The Divine Comedy by Dante ALIGHIERI · Digital Dante Edition with Commento Baroliniano · MMXV ·   Columbia University

Inferno 19


From Literal Pimps and Whores to Metaphorical Pimps and Whores

The Undivine Comedy, Chapter 4, “Narrative and Style in Lower Hell”, pp. 78-79.
  • a high style marked by apostrophes and metaphoric language
  • the prostituting of the Church-bride by her Pope-bridegroom picks up and metaphorizes the sexualized language of Inferno 18
  • reference to the capital punishment of propaginazzione in verses 49-51; see the Introduction to Inferno 27 for discussion of the historical tortures and punishments referenced in the Commedia
  • the intense dialogic quality recalls Inferno 10, where too dialogue is fount of misunderstanding
  • the theology of repentance is disregarded in order to damn Boniface VIII to Hell (see Inferno 20, Inferno 27, and Purgatorio 5)
  • the Donation of Constantine and its eventual debunking by the philologist Lorenzo Valla: one of the great instances of the practice of philology, the discipline of the historicized understanding of language

Inferno 19 is the Commedia’s first full-fledged indictment of the Church, picking up on some earlier indications that Dante links the clerical establishment with the sin of avarice. We remember especially the following verses from Inferno 7, where Dante says that he sees cardinals and popes among the misers in the fourth circle:

  Questi fuor cherci, che non han coperchio
piloso al capo, e papi e cardinali,
in cui usa avarizia il suo soperchio. (Inf. 7.46-48)
  These to the left—their heads bereft of hair—
were clergymen, and popes and cardinals,
within whom avarice works its excess.

The third bolgia is devoted to the type of fraud called simony, in which spiritual things are sold or exchanged for temporal things:

Simony is usually defined “a deliberate intention of buying or selling for a temporal price such things as are spiritual or annexed unto spirituals”. While this definition only speaks of purchase and sale, any exchange of spiritual for temporal things is simoniacal. Nor is the giving of the temporal as the price of the spiritual required for the existence of simony; according to a proposition condemned by Innocent XI (Denzinger-Bannwart, no. 1195) it suffices that the determining motive of the action of one party be the obtaining of compensation from the other. (“Simony,” from The Catholic Encyclopedia, accessed 10/27/2015).

Simon Magus, from whom simony gets its name, is a figure in the New Testament. Acts 8:9-24 recounts Simon’s attempt to buy from St. Peter the power to grant the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands:

Simon, seeing that the Holy Spirit was granted through the imposition of the apostles’ hands, offered them money; let me too, he said, have such powers that when I lay my hands on anyone he will receive the Holy Spirit. Whereupon Peter said to him, take thy wealth with thee to perdition, thou who hast told thyself that God’s free gift can be bought with money. (Acts 8:18-20)

Inferno 19 is a stunning canto, metaphorically and dramatically elaborate. It begins explosively, with a dramatic apostrophe to Simon Magus and his followers, all those who prostitute for gold and silver the “things of God, that ought to be the brides of righteousness”:

  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. (Inf. 19.1-6)
  O Simon Magus! O his sad disciples!
Rapacious ones, who take the things of God,
that ought to be the brides of Righteousness,
  and make them fornicate for gold and silver!
The time has come to let the trumpet sound for you;
your place is here in this third pouch.

Here, at the beginning of Inferno 19, Dante inaugurates the key theme of innocence that is wantonly corrupted by its alleged protectors: the metaphor of a prostituted bride runs throughout the canto. Here the “things of God” that should be “brides of righteousness” are not protected by those charged to protect them, the churchmen. Rather, the things of God / that ought to be the brides of Righteousness”—“le cose di Dio, che di bontate / deon essere spose” (Inf. 19.2-3)—are prostituted: sold for money, debased, and corrupted.

Because this opening is couched as an apostrophe to Simon Magus and his followers, as direct address, the indictment rings out in the second person plural: “e voi rapaci / per oro e per argento avolterate” (and you rapacious ones / prostitute them for gold and silver [Inf. 19.3-4]). The second person plural pronoun “voi” is repeated in verse 5, where the poet tells the simonists that his trumpet sounds for them, the inhabitants of his third bolgia: “or convien che per voi suoni la tromba, / però che ne la terza bolgia state” (The time has come to let the trumpet sound / for you; your place is here in this third pouch [Inf. 19.5-6]). The repeated voi initiates the intensely dialogic nature of Inferno 19.

Ultimately, in this canto, the “spose” will cease to be plural and generic “brides of righteousness” and will become a singular bride: the Church, prostituted not by generic simonists, but by her very bridegroom, the Pope. Dante thus uses the bolgia of simony to indict the Church in its very pinnacle of power and authority: the papacy. By putting two popes into the bolgia of simony, one who speaks to Dante and another whose coming is foretold, Dante indicts the papacy itself.

