Dante Alighieri’s The Inferno is a medium for the poet to condemn his enemies of the Italian church and state. The Inferno contains a great number of references to people from the Italian society Dante was banished from. No one was safe from Dante’s fury, and from this burning wrath Dante unleashed a tale of a fiery world which houses and punishes his foes. This creation of Dante’s, fittingly molded into his vision of hell, is organized complexly but purposefully. In an effort to expose the evil and corruption within Florence and the church, Dante arranges those he deems worthy of scorn, as well as some men he was fond of, into specific levels (circles) of hell, each with a distinct and appalling punishment. The hierarchy of Dante’s scorn begins with those he respects who still find themselves in hell for a reason, continues with citizens of Florence Dante despises mainly for political reasons, not involving religion, and ends with the corrupt and despicable members of the church, the driving force behind the wrath which inspired Dante to write The Inferno.
A noteworthy aspect of Dante’s hell is that Dante did not have a grudge against everyone; some were quite respectable and admirable figures, whose only flaw in Dante’s mind is that they did not live their life according to his religion. Most of these found themselves in Limbo, a place where the souls live without torment, and it includes a Citadel housing many famous intellectuals. These souls, “whose merit lights their way even in hell,” include the five great poets and philosophers such as Aristotle and Socrates (IV, 74-75). Including a place in hell for noble men like these gives Dante credibility with his audience because it gives the poem depth, saving it from being simply a shallow attack on clergymen and Black party members. The Limbo stage of hell allows Dante to establish a foundation, full of brightness and nobility, and while Dante and Virgil travel through it, the reader experiences the ugly and menacing layers of hell, which reflect the corrupt and sinful side of Italy. Furthermore, Dante places even men he adores in the lower circles of hell, the best example being Ser Brunetto Latino. Brunetto is a writer who greatly influenced Dante, and while seeing Brunetto in this area of Hell, with the Sodomites, surprises Dante’s character, it also comes as a surprise to the reader, as it remains unknown why Dante places Brunetto in circle seven. As Brunetto walks with Dante, Dante poises himself as “one who walks in reverence meditating good and evil” (XV, 44-45). As Dante travels deeper into Hell, he becomes more distressed by his surroundings, and his walk with Brunetto refreshes Dante’s mind and gives him strength to carry on. Though Dante includes certain people that he respects and cherishes in his hell, the true torment is saved for those people of Dante’s time who wronged him, including citizens of Florence and wicked leaders of the church.
Dante extends his expression of disapproval to citizens of Florence who he felt wronged him or the White Party, though these people receive less hatred from Dante than corrupt members of the church. One of these Florentines who he expresses hatred towards is Fillippo Argenteni, a member of a family that were political enemies of Dante, and it pleases Dante to see him “mangled by a swarm of muddy wraiths” (VIII, 56). The harsh words and sheer lack of empathy Dante shows clearly proves his feelings towards Fillippo, the only soul in hell without strong ties to the church that Dante appears to despise as much as the clergy. Dante’s poem proves more than a tropological read through his encounter with Fillippo. Political quarrels haunted Dante during his banishment, and this is expressed through his brutal wishes towards Fillippo. In circle seven, Dante visits the usurers, referenced as being of the Ghibelline family of Florence, a connection illustrated by the purse on some of their necks which shows “on a blood red field, a goose whiter than whey” (XVII, 57). This is the Ghibelline emblem, and by making the family who feuded with the Guelphs the violent against art, Dante not only coincides with fact, as some such as Ciappo Ubrachi were indeed usurers, but also Dante makes a political statement about the Florentine family who opposed the Guelphs. Finally, Dante spots Bocca degli Abhari in circle nine, and denounces him as a “filthy traitor” (XXXII, 109). Dante acts aggressively vicious towards Bocca because he acted as a traitor towards Florence in battle. This shows again Dante’s love for his country, since those who went against Florence or the White Party receive great torment in Dante’s hell. While these souls receive less hatred from Dante than the clergymen receive- Fillippo being the exception- it remains true that Dante purposefully places them in an arena of torture, so they are nonetheless despised and hold a significant place in the hierarchy of Dante’s scorn.
