he worked for the king. Just as the sinner is about to be attacked, Virgil asks if there are any other Italians in the pitch. And who are we kidding? Of course there are going to be a ton of Italians in a place reserved for barrators. The sinner announces that he was just hanging out under the pitch with another Italian.

At that point, one of the flesh-hungry demons loses his patience with Dante’s whole I-gotta-interview-the-sinners shtick and rips out a chunk of the sinner’s flesh. Before he is overpowered, the sinner tells Dante and Virgil about the other Italians he knows—Fra Gomita and Don Michel Zanche, both from Sardigna and constantly yapping about the place. The sinner, who seems far more glib about the threat of being torn to death, says almost tauntingly, “Oh, look at that one there, gnashing his teeth.”

Trying to delay his punishment a bit longer, the sinner then offers to find some Tuscans and Lombards for Dante and Virgil to talk to. As I’ve noted before, this indirect form of identification is very common in Dante’s work. Dante the pilgrim has already been identified many times as a Tuscan, from the sound of his dialect. But what is strange is that the sinner knows that Virgil is from Lombardy by his accent; although Dante is addressing the issue of how the pilgrim and his guide communicate (we learn it must be in Italian), it also raises the question of why Virgil, one of the most important Latin poets, is not only speaking a language that didn’t exist for him, but is speaking it in the regional dialect of his hometown, Mantua in Lombardy. (And while we’re on the subject of plot holes: What exactly happens to the sinners after they’re torn to shreds?)

Another thing to consider is that the formal standardization of Italian was in part due to The Divine Comedy. This means not only that Dante’s dialect is very close to the standard Italian today (and that, as a result, I can read Dante in the original but cannot read a page of a twentieth-century Sicilian novel), but also that Lombardese might have been different than Tuscan. Thus, Dante has written a Virgil who speaks Italian, but whom Dante may have had some difficulty communicating with, because they spoke different dialects. It might have been easier if they both spoke in Latin.

The sinner assures Dante that he can get other Italians to the surface, but the demons see through his ruse and challenge the sinner to a game: Can he make it back into the pitch faster than the demons can catch him? The sinner accepts, and manages to escape. One demon, furious at another for letting his human rag doll go free, attacks the other. Before they can realize what has happened, they have both fallen into the pitch. As a demon rescue party sets out to discover that their fellow demons have been broiled to a crisp in the pitch, Dante and Virgil decide, wisely, to take this moment to sneak away.

To catch up on our Dante series, click here.

Alexander Aciman is the author of Twitterature. He has written for the New York Times, Tablet, the Wall Street Journal, and TIME. Follow him on Twitter at @acimania.



      Although much has been written on Inferno XXI-XXIII, generally studied in the various lecturae Dantis in connection with the «realism» of Dante and the problem of identifying in Lower Hell what is «comic» and «humorous» and what is not, perhaps not enough has been said on what these cantos represent in the tripartite structure of Hell, particularly in the pattern that develops at the center of Malebolge, that is, between the fifth and sixth bolgia. It is, therefore, my intent to discuss, first of all, the centrality of the theme of «deception» in Malebolge; second, to focus on Dante's artistic devices in treating such theme; and third, to relate these devices to the specific nature of «comedy» as it is expressed in the structural development of these cantos.

      As Canto XXI begins, Dante draws immediately the reader's attention to the great «darkness» that characterizes this locality («e vidila mirabilmente oscura»: «and I saw it strangely dark»). It is here that for the second time Dante mentions «comedìa», thus making reference, by verbal association, to an awesome sight in Canto XVI:

      Ma qui tacer nol posso; e per le note
di questa comedìa, lettor, ti giuro,
s'elle non sien di lunga grazia vòte,
      ch'i' vidi per quell'aere grosso e scuro
venir notando una figura in suso,
maravigliosa ad ogne cor sicuro...

But here I cannot be silent; and, reader, I swear to you by the notes of this Comedy __ so may they not fail of lasting favor __ that I saw, through that thick and murky air, come swimming upwards a figure amazing to every steadfast heart... (vv. 127-132; Dante's texts are given in Singleton's translation; italics are mine).

This awesome «figura» is Geryon, whose allegorical significance is revealed by his physical characterization: man, beast, and serpent. The appearance of this monster, whose treacherous nature anticipates the theme of «deception» dramatized at the center of Malebolge, becomes extremely significant at this point for it creates a climax in the structural development of Inferno. As Franco Ferrucci points out,1 «from the end of canto XVI to all through the next the figure of Geryon is predominant in Hell. Even among the external elements that indicate the importance of his appearance we should note that at the end of this episode we are exactly at midpoint in Hell: certainly not a casual coincidence in Dante's structural strategy». What does not seem coincidental either is the fact that Dante portrays Geryon, commonly represented by the Medieval tradition as a figure of verbal seduction,2 as a silent monster. This «significant detail», however, should not be seen merely in connection with the other contrasting «mythological appearances», as Ferrucci observes (op. cit., p. 31), but especially in connection with the «theatrical» episodes occurring in Canto XXI-XXIII where, in contrast with the silent figure of Geryon, Dante ironically displays the rhetorical abilities of prominent figures such as Virgil, Ciampolo, and Malacoda. By means of these structural patterns (the appearance of Geryon at mid-point in Hell and the irony of deception at the center of Malebolge), Dante not only leads the reader to examine more closely the power of «discourse» and the way it can become a source of salvation or perdition but also to reflect on the true meaning of his own comedìa, a mixture of falsehood and truth. «When Fraud is about to appear not only before Dante's consciousness but also before the reader's own eyes», Ferrucci writes in this regard, «the poet sees again all of his work as a lie, as an inadequate texture of words, as a new pathetic challenge of Arachne to Minerva. But at the same time he speaks in the name of truth, and that is what makes him different from Geryon».3

