Dante and the simoniac Pope
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O Simon Magus! And you his worthless followers! You rapacious wolves! You who prostitute the holy things of God for silver and gold! In your honor, now, I’m going to single you out because I found you in the third bolgia.Dante the Poet has not opened a canto in such a dramatic manner, and his powerful apostrophe against simony signals both his disgust for the sin and his readiness to sternly rebuke the sinners. … Continue reading
By now, my guide and I were standing high atop the bridge crossing that third level of Malebolge so that we could see right down into the middle of it. O Highest Wisdom of God, what wonders you create in Heaven, on earth, and even here in Hell! The “rewards” of your justice down here are fitting.What Dante sees here brings forth a second apostrophe, this time in praise of God’s Highest Wisdom that creates such structures as these he sees here. In doing this he literally draws a line … Continue reading
All along the sides and the bottom of this great circle I could see that the iron-colored rock was full of holes. All of them were exactly the same size, and each of them was round.Note the precision of measurements here. Dante and Virgil are “high” and “atop” the bridge – most likely at its midpoint, and from there they can see “right down into the middle” of … Continue reading They reminded me of the holes in the baptismal pool in my beloved San Giovanni, where the priests would stand to keep dry during the baptisms. And I’ll tell you the truth here: a few years ago I actually broke one of them to save a child who was caught inside.By now, readers are accustomed to Dante linking what he sees as he travels down through Hell with some memory of or experience he actually had. In this case, the holes remind him of baptismal fonts … Continue reading
Sticking out of every hole down there were the feet and calves of a single sinner; the rest of their bodies were stuffed inside the hole. The soles of every sinner’s feet were on fire, and their legs twitched in such a frenzy of pain that they would have broken any chain trying to hold them. You know how oily flames flit here and there across a greasy surface that’s on fire? Well, the flames here did the same thing, moving back and forth from heel to toes.After preparing us with some general information about this bolgia and adding an autobiographical reminiscence, Dante now tells us that all the holes he described earlier are filled with a sinner – … Continue reading
Seeing one sinner in particular, I asked Virgil: “Master, who is that angry wretch over there who’s twisting around more than the rest – the one with the reddest flames?”Following the pattern he has established, once Dante gives us a general idea of what he sees in each place, he goes further into the place, attracted by one or more of the sinners – in this case, … Continue reading
And he said: “I’ll be glad to take you down there, if you want, so you can ask him for yourself who he is and why he’s here.”
“I’m happy with whatever pleases you,” I told him. “You are my lord and you know that I wouldn’t do anything apart from your will. You can even read my mind.”Note the overt courtesy in this brief dialogue between Dante and his mentor. And a reminder of what Dante the pilgrim and the reader sometimes forget: Virgil can read his mind.
So, when we got to the edge of that third level, we turned to the left and got ourselves down to the bottom where all the holes were. My good Virgil didn’t let go of me until we got right down next to that sinner with the frenzied legs.It seems that Virgil’s courtesy extends to literally carrying Dante down the bank of this bolgia and right over to the particular sinner Dante wishes to interview. In the Italian, Dante refers to … Continue reading “O wretched soul, stuck upside down in this hole like a post,” I said to it, “make some noise or something if you can.”Further indignities: although he will hear the sinner speak, Dante speaks to the sinner’s feet, and he will in the next sentence describe him as an assassin. And note the reversal of roles – the … Continue reading
Bent over that hole, I probably looked like a priest hearing the confession of an assassin being buried alive in a hole like that one. He quickly cried out: “Is that you standing there, already? Are you here so soon, Boniface? The great book has lied to me by many years! I bet you’re already fed up with all the wealth you accumulated when you ravished Holy Mother Church, and then tore her to pieces!”This is one of the boldest, most cleverly devised, and most unexpected questions in the entire poem. One can only imagine the response of Dante’s original readers – from shock to outright … Continue reading
Can you imagine how taken aback I was when he said that? I felt like the butt of someone’s joke and not knowing how to reply. But Virgil elbowed me and said: “What are you waiting for? Tell him quickly, ‘I’m not him…I’m not the one you’re thinking of!’” And I did just that.Knowing that this scene would cause a sensation, Dante appears to become the butt of his own joke, adding to the comedy until Virgil gives him an elbow in the ribs and brings him to his senses. This … Continue reading
