Virgil and Dante speak with Guido da Montefeltro among the evil counselors.
(To read a footnote, click the number in the text. To come back from a footnote, click the up arrow at the note number.)
The speaking flame that enwrapped Ulysses stood still now and Virgil graciously gave it leave to depart. But in a moment, another tongue of flame took its place and attracted us by the confused sounds roaring from its tip.Like Ulysses in the previous canto, this sinner enclosed in a tongue of flame is attempting to speak. The “confused sounds” emanating from this soul are directly connected (as a part of the … Continue reading I was reminded of the dreaded Sicilian Bull, whose creator was its first meal (and it served him right!): roasting inside, its victims’ cries made it sound as if the Bull – made of brass – were itself bellowing in pain.In the previous canto, when Ulysses first attempted to speak, Dante offered no image to accompany what he saw and heard. But in this identical scene he offers a reminiscence of the Sicilian Bull … Continue reading
Here, now, as before, that en-flamed sinner’s words quivered their way to the fire’s tip which began to speak. “O you to whom I point my tongue, who just said in the Lombard dialect: ‘You are free to depart, I won’t ask you more,’ although my pace is quite slow, please, I beg you, stop and talk with me for a while.This second sinner (who is never named in this canto because he was, perhaps, almost as famous in Dante’s time as Ulysses was in his) addresses his first words to Virgil, and immediately … Continue reading
You can see how much I’d like that – and I burn! If you’ve just fallen into this blind world from that sweet Italy above, where I carried the weight of my guilt, tell me, please, is the Romagna at war or peace? I come from Montefeltro, between Urbino and where the Tiber begins its journey to the sea.”This new sinner is almost as excited to speak with Virgil as Dante was to speak with Ulysses. At the moment, because he only heard Virgil dismissing Ulysses, he might not have realized that Dante was … Continue reading
Again, I was very intent on listening to every word this flaming sinner spoke, when Virgil touched me, saying: “This one is Italian; you yourself can speak to him.”Curiously, if Virgil was the one speaking Lombard to dismiss Ulysses, it would seem that he’d be the one to speak to Guido here. But this is not necessarily a matter of language. Not only are Dante … Continue reading
Realizing this, I was ready to talk: “O spirit hidden down there, I can tell you that there was no open warfare when I came down here; but your Romagna has always been at war within her tyrants’ hearts. Nothing has changed at Ravenna; the lords of Polenta rule it and neighboring Cervia. Forlì eventually defeated the French, but now finds itself under the family of the green lion. Both the elder and younger mastiffs of Verrucchio imprisoned Montagna (where he was murdered), and still do their people harm. The fickle ruler of Faenza and Imola changes sides like the weather. Cesena, on the other hand, still enjoys relative peace. But, having answered your question, please tell us who you are, so that your fame can remain as it was above.”Dante’s longest speech in the Inferno was his stern rebuke of Pope Nicholas III in Canto 19. This rather newsy “speech” is his second longest and, as he tells us, he was “ready” for it. … Continue reading
As though it were thinking, the flame roared a bit and then it’s tip began to sway back and forth again. When it was ready, that burning spirit replied: “If I ever thought that I’d be speaking to someone who’d be returning to the world above, well, I would never say another word. But, if the stories are true, no one ever returns from this place alive. So I have no fear of answering your question.Dante’s linguistic virtuosity manifests itself continually in his Commedia as he matches words or phrases to mimic the action he’s describing. Musa notes that, in this tercet where Guido is … Continue reading
I was first a soldier. Later in my life I became a monk, feeling that I could repent that way for the sins of my youth. My hopes for a better life would have come true had it not been for the pope who thrust me right back into my earlier sinful ways. May his soul be damned forever! Let me tell you the story.Cleverly, Dante the Poet has Guido give the reader an “extract” of his story in three brief introductory points: (1) He was a soldier – he started out bad. (2) He later became a monk to repent … Continue reading
“Soldier that I was, I was more like a fox than a lion. I knew all the secret, sneaky ways of men and applied my cunning powers such that rumors about my skills spread everywhere.Singleton notes that Guido’s nickname was, in fact, “the fox.” Guido’s distinction here between fox and lion is significant because it is for his fox-like sins that he’s being punished here … Continue reading But later in life, beginning to find little pleasure in what I did, I realized that the time had come for me to lower my sails and change my ways. So, I confessed and repented. I became a monk and took the vows. How it grieves me to think that this would have worked!While Guido seems to have undergone some kind of conversion here, his thinking “…that this would have worked” makes the conversion sound hollow. Are his confession and repentance yet more … Continue reading