Moreover, the metaphor of the Church as a bride prostituted by her Pope-bridegroom is all the more effective coming as it does after the prostituted sister (Ghisolabella, prostituted by her brother Venedico Caccianemico) and the pregnant abandoned bride (Hypsipyle, seduced and abandoned by Jason) of Inferno 18.

In The Undivine Comedy I discuss the progression from the straightforward and literal language of Inferno 18 (“puttana” in Inf. 18.133 refers to the literal “whore” Thaïs) to the densely metaphoric fabric of Inferno 19 (“puttaneggiar coi regi” in Inf. 19.108 refers to the whoring of the Church):

Again, the point is the stylistic discrepancy between the two cantos: from the relatively simple, unadorned, plain style of canto 18 to the rhetorical profusion of canto 19. The transition from a literal and rhetorically unelaborated style to a language of great metaphorical density finds its emblem in the transition from the literal “puttana” of 18.133, Thaïs, to the metaphorical “puttaneggiar coi regi” (whoring with kings [19.108]) of the Church on behalf of the pimping popes. The back-to-back use of puttana and puttaneggiar (the former used only twice more, both times in Purgatorio 32 for the Church, the latter a hapax), underscores the transition from literal to metaphorical whoring and thus the rhetorical differences between cantos: the straightforward narrative of Inferno 18 contrasts sharply with the grandiloquence of Inferno 19, a canto that contains three apostrophes, that indeed opens with the apostrophic trumpet blast directed at Simon Magus and his fellow prostituters of “the things of God.” (The Undivine Comedy, pp. 77-8)

* * *

In this canto of high drama as well as of high language, Dante does not simply view sinners in their respective pouches but participates in an animated dialogic encounter with Pope Nicholas III, who mistakes Dante for a later pontiff, Boniface VIII. Nicholas III, the Roman nobleman Giovanni Gaetano Orsini, Pope from 1277 to 1280, is now in the bolgia of simony, head-first in a cleft in the rock floor, only his feet visible. Since he is buried head-first, Nicholas III cannot see the figure standing above him and as a result he mistakes Dante for the man whom he expects, whose arrival will push him further into the rock and who will take his place as the upper-most of upside-down popes wedged deeply into the very floor of Hell.

The narrator describes his own posture during the colloquy with Nicholas III.  He stands above the soul who is wedged into the rock floor of Hell and compares himself to a friar who stands above a man who is condemned to death by propagginazione, being buried alive:

Io stava come ’l frate che confessa
lo perfido assessin, che, poi ch’è fitto,
richiama lui per che la morte cessa.   (Inf. 19.49-51) 

I stood as does the friar who confesses
the foul assassin who, fixed fast, head down,
calls back the friar, and so delays his death. 

The torture of propagginazione will be discussed in the context of other references to capital punishment in the Commedia in the Introduction to Inferno 27.

The successor pope to whom Nicholas III thinks he is speaking is Pope Boniface VIII, born Benedetto Caetani. Boniface VIII became pope fourteen years after the death of Nicholas III, in 1294, and remained head of the Holy See until his death in 1303. Boniface VIII succeeded the holy hermit, Pietro da Morrone, who was Pope Celestine V for five months in 1294 before he became the first pope to resign his office. Many, like the Franciscan poet Jacopone da Todi, hoped that the pious and humble Celestine V would be able to reform the Church, a cause that was set back by the “usurpation” of the papacy by the worldly Boniface VIII. On Celestine V, see the Introduction to Inferno 3.

Nicholas III speaks mordantly to the man whom he mistakenly believes to be Boniface VIII, accusing him of having first “taken by deceit” (“tòrre a ’nganno” = togliere con l’inganno) and then violated (fare strazio di) the “beautiful lady”— “la bella donna” (57)—who is his bride, namely the Church:

  Se’ tu sì tosto di quell’aver sazio
per lo qual non temesti tòrre a ’nganno
la bella donna, e poi di farne strazio? (Inf. 19.55-57)
  Are you so quickly sated with the riches
for which you did not fear to take by guile
the Lovely Lady, then to violate her?

In Nicholas’ characterization, Boniface VIII becomes the metaphoric equivalent of two sinners from Inferno 18. Boniface VIII first deceives his bride, taking her by deceit (“tòrre a ’nganno” in verse 56), like Jason, whose seduction of Hypsipyle is characterized by the same inganno (“Ivi con segni e con parole ornate / Isifile ingannò” [Inf. 18.91-2]). He then violates her, like Venedico Caccianemico, who prostituted his sister Ghisolabella, whose very name “Ghisolabella” is echoed in the description of the Church as “la bella donna” in verse 57.

