Diabolic Semiosis

  • Dante uses subliminal techniques of verisimilitude: “che la mia comedìa cantar non cura
  • the rough “tavern humor” and plebeian lexicon adds to narrative variatio and innovation
  • the beginning of a play in four acts
  • a small society comes into focus, with a complex and stratified social order
  • a major installment in the Virgilio narrative
  • Malacoda’s “truthful lie” vs. Dante’s “ver c’ha faccia di menzogna”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Act 1. Inferno 21, verses 4-57

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coordinated Reading

The Undivine Comedy, Chapter 4, “Narrative and Style in Lower Hell”, pp. 80-81; Dante’s Poets, pp. 222-23.

Recommended Citation

Barolini, Teodolinda. “Inferno 21: Diabolic Semiosis.” Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2017. https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/inferno/inferno-21/

About the Commento

1 Così di ponte in ponte, altro parlando
2 che la mia comedìa cantar non cura,
3 venimmo; e tenavamo ’l colmo, quando

4 restammo per veder l’altra fessura
5 di Malebolge e li altri pianti vani;
6 e vidila mirabilmente oscura.

7 Quale ne l’arzanà de’ Viniziani
8 bolle l’inverno la tenace pece
9 a rimpalmare i legni lor non sani,

10 ché navicar non ponno – in quella vece
11 chi fa suo legno novo e chi ristoppa
12 le coste a quel che più vïaggi fece;

13 chi ribatte da proda e chi da poppa;
14 altri fa remi e altri volge sarte;
15 chi terzeruolo e artimon rintoppa -:

16 tal, non per foco, ma per divin’ arte,
17 bollia là giuso una pegola spessa,
18 che ’nviscava la ripa d’ogne parte.

19 I’ vedea lei, ma non vedëa in essa
20 mai che le bolle che ’l bollor levava,
21 e gonfiar tutta, e riseder compressa.

22 Mentr’ io là giù fisamente mirava,
23 lo duca mio, dicendo «Guarda, guarda!»,
24 mi trasse a sé del loco dov’ io stava.

25 Allor mi volsi come l’uom cui tarda
26 di veder quel che li convien fuggire
27 e cui paura sùbita sgagliarda,

28 che, per veder, non indugia ’l partire:
29 e vidi dietro a noi un diavol nero
30 correndo su per lo scoglio venire.

31 Ahi quant’ elli era ne l’aspetto fero!
32 e quanto mi parea ne l’atto acerbo,
33 con l’ali aperte e sovra i piè leggero!

34 L’omero suo, ch’era aguto e superbo,
35 carcava un peccator con ambo l’anche,
36 e quei tenea de’ piè ghermito ’l nerbo.

37 Del nostro ponte disse: «O Malebranche,
38 ecco un de li anzïan di Santa Zita!
39 Mettetel sotto, ch’i’ torno per anche

40 a quella terra che n’è ben fornita:
41 ogn’ uom v’è barattier, fuor che Bonturo;
42 del no, per li denar vi si fa ita».

43 Là giù ’l buttò, e per lo scoglio duro
44 si volse; e mai non fu mastino sciolto
45 con tanta fretta a seguitar lo furo.

46 Quel s’attuffò, e tornò sù convolto;
47 ma i demon che del ponte avean coperchio,
48 gridar: «Qui non ha loco il Santo Volto:

49 qui si nuota altrimenti che nel Serchio!
50 Però, se tu non vuo’ di nostri graffi,
51 non far sopra la pegola soverchio».

52 Poi l’addentar con più di cento raffi,
53 disser: «Coverto convien che qui balli,
54 sì che, se puoi, nascosamente accaffi».

55 Non altrimenti i cuoci a’ lor vassalli
56 fanno attuffare in mezzo la caldaia
57 la carne con li uncin, perché non galli.

58 Lo buon maestro «Acciò che non si paia
59 che tu ci sia», mi disse, «giù t’acquatta
60 dopo uno scheggio, ch’alcun schermo t’aia;

61 e per nulla offension che mi sia fatta,
62 non temer tu, ch’i’ ho le cose conte,
63 perch’ altra volta fui a tal baratta».

