Scripting Suspense

  • an uneasy opening in a Franciscan key
  • semiotic uncertainty through proliferation of meaning: the Aesop’s Fable analogy and its component of “Geryonesque fraudulence”
  • how does an author script suspense in an overdetermined narrative?
  • an event that is “imagined” can also be true the “nonfalse errors” of Purgatorio 15
  • the Virgilio double helix
  • Dante and the Jews
  • the bolgia of hypocrisy and religion: cf. “la malvagia ipocresia de’ religiosi” (the wicked hypocrisy of the religious) of Decameron 1.6

Act 4. Inferno 23, verses 1-57

[1] After the barrater Ciampolo succeeds in tricking the devils and causes them to fight each other at the end of Inferno 22, Inferno 23 resumes by continuing the “play in 4 acts” begun in Inferno 21. The secondary plotline involving Ciampolo, the devils, and the nuovo ludo is now complete, and the author returns to the main plotline: the story of Dante and Virgilio deceived by recalcitrant and malevolent devils. We recall that in Inferno 21 Malacoda instructed Barbariccia and his band to grant Dante and Virgilio safe passage to the place where they will find an intact bridge that spans the sixth bolgia: “costor sian salvi infino a l’altro scheggio / che tutto intero va sovra le tane” (keep these two safe and sound till the next ridge that rises without break across the dens [Inf. 21.125-26]).

[2] Because there is no intact bridge over the sixth bolgia (in fact, all the bridges over the sixth bolgia collapsed at the same time, during the earthquake that accompanied the Crucifixion), Malacoda was effectively telling his devils that they will soon be authorized to attack the travelers. Malacoda’s deceptive instructions in Inferno 21 are intended to lull Dante and Virgilio into a sense of false security before the devils turn on them.

[3] Moreover, Malacoda issued his instruction to his troops at the end of Inferno 21, when  the devils were feeling cocky and exhuberant — before the incident with Ciampolo that takes place in Inferno 22. When the devils regroup after having been tricked by that tricky grafter, Ciampolo, after the humiliation of being embroiled in the pitch alongside the very sinners whom they guard, they are angry. The humiliated devils are more stoked with malice toward the travelers than they were before.

[4] And so Inferno 23 begins with a sense of uneasiness. The travelers walk alone and “without company”: the phrase “sanza compagnia” in the first verse of Inferno 23 recalls the “fiera compagnia” (fierce company) with which Dante and Virgilio were forced to travel in Inferno 22.14 and underscores the change that has occurred. Dante and Virgilio are silent and in single file, like Franciscan friars when they walk together:

Taciti, soli, sanza compagnia
n’andavam l’un dinanzi e l’altro dopo,
come frati minor vanno per via.  
(Inf. 23.1-3)
Silent, alone, no one escorting us,
we made our way—one went before, one after—
as Friars Minor when they walk together.  

[5] The reference to Franciscan friars anticipates the bolgia of the hypocrites in the second half of this canto: it is a bolgia that features clerics and religious. The brief passing simile also suggests the special place that Franciscan friars hold in Dante’s imagination.

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

Vòlt’ era in su la favola d’Isopo
lo mio pensier per la presente rissa,
dov’ el parlò de la rana e del topo.  
(Inf. 23.4-6)
The present fracas made me think of Aesop —
that fable where he tells about the
frog and mouse.

[7] To understand Dante’s analogy we must begin with the plot of the Fable to which Dante refers, which unfolds as follows: tying the mouse to his leg with a string, the frog sets out and, at midstream, begins to dive, intending to kill the mouse. The mouse resists; a kite flying by seizes the mouse and, because of the string, is rewarded with the malicious frog as well.

[8] Knowing the plot of the Fable brings some clarity: we know that the Fable augurs badly for our travelers. But in fact, Dante’s literary analogy obscures more than it clarifies, opening up a moment of great semiotic density and hermeneutic obscurity. As I show in my discussion of this passage in The Undivine Comedy, the comparison of the events occurring in Inferno 23 to Aesop’s Fable of the frog and mouse leads away from semiotic clarity.

[9] Dante complicates matters right off the bat by comparing the Fable not only to the events that have been unfolding in “real time” in the fifth bolgia but also to two little signifiers: the two little words “mo” and “issa”, which both mean “now”. He declares that the events that have occurred in the fifth bolgia are as similar to the events recounted in Aesop’s Fable about a mouse who asks a frog for help in crossing a river as mo is similar to issa: “ché più non si pareggia ‘mo’ e ‘issa’ /  che l’un con l’altro fa” (for ‘mo’ and ‘issa’ are not more alike than the one with the other [Inf. 23.7-8]).

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

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

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

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

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

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

(The Undivine Comedy, pp. 83-84; for documentation of the reception of the passage and its proliferating interpretations, here synthetically recited, see the notes to the above passage)

[12] The semiotic density and obscurity of the Aesop’s Fable analogy — its “Geryonesque fraudulence” — increases the sense of apprehension that hangs in the air in the opening of Inferno 23.

[13] The narrator continues to recount the pilgrim’s thoughts, which are focused on the devils and what he imagines will be their heightened malevolence. The pilgrim reasons (correctly) that the devils’ anger will be heightened because they have been mocked, made to absorb damage and scorn due to the “beffa” inflicted upon them by Ciampolo:

Io pensava così: “Questi per noi
sono scherniti con danno e con beffa
sì fatta, ch’assai credo che lor nòi.”  
(Inf. 23.13-15)
I thought: “Because of us, they have been mocked,<
and this inflicted so much hurt and scorn<
that I am sure they feel deep indignation.”