“But then came that hypocrite, Prince of the New Pharisees, whose worst enemies were his fellow-Christians near the Lateran! He’d rather war on them than the Saracens or Jews who stole the Holy Land. It mattered little to him that he sat on St. Peter’s throne, he cared nothing for his vows, and my monks’ cord was like rubbish to him (though it once made lean those who wore it). And just as Constantine brought Pope Sylvester from Mount Soracte to cure his leprosy, so this pope searched for a physician – and found me to cure the burning fever caused by his pride! He wasn’t sick; what he wanted was advice. And I kept my mouth shut because he was drunk with his evil plans.Having already condemned Boniface VIII to Hell, Guido continues his invective against him here, and one can legitimately wonder who is actually speaking at this point: Guido, or Dante (recall Canto … Continue reading
But once again he spoke in soothing words: ‘Don’t be afraid. I promise you that I have already absolved you of the sin you’re going to commit. Now, tell me how I can utterly destroy the city of Palestrina. Don’t forget: I have the power to lock and unlock Heaven itself. I have the keys – which my foolish predecessor never used.’Guido’s initial assessment of Boniface as drunk or raving seems to be correct here, because the pope himself commits a grave sin by telling Guido that he’s already absolved of the sin he (Guido) … Continue reading
“Well, there I was, stuck with his powerful arguments – he had forced me to the point where silence was the wrong choice. So I said to him: ‘Holy Father, since you’ve already absolved me of the sin I now commit, let me tell you what to do: make a solemn promise of security to them, but don’t keep it! That’ll bring you the triumph you seek.’ The rest is history.Guido doesn’t provide any details to follow up on his treacherous advice, but Dante and his readers would have known them as we do today. It’s fascinating to consider that such a smart (or … Continue reading
“Then, when I died and St. Francis came to take me to Heaven, one of the black angels cried out to him: ‘Don’t you touch him! Don’t cheat me of what’s already mine! He’s coming down to Hell to join my other servants. Ever since the false counsel he gave I’ve been very close to him. After all, one can’t be forgiven if they’re not repentant. And you certainly can’t repent and commit a sin at the same time. One is cancelled by the other!’Guido died in September of 1298, the same month in which Boniface’s forces razed the city of Palestrina. As noted above, Guido doesn’t tell us what followed from his advice to Pope Boniface … Continue reading
“What a wretch I am! How stunned I was when he pulled me down here, saying: ‘You never thought I could be such a good logician, did you?’ He took me to Minos, who wrapped himself eight times in his great tail, and in a fit of rage he bit it, saying: ‘Throw him down where the evil counselors burn.’ And so here you find me, lost, wrapped in these flames, moving along in my resentment.”Suddenly, Guido seems to take stock of his situation as he reiterates the cascading effect of his sin. He may be showing off when he includes Minos biting his tail because, though he wraps his tail … Continue reading
When he had brought this sad tale to a close, that flame wandered on in great pain, tossing and flickering it’s pointed tip. Virgil and I continued on as well. We climbed to the bridge that crossed the ninth bolgia, where those who sowed discord during their lives now pay their penalties.Just above, Guido noted how he moved along this bolgia in resentment. Here Dante adds, in contrast to Ulysses’ dignified departure, that Guido moved on “in great pain,” increased, perhaps, by … Continue reading
Notes & Commentary
|↑1||Like Ulysses in the previous canto, this sinner enclosed in a tongue of flame is attempting to speak. The “confused sounds” emanating from this soul are directly connected (as a part of the contrapasso) with the evil counsel he gave which was intended to confuse the listener.|
|↑2||In the previous canto, when Ulysses first attempted to speak, Dante offered no image to accompany what he saw and heard. But in this identical scene he offers a reminiscence of the Sicilian Bull which makes for a horrifying connection to the walking flames and the souls wrapped within them. This device for torture was created by Perillus of Athens for Phalaris, the ruler of Agrigentum (southern Sicily) in the sixth century BC. It was a great brass bull into which Phalaris’ enemies were stuffed. Once closed, a fire was lit beneath it and the victim inside roasted to death, emitting such screams as they burned that onlookers would think the bull was lowing. Unfortunately for Perillus, the already cruel ruler, appreciating his artistry, and to test the device’s effectiveness, cooked him as the bull’s first victim! Benvenuto offers a slightly different take on this “test”:
“Phalaris, with sardonic humor, informed Perillus that he should be the one to teach the bull how to bellow, and accordingly caused him to be thrust in, and be the first victim of his cruel invention.”