      But how adequate can language be to portray Truth, to portray God's mystery of salvation and redemption? This is a central question of which Dante, the poet, takes full awareness at mid-point in his journey through Hell, as his poetry must go on with the fraud, the «fiction» of the journey, in order to describe fully and effectively God's outward manifestation of Love and Justice. The realization of the poet's verbal transgressio, which paradoxically leads the pilgrim to his atonement and purification, is thus viewed in connection with the «crossing», with the pilgrim's transgressio of evil. From this perspective, the cord, which at the end of Canto XVI Dante hands to Virgil «aggroppata e ravvolta» («knotted and coiled») and which Virgil throws «giuso in quell'alto burrato» («down into the depth of that abyss») to attract the treacherous beast, becomes the visible sign of the poetic fiction. It is not by chance that Geryon's appearance, as Ferrucci accurately suggests, is described as «an emersion expressed through the image of the sailor who comes up to the surface after he has dived into the sea to free the entangled anchor, thus (not by chance) to eliminate an obstacle that hinders the continuation of the journey».4 If the journey must go on, so must the fraud, which embodied by the figure of Geryon has become an indispensable tool for Dante's descent into the VIII Circle. The simile of the bark (navicella), which tied to the notion of linguistic transgressio makes the pilgrim's fear of flight (after Geryon's metamorphosis) appear much more meaningful, ties well with the opening image of the «unsound vessels» in Canto XXI. Here, in the bolgia of barratry and at the center of the circle of Fraud, we see reenacted through the comedìa, the Fall Narrative and the degradation of all humanity.

      As it is typical of Dante's narrative technique to anticipate meaning with visual and corporeal images, in Canto XXI the sin of barratry is introduced by a long description of a material element that best signifies it:

      Quale ne l'arzanà de' Viniziani
bolle l'invemo la tenace pece
a rimpalmare i legni lor non sani,
      ché navicar non ponno - in quella vece
chi fa suo legno novo e chi ristoppa
le coste a quel che più vïaggi fece;
      chi ribatte da proda e chi da poppa;
altri fa remi e altri volge sarte;
chi terzeruolo e artimon rintoppa -:
      tal, non per foco ma per divin'arte,
bollia là giuso una pegola spessa,
che 'nviscava la ripa d'ogne parte.

As in the Arsenal of the Venetians, in winter, the sticky pitch for caulking their unsound vessels is boiling, because they cannot sail then, and instead, one builds his ship anew and another plugs the ribs of his that has made many a voyage, one hammers at the prow and another at the stern, this one makes oars, that one twists ropes, another patches jib and mainsail; so, not by fire but by divine art, a thick pitch was boiling there below, which overglued the bank on every side (vv. 7-18).

Dante's feeling of maraviglia at the appearance of Geryon, to whom Virgil points in Canto XVII as the beast «che tutto il mondo appuzza» («that infects all the world», v. 3) and whom Dante calls in the next terzina «quella sozza immagine di froda» («that foul image of fraud», v. 7), is significantly linked in Canto XXI to that mirabile sight of «darkness» enhanced by the pitch, which «non per foco ma per divin'arte, / bollia» (vv. 16-17). There is no doubt that in this analogy the pitch, as a negative image of man's corrupt nature, signifies the sin of baratteria and its contrapasso. As Davide Conrieri indicates, early commentators recognized in the boiling pitch «the fieriness of the vicious passion, the greed of money», in its darkness, the secrecy with which the barrators «had conducted their dishonest dealings», and in its viscosity, the notion of how «barratry stains and corrupts all those who practice it».5 Nonetheless, the strength and effectiveness of this analogy lies more in the positive image of the pitch, which in the description of the Venetian Arsenal refers to human activity and cooperation in building and repairing the «ship of State» for its allegorical journey through time. As James Applewhite remarks, «the image of repairing one's boat in order to prepare it for the voyages of the summer months would seem to carry moral overtones in the poem, for Dante here refers to the boats as "non sani"». This analogy, Applewhite adds, «can in no way be considered extraneous to the poetic movement of the poem, nor even to the course of the narrative, since it sets the scene, by way of contrast, for the two cantos of devilry which follow».6

