Dante's Allusion of Spiritual and Temporal Authority in "The Divine Comedy - Inferno" in the 13th Century City of Florence

Essay, 2022

18 Pages



The late 1300s in Florence were a scandalous period for the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire (HRE). The imaginative illustrations of the Nine Circles of Hell contribute to a more vivid depiction of this. Dante's rich imaginative concept can be interpreted in this study as a harsh rebuke of social ills caused by the power struggle between the HRE and the Church during this period. This epic considers the socio-political and moral circumstances of this spectacular time period and interprets "The Divine Comedy: Inferno" as a classical satire. This medieval poem is a challenge to the author's political and religious antagonists, as well as the papacy's ethical positions. The study describes the strict theological values and doctrines to which the Italian poet Dante Aleghieri strictly adhered during his lifetime. As a result, it should come as no surprise that the text presents a moral argument for readers to evaluate for themselves. This is proper, as Dante indirectly justifies his characters in the Inferno from a moral standpoint as well. He does this by alluding to historical events of the 13th century, as do we. He simultaneously justified each allusion based on the nature of their sins. At the end of this study, it is clear that social reform is the central concept.

Keywords: Inferno, 13th Century Florence, Roman Empire, Papacy, Papal States, Guelphs and Ghibellines, Philosophy

Numerous allusions appear in this epic narrative. Dante Alighieri alludes to characters from Florence's historical context during the 13th century. Because of the increased political activity during this time period, Dante is able to effectively represent instances of allusion in the text. These illustrations are inspired by their historical counterparts. These historical contexts, which were discovered in Florence long before Italy became a unified state, date back to when Dante was actively involved in politics. This same context is thought to have served as the impetus for Dante's composition of this epic.

Dante uses these allusions for a variety of reasons, all of which stem from his personal perspective and opinion on spirituality, religion, and philosophy. These three concepts were regarded as crucial during the medieval period. This was so influential that it inspired works by famous writers like Geoffrey Chaucer, Thomas Malory, Giovanni Boccaccio, Shota Rustavel, and Michael Psellos. To understand why Dante argued for a philosophical approach, it is essential to remember that during his lifetime, Dante was not only a politician and a medieval knight; he was also a philosopher.

Aristotelianism, Dante's school of thought, embraced the use of intuition and logic in the study of metaphysics and natural law, beyond the realm of human perception. Dante employs a philosophical approach to imprint an image of his worldview on his reader, observer, and audience. He does this through the inclusion of the inferno (the nine circles of hell), Virgil, Dante's spiritual guide, angels, demons, shades, mythical creatures, and Satan, the righteous man's antagonist.

The use of religious, political, and philosophical allusions is emphasized in the text. While the parallels between the three allusions remain obvious, they appear to serve the same purpose for Dante. This is due to the fact that he employs the three allusions independently and concurrently with each of his portrayed characters. To address a number of sociopolitical and moral ills and vices that were perpetrated by highly influential but corrupt individuals both within the papacy (the office of the pope) and the Holy Roman Empire (HRE), Dante decided to establish the use of religious allusions in the text.

From a religious standpoint, Dante appears to be particularly intent on criticizing the papacy in Florence. This he carefully establishes with the character of Pope Boniface VIII, to whom Dante ascribed the bolgia three, Circle VIII of Hell, a place reserved for Simonists. It is essential to recognize that the text "The Divine Comedy - Inferno" was written and inspired during Dante’s exile from Florence in 1302, and thus a libel against the spiritual and religious authority in Rome—the Pope—would have certainly resulted in Dante’s arrest and trial. Yet, Dante wishes to and is compelled to expose the ills and corruption within the papacy, which is discussed later in this study.

Dante was concerned. This is because the majority of Florentines at the time looked up to the pope for spiritual and moral guidance. Not surprising, given that the pope was a spiritually ordained authority, just as the HRE ruled the state's temporal affairs. The pope's office, however, had long betrayed the people’s trust. It indulged in immorality and other dubious acts that had spiritual and religious significance, according to Dante. Consequently, it is essential to understand why Dante considers this a fraud.

It is obvious that Dante, most likely because of his theological background, is so opposed to the sin of fraud that he ascribes a place in hell for those who participate in this unrighteous act, a place that will be observed, among other places in the inferno, in the later section of this study. As a result, the actual historical context is examined more extensively, lending credence to Dante's reason(s) for including religious allusions in the text. Dante's allusion to philosophy can be understood by considering his own philosophy, Aristotelianism. Aristotle developed this school of thought, advocating the use of intuition in the development of imaginative metaphysical concepts. This philosophy, among others, was widely accepted during the medieval period. This is because it uses the human faculties of reason and intuition to comprehend the physical and metaphysical nature of reality, which is devoid of reason or logic but still comprehensible to the human senses.

“Dante’s philosophy was primarily one of intuition rather than concept, of imagination rather than reason” (Lafferty, 1911)

Later stages of this study will focus on how the text represents this philosophical allusion. Through his intuitive but richly imaginative reasoning, Dante conveys to the reader an understanding of the importance of a man's soul. This understanding is based on the soul's inevitable journey to the afterlife after death. The reader is able to delve into the concept of the soul's polarity as an inevitable natural phenomenon. According to textual analysis, a man’s soul exists within a polarity, such that it is capable of both goodness and evil. This concept applies to actual historical figures, who will be discussed in this study.