Meeting a second flame-wrapped sinner now, the contrapasso for these perpetrators of wordy frauds becomes clearer. Their own evil counsels, delivered with their tongues, now become the flames wrapping them, just as their evil advice enwrapped their victims.
|↑3||This second sinner (who is never named in this canto because he was, perhaps, almost as famous in Dante’s time as Ulysses was in his) addresses his first words to Virgil, and immediately raises yet another point of confusion. In the previous canto, Virgil asked Dante not to speak to the two Greeks because they might look down on him as an Italian. Clearly, Virgil spoke Greek to them and they to him. But now this new sinner tells Virgil he overheard him dismissing Ulysses in Lombard (a north central Italian dialect that Virgil probably spoke natively). So, what language(s) did Virgil use to address the Greeks? Most likely both. And since he wrote about them in his Aeneid (though it was in Latin), he was counting on their appreciating the further fame he gave them. What this newly-arrived sinner cannot account for, because, by his own admission, he is late on the scene (more confusion), is whether or not Virgil spoke Greek to Ulysses, because this new arrival wasn’t there to hear it. A more subtle possibility is that Virgil felt confident in addressing the Greeks in either language because he was from Mantua, founded by a Greek and inhabited first by Greek immigrants (Canto 20). Another possibility siding with the use of both languages, is that Virgil attracted the Greeks by speaking first in Greek. And when he was done, he knew he could send them away by speaking in Italian (Lombard).
A fascinating alternative that is not alluded to specifically in Dante’s text is offered by Daniel Donno (Italica, Spring 73). While exploring the pros and cons of several theories brought forward over the centuries, he puts forward his own theory that has more to do with Diomedes than Ulysses. Legend has it that, finding his wife with her lover when he returned from the wars, Diomedes took to the sea again with his old companions, settled in the northern coastal area of Apulia on the Adriatic side of lower Italy, and founded several cities in that region. When he died, his followers erected a tomb in his honor on San Nicola, one of the small islands off the coast. Donno writes:
“At this point – his companions were suddenly transformed into birds and, like the islands they chose as their exclusive habitat, became known as Diomedean birds. The most notable characteristic of this distinctive species, at least for our purposes, is that they were hostile to all barbarians and friendly to all Greeks.”
Virgil himself vaguely alludes to this in Book 11 of his Aeneid:
“[Diomedes speaking…] Even now visitations pursue me, dreadful to see: my lost comrades, as birds, sought the sky with their wings or haunt the streams (alas a dire punishment for my people!) and fill the cliffs with their mournful cries” (271ff).
Donno’s point, then, is that Dante would have known this seemingly obscure reference, having read it in Virgil, Ovid, and even St. Augustine. As a result, Virgil’s suggestion, and Dante’s gracious acquiescence to be silent, has nothing to do with whether Ulysses and Diomedes were specifically Greek, but rather with these two specific Greeks – one in particular– who would have fled if Dante had addressed them as a “barbarian.” In the end, we would never have learned “the truth” of how Ulysses died.
Nevertheless, this question remains a challenge to this day.
|↑4||This new sinner is almost as excited to speak with Virgil as Dante was to speak with Ulysses. At the moment, because he only heard Virgil dismissing Ulysses, he might not have realized that Dante was there. Though it seems almost gratuitous that he tells them he’s burning, by doing so he begins to make a series of strategic miscalculations that will soon lead him to reveal much about his identity: he suspects that Virgil and Dante are not burning, he suspects that they’re newcomers most likely on their way to some other place of punishment, and he admits his guilt.
Everyone knows Ulysses, but not everyone knows this newly-arrived sinner until Dante answers his question – a clever device on the Poet’s part. Geographically speaking, here is where this sinner is referring to as “home.” Modern Emilia Romagna was originally two separate regions of north central Italy along the northern border of Tuscany. It stretches from the Adriatic northwestward almost across the entire Italian peninsula, with Emilia inland on the western side of the region, bordered by Romagna on the eastern side, ending at the Adriatic. Its capital is Bologna near its center, with Ravenna along its eastern coast. Ravenna was the earlier capital of Romagna, and before that it was, for many years, seat of the western Roman Empire. The two regions were eventually joined into what has become one of the richest economic areas of modern Italy. Montefeltro is a beautiful mountainous area within the southeastern part of Romagna.
With all this said, the reader will want to know which soul inhabits this new tongue of flame. Though he will soon (carelessly) reveal much about himself, as noted above he never tells his name. And if he hadn’t asked about Romagna, he would be virtually unknown. But with so much surrounding information, Dante makes this discovery a simple one. This sinner is Guido da Montefeltro, one of the most famous military strategists of his time, and his being in the same bolgia as Ulysses and Diomedes will become obvious. But whereas Ulysses’ story is epic, Guido’s is a sad one. He was born in 1230 and died in 1298. The war in Romagna ended in 1299, the year after his death, and thus his question about whether there was war or peace in the region. Guido was a notable Ghibelline leader, and in 1275 was made head of all Ghibelline forces in Romagna, leading them to victory over the Guelfs. This ran him afoul of Pope Martin IV, whose French-led army was eventually defeated by Guido’s Ghibelline forces at Forlì. Martin excommunicated Guido, but this was lifted by his successor, Pope Honorius IV, who sent him into exile near Turin in 1286. Two years later saw him as leader of Pisa and its forces (for which he was again excommunicated!). Saving Pisa and capturing several other cities from the Guelfs, his excommunication was lifted by Pope Boniface VIII in 1296 and he became a monk in the Franciscan Order until his death two years later. More of his biography will unfold as the canto itself moves onward.
