Dante’s Divine Comedy: tasting notes 10 – three corrupt popes: outrage!

Corrupt clergy, a scourge in Dante’s time. Illustration by Giovanni di Paolo. Source Wikimedia Commons

There are moments in the Comedy when Dante burns with righteous anger. One of them is his encounter with the simoniac popes.

Strictly defined, simony is the buying or selling of spiritual gifts, offices or artefacts. A form of corruption, it’s named after Simon Magus, a first-century sorcerer who is said to have asked the apostles to sell him their spiritual powers. Sinclair’s commentary has a looser definition: “the abuse of sacred things for sordid earthly ends,” which, I think, fits better with Dante’s treatment. When the Pope, the representative of God on earth, betrays the Church with simony, Dante acts for the common man, the body of the kirk if you will, in speaking out in fury against this misappropriation of gifts given by lay people, poor as well as rich. Like the corrupt use of taxpayers’ money today, simony was a public offence that caused widespread resentment. It was one of the factors that led to the Reformation.

We meet the three simoniac popes in the third of the Malebolge, the series of linked ditches and ridges that make up Circle 8, the first circle of the fraudulent. Only the first of the three is actually present; the other two, not yet dead in 1300, the putative year of Dante’s journey, are referred to as “coming soon”:

Dante speaks to Pope Nicholas III. By Gustave Doré from a scan by Karl Hahn via Wikimedia Commons

Nicholas III: was pope from 1277 to 1280, during Dante’s boyhood. Known to be a nepotist as well as a simonist, he spent a lot of donated money on buildings, including a fine country home near Viterbo. A major political aim was to resist the interference of Charles of Anjou (King of Naples and Sicily and brother of the King of France) in the affairs of the papacy and the governance of Rome.

Boniface VIII: pope from 1294 to 1303, spanning Dante’s political career. Worldly and unscrupulous, he greatly expanded the power of the Church and claimed, in a papal bull (Unam sanctam), to be above the Emperor, a view that was anathema to Dante. By engineering the overthrow of the White Guelfs, who favoured the reduction of papal power, he caused Dante’s exile from Florence. By placing him in hell, Dante is getting his own back.

Clement V: pope from 1305 to 1314, while Dante was in exile. A Frenchman, he owed his election to Phillip IV of France, and rewarded him by moving the Papal See to Avignon and appointing lots of French cardinals. Reputed to be a lecher, he was also a ruthless killer, allegedly ordering the mass execution of the Knights Templar.

Reflecting their inverted values in life, the simonists are stuffed head-first into holes in paving stones, feet sticking out at the top, their soles licked by flames. Dante sees one pair of soles that is licked by a redder flame and is in greater torment than the others. Virgil brings Dante over to him and Dante asks him to speak.

What follows is a clever bit of theatrical business that enables Dante to forecast the imminent arrival of Boniface by having Nicholas (who can’t see anything) mistake his identity. Prompted by Virgil, Dante hotly refutes the suggestion that he is Boniface:

Nicholas goes on to explain the “pile-up” of souls in each hole, as successive simonists are stuffed in at the top. It’s only a matter of time before Boniface will come on top of him, followed shortly by Clement:

Dante’s nemesis: Pope BonIface VIII, by Cristofano dell’Altissimo via Wikimedia Commons

The three popes form a sort of “crescendo of evil”, as Sinclair puts it. Elsewhere, Dante describes Boniface as a ravaging wolf who deceives his congregations, the Antichrist pope who had turned the Holy See into a cloaca del sangue e de la puzza, “a sewer of blood and stench”. Clement doesn’t come in for quite this degree of venom, but Nicholas’s words incline us to believe that Dante considered him to be even worse than Boniface. Political motives and ambitions were the cardinal sin in all three cases and reached their apex in Clement’s favours to France.

Dante’s indignation boils over in a final tirade directed at Nicholas. His reverence for the “supreme keys” – the keys of heaven given to St Peter and a symbol of papal authority – deepens his contempt and anger:

I love the way Dante says he would use harsher words, implying he’s not going to – then goes right ahead and does so anyway!

Swift and fierce in judgement, Dante is surely a classic Number 1 in the Enneagram typology of human archetypes. Number 1 is the perfectionist or reformer, driven by righteous anger. He wants to set the world to rights and must write, as Beatrice instructs him in Purgatorio 32, in pro del mondo che mal vive, “for the benefit of the world, which lives badly.”

What did the Church make of Dante’s placing three popes in hell? The Commedia was occasionally condemned by Church authorities for this reason, but Dante was never branded a heretic. He was, however, seen as sailing close to the wind and his son, Pietro, composed three defensive commentaries during his life to explain away the problematic cantos, just in case. The De Monarchia, a treatise written in Latin in Dante’s later years that argued strongly against Unam sanctam and in favour of the separation of temporal and spiritual powers, was considered even more controversial and was placed on the papal index of banned books in 1554.

After the encounter with Nicholas, Virgil sweeps Dante up in his arms to comfort him, calm him down and, above all, reassure him that he is right. Now that’s just how a distressed Number 1 Enneagram needs to be treated!

Genius line:
‘Fatto v’avete Dio d’oro e d’argento.’ Dante’s parting words to Nicholas epitomize the sin of simony, despicable in a man who should be guardian of the spiritual order but abuses his power to acquire wealth, build vanity projects and appoint family members and friends to positions of influence. Remind you of anyone?