Dante's Inferno Canto 19: Summary & Quotes

Instructor: Karen Wolak

Karen has taught 4-8th grade English/Language Arts and has worked closely with adult learners for several years. M.Ed. in Adult Education.

Canto XIX in Dante's ''Inferno'' describes the third ditch in the eighth circle of Hell, which is dedicated to those who committed the sin of simony. Let's learn more about simony, and explore the conversation Dante has with one of the inhabitants of this realm, Pope Nicholas III.

The Third Ditch: Simony

As Dante and Virgil enter the third ditch of the eighth circle of Hell, Dante mentions the name of Simon Magus. Magus was a magician who tried to buy the power of the spirit of God in the Bible. Dante mentions that Simon is housed in this area of Hell, which indicates that this area is reserved for sinners who engaged in simony. Simony refers to the sin of attempting to exchange money or favors for power or positions in the Christian church.

Dante and Virgil reach the top of a ridge, and they look down into a valley of rocks below. The rocks are covered in round holes in the ground. Dante describes the holes, saying, ''No smaller or no larger they seemed to me / Than are those booths for the baptismal fonts / Built in my beautiful San Giovanni'' (XIX.16-18). In other words, the holes are about the size of the baptismal fountain in the place where Dante was baptized, Battistero di San Giovanni. Dante then takes a moment to reflect on an incident where he destroyed a baptismal fountain in that baptistry ''to save someone drowning in it'' (XIX.20). It is believed that he saved a child who had fallen in.

Battistero di San Giovanni in Florence
Battistero di San Giovanni

Pope Nicholas III

Dante sees that there are people stuffed head-first into the holes in the ground with their feet sticking out of the top. He adds, ''The soles of both feet blazed all on fire; / The leg-joints wriggled uncontrollably'' (XIX.26-27). Dante notices that the flames are especially high on one pair of feet, and he asks Virgil about that soul. Virgil guides Dante to the hole and encourages him to speak into it to find out more.

The trapped soul hears Dante approach and cries out, ''Are you already standing there, Boniface? / By several years the record lied to me! / Are you so quickly glutted with the wealth / Which did not make you fear to take by guile / The lovely lady and then lay her waste?'' (XIX.53-57). The soul entombed in the hole is mistaking Dante for Pope Boniface VIII. The soul is surprised because he was under the impression that Boniface would not arrive for some time. Boniface was a pope during Dante's life, and he was also one of Dante's major political adversaries.

Simonists were trapped in holes in the ground with their exposed feed set ablaze.
The Simonists in Canto XIX

At Virgil's urging, Dante corrects the soul's mistake. The soul asks what Dante wants. By way of introduction, the soul says, ''Once I was vested in the papal mantle, / And truly I was a son of the she-bear / So avid to advance my cubs that up there / I pocketed the money and here, myself'' (XIX 69-72). In a round-about way, the soul has identified himself as Pope Nicholas III, who reigned from 1277-1280. Nicholas was born Giovanni Gaetano Orsini. Bears were a symbol of the influential Orsini family. Nicholas is saying that he used his papal power to arrange for the advancement of his family members (''cubs''). While this made him wealthy on Earth, this sin of simony condemned him to his present hole.

Nicholas goes on to explain that his punishment is to be inverted in this hole until the next simonist arrives. When that occurs, he will be squashed further into the hole, and the new arrival will take his place at the top. Nicholas advises Dante that the next arrival will be Pope Boniface VIII. However, he says that Boniface will not be at the top of the hole for long, ''For after him will come one fouler in deeds, / A lawless shepherd from the westward land, / One fit to cover up both him and me'' (XIX.82-84).

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