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

Inferno 3


Crossings and Commitments

The Undivine Comedy, Chapter 2, “Infernal Incipits,” pp. 31-37, 170-71; “Medieval Multiculturalism and Dante’s Theology of Hell,” 2000, rpt. Dante and the Origins of Italian Literary Culture, pp. 102-21.
  • the issue of justice: “Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore” (Inf. 3.4)
  • the theology of Hell, including the concept of eternity and the asymmetry of Hell and Paradise: the eternity of Hell is of a different order from the eternity of Paradise
  • a liminal space before we reach Hell itself: an Ante-Hell or vestibule of Hell
  • the souls of the neither-good-nor-bad
  • the case of Celestine V, and the challenge issued to him by one Franciscan poet: Jacopone da Todi

This canto is liminal. It is about crossings: whether passing through the gate of Hell or passing over the River Acheron. It therefore begins with the gate of Hell: the limen (threshold) of hell that the pilgrim must pass through in order to enter the dark realm. It contains first things: the first description of Hell, the first group of souls in Hell, the first punishment and the first opportunity for the reader to consider the formula by which punishments are allocated (a principle that Dante will call, in Inferno 28.142, the “contrapasso”), the first infernal guardian (the boatman Charon who ferries Dante across the river), and the first opportunity to consider the way that the infernal guardians treat Dante.

Most important of these firsts, perhaps, is the first appearance of the word “justice”: “Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore” (Justice moved my high maker [Inf. 3.4]). These words are conspicuously written on the gate of Hell itself, issuing a challenge that we likely do not fully perceive upon first reading the Commedia. While on the one hand the sinners’ life-stories, as dramatized in the poetry of the Commedia, are frequently such as to elicit compassion from the reader, compassion is an inappropriate response if the sinner is in fact, as the gate declares, justly punished.

From a theological perspective, the concept of justice implies the concept of free will. If there were no free will, the allotment of Hell or Paradise would be deterministic rather than the result of giustiziaan unacceptable proposition, as Marco Lombardo explains to the pilgrim in Purgatorio 16.67-72 (see the Introduction to Purgatorio 16).

From a narrative perspective, the word giustizia in verse 4 therefore initiates the conflictual process that is at the core of Dante’s artistry in Inferno: the conflict generated by the tension between the “justice” that governs the placement of souls in Hell and the pity for the damned that the poet skillfully manipulates his readers into feeling. And yet Hell is the place “where pity lives when it is truly dead”: “qui vive la pietà quand’è ben morta” (Inf. 20.28).

There are words engraved on the gate of Hell (they are written, “scritte” in verse 11): written by Someone, in terza rima. There are striking rhetorical features: for instance the anaphora of the first three verses (anaphora is the repetition of words at the beginning of two or more successive verses, in this case the ominously repeated “per me si va” [through me the way]). Also noteworthy is the word that is repeated most often throughout the inscription, namely the adjective “eternal” in various forms. This gate, we are told, will endure eternally: “e io etterno duro” (and I endure eternally [Inf. 3.8]). The message here regarding the eternity of Hell is a theological one—and it is forbidding.

The eternity of Hell was debated by early theologians before being “settled” by St. Augustine. Origen affirmed the medicinal and corrective value of a non-eternal system of punishment that would eventually restore all souls to God. However, Augustine vigorously and successfully defended the eternity of Hell, using Matthew 25 and arguing that ‘‘the sentence of the Lord could not be evacuated of meaning or deprived of its force; the sentence, I mean, that he, on his own prediction, was to pronounce in these words: ‘Out of my sight, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the Devil and his angels’’’ (Augustine, City of God, trans. Henry Bettenson [London: Penguin, 1972], pp. 21–23). It is worth noting that the eternity of Hell is still debated by some Christians today: see

The symmetry of Hell and Paradise as eternal realms, much posited by Dante scholars, is not accurate. As clarified in The Undivine Comedy, the eternity of Hell is of a different order from the eternity of Paradise. As we learn in this canto, the eternity of Hell is “sanza tempo”—“without time” (Inf. 3.29)—and the eternity of Paradise is “di tempo fore”: “outside of time” (Par. 20.16). Eternity of Hell signifies duration, while eternity of Paradise signifies an eternal present:

Hell is defined as eternal, but in his representation of hell Dante never problematizes the concepts of space and time as he does in his representation of paradise; he never says (the very ludicrousness of the proposition is telling) that all the souls are really with Lucifer in Cocytus and only appear in various circles for the benefit of the pilgrim. Spatially, hell is treated as tangible and concrete, while temporally, the fact that it is eternal means only that it will last forever, that its torments are perpetual.