|↑5||Curiously, if Virgil was the one speaking Lombard to dismiss Ulysses, it would seem that he’d be the one to speak to Guido here. But this is not necessarily a matter of language. Not only are Dante and Guido Italians, they’re contemporaries. Virgil, on the other hand, was more “contemporary” with a classical figure like Ulysses. Even more to the point, Dante, as a neighboring contemporary of Guido would know much more about current events in Romagna than the ancient Virgil.|
|↑6||Dante’s longest speech in the Inferno was his stern rebuke of Pope Nicholas III in Canto 19. This rather newsy “speech” is his second longest and, as he tells us, he was “ready” for it. Newsy as it might be, it is, nevertheless, terrible news. Dante’s addressing Guido as a “hidden” spirit is ironic considering that he was so widely known when he was alive, and by directing his words “down there” Dante is taking the superior stance. This also reminds the reader that he and Virgil have, since the previous canto, been standing on the bridge over this bolgia, looking down into it.
In response to Guido’s “burning” question, Dante’s answer indicates that peace may be within sight, and we know already that it came the year following Guido’s death. Yet there’s a deeper message that Guido should already know – that tyrants always have war ready in their hearts. The question is whether they can match the outward appearance of peace with inner virtue that will sustain that peace. For someone whose profession was war, this may have been a hard pill for Guido to swallow. Certainly while he was alive and active in military affairs, it seems as though every city was tearing itself apart with Guelf-Ghibelline strife.
As he continues, though, Dante wanders over past, present, and future events in Romagna as he broadens his initial answer to Guido in light of his statement that there’s always war in tyrants’ hearts. Let’s review the “news” briefly.
Present: Ravenna seems to be at peace, ruled by the Polenta family (they would be Dante’s gracious patrons during his final years). Cervia lies just to the south of Ravenna.
Past: Forlì (led by Guido’s forces in 1282) was victorious over the French forces of Pope Martin IV, which Guido would happily know.
Future: The “green lion” refers to the coat of arms of the Ordelaffi family who, by 1300 (two years after Guido died) were now the cruel tyrants of Forlì (with war in their hearts). Commenting on this line, Singleton reports: “It is probable that Dante was at Forlì early in his years of exile, in 1303, as aide and secretary to Scarpetta degli Ordelaffi, who was head of the family at the time and leader of the Bianchi forces there in 1302-1303.“ So, he would have first-hand information for Guido.
Past: The “elder and younger mastiffs of Verrucchio” is a reference to the Malatestas – father and son – who lived in the castle of Verrucchio. The elder Malatesta was the lord of Rimini from 1295 to 1312. It has been suggested by commentators that they may have had a large dog (mastiff) on their coat of arms, and they were well-known for their wickedness and cruelty. In 1295, the elder Malatesta defeated the Ghibellines of Rimini. He captured the head of their party, Montagna de’Parcitati, and imprisoned him in the castle. Malatestino later murdered him in the castle dungeon. (Recall that Francesca, in Canto 5, was married to Gianciotto Malatesta and fell in love with his younger brother. The older Malatesta noted here was their father.)
Present: The Malatestas are wicked rulers who, as Dante notes in the Italian, are like wild dogs (mastiffs) chewing on their victims!
Present: In his text, Dante refers to two rivers and, by implication, two cities along their shores: the Santerno (the city of Imola) and the Lamone (the city of Faenza). Their “fickle ruler” is Maghinardo di Pagano da Susinana (whom Dante refers to by his coat of arms: a blue lion on a white field. Recall the usurers in Canto 17.). He “changes sides like the weather” because he supported the Ghibellines when he was in the north, and the Guelfs when he was in the south.
Present: The last city in Dante’s “news report” is Cesena. Again, Dante uses its nearby river, the Savio, to identify it. The reason Dante says that it enjoys “relative peace” is because it was at that time (1300) ruled by a kind of organized government, not by a tyrant. In earlier years, it had gone back and forth. The present leader (is this why Dante saved Cesena for the last?) was Guido’s cousin, Galasso da Montefeltro. Bear in mind that through this entire “report” Dante the Pilgrim has no idea of the identity or the fame of the sinner he’s talking to.
Having more than answered Guido’s initial question, Dante politely asks him to identify himself so that his fame in the world above will continue (by means of Dante’s Poem).
|↑7||Dante’s linguistic virtuosity manifests itself continually in his Commedia as he matches words or phrases to mimic the action he’s describing. Musa notes that, in this tercet where Guido is attempting to speak again, Dante uses the words credesse…fosse…tornasse…and scosse to mimic the hissing sounds the flame made while trying to form actual words. Earlier, it was noted that Guido may have said too much about himself when he first spoke – a few strategic miscalculations on his part. Here, he seems to recover a bit, though he actually makes an even greater strategic error, thinking that both Dante and Virgil are dead and condemned, and will never return to the world above. Dante, of course, does not correct Guido, but lets him go on so that, the deceiver being deceived, he will divulge even more information than he should. And so he begins what amounts to a considerable confession of his sins. All of this stands in stark contrast to the wily “fox” Guido will describe himself as. Yet, to his credit, he’s subtly suspicious of what he’s heard about Hell, saying: “…if the stories are true….” Musa, commenting on this, suggests that Guido might have had a hunch that Dante was, in fact, alive and could be counted on to take his story back to the world above and have it recounted in such a way that his name would be cleared and the pope would be blamed entirely for what we are about to learn.
