The Divine Comedy by Dante ALIGHIERI · Digital Dante Edition with Commento Baroliniano · MMXV ·   Columbia University

Inferno 21


Diabolic Semiosis

The Undivine Comedy, Chapter 4, “Narrative and Style in Lower Hell”, pp. 80-81; Dante’s Poets, pp. 222-23.
  • Dante uses subliminal techniques of verisimilitude: “che la mia comedìa cantar non cura
  • the rough “tavern humor” and plebeian lexicon adds to narrative variatio and innovation
  • the beginning of a play in four acts
  • a small society comes into focus, with a complex and stratified social order
  • a major installment in the Virgilio narrative
  • Malacoda’s “truthful lie” vs. Dante’s “ver c’ha faccia di menzogna”

The first terzina of Inferno 21 features the poem’s second and last use of the noun that has given it its title:

Così di ponte in ponte, altro parlando
che la mia comedìa cantar non cura,
venimmo . . .                             (Inf. 21.1-3)

We came along from one bridge to another, 
talking of things my Comedy is not
concerned to sing . . . 

In this terzina Dante lets us know that, although comedìa tells truth, it does not tell everything: it tells only what has been deemed necessary and important for its readers.

In effect, Dante here lets us know that he has curated his voyage, and in so doing he also adds to its realism. He gives life to the text by casually insisting on the life outside the text: the many things he saw that he chooses not to relate. This is one of the many remarkably effective subliminal techniques for garnering verisimilitude of which the Commedia is full.

The two travelers have left behind the twisted forms of the diviners in the fourth bolgia. In the second terzina of Inferno 21 they pause at the top of the arching bridge to look down into the next “fessura”—cleft or ditch (4)—which is “mirabilmente oscura” (wonderfully dark [Inf. 21.6]). The reason for the darkness of the fifth bolgia will turn out to be that it is filled with boiling pitch of the sort used to mend ships. All this is explained by way of a famous and detailed comparison between the pitch that is prepared during the winter by the Venetians in their arsenal—“Quale ne l’arzanà de’ Viniziani (As in the Venetian arsenal [Inf. 21.7])—and the material prepared in the fifth bolgia, “not by fire, but by the art of God”: “non per foco, ma per divin’ arte” (Inf. 21.16).

The fifth bolgia of the ten bolge of the circle of fraud holds the barattieri, as specified in Inferno 21.41: “ogn’uom v’è barattier” (there, everyone’s a grafter). Baratteria (“lucra illicita”) includes selling influence, taking bribes and kickbacks, and in general corrupting public office and civic life. Barratry is to secular office what simony is to religious office.

Barratry was the crime typically used in Dante’s day as the juridical pretext of those newly come to power for exiling their adversaries. As such it was leveled against Dante and other “Bianchi” (the White party, to which Dante belonged) when the “Neri” (the Blacks) came to power. See Inferno 6 and Inferno 10 for the struggles between the two factions and the ultimate wresting of power from the Bianchi by the Neri, resulting in Dante’s exile. It must have been particularly galling for one such as Dante to find himself formally accused of baratteria.

Because baratteria is the corruption of civic governance, the result of baratteria is the corruption of the social order.

Hence in the canti devoted to barratry Dante will create the contours of a small society that is deeply corrupted by mutual and absolute lack of trust.

The treatment of the fifth bolgia is unusually extended (perhaps, some have speculated, because of the autobiographical dimension of barratry for Dante), embracing roughly two and one-third canti: canto 21, canto 22, and the first 57 verses of canto 23. The bolgia of barratry boasts two intertwined story-arcs, a primary story-arc and a secondary story-arc that is inserted into the first:

  1. Inferno 21, verse 4 - Inferno 23, verse 57: the story of what happens between Dante and Virgilio and the devils who are the guardians of this bolgia; this story-arc extends all the way to Inferno 23.57
  2. Inferno 22, verse 31 - Inferno 22, verse 151: the secondary story-arc is confined to canto 22 and is the story of what happens between a particular sinner and the devils who capture him; this story-arc begins in Inferno 22.31 and concludes at the end of the canto 22

I will present the events of this bolgia as a “play in 4 acts” that unfolds over two and one-third canti. The drama involves both sinners and devils; the devils are the guardians of this bolgia, whose job it is to fork the sinners and stick them back under the boiling pitch whenever they try to come up for relief. A devil is described in verses 29-33, where we learn that he is black and fierce, with wings spread wide: “con l’ali aperte e sovra i piè leggero!” (His wings were open and his feet were lithe [Inf. 21.33]).

