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July 21, 2014

While Dante Alighieri was but a minor player in Italian politics of the late 13th century, it is through his Divine Comedy that the lasting reputations of many of the wealthy and powerful of that era have been framed. The pen may not be mightier than the sword, but its scribblings have more staying power.

It is through the Divine Comedy that we see, for example, several popes of that era finding an everlasting home in hell because of their use of spiritual power to increase their temporal power and wealth.

One pope not guilty of that particular sin, but still damned in Dante's view, was Pope Celestine V, the first pope to resign from office. (See story on Page 12.) Dante did not name Celestine, but his reference to one found just inside the gates of hell "who, through cowardice, made the great refusal" was widely thought to refer to him.

Far deeper into the fiery pit a place was held for Pope Boniface VIII whom Dante condemned while he was still alive. Celestine only refused the papacy; Boniface used it for his self-aggrandizement, selling Church offices to some and awarding others to his relatives.

Waiting for Boniface to arrive in hell was Pope Nicholas III, also guilty of simony. Of him, Dante asks, "Please tell me, how much treasure did our Lord insist on from Saint Peter before he gave the keys into his keeping? Surely he asked no more than 'Follow me.'"

Scathing in his judgment, Dante continues, "Your avarice afflicts the world, trampling down the good and raising up the wicked."

The corrupt popes are portrayed with their heads in the earth and their feet pointed skyward, an allusion to their preoccupation with earthly things and blindness to the heavenly.

Dante, a devout Catholic, but one unjustly cast into exile from his native Florence for being on the wrong side of a political dispute, was wrong about Celestine. The holy hermit, who was out of his depth in the papacy, was nevertheless canonized for his sanctity.

The others, however, had their reputations sealed by the poet who lacked worldly power, but who nevertheless was incisive in his critique of the ecclesiastical and political follies of his day.