Well, when that soul heard me, his feet twisted even more, and moaning loudly, he said: “So, what do you want? If you’re so anxious to find out who I am, then know this: I once wore the great papal cape. But in reality I was a cub of that greedy she-bear. In life I pocketed everything I could, and here now I’ve even pocketed myself! Crammed beneath me in this hole are all the others before me who also sinned in simony. They’re jammed tightly into every nook and cranny of this rocky place. As for me, when that Boniface I mistook you for arrives, I’ll be squashed down further to make room for him.A quite familiar behavioral pattern in humans is to move their hands and arms when they talk. In subtle fashion, Dante allows this sinner to speak, but by moving his feet to accompany his words … Continue reading Nevertheless, he won’t have to spend as much time squirming around like me because another lawless pope from the west will come here soon after him. He’ll fit right in here because his sins are worse than the two of us. He’ll be like Jason, that wicked high priest in Maccabees. Just as he bribed his king, so will France’s king Philip fall prey to that greedy pope.”To heighten the effect, if two simoniac popes are not enough for Dante, Nicholas foretells that one worse than he and Boniface will soon arrive and shove both of them further down into their hole. … Continue reading
I think I may have been too bold here, but he had roused my anger and I launched into a tirade. “Tell me now, you worthless wretch, how much money did Jesus make Peter pay for giving him the sacred keys? Nothing! He simply said to him, ‘follow me.’ And when Matthias was chosen to replace the betrayer, Peter and the rest asked for no payment from him.The shy Dante has found his voice, and this is just the beginning! This is another case of reversal in this canto. One could imagine the words in this scene to be spoken by a cleric with a solid … Continue reading
So, I say stay here stuck in your hole! You deserve this. Here you can guard all the money you extorted when you stood against Charles of Anjou. Believe me, if I weren’t restrained by the reverence I have for your office – not you – I’d use harsher words than these against you.Here, Dante inserts another historical reference to validate not only that Nicholas was a greedy simonist but that he was involved in numerous political intrigues, this, perhaps, being the worst one. … Continue reading
“Your greed has brought the world nothing but grief – exalting the depraved while crushing those who are good. It was exactly wicked shepherds like you that St. John had in mind in his Revelation, when he pictured that great whore, the holy Church, corrupted by her dalliance with kings. She was the pride and joy of her bridegroom as long as she was sustained by her sacraments and commandments. But you and your ilk have made yourselves gods of gold and silver! The only difference between you and an idolater is that he worships one god. You worship hundreds!As he brings his tirade to a climax, one can almost hear Dante shouting at Nicholas, naming a succession of evils that have corrupted the lovely beauty of the Church. In chapter 17 of the Book of … Continue reading
O Constantine! Look what evil came, not from your conversion, but from your Donation to that first wealthy pope?”With this final apostrophe, Dante brings his tirade against Pope Nicholas III and other simoniacal popes to an end. And this statement contains much fascinating information. Dante’s mention of … Continue reading
Well, all the time I was hollering at him, his big flat feet were kicking wildly in anger (or maybe it was his conscience that was eating away at him). And I think Virgil liked everything I was saying, because while I was ranting he was smiling the whole time at the truth of my words.The pope, of course, has been a captive audience here and the wild kicking of his “big flat feet” – another crude image for someone who held such a high office – adds to the degrading scene … Continue reading Then he grabbed me with both his arms and holding me tightly against himself he climbed back up the way we had come down. And he didn’t tire at all from my weight, but brought me right up to the top of the bridge where the third bolgia is connected to the fourth. Then he put me down very gently because the place was so rocky even goats would have had a hard time walking there. And from that place I got a good view of the next level.Note the affectionate language in these closing lines. Not only does Virgil enjoy hearing Dante rebuke Pope Nicholas, he embraces him tightly and carries him back up out of this bolgia, not tiring … Continue reading
[See the Key Provisions of the Donation of Constantine at the end of the footnotes.]Key Provisions of the Donation of Constantine “In imitation of our own power, in order that for that cause the supreme pontificate may not deteriorate, but may rather be adorned with power and … Continue reading
Notes & Commentary
|↑1||Dante the Poet has not opened a canto in such a dramatic manner, and his powerful apostrophe against simony signals both his disgust for the sin and his readiness to sternly rebuke the sinners. Phrases like “worthless followers” and “rapacious wolves” set the tone linguistically, and the word “prostitute” makes a good segue between the previous canto and this one. The Poet tells us he is ready to “take the gloves off.”
