Chapter 04, Narrative and Style in Lower Hell

Chapter 04
“Narrative and Style in Lower Hell”

But of such a diffused nature, and so large is the Empire of Truth,
that it hath place within the walls of Hell, and the Devils
themselves are daily forced to practise it . . . although they deceive us, they lie not unto each other; as well understanding
that all community is continued by Truth, and that of Hell cannot consist without it.

(Sir Thomas Browne, Pseudodoxia epidemica)

INTRODUCED BY the complex transition of cantos 16 and 17, Inferno 18 constitutes an emphatic new beginning situated at the canticle’s midpoint, at its narrative “mezzo del cammin.” “Luogo e in Inferno detto Malebolge” (“There is a place in hell called Malebolge”) begins the canto, with a verse that is crisply informative, explicitly introductory, and patently devoted to differentiation: [01] this is a new place, a new locus. Following the descriptio loci heralded by the opening “Luogo e,”[02] the narrator’s focus shifts to the travelers. In two apparently very simple tercets, he activates the poetics of the new, founded on the discreteness of “questo luogo,” this place as distinct from any other:

In questo luogo, de la schiena scossi
di Gerion, trovammoci; e ‘1 poeta
tenne a sinistra, e io dietro mi mossi.
A la man destra vidi nova pieta,
novo tormento e novi frustatori,
di che la prima bolgia era repleta.

In this place, shaken off Geryon’s back, we found ourselves; the poet kept to the left, and I moved after him. To the right I saw new anguish, new torment and new scourgers, of which the first pouch was replete. (Inf. 18.19-24)

Besides the triple use of novo, echoing the double use at the beginning of canto 6, we note the numerical precision of “prima bolgia,” which builds on the earlier “distinto in dieci valli” (“divided into ten valleys” [Inf. 18.9]); numbers will be used throughout lower hell to convey the sense of a suffocatingly precise system of order. In this canto alone we find not only “prima bolgia” but also “prima valle” (“first valley” [98]), and “argine secondo” (“second embankment” [101]); in canto 19 we find “terza bolgia” (“third pouch” [6]), “argine quarto” (“fourth embankment” [40]), and “dal quarto al quinto argine” (“from the fourth to the fifth embankment” [129]). These numbers prepare us for the smaller and more numerous containers the more frequent encounters with the new that will characterize lower hell again, canto 18 sets the pace for this more intense narrative rhythm by presenting us, uniquely, with two pouches, the first of which is further subdivided into two distinct groups of sinners, the panderers and seducers. Finally, we note that canto 18’s proemial function, its enactment of a new beginning with almost Inferno 1 pretensions, is underscored by verse 21 which echoes in recombinatory fashion the first canto’s last verse: “Allor si mosse, e io li tenni dietro” has become “‘I poeta / tenne a sinistra, e io dietro mi mossi.” Once more, then, as at the end of canto 1, the journey has begun.

However, it has begun again in a post-Geryon world, as the careful insertion of “de la schiena scossi / di Gerion” into the new beginning’s preamble testifies. The cantos of Malebolge, in fact the cantos of all lower hell, since fraud governs both the eighth and the ninth circles, are written under the sign of Geryon: a representation of fraud that calls into question the very representational values used to figure it forth. Thus, on the one hand these cantos rely on the same kind of representational illusionism that was inaugurated by the writing on hell’s gate; the line, “Luogo e in Inferno detto Malebolge,” for instance, confers truth status on the locus it names by implying that it is so named by others–by whom, after all, is this place “called” Malebolge? When the poet speaks in his own voice in verse 6–“di cui suo loco dicero l’ordigno” (“of whose structure I will speak in its place”)–his “dicero” is made authoritative by the anonymous “detto” that precedes; he is telling us what is known, and therefore what is true. At the same time, however, that the truth status of his own representation continues to be maintained, Dante will use these cantos to question the basis of all human representation, to probe relentlessly the fraud inherent in language and indeed in all sign systems. In these cantos fraud is consistently treated as a semiotic sin, a sin in which sign systems must be breached in order for the fraudulent act to be committed.[03] Canto 18, with its linguistically oriented seducers and flatterers, sets the stage for a meditation on representational falsehood that extends throughout Malebolge (a circle that culminates, let us not forget, with the falsifiers of words); this meditation generates both content–the types of sins Dante includes under the rubric of fraud, the concern to characterize these sins linguistically–and poetic form. From the stylistic perspective, these cantos run the gamut from the lowest of low styles to the highest of high; here too, canto 18 is paradigmatic, moving in its brief compass from vulgar black humor (“Ahi come facean lor levar le berze / a le prime percosse! gia nessuno / le seconde aspettava ne le terze’ [“Oh, how they made them lift their heels at the first blows! Truly none awaited the second or the third” (37-39)]) to the solemnity with which Vergil displays Jason (“Guarda quel grande che vene” [“Look at that great one who comes” (83)]) to the nastiness of the merda in which the flatterers are plunged. For Barchiesi, such transitions constitute the essence of canto 18; he suggests that the canto’s most singular aspect is its violent juxtapositioning of elevated language with realistic language, of the Latinate “Luogo e” with the plebeian neologism “Malebolge.”[04] This insight can be extended to the cantos of Malebolge as a group, whose violent stylistic transitions provide an implicit commentary on the questions of genre and style that were opened up for the poem by the use of the term comedia in the Geryon episode.

Transitions in style and register occur with singular frequency in Malebolge.[05] These marked and sudden changes in style signal an exploration of the bounds of representational decorum that is connected to the poet’s first formulation, in canto 16, of genre. His use of comedia in canto 16 will be answered, in canto 20, by a unique use of tragedia: “alta tragedia” is Inferno 20’s designation for the Aeneid. In my previous reading of the poem’s Vergilian narrative, I attempted to show that the running critique of Vergil that is found in the Inferno is also, necessarily, a critique of tragedia; the poem works to demonstrate that alta tragedia is inferior to–because less true than–bassa comedia. comedia, the textuality that undertakes to represent such as Geryon, may appear to be a lie, but is always truth: it is a “ver c’ha faccia di menzogna,” a “mirum verum,” a “cosa incredibile e vera.” What I intend to focus on here is the stylistic correlative to the comedia‘s truth claims, which I take to be its manifoldness; the ultimate point of lower hell’s dizzying array of register and style is that the comedia is a voracious genre, one that–because it tells the truth–is committed to embracing and representing all of reality. My concern is no longer to demonstrate the implicit contrast Dante establishes between comedia and tragedia, verita and menzogna; however, I am obliged to remind the reader that all formulations of what comedia is occur, in this poem, in tandem with what it is not. Thus, it is no accident that Malebolge contains a series of classical/contemporary couples; these couples serve to highlight the disjunction that is at the root of Dante’s meditation on genre and style, the disjunction between comedia and tragedia.

Returning to canto 18, which again is paradigmatic for Malebolge as a whole, Sanguineti notes that the canto contains a modern and a classical figure in each of its two pouches; Barchiesi comments on the symmetry whereby the pilgrim addresses both contemporaries, while Vergil takes it upon himself to describe both classical sinners. [06] We could further note that the two classical/ contemporary couples of Malebolge’s first canto (Venedico Caccianemico and Jason, Alessio Interminelli and Thais) are matched by the two classical/contemporary couples of Malebolge’s last canto, canto 30 (Gianni Schicchi and Myrrha, Master Adam and Sinon). Bracketed by these sets of classical/contemporary figures, is the piece de resistance, Ulysses and Guido da Montefeltro, where the alignment between Vergil and Ulysses on the one hand and Dante and Guido on the other is pronounced; Vergil feels that he should address the Greek hero, while the pilgrim may speak to his Italian counterpart. In this crucial central diptych the classical/contemporary coupling signals a stylistic disjunction on a grand scale, as we move from the heroic discourse of canto 26 to the quotidian language of canto 27.[07] The disjunction between cantos 26 and 27 is programmatic, a signpost to Malebolgian poetics, and it is already implicit on a smaller scale in the similar disjunctions that make up the stylistic texture of Inferno 18.

The classical/contemporary couples that punctuate Malebolge are emblems of the mixed style that is the essence of the “comedic” mode.[08] While Jason deceived Hypsipyle “with signs and ornate words” (“con segni e con parole ornate” [Inf. 18.91])–a phrasing that draws attention to the semiotic nature of his sin–the pilgrim adopts a “plain speech” that forces Venedico to reveal himself (“ma sforzami la tua chiara favella” [53]), and the poet’s language could not be further from the ornate as he describes Alessio’s head “di merda lordo” (“filthy with shit” [116]) and Thais’s “unghie merdose” (“shitty nails” [131]). The connection between Vergil and Jason is established by the Latin poet’s own predilection for parola ornata, an aspect of his persona to which we were introduced by Beatrice in Inferno 2;[09] in canto 18, then, changes in stylistic register work to associate classical culture Jason, Vergil) with linguistic ornament and deceit, with the “flattery” of which Cato will accuse Vergil in Purgatorio 1.[10] It seems no accident that, within the economy of canto 18, the poet’s language becomes most vulgar in the final sequence, as he treats those who are punished for their lusinghe (the very word Cato will so harshly throw at Vergil), after the encounter with classical parola ornata. Using low language and the type of harsh rhyme that in Inferno 32 he will explicitly invoke as a means of representing the pit of hell, [ll] Dante begins in canto 18 to clarify poetically the enigmatic word used for the first time at the end of canto 16, the word comedia: it is a genre capable of exploiting the lowest of styles. But the lesson in comedic style is an ongoing one; were we to think that its province is exclusively low, we would be mistaken, as canto 19–a great outburst of comedic high style–demonstrates.[12] Again, the point is the stylistic discrepancy between the two cantos: from the relatively simple, unadorned, plain style of canto 18 to the rhetorical profusion of canto 19. The transition from a literal and rhetorically unelaborated style to a language of great metaphorical density finds its emblem in the transition from the literal “puttana” of 18.133, Thais, to the metaphorical “puttaneggiar coi regi” (“whoring with kings” [19.108]) of the Church on behalf of the pimping popes. The back-to-back use of puttana and puttaneggiar (the former used only twice more, both times in Purgatorio 32 for the Church, the latter a hapax), underscores the transition from literal to metaphorical whoring and thus the rhetorical differences between cantos: the straightforward narrative of 18 contrasts sharply with the grandiloquence of 19, a canto that contains three apostrophes, that indeed opens with the apostrophic trumpet blast directed at Simon Magus and his fellow prostituters of “the things of God.” [13]