64 Poscia passò di là dal co del ponte;
65 e com’ el giunse in su la ripa sesta,
66 mestier li fu d’aver sicura fronte.

67 Con quel furore e con quella tempesta
68 ch’escono i cani a dosso al poverello
69 che di sùbito chiede ove s’arresta,

70 usciron quei di sotto al ponticello,
71 e volser contra lui tutt’ i runcigli;
72 ma el gridò: «Nessun di voi sia fello!

73 Innanzi che l’uncin vostro mi pigli,
74 traggasi avante l’un di voi che m’oda,
75 e poi d’arruncigliarmi si consigli».

76 Tutti gridaron: «Vada Malacoda!»;
77 per ch’un si mosse – e li altri stetter fermi –
78 e venne a lui dicendo: «Che li approda?».

79 «Credi tu, Malacoda, qui vedermi
80 esser venuto», disse ’l mio maestro,
81 «sicuro già da tutti vostri schermi,

82 sanza voler divino e fato destro?
83 Lascian’ andar, ché nel cielo è voluto
84 ch’i’ mostri altrui questo cammin silvestro».

85 Allor li fu l’orgoglio sì caduto,
86 ch’e’ si lasciò cascar l’uncino a’ piedi,
87 e disse a li altri: «Omai non sia feruto».

88 E ’l duca mio a me: «O tu che siedi
89 tra li scheggion del ponte quatto quatto,
90 sicuramente omai a me ti riedi».

91 Per ch’io mi mossi, e a lui venni ratto;
92 e i diavoli si fecer tutti avanti,
93 sì ch’io temetti ch’ei tenesser patto;

94 così vid’ ïo già temer li fanti
95 ch’uscivan patteggiati di Caprona,
96 veggendo sé tra nemici cotanti.

97 I’ m’accostai con tutta la persona
98 lungo ’l mio duca, e non torceva li occhi
99 da la sembianza lor ch’era non buona.

100 Ei chinavan li raffi e «Vuo’ che ’l tocchi»,
101 diceva l’un con l’altro, «in sul groppone?».
102 E rispondien: «Sì, fa che gliel’ accocchi».

103 Ma quel demonio che tenea sermone
104 col duca mio, si volse tutto presto
105 e disse: «Posa, posa, Scarmiglione!».

106 Poi disse a noi: «Più oltre andar per questo
107 iscoglio non si può, però che giace
108 tutto spezzato al fondo l’arco sesto.

109 E se l’andare avante pur vi piace,
110 andatevene su per questa grotta;
111 presso è un altro scoglio che via face.

112 Ier, più oltre cinqu’ ore che quest’ otta,
113 mille dugento con sessanta sei
114 anni compié che qui la via fu rotta.

115 Io mando verso là di questi miei
116 a riguardar s’alcun se ne sciorina;
117 gite con lor, che non saranno rei».

118 «Tra’ti avante, Alichino, e Calcabrina»,
119 cominciò elli a dire, «e tu, Cagnazzo;
120 e Barbariccia guidi la decina.

121 Libicocco vegn’ oltre e Draghignazzo,
122 Cirïatto sannuto e Graffiacane
123 e Farfarello e Rubicante pazzo.

124 Cercate ’ntorno le boglienti pane;
125 costor sian salvi infino a l’altro scheggio
126 che tutto intero va sovra le tane».

127 «Omè, maestro, che è quel ch’i’ veggio?»,
128 diss’ io, «deh, sanza scorta andianci soli,
129 se tu sa’ ir; ch’i’ per me non la cheggio.

130 Se tu se’ sì accorto come suoli,
131 non vedi tu ch’e’ digrignan li denti,
132 e con le ciglia ne minaccian duoli?».

133 Ed elli a me: «Non vo’ che tu paventi;
134 lasciali digrignar pur a lor senno,
135 ch’e’ fanno ciò per li lessi dolenti».

136 Per l’argine sinistro volta dienno;
137 ma prima avea ciascun la lingua stretta
138 coi denti, verso lor duca, per cenno;

139 ed elli avea del cul fatto trombetta.

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

then stayed our steps to spy the other cleft
of Malebolge and other vain laments.
I saw that it was wonderfully dark.

