Boniface VIII

(Benedict Gaetani)
Power-grabbing pope

Benedict Gaetani would be bullied by no one. Accusing professors at the University of Paris of dabbling in papal affairs, the 39-year-old cardinal promised the university's destruction if they continued on their course. "You Paris masters at your desk seem to think that the world should be ruled by your reasonings. I tell you that this is not so—it is to us that the world is entrusted, not to you." It would not be the last threat Gaetani (later Pope Boniface VIII) would make against Paris's elite.

Born into a modest Italian family, Gaetani coupled a sharp legal mind with iron determination to advance to the Sacred College, the body responsible for electing the pope. Once inside the papal palace, Gaetani persuaded the inexperienced and weak Pope Celestine V to renounce the papacy and return to his monk's cell. (In Dante's universe, this "great refusal" earns Celestine a place in hell's vestibule, home of the futile.)

Acting quickly, Gaetani negotiated support from his fellow cardinals and in January 1294 entered St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome as the victorious Boniface VIII. Many people hated him, though, believing he had usurped the papal throne.

Boniface lost little time securing fortune for himself and his family. He spent one-fourth of his pontifical revenue buying land for the Gaetani. The rival Colonna family despised him for it, so Boniface destroyed them. The pope's critics accused him of simony—selling church offices and indulgences.

Boniface appears in the Comedy as the greedy pope next in line for the terrors of hell. Mistaking Dante for Boniface, Pope Nicholas III (another simoniac) cries out:

"Art standing there already, Boniface?
Why then, the writ has lied by many a year.
What! so soon sated with the gilded brass
That nerved thee to betray and then to rape
The Fairest among Women that ever was?"

(Inferno, XIX.53-57)

Nicholas proclaims that "the writ has lied" because, if Dante were Boniface, he had arrived ahead of schedule—Dante set the Comedy in 1300, three years before the pope's death. "The Fairest among Women" is the church.

Dante had special enmity toward Boniface, for in March 1302, the pope had sentenced him to death for his political involvements in Florence. Dante then fled into exile, where he wrote the Comedy. He accused the papacy of "fornication with the kings of the earth," believing Boniface's use of power compromised the church's spiritual mission.

True to Dante's assessment, Boniface showed far more interest in politics than spirituality. He desired supreme authority in Europe, but he had to fight King Philip IV of France to get it.

"To Boniface, who calls himself pope," Philip wrote, "little or no greeting. Let your stupendous fatuity know that in temporal matters, we are subject to no man." To this Boniface replied, "Our predecessors have deposed these kings of France. Know—we can depose you like a stable boy if it prove necessary."

But Boniface had met his match. Shortly after issuing the bull Unam Sanctam in 1302, which proclaimed the pope earthly ruler over all Christians, Boniface was captured and humiliated by Philip's agents. Among them was Sciarra Colonna, seeking his family's revenge. Though the pope's allies rescued him from Philip's men, Boniface never recovered from the shock. He died shortly afterward.

Giovanni Villani, a Florentine, gave this appraisal of Boniface's life:

"He was very wise in learning and natural wit, and a man very cautious and experienced and of great knowledge and memory. Very haughty he was, and proud and cruel towards his enemies and he was of great heart and much feared by all the people … a man of large schemes and lordly who sought for much honor."

In the end, Boniface's search for earthly honor failed. He is numbered among the worst popes in history.

Steven Gertz is editorial coordinator for Christian History.

Emperor Henry VII

c. 1275-1313
"Sole ruler of the world"

Dante positively gushed about the young king from Luxembourg: "Rejoice, O Italy! … Soon you will be envied throughout the world! For your bridegroom, the solace of the world and the glory of your people, the most clement Henry … hastens to the nuptials!"

In 1309 the princes of Germany had chosen an obscure count named Henry to be their new king. Within the year, Henry had also emerged as Holy Roman Emperor. But winning the title was the easy part; actually ruling over that far-flung constellation of princes and principalities proved more challenging.

Henry was neither particularly rich (as kings go) nor particularly influential before his selection as king and emperor. He was obliged to build up good will little by little, working throughout northern Europe to forge a host of diplomatic alliances.

He succeeded at this difficult task and soon yearned to bring similar unity and peace to Italy. Unfortunately, he underestimated the maze of political interests and ancient hatreds—not to mention the power of emerging city-states—that divided the Italian peninsula into countless factions.

Before visiting Italy, Henry sent ambassadors on an advance mission. The promises of loyalty they received bolstered the impression that Italy was ready for a benevolent emperor. After assembling an honor guard to escort him to Rome for his formal coronation, Henry crossed the Alps in 1310.

At first all went well, as northern Italy quickly lined up behind the emperor-elect. But opposition to Henry's rule soon erupted elsewhere in Italy, centering in Florence.

The resistance wasn't personal. As the historian William Bowsky notes, "Even Henry's enemies acknowledged his noble virtues, his valiance, courage, magnanimity, and generous pacific intentions." But politics overcame personal esteem.

Henry's forces were pressed into battle throughout the peninsula. Henry did make it to Rome to be formally crowned king of the Romans on June 29, 1312, but he never came close to unifying Italy.

In August 1313 he took ill (innocently enough from a fever, despite conspiracy theories involving poison) and died near Pisa. Henry's spectacular failure to control Italy under the aegis of Holy Roman Emperor marked the last time anyone would make the attempt.

