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Dante in Siena: Inferno 19-27

Dante's Inferno:
Canto 21 | Canto 22 | Canto 23
Canto 24 | Canto 25 | Canto 26 | Canto 27

O Simon mago, o miseri seguaci,
che le cose di Dio, che di bontate
deon essere spose, e voi rapaci

per oro e per argento avolterate,
or convien che per voi suoni la tromba,
però che ne la terza bolgia state.

O Simon Magus, o wretched followers –
the things of God, that should be brides
of goodness, you rapacious men

prostitute for gold and silver, now it
is right that the trumpet sounds for you,
because you are in the third pocket.

Featured Dante Link:
Danteworlds: Inferno
The man in many ways responsible for Dante's exile from Florence was the meddling Pope Boniface VIII (reigned 1294-1303), who is one of the most vilified figures in the Commedia. The great champion of the temporal power of the papacy, Boniface did not die until 1303, three years after the fictional date of Dante's poem. That did not stop Dante from making it clear in Inferno 19 that Boniface VIII would be among the simoniacs in Hell after his death, condemned for buying and selling the authority of the church. In fact, all three of the sinners mentioned by Dante as being in the third pocket of Malebolge, now or in the future, are the major popes of Dante's lifetime: Nicholas III (reigned 1277-80), an Orsini kinsman of Boniface VIII and the first pope widely condemned for abuse of the papal office; Boniface VIII, whose worldly struggle with the Colonna family is also condemned in Inferno 27; and Clement V (reigned 1305-1314), who never set foot in Rome and, in league with the king of France, Philip IV, had the seat of the papacy removed to Avignon, where it stayed until 1377.

There are two accusatory apostrophes in Canto 19, one of which opens the canto in the two terzinas quoted to the right. Simon Magus, from whom the sin of simony takes its name, was a magician who tried to buy the powers of God from the apostles (Acts 8). The Acts of Peter provides the apocryphal continuation of the story, in which Simon Peter and Simon Magus, now both in Rome, compete in a contest of magic and miracles. Simon Magus appears to win, flying with the help of a demon, until Peter's prayer to God prevails: the demon is forced to drop Simon Magus, who falls to the ground, headfirst. That opposition of the two Simons, Magus and Peter, underscores Dante's revulsion that the successors of Simon Peter are abominably behaving like the followers of Simon Magus. Their punishment, slowly being encased in burning rock as they slide one after another into font-like holes, recalls both an inversion of apostolic succession and the headfirst fall of Simon Magus.

Fall of Simon Magus, capital in Autun Cathedral
Dante again alludes to a criminal punishment of his own time: thieves were sometimes buried alive, head down. The sense of inversion, which is common to many parts of hell, is manifest throughout Inferno 19. The simoniacs not yet fully buried in the rock (pietra in Tuscan, recalling Petrus) have an oily fire burning on the soles of their feet, an inversion of the tongues of flame that rested over the heads of Mary and the apostles at Pentecost. The holes are explicitly compared to baptismal fonts, one of which Dante claims he broke in the Baptistery of Florence. The layman Dante acts in the role of priest more than once here, another inversion, for example calling himself 'l frate che confessa lo perfido assessin (the friar that confesses the evil assassin) when he speaks with ("confesses") Nicholas III (that article in the Catholic Encyclopedia does not even mention Dante's condemnation). Simony is a rare example of a type of sin that Dante the pilgrim openly condemns in his own voice and is clearly distanced from in Inferno.

Dante is more than willing to act against the proclamations of the papacy, also putting into the first circle of Inferno colui che fece per viltade il gran rifiuto (the one who through cowardice made the great refusal, Canto 3), a reference most likely to Pope St. Celestine V. A pious monastic reformer much admired by Dante and others, he became pope in 1294, only to abdicate very soon afterward, in favor of Cardinal Benedetto Gaetano who would become Pope Boniface VIII. Dante and others believed that Boniface had unscrupulously influenced Celestine's decision. Pope Clement V, in another repudiation of Boniface VIII, who dared to oppose the king of France, put Boniface on trial after his death and proclaimed Celestine V a saint. The only pope from Dante's lifetime he does not place in hell is Adrian V, who appears in the parallel Canto 19 in Purgatorio.