As in the arsenal of the Venetians,
all winter long a stew of sticky pitch
boils up to patch their sick and tattered ships

that cannot sail (instead of voyaging,
some build new keels, some tow and tar the ribs
of hulls worn out by too much journeying;

some hammer at the prow, some at the stern,
and some make oars, and some braid ropes and cords;
one mends the jib, another, the mainsail);

so, not by fire but by the art of God,
below there boiled a thick and tarry mass
that covered all the banks with clamminess.

I saw it, but I could not see within it;
no thing was visible but boiling bubbles,
the swelling of the pitch; and then it settled.

And while I watched below attentively,
my guide called out to me: “Take care! Take care!”
And then, from where I stood, he drew me near.

I turned around as one who is impatient
to see what he should shun but is dashed down
beneath the terror he has undergone,

who does not stop his flight and yet would look.
And then in back of us I saw a black
demon as he came racing up the crags.

Ah, he was surely barbarous to see!
And how relentless seemed to me his acts!
His wings were open and his feet were lithe;

across his shoulder, which was sharp and high,
he had slung a sinner, upward from the thighs;
in front, the demon gripped him by the ankles.

Then from our bridge, he called: “O Malebranche,
I’ve got an elder of Saint Zita for you!
Shove this one under—I’ll go back for more—

his city is well furnished with such stores;
there, everyone’s a grafter but Bonturo;
and there—for cash—they’ll change a no to yes.”

He threw the sinner down, then wheeled along
The stony cliff: no mastiff’s ever been
unleashed with so much haste to chase a thief.

The sinner plunged, then surfaced, black with pitch;
but now the demons, from beneath the bridge,
shouted: “The Sacred Face has no place here;

here we swim differently than in the Serchio;
if you don’t want to feel our grappling hooks,
don’t try to lift yourself above that ditch.”

They pricked him with a hundred prongs and more,
then taunted: “Here one dances under cover,
so try to grab your secret graft below.”

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

Then my good master said to me: “Don’t let
those demons see that you are here; take care
to crouch behind the cover of a crag.

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

When this was said, he moved beyond the bridgehead.
And on the sixth embankment, he had need
to show his imperturbability.

With the same frenzy, with the brouhaha
of dogs, when they beset a poor wretch who
then stops dead in his tracks as if to beg,

so, from beneath the bridge, the demons rushed
against my guide with all their prongs, but he
called out: “Can’t you forget your savagery!

Before you try to maul me, just let one
of all your troop step forward. Hear me out,
and then decide if I am to be hooked.”

At this they howled, “Let Malacoda go!”
And one of them moved up—the others stayed—
and as he came, he asked: “How can he win?”

“O Malacoda, do you think I’ve come,”
my master answered him, “already armed—
as you can see—against your obstacles,

without the will of God and helpful fate?
Let us move on; it is the will of Heaven
for me to show this wild way to another.”

At this the pride of Malacoda fell;
his prong dropped to his feet. He told his fellows:
“Since that’s the way things stand, let us not wound him.”

My guide then spoke to me: “O you, who crouch,
bent low among the bridge’s splintered rocks,
you can feel safe—and now return to me.”

At this I moved and quickly came to him.
The devils had edged forward, all of them;
I feared that they might fail to keep their word:

just so, I saw the infantry when they
marched out, under safe conduct, from Caprona;
they trembled when they passed their enemies.

My body huddled closer to my guide;
I did not let the demons out of sight;
the looks they cast at us were less than kind.

They bent their hooks and shouted to each other:
“And shall I give it to him on the rump?”
And all of them replied, “Yes, let him have it!”

But Malacoda, still in conversation
with my good guide, turned quickly to his squadron
and said: “Be still, Scarmiglione, still!”

To us he said: “There is no use in going
much farther on this ridge, because the sixth
bridge—at the bottom there—is smashed to bits.

Yet if you two still want to go ahead,
move up and walk along this rocky edge;
nearby, another ridge will form a path.

Five hours from this hour yesterday,
one thousand and two hundred sixty—six
years passed since that roadway was shattered here.

I’m sending ten of mine out there to see
if any sinner lifts his head for air;
go with my men—there is no malice in them.”

“Step forward, Alichino and Calcabrina,”
he then began to say, “and you, Cagnazzo;
and Barbariccia, who can lead the ten.

Let Libicocco go, and Draghignazzo
and tusky Ciriatto and Graffiacane
and Farfarello and mad Rubicante.