      Furthermore, the fact that Dante, at this crucial stage of his narrative, underlines the temporal development of the journey «sì mi parlava e andavamo introque», at the end of canto XX, and «così di ponte in ponte, altro parlando...», at the beginning of XXI, significantly relates, within the context of linguistic transgressio, to the theme of «deception» highlighted by the episodes of Ciampolo and Malacoda. As Conrieri notes, the term «altro» (v. 1), of which the mysterious content has puzzled early and modern commentators, «non intende qui rinviare a riposti significati, ma solamente ribadire e rendere avvertibile la continuità spaziale e temporale dell'itinerario» («is not intended here to refer to hidden meanings but simply to underline and render more perceptible the spatial and temporal continuity of the journey», op. cit., p. 2). Along the same lines, Dante's fleeting remark on the conversation of the two pilgrims can be viewed as a viable technique to turn «tutta l'attenzione del lettore sul rinnovato impegno di esplorazione del paesaggio infernale da parte dei due poeti, intenti ora a scorgerne un nuovo aspetto» («all of the reader's attention to the renewed effort of the two poets in their intent of exploring a new aspect of the infernal landscape», ibid.). This strange and awesome sight, rendered effective by the frequent use of the verbs «veder», «mirar», and «guardar» (vv. 19-30), anticipates and intensifies the experience of the spectacle, the nuovo ludo («new sport») which is about to commence in the bolgia of barratry. As the narrative unfolds, the mood pervading Canto XXI is immediately established by Dante's comparison of the pilgrim to the man «cui tarda di veder quel che li convien fuggire» («who is eager to see what he must shun», vv. 26-27). As Conrieri puts it, «in the manner of a dynamic image, which suggests the motion of fleeing and the act of turning round to look, a relationship is established (a relationship which is fundamental to the understanding of the canto) between vision and fear; clearly, the precise angle is set and the exact frame of mind is fixed, with which Dante character will observe the diabolic spectacle».7 Whereas at the Gate of Dis evil is generally represented by an unnamed multitude of devils who angrily defy the one «che sanza morte va per lo regno della perduta gente» («that without death goes through the kingdom of the dead», VIII, 84-85), in the bolgia of barratry it is physically personified by a whole rank of devils. This «savage company» will not impede but treacherously lead, under Malacoda's orders, the pilgrims' way.

      Knowing thus far Dante's great skill of conveying meaning through structural development, it is not surprising to find at mid-point in Malebolge (where the «journey» becomes more dangerous and terrifying) that the poet should want the reader to reflect more deeply on Virgil's character, to discover his strengths and weaknesses, his qualities and defects, and even question altogether his ability to guide the pilgrim through the depths of Hell. As C. J. Ryan has shown, it is precisely in Canto XXI that Dante «reveals a facet of Virgil's character which has not been given adequate attention». Although it is generally agreed that Virgil's guidance is limited «because he cannot reach up to the full splendor of goodness in heaven», Ryan argues, «this canto suggests that his guidance has a further limitation: not only the heights of heaven and goodness, but the depths of hell and evil escape full comprehension by Virgil».8

      The first hint of Virgil's limitations is given by Dante's subtle comparison of his guide (who displays his confidence at this renewed encounter with the devils) to the «poverello» («poor beggar») who, rushed by the fury and uproar of dogs, «di sùbito chiede ove s'arresta» («straightway begs from where he stops», vv. 67-69). In disagreement with Barbi and Sapegno who have interpreted «di sùbito» as «suddenly» in order to downplay the element of fear in Virgil's voice and thus justify his firm crying out «Nessun di voi sia fello» («let none of you be savage», v. 72), Ryan claims a dissonance, fully intended by Dante at the height of his imaginative powers, between «simile» and «reality» (op. cit., p. 18). It seems clear, then, that «di sùbito» here can only mean «immediately». This ingeniously serves to heighten the element of fear in the «poverello» and highlight, on the other hand, the overconfidence of Virgil confirmed by his long rhetorical question and command:

      «Credi tu, Malacoda, qui vedermi
esser venuto», disse il mio maestro,
«sicuro già da tutti i vostri schermi
      sanza voler divino e fato destro?
Lascian' andar, ché nel ciel è voluto
ch'i' mostri altrui questo cammin silvestro».

«Do you think, Malacoda, to see me come here», said my master, «secure thus far against all your defenses, without divine will and propitious fate? Let us pass, for it is willed in Heaven that I show another this savage way» (vv. 79-84).

«The quiet sarcasm in that question», comments Ryan, «picks up the tone of his previous words to the devils (vv. 72-75), which were couched in the subjunctive, denoting not fear but mock-courtesy». Therefore Dante's comparison should be carefully viewed at different levels: «grammatically», it refers directly to the ferocity of the dogs and the devils; «dramatically», it creates a tension between Virgil's presupposed behavior and his actual conduct; «poetically», it unveils the limits of reason in recognizing the great evil embodied by these devils.

      Sure enough, Malacoda's response to Virgil's rhetorical display is an amused and misleading theatrical gesture of defeat, which Virgil takes at face value:

      Allor li fu l'orgoglio sì caduto,
ch'e' si lasciò cascar l'uncino a' piedi,
e disse a li altri: «omai non sia feruto».

Then was his pride so fallen, that he let the hook drop at his feet, and said to the others, «Now let no one strike him» (vv. 85-87).

Malacoda's simulation of defeat, which subsequently triggers Virgil's ostentatious calling of Dante («O tu che siedi / tra li scheggion del ponte quatto quatto, / sicuramente omai a me ti riedi»: «Oh you that sit asquat among the splinters of the bridge, securely now return to me», vv. 88-90), reaffirms his treacherous intention of decisively undermining the «journey», thus destroying the credibility of the pilgrim's guide. But in order to do so, he must manipulate Virgil by building up his own credibility:

      Poi disse a noi: «Più oltre andar per questo
iscoglio non si può, però che giace
tutto spezzato al fondo l'arco sesto.
      E se l'andare avante pur vi piace,
andatevene su per questa grotta;
presso è un altro scoglio che via face.
      Ier, più oltre cinqu'ore che quest'otta,
mille dugento con sessanta sei
anni compié che qui la via fu rotta.
      Io mando verso là di questi miei
a riguardar s'alcun se ne sciorina;
gite con lor, che non saranno rei».

Then he said to us, «To go farther by this crag will not be possible, for the sixth arch lies all shattered at the bottom; but if it is still your pleasure to go forward, then proceed along this ridge: nearby is another crag that affords a way. Yesterday, five hours later than now, completed one thousand two hundred and sixty-six years since the road was broken here. I am sending some of my company that way, to see if any is out taking the air. Go with them, for they will not harm you» (vv. 106-117).