As the description of the devil suggests, this is the bolgia that conforms most explicitly to the popular medieval conception of Hell.

Those of you who have read the Decameron can also think of the parallels between the story-line of these canti and many novelle in which we see the theme of the “beffator beffato”: the trickster who is tricked in turn by someone even cleverer than he. The beffa is a staple of the novella tradition: in Boccaccio’s hands it is a form of trickery and deceit that has an active and physical component, that is not simply verbal deceit. The beffa will play a major role in this bolgia, particularly in canto 22.

Everyone in this bolgia—including both barrater-prisoners and devil-guards—is tricky and deceitful, and everyone is trying to deceive everyone else.

Military themes and lexicon are featured in Inferno 21 and 22. These themes have the effect of focusing on the state and citizenship and the responsibilities of governance, the very responsibilities abused by the barraters. The simile of the Venetian arsenal at the beginning of Inferno 21 emphasizes civic industry and collaboration. Likewise, the autobiographical reference to the battle of Caprona in Inferno 21.95 serves to remind us of Dante’s own civic engagement: as a citizen of Florence he was also perforce a member of the militia and had the responsibility to take part in battle, a responsibility that he fulfilled.

Act 1. Inferno 21, verses 4-57

After the introductory sequence describing the features of the fifth bolgia, Dante begins the action with the arrival of a devil. He calls out to his fellow devils, “O Malebranche” (37), thus giving us for the first time an appellation for the diabolic denizens of this realm. We are in a place that, as we learned in Inferno 18, is “detto Malebolge” (called Malebolge [Inf. 18.1]), and whose inhabitants are the “Malebranche” (Inf. 21.37); we will learn further on that their leader is named “Malacoda” (Inf. 21.76). This devil carries an “anziano” (Inf. 21.38): a magistrate, holder of public office, the equivalent of prior in Florence. Through the reference to the cult of “Santa Zita” (Inf. 21.38) it is stipulated that this magistrate is from Lucca. The focus on Lucca, a Tuscan city, highlights the theme of civic graft as part of the urban fabric in city-states like Lucca and Florence.

As mentioned above, this bolgia conforms to the popular conception of Hell. Along with its popular infernal iconography of devils armed with prongs and hooks, it also features popular diction and humor. Carrying the sinners by the ankles, slung over their shoulders in the way that butchers carry carcasses (34-36), the devils are compared to cooks who order their scullery-urchins to force the meat back under the broth in the pot, so that it does not float:

Non altrimenti i cuoci a’ lor vassalli
fanno attuffare in mezzo la caldaia
la carne con li uncin, perché non galli.    (Inf. 21.55-57)

The demons did the same as any cook
who has his urchins force the meat with hooks
deep down into the pot, that it not float.

In the precision of “cuoci” vs. “vassalli” we see an emblem of the stratified social order that emerges from these canti. If we begin to form the image of a huge kitchen in a castle, populated by cooks and scullery-urchins and huge pots of boiling broth, that image will be in keeping with the encounter in Inferno 22 with a grafter who lived on the seedy fringes of life in the castle of Thibaut II.

Act 2. Inferno 21, verses 58-end, and Inferno 22, verses 1-30

Now begin the interactions and negotiations between Dante, Virgilio, and a troop of devils bearing evocative names and led by Malacoda. For the first time in their journey together Virgilio orders Dante to hide, telling him not to fear for he knows how to handle devils, having dealt with them on a previous occasion:

e per nulla offension che mi sia fatta, 
non temer tu, ch’i’ ho le cose conte, 
perch’ altra volta fui a tal baratta.   (Inf. 21.61-63)

No matter what offense they offer me, 
don’t be afraid; I know how these things go—
I’ve had to face such fracases before.   