[14] The pilgrim intuits that the devils will chase them, and that they will be all the more determined not to lose this very special prey after having lost a routine grafter. Immediately upon having this thought, the pilgrim imagines the Malebranche in hot pursuit, using the verb imaginare: “io li ’magino sì, che già li sento” (I so imagine them, I hear them now [Inf. 23.24]). His hair curls with fear (19-20) and he tells Virgilio that the devils are already right behind them, at their heels: “Noi li avem già dietro; / io li ’magino sì, che già li sento” (they are after us; / I so imagine them, I hear them now [Inf. 23.23-24]).

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

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

[17] Dante has particular techniques with which he manipulates narrative time and generates a feeling of suspense in the reader, a feeling that he creates narratologically through the suspension of events in order to suggest uncertainty as to their outcome. We saw at the end of Inferno 8 how Dante uses the little adverb “già” to great effect as the travelers wait, in a suspenseful sequence, for the arrival of the divine messenger who will open the gate of Dis: “e già di qua da lei discende l’erta / . . . tal che per lui ne fia la terra aperta” (and now, already well within that gate, descends . . . the one who will unlock this realm for us [Inf. 8.128, 130]).

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

[19] In the narratological analysis of The Undivine Comedy I write about the importance of “già” and Dante’ deployment of the adverb in order to insinuate a feeling of simultaneity and denote urgency and immediacy within the diegesis  of the Commedia:

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

[20] The other issue here, of course, is that the devils will soon be revealed to be not just imagined, but real. And, indeed, imaginare will turn out to be a term, like sognare and parere, that denotes a very special category, proper to visionaries and mystics: an “imagined reality” that is not merely imagined, but also real.

[21] Hence the alignment of the “imaginata caccia” of Inferno 23.33 with the “true imaginings” of Purgatorio, a list that encompasses the “’ncendio imaginato” (imagined conflagration) of the dream of the eagle in Purgatorio 9 (verse 32) and the Virgin Mary “imaginata” in the act of responding to the angel Gabriel during the Annunciation. Of these and other examples I write in The Undivine Comedy:

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

[22] The devils’ chase not only gives the narrator the opportunity to create suspense and fear. The devils’ aggression also offers the narrator the opportunity to offset Virgilio’s overconfidence in his parley with Malacoda, and his consequent failure to protect his charge from possible harm, with the protective love and concern that he now shows for the pilgrim in the face of imminent danger.

[23] Because all the bridges over the sixth bolgia were destroyed (see Inferno 21 and the discussion of Malacoda’s lie), Virgilio and Dante must slide on their backs right down into the sixth bolgia, where — thankfully — there is no boiling tar. In their precipitate flight from the devils, Virgilio is described as a mother who thinks naught of herself or her own dignity as she leaves a burning home without her shift — naked — in order to save her child:

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

[24] We have seen Virgilio as a father-figure, and indeed he is frequently called “padre” in the poem; he will be “dolcissimo padre” in the scene that is his last, in Purgatorio 30. With the above simile in Inferno 23, in which Dante compares Virgilio to a mother saving her child, the poet shows his willingness to cross the gender barrier in order to further deepen our sense of the affective bonds between the pilgrim and his guide.

[25] In the final chapter of Dante’s Poets I analyze at length the double helix of Dante’s “Virgilio narrative”, with its braided intellective and affective strands. I show how Dante constructs a coordinated story-line for his guide. He renders Virgilio on the one hand ever more liable to fail in the intellective domain, in terms of the decisions that he makes. And, simultaneously, on the other side of the same narrative ledger, the poet renders Virgilio ever more loved and admired in the affective domain. The events of Inferno 21-23 constitute a major installment in the creation of this double helix narrative fabric: these canti posit both Virgilio’s failure as guide in dealing with Malacoda, and also the love and care that Virgilio shows for his charge when confronted with danger.

[26] The lengthy and complex narrative arc that begins in Inferno 21 concludes with a strong narrative assertion of the impotence of the devils of the fifth bolgia. However, in a dialectical treatment that is typically Dantean, the devils’ impotence is imprinted —  narratologically — with the urgency of the travelers’ escape: scarcely (“a pena”) have Virgilio’s feet touched the floor of the sixth bolgia than the devils are on the edge above them! By communicating that the travelers just barely manage to arrive at the safety of the sixth bolgia, the narrator communicates their peril and their fear. But, just as immediately, that fear is no more, for the same Providence that made the devils the ministers of the fifth bolgia has denied them the power to leave it. In an echo of Beatrice’s claim that Hell’s misery does not touch her (Inferno 2.92), the narrator informs us that the devils are powerless outside of the bolgia whose guardians they are, and that the travelers are therefore safe:

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

[27] The travelers have nothing to fear, says the narrator, because the devils do not have the “power” (“poder”) to leave the fifth bolgia. In this formulation Dante once again fudges theological certainty in order to preserve the dramatic quotient of his story. The narrator’s phrasing here gives the impression that the pilgrim would have been at risk had the devils caught him within the fifth ditch — within their own bolgia. And yet, technically — which is to say, theologically, given that this journey is willed by God — the devils’ impotence is a certainty, even within the bolgia of which they are ministers, for they are ministers of God’s justice who operate only within the divine framework.

[28] By manipulating the reader to feel suspense and concern over the welfare of the travelers, and then dramatizing the devils’ frustration and impotence as they look down at their escaped quarry, Dante shows that Hell is powerless, that the devils are powerless: fundamentally, that evil is powerless. Christ, we recall from the description of the Harrowing of Hell in Inferno 4, is the “possente” — the powerful one — Who goes where He wants and Who enters Hell undeterred (Inf. 4.53), while these devils lack  the “poder” (the power) to leave the fifth bolgia.