Malacoda's abundant speech, of which the mixture of falsehood and truth evokes the crafty speech made by Satan in the Garden of Eden («of course, you will not die .... your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods knowing both good and evil»: Genesis, 3, 4-6), is very persuasive. Even the tone of his voice seems to reveal a trustworthy intention of helping the pilgrims on their way. The devils' grinding of teeth should in no way intimidate Dante, Virgil presumes, for they do it «per li lessi dolenti» («at the boiled wretches», v. 135). Malacoda's deception is now complete as it is craftily concealed behind his detailed account of the third ruina and as it is facilitated by Virgil's lack of suspicion and carelessness.9 Whereas Virgil is not able to understand the true meaning of these ruine since he lacks Christian revelation, Malacoda is well aware of his statement and his intention to deceive. As we shall see later, the aspect of «premeditatingly» conceiving and carrying out harmful thoughts is central to our proper understanding of Virgil's role and our accurate interpretation of Ciampolo's episode, particularly in connection with Aesop's fable recalled in Canto XXIII.

      First of all, the fact that Dante places Malacoda's statement at the exact center of Malebolge clearly suggests, as Singleton has indicated, that «the timing he makes has somehow a central importance» (op. cit., p. 70). Looking back at the other two ruine, viewing the third as it were as Singleton interestingly puts it, «the end of a sentence» of which the meaning is now clear, they are all evidence «of that rending of the rocks of Hell in the great moment of our Christian calendar when the Saviour died on the Cross». But why does Dante paradoxically recall through Malacoda's words Christ's death on the Cross at a moment in which the two pilgrims are about to be deviated from their «journey», from their transgressio of evil? The answer lies in the ironic reversal of Malacoda's deceit which «providentially» favors the pilgrims' only «way» of escape. As Giuseppe Baglivi and Garrett McCutchan remark, «it will be the "broken way", symbol of the Cross, a permanent obstacle for Malacoda, that will soon serve as a "ladder" for Dante to climb out of the Sixth Bolgia and on to Salvation».10

      Keeping in mind the notion of linguistic transgressio and Singleton's idea that the three ruine now stand «in a most meaningful sequence» in the reader's memory, we begin to understand more fully Dante's plan of staging at the center of Malebolge the two most important events in Salvation History: Man's Fall and Redemption. Both of these events center on the power of the «word», which finds at its opposite poles the deception of Satan in the Garden of Eden and the salvific event of Christ, the Word made Flesh. Satan's deception, which in Canto XXII is dramatized by Ciampolo's episode, is significantly linked in the bolgia of barratry to political subversion and universal corruption. This idea is supported, first of all, by the image of the pitch. Its viscosity, which recalls the biblical verse in Ecclesiasticus (13, 1) «qui tetigerit picem inquinabitur ab ea» («whoever touches the pitch, he will be defiled by it»),11 seems to evoke the notion of original sin. Furthermore, the fact that Dante chooses Lucca as the epitome of political subversion and corruption is not merely for political reasons. As Conrieri notes, «there is a poetic reason that justifies the manner in which Dante formulates his controversial statement against Lucca, which in its wickedness has become the symbol of a universal sinful condition ... In short, the controversy against one city does not confine but broaden its paradigmatic function».12 Just as the sin of barratry that has spread to a whole community of people has become a paradigm for universal corruption and degradation, so will the punishment of this sin affecting the sinners and their persecutors, become the emblem of a «providential» moment in retributive justice. It is a dramatic moment in Salvation History because every time man crosses back (as pilgrim) the boundaries of his sinfulness, he becomes the «living» witness to the art of «deception» and its consequences.

      Having thus determined the centrality of the theme of «deception» in Malebolge, we can now turn our attention to the form with which Dante expresses this particular theme, that is, the «farce». There is no doubt that with Canto XXI-XXIII we are dealing with an ample sequence that has, according to Umberto Bosco, «a compact unity of narrative and tone ... We are witnessing here a sacred representation which follows the one that has taken place at the Gate of Dis and anticipates the next one in Purg. VIII, 19ff.: in all three episodes the protagonists are the devils». But whereas at the Gate of Dis, as Bosco further remarks, «there is an atmosphere of violence and sorcery, and the representation in Purgatory ends in a solemn liturgical rite, in this comedy violence and cruelty are seen in a different light».13Although in Malebolge we are dealing with an evil of a supernatural nature, this same evil is portrayed in these cantos in a most «human» way as Dante, engaging also the two pilgrims in a «comic» atmosphere, draws the attention of the reader/viewer to the physical and psychological traits of his characters.14 With great talent he makes a caricature of them. In Martin Grotjahn's view, «the caricature is a variation of the comic. It aims at unmasking and degradation of a person of authority or fame».15 As we have observed, a victim of such caricature is Virgil who is significantly portrayed as a «comic» character devoid of his authority and dignity. But perhaps more importantly, a second victim is the devil, the paradigm of deception, the ultimate deceiver who is deceived by what he himself represents.