Simon Magus was a magician who appears in chapter 8 of the Acts of the Apostles. As a Christian convert baptized by Philip, he had apparently seen the power of the Holy Spirit come upon those who were later baptized by Peter and John. He offered them money if they would sell him that power. Instead, Peter severely denounced him and sent him away to pray that God would forgive him for such a presumption. In fact, that is what Simon did, and the story ends with him asking Peter to pray for him that he might be forgiven. Magicians, sorcerers, and astrologers were common in the ancient world, and this story most likely finds its way into New Testament as a challenge to those who attempt to fool others into believing that they, too, worked wonders through the power of God. In the end, Simon Magus gets a bad rap, but ever afterward, the crime/sin of buying and selling the holy things of the Church, including positions of power and influence, has been called “simony” after him. No doubt, one can get a sense of how this sin afflicted the Church in Dante’s time from his manner of expression here, but one can only imagine the Poet’s horror had he lived at the time of the Protestant Reformation and saw the damage such a sin caused then and into the future.
|↑2||What Dante sees here brings forth a second apostrophe, this time in praise of God’s Highest Wisdom that creates such structures as these he sees here. In doing this he literally draws a line straight down from heaven, through the earth, and right into Hell. In Greek, wisdom is sophia, a word often related to God, particularly the Spirit of God. Recall how Simon Magus saw the power of the Holy Spirit come upon those who were baptized. Cleverly, Dante puts that power to work even here in Hell. More than that, what he soon sees directly connects him and us to the Christian sacrament of Baptism where God’s Spirit is poured out upon the person being baptized – which Simon saw and wanted to purchase from St. Peter. Dante’s mention of the “rewards” of justice – in this case, punishment of the sinners – will lead forward and further into the canto. He’s being led by his words.|
|↑3||Note the precision of measurements here. Dante and Virgil are “high” and “atop” the bridge – most likely at its midpoint, and from there they can see “right down into the middle” of this third bolgia. This is a “great” circle “full of holes” (in the ground), all are “exactly the same size,” and “each one of them is round.”|
|↑4||By now, readers are accustomed to Dante linking what he sees as he travels down through Hell with some memory of or experience he actually had. In this case, the holes remind him of baptismal fonts he’s seen. But seeing these holes brings an even more powerful memory – and a confession.
Mainstream Christians are familiar with a baptismal font somewhere in their church where the sacrament of Baptism is performed and, as part of the ritual, water is poured over the head of the person receiving the sacrament. This pouring of the water is called affusion as opposed to the practice of immersion. The history of baptism in the Christian church goes back and forth between affusion and immersion, and in Dante’s time, both were common. In the Middle Ages, baptisms were performed only twice a year, so that at any time, there might be many candidates for the sacrament. In large cathedrals, certainly in his native Florence, there was a separate octagonal-shaped building for baptisms in close proximity to the main church itself. What Dante is referring to here is the baptismal pool inside the Baptistery dedicated to St. John the Baptist (Giovanni) directly across from the front of the Duomo in his native Florence. Dante himself was most likely baptized there. The baptismal pool in his day, and one can still find examples of it in some European cathedrals (Pisa still has a beautiful one; the one in Florence was replaced in 1571 with a much smaller version) was a square marble pool about 6′ x 6′ raised from the floor about two feet and filled with water. In each of the four corners, there were large marble cylinders where the priests stood. Candidates for the sacrament would be immersed in the pool by the priests who stood in the cylinders in order not to get wet. Apparently, some children were playing in or near the font and one of them became stuck in one of the marble cylinders. Dante smashed it in order to get the errant child out. His concern to “tell you the truth here” seems to be his defense any self-righteous person accusing him of sacrilege.
|↑5||After preparing us with some general information about this bolgia and adding an autobiographical reminiscence, Dante now tells us that all the holes he described earlier are filled with a sinner – upside down so only their calves and feet were showing. (One wonders why Dante didn’t show the sinners’ legs from the knee down which would have accentuated the wild kicking.) This must have been quite a sight. Moreover, the soles of all the sinners’ feet were on fire with oily flames that skittered across them, causing the legs to kick around furiously in pain.