On the other hand, what Dante doesn’t tell us in this canto is that Guido had a very honorable reputation and was highly respected for his military prowess. As a matter of fact, before he wrote the Inferno, perhaps about the same time, Dante wrote the Convivio (The Banquet, an unfinished work of considerable breadth on many different areas of learning). In it he refers to Guido as “…our most noble Italian, Guido Montefeltro” (IV,28,ll61-62), which is certainly contrary to the picture he will paint of him here. Over the centuries, commentators have wrestled with this seeming contradiction. Most seem to agree that Dante clearly wrote these words of praise before he wrote, or finished, the Inferno. He most likely believed this to be true and recorded it here as such. The treachery that Guido will reveal was effected by Pope Boniface VIII in 1297-1298, not long before Guido died. Barolini, in her Commento, suggests that Dante “refashioned” Guido as a damned soul “who tells a devastating story of a failed conversion.” By the time the Inferno was written, Dante considered both Guido and Boniface with enmity, the pope more than the soldier, and the story he creates here has as its main target Boniface VIII. Singleton comments here that Riccobaldo, the chronicler of Ferrara, may or may not have read this canto before writing a similar entry in his own work. Regardless, Riccobaldo offers another facet of information we haven’t seen yet, and that is:
“At that time there was a Franciscan named Guido, a former count of Montefeltro, who was a general of the Ghibellines. Pope Boniface called him in and urged him to become leader in the war against the rebellious cardinals. And when he persisted in refusing to have any part in it, the pope said, ‘At least you can advise me how to get the better of them.’ To which Guido replied: ‘Promise much but fulfill little that you promise.’”
In the end, it seems that if he knew that Dante was alive, Guido would most likely never want the “real story” of his final treachery, from his own lips, to be recounted. And the fascinating question remains: to what extent was Guido really behind the whole affair?
|↑8||Cleverly, Dante the Poet has Guido give the reader an “extract” of his story in three brief introductory points: (1) He was a soldier – he started out bad. (2) He later became a monk to repent for his sins – he turned to the good. (3) The pope (Boniface VIII) ruined his life – he went back to the bad. And of course, the second point – topped off by his final invective – immediately rouses an intense curiosity for more information. Hollander adds a bit of humor at this point in his comments:
“Dante may have reflected that his own life was exactly the opposite in its movements, from good to bad, but then from bad to good. Guido did not have a Beatrice to lead him back to the true path, only a Boniface.” His blaming the pope for his sins is reminiscent of Francesca in Canto 5, who blamed the book they were reading (Lancelot and Guinevere) and its author for her adultery with Paolo.
|↑9||Singleton notes that Guido’s nickname was, in fact, “the fox.” Guido’s distinction here between fox and lion is significant because it is for his fox-like sins that he’s being punished here in this bolgia instead above in Circle Eight where the sins of the lion (violence) are punished in the river of boiling blood. His “cunning powers” link him with Ulysses in the previous canto, whose cunning was also famous everywhere. But more than this, by telling Dante that he “knew all the secret, sneaky ways of men,” Guido makes himself better than Ulysses and certainly far more advanced in knowledge of the world than his epic counterpart in the previous canto. There, Ulysses merely “longed” to possess such experience, and that’s why he set sail for the unknown. Guido, it seems, had already found it. And he wasn’t Greek!|
|↑10||While Guido seems to have undergone some kind of conversion here, his thinking “…that this would have worked” makes the conversion sound hollow. Are his confession and repentance yet more of the “strategic miscalculations” noted earlier? Hollander wonders whether he’s actually trying to “fool God.” He finds little pleasure in his life here, but earlier he wanted news of the state of Romagna, of which Dante gave him a plentiful helping.
The image of lowering his sails is another connection between Guido and Ulysses in the previous canto. Since, as noted above, Guido seemed to have found or had the experience of the world that Ulysses went in search of – and died in the process, he feels he can lower his sails and enter the safe harbor of the monastery. Beyond these cantos, however, the image of sailing – a voyage – is dear to Dante as a central metaphor for the pilgrimage or journey he makes in the Commedia. Time and again, he will make references to sailing. Up to his own time, there were in literature scores of wonderful images of life compared to a voyage, and death to the entry of a safe and fulfilling harbor. It goes without saying that Dante’s voyage here will end very differently from that of Ulysses (and Guido, for that matter).
|↑11||Having already condemned Boniface VIII to Hell, Guido continues his invective against him here, and one can legitimately wonder who is actually speaking at this point: Guido, or Dante (recall Canto 19)? In these few sentences Dante (and Guido) condenses a considerable amount of unfortunate history.