Virgilio’s reminder that he has been here before, intended to reassure, is not very reassuring when we consider the two possible referents for verse 63’s “altra volta” (the other, previous, time of his journey through Hell): the “altra volta” can either refer to the time, long before this journey, when Virgilio went to the pit of Hell conjured by the sorceress Erichtho (see Inferno 9), or it can refer to the time, within the parameters of this journey, when he attempted to negotiate with the devils at the gates of Dis (see Inferno 8 and 9). The first occasion is tainted because of its association with black magic, and the second occasion is far from reassuring because it did not result in Virgilio’s success.

Moreover, we are in possession of information that tells us unequivocally that the pilgrim will not find a reminder of the events at the gates of Dis reassuring. In Inferno 14 the pilgrim tellingly called his guide “you who can defeat / all things except for those tenacious demons / who tried to block us at the entryway”:

                 Maestro, tu che vinci 
tutte le cose, fuor che ’ demon duri
ch’a l’intrar de la porta incontra uscinci  (Inf. 14.43-45)

Despite his previous failure, and despite the pilgrim’s obvious awareness of that failure, Virgilio remains touchingly confident in his abilities. And yet he is facing a greater challenge than the one he faced in Inferno 8-9.

At the gates of Dis Virgilio negotiates with devils who remain anonymous and who are truculent and defiant. Malacoda, an individualized devil with a name and personality, instead will be suavely deceitful.

With the addition of much more color and detail, with a baroque and burlesque unfolding of diabolic names—Malacoda, Alichino, Calcabrina, Cagnazzo, Barbariccia, Libicocco, Draghignazzo, Ciriatto, Graffiacane, Farfarello, Rubicante—that correspond to diabolic personalities, the scene from Inferno 8 is now reprised and modulated, replayed not in the key of defiance but in the key of malice and deceit.

Virgilio explains to Malacoda that his quest to guide someone (an unspecified someone, for Dante is still in hiding) through the infernal regions is willed by God. Malacoda replies with a resignation that is likely feigned but that immediately results in Virgilio summoning Dante from his hiding place. The pilgrim however is not as trusting in the negotiation that has just occurred as is his guide.

The narrator compares the fear that he feels on coming forth from hiding to the fear of the conquered Pisan soldiers whom he saw exit the castle of Caprona after the battle of August 1289. A pact was struck at Caprona, whereby the Pisans, having surrendered, would be allowed to exit the castle with guarantee of safe-passage. Similarly, a pact has been struck here, in the fith bolgia, between Virgilio and Malacoda. But Dante fears that the pact cannot be trusted, and of course he is right.

Malacoda proceeds to weave truth with falsehood into a perfectly designed trap, giving instructions and information that seem straightforward and helpful to Virgilio but that his troops can decode as deceitful and hostile. We can parse Malacoda’s speech, labeling its sections true or false, and see how he weaves his falsehoods in with his truths:

  1. Verses 106-08: “Più oltre andar per questo / iscoglio non si può, però che giace / tutto spezzato al fondo l’arco sesto” (You can go no farther / on this ridge, because the sixth bridge / lies smashed to bits at the bottom there) TRUE
  2. Verses 109-11: “E se l’andare avante pur vi piace, / andatevene su per questa grotta; / presso è un altro scoglio che via face” (Yet if you two still want to go ahead, / move up and walk along this rocky edge; / nearby, another ridge will form a path) FALSE
  3. Verses 112-14: “Ier, più oltre cinqu’ ore che quest’otta, / mille dugento con sessanta sei / anni compié che qui la via fu rotta” (Five hours from this hour yesterday, / one thousand and two hundred sixty-six / years passed since that roadway was shattered here) TRUE

In sum, Malacoda’s three declarations can be labeled thus:

  1. It is TRUE that the way forward is obstructed because the sixth bridge lies smashed to bits on the floor of Hell.
  2. It is FALSE that they will eventually find an unbroken bridge over the bolgia.
  3. It is TRUE that the shattering of the bridge occurred precisely 1266 years ago (plus one day minus five hours).