Papal Triclinium, Lateran Palace
The nephew of Pope Innocent IV, he was elected for a reign of only 38 days in 1276. Dante has him call himself a "servant of avarice" all his life, who experienced a sudden conversion when he became pope. In Purgatorio, Adrian V finally learns the meaning of the title taken by the popes, Servus servorum dei (Servant of the servants of God).

Dante's condemnation of papal simony in Inferno 19 concludes with the second accusatory apostrophe, castigating the emperor Constantine, not for his conversion to Christianity but for the infamous Donation of Constantine, by which the emperor had supposedly transferred the power and wealth of the western Roman empire to the papacy. This was the legacy that led to the temporal power claimed by late medieval popes like Nicholas III and especially Boniface VIII, who was the first pope to wear the imperial three-tiered tiara. The document on which the claim was based was later proven in the Renaissance to be a fraud, but both Dante and the popes of his day believed it was true. While the seminar has discussed Dante's negative view of the papacy, we have also been examining what remains of the popes' own artistic statements about their temporal power, especially on our trip to Rome. In the Lateran cloister, we saw the great papal mantle of Boniface VIII, richly made in opus anglicanum, the vestment by which Nicholas III identifies himself as a pope (i' fui vestito del gran manto, line 69). Later, in the Opera del Duomo in Florence, we saw one of the many grand statues of Boniface VIII as imperial pope that he had installed all over Italy, this one among the original façade sculpture of Florence Cathedral. That must have made Dante grind his teeth at night.

Nicholas III Offers the Sancta Sanctorum to Christ, fresco in Lateran Basilica
When he was still a young Cardinal from the Orsini family, the future Nicholas III attended the dedication of the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, the magnificent Gothic chapel in the flamboyant style built by Louis IX to house the Crown of Thorns and other relics. When he became pope in 1277, Nicholas III had a former chapel in the Lateran renovated as the Sancta Sanctorum, a reliquary to house the most important relics in all of Christendom. (The inscription, visible in that linked picture, reads NON EST IN TOTO SANCTIOR ORBE LOCUS, or There is no place holier in the whole world.) Although most of the Lateran palace and basilica burned to the ground in 1307, during Dante's lifetime, the Sancta Sanctorum is one of the pieces that survived, in the building at the top of the Scala Santa, across the street that now runs by the rebuilt Lateran basilica. It is normally closed off from most viewers, although most of the relics have been moved to other locations. The miraculous image of Christ is still kept there, used to be carried through the streets of Rome to Santa Maria Maggiore once a year, where it "met" the miraculous image of the Virgin Mary kept there. You can also still see the series of frescos that Nicholas III had built, most importantly showing himself, assisted by Saints Peter and Paul, generously presenting the Sancta Sanctorum before the throne of Christ. The other images tell the stories of St. Lawrence, who gave away all of the church's wealth, and St. Nicholas, who gave money to keep three girls from being forced into prostitution. How far one is there from Inferno 19!

Donation of Constantine (Emperor Constantine Bestows Imperial Authority on Pope Sylvester I), SS. Quattro Coronati, Rome

Emperor Constantine Gives Fealty to Pope Sylvester I by Leading His Horse, SS. Quattro Coronati, Rome

Later in the trip to Rome, we visited the Chapel of St. Sylvester in the church of SS. Quatro Coronati, a 4th-century church largely rebuilt in the 12th century. Rebuilt as a fortress, it was for much of its history the home of the papal vicar, who could oversee the armed protection of the Lateran palace. The chapel was used as a chapter house for the community that lived there, and its extraordinary fresco decoration retells the story of the conversion of the emperor Constantine by Pope Sylvester in the 4th century. According to Dante, the conversion was a good thing, but the final two panels show the Donation of Constantine and Pope Sylvester taking on the temporal authority of the western empire. This is an event that we know now is completely fictional, but it was the centerpiece of the papal argument for temporal power, which Dante so sternly condemns.

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