The scene the Poet constructs here is the punishment/contrapasso for simony. At first sight, however, one might be hard-pressed to see the connection. Dante’s subtlety and symbolism are clever here. Furthermore, his contemporaries would have known that being buried alive upside down in a hole was the common punishment for thieves and assassins. By buying and selling sacred objects or sacred positions within the Church, the simonist profanes the object, perverts it, and robs it of its intended purpose and significance. This entire bolgia presents the scene of baptismal perversion by virtue of the contrapasso. The sinners, as we shall see, have committed different kinds of sins of simony, but all of them are “baptized” here. Instead of standing upright, they are upside down, not in the pool, but in the hole reserved for the priest. Instead of being anointed with holy oil on their heads, their feet are anointed. Instead of the symbolic fire of God’s Spirit coming down on the person being baptized, greasy flames move quickly across the sinners’ feet. Since by their sin, simonists have made a mockery of what is holy, so their baptism here is mockery of the sacrament. The oily fire on their feet is a mockery of Pentecost when the Spirit of God descended upon Jesus’ Apostles in the form of tongues of fire. In his translation, the great Scartazzini remarks that the burning feet of these sinners is the direct opposite effect of the halo that might have been theirs had they lived better lives.
|↑6||Following the pattern he has established, once Dante gives us a general idea of what he sees in each place, he goes further into the place, attracted by one or more of the sinners – in this case, the one whose feet are the most brightly on fire!|
|↑7||Note the overt courtesy in this brief dialogue between Dante and his mentor. And a reminder of what Dante the pilgrim and the reader sometimes forget: Virgil can read his mind.|
|↑8||It seems that Virgil’s courtesy extends to literally carrying Dante down the bank of this bolgia and right over to the particular sinner Dante wishes to interview. In the Italian, Dante refers to this sinner’s “shanks,” hardly a respectable description when we soon learn who this sinner is.|
|↑9||Further indignities: although he will hear the sinner speak, Dante speaks to the sinner’s feet, and he will in the next sentence describe him as an assassin. And note the reversal of roles – the ordained pope confessing to the layman Dante.|
|↑10||This is one of the boldest, most cleverly devised, and most unexpected questions in the entire poem. One can only imagine the response of Dante’s original readers – from shock to outright laughter to violent anger. The almost casual question, “Are you here so soon, Boniface?” was not the expected answer to Dante’s “make some noise…if you can.” The speaker as we will learn almost immediately is a recent predecessor of Pope Boniface VIII, Nicholas III. The pontificate of Boniface spanned the years 1294-1303, and he would have been alive during the time when Dante sets his poem. Recall from Canto 18 that it was Boniface who began the Jubilee Year in Rome in 1300. Has Dante made a mistake here? No, he doesn’t put living people in Hell. Instead, it’s the speaker’s “mistake” in naming a living person, though if we understand the spirits to have some kind of foreknowledge, he foresaw that his successor would follow him. Nevertheless, it was Boniface’s meddling in the civic and political affairs of Florence that led to Dante’s exile in 1302. The words Dante puts in Nicholas’ mouth speak for themselves. Apart from the simony, to have “ravished Holy Mother Church” and then to have torn her to pieces, did not make Boniface a popular or a saintly Pope. Nicholas III, notably worse than Boniface, was, in fact, followed by a Saint, Pope Celestine V. But this aged monk did not want the papacy and resigned after just five months. Boniface is reputed to have browbeat the poor man until he resigned and then is said to have harassed and persecuted him until he died a short time later. Many commentators suggest it is this pope who is referred to early in Canto 3 as the one who made “the great refusal,” namely, his abdication of the papacy. There is no hard evidence that put this poor old monk in Hell, except that it may be Dante’s symbolic way of saying that his abdication led immediately to the election of Boniface and all of his corruption.
