Virgil and Dante Come to Where the grafters are punished.
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From that bridge to the next one, we continued to walk and talk about things I don’t need to mention here in my Comedy.This canto follows quite smoothly from the last one. At the end of Canto 20, it was sunrise on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter. Dante and Virgil were talking as they walked away from the fourth … Continue reading But when we reached the top of that next bridge we stopped so we could look down into the fifth bolgia. It was very dark down there and hard to see. But let me explain more: If you’ve been to the Arsenale in Venice, you know how big cauldrons of thick heavy pitch and tar boil there during the Winter when they’re repairing the ships that don’t sail at that time of year. They’re either building new ships or repairing other ones: caulking the ribs, tightening planks that have come loose, plugging leaks, hammering from bow to stern, making new oars, repairing ropes, and patching torn sails.Until the Industrial Revolution, the vast Arsenale in Venice, built in 1104, was the largest ship-building enterprise in the world. It was enclosed within a two-mile circuit of walls and towers that … Continue reading Well, down in this ditch it was God’s art – not fire – that was boiling a viscid pitch that smeared everything with its sticky residue. Great big bubbles rose lazily to the surface of that slowly boiling ooze, and sank again as they burst.Only now does the Poet’s “tour” of the Arsenale make sense, and what connects that place and this is the boiling pitch. Bear in mind how it “smeared everything with its sticky residue,” as … Continue reading
I was standing there watching that tarry mess when suddenly Virgil shouted to me: “Look out! Look out there!” Grabbing hold of me he pulled me over against his side. For a moment I was like someone – scared to death – who can’t help but turn around to see what he’s running away from, but keeps running nevertheless. And there, right behind us, was a great black devil running along the ridge! He was frightening to look at, mean and evil. His great wings were outstretched as he sped along, cruel in every move he made. Worse than that, he had a sinner slung over one of his high, pointy shoulders, holding him at the ankles by his great claws.Up to this point, Dante has seen no one in the dark fifth bolgia, and the only activity down there has been the bubbling of oozy boiling tar everywhere. While Dante was concentrating on what was … Continue reading When he was on our bridge he shouted: “Yo, Malebranche! Look what I’ve got for you! He’s one of Santa Zita’s elders. Shove him under while I go back for more – I’ve got a city well-stocked with his sort. Grafters every one of them! Ohh, except for Bonturo! There in Lucca you can easily pay to change a ‘no’ into a ‘yes.’”As noted above, this devil is not far away from Dante and Virgil: he’s “on our bridge.” In Italian, malebranche means “evil claws,” and this devil is equipped with them as we’ve seen. … Continue reading
Well, he flung that miserable sinner off the bridge down into that awful pitch, and then flew away faster than a dog chasing a thief! When the sinner hit the pitch he sank immediately and then floated back up all stretched out like a cross. Right away a crew of devils who had been hiding under our bridge ran out and shouted at him: “Don’t you imitate the Holy Face! Not here! As you can see, swimming here is different from the Serchio, isn’t it! We’ve got our forks with us, so get back under that pitch, or else!” More than a hundred prongs jabbed into that poor sinner as the devils shrieked with glee: “Do your squirming under the pitch. Try learning how to cheat down there!” They reminded me of kitchen boys who help the cooks by poking the meat down into the pots with big forks to keep it from floating up to the top.Things begin to happen fast. The calm beginning of this canto has already been shattered by the appearance of a great black devil on the bridge where Dante and Virgil were peering down into the dark … Continue reading
Seeing all this, Virgil said: “I think we’d better not let them see you here with me. Go over there and hide behind one of those rocks. No matter what they say to me, don’t worry. Remember: I know how things run down here. I’ve been in these jams before.”
So he walked right on across the bridge and past the end. As soon as he set foot on that next level he puffed himself out to make himself look bold and commanding. You know how all that sound and fury breaks loose when dogs fly out at some poor beggar in the road, forcing him stop and beg from there? Well, just so did all those demons who were hiding underneath the bridge – they rushed out at Virgil and blocked his way waving their long tridents at him! But he shouted at them: “Stop this at once and behave yourselves! Before any of you thinks he can spear me with his fork let one of you come out here and talk with me. Then you can decide whether you really want to grapple with me.”In spite of their heavenly commission, we’ve seen Dante and Virgil in difficult situations already. Virgil, having been here before shortly after his death, as he explained in Canto 9, … Continue reading
Right away they all cried out: “Malacoda, you go!” One of that evil troop walked out toward Virgil while the others stayed crouched under the bridge. He came right up to Virgil, saying with a smirk to the rest: “What good does he think this is going to do?”