In addition to providing the stunning accusation leveled by one simoniac Pope (present and stuffed into the ground) at another (mistakenly deemed to be present and standing above him), the dialogue between Nicholas III and the pilgrim is part of an extraordinary dramatic conceit concocted by Dante in order to damn a Pope who was still alive in 1300.

Boniface VIII did not die until 1303, while the pilgrim journeys into Hell in April 1300. Dante, writing this canto years after Boniface’s death, wants to find a way to indicate that Boniface’s abode is Hell. The solution is that Nicholas III, who is stuck head-first into the rock and cannot see, mistakenly identifies the pilgrim as Boniface VIII and speaks to him by name. Dante cleverly “covers” himself by even having Nicholas indicate his surprise that Boniface has arrived in Hell several years earlier than expected:

Ed el gridò: “Se’ tu già costì ritto,
se’ tu già costì ritto, Bonifazio?
Di parecchi anni mi mentì lo scritto.”  (Inf. 19.52-54)

And he cried out: “Are you already standing,
already standing there, o Boniface?
The book has lied to me by several years.”   

Later in Inferno 19 Dante-pilgrim worries that he might have been “troppo folle” (too rash [Inf. 19.88]) in the outburst that he directs at Nicholas III. This is a good example of the poet defusing his own boldness by projecting it onto the pilgrim. For the truly rash act of Inferno 19 is Dante-poet’s reserving a place in hell for Boniface VIII.

In damning Boniface VIII, Dante sets aside the theology of repentance, which holds that sinners can delay repentance until the very last moment of life and still be saved. Dante is highly aware of this doctrine and indeed dramatizes late repentance and consequent salvation in Purgatorio 5. By damning Boniface before he died in 1303, Dante denies him the possibility of repentance in extremis and—most important—he seems to set aside his free will, his God-given ability to repent and convert to the good as long as he is alive.

Within a poem whose premise of knowing the afterlife is always already deterministic, Dante flirts here—through the trope of damning Boniface three years before his historical death in 1303—with a more specific and technical determinism: that practiced by astrologers and diviners. This more technically construed determinism is precisely the topic of Inferno 20. For further discussion of Boniface VIII in this context, see the Introductions to Inferno 20 and Inferno 27.

* * *

We have seen that the capacity of words to wound or to misrepresent is a feature of dialogue in Inferno: dialogue is essential to all human interaction, but it can therefore also be a fount of misunderstanding and hurt. In Inferno 10 Cavalcanti père misconstrues the pilgrim’s past absolute “ebbe” in verse 63 (“forse cui Guido vostro ebbe a disdegno”), taking the tense of the verb as a sign that his son Guido is dead: “Come? / dicesti ‘elli ebbe’? non viv’elli ancora?” (What’s that? / He ‘did disdain’? He is not still alive? [Inf. 10.67-8]).

The pilgrim hesitates in responding to the father in Inferno 10, because he doesn’t understand how Cavalcanti senior had arrived at his mistaken assumption. Here too, in Inferno 19, the pilgrim hesitates in responding to Nicholas III. After all, it’s not every day in Hell that one is mistaken for a Pope! His hesitation is sufficiently prolonged that Virgilio intervenes, telling Dante precisely what to say to Nicholas: “Dilli tosto: / ‘Non son colui, non son colui che credi’” (Tell this to him at once: / ‘I am not he—not whom you think I am’ [Inf. 19.61-2]). The dialogic nature of this moment is emphasized in these verses, in which Virgilio tells Dante, in embedded direct discourse, the very words that he should speak to Nicholas III.

When the pilgrim realizes that he is speaking to the very custodian of the Church-bride, her Pope-bridegroom, he is emboldened to speak harsh words of censure to Pope Nicholas, beginning in Inferno 19.90. We remember that, in the simile of verses 49-51, the narrator describes himself as like the “friar who confesses” in his posture toward this sinner. All the more appropriate, then, that the pilgrim appropriates biblical language for his harsh reproof, at a certain point in his tirade citing the New Testament and specifically the visions of the Apocalypse:

  Di voi pastor s’accorse il Vangelista,
quando colei che siede sopra l’acque
puttaneggiar coi regi a lui fu vista... (Inf. 19.106-108)
  You, shepherds, the Evangelist had noticed
when he saw her who sits upon the waters
and realized she fornicates with kings...

Dante here calls the author of the Apocalpyse the “Evangelist”—“Vangelista” in Inf. 19.106—because in Dante’s time John the Evangelist was believed to be also the author of the Apocalypse, as well as the author of the Gospel of John. There was as yet no knowledge of John of Patmos.

John’s visions in the King James version of the Bible include the following: “I will shew unto thee the judgment of the great whore that sitteth upon many waters: With whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication” (Revelation 17:1-2). Dante invokes this passage from the Apocalypse (also known as Revelation), telling Nicholas that the Evangelist had become aware of “pastors” like him when he saw “the whore who sits upon the waters” engaged in “fornicating with kings”: “quando colei che siede sopra l’acque / puttaneggiar coi regi a lui fu vista” (Inf. 19.107-8).