As pope, Boniface was brilliant, but he was also a megalomaniac. Dante will reserve some fierce denunciations of him at various points in the poem right up into Heaven. He colluded with Charles II of Naples to secure the papacy on the promise that he would use his power and influence to help the king in his war on Sicily. Having seized the papacy from Celestine, he “ravished Holy Mother Church” and then tore her to pieces with his greed and corruption. St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians presents just the opposite picture of the Church:
“Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (5:25-27)”
He created dozens of cardinals and bishops from among his own family and amassed a great fortune while in office. Perhaps one good he did was to systematize the Church’s Code of Canon Law, something for which he is recognized to this day. At odds with Philip IV of France, Boniface issued a Bull declaring that all spiritual and temporal power were subject to the authority of the pope. Philip, repudiated such a tactic and Boniface excommunicated him. The King in turn, invaded the Vatican with the intention of capturing Boniface at his summer home in Agnani. The pope was a captive for three days, during which time he was badly treated and savagely beaten. Boniface died a month later of a fever, (though some claim that the capture caused him to lose his mind). Is it a cause for laughter, then, when Nicholas asks Boniface cum Dante, “I bet you’re already fed up with all the wealth you accumulated.”
|↑11||Knowing that this scene would cause a sensation, Dante appears to become the butt of his own joke, adding to the comedy until Virgil gives him an elbow in the ribs and brings him to his senses. This is becoming a canto of surprises, and one can imagine that Nicholas was also surprised to learn that Dante was not Boniface.|
|↑12||A quite familiar behavioral pattern in humans is to move their hands and arms when they talk. In subtle fashion, Dante allows this sinner to speak, but by moving his feet to accompany his words instead of his hands. By doing this both Dante and the sinner show that his sin has further removed him from the realm of humanity. And so in coded language we learn that this is the soul of Pope Nicholas III, who was elected pope in 1277 and died less than three years later in 1280. (During Dante’s lifetime there were fourteen popes!) One would think, in the best of all worlds, that a pope would be a morally upright person. But everything here is upside down, including this morally inverted pope! As a “cub” of the “greedy she-bear,” he names himself as a member of the noble Orsini family, who wielded great influence in Rome during the later Middle Ages. The word “orsini” means “little bears” in Italian, and Dante’s disdain for him and his wildly public simony during his papacy is seen in his not naming him, but referring to him in animal terms as the son of a “greedy she-bear.” One could imagine that, were Gian Gaetano’s family name Canini (“little dogs”), Dante, in his disgust, might well have referred to him as a “son of a bitch!” Recalling the image of “rapacious wolves” at the beginning of this canto, the bear image is equally bad because they are known to be voracious eaters. Appropriately, Nicholas “confesses” to Dante that he “pocketed” everything he could when he was alive and, playing on words, he continues like that forever, having “pocketed” himself in this hole! And, cleverly, what else goes in pockets here? Money! Finally, perhaps, to correct his earlier mistake, Nicholas prophesies that Boniface will, to make a pun, “follow quickly on his heels.” In more stately language, Courtney Langdon in his translation notes here: “Having changed their allegiance from Spirit to Matter, their destiny is to disappear from the real world into the earth.”|
|↑13||To heighten the effect, if two simoniac popes are not enough for Dante, Nicholas foretells that one worse than he and Boniface will soon arrive and shove both of them further down into their hole. This passage is a reference to Clement V, who was Pope from 1305 to 1314. He was from Gascony, a province in the southwestern part of France, thus the reference to his coming “from the west.” Noted for his greed and lust, he was a puppet of King Philip IV (the Fair) to whom he owed his election as pope. In 1309, he moved the papacy from Rome to Avignon in southeastern France, and thus began what is known in history as the “Avignon Papacy” and the “Babylonian Captivity” of the Church which lasted until 1377. He is also noted for conspiring with Philip in the suppression of the Knights Templar. As disdainful as he may have been at referring to Scripture, Nicholas does so in making an oblique comparison of Clement to the evil High Priest Jason in the Second Book of Maccabees. This is a story of simony on a large scale before it came to be called that. Chapter 4: 7-17 tells of how Jason depraved the High Priesthood and shocked the Jews of his time. The comparisons with Clement are appropriate.|
|↑14||The shy Dante has found his voice, and this is just the beginning! This is another case of reversal in this canto. One could imagine the words in this scene to be spoken by a cleric with a solid theological education to a hardened sinner. But Dante also has a solid theological education, and here, as a layman, it is he who excoriates the sinner – this man who held the highest office in the Church! The degradation of the papacy was a wound Dante bore all his life. His ideal of the balance between the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of heaven – the empire and the Church was constantly shattered by bad rulers in both kingdoms. Having now met one of the worst rulers of the Church, the hesitant Pilgrim blasts Nicholas and his kind with searing truth. If the wicked pope’s feet were on fire, surely the rest of him burned as Dante forcefully rebuked him. As noted earlier, one could imagine how demoralized Dante would have been had he lived at the start of the Protestant Reformation . But standing here at this “Hole of Popes,” could he, one wonders, in his wildest dreams have imagined the Borgias?
