Recapping Dante: Canto 19, or Popes Under Fire


Arts & Culture


Gustave Doré, The Inferno, Canto XIX

This winter, we’re recapping the Inferno. Read along! This week: an internal memo from the Vatican to the Archdiocese of Florence after the release of Canto XIX.

By now, you have seen excerpts from last night’s episode of Mr. Alighieri’s The Inferno, Canto 19, in which Dante visits the ditch that punishes simony. We have filed a defamation suit and sent a cease and desist to Dante’s attorney, but there will undoubtedly be a public reaction. Rest assured: our lawyers are going to crucify this guy.

For those of you who are not aware, the segment focuses on Dante and Virgil’s descent through the eighth circle of hell, where Dante enters the realm of simony—which, more or less, covers any form of buying or selling powers or positions in the Church. At this point, we feel it is important to remind you all that any rumors of simony were supposed to have been snuffed out for good this last quarter. It has come to our attention that Dante must be getting his information from within our offices. At this time, any higher-ranking members of the church who happen to be White Guelphs are our prime suspects. We’ve launched an internal investigation, but please be at high alert and keep all information on a need-to-know basis until we have resolved this problem.

As the canto goes on, Dante sees a bunch of feet in the air—sinners buried head-first in the ground, the soles of their feet covered in fire as they are slowly ingested by hell. As he approaches, one buried sinner, Pope Nicholas III, mistakes Dante for another pope, Boniface VIII. Dante then listens to Nicholas confess to simony and describe the way he lined his pockets. Clearly Dante is not our most subtle critic, but we cannot stand idly by as he implies that all our popes are simonists. It’s bad for business. Short of having a pope curse in public, nothing could be more damning.

After the confession, Dante’s character begins an extended tirade, berating the Church—he even reminds Nicholas that the Lord didn’t ask Peter for treasures in exchange for the “keys into his keeping.” It’s a petty attempt at making us look like a bunch of hack televangelists. It shall not go unpunished.

For the coup de grâce, Dante informs Nicholas that he would have used much harsher language in his rant, had it not been for Dante’s own profound respect and love for the Church. This self-righteous audacity, this flippant disregard for the power of the current leadership, is only the first of the troubles we can expect if we do not respond with equal or greater force. Our colleagues in the Florentine municipal office are currently looking into whether we can have Dante exiled.

We urge you all to keep elevator chatter to a minimum, and to shred all invoices, expense reports, and promotion notices until we get to the bottom of this. Do not speak to the press. Refrain from releasing any statements until our public relations office has had an opportunity to go over it first. I am sure many of your congregants are very curious, but please do all you can to keep everyone calm. Dante has already jabbed at us a few times in his Inferno, and so it is important, especially for those of you in Florence, that we refrain from provoking him. We have no way of knowing what he will choose to say in Canto 20.

Yours concernedly,
The Vatican Press Office

To catch up on our Dante series, click here.

Alexander Aciman is the author of Twitterature. He has written for the New York Times, Tablet, the Wall Street Journal, and TIME. Follow him on Twitter at @acimania.