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

Inferno 23


Diabolic Impotence

The Undivine Comedy, Chapter 4, “Narrative and Style in Lower Hell”; pp. 82-86, Chapter 7, “Nonfalse Errors and the True Dreams of the Evangelist”, p. 164; Dante’s Poets, pp. 103-05, p. 223, pp. 239-40.
  • semiotic uncertainty through proliferation of meaning
  • scripting suspense in an overdetermined narrative
  • what is “imagined” is nonetheless true the “nonfalse errors” of Purgatorio 15
  • the Virgilio double helix
  • Dante and the Jews
  • the bolgia of hypocrisy and religion: “la malvagia ipocresia de’ religiosi” (Decameron 1.6)

Act 4. Inferno 23, verses 1-57

After the barrater Ciampolo succeeds in tricking the devils and causes them to fight each other at the end of Inferno 22, Inferno 23 resumes by continuing the “play in 4 acts” begun in Inferno 21: we now go back to the main plot treating Dante and Virgilio deceived by recalcitrant and malevolent devils. We recall that in Inferno 21 Malacoda instructed Barbariccia and his band to grant Dante and Virgilio safe passage to the place where they will find an intact bridge that spans the sixth bolgia: “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]).

Because there is no intact bridge over the sixth bolgia (all the bridges over the sixth bolgia collapsed at the same time, during the earthquake that accompanied the Crucifixion), Malacoda was effectively telling his devils that they will soon be authorized to attack the travelers.

Malacoda’s deceptive instructions in Inferno 21, a trick to lull Dante and Virgilio into a sense of false security before the devils turn on them, are given to his troops before the incident with Ciampolo that takes place in Inferno 22. When the devils regroup after having been tricked by that tricky barrater, after the humiliation of being embroiled in the pitch alongside the very sinners they guard, they will be even more stoked with malice toward the travelers than they were before.

And so Inferno 23 begins with a sense of uneasiness. The travelers walk alone and “without company” (“sanza compagnia” recalls the “fiera compagnia” with which they were forced to travel in Inferno 22.14), silent and in single file like Franciscan friars when they travel:

Taciti, soli, sanza compagnia
n’andavam l’un dinanzi e l’altro dopo,
come frati minor vanno per via.  (Inf. 23.1-3)

Silent, alone, no one escorting us,
we made our way—one went before, one after—
as Friars Minor when they walk together.  

The reference to Franciscan friars anticipates the clerical features that will mark Dante’s treatment of the bolgia of the hypocrites, a bolgia that the travelers will enter in this canto.

The sense of uneasiness increases as a result of learning what the pilgrim is thinking about as he walks. He is meditating on Aesop’s Fable of the frog and the mouse, which he considers analogous to the events that have just occurred:

Vòlt’ era in su la favola d’Isopo
lo mio pensier per la presente rissa,
dov’ el parlò de la rana e del topo.  (Inf. 23.4-6)

The present fracas made me think of Aesop—
that fable where he tells about the frog and mouse.

This literary analogy is semiotically fascinating. As I show in my discussion of this passage in The Undivine Comedy, the comparison of the events occurring in Inferno 23 to Aesop’s Fable of the frog and mouse does not lead to semiotic clarity.

The events that have occurred in the fifth bolgia are declared as similar as mo is to issa (the two words mo and issa both mean “now”) to the events recounted in Aesop’s Fable about a mouse who asks a frog for help in crossing a river. The plot of the Fable unfolds as follows: tying the mouse to his leg with a string, the frog sets out and, at midstream, begins to dive, intending to kill the mouse. The mouse resists; a kite flying by seizes the mouse and, because of the string, is rewarded with the malicious frog as well.

As I write in The Undivine Comedy: “Applying one set of signs (the text of the fable) to another (the text of the poem) results not in clarity but in confusion. And, in fact, the two signs—‘mo’ and ‘issa’—whose likeness is declared the basis of the comparison between the larger sets of signs, are themselves irreducibly different” (p. 84).

If we analyze the analogy between Aesop’s Fable and the events of Inferno 21 and 22, as I do in The Undivine Comedy, we see that it leads to a multiplicity of possible meanings:

The most common interpretation of this passage views Alichino as the mouse, Calcabrina as the frog who should have come to his aid, and the pitch as the kite who triumphs over both. More recently, scholars have begun to focus on a second level of meaning, suggesting a proleptic analogy between the fable and the pursuit that is about to occur, whereby Dante is the mouse, Virgilio is an unwitting frog leading the mouse into danger, and the Malebranche are the kite.

