Divine Comedy-I: Inferno

Divine Comedy-I: Inferno Summary and Analysis of Cantos XXI-XXIV

Canto XXI: Summary:

The next valley held a pool of boiling tar, which reminded Dante of the pitch the Venetians used to patch up their ships. While Dante was watching the tar, Virgil warned him to look out. Turning around, he saw a black demon racing up, carrying a sinner which he cast into the pool, calling out to the other deomns, the Malebranche, that it was an elder of Saint Zita. He said he was going back for more, and that there were plenty of grafters in that city. The sinner tried to get out of the pitch, but other demons thrust him down with long hooks, taunting him all the while. Virgil told Dante not to be afraid of the demons, and went over to speak with them. At first they looked menacing, but when Virgil told them that they were there by divine will, the head demon, Malacoda, gave them an escort made up of the demons Alichino, Calcabrina, Cagnazzo, Barbariccia, Libicocco, Draghignazzo, Circiatto, Graffiacane, Farafrello and Rubicante. Dante was not pleased to have an escort, but Virgil again told him not to be frightened: the demons' growling faces were meant to scare the sinners. As a signal to begin, the leader, Barbariccia, "made a trumpet of his ass."

Canto XXI: Analysis:

The sinners here are being punished for the civil equivalent of simony: they have sold offices and have been generally corrupt. While this is perhaps not as serious as simony ­ since officials are not entrusted with the well-being and morality of the holy Church ­ it is nonetheless a serious matter. Interestingly, when Dante was exiled the charges laid against him were of this nature. Whether or not they had any validity is not necessarily clear.

The Venetians, mentioned here in relation to the pitch they use to caulk their ships, were famous sailors, and Venice derived its power during this period mainly as a result of its merchant ships and strong navy.

The elder of Saint Zita is an official from Lucca: the elders were ten citizens who sharde executive authority with the chief magistrate. Just as Florence had a reputation for inner strife and Bologna was a city of sexual immorality, Lucca is associated here with widespread corruption.

The various names of the devils, which take up so much of this canto, have a variety of fantastic meanings:

Malebranche: "evil-claws," also a family name in Lucca. (This describes the devils as a group: they are the Malebranche.)

Malacoda: "evil-tail."

Alichino: same root as "harlequin."

Calcabrina: "he who can walk on brine."

Cagnazzo: "big dog," also a family name in Lucca.

Libicocco: "winds," from the two winds libeccio and sirocco.

Barbariccia: "curly beard."

Draghignazzo: "big dragon."

Circiatto: "hog."

Farfarello: "evil ghost."

Rubicante: "he who grows red."

Graffiacane: "he who scratches dogs," also a family name from Lucca.

Even without their meanings, the names have a wild and frightening sound.

Canto XXII: Summary:

The canto opens with Dante's meditation on the rareness of the bugle by which the devils marched. As they went along Dante noted that the sinners stayed out of the pitch as much as they dared (like dolphins showing their backs out of water or frogs by the side of a pond) but dived back in when they saw the demons coming. One was too slow, however, and Graffiacane pulled him up by his hair; the demons wanted to tear him to pieces. Dante asked Virgil to find out who he was, and accordingly Virgil asked him. He answered that he was from Navarre and had taken graft in the household of King Thibault. He said there was an Italian under the pitch close by, a Fra Gomito of Gallura who was a sovereign swindler, also another Sardinian, Don Michele Zanche. Then the demons could hardly be held off any longer. The Navarrese said that if they would stand back, he would whistle and by that signal other Italians would come close. The devils reluctantly agreed, and the Navarrese craftily dove back in the pitch. Calcabrina and Alichino, fighting over whose fault the escape was, fell into the pitch themselves, and Dante and Virgil left during the confusion.

Canto XXII: Analysis:

This is one of the few cantos that justifies the name Divine Comedy: most of this Comedy is not very funny at all. Dante's mock-solemn discussion of Barbariccia's tremendous fart makes it clear that these demons are rather comic despite their frightening appearances. They are far removed from the pure and inexorable heavenly messenger, for example.

The crafty escape of the Navarrese barrator from the demons is another exceptionally comic element. Trickster tales were important throughout the middle ages, and Dante was familiar with Aesop's fables. The theme of a weak but unscrupulous character escaping through trickery from the authorities is played out here, and despite the trickster's faulty morals, we cannot help but admire his unwillingness to get his companions in trouble. Also, the fairly complicated social network developped by these barrators is quite striking: they have alert signals to warn of the demons' coming and when it is all clear. Perhaps the vitality of these sinners results from the nature of their punishment: they are pitted against the terrifying but evidently stupid devils, rather than an inexorable rain of fire or a red-hot tomb. It is to their advantage to band together and cooperate, which seems to relieve the natural state of despair of a damned spirit.

Canto XXIII: Summary:

Dante continued on silently, and Dante compared the adventure of the last canto to Aesop's fable of the mouse and the frog. However they were afraid that the devils would chase after them, enraged by their humiliating experience. Indeed the Malebranche were in pursuit, so Virgil took up Dante like a mother carrying a child out of a burning house, and slid down to the next valley, where the devils were unable to follow.

