Some observations about this section. I think for the first time I finally understood the bridge structure of the Malebolge. Dante keeps mentioning a bridge for each ditch, and yet they seem to keep walking along. So I think there is an arched span over each ditch, which constitutes a bridge. But each bridge butts up against its adjacent neighbor, and so the structure is similar to a causeway span. There are a number of these causeways that run toward the center, forming a spokes in a wheel structure given that hell is circular. Also the causeways connect at the center to a circular platform goes around Cocytus, the ninth circle and the heart of hell.
I have to say that the Malebolge section of hell gives me the willies. This is the brutal hell we all envision and fear. When common slang refers to "being medieval," that is filled with torture chambers, this is a perfect example. It seems to me that the sinners of this section are not here because they want to remain in their sin, even if it exiles them from God, but though they are not repentant in the least, they do try to escape and get free. And so the vicious demons are planted there as enforcers of punishment and torture.
There seems to be quite a few allusions to and actual appearances of Franciscan Friars in this section. In Canto XIX Dante stands beside Pope Nicholas III "like a friar who confesses a treacherous assassin." In Canto XXII the Navarrese soul, some have identified him as a man named Ciampolo, names Fra Gomita of Gallura as one of the residents of the ditch. At the very first terza rima of Canto XXIII Dante describes he and Virgil as walking like two "Friars Minor walk along the roads." Indeed, the pilgrims meet two Franciscans just a little further in that very Canto, Catalano and Loderingo, who in life were Jovial Friars, which are not Franciscans but of the Order of Blessed Virgin Mary. Still they are friars. Even the cord that Dante takes off his vestment and drops into the pool that summons (or forms, I can't tell which) Geryon (Canto XVI) suggests a Franciscan vestment.
So what's going on? Clearly alluding to Virgil and he as friars and then coming across two friars is meant for us as a comparison. But what exactly are we to draw from the comparison? I can't figure it out. Perhaps he and Virgil are supposed to be honest while the others were frauds? Perhaps the fair number of allusions to friars (and remember Brunetto said that there were quite a number of clerics and scholars, which I take as Dominican Friars, in his circle. Now there will be positive friars in Purgatorio and Paradisio, so I don't think Dante is picking on them. But there does seem to be a fair number of references for friars in hell, and I can't recall a single Benedictine Monk in hell. There will be monks in heaven; in fact St. Bernard of Clairvaux will be his final guide. Perhaps it has to do with Dante himself being a Third Order Franciscan, which is the Lay Order of the Franciscans. Perhaps it has to do with Dante having been taught by the Dominicans as a youth. Perhaps as a city person he has come in contact with friars much more so than monks, who are usually more detached from society. Perhaps familiarity gave him knowledge of particular friars and prodded the imagination.
One other thing I'd like to discuss is the state of Pope Nicholas III in Canto XIX in the circle of simony. Notice the number of inversions that make up for the irony of the punishment. The sinners there are stuck upside down in what resembles a baptismal font, the very means of Christian initiation. Their feet are lacquered with oil, which alludes to the anointing chrism placed on the head of the heads of those receiving baptism and holy orders. Only for the sinners, the oil is on their feet, not their heads. And their feet are further afflicted with a constant application of flame. Here too is a Christian inversion. The Apostles received the Holy Spirit in the form of a fire on their heads, a fire which filled them with inspiration, while these sinners are burned in torment on their feet. And notice the inversion of roles when Dante goes up to the Nicholas, who can't see him and draws out a confession. The Pope is confessing to a lay person.
I think it's unfortunate that at the end of Canto XIX Dante goes off on a rant decrying Popes. He even alludes to the Papacy as the beast in Revelations with seven heads, which I think is a misreading of Revelations. Protestants call up the same sort of nonsense to rip the Catholic Church. Still it's sobering to know there have been bad popes, but rest assured there will be some good ones in Paradisio.
Four Popes were mentioned or alluded to in Canto XIX. Let me just list them for you with the years of their papacy. You can look them up if you wish.
Pope Nicholas III, 1277-1280
Pope Celestine V, 1294
Pope Boniface VIII, 1294-1303
Pope Clement V, 1305-1314
I did want to revel in the Malebranche scenes, which start in Canto XXI and extend even into the beginnings of Canto XXIII. Hollander says that this is the longest extended scene in the entire Comedia. No other scene actually touches three cantos. Let’s just enjoy them too, so here is Hollander’s translation of the last third of Canto XXI. Virgil has assured safe passage he and Dante, and so calls Dante out of his hiding spot. But the Malebranche are devilishly provocative and constantly instigating. Let’s start with the feint jab at Dante’s rear and end with the blast from the demon’s rear.
They aimed their hooks, and one said to another:
'How about I nick him on the rump?'
And the other answered: 'Sure, let him have one.'
But the demon who was speaking with my leader
turned round at once and said:
'Easy does it, Scarmiglione!'
And then to us: 'You can't continue farther
down this ridge, for the sixth arch
lies broken into pieces at the bottom.
'If you desire to continue on,
then make your way along this rocky ledge.