But Virgil said to him: “Think about it, Malacoda. You’d never catch me all the way down here, safe and sound, without Fortune and Heaven’s will on my side. Now get out of the way and let us pass. I’m leading another through your evil world – with the Almighty’s permission.”
At that, Malacoda’s sassy arrogance collapsed and he let his triton drop to the ground in front of him. “OK! Don’t lay a hand on this man,” he hollered back to the hiding devils.The humor of this canto begins to seep out through the travelers’ precarious situation here. Virgil wants to speak with someone in charge, someone who will respect his heavenly commission. Instead, … Continue reading
Only then did Virgil call me: “You over there, hiding behind the rocks, come on back. It’s safe.” I came out slowly and then ran over beside him.
As I was running, all those devils rushed out, too, and I was afraid they wouldn’t really keep their promise. When I was at Caprona, I remember the truce and how all those soldiers came out of that castle frightened to be walking between the ranks of their enemies. I nudged as close as I could get to Virgil and didn’t once take my eyes off those cruel faces that had nothing good about them.Called out from his hiding place, Dante approaches Virgil with rightful trepidation as he recalls a scene from his military experience. Caprona was a fortified castle along the Arno River not far … Continue reading
All their tridents were now all aimed at me, and one of that bunch said slyly: “What do you say? Shall I give him a sharp one right in the butt?”
With glee they all laughed: “Poke his ass good!”
But Malacoda spun around fast and shouted an order: “At ease, everyone! Take it easy, Scarmiglione!”As can be seen, Dante is right. In spite of the truce the devils cannot be trusted. And so their sport continues with humor and – one would expect it – vulgar talk. But Malacoda calls them and … Continue reading
Then he explained to us: “You’re not going to be able to cross any of these bridges over the sixth bolgia because they’re all smashed up on the bottom. If you want to keep going you’ll need to go along this ridge here. Then way off there you’ll find a bridge to cross over. In just about five hours, it’ll be twelve hundred sixty-six years and a day since this bridge collapsed. I’m going to send my squad here over there to make sure no one is popping up out of the pitch. You can go along with them, they won’t hurt you.Explaining how they should proceed, Malacoda cleverly mingles truth and falsehood just as the sinners did who are punished here. Should we expect anything less? It is true that all the bridges across … Continue reading
“Get over here, Alichino. Calcabrina,” he shouted, “and you too, Cagnazzo. You’re in charge, Barbariccia. Take Libicocco and Draghignazzo with you, Ciriatto with his fangs and Graffiacane, Farfarello and crazy Rubicante. Make a tour of our bolgia and inspect the pitch. And remember, these two have safe passage all the way to the connecting bridge that isn’t broken.”After hearing the names of this infernal platoon and watching their antics (and there is more devilment in store), is it any wonder that Cantos 21 and 22 have been called the “Gargoyle Cantos”? A … Continue reading
“Master,” I said quietly to Virgil, “this doesn’t look right to me. Let’s just go by ourselves, without an escort. You already know the way and I don’t want to be around them! You’re always so observant of things, how come you don’t see them sneering and winking at each other? We’re in real danger here!”