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

[30] Once the travelers enter the sixth bolgia, in Inferno 23.58, the dramatic arc that extends from Inferno 21 to Inferno 23, verse 58, has apparently come to an end. The rest of Inferno 23, from verse 58 to the canto’s end, treats the hypocrites. Roughly speaking, Dante assigns two and one-third canti to civic corruption (baratteria) and two-thirds of a canto to hypocrisy, demonstrating again that he has opted for narrative variatio and for lack of symmetry. However, not all is said and done on the topic of the devils and Virgilio’s misplaced trust in his negotiating skills. There is a coda to the story-line of the travelers and the devils, tucked at the very end of Inferno 23.

[31] In conversation with Catalano and Loderingo, two contemporary Bolognese hypocrites, Virgilio finally learns that there is no intact bridge over the sixth bolgia. As a result he comes to understand, belatedly, that Malacoda deceived him: “Mal contava la bisogna / colui che i peccator di qua uncina (He who hooks sinners over there / gave us a false account of this affair [Inf. 23.140-41]). This, it seems, is the episode’s final blow to Virgilio’s sense of mastery over Hell.

[32] But it is not; there is worse to come. Virgilio’s dismay at being lied to by Malacoda prompts not surprise and sympathy from the hypocrites, but rather the mocking assertion that devils are liars. In other words, Virgilio should have known better than to put his trust in a devil. And so, Catalano blandly comments that he once heard it said in Bologna that devils are liars:

E ’l frate: “Io udi’ già dire a Bologna
del diavol vizi assai, tra ’ quali udi’
ch’elli è bugiardo, e padre di menzogna.”   
(Inf. 23.142-44)
At which the Friar: “In Bologna, I 
once heard about the devil’s many vices—
they said he was a liar and father of lies.”

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

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

* * *

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

[36] These capes are more heavy than the lead capes that were made as instruments of torture by Frederick II (Inf. 23.61-66). Verse 66 alludes to Frederick II’s alleged gruesome torture for the crime of lèse majesté, unverified by historians but repeated by all ancient commentators. The report holds that the criminal was caped in lead and put into a cauldron under which a fire was set. I will come back to this passage in my discussion of Inferno’s historic tortures in the Introduction to Inferno 27.

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

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

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

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

mi disse: “Quel confitto che tu miri,
consigliò i Farisei che convenia
porre un uom per lo popolo a’ martìri.”  
(Inf. 23.115-17)
He told me: “That one impaled there, whom you see,
counseled the Pharisees that it was prudent
to let one man—and not one nation—suffer. 

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

E a tal modo il socero si stenta
in questa fossa, e li altri dal concilio
che fu per li Giudei mala sementa.   
(Inf. 23.121-23)
Like torment, in this ditch, afflicts both his<
father-in-law and others in that council,<
which for the Jews has seeded so much evil.

[41] Inferno 23 offers insight into Dante’s assessment of the role of the Jews in Providential history, anticipating the charge of deicide lodged against the Jews in Paradiso 7. In an act that Dante classifies as hypocritical, Caiaphas advised his fellow Pharisees that Jesus should be put to death rather than risk the deaths of many Jews: “consigliò i Farisei che convenia / porre un uom per lo popolo a’ martìri” (counseled the Pharisees that it was prudent / to let one man — and not one nation — suffer  [Inf. 23.116-17]). Here Dante is citing the Gospel of John: “it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not” (John 11:50). According to Christian exegetes of history, the council’s decision “was an evil seed for the Jews”: “fu per li Giudei mala sementa” (Inf. 23.123). As an “evil seed”, it bore evil fruit: the killing of Christ (itself a just payment for original sin) was nonetheless justly “avenged”, according to traditional Christian historiography, by the destruction of Jerusalem, carried out by the Roman Emperor Titus in 70 CE. These events in Jewish history are posed as a dense historic and moral conundrum in Paradiso 7: “come giusta vendetta giustamente / punita fosse” (how / just vengeance can deserve just punishment [Par. 7.20-21]). These same events are unpacked and disturbingly “explained” in Paradiso 7.47.

[42] In her essay “Dante and the Jewish Question”, Rachel Jacoff notes the biblical Jews present in the sixth bolgia and wonders about the significance of the absence of contemporary Jews from Dante’s Hell: “One question that has arisen for me since I began to work on this material is why Dante refrains from putting any actual Jews, other than the Biblical figures Judas, Caiphas, Annas and the Sanhedrin, in Hell” (p. 16; for full reference, see Coordinated Reading). The issue of the absence of contemporary Jews from Dante’s Hell is discussed in my treatment of usury, in the Introduction to Inferno 17.

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

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

[45] Dante’s critique of religious hypocrisy in Inferno 23 might well have influenced Boccaccio in Decameron 1.6, a novella whose rubric states that it treats “the evil hypocrisy of the clergy”: “la malvagia ipocresia de’ religiosi”. In his novella Boccaccio’s exposé of clerical hypocrisy focuses on the “Friars Minor, who do not dare to touch money” — “frati minori, che denari non osan toccare” (Dec. 1.6.9). These are precisely the “frati minor” referenced in verse 3 of Inferno 23.

[46] As we can see from the above discussion, Dante’s critique of what Boccaccio calls “la malvagia ipocresia de’ religiosi” is thorough and profound. In this canto, Dante’s scathing critique takes in Franciscans, Benedictines, the lay Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary known as Frati Gaudenti, the faculty of theology of Bologna, and Hebrew Pharisees.

Coordinated Reading

The Undivine Comedy (Princeton: Princeton U. Press, 1992), Chapter 4, “Narrative and Style in Lower Hell”; pp. 82-86, Chapter 7, “Nonfalse Errors and the True Dreams of the Evangelist”, p. 164; Dante’s Poets (Princeton: Princeton U. Press, 1984), pp. 103-05, p. 223, pp. 239-40. On Dante and the Jews, see Rachel Jacoff, "Dante and the Jewish Question", in Bernardo Lecture Series, No. 13, Center for Medieval & Renaissance Studies (New York: Binghamton, 2004).