Eternity in the context of hell signifies duration; as Aquinas notes, “The fire of hell is called eternal only because it is unending” (ST 1a.10.3; Blackfriars 1964, 2:143). In conceptualizing paradise, on the other hand, Dante moves from an interminable duration to an eternal present, to that which is outside of time altogether: the divine mind exists “in sua etternità di tempo fore” (in his eternity outside of time [Par. 29.16]). Dante seems to have applied to his two realms Boethius’s distinction between perpetual endlessness and eternal timelessness: the air of hell is “without time”—“sanza tempo” (Inf. 3.29)—because it is starless and therefore endless, deprived of the measured time produced by the motion of the spheres, not because it is truly timeless and eternal, altogether outside of time, “in sua etternità di tempo fore”.  (The Undivine Comedy, p. 170)

In Inferno 3 the voyagers traverse the gate of Hell at the beginning, and the river Acheron at the end. The canto is essentially a protracted limen, a protracted threshold, entrance-hall, or portal. The souls they see here do not belong to the first circle of Hell, which we come to only in Inferno 4. Rather the souls featured in Inferno 3 are themselves liminal, like the space they inhabit. They are the souls “che visser sanza ’nfamia e sanza lodo” (who lived without disgrace and without praise [Inf. 3.36]). They are commingled with the angels who neither rebelled against God nor were faithful to God. While the rebellious angels were cast from the heavens and became devils, these angels were cast out of heaven but not received into “deep hell” (“profondo inferno” [Inf. 3.41]).

In imagining a group of souls who are “a Dio spiacenti e a’ nemici sui” (hateful to God and to His enemies [Inf. 3.63]) Dante has parted company with theology, which does not provide for sinners who are not evil enough to be received into Hell proper. These souls, as I wrote in The Undivine Comedy, reside in the space of transition itself:

The place in canto 3 is transition incarnate. Its identity is conferred by what it is between: it is between the gate of hell and the river Acheron, which the pilgrim will cross at canto’s end. To reach that crossing, that point of commitment, that Rubicon at which transition is ratified, the pilgrim must transit the place of transitions in canto 3. It is also a place that tells us a great deal about the character and methods of our poet. Morally, this place serves as an index of engagement, dramatizing his commitment to commitment by creating a category for those who rejected both good and evil (but who are, we note, by no means positioned equally between the two). (The Undivine Comedy, p. 32)

Dante here shows us his willingness to invent theology in order to express what matters to him, which in Inferno 3 is his aversion to the state of ignominious non-commitment, represented by the shade (whom the pilgrim recognizes) of “colui / che fece per viltade il gran rifiuto” (who made, through cowardice, the great refusal [Inf. 3.59-60]).

Dante does not give us the name of this shade because in his view the fitting consequence of absolute cowardice is erasure from the rolls of both Heaven and Hell.

The consensus of scholars is that “colui che fece per viltà il gran rifiuto” is Pope Celestine V, but the verse necessarily remains controversial. To start with, Dante has devised a contrapasso that includes anonymity. As Virgilio instructs Dante: “non ragioniam di lor, ma guarda e passa” (let us not talk of them, but look and pass on [Inf. 3.51]). Further, although most 14th century commentators concurred in believing that the verse refers to Celestine, his canonization in 1313 added to the challenges of the interpretation. There were those who argued that Dante would not so treat a canonized saint. I have never found the latter argument persuasive.

Celestine V (1215-1296), whose secular name was Pietro di Morrone, was pope for five months in 1294: he was elected pope 5 July 1294 and abdicated 13 December 1294. He became a Benedictine at age 17 and was a pious and solitary hermit:

His love of solitude led him first into the wilderness of Monte Morone in the Abruzzi, whence his surname, and later into the wilder recesses of Mt. Majella. He took for his model the Baptist. His hair-cloth was roughened with knots; a chain of iron encompassed his emaciated frame; he fasted every day except Sunday; each year he kept four Lents, passing three of them on bread and water; the entire day and a great part of the night he consecrated to prayer and labour. (Catholic Encyclopedia

The Catholic Encyclopedia recounts the scene that led to Pietro di Morrone becoming pope, declaring it “unparalleled in ecclesiastical history”:

Three eminent dignitaries, accompanied by an immense multitude of monks and laymen, ascended the mountain, announced that Pietro had been chosen pope by unanimous vote of the Sacred College and humbly begged him to accept the honour. Two years and three months had elapsed since the death of Nicholas IV (4 Apr., 1292) without much prospect that the conclave at Perugia would unite upon a candidate. Of the twelve Cardinals who composed the Sacred College six were Romans, four Italians and two French. The factious spirit of Guelph and Ghibelline, which was then epidemic in Italy, divided the conclave, as well as the city of Rome, into two hostile parties of the Orsini and the Colonna, neither of which could outvote the other. A personal visit to Perugia, in the spring of 1294, of Charles II of Naples, who needed the papal authority in order to regain Sicily, only exasperated the affair, hot words being exchanged betrween the Angevin monarch and Cardinal Gaetani, at that time the intellectual leader of the Colonna, later, as Pope Boniface VIII, their bitter enemy. When the situation seemed hopeless, Cardinal Latino Orsini admonished the fathers that God had revealed to a saintly hermit that if the cardinals did not perform their duty within four months, He would visit the Church with severe chastisement. All knew that he referred to Pietro di Murrone. The proposition was seized upon by the exhausted conclave and the election was made unanimous. Pietro heard of his elevation with tears; but, after a brief prayer, obeyed what seemed the clear voice of God, commanding him to sacrifice his personal inclination on the altar of the public welfare. Flight was impossible, even if he contemplated it; for no sooner did the news of this extraordinary event spread abroad than multitudes (numbered at 200,000) flocked about him.  (Catholic Encyclopedia,