“Oh, come on, now,” he said. “I don’t want you to be frightened. Let them make all the faces they want. Anyway, they’re making them at the boiling sinners, not us.”Well, of course Dante is correct here. But so is Virgil, in the sense that, in keeping with the theme of this canto, he represents the person with so much self-confidence that it prevents him from … Continue reading
Well, off we went with them. But before they made a left-face along the bank, each one gave their captain a salute by making fart-sounds at him with their mouths. And he, not to be outdone, trumpeted back at them a huge butt-fart!Dante’s poem is not a Commedia in the sense of a “ha-ha” story. But after reading this canto, and particularly these last lines, it is difficult to imagine him writing this with a straight … Continue reading
Notes & Commentary
|↑1||This canto follows quite smoothly from the last one. At the end of Canto 20, it was sunrise on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter. Dante and Virgil were talking as they walked away from the fourth bolgia, and whatever the subject was, Dante tells us it wasn’t important enough to mention in his Comedy. All of this paints a picture of calmness and nonchalance. At the same time, Dante is not frequent in the specific mention of his Comedy, and that he does so here signals that there is more to this canto than its quiet opening might suggest. Like its literary relative Tragedy, a Comedy is a serious story. The difference is that a Tragedy ends soberly and even woefully. A Comedy, on the other hand, begins soberly but has a happy ending.It may be that by recalling the title here, Dante wants to remind his reader and fellow pilgrim that in spite of the horrors seen in Hell – and they will get worse – there is still much more to come. In a sense, placing the title of the poem here is an act of faith that Dante presents to his reader that all will be well in the end and not to lose heart.|
|↑2||Until the Industrial Revolution, the vast Arsenale in Venice, built in 1104, was the largest ship-building enterprise in the world. It was enclosed within a two-mile circuit of walls and towers that were closely guarded. Most of Venice’s military and merchant ships were constructed there and it obviously played a significant role in the wealth and sea power of the Venetian Republic. Because the operations were almost like the modern-day process of pre-fabrication, various parts of ships were constructed in different areas of the Arsenale and, amazingly, could be assembled into a completed ship in one day! We know that Dante was in Venice in 1321 as part of a diplomatic mission for his patron, Guido da Polenta, the Lord of Ravenna. Unfortunately, the Venetians would not allow him to return home by ship, so he was forced to return home through the swampy area along the coast. There Dante contracted malaria and died on September 14 of that same year. There is no hard evidence that he was in Venice before 1321, though it is possible that he was because he so thoroughly relates the workings of this amazing facility here.|
|↑3||Only now does the Poet’s “tour” of the Arsenale make sense, and what connects that place and this is the boiling pitch. Bear in mind how it “smeared everything with its sticky residue,” as this will make the sin and its contrapasso “stick” together further on.|
|↑4||Up to this point, Dante has seen no one in the dark fifth bolgia, and the only activity down there has been the bubbling of oozy boiling tar everywhere. While Dante was concentrating on what was below, Virgil must have been looking around when he noticed the sudden appearance of the great black devil rushing up behind them. Shouting to watch out and grabbing him out of the way obviously frightens Dante, and his description of this precarious moment is clever and true to life. Who hasn’t run away from something in fright but then turned around while fleeing either to see what one was fleeing from or how close it was behind them? The last devils we saw were in the first bolgia where they lashed the panders and seducers with great whips. Otherwise, they weren’t described. Here, like the Arsenale, this devil is given his due, and readers then and now would recognize him well from images in popular culture. Dante and Virgil may not have run too far away because – according to Dante – worse than the devil’s appearance was that fact that he had a sinner slung over his shoulder as though he were a butcher carrying a great slab of meat!|
|↑5||As noted above, this devil is not far away from Dante and Virgil: he’s “on our bridge.” In Italian, malebranche means “evil claws,” and this devil is equipped with them as we’ve seen. He’s obviously addressing others like himself, but we don’t see them yet. Instead, we’re treated to a wild boast and a nasty poke at the city of Lucca. Saint Zita, a simple maidservant noted for her devotion and piety, was the patron Saint of Lucca, and the city was sometimes simply referred to as Santa Zita as the big devil does here. She died in 1275, when Dante was only 10, so he would have had some knowledge of her later popularity.
As we get closer to the matter at hand in this canto, the devil shouts that he has over his shoulder one of the officials (elders) of Lucca’s city government. This sinner is unnamed, but we’re told that the city is filled with the likes of him – grafters, barrators, swindlers, and other abusers of public office who, like the simonists in Canto 19, violated the public trust through bribery and other acts of corruption. With one exception: an ironic joke pointed at the “innocent” Bonturo. Apparently, Bonturo Dati was the most corrupt official in the city! Not far from Florence, Dante may have been to Lucca on more than one occasion before and after his exile and, either first-hand or through local gossip, came to know its unsavory reputation. More than this, however, Dante has a significant investment in this canto and the next one since the sin punished here is exactly the crime he was accused of before he was exiled from Florence. Some commentators note that in Dante’s Italian the devil’s remark about the buying and selling of nos and yeses is not the standard no and si. Rather, in another clever slap at the corrupt city elders the devil uses the Latin judicial form of yes, ita.