      Therefore, as a subtle reminder of the fall of angels and of men, whose pride has disrupted the divine order of universal creation, the «commedia» of Malebolge, defined also by Leo Spitzer as a «strange interlude, unique of its kind»,16 carries with it the overpowering force of an «unheroic situation». According to Spitzer, this is precisely the definition of the farce. «With the utter ruthlessness of untranscendental comedy», Spitzer adds, «man is represented as singularly stripped of his suprahuman qualities - wallowing in the pitch and mire of his infrahuman nature». This «unheroic situation» stands, of course, in strict opposition to the «heroic» image of the Cross, evoked by the third ruina referred to by Malacoda, who has become a victim of his own deceit. His statement, which reflects by its ambiguity the devil's primordial statement uttered in the Garden of Eden, cannot be, as Baglivi and McCutchan put it, but «a constant reminder of his misery and his insurmountable distance from the Savior» (op. cit., p. 257). With Barbariccia's vulgar signal, which closes Canto XXI and which foreshadows the grim and ludicrous events of Canto XXII, we reach the lowest point of the «unheroic». The «human» and degraded world of barratry, a world amusingly portrayed upside down with its games and role reversals, is after all a mild anticipation to the «tragic» world we shall witness at the bottom of Hell. As Northrop Frye suggests in his theory of myths, «tragedy and tragic irony take us into a hell of narrowing circles and culminate in some such vision of the source of all evil in a personal form. Tragedy can take us no further; but if we persevere with the mythos of irony, we shall pass a dead center, and finally see the gentlemanly Prince of Darkness bottom side up».17

      As the theme of «deception» fully develops in Canto XXII, the farce of fallen angels and men leads us into the deep and obscure world of barratry symbolized by the pitch. This «pegola spessa» («thick pitch»), which thus far has shown nothing but the bubbles raised by the boiling, will soon uncover to its viewers its content, its bodily impurity. There is a great coherence in the choice and association of images here as Dante dramatically transposes the consequences of primordial sin (contaminatio) to the physical and degraded world of barratry. In this bolgia, the internal dynamic of «deception» is revealed. Its distorted rhetoric is colorfully and obliquely portrayed by the words, the gestures, and the actions of its characters. Here, again, it is important to recall the notion of linguistic trangressio to tie the farcical elements of the baratta («skirmish»: point of departure) to the «reflexive» moments (episode's conclusion) of Canto XXIII: «Volt'era in su la favola d'Isopo / lo mio pensier per la presente rissa, / dov'el parlò de la rana e del topo» («My thought was turned by the present brawl on the fable of Aesop where he told of the frog and the mouse», vv. 4-6).

      Reminiscent of Adam's transgressio (a figurative journey into the knowledge of good and evil), the image of man, assuming subhuman and beastly qualities, timely comes to the surface in full display to the pilgrim/spectator. In the course of a few verses, Dante multiplies the animal-like images of the sinners. They appear as dolphins (XXII, 19), as frogs (XXII, 25), as otters (XXII, 36), as mice (XXII, 58), and as wild ducks (XXII, 130). As they fall prey to their persecutors, the barrators accentuate the evil nature of these devils. Focusing on the descriptive elements of Canto XXII, Fredi Chiappelli notes how these devils are conceived «in senso cromatico».The violence of their gestures, he writes, «seems to be underlined also by the expression, in a chromatic sense: their two principal gestures, to snatch and to tear with their claws, are varied so as to stress not only the visual aspect of the action (to set the claws on someone) but also to cause an affective reaction (to flay, rip, tear: verbs that communicate various acoustic, epidermic, and visual reactions to what is frightful)».18 These dreadful images, which reflect the Christian characterization of the devil as a wild beast, always on the lookout, ready to prey and tear to shreds its victims, intensify Dante's fear and the fear of every pilgrim in his journey through life, thus adding a deep theological dimension to the notion of temptation and sin. To support this concept is the interdependence of the elements that constitute the main framework of this Canto: the pitch, the devils, and Ciampolo. As the narrative unfolds and becomes more dynamic with its grotesque portrayal of devils and sinners, the pitch turns out to be the end-result, the epitome of corruption, the reminder of that primordial fall at the center of which lie the deceptive powers of language.

      Having set the stage for his dramatic portrayal of «deception», Dante subsequently analyzes the various moments which bring, to the pilgrim's view, that final «providential» moment in retributive justice. This is a theatrical moment, for the devil/deceiver pays a high price by becoming victim of his own deception. In the nuovo ludo that is about to begin, Alichino is appropriately chosen as «comic» character and primary victim of Ciampolo's trickery.19 As Chiappelli observes, Canto XXII is pervaded by a «continuous narrative tension assuming various forms as the main character develops» (op. cit., p. 7). Two are the main frames of the spectacle. While both of these frames trace the development and transformation of Ciampolo's character, at the same time they focus on the aspect of «victimization» transferred from the Navarrese, «ch'avea lacciuoli a gran divizia» («who had artifices in great store») to the devils. As soon as Ciampolo realizes that he has become the center of attention for the two pilgrims, he immediately takes advantage of the situation by exploiting, through his loquaciousness, Dante's curiosity as well as the devils' vanity and cruelty. After having informed the two pilgrims of his origins and of other Italians who are in the pitch, he lures the devils with a tempting proposition:

      «se voi volete vedere o udire»,
ricominciò lo spaurato appresso,
«Toschi o Lombardi, io ne farò venire;
      ma stieno i Malebranche un poco in cesso,
si ch'ei non teman de le lor vendette;
e io, seggendo in questo loco stesso,
      per un ch'io son, ne farò venir sette
quand'io suffolerò, com'è nostro uso
di fare allor che fori alcun si mette».

«If you would see or hear Tuscans or Lombards», the frightened one then began again, «I will make some of them come. But let the Malebranche stand back a bit, so that they may not fear their vengeance; and I, sitting in this same place, for one that I am, will make seven come when I whistle, as is our custom when any of us gets out», (vv. 97-105).