Recommended Citation

Barolini, Teodolinda. “Inferno 23: Scripting Suspense.” Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2018. https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/inferno/inferno-23/
<paragraph number>

Commento Table of Contents

1 Taciti, soli, sanza compagnia
2 n’andavam l’un dinanzi e l’altro dopo,
3 come frati minor vanno per via.

4 Vòlt’ era in su la favola d’Isopo
5 lo mio pensier per la presente rissa,
6 dov’ el parlò de la rana e del topo;

7 ché più non si pareggia ‘mo’ e ‘issa’
8 che l’un con l’altro fa, se ben s’accoppia
9 principio e fine con la mente fissa.

10 E come l’un pensier de l’altro scoppia,
11 così nacque di quello un altro poi,
12 che la prima paura mi fé doppia.

13 Io pensava così: ‘Questi per noi
14 sono scherniti con danno e con beffa
15 sì fatta, ch’assai credo che lor nòi.

16 Se l’ira sovra ’l mal voler s’aggueffa,
17 ei ne verranno dietro più crudeli
18 che ’l cane a quella lievre ch’elli acceffa’ .

19 Già mi sentia tutti arricciar li peli
20 de la paura e stava in dietro intento,
21 quand’ io dissi: «Maestro, se non celi

22 te e me tostamente, i’ ho pavento
23 d’i Malebranche. Noi li avem già dietro;
24 io li ’magino sì, che già li sento».

25 E quei: «S’i’ fossi di piombato vetro,
26 l’imagine di fuor tua non trarrei
27 più tosto a me, che quella dentro ’mpetro.

28 Pur mo venieno i tuo’ pensier tra ’ miei,
29 con simile atto e con simile faccia,
30 sì che d’intrambi un sol consiglio fei.

31 S’elli è che sì la destra costa giaccia,
32 che noi possiam ne l’altra bolgia scendere,
33 noi fuggirem l’imaginata caccia».

34 Già non compié di tal consiglio rendere,
35 ch’io li vidi venir con l’ali tese
36 non molto lungi, per volerne prendere.

37 Lo duca mio di sùbito mi prese,
38 come la madre ch’al romore è desta
39 e vede presso a sé le fiamme accese,

40 che prende il figlio e fugge e non s’arresta,
41 avendo più di lui che di sé cura,
42 tanto che solo una camiscia vesta;

43 e giù dal collo de la ripa dura
44 supin si diede a la pendente roccia,
45 che l’un de’ lati a l’altra bolgia tura.

46 Non corse mai sì tosto acqua per doccia
47 a volger ruota di molin terragno,
48 quand’ ella più verso le pale approccia,

49 come ’l maestro mio per quel vivagno,
50 portandosene me sovra ’l suo petto,
51 come suo figlio, non come compagno.

52 A pena fuoro i piè suoi giunti al letto
53 del fondo giù, ch’e’ furon in sul colle
54 sovresso noi; ma non lì era sospetto:

55 ché l’alta provedenza che lor volle
56 porre ministri de la fossa quinta,
57 poder di partirs’ indi a tutti tolle.

58 Là giù trovammo una gente dipinta
59 che giva intorno assai con lenti passi,
60 piangendo e nel sembiante stanca e vinta.

61 Elli avean cappe con cappucci bassi
62 dinanzi a li occhi, fatte de la taglia
63 che in Clugnì per li monaci fassi.

64 Di fuor dorate son, sì ch’elli abbaglia;
65 ma dentro tutte piombo, e gravi tanto,
66 che Federigo le mettea di paglia.

67 Oh in etterno faticoso manto!
68 Noi ci volgemmo ancor pur a man manca
69 con loro insieme, intenti al tristo pianto;

70 ma per lo peso quella gente stanca
71 venìa sì pian, che noi eravam nuovi
72 di compagnia ad ogne mover d’anca.

73 Per ch’io al duca mio: «Fa che tu trovi
74 alcun ch’al fatto o al nome si conosca,
75 e li occhi, sì andando, intorno movi».

76 E un che ’ntese la parola tosca,
77 di retro a noi gridò: «Tenete i piedi,
78 voi che correte sì per l’aura fosca!

79 Forse ch’avrai da me quel che tu chiedi».
80 Onde ’l duca si volse e disse: «Aspetta,
81 e poi secondo il suo passo procedi».

82 Ristetti, e vidi due mostrar gran fretta
83 de l’animo, col viso, d’esser meco;
84 ma tardavali ’l carco e la via stretta.

85 Quando fuor giunti, assai con l’occhio bieco
86 mi rimiraron sanza far parola;
87 poi si volsero in sé, e dicean seco:

88 «Costui par vivo a l’atto de la gola;
89 e s’e’ son morti, per qual privilegio
90 vanno scoperti de la grave stola?».

91 Poi disser me: «O Tosco, ch’al collegio
92 de l’ipocriti tristi se’ venuto,
93 dir chi tu se’ non avere in dispregio».

94 E io a loro: «I’ fui nato e cresciuto
95 sovra ’l bel fiume d’Arno a la gran villa,
96 e son col corpo ch’i’ ho sempre avuto.

97 Ma voi chi siete, a cui tanto distilla
98 quant’ i’ veggio dolor giù per le guance?
99 e che pena è in voi che sì sfavilla?».

100 E l’un rispuose a me: «Le cappe rance
101 son di piombo sì grosse, che li pesi
102 fan così cigolar le lor bilance.

103 Frati godenti fummo, e bolognesi;
104 io Catalano e questi Loderingo
105 nomati, e da tua terra insieme presi

106 come suole esser tolto un uom solingo,
107 per conservar sua pace; e fummo tali,
108 ch’ancor si pare intorno dal Gardingo».

109 Io cominciai: «O frati, i vostri mali…»;
110 ma più non dissi, ch’a l’occhio mi corse
111 un, crucifisso in terra con tre pali.