What interests me here, however, is not the correct interpretation of the passage, but the fact that its interpretation has traditionally proved so arduous. Establishing the equivalences between the two sets of signs—indeed, three sets, if we add the story of Dante, Virgilio, and the devils—has resulted in as many interpretations as there are ways of combining the variables Dante has given us.

Thus, in addition to the most popular reading mentioned above, the exegetical record includes the following combinations: Ciampolo as mouse, Alichino as frog, Calcabrina as kite; Alichino as frog, Calcabrina as kite; Ciampolo as frog, devils as mouse; Alichino as mouse, Calcabrina as frog, Barbariccia as kite; Dante and Virgilio as mouse, devils as frog, with the sometime addition of Ciampolo as kite; Ciampolo as frog at beginning, Calcabrina as frog at end; Alichino and Dante as mouse, Calcabrina and Virgilio as frog, devils twice as kite; Ciampolo and Dante as mouse, Alichino and Virgilio as frog, Calcabrina and devils as kite.

Undoubtedly, some of these equivalences are more plausible than others; nonetheless, it is significant that Dante has planted a semiotic terrain fertile enough for all of them—even the most farfetched—to spring up. In other words, the historical lack of critical consensus regarding the application of the fable to the events of the poem is part of Dantes point, which is the ambiguity—the Geryonesque fraudulence—of all signs, all representation. Applying one set of signs (the text of the fable) to another (the text of the poem) results not in clarity but in confusion. And, in fact, the two signs—“mo” and “issa”—whose likeness is declared the basis of the comparison between the larger sets of signs, are themselves irreducibly different. (The Undivine Comedy, pp. 83-84)

The semiotic density and obscurity of the analogy—its “Geryonesque fraudulence”—increases the sense of apprehension that hangs in the air in the opening of Inferno 23.

The narrator continues to recount the pilgrim’s thoughts, which are focused on the devils and what he imagines will be their heightened malevolence, due to the “beffa” they have suffered (a beffa is a deceitful trick that uses action rather than simply language):

Io pensava così: “Questi per noi
sono scherniti con danno e con beffa
sì fatta, ch’assai credo che lor nòi.”  (Inf. 23.13-15)

I thought: “Because of us, they have been mocked,
and this inflicted so much hurt and scorn
that I am sure they feel deep indignation.”

The pilgrim intuits that the devils will chase them, and that they will be all the more determined not to lose this very special prey after having lost a routine barrater.

Immediately, upon having this thought, the pilgrim imagines the Malebranche in hot pursuit, using the verb imaginare: “io li ’magino sì, che già li sento” (I so imagine them, I hear them now [Inf. 23.24]). His hair curls with fear (19-20) and he tells Virgilio that the devils are already right behind them, at their heels: “Noi li avem già dietro; / io li ’magino sì, che già li sento” (they are after us; / I so imagine them, I hear them now [Inf. 23.23-24]).

The challenge for the narrator in this passage is how to create and manage fear of the Malebranche. How, in other words, does the narrator generate suspense about the devils’ pursuit of the travelers, given the overdetermined plot with which he is working? All readers of Inferno who have read carefully thus far know that Dante cannot be harmed, that his journey through the afterlife is willed by God (see the Introduction to Inferno 2).

Dante-poet here faces a narrative dilemma: how to represent the devils as though they pose a real threat and yet not contradict the providential nature of the pilgrim’s quest?

Dante has particular techniques with which he manipulates narrative time and generates a feeling of suspense, a feeling created narratologically by the suspension of events in order to generate uncertainty as to their outcome. We saw at the end of Inferno 8 how Dante uses the little adverb “già” to great effect as the travelers wait, in a suspenseful sequence, for the arrival of the divine messenger who will open the gate of Dis.

In Inferno 23 we witness an accelerated use of the same technique: “Già mi sentia tutti arricciar li peli / de la paura” (Already I felt my hair curling with fear [19-20]) is the verse that begins the buildup of narrative suspense. The pilgrim then alerts Virgilio as to his fear of the Malebranche, saying, “Noi li avem già dietro; / io li ’magino sì, che già li sento” (Already we have them behind us; / I so imagine them, I already hear them [23-24]). As soon as Virgilio has suggested a way for them to flee “the imagined chase”—“l’imaginata caccia” (33)—the narrator cuts in with another già: “Già non compié di tal consiglio rendere, / ch’io li vidi venir con l’ali tese” (He’d hardly finished telling me his plan / when I saw them approach with outstretched wings [34-35]).