|↑6||Things begin to happen fast. The calm beginning of this canto has already been shattered by the appearance of a great black devil on the bridge where Dante and Virgil were peering down into the dark bubbling pitch. In a show of bravado, he shouted for his unseen compatriots to come and see the latest criminal from Lucca, whom he had slung over his shoulders like a slab of meat. What must have been a shock to the startled Pilgrim is made even worse when, after announcing his arrival, the devil throws the sinner off the bridge down into the boiling mass below and then flies off faster than a thief being chased by a dog! The sinner sinks into the pitch and then rises to the surface, face up and stretched out like a cross.
Now the major action of this canto gets underway. All the while, a group of devils were hiding underneath the bridge – unbeknownst to Dante and Virgil. Summoned into the open by the black devil and the splash of the sinner falling into the boiling pitch, they rush out, armed with their tridents, and begin to torture the poor creature by making sport of him. Once again, Dante’s devils are clever and now funny. Seeing the sinner stretched out like a cross, they begin their wicked taunts. The cathedral in Lucca is home to a very precious image of the crucified Jesus, known as the Volto Santo or “Holy Face.” It is said to have been started by one of Jesus’ disciples, Nicodemus, who fell asleep while carving it. When he awoke, it was miraculously finished. The wood of this image is dark, almost black, and seeing the sinner float up, stretched out like a cross, covered with black tar, the devils have a good time mocking him. But there’s more. The River Serchio, not far from Lucca, was (and still is) a very popular spot for the locals who flock there in the summer months to frolic in the sun and water. One can imagine bathers floating on their backs exactly like our sinner here. Except, as the devils quickly remind him, this is not the Serchio. Only now do we realize why Dante and Virgil saw no one when they looked down from the bridge over this bolgia: the sinners are all immersed deep within boiling pools of tar. Jabbing the newcomer with their tridents, the devils warn him to stay under and to do his cheating down in the sticky tar. And so this “slab of meat,” reminding Dante of a kitchen scene, is shoved under by the “kitchen boys” as it cooks for soup or stew. This image will continue into the next canto as well.
Now, we begin to see the full effect of the clever contrapasso for these sinners. Dark money stuck to them as they bribed and cheated in life, and so they are immersed and boiled eternally in sticky tar, so thick their secret transactions cannot be seen. Like the “bait” (meat) they waited for and hooked with their evil schemes, so now they are “baited and hooked” by a crew of devils, much like a crew of cooks in a great kitchen – then and now.
|↑7||In spite of their heavenly commission, we’ve seen Dante and Virgil in difficult situations already. Virgil, having been here before shortly after his death, as he explained in Canto 9, probably encountered resistance from the devils similar to what he expects now. Of course, we are also reminded here of the scene at the Gates of Dis where the fiends would not let he and Dante in, and threatened to summon Medusa to stop them for good! At that time, it was the angel who arrived and got them out of a jam. Nevertheless, there’s a slight sense of smug self-assurance in Virgil’s words which work in his favor as he’s quickly surrounded by the wily devils who menace him like a pack of snarling dogs. But with stern words he stands his ground amid the “sound and fury” of this wild confrontation that any moment is going to collapse in on itself.|
|↑8||The humor of this canto begins to seep out through the travelers’ precarious situation here. Virgil wants to speak with someone in charge, someone who will respect his heavenly commission. Instead, he soon finds himself face to face with the captain of this farcical platoon of devils: Malacoda. In Italian, this means “evil tail,” a fitting name to remember when we arrive at the end of this canto. For now, Virgil may be self-confident, but he’s out of his element. Malacoda’s confidence, on the other hand, is over-inflated, and he’s dying for some little mis-step on Virgil’s part that will give him and his troop an excuse to use their tridents. He expects that Virgil will back down, but hearing Virgil recite his passport, this over-inflated devil collapses like Plutus did at the beginning of Canto 6.|
