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Free Study Guide-The Divine Comedy-The Inferno by Dante Alighieri-Notes
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CANTO SUMMARIES WITH NOTES

CANTO XIX

Summary

The poets are atop the bridge over the third Bolgia. Punished below are the simonists. Simony means the buying or selling of church offices. Dante begins this Canto by addressing Simon Magus from whose name the word Simony is derived. He criticizes Magus and all those who follow his greedy path of trading the offices of churches for money. From his position on the bridge the pilgrim can see the tomb of Magus below him. Dante the poet praises the divine justice that metes out punishment for sin.

The third Bolgia's rocky surface is covered with holes. Dante compares them to the holes in a baptismal font. He tells the readers of an incident where he has to break a font to rescue someone drowning in it.

Dipped in these holes are the simonists. Their head and chest are in the hole and only their legs emerge out. (from the calf upwards). Their feet are thus jutting upwards in the air and are on fire. The legs are twitching in great pain. The feet are oiled from heel to toe and the fire is feeding on this area alone.

The pilgrim notices one pair of legs in greater agony than the rest, the feet being feed upon by a brighter flame. Virgil carries him down the bridge to that shade which has aroused his ward's curiosity. Here Virgil puts down his load and the pilgrim asks the twitching pair of legs if it can communicate. Dante compares his situation to that of a priest called back by a dying villain who wants to confess his sins. The shade mistakes Dante for Boniface and expresses surprise at the early arrival. It accuses Boniface of misusing his powers and making money by cheating the Church. Dante prompted by Virgil tells the shade that he is not Boniface. The shade reveals that he was once pope (Pope Nicholas III) and used his position to make money. He reveals that those pushed below him are other simonists. And the arrival of Boniface will push him below to join the others squeezed tightly in the fissures of the rock. He says that the arrival of Boniface will soon be followed by the arrival of another (Pope Clement V). He compares Pope Clement to Jason in their manipulation of their respective kings to gain positions (further explained in the Notes).


Dante cities the example of Saint Peter and his unselfish devotion and the election of Matthias as an apostle (without any bribery) to denounce the sin of simony before the shade of Pope Nicholas III. He denounces the Pope for his greed and his actions against the Charles dí Anjou. He further denounces simony and the harm it does. He cites the vision of John and Evangelist who sees cites the vision of John and Evangelist who sees the corrupted church and greedy popes. He compares the love of money to that of idolatry.

He invokes the name of Emperor Constantine (who converted to Christianity) who started the tradition of paying money to popes. Dante's words increase the agitation of the shade but win the approval of Virgil.

Virgil carries Dante back to the bridge over the third Bolgia. And then he carries him to the top of the arch above the next Bolgia.

Notes

This Canto begins with Dante's apostrophe to Simon Magus. This is very appropriate since the word simony is derived from Magus' first name of Simon. Simon was a magician. He had seen the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles John and Peter. He wished to buy this for himself. Peter condemned him for thinking that money could purchase what was the gift of God. "Simony" refers to those crimes that deal with the sale of fraudulent possession of ecclesiastical offices.

The apostrophe is Magus condemnation by Dante the Poet. The Pilgrim is as yet unaware of the sin that is punished in this Bolgia. The poet's words contain a great emotional force. They are dramatic and seize the reader's attention. The emotion behind these words is meant to arouse the readerís hatred for the sin of Simony. No where else in the "Inferno" does Dante express himself with such passion.

Dante writes of Simony that "for the price of gold and silver" the clergy "prostitutes" the Holy Church. The theme of prostitution links this Canto with the previous one, which ends with the grotesque image of Thais the whore. Simony is a bigger sin than mere prostitution though. It brings corruption to the very House of God (Church) on Earth and is thus much more reprehensible. The harm done to the Holy Church is underlined in phrases like "that wealth for which you did not fear to take by guile / the lovely lady, then tear her asunder." "Lovely Lady" refers to the Holy Church. Another part of this Canto expressing the same sentiment is "her who sits / upon the waters playing whore with kings". The reference is again to the Church and how it had been reduced by its top officials (the Popes) to indulge in politics.

Dante Vehement denunciation of Simony is revealed in his words (addressed to Simon and his like) "Now, in your honor, I must sound my trumpet". In this metaphor he has given himself a task comparable to the medieval town crier who preceded his announcements with a blast from his trumpet. It is clear that Dante wants the readers full attention focussed on this grievous sin that corrupts the very fabric of organized Christian religion.

The first invective against Simon is followed by another apostrophe. This time addressed to Divine Justice, in praise of the proper punishment meted out to sinners. The two successive apostrophes are quiet dramatic and serve to underline Dante's angry condemnation of Simony.

The contrapasso of the Simonists includes their upside immersion in holes. Dante compares these holes in the rocky surface to the holes of a baptismal font. The imagery is very striking and ironically befitting. The legs of the sinners are protruding in air, the feet are covered in oil and fed upon by flames. Thus the Simonists who perverted the Church are now punished by another type of perversion. They are upside down immersion in holes that look like baptismal fonts. The exact opposite of the real baptism! Moreover in place of their head being moistened with water, their feet are baptized with oil and fire.