The two examples Dante notes are from the New Testament. The first is from Matthew 16:18 where Jesus figuratively bestows the “keys” to the Kingdom of Heaven on Peter who has rightly identified him as the Messiah. The second example comes from the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles where the Apostles select an honorable successor to Judas who betrayed Jesus. No money changed hands in either story.
|↑15||Here, Dante inserts another historical reference to validate not only that Nicholas was a greedy simonist but that he was involved in numerous political intrigues, this, perhaps, being the worst one. Charles of Anjou was the seventh son of King Louis VIII of France. His oldest brother succeeded his father as King Louis IX and was canonized a Saint in 1297 by Pope Boniface VIII (ironic in itself, that such a just and upright ruler should be canonized by such a wicked pope!). Charles became king of Naples and Sicily and enjoyed the favor of several popes, but Nicholas abandoned him after the king refused to allow one of his nephews to marry the pope’s niece. Charles let it be known that such an alliance was far beneath him. Later, it seems – though this is most likely a legend in light of modern historical scholarship – Nicholas was involved in a scheme against Charles that included the Emperor of Greece, Michael Palaeologus, paying the pope to support a rebellion which ended in the famous massacre known as the “Sicilian Vespers” where, in 1282, the Sicilians overthrew the yoke of French rule. By the time this massacre actually occurred, Nicholas had been dead for two years, though it was commonly believed (by Dante, as well) that he was involved in the plot for some time before his death in 1280.|
|↑16||As he brings his tirade to a climax, one can almost hear Dante shouting at Nicholas, naming a succession of evils that have corrupted the lovely beauty of the Church. In chapter 17 of the Book of Revelation at the end of the New Testament, one of St. John’s many apocalyptic visions include the one Dante here adjusts to compare the Church of his day with dissolute pagan Rome. The leaders of the Church, have prostituted themselves – and the Church itself – by abandoning the sacraments and commandments (even selling them!) and consorting with worldly rulers. In their avarice they have made for themselves, as Psalm 115 notes, “idols of silver and gold.” Except that Dante’s intent is even darker: an idolater worships one idol, whereas for those diseased by avarice every coin becomes a god!
The reader might find it fascinating to learn that during the Spanish Inquisition this entire scene of Dante’s tirade was ordered removed from every copy of the Divine Comedy that came into Spain. Two much shorter passages from the Poem were also removed: Inferno 11:8-9 (where Dante and Virgil stop behind the tomb of Pope Anastasius) and Paradiso 9:136-137 (where the spirit of Folquet of Marseille laments the corruption of Church leaders).
|↑17||With this final apostrophe, Dante brings his tirade against Pope Nicholas III and other simoniacal popes to an end. And this statement contains much fascinating information. Dante’s mention of Constantine here is not so much to blame him or implicate him in the sin of simony. Rather, this is a kind of shorthand that appears in front of a long and fascinating story. The Emperor Constantine reigned from 306-337, was converted to Christianity in the year 312, but only shortly before his death was he finally baptized. Having conquered much of the eastern Mediterranean, he transferred the seat of the Empire from Rome to Byzantium – later known as Constantinople and presently as Istanbul – in 330.