I refer to a trumpet blast advisedly, since this is the metaphor the poet adopts for his attack on the simonists, for whom his trumpet must now sound: “or convien che per voi suoni la tromba, / pero che ne la terza bolgia state” (“now the trumpet must sound for you, since you are in the third pouch” [5-6] ) . Calling his poetic discourse a trumpeting, Dante aligns his text with the “angelic trumpet” (“angelica tromba” [Inf. 6.95]) that will sound on the Judgment Day, as later in the canto he will buttress his denunciation of the simonist popes by invoking St. John the Evangelist, for him the writer of the Apocalypse. The Apocalypse is Dante’s preferred source in canto 19, as it will be also in the cantos that narrate the procession and tableaux vivants of the earthly paradise; the pilgrim specifically cites St. John as his authority when he accuses the popes in language taken directly from the Apocalypse: “Di voi pastor s’accorse il Vangelista, / quando colei che siede sopra l’acque / puttaneggiar coi regi a lui fu vista ” (“The Evangelist thought of pastors such as you when she who sits upon the waters was seen by him to whore with kings” [Inf. 19.106 8]). St. John too was a trumpeter, in Paradiso 26 Dante calls his Gospel “l’alto preconio che grida l’arcano / d i qui la giu sovra ogne altro bando” (“the high announcement that more than any other heralding cries out the mystery of here down there” [44-45] ), and in the Monarchia as well Dante refers to the “trumpet of the gospels” (“tuba evangelica”) .[14] There is thus ample cause to associate the poet’s trumpeting with inspired art, the kind of art that a few verses further on will cause Dante to break into canto 19’s second apostrophe, celebrating the art displayed throughout the universe by God’s wisdom: “O somma sapienza, quanta e l’arte / che mostri in cielo, in terra e nel mal mondo” (“Oh supreme wisdom, how great is the art that you show in heaven, on earth, and in the evil world” [10-11]). comedia in this canto is shown to be crafted in the high style of biblical invective, replete with apostrophes, rhetorical questions, exclamations, biting sarcasm, and metaphoric density; it is, moreover, shown to be an art that is analogous to the evangelical proclamation, the art displayed (or the tuba played) by God. Canto 19 therefore also contains the requisite signs of the poet’s “Ulyssean” anxiety, to wit a double defensive move that encompasses both narrative past and present: the narrator sets the record straight regarding the potentially sacreligious breaking of a baptismal font in the Florentine Baptistery, using his poetic authority to give the lie to all other recountings of the event (“e questo sia suggel ch’ogn’omo sganni [“and let this be the seal to undeceive all men” (21)]);[15] he also prefaces the pilgrim’s outburst against Nicholas III with an authorial disclaimer marked by the Ulyssean word “folle”: “Io non so s’i’ mi fui qui troppo folle” (“I do not know if I was here too rash” [88]). As usual in the Commedia, such moves serve to defuse the poet’s anxieties about his enormous claims and thus allow him to be even more explicit; after the pilgrim has finished denouncing the pope, we learn that Vergil listened with pleasure to his true words: “lo suon de le parole vere espresse” (“the sound of the true words expressed” [123]).[16]

The poet’s word are “parole vere” because twhat he recounts was revealed to him, as the contents of the Book of Revelation were revealed to St. John, by whom the Church’s whorish behavior was seen, “fu vista”; the passive voice stresses the prophet’s function as a recipient of divine revelation. The pilgrim’s similar posture is emphasized by his passive acceptance of revelation in canto 19’s last verse: “Indi un altro vallon mi fu scoperto” (“Thence another valley was revealed to me). What is revealed to this man whose words have just been expressly defined as true is the pouch that contains those sinners who claimed falsely to be recipients of divine revelation, lying prophets whose words were not true but false. Canto 20,. the canto of the false prophets, thus follows a canto in which our poet’s identity as a true prophet has been validated, not least by canto 19’s own comdedic-and in this instance also mordantly comic-version of true prophecy, to wit Nicholas III’s expectations regarding the eventual arrival to this pouch of the still living Boniface VIII. The issue of false prophecy will in canto 20 be viewed in a textual focus: the prophets we encounter are mainly classical figures from classical texts; the presentation of Manto occasions the poem’s most explicit revision of the Aeneid in the very canto where Virgil’s text is baptized “alta tragedia.”[A HREF = “./notes/udc_notes_four.html#17” >17]. Canto 20’s textual focus is anticipated in canto 19, where Nicholas react to what he presumes to be the arrival of his successor by saying, “Di parecchi anni mi menti lo scritto” (By several years the text has lied to me” [19.54]), thus broaching the theme of lying texts versus truthful texts, which is the main topic of Canto 20. Canto’s 20 insistence on the technical aspects of textual construction-its unique use of textual jargon such as “ventesimo canto/ de la prima canzon” (“twentieth canto of the first canticle” [2-3]) and the term “tragedia” (113) – is also anticipated in canto 19, where we find “metro” and “note” framing the pilgrim’s great outburst (89, 118). Explicit textual self-consciousness of this sort was ushered into the poem by the Geryon episode, where first the poet writes of the “notes of this comedy,” and where first (after implicity raising the issue in the Pier della Vigna episode) he overtly poses the question of his text’s credibility. The question of the Commedia’s truthfulness is dramatically reprised in canto 19, where Dante’s text is associated with that of the evangelist, and it is again the center of attention in canto 20, where Dante’s text is forcefully disassociated from the classical texts that provide the pouch’s lying prophets. In canto 19 Dante insists on his own credibility; with regard to the incident at the Baptistery, he instructs us to let his version be the “seal that undeceives all men.” In canto 20 Vergil uses similar language to imply the fraudulence of his own version of the founding of Mantova in Aeneid 10; he tells us to “let no lie defraud the truth” (99)–in other words, to credit no version other than the one recounted in Inferno 20. Both these lapidary imperatives– “questo sia suggel ch’ogn’omo sganni” and “la verita nulla menzogna frodi”–stress the relation of language to fraud: language is a medium that can both deceive–frodare–and undeceive–sgannare.

The relation of language to fraud is a central concern of the pouch of the barraters. Although the sin of graft is less overtly linguistic than flattery or prophecy, Dante takes care to characterize these sinners by provenance and speech patterns: as the pimps were labeled Bolognese and Bologna was indicated by a linguistic periphrasis (“che tante lingue non son ora apprese / a dicer ‘sipa’ tra Savena e Reno” [“so many tongues are not now taught to say ‘sipa’ between Savena and Reno” (18.60-61)]), so the grafters are characterized by linguistic traits, first as men of Lucca, where “no” becomes “yes” for money (“del no, per li denar, vi si fa ita” [21.42] ), and further as Sardinians, whose speech is laden with regionalisms and whose tongues never weary of talking of Sardinia (“e a dir di Sardigna / le lingue lor non si sentono stanchen [22.89-90]). The unnamed Navarrese barrater (the unusual absence of a signifier for this character is in itself a way of drawing attention to the value of signs) adds to the climate of linguistic regionalism by boasting that he can bring Tuscans and Lombards out of the pitch for Dante to interrogate. [18] The semiotic sin par excellence of this pouch, of course, is Malacoda’s “truthful” lie.[19] This fraudulent use of linguistic signs spearheads a sequence that deals in particular depth with the issue of signs, as manifested by the diabolic signs registered at the end of canto 21: “ma prima avea ciascun la lingua stretta / coi denti, verso lor duca, per cenno; / ed elli avea del cul fatto trombetta” (“But first each pressed his tongue between his teeth at their leader as a signal, and he had made a trumpet of his ass” [137-39]). These cenni are picked up in the mock-epic opening of canto 22, where the military imagery that runs through the pouch of barratry (civic graft being a kind of war against the state) becomes a focused rehearsal of various signs; [20] the significance of this passage for the Commedia at large, for the poem’s sustained discourse on signs, is manifested by its concluding evocation of a ship whose voyage is governed by signs from earth and sky, including the sign–“stelle”–that will greet us as we emerge from hell:

Io vidi gia cavalier muover campo

quando con trombe, e quando con campane,
con tamburi e con cenni di castella,
e con cose nostrali e con istrane;
ne gia con si diversa cennamella
cavalier vidi muover ne pedoni,
ne nave a segno di terra o di stella.

I have seen before horsemen move camp…now with trumpets, and now with bells, with drums and with signals from castles, with things native and foreign; but never have I seen horsemen move to so strange a bugle, or footmen, or ship by sign of land or star. ( Inf. 22.1, 7-12)

The “signals from castles”–“cenni di castella”–recall the ominous signals passed between the demonic towers at the outset of Inferno 8;[21] we also find the Commedia’s last use of tromba, following the poet’s evangelically attuned trumpet of canto 19 and Barbariccia’s antiangelic bugle of canto 21. Again, the point seems to be that the voracious genre comedia encompasses all manner of semiotic activity; the discourse of realism requires both the angelic tromba and the demonic trombetta.

At the beginning of the bolgia of the barraters we learn of the “divine art” that makes the purposeful pitch in which the sinners stew (“tab non per foco ma per divin’arte, / bollia 13 giuso una pegola spessa” [“so, not by fire but by divine art, a thick pitch was boiling there below” (Inf. 21.117)]); in the same opening sequence, we learn that Dante’s art is similarly purposeful, that it records nothing but what is necessary: “Cosi di ponte in ponte, altro parlando / che la mia comedia cantar non cura” (“So from bridge to bridge, speaking of other things that my comedy does not care to sing” [1-2]). We note that comedia, which appears here for the last time, is inserted into a clause that functions as a subliminal gamerer of verisimilitude: the verses give life to the text by casually insisting on a life outside the text, an independent reality that the text does not choose to reveal to us. We note further the association of comedia with the divine art whose work it records,[22] an association that introduces a sequence notable for its stylistic plenitude, for its fearless veering from high to low, emblematized by the mock-epic–neither high nor low–exordium of canto 22. Pietro di Dante considered the exordium a way of making amends for the offensively low conclusion of the preceding canto; [23] instead, the passage draws attention to the purposefulness of that conclusion and to these cantos as an intentional recital of the disparate elements that make up the mixed style. [24]These cantos are in fact a manifesto for the mixed style; their precept of stylistic decorum is canto 22’s proverbial “ma ne la chiesa / coi santi, e in taverna coi ghiottoni” (“But with saints in church and with gluttons in a tavern” [Inf. 22.14-15]). A striking example of the stylistic counterpoint mandated by the proverb is provided by the contrast between the high Latinate word ludo (“O tu che leggi, udirai nuovo ludo” [“O you who read, you will hear a new game” (Inf. 22.118)] ) and its vernacular equivalent, the low buffa (“Irato Calcabrina de la buffa” [“Calcabrina, angered by the trick” (Inf. 22.133)]) or beffa (“Questi per noi / sono schemiti con danno e con beffa” [“Because of us they have been fooled with hurt and trickery” (Inf. 23.13-14)I). All three terms are used to refer to the series of events in which Ciampolo tricks the devils into allowing him to jump back into the pitch, a scenario whose telling takes up the final third of canto 22. The tale told here is a low one, replete with animal imagery–a Boccaccian beffa but for the eschatological dimension that draws in the high “tragic language: this is a nuovo ludo, a game in which there are no winners. [25] The beffa played by Ciampolo on his tormentors leads to the brawl between devils at the end of 22, wherein the cooks are cooked; this segment constitutes a rather straightforward novella-like recounting of what are hardly “high” events. However, the opening of canto 23 will retrospectively complicate and intellectualize the apparently simple ending of canto 22 by comparing the devils’ brawl to a text.

The “presente rissa,” the current brawl, is interpreted by the pilgrim in such a way as to sustain the remarkable semiotic density of these cantos; his uneasiness regarding the humiliated devils causes him to think of the story of the frog and the mouse from Aesop’s Fables:

Volt’era in su la favola d’Isopo
lo mio pensier per la presente rissa,
dov’el parlo de la rana e del topo;
che piu non si pareggia ‘mo’ e ‘issa
che l’un con l’altro fa, se ben s ‘accoppia
principio e fine con la mente fissa.