Search all around the clammy stew of pitch;
keep these two safe and sound till the next ridge
that rises without break across the dens.”

“Ah me! What is this, master, that I see?”
I said. “Can’t we do without company?
If you know how to go, I want no escort.

If you are just as keen as usual,
can’t you see how those demons grind their teeth?
Their brows are menacing, they promise trouble.”

And he to me: “I do not want you frightened:
just let them gnash away as they may wish;
they do it for the wretches boiled in pitch.”

They turned around along the left hand bank:
but first each pressed his tongue between his teeth
as signal for their leader, Barbariccia.

And he had made a trumpet of his ass.

FROM bridge to bridge thus, speaking other things
Of which my Comedy cares not to sing,
We came along, and held the summit, when

We halted to behold another fissure
Of Malebolge and other vain laments;
And I beheld it marvellously dark.

As in the Arsenal of the Venetians
Boils in the winter the tenacious pitch
To smear their unsound vessels o’er again,

For sail they cannot; and instead thereof
One makes his vessel new, and one recaulks
The ribs of that which many a voyage has made;

One hammers at the prow, one at the stern,
This one makes oars, and that one cordage twists,
Another mends the mainsail and the mizzen;

Thus, not by fire, but by the art divine,
Was boiling down below there a dense pitch
Which upon every side the bank belimed.

I saw it, but I did not see within it
Aught but the bubbles that the boiling raised,
And all swell up and resubside compressed.

The while below there fixedly I gazed,
My Leader, crying out: “Beware, beware !”
Drew me unto himself from where I stood.

Then I turned round, as one who is impatient
To see what it behoves him to escape,
And whom a sudden terror doth unman.

Who, while he looks, delays not his departure;
And I beheld behind us a black devil,
Running along upon the crag, approach.

Ah, how ferocious was he in his aspect !
And how he seemed to me in action ruthless,
With open wings and light upon his feet !

His shoulders, which sharp—pointed were and high,
A sinner did encumber with both haunches,
And he held clutched the sinews of the feet.

From off our bridge, he said: “O Malebranche,
Behold one of the elders of Saint Zita;
Plunge him beneath, for I return for others

Unto that town, which is well furnished with them.
All there are barrators, except Bonturo;
No into Yes for money there is changed.”

He hurled him down, and over the hard crag
Turned round, and never was a mastiff loosened
In so much hurry to pursue a thief.

The other sank, and rose again face downward;
But the demons, under cover of the bridge,
Cried: “Here the Santo Volto has no place !

Here swims one otherwise than in the Serchio;
Therefore, if for our gaffs thou wishest not,
Do not uplift thyself above the pitch.”

They seized him then with more than a hundred rakes;
They said: “It here behoves thee to dance covered,
That, if thou canst, thou secretly mayest pilfer.”

Not otherwise the cooks their scullions make
Immerse into the middle of the caldron
The meat with hooks, so that it may not float.

Said the good Master to me: “That it be not
Apparent thou art here, crouch thyself down
Behind a jag, that thou mayest have some screen;

And for no outrage that is done to me
Be thou afraid, because these things I know,
For once before was I in such a scuffle.”

Then he passed on beyond the bridge’s head,
And as upon the sixth bank he arrived,
Need was for him to have a steadfast front.

With the same fury, and the same uproar,
As dogs leap out upon a mendicant,
Who on a sudden begs, where’er he stops,

They issued from beneath the little bridge,
And turned against him all their grappling—irons;
But he cried out: “Be none of you malignant !

Before those hooks of yours lay hold of me,
Let one of you step forward, who may hear me,
And then take counsel as to grappling me.”

They all cried out: “Let Malacoda go;”
Whereat one started, and the rest stood still,
And he came to him, saying: “What avails it ?”

“Thinkest thou, Malacoda, to behold me
Advanced into this place,” my Master said,
“Safe hitherto from all your skill of fence,

Without the will divine, and fate auspicious ?
Let me go on, for it in Heaven is willed
That I another show this savage road.”

Then was his arrogance so humbled in him,
That he let fall his grapnel at his feet,
And to the others said: “Now strike him not.”

And unto me my Guide: “O thou, who sittest
Among the splinters of the bridge crouched down,
Securely now return to me again.”

