Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Inferno XIX: Whack-a-pope

The full text of the canto in Italian/English

Il mio bel San Giovanni . My dear, beautiful San Giovanni. Of all the buildings that survive from the time of Dante’s Florence, this is both the most famous and the one he cherished the most. While the construction of the adjacent Santa Maria del Fiore began five years before Dante was exiled from Florence, it wasn’t completed until the fifteenth century. Its current baptistry, however, with which the Duomo forms nowadays a sublimely harmonious pair, was erected much earlier, between 1059 and 1128. I saw it this year with my youngest son, on the first warm day of the Italian spring. But we didn’t go inside – the queue was prohibitively long.

There it is, the old San Giovanni, identical that what it would have looked like in Dante’s times, except for its three doors – including the one dubbed by Michelangelo The Door of Paradise – which have since replaced the medieval originals. Dante was baptised here and, after becoming a magistrate of the city, once ordered that one of its marble baptismal wells be broken because someone had got stuck in it and was at risk of drowning.

We know about this episode because Dante talks about it in the nineteenth canto of the Inferno. A little housekeeping, as per usual: it’s the morning of 9 April 1300, the day before Easter on the year of the first Catholic Jubilee. It is the second day of Dante’s journey. He and his guide Virgil are approaching the third ditch of Malebolge, the eighth circle of Hell. The canto begins with an invocation:
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…
Roughly: ‘O Simon Magus, o wretched followers, you who the things of God, which ought to be the brides of holiness, trade rapaciously in exchange for gold and for silver…’

The things of god are spiritual gifts, such as the power to administer the baptism which the biblical Simon Magus, as reported in the Acts of the Apostles, tried to buy for money from Saint Peter. Hence the sin of simony, which was rife in this century leading up to the reformation.

Glancing at the third ditch and its inhabitants, Dante notes that the ground is riddled with round holes roughly of the size of the baptismal wells in the bel San Giovanni (there it is), and that the damned are planted in these holes upside down, so that only the legs are sticking and all they can do is kick with varying degrees of frenzy. Oh, and their feet are on fire. Because Qual suole il fiammeggiar de le cose unte / muoversi pur su per la strema buccia, / tal era lì dai calcagni a le punte. Like the fire burning on a greasy object moves only across the surface, so too the fire that burns the souls is only visible at their extremities.

William Blake depicted the wells like roomy baptismal fonts.

It’s a nice illustration, but in the scene that Dante describes the souls are much more tightly stuck. The anonymous engraver of the 14th century Codex Altoniensis seems closer to the mark.

Now, consider the following question: you are Dante and you desperately want to put in Hell your most bitter of enemies, Pope Boniface VIII, except at the time in which you set your poem he’s not dead yet. What would you do? Dante’s solution is of the utmost narrative elegance: he has one the stuck-upside-down souls mistake him from Boniface. Remember, the souls of the damned don’t know what is happening on Earth in the present but have some knowledge of the future, so this mistake has the value of a prophecy. Boniface will end up in Hell, and so will his successor, Clement V, who succeeded Boniface in 1305 and died in 1314, not before having shifted the papacy to Avignon.

As for the soul addressed by Dante in the present tense of the poem, it’s yet another pope: the less famous but nonetheless thoroughly rotten Nicholas III, who occupied the Holy See between 1277 and 1280 and, by all accounts, traded for the benefit of his wider family all the roles and offices that weren’t nailed down (as it were). He is stuck here, waiting for Boniface to arrive, at which point he will be pushed deeper into the hole – which already contains other, unnamed popes – and then Boniface himself will be corked in further when it’s Clement’s turn to be the kicking one: like in a slow but endless game of whack-a-pope.

The remainder of the canto takes the form of a furious reprimand aimed by Dante to the captive pontiff, but targeting more broadly the corruption of the Catholic Church from the original sin of the donation of Constantine onwards: an arc of depravity that fails to bend towards redemption or justice. It’s an incendiary political speech that Dante wrote and published in exile, while harboured by a foreign court, knowing that in all likelihood he would never get to see his bel San Giovanni again.

Previously: Inferno I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV, XV, XVI, XVII, XVIII.