My thoughts were turned by the present brawl onto the fable of Aesop where he spoke of the frog and the mouse; for “mo and “issa’ are not more alike than the one is to the other, if one matches the beginning and the ending well with an attentive mind. (Inf. 23.4-9)

The implicit parallel between the tale told by the Commedia and the fable that glosses it sustains the identification between Dante’s text and the low style, a style that does not eschew cooks, animals, or brawls, that is no more afraid to humble itself than are the Franciscans to whom the two travelers are compared at the outset of canto 23: “Taciti, soli, sanza compagnia / n’andavam l’un dinanzi e l’altro dopo, / come frati minor vanno per via” (“Silent, alone, without company, we went along the one ahead and the other behind, as Friars Minor go along the road” [Inf. 23.1-3]).[26] Indeed, the vulgar rissa to which the poet refers in 23.5 has been recounted unashamedly and at length. It is interesting to note that the only other usage of rissa is the verbal form adopted by Vergil in response to what he considers the pilgrim’s excessive interest in the piato or quarrel between Sinon and maestro Adamo: “Or pur mira, / che per poco che teco non mi risso!” (“Just keep on looking, and it will take very little before I quarrel with you myself!” [Inf. 30.131-32]). So Vergil elicits the pilgrim’s shame for his interest in watching a rissa, but the poet shows no shame at having narrated a similar rissa in canto 22; rather he situates his representation within the humble morality of the Aesopic tradition. This passage therefore supports my previous reading of canto 30, in which I sustained that Vergil was wrong to reprimand the pilgrim for confronting all the reality that hell has to offer; if he does not look and listen, how will he later recount?[27] Also significant as emblems of the low style are the humble words signifying “now”–the moment of conversion, of understanding– that represent the two terms of the comparison: mo is used throughout the Commedia, while issa is aligned first with Aesop’s fable, second with Guido da Montefeltro’s deflation of Vergil’s exalted heroic language, and finally with Bonagiunta’s tribute to a transcendentally plain style, the sweet new style that will ultimately lead to the new style par excellence, the comedia. [28]

For all its implications regarding the value of the low style, the parallel between the “presente rissa” narrated at the end of canto 22 and the fable of the frog and the mouse does not generate textual clarity. Let us reconstruct the sequence of events. Ciampolo proposes to whistle up some fellow grafters, requesting that the devils withdraw from the edge of the bank where they can be seen; when the devils comply, urged on by Alichino, Ciampolo dives back into the pitch, prompting Alichino to dive in after him, to no avail. Calcabrina, angered at Ciampolo’s escape, follows Alichino, not to help him but to attack him; they fight and at canto’s end are embroiled in the pitch. These events are declared as similar as mo is to issa to those recounted in a fable about a mouse who asks a frog for help in crossing a river; 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. 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, Vergil 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–or, indeed, three sets, if we add the story of Dante, Vergil, and the devils–has resulted in as many interpretations as there are ways of combining the variables– signs– Dante has given us. Thus, in addition to the most popular reading mentioned above, the exegetical record as summarized by Hollander includes the following combinations:[29] 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 Vergil 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 Vergil as frog, devils twice as kite; Ciampolo and Dante as mouse, Alichino and Vergil 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 Dante’s 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. [30]

The opening sequence of canto 23 is notable also for the narrative suspense created vis-a-vis the devils’ pursuit; although from a theological perspective the travelers would seem to be invulnerable, protected by divine warrant, from a diegetic perspective it is important that the poet be able to deflect the narrative from the potential tedium of an entirely preordained story line. A first instance of such authorial intervention occurs in the sequence at the gates of Dis, where Dante succeeds in insinuating concern about the outcome of events into his story, most dramatically by way of Vergil’s partially expressed doubt as he awaits the arrival of the heavenly messenger: ” ‘Pur a noi converra vincer la punga,’ / comincio el, ‘se non… (“‘Yet we must win this fight,’ he began, ‘or else…[Inf. 9.7-8]). The anomalous ellipsis with which Vergil interrupts himself creates an atmosphere of negative suspense, which balances the positive suspense created by the confidence with which he had asserted the messo’s imminent arrival at the end of the preceding canto: “e gia di qua da lei discende l’erta…tal che per lui ne fia la terra aperta” (“and already on this side of it descends the steep path one by whom this land will be opened for us” [Inf. 8.128, 130]). The manipulation of narrative time to create suspense–literally the suspension of events in order to generate uncertainty as to their outcome–is signaled, in canto 8, by the poet’s use of gia. In Inferno 23 we witness an accelerated use of the same technique: “Gia mi sentia tutti arricciar li peli / de la paura” (“Already I felt my hair curling with fear” [23.19]) is the verse that begins the buildup of narrative suspense; the pilgrim then alerts Vergil as to his fear of the Malebranche, saying, “Noi li avem gia dietro, / io li ‘magino si, che gia li sento” (“Already we have them behind us; I so imagine them that I already hear them” [23-24]). As soon as Vergil has suggested a way for them to flee “the imagined chase” (“I’imaginata caccia” [33]), the narrator cuts in with another gia: “Gia non compie di tal consiglio rendere / ch’io li vidi venir con l’ali tese” (“Not yet had he finished giving me such counsel than I saw them coming with wings outstretched [34-35]). Here gia 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 Vergil has finished speaking (while in actual fact, of course, the narrator has been obliged to register all of Vergil’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 gia, but tostamente [22], tosto [27], pur mo [28] subito [37], si tosto [46], a pena [52]) and, on the other, the word imaginare which relegates the devils to the pilgrim’s overheated imagination (“io li ‘magino si, “imaginata caccia”).

This tension mirrors the fundamental ambivalence of the sequence, brought about by the conflict between theological and narrative principles: Can the pilgrim be harmed? Do the devils constitute a real danger? Dante manipulates his narrative in such a way as to suggest that they do, while at the same time covering himself theologically: the episode’s conclusion proclaims the total impotence of the demons outside of their own pouch, but the poet never clarifies whether they could have harmed him while he was within it. The poet tells us that the pilgrim’s arrival in the sixth pouch removes all cause for fear: “ma non li era sospetto” (“there was nothing to fear there” [23.54]), for providence has denied the devils the power of entrance. But by telling us so emphatically that there is no cause for sospetto in the sixth bolgia, the poet if anything implies that there was reason for fear while in the fifth; he at any rate does nothing to defuse the illusion of the presence of danger within the fifth pouch. The illusion of the presence of danger in hell is akin to the illusion of the presence of sin in purgatory, as dramatized by the arrival of the serpent in the valley of princes. Like the devils’ pursuit, the serpent’s threat constitutes a narrative sleight of hand, serving as a way of creating tension and generating suspense in what would otherwise risk being a flat textual experience. All the souls in purgatory, including all the souls in antepurgatory and all the souls in the valley, are saved. They are no longer subject to temptation by sin, but only to the pain of remembering past temptations and past succumbings. The pain of remembrance is ritualized by means of the recurrent arrival of the serpent into their valley, their ultimate resistance by the defending angels who drive it out again. Had Dante been willing–or able!– to narrate the daily repetitive arrivals and departures of the serpent, its ritualized aspect would gain in focus and its dramatic impact would lessen. As it is, however, the pressure is on us to find a way to accommodate the apparently contradictory realities of temptation and salvation, to hold these different and competing truths simultaneously in our minds, savoring Dante’s art of gradatio, rather than to yield to the simplistic assumption that the souls in the valley are in fact being tempted. Like the devils, the serpent demonstrates Dante’s willingness to take steps to counter his overdetermined plot, although by so doing he blurs the sharp moral contours of his narrative.

Between the Aesop’s fable analogy and the “imaginata caccia” of the devils, Inferno 23’s opening sequence deals with both semantic and structural ambiguities. The extended simile of the villanello that opens Inferno 24 hearkens back to the ambiguity of meaning generated by the comparison of the fable to the rissa, mo to issa. To describe the pilgrim’s dismay at Vergil’s anger and subsequent reassurance when his guide resumes his normal demeanor, Dante introduces the simile in which the peasant is first dismayed by what he thinks is snow and then reassured by the discovery that the snow is frost:

In quella parte del giovanetto anno
che ‘l sole i crin sotto l’Aquario tempra
e gia le notti al mezzo di sen vanno
, quando la brina in su la terra assempra
l’imagine di sua sorella bianca
, ma poco dura a la sua penna tempra,
lo villanello a cui la roba manca
, si leva, e guarda, e vede la campagna
biancheggiar tutta; ond’ei si batte l’anca
, ritorna in casa, e qua e la si lagna
, come ‘l tapin che non sa che si faccia;
poi riede, e la speranza ringavagna
, veggendo ‘l mondo aver cangiata faccia
in poco d’ora, e prende suo vincastro
e fuor le pecorelle a pascer caccia.

In that part of the young year when the sun refreshes his locks under Aquarius and already the nights move toward half the day, when the frost on the ground imitates the image of its white sister, but little lasts the point of its pen, the peasant, lacking food, gets up and looks and sees the countryside all white; at which he hits his thigh, returns into the house, and here and there goes about complaining, like the wretch who knows not what to do; then goes out again and recovers hope, seeing that the world has changed face in a brief time, and takes his staff and drives his sheep out to pasture. (Inf. 24.1-15)

To the most obvious interpretation, whereby Dante is the stricken peasant and Vergil is the countryside, first a cause for consternation and then benign, at least one other set of equivalences can be added, whereby Vergil is the peasant (lied to by the frost as Vergil is by Malacoda) and Dante is the sheep, frightened by his protector’s demeanor and then “led out to pasture” by his sweet look. [31] The possibility of more than one interpretation serves again to dramatize the shifting and hence ultimately deceptive nature of language, further reinforced by the use of rime equivoche (tempra/tempra, faccia/ faccia), whereby identical sounds possess different meanings. Moreover, although this simile presents us with less sheer multivalence than the Aesop’s fable analogy, it begins to explore the implications of semiotic failure in a way that the earlier passage does not, by raising the larger issue of representation through its use of artistic/mimetic language. The peasant mistakenly believes the frost to be snow because the frost has imitated the snow; borrowing from the lexicon of mimesis, the poet tells us that the frost “copies the image of its white sister.” Attempting to represent snow, the frost appropriates the mode of art, and it fails, for like all art–all human representation–it is nondurable, subject to time: “little lasts the point of its pen.” As compared to Purgatorio 10, where art is assimilated to nature and becomes real, infallible, here nature is assimilated to art, becoming fallible, corruptible, subject to time.[32] From a concern with the shifting values of signs, Dante’s meditation broadens to engage the constraints of human representation.