I write about the importance of “già” and Dante’ deployment of the adverb’s ability to generate temporal slippage in the diegesis in The Undivine Comedy:

Here già must do what the narrator, constrained by temporal order, cannot; the adverb insinuates simultaneity, gives us the impression that the devils are upon the travelers before Virgilio has finished speaking (while in actual fact, of course, the narrator has been obliged to register all of Virgilio’s words, and only then can pass on to the pursuers). Throughout the episode there is a tension between, on the one hand, temporal adverbs that denote urgency and immediacy (not only già, but tostamente [22], tosto [27], pur mo [28], sùbito [37], sì tosto [46], a pena [52]) and, on the other, the word imaginare, which seems to relegate the devils to the pilgrims overheated imagination (“io li ’magino sì”, “imaginata caccia”). (The Undivine Comedy, p. 85)

The other issue here, of course, is that the devils will soon be revealed to be not just imagined, but real. And, indeed, imaginare will turn out to be a term, like sognare and parere, that signals an imagined reality that is not merely imagined, but real.

I write about the “imaginata caccia” of Inferno 23 and the “incendio imaginato” of Purgatorio 9 in The Undivine Comedy:

In the world of nonfalse error, what seems less realistic need not be less true. The adjective imaginato tells an interesting story in this regard, for when Vergil uses it to suggest that the devils’ pursuit is not real in Inferno 23, he is mistaken; and if the “imaginata caccia” of the bolgia of barratry is real, why not the “incendio imaginato” of the pilgrim’s first dream? Maybe, in Purgatorio 9, the eagle is the “erring” gloss of that for which Lucia is the “true” explanation, but if so the eagle is a nonfalse error. And the Virgin imaginata in the act of speech, the incense imaginato as its smoke enfolds the dancing Psalmist (both these uses belong to the sculpted exempla of Purgatorio 10), are equally “real”. These images are real, like the dream of the dreamer who wishes he were dreaming in the remarkable simile of Inferno 30: “Qual è colui che suo dannaggio sogna, / che sognando desidera sognare, / sì che quel ch’è, come non fosse, agogna” (Like the one who dreams his hurt and, / dreaming, wishes he were dreaming, / so that what is, as though it were not, he craves [Inf. 30.136-38]). (The Undivine Comedy, p. 164)

The devils’ chase not only gives the narrator the opportunity to create suspense and fear, it also offers an opportunity to offset Virgilio’s overconfidence and consequent failure with the protective love and concern that he shows for the pilgrim in the face of danger. Because all the bridges over the sixth bolgia were destroyed (see Inferno 21 and the discussion of Malacoda’s lie), Virgilio and Dante must slide on their backs right down into the sixth bolgia, home of the hypocrites.

Thankfully there is no boiling tar in the sixth bolgia!

In the final chapter of Dante’s Poets I analyze at length the double helix of Dante’s “Virgilio narrative”, with its braided intellective and affective strands. I show how Dante constructs a coordinated story-line for his guide, rendering him ever more liable to fail intellectively and—simultaneously—ever more loved and admired personally and affectively.

Inferno 21-23 constitute a major installment in this narrative thread, insisting both on Virgilio’s failure as guide in dealing with Malacoda, and on the love and care that he shows for his charge when confronted with danger. Thus as they flee the devils Virgilio is described as a mother who thinks naught of herself or her own dignity (she is naked) as she saves the life of her child:

  Lo duca mio di sùbito mi prese,
come la madre ch’al romore è desta
e vede presso a sé le fiamme accese,
  che prende il figlio e fugge e non s’arresta,
avendo più di lui che di sé cura,
tanto che solo una camiscia vesta . . .  (Inf. 23.37-42)
  My guide snatched me up instantly, just as
the mother who is wakened by a roar
and catches sight of blazing flames beside her,
  will lift her son and run without a stop—
she cares more for the child than for herself—
not pausing even to throw on a shift . . .

The episode concludes with a narrative assertion of the impotence of the devils. In an echo of Beatrice’s claim that Hell’s misery does not touch her (Inferno 2.92), the narrative tells us that the devils are powerless outside of the bolgia whose guards they are:

  A pena fuoro i piè suoi giunti al letto 
del fondo giù, ch’e’ furon in sul colle
sovresso noi; ma non lì era sospetto;
  ché l’alta provedenza che lor volle
porre ministri de la fossa quinta,
poder di partirs’ indi a tutti tolle. (Inf. 23.52-57)
  His feet had scarcely reached the bed that lies
along the deep below, than those ten demons
were on the edge above us; but there was
  nothing to fear; for that High Providence
that willed them ministers of the fifth ditch,
denies to all of them the power to leave it.