112 Quando mi vide, tutto si distorse,
113 soffiando ne la barba con sospiri;
114 e ’l frate Catalan, ch’a ciò s’accorse,

115 mi disse: «Quel confitto che tu miri,
116 consigliò i Farisei che convenia
117 porre un uom per lo popolo a’ martìri.

118 Attraversato è, nudo, ne la via,
119 come tu vedi, ed è mestier ch’el senta
120 qualunque passa, come pesa, pria.

121 E a tal modo il socero si stenta
122 in questa fossa, e li altri dal concilio
123 che fu per li Giudei mala sementa».

124 Allor vid’ io maravigliar Virgilio
125 sovra colui ch’era disteso in croce
126 tanto vilmente ne l’etterno essilio.

127 Poscia drizzò al frate cotal voce:
128 «Non vi dispiaccia, se vi lece, dirci
129 s’a la man destra giace alcuna foce

130 onde noi amendue possiamo uscirci,
131 sanza costrigner de li angeli neri
132 che vegnan d’esto fondo a dipartirci».

133 Rispuose adunque: «Più che tu non speri
134 s’appressa un sasso che de la gran cerchia
135 si move e varca tutt’ i vallon feri,

136 salvo che ’n questo è rotto e non coperchia;
137 montar potrete su per la ruina,
138 che giace in costa e nel fondo soperchia».

139 Lo duca stette un poco a testa china;
140 poi disse: «Mal contava la bisogna
141 colui che i peccator di qua uncina».

142 E ’l frate: «Io udi’ già dire a Bologna
143 del diavol vizi assai, tra ’ quali udi’
144 ch’elli è bugiardo, e padre di menzogna».

145 Appresso il duca a gran passi sen gì,
146 turbato un poco d’ira nel sembiante;
147 ond’ io da li ’ncarcati mi parti’

148 dietro a le poste de le care piante.

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

The present fracas made me think of Aesop—
that fable where he tells about the mouse
and frog; for “near” and “nigh” are not more close

than are that fable and this incident,
if you compare with care how each begins
and then compare the endings that they share.

And even as one thought springs from another,
so out of that was still another born,
which made the fear I felt before redouble.

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

If anger’s to be added to their malice,
they’ll hunt us down with more ferocity
than any hound whose teeth have trapped a hare.”

I could already feel my hair curl up
from fear, and I looked back attentively,
while saying: “Master, if you don’t conceal

yourself and me at once—they terrify me,
those Malebranche; they are after us;
I so imagine them, I hear them now.”

And he to me: “Were I a leaded mirror,
I could not gather in your outer image
more quickly than I have received your inner.

For even now your thoughts have joined my own;
in both our acts and aspects we are kin—
with both our minds I’ve come to one decision.

If that right bank is not extremely steep,
we can descend into the other moat
and so escape from the imagined chase.”

He’d hardly finished telling me his plan
when I saw them approach with outstretched wings,
not too far off, and keen on taking us.

My guide snatched me up instantly, just as
the mother who is wakened by a roar
and catches sight of blazing flames beside her,

will lift her son and run without a stop—
she cares more for the child than for herself—
not pausing even to throw on a shift;

and down the hard embankment’s edge—his back
lay flat along the sloping rock that closes
one side of the adjacent moat—he slid.

No water ever ran so fast along
a sluice to turn the wheels of a land mill,
not even when its flow approached the paddles,

as did my master race down that embankment
while bearing me with him upon his chest,
just like a son, and not like a companion.

His feet had scarcely reached the bed that lies
along the deep below, than those ten demons
were on the edge above us; but there was

nothing to fear; for that High Providence
that willed them ministers of the fifth ditch,
denies to all of them the power to leave it.

Below that point we found a painted people,
who moved about with lagging steps, in circles,
weeping, with features tired and defeated.

And they were dressed in cloaks with cowls so low
they fell before their eyes, of that same cut
that’s used to make the clothes for Cluny’s monks.

Outside, these cloaks were gilded and they dazzled;
but inside they were all of lead, so heavy
that Frederick’s capes were straw compared to them.

A tiring mantle for eternity!
We turned again, as always, to the left,
along with them, intent on their sad weeping;

but with their weights that weary people paced
so slowly that we found ourselves among
new company each time we took a step.

At which I told my guide: “Please try to find
someone whose name or deed I recognize;
and while we walk, be watchful with your eyes.”

And one who’d taken in my Tuscan speech
cried out behind us: “Stay your steps, o you
who hurry so along this darkened air!

Perhaps you’ll have from me that which you seek.”
At which my guide turned to me, saying: “Wait,
and then continue, following his pace.”

I stopped, and I saw two whose faces showed
their minds were keen to be with me; but both
their load and the tight path forced them to slow.

When they came up, they looked askance at me
a long while, and they uttered not a word
until they turned to one another, saying:

“The throbbing of his throat makes this one seem
alive; and if they’re dead, what privilege
lets them appear without the heavy mantle?”

Then they addressed me: “Tuscan, you who come
to this assembly of sad hypocrites,
do not disdain to tell us who you are.”

I answered: “Where the lovely Arno flows,
there I was born and raised, in the great city;
I’m with the body I have always had.

But who are you, upon whose cheeks I see
such tears distilled by grief? And let me know
what punishment it is that glitters so.”

And one of them replied: “The yellow cloaks
are of a lead so thick, their heaviness
makes us, the balances beneath them, creak.

We both were Jovial Friars, and Bolognese;
my name was Catalano, Loderingo
was his, and we were chosen by your city

together, for the post that’s usually
one man’s, to keep the peace; and what we were
is still to be observed around Gardingo.”

I then began, “O Friars, your misdeeds . . . ”
but said no more, because my eyes had caught
one crucified by three stakes on the ground.