Dante was undoubtedly infuriated by his banishment; he was a loyal member of the White party which attempted to take a stand against the corrupt papacy. This anger fuels Dante, compelling him to lash out against the affiliates of the church, who he feels the most wrath for. The reader encounters clergymen tortured in hell immediately past the gates, when Dante spots Pope Celestine V in the Vestibule. Dante proclaims “I recognized the shadow of that soul, who, in his cowardice, made the Great Denial,” a clear shot at Celestine V, who abandoned the papacy at the advisement of Benedetto, who would become Pope Boniface VIII (III, 56-57). By quitting the papacy, Celestine allowed evil and corruption, brought about by Boniface, to enter the church. Consequently, Dante holds both Celestine and Boniface responsible for the problems in the church which the White party fought against, and as a result Celestine receives torment in hell, while circle eight awaits Boniface once he dies. The fact that Celestine is the first soul Dante spots and condemns in hell establishes the tone for the poem and foreshadows the appearance of numerous other clergymen. Dante believes that mostly clergymen occupy circle four, home to the hoarders and wasters, and Virgil confirms this by stating “these tonsured wraiths of greed were priests indeed, and popes and cardinals” (VIII, 46-47). In these clergymen, Dante insinuates, “the weed of avarice sows its rankest seed” (VIII, 48). Condemning a large amount of church officials as guilty of greed further supports Dante’s outrage against the church. Sinners guilty of avarice are placed in an early circle of hell, proof that though greed flowing from the corrupt church enrages Dante, he evidently he sees further, even more appalling problems in the church worthy of the lower, ghastlier circles of hell.
The encounters with Celestine V, and the clergymen in circle four who fell victim to greed, set the stage for Dante’s experiences in the latter circles. Dante comes upon the simoniacs in the third bolgia of circle eight, and immediately rebukes such sinful actions, denouncing the “pandering for silver and gold the things of God” that are holy and “wedded to love and righteousness” (XIX, 2-4). Judging by its place in hell, the sins of the simoniacs are some of the most appalling to Dante. The notion that the souls only temporarily stay in the flaming tube because they are replaced by new sinners portrays the continuous and unending corruption Dante wanted to put an end to. Here he finds a place in his poem to ink the opinions he long held on corrupt popes such as Nicholas III, who is the recipient of Dante’s rant in this bolgia. Dante rebukes Nicholas, telling him to “stay as you are; this hole well fits you” (XIX, 91). These words clearly stem from anger long harbored by Dante. Through his scolding a corrupt former pope who is now tormented in hell in the poem, Dante rids himself of some of the frustration that has tormented him since his banishment. Church leaders are found even in the last circle of hell, occupied by Satan himself. Circle nine includes the likes of Friar Alberigo and Archbishop Ruggieri. Count Ugolino sarcastically announces Ruggieri as “this reverend grace,” but upon telling their story refers to him as a “beast” (XXXIII, 14-28). Dante uses another character to expose the evil of Ruggieri. Placement in circle nine is reserved for the foulest sinners, therefore the placement of an archbishop in this sector of hell makes a strong statement about Dante’s feelings towards the church. These sentiments are largely due to the fact that Ruggieri committed crime against his own family, the Guelphs, which Dante belongs to and would consequently hold strong feelings about Ruggieri’s crimes because of these ties. Though The Inferno takes a strong stance against the Medieval Italian church, it is not just the clergymen who are attacked in the poem; Dante has firm grudges against many Florentine, citizens not tied to the church.
Dante structured his hell selfishly; his hatred of those who torment his country and political party on Earth translates to great torment in hell. To add reputability to his work, Dante places formidable historical figures in a generously mild round of hell, free of torment, while men who were corrupt within the church or in regards to Florence do not escape brutal punishment. Dante places noteworthy people in each circle of hell to show the vast crimes of the groups that he despised. Nevertheless, Dante uses a religious forum to make strong political statements, exposing the evil and corruption of those who hurt him, the state of Florence, or the White Party of the Guelph family. Consequently, the church members are most hated by Dante, while political enemies and traitors to Florence also gain punishment in hell, along with respectable figures of the past who did not subject themselves to Dante’s religious beliefs.
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