The villanello simile, which has been criticized for its erudition and preciosity, also serves to mark the transition from the generally lower novellistic style that characterizes cantos 21-23 to the higher, classically inspired style that characterizes cantos 24-25. In the pouch of the thieves the poet dramatizes metamorphosis that is rebirth, change, and forward motion–the wellsprings of this poem–by depicting its infernal variant: metamorphosis that is not change, not rebirth, not forward motion. Here we find souls eternally subject to a grotesque copulation in which men become serpents or fuse with serpents to form an ungodly union of the two, only to revert and repeat the same process over and over again. To represent these exchanges Dante forges some of the most graphically and obscenely realistic language in the poem:[33]

Co’ pie di mezzo li avvinse la pancia

e con li anterior le braccia prese
; poi li addento e l’una e l’altra guancia

li diretani a le cosce distese,


With the middle feet it gripped his belly and with those in front took his arms,

then set its teeth in one and the other cheek; the rear feet it stretched on the

thighs and placed its tail between them and pulled it up over the loins behind. (Inf. 25.52-57)

At the same time he endows the contrapasso with full classical regalia, explicitly relating his metamorphoses to the classical epics that are his models, boasting of his superiority to Lucan and Ovid. A particularly aggravated stylistic hybridity comes into focus in these cantos: not a sustained high style, nor a sustained low style, but a hybrid that could be considered the stylistic correlative of the metamorphoses of canto 25.[34] The language that describes those metamorphoses aptly renders the hybrid style: we could think in terms of a loss of stylistic identity and call it a fusion of two forms that results in an unclassifiable perversion, so that, as with the monster created in the first metamorphosis, “due e nessun l’imagine perversa /parea” (“both two and nothing the perverse image seemed” [Inf. 25.77-78]); or we could think of the way the two styles contaminate each other, so that they end up strangely mirrored, exchanging their natures as in the second metamorphosis, where “amendue le forme / a cambiar lor matera fosser pronte” (“both forms were ready to change their substance” [25.101-2]). From Vergil’s eloquently classicized exhortation on fame and the Pharsalian catalogue of exotic reptiles to the linguistic and semiotic vulgarity of Vanni Fucci, the mulo who hurls his obscene gesture at God (but who is also capable of grand prophetic oratory), these cantos achieve a peculiar synthesis, a new breed of style that can imitate God’s horrid making, the obscene sculpting that redistributes matter according to perverse notions of genre and form. If, as the poet claims, his pen at times puts things together confusedly (“e qui mi scusi / la novita se fior la penna abborra” [“let the novelty excuse me here if my pen somewhat bungles” (25.143-44)]), it is because he is called upon to represent confusion; the hybrids he must shape call forth a hybrid art that is indeed a “novita.”

Canto 24 is the seventh–central–canto of Malebolge’s thirteen; it initiates a series of four cantos that are central to the series as a whole. The fact that canto 24 marks a narrative new beginning is signaled by the pilgrim’s response to his guide’s exhortation; his “Va, ch’i’ son forte e ardito” (“Go on, for I am strong and daring” [Inf. 24.60]) echoes Vergil’s earlier injunction, uttered on the threshold of Malebolge as the travelers prepare to mount Geryon, “Or sie forte e ardito. / Omai si scende per si fatte scale” (“Now be strong and daring; from now on we must descend on stairs made like these” [17.81-82]). The second of these verses is also picked up in canto 24, where Vergil reminds his charge that “Piu lunga scala convien che si saglia” (“A longer ladder must be climbed” [24.55]); the following verse, “non basta da costoro esser partito” (56), cogently states the incessant imperative of the new it is not enough to have left the hypocrites behind, for the essence of the travelers’ forward motion is to be “nuovi / di compagnia ad ogne mover d’anca” (“new in company at every step” [23.71-72]). This new beginning initiates a central cluster that contains not only the hybrid style of the metamorphoses but also the central classical/ contemporary couple of Male bolge, Ulysses and Guido: since Malebolge’s pairings of classical with contemporary figures articulate the hybrid style at the level of content, cantos 26 and 27 may be said to recapitulate cantos 24 and 25 in radically different form. What cantos 24-25 accomplish as a unit, by way of their remarkably homogeneous stylistic heterogeneity, cantos 26 and 27 achieve dialectically, playing off each other stylistically as the two protagonists play off each other historically. The protagonists are the vehicles by which all stylistic concerns are conveyed in these cantos, which are as psychologically dense as the preceding cantos are psychologically shallow. In fact, cantos 26 and 27 are linked not only because both represent the same pouch but because they represent in a similar way that is anomolous in Malebolge: these are the only cantos of the thirteen where human dramas are fleshed out and where there are overriding personalities with which we become emotionally involved. The fact that these two episodes form a package, occurring in tandem, confers upon them an extraordinary weight within the narrative economy of Malebolge. Of the two, canto 26 is pivotal (nor is it surprising that it is the ninth–central–canto of the seventeen that make up the second half of the Inferno): for if on the one hand its high style will be unmasked by the vernacular mode of its successor, on the other its high style constitutes a genuine achievement, is–like the hero to whom it belongs–truly and consistently “great,” limited only and precisely by knowing no limitations, by its greatness. Here there is no mixture: nothing is picciolo, everything is alto; in comparison to canto 25’s flashy fireworks, the rhetoric of canto 26 is austere, sublimely simple. The opening apostrophe to Florence carries over from the oratorical flourishes and virtuoso displays of the preceding bolgia; as the canto progresses the narrative voice takes on more and more the note of dispassionate passion that will characterize its hero, that indeed makes him a hero, until finally the voice flattens out, assumes the divine flatness of God’s voice, like the flat surface of the sea that will submerge the speaker, pressing down his high ambitions. The anti-oratorical high style that culminates at the end of canto 26 is perhaps the most telling index of the poet’s commitment to the canto’s protagonist, upon whom he endows at least the cadences of authentic grandeur.

For all their disparity, cantos 26 and 27 present a united front because they are so different from the cantos that bracket them; canto 28 is in fact very similar to 25, psychologically shallow and visually dazzling. Rhetorically too, it signals its flashiness from the outset, starting off with a rhetorical question (unusual enough as an opening gambit) that highlights the narrator and his art: “Chi poria mai pur con parole sciolte / dicer del sangue e de le piaghe a pieno / ch’i’ ora vidi, per narrar piu volte?” (“Who could ever fully tell of the blood and wounds that I now saw, even if in prose [loosened words] and after numerous narrative attempts?” [Inf. 28.1-3]). There follows the quintessentially Dantesque strategic move of the disclaimer; the limits of human speech and memory are such that any tongue that attempted this narration (“narrar” in verse 3 is the third and last use of this verb in Inferno) would surely fail: “Ogne lingua per certo verria meno / per lo nostro sermone e per la mente” (4-5). And yet the poet narrates, and his narration is notably literary. We now encounter the lengthy accumulation of Romans, Anjevins, and other mutilated combatants who have fallen on the battlefields of southern Italy; if they were all assembled and each demonstrated his wounds, “d’aequar sarebbe nulla / il modo de la nona bolgia sozzo” (“it would be nothing to equal the foul mode of the ninth pouch” [20-21] ) . Again we note the text’s self-consciousness regarding its representational mission; its task is to equal in its textual mode the foul mode adopted by infernal reality, which is labeled as though it too were a genre or style, a “foul style.” The suggestive label modo sozzo could be seen as another way of describing the special hybridity that characterizes Malebolgian poetics; as in the pouch of the thieves, here we find a foully realistic matter wedded to elevated rhetoric, conjoined in a style whose hallmark is its ability to encompass within a 20-verse span references both to Livy and to the “tristo sacco / che merda fa di quel che si trangugia” (“sad sack that makes shit of what is swallowed” [26-27]).

Cantos 25 and 28 are also similar–and typical of a post-Geryon infernal poetics–in their insistence on the truth of their fantastic representations. As in canto 25 we find the poet intervening to address the reader (“Se tu se’ or, lettore, a creder lento / cio ch’io diro, non sara maraviglia, / che io che ‘l vidi, a pena il mi consento” [“If you are now, reader, slow to believe what I will say, it is no wonder, since I who saw it hardly consent to it myself” (Inf. 25.46-48)]), so too in canto 28 the following emphatic intervention precedes the arrival of Bertran de Born: “lo vidi certo, ed ancor par ch’io ‘l veggia, / un busto sanza capo” (“I certainly saw, and still seem to see, a trunk without a head” [28.118-19] ) . Here the application of the Geryon principle is further strengthened by the use of the present tense with the adverb ancora carrying the full weight of the poet’s visionary authority. Moreover, a variation in the Geryon strategy is introduced; whereas in canto 16 Geryon was a fantastic truth (a “ver c’ha faccia di menzogna,” a “mirum verum,” a “cosa incredibile e vera”) to be assimilated by the pilgrim, now the roles are reversed. Now the pilgrim becomes the source of wonder to the souls; he causes the “maraviglia” in them that Geryon caused for him: “s’arrestaron nel fosso a riguardammi / per maraviglia, obliando il martiro” [“they stopped in the ditch to look at me, out of wonder, forgetting their torment” (53-54)]). Here Vergil takes on the role of the poet, insisting on the truth of what he has just recounted, namely the pilgrim’s remarkable itinerary: “e quest’e ver cosi com’io ti parlo” (“and this is true just as I say” [51] ). Vergil is akin to the poet, the pilgrim to the unbelievable truth, the “ver c’ha faccia di menzogna” that the poet narrates, and the sinners are akin to us, the readers who must believe. Dante thus tropes the already enormous self-consciousness of the Geryon episode with an–if possible– even greater self-consciousness that covers its traces by remaining entirely within the fiction, at the same time that it subliminally affects us by dramatizing our response, assigning us hidden roles within his text.

The hybrid style reaches its apogee in the cantos devoted to the falsifiers, whose grotesque pathologies are the backdrop for a narrative art that encompasses Cavalcantian laments that pierce like arrows, homely similes of pots and pigs, a disgusting captatio benevolentiae based on descaling oneself like a fish, erudite Ovidian reminiscences, biblical echoes, and the vulgar brawl between Sinon and maestro Adamo. The juxtaposition of the crude verb “leccar” to a precious periphrasis for water, “the mirror of Narcissus,” creates the verse “e per leccar lo specchio di Narcisso” (Inf. 30.128), singled out by Battaglia Ricci as emblematic of the poetics that govern these cantos. [35] Most important, however, is the way the last pouch brings to a head the eighth circle’s theme of semiotic and representational fraudulence grouping together alchemists, impersonators, counterfeiters, and liars under the general rubric of “falsador” (Inf. 29.57), Dante comments on misrepresentation, imitation for false purposes, the perils of mimesis. These concerns come particularly close to the surface in the encounter with the alchemists:

Vero e ch’i’ dissi lui, parlando a gioco:
“I’ mi saprei levar per l’aere a volo”;
e quei, ch’avea vaghezza e senno poco,
volle ch’i’ li mostrassi l’arte; e solo
perch’io nol feci Dedalo, mi fece
ardere a tal che l’avea per figliuolo.