The “New Pharisees” Guido refers to are the cardinals, many of whom were as corrupt as their leader, Boniface. He likens them to the hypocritical religious leaders whom Jesus frequently attacks in the Gospels. Boniface’s “fellow-Christians near the Lateran” is a reference to members of the powerful Colonna family in Rome. How “near” they were to the Lateran will be explained below.
In order to understand the historical context here, we need to step back to the summer of 1294 when, after a two-year conclave of the cardinals, the hermit monk Pietro da Morrone was elected pope and took the name Celestine V. Six months later, wholly incompetent as pope and wishing to return to the humble life of a monk, he resigned from his office and was succeeded by Cardinal Benedetto Gaetani, who took the name Boniface VIII. Until then, a papal resignation was unprecedented. Rumors abounded, and there may be some truth in them, that Boniface (perhaps with others) pressured the aged monk to resign. But there are also reliable sources that propose Boniface only acted in an advisory capacity, suggesting to Celestine that he issue a document claiming that a papal resignation, though unprecedented, was legal. Nevertheless, there were rumblings among the cardinals about the legality of Celestine’s resignation and the validity of Boniface’s election.
In the mean time, Boniface was busy nullifying every formal act of Celestine’s brief papacy. Following his resignation in Naples, Celestine, for his part, attempted to escape several times to return to his monastery. While Boniface’s motives are unclear, the darker outcome was that he had Celestine imprisoned in the papal castle at Fumone, a small town about 40 miles southeast of Rome. It may be that he wanted to prevent a certain faction of cardinals from reinstalling the old monk as an antipope. Celestine died there 18 months later on May 19, 1296, and was canonized as a Saint in 1313. By all accounts, he seems to have died of natural causes, but the climate of suspicion at the time often laid the poor monk’s death at Boniface’s doorstep. The reader will recall in Canto 3 where Dante mentions “the one who made the great refusal.” Some commentators think the reference is to Celestine, but this remains unclear.
Now reigning as pope, Boniface’s fiercest local opponents (and he had many in Europe) were members of the noble Colonna family of Rome which had been feuding with the Gaetanis (Boniface’s family) for generations. The Gaetanis were Guelfs and the Colonna were Ghibellines. Among the Colonna were two cardinals, Jacopo and Piero Colonna who, as noted above, were fiercely opposed to Celestine’s resignation and Boniface’s election. On May 10, 1297, Boniface expelled them from the College of Cardinals and excommunicated them. In turn, the Colonnas tacked manifestos on church doors throughout Rome, proclaiming that Boniface’s election as pope was invalid because Pope Celestine’s resignation was illegal according to Church law. They called for a Church Council to adjudicate their claims. Of course, this never came to pass.
Soon afterward, the Colonnas retreated a seemingly safe distance from Rome to their stronghold in the city of Palestrina, 20 miles to the east in the foothills. Palestrina is visible from the Lateran Palace (a papal residence before the Vatican, situated behind the Basilica of St. John Lateran). Thus Guido calls them “fellow-Christians near the Lateran.” Boniface, doing the same, retreated to his stronghold north of Rome at Orvieto. On May 23, 1297, Boniface issued another official document reinforcing the expulsion and excommunication noted above and, to add insult to injury, he excommunicated several more male members of the Colonna family and their heirs. As if this weren’t enough, on September 4, 1297, he declared war against the Colonna. Then in December 1297, hoping to smash them once and for all, he proclaimed a crusade against them, which resulted in the destruction of their towns and fortresses, Palestrina being destroyed in September of 1298. Guido will explain how this happened. Boniface launched at least four political crusades against his enemies during his papacy, this being one of them.
Guido’s remark about Saracens and Jews is yet another insult directed at Boniface who, all this time, was waging war against his Christian enemies in the region of Rome instead of in the Holy Land like other crusades. Sadly, these wars of Boniface were not waged out of high ideals or principles of faith. They were shameful and blatant attacks against his personal enemies and tarnished the reputation of the papacy. But Guido’s seeming concern for his “monks’ cord” tarnishes him as well.