Although the statement seems to concern more directly Dante and Virgil, as it singles out their respective national identities («Toschi o Lombardi»), it has a more subtle effect on the Malebranche, for it accelerates, by the increase in number («per un ch'io son, ne farò venir sette», v. 103), their eagerness and everlasting desire to do evil. Ciampolo's polite and tinted exhortation is an indirect but powerful tool aimed at the fulfillment of their harmful desires. To override Cagnazzo's fear of being tricked («odi malizia / ch'elli ha pensata per gittarsi giuso»: «Hear the cunning trick he has contrived to throw himself down in», vv. 107-8) is Ciampolo's promise of contriving greater sorrow for his companions («Malizioso son io troppo, / quand'io procuro a' mia maggior trestizia»: «I am indeed cunning when I contrive greater sorrow for my companions», vv. 110-11). Ciampolo could not have chosen a better way to challenge the devils at their own game: cruelty and deception. With Ciampolo's bluff, the episode of the nuovo ludo suddenly picks up speed as Dante effectively portrays Ciampolo's victory and Alichino's defeat. The flashing speed of the Navarrese, vividly represented as a wild duck that suddenly «giù s'attuffa» when the falcon approaches, is immediately echoed by the effects of his deception: «buffa», «zuffa» («trick», «scuffle»). The irony of deception in Malebolge comes to its conclusion as the pair buffa/zuffa enclose and enhance the final image of the devils, whom the pilgrims leave thus embroiled in the pitch («E noi lasciammo lor così impacciati»).

      Without losing sight of the serious dimension that «comedy» adds to the narrative, it is possible to perceive at this point the great structural coherence of Inferno XXI-XXIII. After the comic interval of Canto XXI-XXII, during which Dante, as Spitzer remarks, «goes so far as to include himself in the farce, .... as he joins in the parade of the devils, that parody of knightly corteges» (op. cit., p. 84), there is a transition from «laughter» to «reflection», as the tone and the mood sharply change in the contemplation of the opening image of Canto XXIII:

      Taciti, soli, sanza compagnia
n'andavam l'un dinanzi e l'altro dopo,
come frati minor vanno per via.
      Volt'era in su la favola d'Isopo
lo mio pensier per la presente rissa
dov'el parlò de la rana e del topo;
      che più non si pareggia «mo» e «issa»
che l'un con l'altro fa se ben s'accoppia
principio e fine con la mente fissa.

Silent, alone, without escort we went on, one before and the other behind, as Friars Minor go their way. My thought was turned by the present brawl on the fable of Aesop where he told of the frog and the mouse; for Ay and Yea are not more alike than the one case is to the other, if we compare the beginning and the end attentively (vv. 1-9).

There has been much discussion and controversy over the meaning and application of Aesop's fable, which in the collection of Romulus (I, 3) reads as follows: «A mouse wanted to cross a river, and asked help of a frog. The frog took a long string, tied the mouse to his leg, and began to swim. But in the middle of the river, he dove down, to kill the poor mouse. While the mouse was resisting valiantly, a kite flew by, and grabbed him with his claws, lifting out the dangling frog at the same time. That is what happens to those who want to bring harm to others».20As Singleton notes, «in the version of Marie de France, the fable comes to a different conclusion, one that more closely parallels the incident in the Commedia: while the mouse and the frog are struggling in the water, the kite swoops down and carries off the frog, setting the mouse at liberty» (loc. cit.). Among the various interpretations,21 the most accurate and most suitable to our discussion is the one proposed by Neil M. Larkin. He considers the most important point in the fable «the complete innocence of the intended victim».22 Although Larkin substitutes «sets of characters» for «individual personages», his equivalence (Dante & Virgil = mouse and Demons = frog) is correct. His view departs from the traditional application of the fable (Sapegno, Gmelin and Grandgent) which relates specifically to the fight between Alichino and Calcabrina. As Larkin has shown, the identification Alichino = mouse, and Calcabrina = frog, does not hold, for whereas the mouse seeks help, Alichino does not. Furthermore, Alichino is not innocent as the mouse is in the fable. If Alichino has become a victim of deception, this is not due to his naiveté but to his prevailing desire to challenge Ciampolo and satisfy his brutish pride. More importantly, Calcabrina's attack is not «unmotivated», whereas in the fable the frog's desire to cause evil stresses «the gratuitousness of the treachery» (p. 99).