It is true that I said to him, speaking in jest: “I know how to raise myself through the air in flight,” and he, who had desire and little wisdom, wanted me to show him the art; and only because I did not make him Daedalus, he had me burned by one who held him as a son. (Inf. 29.112-17)

Griffolino here raises the specter of a Ulyssean art: the “arte” that he was supposed to teach Albero of Siena, the art of rising through the air in flight, the art of being Daedalus. Dante is referring to a consummate mimesis that can transgress the boundaries between art and nature, permitting men to do what they were not endowed by nature to do: to fly, as Vergil puts it of Daedalus, on “the rowing of his wings” (“remigium alarum”), as Dante’s Ulysses is able to fly “on the wings of his oars.”[36] To be Daedalus is, according to the Ovidian account, to be able to set your mind upon unknown arts and change the laws of nature (“ignotas animum dimittit in artes / natu ramque novat”), to create by imitation wings that look and work like real birds’ wings (“ut veras imitetur aves”), to possess fatal arts (“damnosas… artes”) that enable one to be taken for a god (“credidit esse deos”), and that one ends by cursing (“devovitque suas artes”).[37] The fact that these transgressive arts are mimetic is emphasized by the second alchemist, Capocchio, who reminds the pilgrim how good an ape he was of nature–“com’io fui di natura buona scimia” (Inf. 29.139)–thus essentially furnishing us with a definition of mimesis.[38] But if Dante here condemns the falsifiers” mimesis as a misrepresentation, he simultaneously insists on the exemption of his own mimesis, whose unique status is reaffirmed in this canto by alignment with infallible justice, which alone is responsible for punishing the sinners registered here, in this text: “infallibil giustizia / punisce i falsador che qui registra” (Inf. 29.56-57).[39] Once more Dante has confronted the problem of his realism, of his Daedalan pretensions, demonstrating his awareness of the Ulyssean dimension of his project, only to reconfirm his warrant to practice such arts legitimately.

Canto 31 is less dramatic than expository, a canto of transition (from the eighth to the ninth circle) and anticipation (of Lucifer, named for the first time in 31.143), which foregrounds the Commedia’s ideology of pride; pride is essentially a rebellion, and hence a transgression, a trapassar del segno as in the case of Ephialtes: “Questo superbo volle esser esperto / di sua potenza contra ‘l sommo Giove” (“This prideful one wanted experience of his power against high Jove” [Inf. 31.91-92])[40]. Not insignificantly, in light of the semiotic meditation that we have been tracing, pride and the losses that it procures here find a linguistic focus, vis-a-vis Nimrod’s prideful construction of the tower of Babel, because of which “pur un linguaggio nel mondo non s’usa” (“only one language is not used in the world” [78]). Nimrod’s transgression, his desire to be as “high” as God (note the opposition of his “alto corno” [12] and the giants’ “alta guerra” [119] to the “santa gesta” [17] of Charlemagne), results in the linguistic fall that afflicts mankind in the form of difference, lack of sameness, loss of “una medesma lingua” (“one same language” [l]).[41] Moreover, failure in this realm is necessarily communicable; Nimrod’s incomprehensible babbling threatens the travelers with incomprehensibility, as Vergil suggests: “Lascianlo stare e non parliamo a voto; / che cosi e a lui ciascun linguaggio / come ‘l suo ad altrui, ch’a nullo e noto” (“Let us leave him alone and not speak emptily, for to him every language is as his is to others, which is known to none” [79-81] ) . The phrase parlare a vuoto indicates the insurpassable gulf, the empty space between res and signum that is part of man’s fallen condition. As is usual for Dante, acknowledgment of radical representational inadequacy reinforces his dedication to overcome such lacks, to be “di natura buona scimia,” to find the language that will eliminate difference, traversing the space between what the De vulgari eloquentia calls the rational and the sensual as pects of language, i e., the meaning and the sound, the signified and signifier, “si che dal fatto il dir non sia diverso” (“so that speech is not different from fact” [Inf. 32.12]).[42] Achieving a language that is indivisible from reality, that accomplishes the goal of “discriver fondo a tutto l’universo,” is the task, “impresa,” which the poet explicitly sets himself in the great exordium that marks the last of hell’s divisions, almost its last new beginning, indeed the beginning of its end:

S’io avessi le rime aspre e chiocce,
come si converrebbe al tristo buco
sovra ‘l qual pontan tutte l’altre rocce,
io premerei di mio concetto il suco
piu pienamente; ma perch’io non l’abbo,
non sanza tema a dicer mi conduco;
che non e impresa da pigliare a gabbo
discriver fondo a tutto l’universo,
ne da lingua che chiami mamma o babbo.
Ma quelle donne aiutino il mio verso
ch’aiutaro Anfione a chiuder Tebe,
si che dal fatto il dir non sia diverso.

If I had rhymes as harsh and raucous as would be suited to the sad pit over which all other rocks converge, then I would press out the juice of my thought more fully; but because I do not have them, not without fear do I begin to speak, since it is not a task to be taken in jest to describe the bottom of all the universe, nor for a tongue that calls mommy or daddy. But may those ladies aid my verse who aided Amphion to close Thebes, so that my speech will not be different from the fact. (Inf. 32.1-12)

This great cascade of metapoetic language celebrates the fundamental principle of Dantesque stylistic decorum: language must not differ from reality. What is stylistically conveniens (“come si converrebbe al tristo buco”)[43] is what best fits the reality being represented, “si che dal fatto il dir non sia diverso.” Accordingly, we have reached a place where speech is hard (“loco onde parlare e duro” [Inf. 32.14] ), where language must be as unflinching as that which it describes.[44]

The narrator is nearing the end of the first leg of his journey. His desire to make his “dir” coincide with the “fatto” hearkens back to the journey’s beginning, when he voiced his concern that “molte volte al fatto il dir vien meno” (“many times my speech falls short of the fact” [Inf. 4.147]). As this part of the narrative journey reaches its conclusion, it recapitulates and mirrors itself, as though the glassy ice of Cocytus provided a mirror for the self scrutiny of poet as well as pilgrim. Thus, a figure within the representation, Bocca degli Abati, figures forth the representation itself, mirroring the poet’s representational techniques; to the pilgrim who has cast himself as truth-teller, saying “io portero di te vere novelle” (“I will carry true news of you” [Inf. 32.111]), Bocca replies by appropriating the Commedia’s most fundamental strategy, that of saying “I saw”: “‘lo vidi,’ potrai dir, ‘quel da Duera / la dove i peccatori stanno freschi'” (“‘I saw,’ you can say, ‘the one from Duera there where the sinners stay cold”‘ [Inf. 32.116-17]). He–a character within a fiction that maintains that its protagonist indeed saw what he says he saw–tells the protagonist what to say he saw, with the result that once again Dante tropes one of his authenticating devices: either he does this by drawing attention to them as outrageously inauthentic (in the case of Geryon), or he buries them within the fiction, so that we are manipulated by them without knowing they are there. A technique of this sort demonstrates Dante’s formidable ability to play the textual mirror game to the advantage of his fiction. A supreme instance of such textual self-awareness and specularity is found at the end of Inferno 33, where Dante highlights the scandal at the base of his fiction– its flouting of the mysteries of damnation and salvation–by proposing, even more scandalously, that a soul can be already damned and in hell while apparently still alive. Dante ventures onto very thin ice when he prepares a place in hell for Boniface VIII, alive in 1300, thus denying him the exercise of free will until the moment of death. But in the hierarchy of Dantesque deviations from orthodoxy, the case of Branca Doria, the soul whom Dante actually places in hell before his death, is the most outrageous and is sufficiently scandalous to have provoked a reaction: there is a tradition according to which Branca (who seems to have been still alive as late as 1325) took revenge on the poet by having him beaten. [45]

Frate Alberigo explains to the pilgrim that the souls of Tolomea are, uniquely, sent to hell while their bodies are still on earth, where they are possessed by devils. Dante is here troping his master fiction: instead of “living” dead people, we now must contend with the idea of dead living people. As the outlines of the fiction become harder to hold onto, we succumb to it more readily, especially when the text reproduces our relation to it within itself, as occurs in the ensuing dialogue between the pilgrim and Alberigo: it seems that Branca Doria, a Genovese nobleman condemned to the ninth circle for the murder of his father-in-law, Michele Zanche (a Sardinian whom Dante has placed among the barraters), is in fact dead. The pilgrim is incredulous; Alberigo must be lying: “‘Io credo,’ diss’io lui, ‘che tu m’inganni; / che Branca Doria non mori unquanche, / e mangia e bee e dorme e veste panni”‘ (“‘I believe,’ I said to him, ‘that you deceive me, for Branca Doria has not yet died, but eats and drinks and sleeps and puts on clothes”‘ [Inf. 33.139-41]). So the pilgrim is now in the reader’s position, faced with an unbelievable truth, a “ver c’ha faccia di menzogna” (as earlier, in canto 28’s version of this mirror game, the sinners played the reader’s role). How does Alberigo–the creature in the fiction–persuade the pilgrim to believe him? By appealing to “reality,” namely the fiction to which he belongs. His reply is one of the most remarkable intratextual moments within the Commedia, as the text buttresses the text, the fiction supports the credibility of the fiction: ” ‘Nel fosso su,’ diss’el, ‘de’ Malebranche, / la dove bolle la tenace pece, / non era ancora giunto Michel Zanche, / che questi lascio il diavolo in sua vece / nel corpo suo’ ” (“‘In the ditch of the Malebranche above,’ he said ‘there where boils the sticky pitch, Michel Zanche had not yet arrived when this one [Branca] left a devil in his place in his own body”‘ [Inf. 33.142-46]). With these references to the text of the Inferno–to the Malebranche and the boiling pitch of the bolgia of the barraters–the pilgrim is convinced; and the poet, who has mirrored and thereby mounted a sneak attack on the reader’s reluctance to believe, concludes the canto by stating as simple fact what he learned from Alberigo: in this place he found–“trovai” (155)–a spirit whose soul was in Cocytus, while his body was on earth. Now that the fiction has been accepted as reality, reality–in a typically Dantesque inversion–can be revealed to be a fiction: “e in corpo par vivo ancor di sopra” (“and in body he still appears alive, up above” [33.157]).