|↑9||Called out from his hiding place, Dante approaches Virgil with rightful trepidation as he recalls a scene from his military experience. Caprona was a fortified castle along the Arno River not far from Pisa. In 1289 it was finally captured by an army made up of soldiers from Florence and Lucca, among them Dante Alighieri. His recollection of this scene is accurate as far as he tells it here. When the siege was over and a truce established, the frightened troops inside the fortress were marched out between lines of invading soldiers. According to some accounts of this battle, the truce was almost immediately violated and the unarmed soldiers were brutally slain. Other accounts had them being led away and let go. One way or the other, Dante had reason to fear for his life in spite of Virgil’s assurances to the contrary. Virgil is dead, a spirit; but Dante, we must remember, is still very much alive – and, as we see him now, rather childishly clinging onto his mentor.|
|↑10||As can be seen, Dante is right. In spite of the truce the devils cannot be trusted. And so their sport continues with humor and – one would expect it – vulgar talk. But Malacoda calls them and their leader up short. His nonsensical name adds more humor to the scene but it prepares us for even more.|
|↑11||Explaining how they should proceed, Malacoda cleverly mingles truth and falsehood just as the sinners did who are punished here. Should we expect anything less? It is true that all the bridges across the next (sixth) bolgia are broken, and Dante and Virgil might have seen that already. On the other hand, if they hadn’t seen the destruction already, then Virgil doesn’t know about the broken bridges because the earthquake happened several years after he was here the first time. (Recall how Virgil also remarked about this earthquake in Canto 12 following their encounter with the Minotur, and before that in Canto 4 as he and Dante walked through Limbo.) But Malacoda quickly softens this with an elaborate time sequence to explain precisely when the bridges collapsed. What his time sequence refers to is the earthquake that took place after Jesus died on the cross. And while we’re still calculating the date in our heads, he immediately tells an outright lie: there is no other bridge further on. Finally, this lie is accompanied by an assurance of safety. But if we recall the story of Caprona above, there was a truce. But there are also different endings to that story. How will this one end?
Looking a bit more closely at Malacoda’s elaborate sequence of dates, it might seem odd that Dante should place this sacred reference here. However, it’s his way of telling us that this is the day after Good Friday. With that event in mind, we’re reminded of the devils mocking the Volto Santo and the sinner stretched out in the boiling tar in the shape of a cross earlier in this canto. And, as we might expect, the holy image, the unholy sinner, and the holy date are all noted by the devils in this canto out of disrespect.
|↑12||After hearing the names of this infernal platoon and watching their antics (and there is more devilment in store), is it any wonder that Cantos 21 and 22 have been called the “Gargoyle Cantos”? A great deal of commentary has been written on the names of these ten demons in an attempt to decipher their meaning, or to connect their behavior with their names, or even to discover whether Dante might have taken prominent (read dislikable) figures in his own day and played with their names. In the end, the names simply work best by themselves because they’re as nonsensical and preposterous as the place where we find them! Over the years, several English translators of this canto give this platoon a different – and ridiculous – set of names. One can imagine Dante having fun creating this comical scene of “the calling.” In keeping with the theme of infernal disrespect, Malacoda calls his apostles and sends them forth on a mission, just as Christ did with his own apostles (in Greek, “one who is sent”). Dante is threading comical beads together here: we are in malebolge (“evil pockets”) where the malebranche (“evil claws”) led by malacoda (“evil tail”) torment the “evil….” And at the end of this scene Malacoda reminds his companions to keep their new charges safe – all the way to the non-existent bridge!|
|↑13||Well, of course Dante is correct here. But so is Virgil, in the sense that, in keeping with the theme of this canto, he represents the person with so much self-confidence that it prevents him from seeing that he’s being swindled. One is reminded here of the difficulty Virgil encountered at the Gates of Dis – once again, even though he had been there before.|
|↑14||Dante’s poem is not a Commedia in the sense of a “ha-ha” story. But after reading this canto, and particularly these last lines, it is difficult to imagine him writing this with a straight face! The spoof on graft and public corruption is wonderfully entertaining. The devils’ obedience to their captain gives only a semblance of order here, and their hilarious method of compliance – not to mention his vulgar acknowledgment – throw the Pilgrim’s very reasonable worries out the window. Like the sinners who abide here, everything in this canto is corrupted.|