When he saw me, that sinner writhed all over,
and he breathed hard into his beard with sighs;
observing that, Fra Catalano said

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

Naked, he has been stretched across the path,
as you can see, and he must feel the weight
of anyone who passes over him.

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

Then I saw Virgil stand amazed above
that one who lay stretched out upon a cross
so squalidly in his eternal exile.

And he addressed the friar in this way:
“If it does not displease you—if you may—
tell us if there’s some passage on the right

that would allow the two of us to leave
without our having to compel black angels
to travel to this deep, to get us out.”

He answered: “Closer than you hope, you’ll find
a rocky ridge that stretches from the great
round wall and crosses all the savage valleys,

except that here it’s broken—not a bridge.
But where its ruins slope along the bank
and heap up at the bottom, you can climb.”

My leader stood a while with his head bent,
then said: “He who hooks sinners over there
gave us a false account of this affair.”

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

And then my guide moved on with giant strides,
somewhat disturbed, with anger in his eyes;
at this I left those overburdened spirits,

while following the prints of his dear feet.

SILENT, alone, and without company
We went, the one in front, the other after,
As go the Minor Friars along their way

Upon the fable of Aesop was directed
My thought, by reason of the present quarrel,
Where he has spoken of the frog and mouse;

For _mo_ and _issa_ are not more alike
Than this one is to that, if well we couple
End and beginning with a steadfast mind.

And even as one thought from another springs,
So afterward from that was born another,
Which the first fear within me double made.

Thus did I ponder: “These on our account
Are laughed to scorn, with injury and scoff
So great, that much I think it must annoy them.

If anger be engrafted on ill—will,
They will come after us more merciless
Than dog upon the leveret which he seizes,”

I felt my hair stand all on end already
With terror, and stood backwardly intent,
When said I: “Master, if thou hidest not

Thyself and me forthwith, of Malebranche
I am in dread; we have them now behind us;
I so imagine them, I already feel them”

And he : “If I were made of leaded glass
Thine outward image I should not attract
Sooner to me than I imprint the inner.

Just now thy thoughts came in among my own,
With similar attitude and similar face,
So that of both one counsel sole I made.

If peradventure the right bank so slope
That we to the next Bolgia can descend.
We shall escape from the imagined chase.”

Not yet he finished rendering such opinion.
When I beheld them come with outstretched wings,
Not far remote, with will to seize upon us.

My Leader on a sudden seized me up,
Even as a mother who by noise is wakened,
And close beside her sees the enkindled flames,

Who takes her son, and flies, and does not stop,
Having more care of him than of herself,
So that she clothes her only with a shift;

And downward from the top of the hard bank
Supine he gave him to the pendent rock,
That one side of the other Bolgia walls.

Ne’er ran so swiftly water through a sluice
To turn the water of any land—built mill,
When nearest to the paddles it approaches,

As did my Master down along that border,
Bearing me with him on his breast away,
As his own son, and not as a companion.

Hardly the bed of the ravine below
His feet had reached, ere they had reached the hill
Right over us; but he was not afraid;

For the high Providence, which had ordained
To place them ministers of the fifth moat,
The power of thence departing took from all.

A painted people there below we found,
Who went about with footsteps very slow,
Weeping and in their semblance tired and vanquished.

They had on mantles with the hoods low down
Before their eyes, and fashioned of the cut
That in Cologne they for the monks arc made.

Without, they gilded are so that it dazzles;
But inwardly all leaden and so heavy
That Frederick used to put them on of straw.

O everlastingly fatiguing mantle !
Again we turned us, still to the left hand
Along with them, intent on their sad plaint;

But owing to the weight, that weary folk
Came on so tardily, that we were new
In company at each motion of the haunch.

Whence I unto my Leader: “See thou find
Some one who may by deed or name be known,
And thus in going move thine eye about.”

And one, who understood the Tuscan speech
Cried to us from behind: “Stay ye your feet
Ye, who so run athwart the dusky air! .

Perhaps thou’lt have from me what thou demandest.”
Whereat the Leader turned him, and said: “Wait,
And then according to his pace proceed.”

I stopped, and two beheld I show great haste
Of spirit, in their faces, to be with me;
But the burden and the narrow way delayed them.

When they came up, long with an eye askance
They scanned me without uttering a word.
Then to each other turned, and said together:

“He by the action of his throat seems living;
And if they dead are, by what privilege
Go they uncovered by the heavy stole ?”

Then said to me: “Tuscan, who to the college
Of miserable hypocrites art come,
Do not disdain to tell us who thou art.”

And I to them: “Born was I, and grew up
In the great town on the fair river of Arno,
And with the body am I’ve always had.

But who are ye, in whom there trickles down
Along your cheeks such grief as I behold ?
And what pain is upon you, that so sparkles?”

And one replied to me: “These orange cloaks
Are made of lead so heavy, that the weights
Cause in this way their balances to creak.

Frati Gaudenti were we, and Bolognese;
I Catalano, and he Loderingo
Named, and together taken by thy city,

As the wont is to take one man alone,
For maintenance of its peace; and we were such
That still it is apparent round Gardingo.”

“O Friars,” began I, “your iniquitous . . .”
But said no more; for to mine eyes there rushed
One crucified with three stakes on the ground.

When me he saw, he writhed himself all over,
Blowing into his beard with suspirations;
And the Friar Catalan, who noticed this,

Said to me: “This transfixed one, whom thou seest,
Counselled the Pharisees that it was meet
To put one man to torture for the people.

Crosswise and naked is he on the path,
As thou perceivest; and he needs must feel,
Whoever passes, first how much he weighs;

And in like mode his father—in—law is punished
Within this moat, and the others of the council,
Which for the Jews was a malignant seed.”

And thereupon I saw Virgilius marvel
O’er him who was extended on the cross
So vilely in eternal banishment.