The travelers have nothing to fear, says the narrator, because the devils do not have the “power” (“poder”) to leave the fifth bolgia. The narrator’s phrasing here gives the impression that the pilgrim would have been at risk had the devils caught him within the fifth ditch. And yet, technically—which is to say, theologically, given that this journey is willed by God—the devils’ impotence is a certainty, even within the bolgia of which they are ministers, for they are ministers of God’s justice who operate only within the divine framework. But the poet succeeds in giving us a very different narrative impression.

By manipulating the reader to feel suspense and concern over the welfare of the travelers, and then showing us the devils’ impotence, Dante shows that Hell is powerless, that devils are powerless: fundamentally, that evil is powerless. Christ, we recall from the description of the Harrowing of Hell in Inferno 4, is the “possente” (the powerful one) Who goes where He wants and Who enters Hell undeterred (Inf. 4.53), while these devils lack  the “poder” (the power) to leave the fifth bolgia.

The broken bridges, the ruine, the beffe played on the devils: all echo Christ’s Harrowing of Hell and all are signifiers that spell out Hell’s impotence.

Once the travelers enter the sixth bolgia, in Inferno 23.58, the drama that overarches from Inferno 21 to Inferno 23 has apparently come to an end. The rest of Inferno 23, from verse 58 to the canto’s end, treats the hypocrites. Roughly speaking, Dante assigns two and one-third canti to barratry and two-thirds of a canto to hypocrisy, showing us again that he has opted for narrative variatio and for lack of symmetry. However, not all is said and done on the topic of the devils and Virgilio’s misplaced trust in his negotiating skills. There is a coda to the previous story at the very end of Inferno 23.

In conversation with Catalano and Loderingo, two contemporary Bolognese hypocrites, Virgilio learns that there is no bridge over the sixth bolgia and realizes that Malacoda has deceived him. Catalano comments that he once heard it said in Bologna that devils are liars:

E ’l frate: “Io udi’ già dire a Bologna
del diavol vizi assai, tra ’ quali udi’
ch’elli è bugiardo, e padre di menzogna.”   (Inf. 23.142-44)

At which the Friar: “In Bologna, I
once heard about the devil’s many vices—
they said he was a liar and father of lies.”

The barb here is that Bologna was a great seat of learning, a great faculty of theology, and yet the statement that devils are liars is a platitude known to every schoolboy. To everyone, apparently, but to Virgilio, who, despite being a great sage, was deceived by Malacoda. The conclusion to Inferno 23 is an important commentary on Virgilio and his limitations as guide, highlighted by the previous events.

Virgilio’s composure is now upset; he is no longer an unruffled sage, like his comrades in Limbo. In the escape from the devils in the first part of the canto he shows his love for Dante; and in the encounter with the hypocrites at the canto’s end, with its implied rebuke, he shows his anger. He is the great sage, “quel savio gentil, che tutto seppe” (that gentle sage, who knew all [Inf. 7.3]), the “mar di tutto ’l senno” (sea of all wisdom [Inf. 8.7]), and yet he has been mocked by a hypocrite in Hell. We will come back to Virgilio’s anger in the opening section of the Introduction to Inferno 24.

* * *

The hypocrites wear capes, of the same shape as those worn by the monks of the famous Benedictine abbey in Cluny: “de la taglia / che in Clugnì per li monaci fassi” (of that same cut / that’s used to make the clothes for Cluny’s monks [Inf. 23.62-63]). These capes have glittering gold exteriors but are made of lead, thereby representing hypocrisy in their beautiful exterior that hides a hideous interior.

These capes are more heavy than those lead capes made as instruments of torture by Frederick II (Inf. 23.61-66). Verse 66 alludes to Frederick II’s alleged gruesome torture for the crime of lèse majesté, unverified by historians but repeated by all ancient commentators, whereby the criminal was caped in lead and put into a cauldron under which a fire was set. See the discussion of Inferno’s historic tortures in the Introduction to Inferno 27.