      The aspect of «premeditatingly» conceiving and carrying out harmful thoughts, to which we made reference in connection with Malacoda's linguistic transgressio intended to undermine the «journey», the pilgrims' «crossing», excludes also any possibility of identifying Virgil with the frog. This association is made by Sam Guyler who, in direct opposition to Larkin's view, builds his argument around the theme of «hypocrisy» which emerges from the poetic version of Walter of England. In Guyler's view, this version, cited also by Giorgio Padoan, «is considered more elaborate and offers a number of insights into Dante's reasons for recalling the fable» (op. cit., p. 30). According to Guyler, Virgil is guilty of hypocrisy for he attempts to keep Dante from discovering that he, the authoritative guide, has been deceived by Malacoda. Dante's fear, which has doubled in Canto XXIII («la prima paura mi fé doppia», v. 12), would then derive from the realization that «like the frog, Virgil has been guilty of hypocrisy in an attempt to preserve his facade of authority» (ibid., p. 35). This kind of interpretation, however, does not seem accurate for the simple reason that it undermines the moral of the fable, whatever version we may choose, including the one by Walter of England cited by Guyler: «Sic pereant, qui se prodesse fatentur, et obsunt, / discat in auctorem poena redire suum» («All who claim to offer help and actually hinder / should perish in this way. / Punishment should learn to revert to the one who instigates it»). If we view the whole episode in its structural and thematic development, the moral of the fable can only be applied to the Malebranche who, like the frog, offer themselves under Malacoda's orders as guides for the pilgrims' «crossing»: «Io mando verso là di questi miei / a riguardar s'alcun se ne sciorina; / gite con lor, che non saranno rei» («I am sending some of my company that way, to see if any is out taking the air. Go with them, for they will not harm you», XXI, 115-17). Whereas Virgil's transgressio is merely «verbal», as it stems from his overconfidence and desire to display his rhetorical abilities,23 Malacoda's linguistic transgressio is deeply rooted in «content», in his eternal desire to cause evil. Likewise, whereas Virgil's lack of suspicion and carelessness reveal the limits of his vision in guiding the pilgrim through the depths of Hell, Dante's fear and distrust of Malebranche reaffirm the Christian awareness that the devil is «bugiardo e padre di menzogna» («a liar and the father of lies», XXIII, 144).24 For Dante, Ryan writes in this regard, the Christian dispensation «not only reveals God's goodness, it also reveals the depths of evil, which has its root not simply in human sin but in the rebellion of some of the most perfect of God's creatures, the angels».

      Taken from this wider theological perspective, the fable's conclusion (in the version of Marie de France), in which the frog is victimized by the «unexpected» intervention of the kite while the mouse manages to escape, reflects the law of reciprocal justice governing Dante's world of misery and affliction. As Anthony K. Cassell remarks, the idea of contrapasso, which Dante inherited primarily from St. Thomas Aquinas, derives from the Aristotelian concept of «reciprocal justice» and the lex talionis of the Old Testament. «We satisfy our quest to understand the contrapasso in the Inferno», Cassell writes, «when we see not only that the "punishment fits the crime" but that it is, in all cases, more profoundly, a strict manifestation of the sin as guilt. By tracing the underlying patristic concepts, we can understand that the suffering represents an exteriorizing of the wickedness and corruption that lurks within the souls of the sinners. The images of the damned figure symbolically, iconographically, and theologically the very mystery and complexity of their sins».25 In the final analysis, while in the bolgia of barratry Dante reveals and exteriorizes the consequences of the political subversion and corruption of the «natural» order, he also unveils, in the brutish and grotesque image of degraded angels and men, the subversion and corruption of the «supernatural» order, manifested by the distortion and loss of the beautiful image of God. Through the «comedy» of Malebolge, at the center of which sinners and persecutors eternally switch roles in their futile games of «deception», and through the «reflection» of that primordial transgressio, at the end of which is found the «gratuitousness of salvation», the Christian pilgrim is finally able to mount «up by the ruin» (XXIII, 137) that leads to his atonement and purification.*

University of Maryland

*Lecture given at the University of Virginia on March 28, 1988.


1 In his essay «Comedìa» in Yearbook of Italian Studies, I (1971), p. 29: «dalla fine del canto XVI a tutto il canto seguente l'inferno è dominato dalla figura di Gerione. Tra i fatti anche esterni che segnalano l'importanza della sua apparizione va notato che al termine di questo episodio è trascorsa esattamente la prima metà dell' Inferno, coincidenza non certo casuale nella strategia strutturale di Dante».

2 This is Boccaccio's account in his Genealogia: «Et inde Gerion dicta, qui regnans apud Baleares insulas Gerion miti vultu, blandisque verbis et omni comitate consueverit hospites suscipere, et demum sub hac benignitate sopitos occidere» (I, 21: «It is named after Geryon, who reigned near the Balearic Islands. With a mild face, sweet words, using every politeness, he used to attract strangers to him, and then, having lulled them with his benignity, he would slay them»; quoted by Charles S. Singleton in his Commentary to The Divine Comedy, Inferno, p. 294).

3 Nel momento in cui la Frode sta per emergere non solo alla coscienza di Dante, ma anche davanti agli occhi del lettore, il poeta rivede tutta la propria opera come menzogna, inadeguata tessitura di parole, nuova patetica sfida di Aragne a Minerva. Ma al tempo stesso egli parla in nome della verità, e qui è la sua differenza con Gerione (op. cit., p. 41).

4 «Un'emersione espressa attraverso l'immagine del marinaio che torna alla superficie del mare dove si è tuffato per liberare l'ancora impigliata, quindi (e non a caso) per eliminare un intoppo che impedisce la prosecuzione del viaggio» (op. cit., p. 34).

5 «L'ardore della passione viziosa, l'avidità del denaro .... Avevano operato in vita i loro traffici disonesti .... Baratteria macchi e corrompa chiunque la pratichi»: «Lettura del Canto XXI dell'Inferno», Giornale storico della letteratura italiana, CLVIII (1981), p. 6.

6 «The Extended Simile in the Inferno», in Italica, XLI (1964), p. 306.

7 «Nei modi di un'immagine dinamica, che suggerisce il movimento della fuga e l'atto del volgersi a guardare, è stabilito un nesso, fondamentale per la comprensione del canto, tra visione e paura, è fermata inequivocabilmente l'angolazione precisa e l'animo con i quali Dante personaggio osserverà lo spettacolo diabolico» (op. cit., p. 12).

8 «Inferno XXI: Virgil and Dante. A Study in Contrasts», Italica, LIX (1982), p. 16.