In between these concentrated rehearsals of the poem’s poetics as a “ver c’ha faccia di menzogna” is the Inferno‘s last extended narrative tour de force, Ugolino’s refashioning of the “bestial segno” by which he is first characterized at the end of canto 32– his gnawing on Ruggieri’s skull–into the more ornate and seductive segno of his oration in canto 33. Ugolino’s consciousness of telling a story, the extreme narrative cunning by which he hopes to elicit the pilgrim’s sympathy, have been amply documented in recent years. [46] For our present purposes, we should note that the self-consciousness of the episode encompasses an authorial selfscrutiny as well: Ugolino’s narrative artistry after all includes the recounting of a dreamscape very like that of Inferno 1, in which allegorical wolves and hounds also course and signify. Moreover, the latent self-reflexive component of canto 33 is potentially more explosive than, for instance, the self-reflexive component of Inferno 5, which invests the poet’s Iyric past rather than his narrative present. If the prophetic dream is a narrative device that Ugolino can exploit, then surely it is a narrative device that Dante can exploit as well; [47] if Ugolino is too good a storyteller, then so too is the teller of the Commedia. Thus it is that the poet asserts his own narrative authority over Ugolino’s with extraordinary force and aggressivity, issuing the ferocious invective against Pisa and drawing attention to himself, both as semiotic codifier of the “bel paese la dove ‘l si suona” (“beautiful land where si sounds” [Inf. 33.80])[48] and as narrator with supreme artistic control over Ugolino’s discourse “Innocenti facea l’eta novella, / novella Tebe, Uguiccione e ‘l Brigata / e li altri due che ‘l canto suso appella” (“Their youth, you new Thebes, made Uguiccione and Brigata innocent, and the other two that the canto above names” [Inf. 33.88-90]). This tercet ostentatiously reaffirms the narrator’s authority over his text, the “canto” in which these names have been inscribed,[49] appropriating the word with which Ugolino had begun his speech, rinovellare, and interpreting it in terms of the poetics of the new. While Ugolino begins his speech with a Vergilian formula–“Tu vuo’ ch’io rinovelli / disperato dolor” (“You want me to renew desperate sorrow” [Inf. 33.4-5] )–that suggests he aims to renew himself through rhetoric, the poet ends the encounter with a double use of the adjective novella, that tells us Ugolino will never be renewed: renewal is only for innocents (like Ugolino’s children, whose eta novella makes innocenti), those who will be “rinovellate di novella fronde” (“renewed with new foliage”) at the end of Purgatorio. By contrast, Ugolino can only be new in the sense that Pisa is a novella Tebe, in a form of deadly repetition, like the novelle spalle conferred on the thieves by their hellish metamorphoses. The narrator’s double appropriation of “new” in reply to Ugolino’s bid for semiotic renewal is a way of truly ending him, shutting him down as absolutely as does the narrative, which passes on–toward the truly new–without a backward glance in the next verse’s “Noi passammo oltre” (Inf. 33.91).

Ugolino’s rhetoric aims to make us forget that for him family connections were always political connections, always ties to be exploited by his nocent greed as now in hell he tries to exploit his greed’s innocent victims. And yet canto 33, taken as a whole, is not evasive; rather it is steeped in the people and events that shaped Ugolino’s politics, a politics whose central node was Sardinia, a Pisan possession. Ugolino was the Sardinian vicar of Re Enzo, son of Frederic II; [50]. Ugolino’s son Guelfo married Elena, Enzo’s daughter, and Ugolino’s grandchildren inherited Enzo’s Sardinian possessions. Ugolino’s son-in-law, Giovanni Visconti, was also a power on the island as judge of Gallura, as was Giovanni’s son, Ugolino’s grandson, Nino Visconti, whom Dante hails in the valley of the princes by his Sardinian title: “giudice Nin” (Purg. 8.53). These connections begin to manifest themselves in Inferno 33 when Ugolino says that Ruggieri appeared to him, in his dream, as “maestro e donno” (“master and lord” [28] ); donno is a Sardinianism that occurs only here and in Inferno 22, where it is used in the description of the Sardinian barraters. One is friar Gomita of Gallura (“frate Gomita, / quel di Gallura” [Inf. 22.81-82]), vicar of Nino Visconti, the lord or donno whose enemies he freed for money. The other is “donno Michel Zanche / di Logodoro” (Inf. 22.88-89), a Sardinian noble who originally sided with Genova rather than Pisa; he was killed by his Genovese son-in-law Branca Doria, either out of greed for his Sardinian holdings or because of his later leanings toward Pisa. Sardinia as a catalyst of greed figures in all these dramas, and indeed frate Gomita, betrayer of Nino Visconti, and Michel Zanche, betrayed by Branca Doria, talk of Sardinia: “e a dir di Sardigna / le lingue lor non si sentono stanche” (“in talking of Sardinia their tongues do not grow weary” [Inf. 22.89-90]). Sardinia unites all these sinners as the object of their greed and strife, and Ugolino was as rapacious a player (not for nothing does he see himself as a wolf in his dream) as the others. The Guelph Visconti and Ghibelline Gherardesca families, traditionally opposed, became allies to protect their Sardinian holdings, an alliance that led to the ill-fated shared it. – magistracy of Ugolino and his grandson Nino. And, in the same way that the poet links the players by ties of Sardinian greed, so he links the two cities that both desired the island: canto 33 contains not only the fulmination against Pisa but also a concluding invective against Genoa, hell’s last two civic apostrophes. These links are important for understanding the historical backdrop against which Ugolino betrayed and was betrayed; they also make canto 33 a repository of infernal themes and motifs. From the truthful lie reminiscent of Malacoda’s with which the pilgrim deceives frate Alberigo, to “e cortesia fu lui esser villano” (“and it was a courtesy to be discourteous to him” [Inf. 33.150]), which echoes Inferno 20’s similar manifesto of an inverted order, “Qui vive la pieta quand’e ben morta” (“Here pity lives when it is truly dead” [28] ); from the pilgrim’s questioning of Alberigo”, or se’ tu ancor morto?” (“are you already dead?” [Inf. 33.121]), reminiscent of Nicholas III’s earlier questioning of the pilgrim, to the explicit recalls of the pitch and the Malebranche in the pouch of barratry– canto 33 sums up the poetics of hell, as Ugolino sums up its perverted politics and failed humanity. [51]

Inferno 34 is a canto of transition, a canto whose narrative mode exists in the liminal space inhabited by the pilgrim: “Io non mori’ e non rimasi vivo / pensa oggimai per te, s’hai fior d’ingegno, / qual io divenni, d’uno e d’altro privo” (“I did not die and I did not remain alive; think now for yourself, if you have any wit, what I became, deprived of one and the other” [Inf. 34.25-27]). “Non mori’ e non rimasi vivo”: he is between life and death, salvation and damnation, light and darkness, good and evil.[52] He is in the space between the tenses, the past absolute and present that define Lucifer, whose essence is contained by the verse “S’el fu si bel com’elli e ora brutto” (“If he was as beautiful as now he is ugly” [34] ) . He is in the space delineated by the transitional adverbs oramai/oggimai, used repeatedly in this canto, the space between “now” (“ora”) on the one hand and “never” (“mai”) on the other. He is a being dedicated to becoming, as indicated by the triple use of divenni: “Com’io divenni allor gelato e fioco” (“How I became then frozen and faint” [22]), “qual io divenni, d’uno e d’altro privo” (27), “s’io divenni allora travagliato” (“if I became confused then” [91]). He is engaged in the delicate task of transiting Lucifer, grasping Lucifer (both physically and metaphysically),[53] without remaining, like Lucifer, stuck in the eternal present of hell: “fitto e ancora si come prim’era” (“he is still fixed as he was before” [120]). The pilgrim must transit the point of becoming, “quel punto ch’io avea passato” (“that point that I had passed” [93]); he must get beyond Lucifer, who generates real fear, but no passion. The text privileges the process of becoming, of transiting, not the creature who emblematizes the ground of transition, the core of what must be left behind. Even the application of the Geryon principle to Lucifer’s physical awesomeness is accomplished quickly, almost routinely: “Oh quanto parve a me gran maraviglia / quand’io vidi tre facce a la sua testa!” (“Oh how it seemed to me a great marvel when I saw three faces on his head!” [37-38] ) . Lucifer is represented in such a way as to remind us that evil is the absence of good; from a narrative point of view, therefore, Lucifer is deliberately handled as a nonengaging, noninvolving, “nonpresent” anticlimax. So, the question is raised: if evil is absence, and some sinners are more present, does that mean that they are less evil?

We come back thus, at the end of the Inferno, to perhaps the canticle’s chief problematic, which I believe can best be resolved by realizing that it is at heart a narrative problematic. In chapter 2 I discussed the (theological) problems raised by Dante’s (narrative) need to institutionalize difference: are the souls of upper hell in any absolute sense better than those lower down, any less damned? In chapter 3 I raised the related issue of the “great” sinners, and suggested that souls like Francesca and Ulysses are indeed privileged by Dante, not morally or eschatologically, but textually. Once again we must detheologize and ask: How could a poet effectively represent absence without having established some presence to play against it? How could he fashion anticlimaxes, big or little, without fashioning climaxes as well? When the requirements of narrative conflict with the laws of justice, Dante must bow to narrative. By working relentlessly to situate us within his speculum, he seeks to reorient us: if we see things from inside, from within the Commedia’s possible world, then perhaps we will not notice that the laws that govern this ultimately textual universe are in fact less God’s laws than his own.


The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 01
Robin Kirkpatrick comments with respect to the opening of canto 18 that it has “far more the appearance of a true beginning than the oblique and hesitant opening of Infemo In (Dante’s “Inferno”: Diifficulty and Dead Poetry [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987], 237).

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 02
On the descriptio loci of Inf. 18 and its Vergilian antecedents, see Edoardo Sanguineti, chapter 1 of Interpretazione di Malebolge (Florence: Olschki, 1961), and Marino Barchiesi’s lectura of canto 18, “Arte del prologo e arte della transizione,” Studi danteschi 44 (1967): 115-207. Sanguineti’s book is notable for its ideological motivation as well as its practical criticism; the author intends his “lettura narrativa dei canti di Malebolge” (xx) as a methodological challenge to Crocean emphasis on the Commedia’s “Iyrics.” Although Sanguineti’s thirteen chapters on each of Malebolge’s thirteen cantos more often provide detailed individual canto readings than one overarching lettura narrativa, his attempt generates insights into the poem’s narrative dimension.

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 03
Jurij M. Lotman notes that for Dante the worst of sins is “un uso falso dei segni” (“11 viaggio di Ulisse nella Divina Commedia di Dante,” Testo e contesto [Bari: Laterza, 1980], 92). On the Inferno as a whole, see also Fredi Chiappelli, “11 colore della menzogna nell’lnferno dantesco,” Letture classensi 18 (1989): 115-28.

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 04
“In quanto alla forma, la parola fa si che il nostro verso proemiale proponga, con esemplare sinteticita , quello che costituira l’aspetto piu singolare dell ‘intero canto, vale a dire l’accostamento di linguaggio elevato e linguaggio violentemente realistico” (“Arte del prologo,” 126).

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 055
Dante’s Malebolgian poetics seem to savor Augustine’s recommendations in De doctrina Christiana 4.22.51: “But no one should think that it is contrary to theory to mix these three manners; rather, speech should be varied with all types of style in so far as this may be done appropriately. For when one style is maintained too long, it loses the listener. When transitions are made from one to another, even though the speech is long, it proceeds more effectively” (trans. D. W. Robertson, Jr. [Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1958], 158). The fourth book of De doctrina Christiana is particularly concerned with the role of rhetoric in true discourse.

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 06
See Interpretazione di Malebolge, 14, and “Arte del prologo,” 190-92. The coupling of classical with contemporary figures is a feature of exemplary literature; see Carlo Delcorno, “Dante e l”Exemplum’ medievale,” Lettere italiane 35 (1983): 3-28.

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 07
On the linguistic shift between cantos 26 and 27, see Teodolinda Barolini, Dante’s Poets: Textuality and Truth in the “Comedy” (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984), 228-33; for the significance of classical/contemporary couples, which may also be read as fictional/real, see the reading of Sinon and Master Adam, 233-38.

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 08
I would like to remind the reader that I am not referring to what is funny, not even in the sophisticated dress of “play.” In my opinion, Dante’s use of the terms comedia and tragedia must be understood in the context of truth and falsehood.