Wherefore I started and came swiftly to him;
And all the devils forward thrust themselves,
So that I feared they would not keep their compact.

And thus beheld I once afraid the soldiers
Who issued under safeguard from Caprona,
Seeing themselves among so many foes.

Close did I press myself with all my person
Beside my Leader, and turned not mine eyes
From off their countenance, which was not good.

They lowered their rakes, and “Wilt thou have me hit him,”
They said to one another, “on the rump ?”
And answered: “Yes; see that thou nick him with it.”

But the same demon who was holding parley
With my Conductor turned him very quickly,
And said: “Be quiet, be quiet, Scarmiglione ;”

Then said to us: “You can no farther go
Forward upon this crag, because is lying
All shattered, at the bottom, the sixth arch.

And if it still doth please you to go onward,
Pursue your way along upon this rock;
Near is another crag that yields a path.

Yesterday, five hours later than this hour,
One thousand and two hundred sixty—six
Years were complete, that here the way was broken.

I send in that direction some of mine
To see if any one doth air himself;
Go ye with them; for they will not be vicious.

Step forward, Alichino and Calcabrina,”
Began he to cry out,”and thou, Cagnazzo;
And Barbariccia, do thou guide the ten.

Come forward, Libicocco and Draghignazzo,
And tusked Ciriatto and Graffiacane,
And Farfarello and mad Rubicante;

Search ye all round about the boiling pitch;
Let these be safe as far as the next crag,
That all unbroken passes o’er the dens.”

“O me ! what is it, Master, that I see ?
Pray let us go,” I said, “without an escort,
If thou knowest how, since for myself I ask none.

If thou art as observant as thy wont is,
Dost thou not see that they do gnash their teeth,
And with their brows are threatening woe to us ?”

And he to me: “I will not have thee fear;
Let them gnash on, according to their fancy,
Because they do it for those boiling wretches.”

Along the left—hand dike they wheeled about;
But first had each one thrust his tongue between
His teeth towards their leader for a signal;

And he had made a trumpet of his rump.

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

then stayed our steps to spy the other cleft
of Malebolge and other vain laments.
I saw that it was wonderfully dark.

As in the arsenal of the Venetians,
all winter long a stew of sticky pitch
boils up to patch their sick and tattered ships

that cannot sail (instead of voyaging,
some build new keels, some tow and tar the ribs
of hulls worn out by too much journeying;

some hammer at the prow, some at the stern,
and some make oars, and some braid ropes and cords;
one mends the jib, another, the mainsail);

so, not by fire but by the art of God,
below there boiled a thick and tarry mass
that covered all the banks with clamminess.

I saw it, but I could not see within it;
no thing was visible but boiling bubbles,
the swelling of the pitch; and then it settled.

And while I watched below attentively,
my guide called out to me: “Take care! Take care!”
And then, from where I stood, he drew me near.

I turned around as one who is impatient
to see what he should shun but is dashed down
beneath the terror he has undergone,

who does not stop his flight and yet would look.
And then in back of us I saw a black
demon as he came racing up the crags.

Ah, he was surely barbarous to see!
And how relentless seemed to me his acts!
His wings were open and his feet were lithe;

across his shoulder, which was sharp and high,
he had slung a sinner, upward from the thighs;
in front, the demon gripped him by the ankles.

Then from our bridge, he called: “O Malebranche,
I’ve got an elder of Saint Zita for you!
Shove this one under—I’ll go back for more—

his city is well furnished with such stores;
there, everyone’s a grafter but Bonturo;
and there—for cash—they’ll change a no to yes.”

He threw the sinner down, then wheeled along
The stony cliff: no mastiff’s ever been
unleashed with so much haste to chase a thief.

The sinner plunged, then surfaced, black with pitch;
but now the demons, from beneath the bridge,
shouted: “The Sacred Face has no place here;

here we swim differently than in the Serchio;
if you don’t want to feel our grappling hooks,
don’t try to lift yourself above that ditch.”

They pricked him with a hundred prongs and more,
then taunted: “Here one dances under cover,
so try to grab your secret graft below.”

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

Then my good master said to me: “Don’t let
those demons see that you are here; take care
to crouch behind the cover of a crag.

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

When this was said, he moved beyond the bridgehead.
And on the sixth embankment, he had need
to show his imperturbability.