The “meretrix magna” of Apocalypse 17:1-3 was interpreted in antiquity as a reference to Rome. However, medieval Christians, especially in the milieu of reformers like the spiritual Franciscans, interpreted the whore who sits upon the waters as a reference to the corrupt and wealthy Church. The extraordinary phrase “puttaneggiar coi regi”—“whoring with kings”—thus concludes the traslatio from literal pimps (Venedico Caccianemico) and literal whores (Thaïs, a “puttana” in Inf. 18.133) in Inferno 18 to metaphorical pimps and metaphorical whores in Inferno 19.

Dante-pilgrim concludes his tirade with an apostrophe to the Emperor Constantine, beginning in Inferno 19.115:

  Ahi, Costantin, di quanto mal fu matre,
non la tua conversion, ma quella dote
che da te prese il primo ricco patre! (Inf. 19.115-17)
  Ah, Constantine, what wickedness was born—
and not from your conversion—from the dower
that you bestowed upon the first rich father!

Here initiates another long thematic thread of the Commedia: the idea that the corruption of the Church began when Emperor Constantine, who ruled from 306 to 337 CE, departed for Constantinople (present-day Istanbul). It was believed that Emperor Constantine, having been cured by Pope Sylvester of leprosy, in gratitude bequeathed the Western Roman Empire to the Church, as a parting “dowry” (continuing the bridal metaphor). According to this view of history, current in Dante’s time, Pope Sylvester thus received from Constantine on behalf of the Papacy a vast empire and a vast fortune.

The Papal claim to temporal power was based on the so-called Donation of Constantine. This document, which bequeaths Rome and its empire to the Church, was held in Dante’s time to be a legal document written in Constantine’s court. In reality it was “the best-known and most important forgery of the Middle Ages”:

Donation of Constantine [Credit: ]

Donation of Constantine, Latin Donatio Constantini and Constitutum Constantini, the best-known and most important forgery of the Middle Ages, the document purporting to record the Roman emperor Constantine the Great’s bestowal of vast territory and spiritual and temporal power on Pope Sylvester I (reigned 314–335) and his successors. Based on legends that date back to the 5th century, the Donation was composed by an unknown writer in the 8th century. Although it had only limited impact at the time of its compilation, it had great influence on political and religious affairs in medieval Europe until it was clearly demonstrated to be a forgery by Lorenzo Valla in the 15th century.

(“Donation of Constantine,” Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed 10/27/2015; the fresco shows Sylvester [left] receiving the purported donation from Constantine [right], in Santi Quattro Coronati, Rome, 13th century)

Dante deplores the Donation of Constantine, believing that the corruption of the Church and its inability to follow in the footsteps of Christ and live according to His mandate of evangelical purity are the result of the enormous temptations and mistaken priorities generated by so vast a material gift.

In Dante’s view the Church was effectively submerged by earthly goods and by the pernicious desire to possess those goods, as a direct consequence of Constantine’s well-intentioned but maleficent gift. In Purgatorio 32, a canto that is Dante’s personal version of the Apocalypse, he has a vision of the church as a chariot that is submerged in an eagle’s feathers (Purg. 32.124-29). The feathers represent the corrupting material goods that came to the Church via the imperial eagle and through the Donation of Constantine. In Paradiso 6, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, who reigned from 527 to 565,  tells the story of the Roman Empire, and he refers to Constantine’s transferral of the seat of the Roman Empire from Rome to Constantinople in 330 as going “contr’al corso del ciel”—“counter to heaven’s course”: “Poscia che Costantin l’aquila volse / contr’ al corso del ciel” (After Constantine had turned the Eagle / counter to heaven’s course [Par. 6.1-2]). At the same time, Constantine’s good intentions will be specifically vindicated in Paradiso 20 when the pilgrim sees the soul of the Emperor twinkling among the lights of the eagle of justice (Par. 20.55-60).

If Dante had lived a few centuries later, he would have witnessed the humanist Lorenzo Valla use philological skills to debunk the document on which the Church’s claims were based. In one of the great instances of the practice of philology—the discipline that is the historicized understanding language—Lorenzo showed that the Latin of the Donation of Constantine was not the Latin of the fourth century. The Donation of Constantine was a forgery written in the papal court circa 750-800 CE, long after the reign of Emperor Constantine. But Dante, having no reason in his time to believe the document fraudulent and illegal, could only kick and scream against its contents.

Recommended Citation

Barolini, Teodolinda. "Inferno 19 : From Literal Pimps and Whores to Metaphorical Pimps and Whores." Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. Center for Digital Research and Scholarship. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2015.

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