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 09
For the connection between Vergil and Jason, see Giuseppe Mazzotta, Dante, Poet of the Desert (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979), 158.

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 10
Vergil’s “parola ornata” finds expression most often in his use of the captatio benevolentiae; Cato responds to Vergil’s captatio with the rebuke “non c’e mestier lusinghe” (Purg. 1.92). The four occurrences of lusinga/ lusingar seem to outline a gradual calling into question of ornate speech. Lusinga first appears in relation to fraud, in Inf. 11’s resume of Malebolge (“ipocresia, lusinghe e chi affattura” [58]); it recurs in the pouch of the flatterers, juxtaposed to Jason’s parole ornate, in Alessio’s self-indictment (“Qua giu m’hanno sommerso le lusinghe” [18.125]). The final two uses both point to the limits of captatio benevolentiae: the infernal perspective is expressed by Bocca’s “mal sai lusingar per questa lama!” (32.96), and the purgatorial by Cato’s “non c’e mestier lusinghe.”

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 11
The use of rime aspre belongs mainly to the bolgia of the flatterers; starting from line 101, we find rhyme words like “s’incrocicchia,” “nicchia,” “scuffa,” “picchia,” “muffa,” “zuffa,” and “zucca.” These are noted by Barchiesi, “Arte del prologo,” 198. H. Wayne Storey points to the harsh rhymes at the beginning of canto 18, including-oscio, “used only once by Dante” (31); see “Mapping Out the New Poetic Terrain: Malebolge and Inferno XVIII,” Lectura Dantis: A Forum for Dante Research and Interpretation 4 (1989): 30-41.

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 12
Although Dante works to undercut the consistently high style associated with classical epic, his point is not that high style is always wrong, but that a mixed style alone can capture all reality. The high style of canto 19 is, in any case, biblically rather than classically inspired; its rhetorical hallmarks will reappear in later political invectives, such as that of Purg. 6. Regarding “the violent oscillations in style marking, for example, Inferno 19,20, and 21, which imitate the Bible, the classics, and the comico realistici,” Zygmunt G. Baranski comments: “The Comedy embodies a truly middle style: a midpoint at which every kind of expression and literary genre, and every subject can come together within a single structure” (“‘Significar perverba’: Notes on Dante and Plurilingualism,” The Italianist 6 [1986]: 5-18; quotation, 12).

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 13
Kirkpatrick characterizes the shift differently “It is one of the most surprising features of the transition from Canto 18 to Canto 19 that Dante should [have] exchanged the ugly triviality of the one for the scriptural simplicity of the other: ‘low’ language now becomes sermo humilis” (Dante’s “Inferno”, 255). The language of canto 19 seems to me less biblical sermo humilis than biblical grandiloquence.

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 14
“Hanc veritatem etiam Gentiles ante tubam evangelicam cognoscebant” (Mon. 2.9.7).

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 15
Sanguineti’s crusade against romantic psychologizing readings of the Commedia leads him to ridicule D’Ovidio’s suggestion that the autobiographical insert is connected to the sacreligious aspect of canto 19 as a whole. Despite D’Ovidio’s heated phrasing, far too involved by today’s cool critical standards, he hits on the key
point when he writes that this is a canto where the poet takes on “un peccato essenzialmente sacrilego, e non ci sarebbe mancato altro che egli medesimo non fosse del tutto libero dalla taccia di un sacrilegio!” (see Interpretazione di Malebolge, 41n).1t is worth remembering that Sanguineti is unusual among Italian Dantists of the early 1960s, since he not only sustains an anti-Croce polemic but also routinely critiques earlier Italians like D’Ovidio in favor of such as Spitzer and Singleton.

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 16
The only other words in the Commedia specifically labeled true are Beatrice’s see Dante’s Poets, 280n, for an elaboration of this point.

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 17
See Dante’s Poets, 215-22, and my lectura, “True and False See-ers in Inferno XX,” Lectura Dantis: A Forum for Dante Research and Interpretation 4 (1989): 42-54, where Dante’s revision of the Aeneid is seen as investing not only the epic’s content but its style, which is parodied in the excursus on Mantova.

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 18
Ciampolo, as he is called by commentators, seems to be reacting to Dante’s and Vergil’s accents; the speech habits of guide and pilgrim constitute another semiotic theme that will be developed in Malebolge.

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 19
Malacoda’s lie in canto 21 is balanced by a further semiotic abuse in canto 22, where Ciampolo promises to summon his comrades by whistling, the sign that indicates the coast is clear (103-5). These abuses of sign systems by humans and devils are offset, ironically, by the behavior of animals: dolphins help sailors by signaling impending storms (“fanno segno / a’ marinar” [Inf 22.19-20]).

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 20
Sanguineti refers to the “amplificazione catalogica dei segnali” in the exordium of canto 22 (Interpretazione di Malebolge, 121). Augustine refers to the trumpet in his discussion of signs in the opening chapters of book 2 of De doctrina Christiana.

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 21
The response from one tower to another is described with the phrase “render cenno” (Inf. 8.5).

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 22
The same association is pointedly achieved at the beginning of Inferno 14, where we are faced with divine art�”di giustizia orribil arte”�and with the human whose job it is to narrate it: “A ben manifestar le cose nove, / dico che” (6-8). The independent reality conferred by the first verses of canto 21 will further manifest itself; as Sanguineti points out, this episode is exceptional for the “libero giuoco vitale, quell’autonomia drammatica” (Interpretazione di Malebolge, 141) that will allow Dante and Vergil to be forgotten while Ciampolo and the devils take center stage.

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 23
He comments apropos the opening of canto 22 that the author “vult se excusare de turpi recitatione quam fecit supra in Capitolo precedenti in fine, per id quod scribit Socrates, dicens: ‘Que facere turpe est. ea nec dicere honestum puto”‘ (Guido Biagi, ed., “La Divina Commedia” nella figurazione artistica e nel secolare commento, 3 vols. [Turin: Unione Tipografico-Editrice Torinese, 1924-1929], 1:531) . More perceptively, Jacopo della Lana writes of the end of canto 21: “Circa la quale locuzione si po excusare l’Autore a chi l’acusasse de parladura porca e villana si in questo logo commo eziamdeo in lo XVIII� Capitolo de Tayde, che la materia del logo lo constrenge, zoe l’lnf., in lo quale e omme dexordinazione” (Biagi, La Divina Commedia 1:529).

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 24
For Domenico De Robertis, the exordium is marked by “epicita” (“In viaggio coi demoni,” Studi danteschi 53 [1981]: 1-29). On the episode’s stylistic registers, see Leo Spitzer, “The Farcical Elements in Inferno, Cantos XXI-XXIII,” MLN 59 (1944): 83-88; Vittorio Russo, “If XXII o del ‘grottesco sublime,”‘ Il romanzo teologico (Naples: Liguori, 1984), 95-123; and, most recently, Michelangelo Picone, who reads cantos 21-22 against the backdrop of “comic” Romance cultural modalities, as embodied by the jongleurs and by texts such as the Roman de la Rose and the Fiore (“Giulleria e poesia nella Commedia: una lettura intertestuale di Infemo XXI-XXII,” Letture classensi 1 8 [ 1989]: 1 130) . For the “camevalizzazione del canto 2 1 ,” see Piero Camporesi, “11 carnevale all’ inferno,” in II paese della fame ( Bologna : 11 Mulino, 1978), 23-51; I disagree, however, with Camporesi’s suggestion that the ludic mode enters the Infemo against Dante’s will. Rather, it enters as part of the narrative variety hymned by Tommaseo: “Sembra quasi che, dopo sfoggiata nel XX� Canto erudizione profana, e nel XIX� dottrina sacra e poetico sdegno, in questi due voglia riposare la propria mente e de’ lettori con imagini che ben staddicono al titolo del Poema. All’aridita del 11� Canto abbiamo cosi veduta succedere la bellezza del 111�; e alle enumerazioni del IV� la grande poesia del seguente; e alla disputa sulla Fortuna il furor dell’Argenti, e a questo la venuta dell’Angelo e le scene del Farinata e del Cavalcanti; e dopo la scolastica precisione del Canto Xl� e le enumerazioni del X11�, il Canto dei suicidi; e dopo la descrizione de’ fiumi d’lnf., la scena con Brunetto e coi tre Fiorentini; e innanzi alla tromba che suona pe’ simoniaci, la faceta rappresentazione di Venedico, d’Alessio, di Taide. Varieta mirabile se pensata; se inavvertita, piu mirabile ancora” (Biagi, La Divina Commedia 1: 529).

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 25
Boccaccio may have had this episode in mind when he composed Decameron 4.2, the story of frate Alberto and madonna Lisetta: the friar’s leap to safety into the Grand Canal and away from Lisetta’s irate brothers seems modeled on Ciampolo’s leap into the pitch. To support this reading, l would point out that 4.2 is Boccaccio’s Venetian story, and that the bolgia of the barraters begins with the simile of the Venetian arsenal; most importantly, 4.2 is an anomolous story for the Decameron, in that friar Alberto’s wit does not ultimately serve to save him. Like Ciampolo, Alberto is playing in a no-win game, a nuovo ludo. Note that, with respect to a sinner, nuovo has assumed an inverted hellish significance; it refers to the incapacity to move forward, to ever be “new.” Similar usages are the “color novo” and “novelle spalle” attained by the thieves during their dead-ended metamorphoses (Inf. 25.119, 139). By contrast, when referring to the pilgrim, the adjective conserves its positive valence, implying his capacity for rebirth and forward movement; see Inf. 23.71-72.

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 26
Kirkpatrick refers to “the ‘humble’ speech of the fable” (Dante’s “Inferno,” 279). A further intertextual complication is the echo of Cavalcanti’s “e vanno soli, senza compagnia, / e son pien’ di paura” (“lo non pensava che lo cor giammai,” 51-52) .

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 27
“Far from being wrong, the pilgrim’s wish to listen is right, for his is the comedic desire to confront evil and to bear witness to all of reality, including Hell” (Dante’s Poets, 238).

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 28
Guido uses istra, a variant of issa: “O tu a cu’ io drizzo / la voce e che parlavi mo lombardo, / dicendo ‘Istra ten va, piu non t’adizzo”‘ (Inf. 27.1921). Bonagiunta uses issa to signal his conversion to understanding: “‘O frate, issa vegg’io,’ diss’elli, ‘il nodo / che ‘I Notaro e Guittone e me ritenne / di qua dal dolce stil novo ch’i’ odo!”‘ (Purg. 24.55-57).

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 29
See Robert Hollander, “Virgil and Dante as Mind-Readers (Inferno XXI and XXIII),” Medioevo romanzo 9 (1984): 85-100.

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 30
Dante’s understanding of mo and issa could be described in the terms Zygmunt G. Baranski uses for the “In of Par. 26, i.e., as “an avant la lettre instance of neo-Saussurean ‘arbitrariness of the signifier'” (“Dante’s Biblical Linguistics,” Lectura Dantis: A Forum for Dante Research and Interpretation 5 [1989]: 105-43; quotation, 126).

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 31
See Mark Musa’s notes to this canto, Dante’s “Infemo” (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971), 202.