Although Celestine V was not a Franciscan, he was viewed with great favor by the extreme wing of the Franciscan order known as spirituals, who advocated literal observance of Francis’ Rule: “His elevation was particularly welcome to the Spirituals, who saw in it the realization of current prophecies that the reign of the Holy Spirit ruling through the monks was at hand; and they proclaimed him the first legitimate pope since Constantine’s donation of wealth and worldly power to ‘the first rich father’ (Inferno, Canto XIX)” (Catholic Encyclopedia,

One Franciscan, the poet Jacopone da Todi (1236-1306), challenges Pietro da Morrone to reform the Church:

Que farai, Pier da Morrone?
Èi venuto al paragone .  . . 
Guàrdate da baratteri, 
ch’el ner per bianco ’l fo vedere; 
se non te ’n sai bene scrimire, 
cantarai mala canzone. (Jacopone da Todi, Que farai, Pier da Morrone?)
What will you do, Pier da Morrone? 
You have come to the moment of truth . . . 
Look out for barattieri who make you see black for white; 
if you do not know how to distinguish yourself clearly from them, 
you will sing a sad song.

The figure of Pope Celestine V is a very complicated one for Dante, because Dante shared many of Celestine’s views. Dante leaned toward the asceticism of the Franciscan spirituals and founded his politics on the principle that the church was corrupted by the Donation of Constantine and should have remained in its state of initial purity and poverty. Hence the reference to Inferno 19 in the Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry on Celestine V as visible in the above citation.

Many of Celestine’s positions regarding poverty and humility would have been deeply congenial to Dante. But, on the other hand, Celestine’s congenial views only make the consequences of his abdication harder to bear. For Dante, Celestine’s abdication of the papacy is an object lesson in the devastating consequences wrought by lack of commitment, for his abdication allowed Boniface VIII to become pope. On balance therefore I find the arguments identifying “colui che fece per viltà il gran rifiuto” with Celestine quite compelling.

That said, we must remember that the text deliberately “refuses” to record the name of “colui / che fece per viltade il gran rifiuto” (Inf. 3.59-60).

It is worth remembering that the “viltade” of this unnamed soul echoes the pilgrim’s own state in the previous canto, where Virgilio remarks that “l’anima tua è da viltade offesa” (your soul has been assailed by cowardice [Inf. 2.45]). In other words, Dante has just dramatized his own hesitation to accept the arduous responsibility that has been assigned to him. Supported by Beatrice and Virgilio, however, he was able to find the courage to soldier on: “a sostener la guerra / sì del cammino e sì de la pietate” (to undergo the battle / both of the journeying and of the pity [Inf. 2.4-5]).

The shades of the neither-good-nor-bad run behind a banner and are stung by horseflies and wasps. The afterlife enforces upon them, by a perverse discipline, the commitment that while they were alive they never embraced: they race after a banner in an infernal (per)version of embracing a cause. Now they are perforce committed, but they are committed to nothing of any value.

We can consider the behavior of these souls to model the first contrapasso of the Commedia. These souls’ futile chasing after a banner while being viciously stung is our first encounter with the application of the rule, common to vision literature, whereby (as Gilbert and Sullivan put it) the punishment fits the crime. For Dante’s use of the word contrapasso, see the Introduction to Inferno 28.

Dante’s methodology in constructing his contrapasso is to literalize metaphors: Hell is the place where the metaphor that applies to your sinful inclination is turned into literal (and eternal) reality. In the case of the neither-good-nor-bad the contrapasso works by contrariness: the souls now perform what they did not do in life, its contrary. Most often, in Inferno, Dante will apply contrapasso by analogy: thus, for instance, the lustful souls are buffeted by an infernal windstorm that is analogous to the passions that they permitted to buffet them during their lives on earth.

The second half of Inferno 3 is devoted to the crossing of the river Acheron; as in many myths and much history (for instance, Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon), the crossing of the river marks the completion of the transition and the arrival into a new state. In marked contrast to the neither-good-nor-bad souls, who never wanted anything with vigor and commitment, the damned souls whom Dante sees as they cross the first infernal river are ready and willing to cross:

  e pronti sono a trapassar lo rio,
ché la divina giustizia li sprona,
sì che la tema si volve in disio. (Inf. 3.124-26)
  and they are eager for the river crossing
because celestial justice spurs them on,
so that their fear is turned into desire.

Part of justice is the mechanism that causes evil souls to desire their eternal torment. Their “fear is turned into desire” (Inf. 3.126): this mysterious “disio” seems to echo the free will with which—according to the theology of Hell as a non-deterministic and freely chosen state—these souls embraced evil while alive.

Recommended Citation

Barolini, Teodolinda. "Inferno 3 : Crossings and Commitments." Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. Center for Digital Research and Scholarship. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2015.

Coordinated Reading