Dante makes a mention of an incident where he has to break a baptismal font to save someone from drowning. He means this explanation of his to be "the mankind's picture of truth." There are varying interpretations of this addition to the Canto. The older ones say that by explaining his actions and revealing the truth behind them Dante is giving the extenuating circumstances that forced him to break the font (an act which can otherwise be deemed as a sacrilege). But modern interpreters like Mark Musa believe that the incident has a symbolic meaning. The breaking of the font symbolizes the practice of Simony. Dante did it out of love but the clergy does it out of greed for money. This example is meant to give the readers an insight into the nature of the sin of Simony: Simony leads to the destruction of the Church. Thus the font serves as a symbolic representation of the Church.

Virgil carries Dante to one pair of wildly gesticulating legs. It is later revealed that this is Pope Nicholas III. His name was Gian Gaetano degli Orsini. The literal meaning of his name was "of the little bears". Hence he refers to himself as the "she bears son" and talks about "my cubs" (meaning himself and his greedy ends). Orsini was known to be an honest man before he became the Pope in 1277. But the three years he held the popeís office (he died in 1280) he indulged freely in Simony. He put his relatives in important ecclesiastical positions, acquired land and to grow more powerful infused public power into his kinsmen and also got them married into important royal families of Europe.

Pope Nicholas IIIís reaction to being addressed by the pilgrim makes it clear that he has mistaken him for someone else. When the pilgrim clears the confusion the sinner admits that he was surprised for he expected Pope Boniface VIII in three years time. He reveals that the arrival of the new sinner would push him deeper in the hole. Just as he displaced the sinner before him. Deeper down in the hole, many Simonists is squeezed in a fissure in the rocky depths. This completes the punishment of the Simonist. Eventually they find themselves stuffed in the stony depths of the Earth, invisible from the surface, suffering their punishment in total oblivion as far as others are concerned. Their sins have smeared the face of the church and now in Hell their shameful faces are buried deep in the Earth. Thus even their identity and their presence is totally wiped out.

Pope Nicholas III mistakes Dante for Pope Boniface, with the help of Charles II Naples ascended to the papacy in 1294. He used his influence to gain ecclesiastical offices for his family and friends. He started the plan for destroying the whites in 1300. Dante belonged to the whites (a political faction in Florence. Detailed description given in the key literary elements). Thus it was Boniface who was ultimately behind Dante's exile in 1302.

Pope Nicholas II adds that the arrival of Boniface will be followed by the arrival of Pope Clement V of Gascony ("one from the west"). Pope Clement V died in 1314. He became the Pope with the help Philip the fair, king of France. For this he agreed to help Philip in his political affairs. Philip exercised his power through the Pope (bound by his promise to help the king). He assisted Philip in the latter's destruction and plunder of the Temples.

Dante compares Pope Clement V to Jason. Jason became a high priest of the Jews by bricking King Antiochus of Syria. Similarly, by promising to further King Philips political interests, did Clement become the Pope. Both men used fraudulent practices to gain their positions.

Dante states that liter did not have to bribe God to obtain his power and neither did Matthias have to bribe anyone to become an apostle. After Judas was expulsed, the other apostles cast lots to obtain a new apostle (to replace Judas). The will of the God got Matthias elected, not bribery. Dante puts these examples before Nicholas to show him the sanctity of the offices to Church and how the latter has sinned by destroying that sanctity by Simony. The Church is an extension of God not a market place for furthering men's greed and ambition. Dante's anger at Nicholas III and his type is very clear. He also refers to a plot against Chares d Anjou, King of Naples and Sicily. In which Nicholas III was against Charles, aided by Michael Palaeologus, Emperor of Greece and his money. In this plot Nicholas supported Giovanni da Procida.

He further condemns the greedy Popes by talking of the vision of John the Evangelist ("You shepherds it was the Evangelist had in mind"). The Evangelist saw the corruption that could come to Rome. The shepherds or the Popes converted the Church to a "whore" that was used to further the political ambitions of various kings. Dante talks of the Church as "one who with the seven heads was born / and from her ten horns...". Here, the seven heads represent the seven Holy Sacraments and the ten horns represent the Ten Commandments. He says that the Church was scared and powerful as long as it wasn't defiled by the greed of its servants (the Popes).

The last part of the Canto is addressed to Constantine, the Great, and Emperor of Rome (306-377). He converted to Christianity in the year 312. He made Constantinople the capital of the Roman Empire. Thus transferring the capital to the eastern Mediterranean lands he had conquered. This he did so that the western part of his empire could be placed under the power of the Church. A move made to repay Pope Sylvester (" the first wealthy fatr") who had healed Constantine of his leprosy. This belief (although later disproved) was believed as the truth in Dante's times. Thus in Dante's eyes Constantine was the man who first gave wealth of the Church and thus unwittingly started the Church on its path of greed and corruption.

In this speech Dante is condemning the sin of Simony (as he did in his speech just before this to Nicholas III). Virgil is pleased with Dante and carries him, clasped to his breast (to show his pleasure at the pilgrims learning) to the bridge and onto the bridge of the next bolgia thus bringing the movement of this Canto to an end.

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