9 As Charles S. Singleton notes in his commentary, like the other two ruine, «the breakdown over the sixth bolgia referred to by Malacoda, occurred after Virgil's previous journey to lower Hell, and consequently he is easily deceived. Virgil does know, however, (see Inf. XII, 45), that the rock of Hell collapsed at more than one point». For a full discussion of the three ruine see Singleton's «Vistas in Retrospect», MLN, LXXXI (1966), pp. 55-80.

10 «Dante, Christ, and the Fallen Bridges», Italica, LIV (1977), p. 255.

11 Quoted from Conrieri, op. cit., p. 6.

12 «L'impostazione e il modo della polemica obbediscono a una ragione poetica: l'indiscriminante infamia che colpisce Lucca la trasforma in luogo privilegiato e simbolo di una generale condizione peccaminosa.... La concentrazione della polemica contro una sola città, insomma, non vuole stabilire confini alla sua portata, ma esaltarne, con tutto il necessario risentimento stilistico, l'energia e la funzione paradigmatica» (op. cit., p. 15).

13 «Una compatta unità narrativa e tonale .... Assistiamo qui a una grande "rappresentazione sacra" che segue l'altra svoltasi dinnanzi alle mura della città di Dite e anticipa l'altra di Purg. VIII, 19 ss.: in tutte e tre sono in primo piano i diavoli .... Spira vento di tragica violenza e sortilegio, e la rappresentazione del Purgatorio si risolve in un solenne rito liturgico, in questa commedia la violenza e la crudeltà dei diavoli son viste in tutt'altra luce» («Il ludo dantesco dei barattieri», in Essays in Honour of John Humphreys Whitfield, edited by H. C. Davis, D. G. Rees, J. M. Hartwell and G. W. Slavey, London: St. George's Press, 1975, p. 31.

14 On this precise aspect of «humanity» Henri Bergson will base his primary notion of the «comic». He writes in this regard: «The first point to which attention should be called is that the comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly human. A landscape may be beautiful, charming and sublime, or insignificant and ugly; it will never be laughable. You may laugh at an animal, but only because you have detected in it some human attitude or expression. You may laugh at a hat, but what you are making fun of, in this case, is not the piece of felt or straw, but the shape that men have given it, __ the human caprice whose mould it has assumed». (Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, trans. Cloudesly Brereton and Fred Rothwell, London: MacMillan, 1911, p. 3).

15Beyond Laughter, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1957, p. 17.

16 «The Farcical Elements in Inferno XXI-XXIII» LIX (1944), p. 83.

17The Anatomy of Criticism, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957, p. 239.

18 «Sembra pure sottolineata, nell'espressione, in senso cromatico: i due gesti principali che essi compiono, l'afferrare e il ferir con gli artigli, sono variati sia in modo da mettere in rilievo l'aspetto prevalentemente visivo dell'azione (mettere gli unghioni addosso) sia in modo da connotare una forte affettività (scuoiare, sdrucire, stracciare: verbi che comunicano varie reazioni acustiche, epidermiche, visuali dell'orribile)» («Il Canto XXII dell'Inferno», in Letture dantesche, ed. Giovanni Getto, Firenze: Sansoni, 1964, p. 5-6).

19 Tracing the origin of Alichino's name and his role in Medieval tradition, Guido Favati notes how Dante conforms himself, in his description of the devils, «ai modi propri d'un ben definito genere letterario, ... quello, appunto delle rappresentazioni teatrali giullaresche ove agiscono diavoli» (p. 44). For more details on Alichino and other devils of Malebolge, see Favati's «Il "Jeu de Dante" (Interpretazione del Canto XXI dell'Inferno)», in Cultura neolatina, XXV (1965), pp. 34-52.

20 «Mus cum transire vellet flumen, a rana petiit auxilium. Illa grossum petiit linum, murem sibi ad pedem ligavit, et natare coepit. In medio vero flumine rana se deorsum mersit, ut miserrimo vitam eriperet. Ille validus dum teneret vires, milvus e contra volans, murem cum unguibus rapuit, simul et ranam pendentem sustulit. Sic enim et illis contingit, qui de salute alterius adversa cogitant». Text and translation from Singleton's commentary, p. 391.

21 For a wider perspective on the sources and application of Aesop's fable, see also Kenneth McKenzie, «Dante's References to Aesop», Seventeenth Annual Report of the Dante Society, Boston, 1900, pp. 1-14; Enzo Mandruzzato, «L'apologo "della rana e del topo" e Dante (Inf. XXIII, 4-9)», Studi danteschi, XXXIII (1955-56), pp. 147-65; Giorgio Padoan, «Il 'Liber Esopi' e due episodi dell''Inferno'», Studi danteschi, XLI (1964), pp. 75-102; and Sam Guyler, «Virgil the Hypocrite __ Almost: A Re-interpretation of Inferno XXIII», Dante Studies, XC (1972), pp. 25-42.

22 «Another Look at Dante's Frog and Mouse», MLN, LXXVII (1962), pp. 98-99.

23 Even in Canto XXIII, where Dante speaks to Virgil in urgent and direct tones, as Ryan suggests (op. cit., p. 22), «Virgil replies in figurative speech showing more concern for elegance of expression than the occasion would seem to warrant».

24 Virgil's identification with «reason» in its primordial innocence and its vulnerability to the devil's deception in the Garden is reinforced by Fra Catalano's biblical reference: «Ille [the devil] homicida erat ab initio, et in veritate non stetit: qui non est veritas in eo: cum loquitur mendacium, ex propriis loquitur, quia mendax est, et pater eius» (Jn. VIII, 44; cited by Ryan).

25Dante's Fearful Art of Justice, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1984, p. 9.

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