The falsehood of an intact bridge that can be found further on is successfully packaged as truth, by being sandwiched between the truthful statements on either side of it.

In verses 115-26 Malacoda orders his troops to set out on a reconnaissance mission to check on sinners who have exited the pitch and simultaneously to accompany the travelers to the next bridge. He concludes with a clear signal that the travelers are fair game, for they are to be kept safe until they arrive at the next intact crossing-point: “costor sian salvi infino a l’altro scheggio / che tutto intero va sovra le tane” (keep these two safe and sound till the next ridge / that rises without break across the dens [Inf. 21.125-26]).

However, there is no bridge that crosses over the next bolgia intact—“tutto intero” (Inf. 21.126)—since all the bridges over the sixth bolgia were shattered at the same time. Hence Malacoda’s instruction to his fellow-devils to guide Dante and Virgilio and to keep them safe until (“infino a”) they reach the next intact bridge is a covert instruction to attack them. Malacoda’s safe-passage is a fraud.

Malacoda correctly informs the travelers that the broken bridge was shattered 1266 years ago (plus one day minus five hours), in other words, that the bridge fell during the earthquake that accompanied Christ’s Crucifixion. He however omits the information that at that time all the bridges over the sixth bolgia crumbled and fell in ruins to the floor of Hell.

The devil thus embeds his lie about the bridges over the sixth bolgia of Malebolge into his truthful account of the earthquake that accompanied the Crucifixion. The larger truth to which he attaches his falsehood makes his lie compelling and assures the success of his deceit. Malacoda’s account is so truthful, so “historical,” that he dates Dante’s journey by telling us the precise number of years that have passed since Christ harrowed Hell and the infernal “ruine” were first formed (see Inferno 12):

  Ier, più oltre cinqu’ore che quest’otta,
mille dugento con sessanta sei
anni compié che qui la via fu rotta. (Inf. 21.112-114)
  Five hours from this hour yesterday,
one thousand and two hundred sixty-six
years passed since that roadway was shattered here.

The earthquake occurred in the year 34 CE at noon of Good Friday. It is now 1266 years plus one day minus 5 hours later: in other words, it is now 7 AM of Holy Saturday in the year 1300. In order to deceive Virgilio and Dante, Malacoda offers true and precise information with which we can date the pilgrim’s journey. Indeed, Malacoda’s reference is so important that all our critical discussions as to precise dates and times within the poem have to begin from the information that Malacoda provides us here.

Malacoda is able to deceive Virgilio because the Roman poet’s first trip to lower Hell antedates the earthquake (as we learned in Inferno 9, Virgilio was newly arrived in hell when Erichtho summoned him), and because he accompanies his lie with a great truth: the true date of the death of Christ.

Malacoda’s truthful lie—in effect, a falsehood that appears true—is the precise inversion of comedìa, a truth that appears false. We recall that toward the end of Inferno 16, when Dante first uses the term comedìa in the context of Geryon’s arrival, he defines it as a “truth that has the face of a lie”: “ver c’ha faccia di menzogna” (Inf. 16.124).

Inferno 21 ends with a burlesque treatment of military behavior as practiced by devils in Hell and with a famous instance of the low “tavern humor” that characterizes this bolgia. The devils signal to their leader that they have understood his instructions by pressing their tongues between their teeth. He in turn signals them to depart on their mission with a trumpet blast from his ass:

ma prima avea ciascun la lingua stretta
coi denti, verso lor duca, per cenno;
ed elli avea del cul fatto trombetta.   (Inf. 21.137-39)

But first each pressed his tongue
between his teeth as signal for their leader.
And he had made a trumpet of his ass.  

A comedìa necessarily embraces and meditates on all forms of semiosis, because it embraces and meditates on all of reality.

Recommended Citation

Barolini, Teodolinda. "Inferno 21 : Diabolic Semiosis." Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. Center for Digital Research and Scholarship. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2015.

Coordinated Reading