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 32
Joan Ferrante notes that “normally, we think of art imitating nature (cf. Inf. 11.97-105), but here nature seems to imitate art, using its tools just long enough to deceive its audience” (“Good Thieves and Bad Thieves: A Reading of Infemo XXIV,” Dante Studies 104 [1986]: 83-98; quotation, 87). The semiotic meditation of lower hell will offer another example of nature as an imperfect artist in Inf. 31, where she is congratulated for having left off the art of making giants: “Natura certo, quando lascio l’arte / di si fatti animali, assai fe bene / per torre tali essecutori a Marte” (49-51) . All these passages depend on the mimetic hierarchy articulated in Inf. 11.

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 33
Guido Almansi glosses this episode’s “stupenda turpitudine,” noting, with respect to the following passage, that “l’adesione, ovviamente, non e geometrica o matematica , bensi squisitamentesessuale ” ( “I serpenti in infernali , ” in L’estetica dell’osceno [Turin: Einaudi, 1974], 37-88; quotations, 41, 66).

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 34
In “Dante’s Anti-Virgilian Villanello (Inf. XXIV, 1-21),” Dante Studies 102 (1984): 81-109, Margherita Frankel reads the simile as written in “two distinct styles, one highly literary and rhetorically ornate, the other humble like an Evangelical parable” (92). From this perspective, one could see the simile as initiating the hybrid style of cantos 24-25.

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 35
She writes of the “imprevedibile alleanza tra registri stilistici tradizionalmente antitetici” and of a “discorso letterario di provenienza ora petrosa ora stilnovistica, ora giocoso-realistica ora biblica, ora virgiliana ora dottrinaria” (Dante e la tradizione letteraria medievale [Pisa: Giardini, 1983], 28-29). Sanguineti too discusses Malebolge’s last two cantos in these terms, noting canto 29’s “modulazioni di narrato al tutto imprevedibili” (Interpretazione di Malebolge, 322) and characterizing canto 30 as a supreme example of Dantesque “politonalita” (337).

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 36
Hugh Shankland points out that Dante’s “dei remi facemmo ali” is “actually a reversal of the Virgilian tag remigium alarum, that is ‘delle ali remi,’ originally applied to the sure flights of Mercury and Daedalus in Aeneid 1.301 and 6.10” (“Dante Aliger and Ulysses,” Italian Studies 32 [1977]: 21-40; quotation, 30). The image recurs in Ovid’s account of Icarus’s fall: the boy’s wings melt, and he beats his naked arms to no avail, “remigioque carens” (“lacking oarage” [Metam. 8.228]). Thus, the image that Dante adopts as his chief emblem for Ulysses is associated in Vergil and Ovid with both Icarus and Daedalus, setting up the Commedia’s twofold analogy: as a frightened flyer, the pilgrim is compared to Icarus; as an artist who completes his flight, Dante is analogous to Daedalus, who arrived at Cumae.

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 37
The above verses are, in order of citation, Metamorphoses 8.188-89, 195, 215, 220, 234. The text is from the Loeb edition by F J. Miller, 2 vols. (1916; rpt., Cambridge: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann, 1971 [vol. 1] and 1968 [vol. 2]).

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 38
See E. R. Curtius, “The Ape as Metaphor,” European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (1948; Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973), 538-40, and,
for a reading similar to mine, see Steven Botterill, “Inferno XXlX Capocchio and the Limits of Realism,” Italiana 1988: Selected Papers from the Proceedings of the Fifth Annual Conference of the American Association of Teachers of Italian, ed. Albert N. Mancini et al. (River Forest, 111.: Rosary College, 1990), 23-33. Curtius’s account does not include the passage in the Convivio in which Dante denies that parrots speak as men or that apes act as men; their representation is not real, because not guided by reason: “Onde e da sapere che solamente l’uomo intra li animali parla, e ha reggimenti e atti che si dicono razionali, pero che solo elli ha in se ragione. E se alcuno volesse dire contra, dicendo che alcuno uccello parli, si come pare di certi, massimamente de la gazza e del pappagallo, e che alcuna bestia fa atti o vero reggimenti, si come pare de la scimia e d’alcuno altro, rispondo che non e vero che parlino ne che abbiano reggimenti, pero che non hanno ragione, da la quale queste cose convegnono procedere; ne e in loro lo principio di queste operazioni, ne conoscono che sia cio, ne intendono per quello alcuna cosa significare, ma solo quello che veggiono e odono ripresentare” (3.7.8-9). Unlike apes, the falsifiers possess reason and are therefore responsible for their imitations. In the context of poetic imitation, we recall the anonymous sonnet “In verita questo libel di Dante / e una bella simia de’ poeti,” connected by Guglielmo Gorni to Inf. 29 in “Cino ‘vil ladro’: parola data e parola rubata,” 11 nodo della lingua e il verbo d’amore (Florence: Olschki, 1981), 138.

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 39
I follow Robert Hollander’s suggestion that the adverb qui in “punisce i falsador che qui registra” refers to the text of the Commedia, see “Dante’s ‘Book of the Dead’: A Note on Infemo XXIX 57,” Studi danteschi 54 (1982): 31-51, where Hollander also notes that the alchemists are “perversely reminiscent of the poet’s role of fabricator” (34).

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 40
Ephialtes’ desire to be “esperto” recalls Ulysses’ ardor to become “del mondo esperto” and his subsequent call for “I’esperienza, / di retro al sol, del mondo sanza gente” (Inf. 26.98,116-17). The Ulyssean stamp imprinted on the sin of pride in Inf. 31 will be confirmed in Purg. 12, where the examples of pride rehearse the same transgressive configuration: Lucifer, the giants, including Nimrod, and�as stand-in for Ulysses�Arachne.

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 41
The canto’s first three words can thus be taken, out of context, to announce its theme.

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 42
The idea of traversing is present in the De vulgari eloquentia, where Dante discusses the dual nature of language in terms of mankind’s need to traverse the distance between the rational and the sensual, using the verb pertransire: “Quare, si tantum rationale esset, pertransire non posset; si tantum sensuale, nec a ratione accipere nec in rationem deponere potuisset” (1.3.2). One could look at the Commedia as a project that on the one hand seeks to eliminate the need for passage between the sensual sound (signifier) and its rational meaning (signified), by making them indivisible, and on the other is aware of the impossibility of a task whose consummation would make us like angels. In this sense, the Commedia is, like the tower of Babel, an “ovra inconsummabile” (Par. 26.125).

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 43
The use of convenire in 32.2 echoes the infernal decorum of the previous canto, which dictated that Nimrod speak gibberish since he is one “cui non si convenia piu dolci salmi” (31.69); the poet, too, is one for whom “sweeter psalms” are not currently appropriate. By the same token, the poet’s “rime aspre e chiocce” echo
Plutus’s “voce chioccia” (Inf. 7.2; these are the only instances of chioccia in the poem).

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 44
Dante had long striven for what Gianfranco Contini calls “la conversione del contenuto nella forma”: in the verses “Cosi nel mio parlar voglio esser aspro / com’e ne li atti questa bella petra,” we see an earlier version of Inf 32’s dir and fatto. (For Contini’s comment, see his edition of Dante’s Rime [1946; rpt., Turin: Einaudi, 1970], 165.) In the same canzone the poet tells us that the weight that submerges him “e tal che non potrebbe adequar rima” (21). Dante most likely had his earlier experiment with hard speech in mind as he composed Inf. 32: the canzone’s last stanza begins, “S’io avessi le belle trecce prese,” a verse that will be echoed in “S’io avessi le rime aspre e chiocce.” Moreover, in canto 32 the optative hair pulling of the canzone becomes “reality” when the pilgrim pulls the hair of Bocca degli Abati. For other echoes of the petrose in Cocytus, see Robert M. Durling and Ronald L. Martinez, Time and the Crystal: Studies in Dante’s Rime Petrose (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 217-23.

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 45
See Giovanni Papanti, ed., Dante, secondo la tradizione e i novellatori (Leghom: Vigo, 1873), 151-53.

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 46
See Giorgio Barberi Squarotti, “L’orazione del conte Ugolino,” Lettere italiane 23 (1971): 3-28; Piero Boitani, “Ugolino e la narrativa,” Studi danteschi 53 (1981): 31-52.

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 47
In “Ugolino e la narrativa,” Boitani categorizes both Dante’s exordium of canto 32 and Ugolino’s dream as narrative authenticating devices, referring explicitly to Bloomfield’s “Authenticating Realism and the Realism of Chaucer”; see chapter 1 for discussion of Bloomfield’s essay.

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 48
Dante is here reminding us of the treatise in which he classifies the various languages spoken in the bel paese, and where he first refers to Italian as the lingua di si. For further connections between the De vulgari eloquentia and this portion of the poem, in which we are made to witness man’s “betrayal of his very essence as speaker, according to the definition in the treatise” (137), see Donna L. Yowell, “Ugolino’s ‘bestial segno’: The De Vulgari Eloquentia in Inferno XXXII-XXXIII,” Dante Studies 104 (1986): 121~~~43.

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 49
The writerly context that has absorbed the originally oral “canto” is denoted by the adverb “suso”; the poet refers to the children whose names are registered “above,” in the written text. l do not agree with Jeremy Tambling, for whom Ugolino “is going beyond representation, going into the stark withdrawal about which there is nothing to say,” and who sees in the episode the signs of an “Ugolino impasse” whereby “a writer who continued in the Inferno mode would soon have to cease writing altogether” (Dante and Difference: Writing in the “Commedia” [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1988],81-82). This interpretation depends on suspending awareness of the composing poet, who demonstrates no difficulty in moving beyond Ugolino, who suffers no impasse, no drying up of his tongue as he responds to Ugolino’s narrative with the scathing indictment of Pisa. It is not enough to say, “The address to Pisa is a separate thing” (82). Why conclude that a text that is about absence of signification itself participates in the absence of signification it represents?

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 50
See Simonetta Saffiotti Bernardi’s entry, “Ugolino,” in the ED; apropos Ugolino’s vicarship, she comments that “probabilmente il conte usava questo titolo di vicario, oramai privo di contenuto, per legittimare le sue pretese sarde” (5:795).

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 51
Canto 33 also encompasses stylistic extremes, since as Piero Boitani points out, Alberigo’s tone is as “low” as Ugolino’s is “high” (see ‘lnferno XXXIII,” Cambridge Readings in Dante’s “Comedy,” ed. Kenelm Foster and Patrick Boyde [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981], 7>89, esp. 86).

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 52
The condition of the neutrals, of whom Dante writes at the outset of the journey�as now he is at the end�that “mai non fur vivi” (Inf. 3.64), is perhaps akin to this one, making them souls who never transited transition.

The Undivine Comedy, ch. 04: 53
With the words “per cotali scale . . . conviensi dipartir da tanto male” (Inf. 34.82, 84), Vergil echoes “Omai si scende per s} fatte scale,” canto 17’s first formulation of participatory transition. Kathleen Verduin reads the episode as the pilgrim’s participation in the “essentially deathful condition of the devil” (“Dante and the Sin of Satan: Augustinian Patterns in Infemo XXXIV 22-27,” Quaderni d’italianistica 4 [1983]: 208-17; quotation, 211).

return to top Return to top
Published in partnership with Columbia University Libraries