The sinners there were dressed in magnificent gilded robes, but the robes were made out of heavy lead and so the spirits wept as they trudged around. Dante asked Virgil to find someone he knew; a spirit overhearing them called out for them to wait for him. Two spirits came up and saw that Dante was alive, then they told him that they and their fellow-sufferers were hypocrites. Dante said he was from Florence, and asked them who they were. They said they were the Jovial Friars, Catalano and Loderingo, who had been chosen to keep the peace in Florence, and had acted hypocritically. Dante began an invective against them, but his attention was caught by a sinner crucified on the ground, so that the lead-bearing spirits walked over him. Fra Catalano said that that man had counseled the Pharisees to let one man, rather than a nation, suffer, and that others in the same cousel were also impaled here.

Virgil asked Fra Catalano how to get out, and he answered that it was possible to climb across the ruins of the bridge that the Malebranche had told them about. Virgil was angered to hear that the devils had lied to them, and he strode off, followed by Dante.

Canto XXIII: Analysis:

Dante's reference to the fable of the mouse and the frog makes it clear that he was familiar with Aesop's works, and that the events in the preceeding canto were intentionally fable-esque.

The relationship between Virgil and Dante is rather peculiar. Dante emphasizes the paternal nature of Virgil's love for him; all the same it is strange to hear about Dante, a grown man of 35, being picked by by Virgil and tenderly carried around. If we remember Canto IV, the spirits of Homer and his companions (of which Virgil is one) are described as being giant, so perhaps Virgil really is a huge and imposing character. In that case, the image of Virgil carrying Dante makes more sense. It might still be interesting to investigate possible homoerotic undertones: since Dante was well educated in classical culture, he was presumably not a stranger to the bizarre heroic relationships between men and boys which crop up so frequently in Greek literature. Of course, Dante is devoted to Beatrice: but she is almost more of an ideal of goodness than a person, and so far Dante has been much more physically intimate with Virgil than with her ­ although this doesn't necessarily mean anything. A good way to look at this problem would be to find the instances where the love between Dante and Virgil is mentioned, and to compare them both to the parts where Beatrice is mentioned, and to descriptions of Ancient Greek homosexuality, and, if possible, to Renaissance paternal and filial discourse, to see what matched what. It might also be good to look at the talk between Dante and Brunetto in Canto XV: while Dante affectionately mentions Brunetto's paternal attitude toward him, we are aware that Brunetto is homosexual.

The Jovial Friars, also known as the Knight's of Saint Mary, were an order founded with the intention of keeping peace between warring factions. However the Friars often neglected their duties: the two that were in charge of maintaining peace in Florence instead oversaw a period of increased violence. The fact that cities were known to submit their political systems to outsiders is an indication of their divisions: neither faction was willing to let someone from the other exercise power, so they would choose some neutral from somewhere else. This did not always have the desired results.

The man who was crucified on the ground is the high Jewish priest under Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas. The one man who suffered instead of the nation is of course Jesus Christ.

Canto XXIV: Summary:

The canto opens with a carefully developed metaphor: a shepherd in early spring is discouraged to see the fields white with frost, but a couple hours later it is warm and green and he takes his flocks out to graze. Just so did Virgil's anger pass quickly and turn into the sweetness with which he usually treated Dante. They clambered up the great crags between the pouch of the hypocrites and the next, a difficult labor. When Dante ran out of breath, Virgil encouraged him to keep on manfully. They climbed down almost to the next valley, and to his horror Dante saw masses of venemous serpents there. As he watched, he saw naked sinners running terrifiedly among the snakes; one sinner was bitten and flamed into ashes, but his dust then reformed itself into human shape, like the phoenix.

Virgil asked him who he was, and he answered that he was Vanni Fucci from Pistoia. Dante knew him, and the sinner was ashamed. He said that he was damned for stealing ornaments from the sacristy. Then, lest Dante enjoy the sight of his damnation too much, Vanni Fucci predicted the misfortunes of the White Guelphs, which he told Dante "to make [him] grieve."

Canto XXIV: Analysis:

The shepherd metaphor at the beginning of this canto deserves to be read with great attention. Although the description of spring itself is very florid and literary, the account of the shepherd who slaps his thigh in disgust and despair when he sees the frost is startlingly vivid. We remember then that Dante lived among ordinary people whose livelihood depended on the seasons ­ not just with the heroic shades of long-dead poets.

The phoenix is a mythological bird who burns itself to death every five-hundred years, only to rise from the ashes unharmed. There is only one phoenix.

Vanni Fucci stole from the treasury of San Jacopo, which was kept in the sacristy of the Cathedral of Pistoia. Rampino Foresi was accused of the crime and was nearly executed, while Fucci escaped.

Vanni Fucci's prediction is extremely complicated and unclear, dealing with clouds and vapors and tempests. It will make more sense if one realizes that in contemporary meteorology, thunderstorms were caused by the interaction of a fiery vapor and watery clouds. Here the vapor from Val di Magra is a Black Guelph commander who defeated the misty Whites in a metaphorical thunderstorm.