In Dante’s day, there was already a tradition/legend that the Emperor contracted leprosy while still reigning in Rome. Despite every effort to find a cure, nothing could be done to stop the spread of the disease. When all seemed hopeless, Constantine apparently had a vision of Saints Peter and Paul who urged him to seek the aid of Pope Sylvester I. The pope responded to the Emperor’s summons, teaching him the rudiments of the faith and then baptizing him. During his baptism, Constantine the leper was miraculously cured of his disease. The “Donation” is a reference to the Donation of Constantine. This document (see below), purportedly composed by Constantine, was most likely written in the eighth century. In it he places (donates) the city of Rome, all of Italy, and a sizeable portion of the western half of his empire, along with spiritual and temporal power over the same – not to mention authority over the universal Church – into the hands of the papacy as a perpetual thank-offering for his cure by Pope Sylvester.
In 1439, a Renaissance priest and scholar, Lorenzo Valla, proved that the document was a forgery. Nevertheless, its importance cannot be overestimated during the centuries it was considered to be valid, especially when one considers the history of the papacy in relation to western Europe during that thousand-year period. Dante’s reference to “that first wealthy pope,” is Sylvester, of course, but in reality it marks off an epoch – certainly by Dante’s time – that saw the increasing wealth and power of the papacy where some popes were almost indistinguishable from secular rulers. Undoubtedly, Dante believed in the validity of the “Donation,” but, as he has already noted in the Poem, and will continue to do so, almost to the end, he saw it as a corrosive influence that ruined with avarice and greed the Shepherds who were ordained to lead and protect the flock of Christ.
|↑18||The pope, of course, has been a captive audience here and the wild kicking of his “big flat feet” – another crude image for someone who held such a high office – adds to the degrading scene we’ve already watched, and recalls an earlier remark about this same “sinner with the frenzied legs.” For Dante, though, who has learned more than he might have expected in this canto, this is his first major speech. And as though to give the stamp of approval to the truth of what he’s witnessed, Virgil, who has been silent the whole time, seems to have enjoyed watching his charge denounce this sinner, the sin and, sadly, other popes corrupted by it.|
|↑19||Note the affectionate language in these closing lines. Not only does Virgil enjoy hearing Dante rebuke Pope Nicholas, he embraces him tightly and carries him back up out of this bolgia, not tiring because of his weight, and then lets him down gently upon the rocky place where this canto started.|
|↑20||Key Provisions of the Donation of Constantine
“In imitation of our own power, in order that for that cause the supreme pontificate may not deteriorate, but may rather be adorned with power and glory even more than is the dignity of an earthly rule: behold we, giving over to the oft-mentioned most blessed pontiff, our father Sylvester the universal pope, as well our palace, as has been said, as also the city of Rome and all the provinces, districts and cities of Italy or of the western regions; and relinquishing them, by our inviolable gift, to the power and sway of himself or the pontiffs his successors, do decree, by this our godlike charter and imperial constitution, that it shall be so arranged; and do concede that these gifts shall lawfully remain with the holy Roman church.
“Wherefore we have perceived it to be fitting that our empire and the power of our kingdom should be transferred and changed to the regions of the East; and that, in the province of Byzantium, in a most fitting place, a city should be built in our name; and that our empire should there be established. For, where the supremacy of priests and the head of the Christian religion has been established by a heavenly ruler, it is not just that there an earthly ruler should have jurisdiction.
“We decree, moreover, that all these things which, through this our iand confirmed, shall remain uninjured and unshaken until the end of the world. Wherefore, before the living God, who commanded us to reign, and in the face of his terrible judgment, we conjure, through this our imperial decree, all the emperors our successors, and all our nobles, the satraps also and the most glorious senate, and all the people in the whole world now and in all times previously subject to our rule: that no one of them, in any way allow himself to oppose or disregard, or in any way seize, these things which, by our imperial sanction, have been conceded to the holy Roman church and to all its pontiffs. If anyone, moreover, which we do not believe, prove a scorner or despiser in this matter, he shall be subject and bound over to eternal damnation; and shall feel that the holy chiefs of the apostles of God, Peter and Paul, will be opposed to him in the present and in the future life. And, being burned in the nethermost hell, he shall perish with the devil and all the impious.”