Then he directed to the Friar this voice:
“Be not displeased, if granted thee, to tell us
If to the right hand any pass slope down

By which we two may issue forth from here,
Without constraining some of the black angels
To come and extricate us from this deep.”

Then he made answer: “Nearer than thou hopest
There is a rock, that forth from the great circle
Proceeds, and crosses all the cruel valleys,

Save that at this ’tis broken, and does not bridge it;
You will be able to mount up the ruin,
That sidelong slopes and at the bottom rises.”

The Leader stood awhile with head bowed down;
Then said: “The business badly he recounted
Who grapples with his hook the sinners yonder.”

And the Friar: “Many of the Devil’s vices
Once heard I at Bologna, and among them,
That he’s a liar and the father of lies.”

Thereat my Leader with great strides went on,
Somewhat disturbed with anger in his looks;
Whence from the heavy—laden I departed

After the prints of his beloved feet.

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

The present fracas made me think of Aesop—
that fable where he tells about the mouse
and frog; for “near” and “nigh” are not more close

than are that fable and this incident,
if you compare with care how each begins
and then compare the endings that they share.

And even as one thought springs from another,
so out of that was still another born,
which made the fear I felt before redouble.

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

If anger’s to be added to their malice,
they’ll hunt us down with more ferocity
than any hound whose teeth have trapped a hare.”

I could already feel my hair curl up
from fear, and I looked back attentively,
while saying: “Master, if you don’t conceal

yourself and me at once—they terrify me,
those Malebranche; they are after us;
I so imagine them, I hear them now.”

And he to me: “Were I a leaded mirror,
I could not gather in your outer image
more quickly than I have received your inner.

For even now your thoughts have joined my own;
in both our acts and aspects we are kin—
with both our minds I’ve come to one decision.

If that right bank is not extremely steep,
we can descend into the other moat
and so escape from the imagined chase.”

He’d hardly finished telling me his plan
when I saw them approach with outstretched wings,
not too far off, and keen on taking us.

My guide snatched me up instantly, just as
the mother who is wakened by a roar
and catches sight of blazing flames beside her,

will lift her son and run without a stop—
she cares more for the child than for herself—
not pausing even to throw on a shift;

and down the hard embankment’s edge—his back
lay flat along the sloping rock that closes
one side of the adjacent moat—he slid.

No water ever ran so fast along
a sluice to turn the wheels of a land mill,
not even when its flow approached the paddles,

as did my master race down that embankment
while bearing me with him upon his chest,
just like a son, and not like a companion.

His feet had scarcely reached the bed that lies
along the deep below, than those ten demons
were on the edge above us; but there was

nothing to fear; for that High Providence
that willed them ministers of the fifth ditch,
denies to all of them the power to leave it.

Below that point we found a painted people,
who moved about with lagging steps, in circles,
weeping, with features tired and defeated.

And they were dressed in cloaks with cowls so low
they fell before their eyes, of that same cut
that’s used to make the clothes for Cluny’s monks.

Outside, these cloaks were gilded and they dazzled;
but inside they were all of lead, so heavy
that Frederick’s capes were straw compared to them.

A tiring mantle for eternity!
We turned again, as always, to the left,
along with them, intent on their sad weeping;

but with their weights that weary people paced
so slowly that we found ourselves among
new company each time we took a step.

At which I told my guide: “Please try to find
someone whose name or deed I recognize;
and while we walk, be watchful with your eyes.”

And one who’d taken in my Tuscan speech
cried out behind us: “Stay your steps, o you
who hurry so along this darkened air!

Perhaps you’ll have from me that which you seek.”
At which my guide turned to me, saying: “Wait,
and then continue, following his pace.”

I stopped, and I saw two whose faces showed
their minds were keen to be with me; but both
their load and the tight path forced them to slow.

When they came up, they looked askance at me
a long while, and they uttered not a word
until they turned to one another, saying:

“The throbbing of his throat makes this one seem
alive; and if they’re dead, what privilege
lets them appear without the heavy mantle?”

Then they addressed me: “Tuscan, you who come
to this assembly of sad hypocrites,
do not disdain to tell us who you are.”

I answered: “Where the lovely Arno flows,
there I was born and raised, in the great city;
I’m with the body I have always had.

But who are you, upon whose cheeks I see
such tears distilled by grief? And let me know
what punishment it is that glitters so.”

And one of them replied: “The yellow cloaks
are of a lead so thick, their heaviness
makes us, the balances beneath them, creak.

We both were Jovial Friars, and Bolognese;
my name was Catalano, Loderingo
was his, and we were chosen by your city

together, for the post that’s usually
one man’s, to keep the peace; and what we were
is still to be observed around Gardingo.”

I then began, “O Friars, your misdeeds . . . ”
but said no more, because my eyes had caught
one crucified by three stakes on the ground.

When he saw me, that sinner writhed all over,
and he breathed hard into his beard with sighs;
observing that, Fra Catalano said

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

Naked, he has been stretched across the path,
as you can see, and he must feel the weight
of anyone who passes over him.

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

Then I saw Virgil stand amazed above
that one who lay stretched out upon a cross
so squalidly in his eternal exile.

And he addressed the friar in this way:
“If it does not displease you—if you may—
tell us if there’s some passage on the right

that would allow the two of us to leave
without our having to compel black angels
to travel to this deep, to get us out.”

He answered: “Closer than you hope, you’ll find
a rocky ridge that stretches from the great
round wall and crosses all the savage valleys,

except that here it’s broken—not a bridge.
But where its ruins slope along the bank
and heap up at the bottom, you can climb.”

My leader stood a while with his head bent,
then said: “He who hooks sinners over there
gave us a false account of this affair.”

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

And then my guide moved on with giant strides,
somewhat disturbed, with anger in his eyes;
at this I left those overburdened spirits,

while following the prints of his dear feet.