With the same frenzy, with the brouhaha
of dogs, when they beset a poor wretch who
then stops dead in his tracks as if to beg,

so, from beneath the bridge, the demons rushed
against my guide with all their prongs, but he
called out: “Can’t you forget your savagery!

Before you try to maul me, just let one
of all your troop step forward. Hear me out,
and then decide if I am to be hooked.”

At this they howled, “Let Malacoda go!”
And one of them moved up—the others stayed—
and as he came, he asked: “How can he win?”

“O Malacoda, do you think I’ve come,”
my master answered him, “already armed—
as you can see—against your obstacles,

without the will of God and helpful fate?
Let us move on; it is the will of Heaven
for me to show this wild way to another.”

At this the pride of Malacoda fell;
his prong dropped to his feet. He told his fellows:
“Since that’s the way things stand, let us not wound him.”

My guide then spoke to me: “O you, who crouch,
bent low among the bridge’s splintered rocks,
you can feel safe—and now return to me.”

At this I moved and quickly came to him.
The devils had edged forward, all of them;
I feared that they might fail to keep their word:

just so, I saw the infantry when they
marched out, under safe conduct, from Caprona;
they trembled when they passed their enemies.

My body huddled closer to my guide;
I did not let the demons out of sight;
the looks they cast at us were less than kind.

They bent their hooks and shouted to each other:
“And shall I give it to him on the rump?”
And all of them replied, “Yes, let him have it!”

But Malacoda, still in conversation
with my good guide, turned quickly to his squadron
and said: “Be still, Scarmiglione, still!”

To us he said: “There is no use in going
much farther on this ridge, because the sixth
bridge—at the bottom there—is smashed to bits.

Yet if you two still want to go ahead,
move up and walk along this rocky edge;
nearby, another ridge will form a path.

Five hours from this hour yesterday,
one thousand and two hundred sixty—six
years passed since that roadway was shattered here.

I’m sending ten of mine out there to see
if any sinner lifts his head for air;
go with my men—there is no malice in them.”

“Step forward, Alichino and Calcabrina,”
he then began to say, “and you, Cagnazzo;
and Barbariccia, who can lead the ten.

Let Libicocco go, and Draghignazzo
and tusky Ciriatto and Graffiacane
and Farfarello and mad Rubicante.

Search all around the clammy stew of pitch;
keep these two safe and sound till the next ridge
that rises without break across the dens.”

“Ah me! What is this, master, that I see?”
I said. “Can’t we do without company?
If you know how to go, I want no escort.

If you are just as keen as usual,
can’t you see how those demons grind their teeth?
Their brows are menacing, they promise trouble.”

And he to me: “I do not want you frightened:
just let them gnash away as they may wish;
they do it for the wretches boiled in pitch.”

They turned around along the left hand bank:
but first each pressed his tongue between his teeth
as signal for their leader, Barbariccia.

And he had made a trumpet of his ass.

FROM bridge to bridge thus, speaking other things
Of which my Comedy cares not to sing,
We came along, and held the summit, when

We halted to behold another fissure
Of Malebolge and other vain laments;
And I beheld it marvellously dark.

As in the Arsenal of the Venetians
Boils in the winter the tenacious pitch
To smear their unsound vessels o’er again,

For sail they cannot; and instead thereof
One makes his vessel new, and one recaulks
The ribs of that which many a voyage has made;

One hammers at the prow, one at the stern,
This one makes oars, and that one cordage twists,
Another mends the mainsail and the mizzen;

Thus, not by fire, but by the art divine,
Was boiling down below there a dense pitch
Which upon every side the bank belimed.

I saw it, but I did not see within it
Aught but the bubbles that the boiling raised,
And all swell up and resubside compressed.

The while below there fixedly I gazed,
My Leader, crying out: “Beware, beware !”
Drew me unto himself from where I stood.

Then I turned round, as one who is impatient
To see what it behoves him to escape,
And whom a sudden terror doth unman.

Who, while he looks, delays not his departure;
And I beheld behind us a black devil,
Running along upon the crag, approach.

Ah, how ferocious was he in his aspect !
And how he seemed to me in action ruthless,
With open wings and light upon his feet !

His shoulders, which sharp—pointed were and high,
A sinner did encumber with both haunches,
And he held clutched the sinews of the feet.