Nearby's another crag that yields a passage.
'Yesterday, at a time five hours from now,
it was a thousand two hundred sixty-six years
since the road down here was broken.
'I'm sending some men of mine along that way
to see if anyone is out to take the air.
Go with them -- they won't hurt you.'
'Step forward, Alichino, Calcabrina,'
he continued, 'and you Cagnazzo,
and let Barbariccia lead the squad.
'Let Libicocco come too, and Draghignazzo,
Ciriatto with his tusks, and Graffiacane,
Farfarello, and madcap Rubicante.
'Have a good look around the boiling glue.
Keep these two safe as far as the next crag
that runs all of a piece above the dens.'
'Oh, master,' I said, 'I don't like what I see.
Please, let us find our way without an escort,
if you know how. As for me, I do not want one.
'If you are as vigilant as ever,
don't you see they grind their teeth
while with their furrowed brows they threaten harm?'
And he to me: 'Don't be afraid.
Let them grind on to their hearts' content --
they do it for the stewing wretches.'
Off they set along the left-hand bank,
but first each pressed his tongue between his teeth
to blow a signal to their leader,
and he had made a trumpet of his asshole. (XXI. l. 100-139)
LOL, their salute is a razz with their tongues, and his commanding bugle blow is a fart. This is farcical, low comedy. Hollander points out that Italian critic Gian Roberto Saroli identifies these sounds as the only musical notes in all of hell. Paradisio is filled with music, and I recall that Purgatorio too has hymns, but hell has razzes and farts for music. Malacoda, the leader, tells his minions to guide them so no one will hurt them and to keep them safe. Yeah sure. They are going to anticipate the pilgrims fouling up.
But look at how Dante the author goes to such an extent to name the demons. Scarmiglione, Alichino, Calcabrina, Cagnazzo, Barbaricci, Libicocco, Draghignazzo, Ciriatto, Graffiacane, Farfarello, and Rubicante. To really appreciate it, you have to hear it in Italian with its long drawn out vowels. I have had the good fortune of being Caaaahl-caaah-bree-na, Baah-baah-ree-zioh, Leee-beee-coooh-coh, Farrr-faah-reee-loh, Ruuu-bee-cahn-teh. Hollander is spot on in keeping the names in Italian. Esolen in his translation makes a huge mistake in my opinion by translating the names into English. Dante is taking joy in the creative sounds of his Italian. But we also should note in what the names mean. Here’s how Esolen translates them.
Malacoda – Eviltail; Scarmiglione – Crumplehead; Alichino – Tramplefrost; Calcabrina – Harlequin; Cagnazzo – Larddog; Barbaricci – Curlybeard; Libicocco – Stormbreath; Draghignazzo – Dragonsnout; Ciriatto – Swinetooth; Graffiacane – Dogscratcher; Farfarello – Gobgoblin; Rubicante – Redfroth. Somehow, the English doesn’t have the same comedic vigor.
Notice in the next canto how the Malebranche handle the one sinner who tries to rise out ot the pitch.
On we went, escorted by ten demons.
What savage company! But, as they say,
'in church with saints, with guzzlers in the tavern.'
My attention was fixed upon the pitch
to note each detail of this gulch
and of the people poaching in it.
Like dolphins, when they arch their backs
above the water, giving sailors warning
to prepare to save their ship,
so from time to time, to ease his pain,
one of the sinners would show his back
and, quick as lightning, hide it once again.
And just as in a ditch at water's edge
frogs squat with but their snouts in sight,
their bodies and their legs all hidden,
so were the sinners scattered everywhere.
But they, at the approach of Barbariccia,
withdrew back down beneath the boiling.
There I saw -- and my heart still shudders at it --
one who lingered, as it can happen
that one frog stays while yet another plunges,
and Graffiacane, who was nearest him,
caught a billhook in his pitchy locks
and hauled him out, looking like an otter.
By now I knew their names,
since I had noted these when they were chosen
and when they called to one another.
'Set your claws to work, Rubicante,
see you rip his skin off,'
shouted all the accursèd crew together. (XXII. l. 13-42)
The Malebranche are walking along menacingly, looking at the frog-like sinners submerged beneath the pitch when Grafficane hauls one up by the hair – like he’s pulling out an creature from a lake and tells Rubicante to set his claws to rip the sinner’s skin off. But it’s Ciriatto who rips at him and Barbiriccia who wants to get into the action by crying out, “Stand back and let me jab him.” But it’s Libicoco who gets pride of place.
Then Libicocco said: 'This is just too much,'
caught him with his grapple by the arm
and, ripping, gouged out a hunk of flesh. (XXII. l. 70-72)
They’re all fighting over each other to get the prime cut. This and the closing vignette of the canto where the two demons fight with each other and in doing so both fall into the boiling pitch and get burnt to a crisp border on slapstick. From what I understand, the medieval plays that featured demons all portrayed the demons as bumbling torturers or stumbling cops. Dante is continuing a tradition, but he just seems to love the art of it. This may be the funniest scene of the entire Comedia..