SILENT, alone, and without company
We went, the one in front, the other after,
As go the Minor Friars along their way

Upon the fable of Aesop was directed
My thought, by reason of the present quarrel,
Where he has spoken of the frog and mouse;

For _mo_ and _issa_ are not more alike
Than this one is to that, if well we couple
End and beginning with a steadfast mind.

And even as one thought from another springs,
So afterward from that was born another,
Which the first fear within me double made.

Thus did I ponder: “These on our account
Are laughed to scorn, with injury and scoff
So great, that much I think it must annoy them.

If anger be engrafted on ill—will,
They will come after us more merciless
Than dog upon the leveret which he seizes,”

I felt my hair stand all on end already
With terror, and stood backwardly intent,
When said I: “Master, if thou hidest not

Thyself and me forthwith, of Malebranche
I am in dread; we have them now behind us;
I so imagine them, I already feel them”

And he : “If I were made of leaded glass
Thine outward image I should not attract
Sooner to me than I imprint the inner.

Just now thy thoughts came in among my own,
With similar attitude and similar face,
So that of both one counsel sole I made.

If peradventure the right bank so slope
That we to the next Bolgia can descend.
We shall escape from the imagined chase.”

Not yet he finished rendering such opinion.
When I beheld them come with outstretched wings,
Not far remote, with will to seize upon us.

My Leader on a sudden seized me up,
Even as a mother who by noise is wakened,
And close beside her sees the enkindled flames,

Who takes her son, and flies, and does not stop,
Having more care of him than of herself,
So that she clothes her only with a shift;

And downward from the top of the hard bank
Supine he gave him to the pendent rock,
That one side of the other Bolgia walls.

Ne’er ran so swiftly water through a sluice
To turn the water of any land—built mill,
When nearest to the paddles it approaches,

As did my Master down along that border,
Bearing me with him on his breast away,
As his own son, and not as a companion.

Hardly the bed of the ravine below
His feet had reached, ere they had reached the hill
Right over us; but he was not afraid;

For the high Providence, which had ordained
To place them ministers of the fifth moat,
The power of thence departing took from all.

A painted people there below we found,
Who went about with footsteps very slow,
Weeping and in their semblance tired and vanquished.

They had on mantles with the hoods low down
Before their eyes, and fashioned of the cut
That in Cologne they for the monks arc made.

Without, they gilded are so that it dazzles;
But inwardly all leaden and so heavy
That Frederick used to put them on of straw.

O everlastingly fatiguing mantle !
Again we turned us, still to the left hand
Along with them, intent on their sad plaint;

But owing to the weight, that weary folk
Came on so tardily, that we were new
In company at each motion of the haunch.

Whence I unto my Leader: “See thou find
Some one who may by deed or name be known,
And thus in going move thine eye about.”

And one, who understood the Tuscan speech
Cried to us from behind: “Stay ye your feet
Ye, who so run athwart the dusky air! .

Perhaps thou’lt have from me what thou demandest.”
Whereat the Leader turned him, and said: “Wait,
And then according to his pace proceed.”

I stopped, and two beheld I show great haste
Of spirit, in their faces, to be with me;
But the burden and the narrow way delayed them.

When they came up, long with an eye askance
They scanned me without uttering a word.
Then to each other turned, and said together:

“He by the action of his throat seems living;
And if they dead are, by what privilege
Go they uncovered by the heavy stole ?”

Then said to me: “Tuscan, who to the college
Of miserable hypocrites art come,
Do not disdain to tell us who thou art.”

And I to them: “Born was I, and grew up
In the great town on the fair river of Arno,
And with the body am I’ve always had.

But who are ye, in whom there trickles down
Along your cheeks such grief as I behold ?
And what pain is upon you, that so sparkles?”

And one replied to me: “These orange cloaks
Are made of lead so heavy, that the weights
Cause in this way their balances to creak.

Frati Gaudenti were we, and Bolognese;
I Catalano, and he Loderingo
Named, and together taken by thy city,

As the wont is to take one man alone,
For maintenance of its peace; and we were such
That still it is apparent round Gardingo.”

“O Friars,” began I, “your iniquitous . . .”
But said no more; for to mine eyes there rushed
One crucified with three stakes on the ground.

When me he saw, he writhed himself all over,
Blowing into his beard with suspirations;
And the Friar Catalan, who noticed this,

Said to me: “This transfixed one, whom thou seest,
Counselled the Pharisees that it was meet
To put one man to torture for the people.

Crosswise and naked is he on the path,
As thou perceivest; and he needs must feel,
Whoever passes, first how much he weighs;

And in like mode his father—in—law is punished
Within this moat, and the others of the council,
Which for the Jews was a malignant seed.”

And thereupon I saw Virgilius marvel
O’er him who was extended on the cross
So vilely in eternal banishment.

Then he directed to the Friar this voice:
“Be not displeased, if granted thee, to tell us
If to the right hand any pass slope down

By which we two may issue forth from here,
Without constraining some of the black angels
To come and extricate us from this deep.”

Then he made answer: “Nearer than thou hopest
There is a rock, that forth from the great circle
Proceeds, and crosses all the cruel valleys,

Save that at this ’tis broken, and does not bridge it;
You will be able to mount up the ruin,
That sidelong slopes and at the bottom rises.”

The Leader stood awhile with head bowed down;
Then said: “The business badly he recounted
Who grapples with his hook the sinners yonder.”

And the Friar: “Many of the Devil’s vices
Once heard I at Bologna, and among them,
That he’s a liar and the father of lies.”

Thereat my Leader with great strides went on,
Somewhat disturbed with anger in his looks;
Whence from the heavy—laden I departed

After the prints of his beloved feet.

Related video

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Reading by Francesco Bausi: Inferno 23

For more readings by Francesco Bausi, see the Bausi Readings page.