Finally, Guido ends with clever role-reversals: Pope Sylvester became the emperor’s “doctor” and Guido (like Sylvester) becomes Boniface’s (like the emperor) “doctor.” What Guido alludes to here is a widely-circulated Medieval legend that the emperor Constantine contracted leprosy and sent for Pope Sylvester I to cure him, which he did. Sylvester had apparently been in hiding near Mount Soracte, about 40 miles north of Rome. Shortly afterward, the emperor became a Christian and was baptized. In gratitude, Constantine became involved in the construction or enlargement of what is now the great Basilica of St. John Lateran, the principal church of Rome (St. Peter’s being the principal church of the Christian world). The Lateran Palace (noted above) had already come into his hands through his second wife, Fausta. This particular legend about Constantine’s leprosy and subsequent baptism seems to have sprung up to counteract the historical fact that, near death, Constantine (who was ill but did not have leprosy) was converted to the faith of Christianity and was baptized by the Arian bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia. In spite of Constantine’s efforts to unite the Roman Church, the Arian heresy caused a major division during his lifetime. Arians (named after the priest Arius) did not believe in the Trinity and believed that Jesus was not God but created by God. Thus, the legend seems to have been a later attempt to sanitize Constantine’s baptism, though it was valid regardless of who performed it. Later, Dante will place Constantine in his Paradiso, and the emperor is considered a Saint in the Orthodox Church.
There is a certain irony and sarcasm in Guido’s remark that Boniface sought him out as though he were a doctor to cure the “fever” of the pope’s pride. Would he have sought out Guido the humble monk, or Guido the humble monk and former military strategist? W.W. Vernon relates that “Dante uses the word maestro for physician. This word in its primary sense means an expert in anything, whether trade, or science, or art, or handicraft; it also signifies a shepherd, a pilot, or a tamer of wild beasts.” One might be tempted here to suggest the latter meaning as the most appropriate! In the face of such a possibility, Guido is right to keep his mouth shut if, for no other reason than the difficulty of reasoning with a drunk.
|↑12||Guido’s initial assessment of Boniface as drunk or raving seems to be correct here, because the pope himself commits a grave sin by telling Guido that he’s already absolved of the sin he (Guido) is about to commit. This is utterly false, fraudulent, and blatantly preposterous. And the pope’s sin is compounded by his suborning Guido and by his misuse of his sacred authority granted by Christ to his Apostles: “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). No doubt, there have been some terrible abuses of the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession) throughout history – for that matter, whenever confidence and trust have been violated. But Dante’s presentation here is masterful. Boniface soothes Guido with calming tones to salve his fears (like a doctor), makes his sinful promise (gives him a prescription), tells Guido what he wants him to do (see all about Palestrina in notes above), and then reminds him of the sacred power he wields at that very moment. His last statement is frightening. It’s not so much a slam at poor Celestine as it is a suggestion that to misuse the sacrament is the most common thing in the world – and poor Celestine was so dumb, he hadn’t figured that out! It’s a dangerous excuse proffered when one is standing on moral quicksand: “Everyone does it.” Or “No one will get hurt.” Or better yet, for those who commit fraud, “No one will know.”|
|↑13||Guido doesn’t provide any details to follow up on his treacherous advice, but Dante and his readers would have known them as we do today. It’s fascinating to consider that such a smart (or clever, or wily) man as Guido wouldn’t have seen through Boniface’s fraudulence, though some commentators suggest that he seemed less afraid of committing a grave sin himself in the advice he gave than of disobeying a raving pope. Sadly, Guido’s self-delusion will land him in Hell.
Another fascinating question is whether Dante already knew what Guido confessed, or is this a fiction suited for a place where fraudulence is punished? Because it took place in 1298, Dante certainly knew about the destruction of Palestrina, and he most likely knew the back story of generations of ill will between the Gaetanis and the Colonnas. Though he was in exile, he would have heard that Boniface called a crusade against the Colonnas and promised plenary indulgences to anyone who joined. It has been suggested that Boniface may have come to Guido to ask him to lead his crusade, and that Guido, being an old man (and a monk), declined. Though not before Boniface may have said, “Well, then, what do you think I should do?” We simply do not know. What is more likely is that Dante chose to remain long enough in the Eighth Bolgia, where fraud and evil counsel are punished, to take two well-known figures (in this case Guido and Boniface), insert them into a well-known event, and within this context fashion a wonderfully failed conversion story.
|↑14||Guido died in September of 1298, the same month in which Boniface’s forces razed the city of Palestrina. As noted above, Guido doesn’t tell us what followed from his advice to Pope Boniface because that was already known by the time Dante wrote the Inferno. What he does instead is tell us the story we could not have known: about the drama between St. Francis and the devil and their fight for his soul. Note that in Canto 5 of the Purgatorio, Guido’s son, Buonconte, will have a similar experience at his death – but with a positive outcome.
The appearance here of this beloved Saint offers a moment of consolation in the turbulent story of Guido’s life and his encounter with Pope Boniface. This would be any Franciscan monk’s holy hope – including Guido’s – that St. Francis personally would bring his soul into the arms of his Savior in Heaven. After all, Guido told us that he exchanged his fox-like life for that of a humble monk. Though Guido admitted that he chose the lesser of two evils in suggesting a solution to Boniface’s problem with Palestrina, he never admits that his choice to speak was a sinful one; nor does he question the false claims the pope makes about the sacrament he so casually ravished. True, he had the power to give or refuse absolution. But no one, not even a pope, can grant absolution for a sin before it is committed.