From off our bridge, he said: “O Malebranche,
Behold one of the elders of Saint Zita;
Plunge him beneath, for I return for others

Unto that town, which is well furnished with them.
All there are barrators, except Bonturo;
No into Yes for money there is changed.”

He hurled him down, and over the hard crag
Turned round, and never was a mastiff loosened
In so much hurry to pursue a thief.

The other sank, and rose again face downward;
But the demons, under cover of the bridge,
Cried: “Here the Santo Volto has no place !

Here swims one otherwise than in the Serchio;
Therefore, if for our gaffs thou wishest not,
Do not uplift thyself above the pitch.”

They seized him then with more than a hundred rakes;
They said: “It here behoves thee to dance covered,
That, if thou canst, thou secretly mayest pilfer.”

Not otherwise the cooks their scullions make
Immerse into the middle of the caldron
The meat with hooks, so that it may not float.

Said the good Master to me: “That it be not
Apparent thou art here, crouch thyself down
Behind a jag, that thou mayest have some screen;

And for no outrage that is done to me
Be thou afraid, because these things I know,
For once before was I in such a scuffle.”

Then he passed on beyond the bridge’s head,
And as upon the sixth bank he arrived,
Need was for him to have a steadfast front.

With the same fury, and the same uproar,
As dogs leap out upon a mendicant,
Who on a sudden begs, where’er he stops,

They issued from beneath the little bridge,
And turned against him all their grappling—irons;
But he cried out: “Be none of you malignant !

Before those hooks of yours lay hold of me,
Let one of you step forward, who may hear me,
And then take counsel as to grappling me.”

They all cried out: “Let Malacoda go;”
Whereat one started, and the rest stood still,
And he came to him, saying: “What avails it ?”

“Thinkest thou, Malacoda, to behold me
Advanced into this place,” my Master said,
“Safe hitherto from all your skill of fence,

Without the will divine, and fate auspicious ?
Let me go on, for it in Heaven is willed
That I another show this savage road.”

Then was his arrogance so humbled in him,
That he let fall his grapnel at his feet,
And to the others said: “Now strike him not.”

And unto me my Guide: “O thou, who sittest
Among the splinters of the bridge crouched down,
Securely now return to me again.”

Wherefore I started and came swiftly to him;
And all the devils forward thrust themselves,
So that I feared they would not keep their compact.

And thus beheld I once afraid the soldiers
Who issued under safeguard from Caprona,
Seeing themselves among so many foes.

Close did I press myself with all my person
Beside my Leader, and turned not mine eyes
From off their countenance, which was not good.

They lowered their rakes, and “Wilt thou have me hit him,”
They said to one another, “on the rump ?”
And answered: “Yes; see that thou nick him with it.”

But the same demon who was holding parley
With my Conductor turned him very quickly,
And said: “Be quiet, be quiet, Scarmiglione ;”

Then said to us: “You can no farther go
Forward upon this crag, because is lying
All shattered, at the bottom, the sixth arch.

And if it still doth please you to go onward,
Pursue your way along upon this rock;
Near is another crag that yields a path.

Yesterday, five hours later than this hour,
One thousand and two hundred sixty—six
Years were complete, that here the way was broken.

I send in that direction some of mine
To see if any one doth air himself;
Go ye with them; for they will not be vicious.

Step forward, Alichino and Calcabrina,”
Began he to cry out,”and thou, Cagnazzo;
And Barbariccia, do thou guide the ten.

Come forward, Libicocco and Draghignazzo,
And tusked Ciriatto and Graffiacane,
And Farfarello and mad Rubicante;

Search ye all round about the boiling pitch;
Let these be safe as far as the next crag,
That all unbroken passes o’er the dens.”

“O me ! what is it, Master, that I see ?
Pray let us go,” I said, “without an escort,
If thou knowest how, since for myself I ask none.

If thou art as observant as thy wont is,
Dost thou not see that they do gnash their teeth,
And with their brows are threatening woe to us ?”

And he to me: “I will not have thee fear;
Let them gnash on, according to their fancy,
Because they do it for those boiling wretches.”

Along the left—hand dike they wheeled about;
But first had each one thrust his tongue between
His teeth towards their leader for a signal;

And he had made a trumpet of his rump.