Dante engaged in political allusions throughout the text. This is motivated by his observations and exploits in Florence politics prior to his exile in 1302. By doing so, he conveyed an insightful message to the reader about the myopic political activity in his hometown during the 13th century. At that time, Florence politics was characterized by factions, greed, weakened family ties, feuding families, hypocrisy, the lust for power, and the persecution of Christians by corrupt elements inside and outside the church. Dante's disdain for Florence politics is so intense that he alluded to historical figures who are also his political opponents. Philosophical allusions, as seen in "The Divine Comedy," were incredibly significant to readers at the time, in part because the medieval period was a philosophical age. Philosophy was as accepted and popular in the medieval period as science and technology are now in the twenty-first century.

Dante explored Epicureanism as a philosophical school of thought. He took a conservative view on this Greek philosophy, which denies the existence of a man’s soul after death. He criticized Epicurus' students, claiming that his work lacks true theological and spiritual significance. Much of Dante's strict approach to this school of thought was influenced by his Christian theological background.

Dante employed obvious religious allusions in the text by making an indirect reference to Pope Boniface VIII's historical person. He wished to point out to his own audience what he perceives to be Boniface’s unrighteousness. However, he cannot do this directly, for it would have been considered improper conduct to speak against the pope. This is particularly true considering that Dante was still in exile and Boniface was still alive when this epic was published. However, Dante was able to include an indirect reference to Boniface through the words of another actual historical figure, Pope Nicholas III. Dante attributed the Eighth Circle (Circle VIII) of hell to Boniface because of what he saw as the desecration of the church and the defiling of its sacred ideals. This circle of hell is known as the Malebolge, which literally translates to "evil ditches" in Italian. The text describes Malebolge's unusual structure. This means that Dante and his guardian spirit, Virgil, had to use the demons in this circle as guides to escape. This area is littered with broken ledges and collapsed bridges caused by the harrowing of hell. Every structure in Circle VIII of hell is made out of stone, which undoubtedly adds to the grimness of this place. Dante described this part of hell as one of the most unpleasant places to be.

The Maleboulge itself is a large, "funnel-shaped cavern" with several ditches called bolges (plural: bolgia) when translated in Italian. There are nine bolgia in total, each of which is an archetype for a particular type of sin. Untrustworthy politicians, hypocrites, deceivers, flatterers, schismatics, simonists, thieves, falsifiers, and sorcerers have their own bolgia. Sandro Botticelli, an early Renaissance painter, depicts the Eighth Circle of Hell as an amphitheatre-shaped, large funnel made entirely of stone, complete with the ten narrow ditches here known as the bolge (Watts, 1995).

The third bolgia of the ten found here in Circle VIII is described as a "large baptismal font" cut into rocks, into which the Simonaecs fit each rock. Their entire bodies are completely buried beneath these slabs. Their feet are left to protrude, which is not intended to ease the harrowing pain and suffering of these condemned souls.

Dante assigned the eight circles of hell to those who commit simple and compound fraud. In this context, "simple fraud" refers to acts of fraud or any other unlawful transaction committed with no intent to harm. Compound fraud, on the other hand, validates the intention of harm by the parties involved—in this case, Pope Boniface. Dante despises compound fraud the most, as it betrays love, honor, blood, and hospitality ties.

Oily fires burn constantly at the feet of the Simonists. The severity of the sinner's unrighteousness during his earthly existence determines the intensity of these flames. Simonists are imprisoned in the third bolgia of Malebolge as part of their eternal punishment. The following lines go into additional detail about the nature of simony and the doom that awaits simonists in the third bolgia of Malebolge. This is one of the deepest and cruelest circles of hell, so deep that it is only followed by the ninth and final circle of hell, circle IX. The ninth circle is home to Satan, as well as forbidden giants and some of mankind's most notorious sinners.

“O Simon Magus! O his sad disciples!

Rapacious ones, who take the things of God

That ought to be the brides of righteousness,

And make them fornicate for gold and silver!

The time has come to let the trumpet sound for you;

your place is here in this third pouch. (Inf. 19. 1-6)”

Clearly illustrating the preceding phrases will serve both to clarify Dante's reasoning and to support the Simonists' claim to the third bolgia. "O his sad disciples" is a lament for divinely appointed church leaders who were found wanting in God's eyes after their deaths. These men were guilty of simony during their lifetimes."Things of God" refer to the divinely ordained pope's seat and other prominent positions within the papal sphere, all of which fell into the hands of Simonists, who traded God's property unlawfully. Dante was concerned that positions in the papacy were continually sold to undeserving individuals who only sought to use the church to further their own political ambitions. They also sought to increase their influence over the state's temporal affairs. Dante declared that the Simonists had sold their souls and betrayed God for earthly things like "gold" and "silver” (Barolini, 2018). To Dante’s dismay, the Simonists desecrated the church and also betrayed the Florentines, who believed in them and turned to them for moral and spiritual guidance. But it is for this very reason that the Simonites have been condemned to these "evil ditches" for eternity. According to Dante, this is sufficient punishment because these souls used their positions against God's will. It is imperative to understand that Dante's Christian theological background only reinforced his condemnation of these sinners.


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Dante's Allusion of Spiritual and Temporal Authority in "The Divine Comedy - Inferno" in the 13th Century City of Florence
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Inferno, Guelphs and Ghibellines, Philosophy, HRE (Holy Roman Empire), Nine Circles of Hell, Roman Catholic Church, Florence, 13th century
Quote paper
Oluwatobi Ayanlola (Author), 2022, Dante's Allusion of Spiritual and Temporal Authority in "The Divine Comedy - Inferno" in the 13th Century City of Florence, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/1314728


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