Dante speaks with two Bolognese hypocrites of his own time, the “Frati Godenti” (Jovial Friars) Catalano and Loderingo: “Frati godenti fummo, e bolognesi, / io Catalano e questi Loderingo / nomati” (We both were Jovial Friars, and Bolognese; / my name was Catalano, Loderingo / was his [Inf. 23.103-04]). Frati Gaudenti is the popular name for the lay Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Ordo Militiae Mariae Gloriosae. In Dante’s Poets, I link Dante’s mockery of the order of Frati Gaudenti to his views of the poet Guittone d’Arezzo, also a member of the order:

Guittone seems to have been well-acquainted with Loderingo, one of the order’s principal founders: the two were companions in the monastery of Ronzano, and Guittone commiserated with him on his undeserved tribulations in a canzone reverentially addressed to “Padre dei padri miei e mio messere” (Father of my fathers and my lord). (Dante’s Poets, p. 105)

The Frati Godenti Catalano and Loderingo went jointly as podestà (mayor) to Florence where they were supposed to be impartial and evenhanded in their handling of the city’s factions. Instead their hypocrisy took the form of favoritism toward the Guelfs that resulted in the destruction of the (Ghibelline) Uberti homes in the Gardingo section of Florence (Inf. 23.108; for the Uberti family see Inferno 10).

After the exposure of the political hypocrisy of Catalano and Loderingo, the pilgrim sees a hypocrite crucified on the ground, in an infernal echo of the Crucifixion (Inf. 23.109-126). This is Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest who in the New Testament charged Jesus with blasphemy, thus paving the way for the Crucifixion. He is described by Catalano thus:

mi disse: “Quel confitto che tu miri,
consigliò i Farisei che convenia
porre un uom per lo popolo a’ martìri.”   (Inf. 23.115-17)

He told me: “That one impaled there, whom you see,
counseled the Pharisees that it was prudent
to let one man—and not one nation—suffer. 

Caiaphas, Annas (we recall that Jesus was first been taken before Annas, Caiphas’ father-in-law and previous high priest), and all other members of the council that condemned Christ are crucified in this bolgia:

E a tal modo il socero si stenta
in questa fossa, e li altri dal concilio
che fu per li Giudei mala sementa.   (Inf. 23.121-23)

Like torment, in this ditch, afflicts both his
father-in-law and others in that council,
which for the Jews has seeded so much evil. 

This canto offers insight into Dante’s assessment of the role of the Jews in Providential history, anticipating the charge of deicide lodged against the Jews in Paradiso 7. Caiaphas advised his fellow Pharisees that Jesus should be put to death (Inf. 23.116-17). According to Christian exegetes of history, the council’s decision “was an evil seed for the Jews”: “fu per li Giudei mala sementa” (Inf. 23.123). As an “evil seed”, it bore evil fruit: the killing of Christ (itself a just payment for original sin) was nonetheless justly “avenged”, according to traditional Christian historiography, by the destruction of Jerusalem, carried out by the Roman Emperor Titus in 70 CE. These events in Jewish history are posed as a dense historic and moral conundrum in Paradiso 7: “come giusta vendetta giustamente / punita fosse” (how / just vengeance can deserve just punishment [Par. 7.20-21]). These same events are unpacked and disturbingly “explained” in Paradiso 7.47.

In Inferno 28 Dante will repurpose the trope of the historical event which is an evil seed for an entire people, transferring it from the Jews in Inferno 23 to the Dante’s own people, the Tuscans. While in Inferno 23 it is Caiafas’ verdict against Jesus that seeds an evil history for the Jews, in Inferno 28 it is the verdict given by the Florentine Mosca de’ Lamberti against Buondelmonte de’ Buondelmonti that is viewed as “the seed of evil for the Tuscans”: “fu mal seme per la gente tosca” (Inf. 28.108). By echoing Inferno 23.123 in Inferno 28.108, Dante connects the Jewish and the Tuscan people, linking them through the trope of the “evil seeds” that haunt their histories.

Dante’s treatment of the hypocrites is rooted in a profound and scathing critique of the clergy and of religious hypocrisy throughout history.

Dante’s critique of religious hypocrisy in Inferno 23 might well have influenced Boccaccio in Decameron 1.6, a novella whose rubric states that it treats “the evil hypocrisy of the clergy”: “la malvagia ipocresia de’ religiosi”. In that novella Boccaccio’s exposé of clerical hypocrisy focuses on the “Friars Minor, who do not dare to touch money”—“frati minori, che denari non osan toccare” (Dec. 1.6.9)—precisely the Franciscan order referenced in the opening terzina of Inferno 23.

In Inferno 23 Dante’s thoroughgoing critique of what Boccaccio calls “la malvagia ipocresia de’ religiosi” takes in Franciscans, Benedictines, the lay Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary known as Frati Gaudenti, the faculty of theology of Bologna, and Hebrew Pharisees.

Recommended Citation

Barolini, Teodolinda. "Inferno 23 : Diabolic Impotence." Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. Center for Digital Research and Scholarship. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2015.

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