Lies and false promises are so abundant that Guido deludes himself into a sense of false peace and most likely lived the rest of his life within that delusion. The devil seems to validate this by telling the gentle Saint that he’s been “very close” to Guido from the moment he gave the false advice to Boniface. And we can surmise that the now-aged monk either never afterward made a sacramental confession following his meeting with Boniface, or if he did, he failed to mention this great sin, and took it with him to his grave. In fact, the devil says that he’d be happy to have one such as Guido – master of strategy, fraud, and deception – “join my other servants.” Sadly, the question comes to us: did Guido ever really leave his wily past?
Perhaps the devil’s sass to the humble Saint simply amplifies the fraudulence of which Guido is guilty, wherein nothing is sacred, certainly not words, and certainly not the sacred words of absolution. Recall the hypocrite Friar Catalano at the end of Canto 23, who told Virgil that the devil was the Father of lies. Here the sad irony in the devil’s sassy remarks is that they are absolutely true! A message Guido would have done well to hear on the other side of death.
One of the penalties of condemnation in the Inferno is to know that you made wrong choices and that, had you made different ones – even one different one, as we shall see in the Purgatorio, the eternal outcome would be very different. Note how Guido, throughout his narrative, quotes everybody – even himself. Musa remarks here:
“Guido painfully remembers every detail of the events leading to his damnation, as he now shows by quoting exactly what the black cherub said. [Soon], he will even quote the infernal judge, Minos. He gives the impression, therefore, of having rehearsed this story over and over in the futile attempt to convince himself that his damnation was not his own doing.” The “blame game” is commonly played in Hell.
|↑15||Suddenly, Guido seems to take stock of his situation as he reiterates the cascading effect of his sin. He may be showing off when he includes Minos biting his tail because, though he wraps his tail around himself when we first meet him in Canto 5, he does not bite it. Is Guido inflating his sin by giving us this bit of information? On the other hand, biting a hand or an arm is an ancient Italian gesture of anger. We saw this with Filippo Argenti who turned his rage upon his own body in Canto 8, and even the Minotaur bit himself in Canto 12.
Though Ulysses and Guido inhabit the same bolgia, and they both tell stories of how their lives ended, there is a great difference between them – even in their end. Both spent most (if not all) of their lives in adventurous military exploits filled with challenge and danger – for which they were rightly famous. But while Ulysses goes to his death as boldly as he lived, Guido whimpers away in regret. In the end, it may be that both men deluded and defrauded themselves more than they defrauded others. To use Guido’s words, both men should have realized that they had come to the point in their lives when they should have lowered their sails and coiled their ropes. Guido says he actually did that, but he didn’t. Ulysses implies that it was time to do that, but he tells us he couldn’t. By their own words they condemned themselves or, better yet, did they both talk themselves into their own condemnation? In this sense, they are both guilty of the very first sin – not Original Sin, that was the second sin. The first sin is not actually “committed” as much as it is proposed. And it was proposed with one of the first uses of human language in the Bible – the words of the serpent to Eve. Interestingly enough, by proposing what turned out to be true, if one thinks about this carefully, the serpent defrauded Adam and Eve by assuring them that they would be like God if they ate what was forbidden to them. They gained knowledge – but at what a price! And so Ulysses and Guido allowed themselves to fall into a kind of hubris which validated their delusions – that they were greater than they really were, and therefore nothing could happen to them. Both men were highly intelligent, but remarkably stupid!
|↑16||Just above, Guido noted how he moved along this bolgia in resentment. Here Dante adds, in contrast to Ulysses’ dignified departure, that Guido moved on “in great pain,” increased, perhaps, by having retold the story of his own delusion, his flame “tossing and flickering.” This adds another element of contrast to these cantos about Ulysses and Guido. Ulysses’ story is tragic in the grand classical sense, but Guido’s is simply lamentable. At the end, with no time to reflect on this life, Ulysses dies realizing that he’s been beaten by “Another” (God). Poor Guido simply ends up on the wrong side of a tug-o-war.
In his commentary, Mark Musa brings this canto to a close with a fascinating possibility: “As a final note, given the psychological complexity of Guido da Montefeltro and considering that, with Ulysses and Guido, we are dealing with undoubtedly the most deceitful sinners in the realm of fraud, we must consider the possibility that Guido is lying, that he has made up the story he tells to the Pilgrim. We could thus interpret the entire episode as follows: Guido was so anxious to receive news of his homeland that he could not resist presenting himself to the travelers; having thus been discovered in Hell, he, much like Francesca, decided to make the best of it by putting all the blame for his damnation on Boniface VIII. In this way, fully aware that the Pilgrim will return from Hell, he hopes that his story will win sympathy and glory for him and disgust for Boniface.”