While it lasted, Henry's mission seemed to Dante to be a divinely appointed occasion for peace in Italy and a new order in politics. Dante envisioned a king subject to the authority of the pope only in spiritual matters, not beholden to him in secular political affairs. In Henry, he saw the best chance to realize this vision.

In the Divine Comedy, Henry merits a select spot in heaven as the "soul predestined emperor … who will rise one day / To straighten Italy" (Paradiso, XXX.136-138).

In his public letters, Dante goes so far as to compare Henry to the Messiah, suggesting that "Isaiah had pointed the finger of prophecy [at Henry], when by the revelation of the Spirit of God he declared, 'Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows.' "

Dante called Henry the "sole ruler of the world" and the "new offspring of Jesse," as if he were a latter-day King David. But David had successfully united the 12 tribes of Israel. Despite Henry's best attempts, Italy remained as fragmented as ever.

Jonathan Boyd works as a freelance historian in Chicago.


(Publius Vergilius Maro)
70-19 B.C.
Dante's wise guide

Dante's companion through most of his journey is no stranger to him. Dante had already traveled to the underworld with Virgil through the Aeneid, so he knew the poet would be a trustworthy guide.

One of the most influential Roman authors in history, Virgil was recognized even by his contemporaries as an exemplary poet and a model of tenderness, humanity, and deep religious sentiment. He was born a peasant in Andes, near Mantua (now Pietole). His love of the Italian countryside and those who cultivated it permeates his poetry.

Because Virgil lived before Christ, he appears in the Comedy in Limbo with the other righteous pagans. Unlike most denizens of Limbo, however, Virgil enjoys the freedom to travel through hell and even purgatory. As the representation of human wisdom, he can roam as high as earthly paradise, but because he lacks faith in Christ he cannot enter heaven.

But did Virgil know about Christ? Some of Dante's contemporaries thought he might have.

In the Eclogue (iv), Virgil anticipates the birth of a Wonder-Child who would restore the Golden Age. He was probably writing about an emperor's expected baby, but medieval Christians interpreted his lines as an unconscious prophecy of Christ. Dante quotes the Eclogue almost verbatim in Purgatorio, XXII.70-72:

" 'To us,' thou saidst, 'a new-born world is given,
Justice returns, and the first age of man,
And a new progeny descends from Heaven.' "

Because of this revelation, medieval Christians sometimes called Virgil "Maro, Prophet of the Gentiles."

In her introduction to Purgatorio, translator Dorothy Sayers writes, "Virgil is necessary to Dante; he is his 'contact' in the world of spirits, lending him eyes to behold the secret things; he sustains and heartens him for the steep ascent, his teachings lay the foundations for the loftier revelation to come, he is the preparation for the Gospel here as in the world of the living."

Janine Petry is editorial coordinator for Christian History.

Bernard of Clairvaux

Militant Marian monk
"O Virgin Mother, Daughter of thy Son,
Lowliest and loftiest of created stature,
Fixed goal to which the eternal counsels run …"

(Paradiso, XXXIII.1-3)

When Dante quotes Bernard of Clairvaux near the end of the Comedy, he uses the language Bernard applied to the Virgin Mary throughout his sermons, epistles, theological treatises, and homilies. Bernard was famous for his special devotion to Mary, so he became the natural choice for a heavenly guide to address the Virgin on Dante's behalf.

Bernard, the son of noble parents in Fontaines, a village in Burgundy, soon exchanged material wealth for spiritual riches. He became an abbot of the Benedictine order, and at age 24 he was selected to lead a branch of the monastery of Citeaux. With a small group of devoted followers, including family members, Bernard set out for a site in Champagne, where he founded his famous abbey of Clairvaux.

Bernard led a remarkably public life, defending the faith against heresy, calling the church to crusades, and championing the papacy. (Dante's great-great-grandfather Cacciaguida was among those who died after answering the call to the Second Crusade in 1147. He appears in Paradiso in the fifth heaven with other warriors of God.)

When describing his involvement in so many arenas of life, Bernard declared he was "a kind of chimaera … neither cleric nor layman."

A few years after his death, Bernard was canonized by Pope Alexander III.

In paradise, Bernard symbolizes the contemplation that allows man to behold the vision of the deity. He replaces Beatrice as Dante's guide when she returns to her place among the blessed, points out the principal saints, explains the arrangement of the thrones of the elect, and solves the poet's doubts regarding the salvation of infants.

In the poem's final canto, Bernard offers a famous prayer to the Virgin, pleading for her intercession so that Dante may see a vision of God. At the end of his prayer, Bernard signals to Dante to look up, and Dante beholds the "eternal light," the "Infinite Good" whose glory far exceeds human description.

—Janine Petry


(Marcus Portius Cato the Younger)
95-46 B.C.
Purgatory paradox

To find such a notable character as Cato of Utica in Dante's narrative is not surprising. But to find him in purgatory is.

Great-grandson of Cato the Censor, Cato the Younger was a Roman statesman, a leader of the Optimates (the conservative senatorial aristocracy), and a strict republican of the old school. He tried to preserve the Roman government against power seekers, particularly Julius Caesar.

In 49 B.C., when Caesar waged civil war on Pompey and the Optimates, Cato took action. Although Cato had formerly opposed Pompey, he fought beside the Roman general, realizing that this was the last chance to save the republic.

Leading a small remnant of troops, Cato shut himself up in the north African city of Utica. Even after the decisive defeat of the republican forces at Thapsus, he kept the gates closed until all his allies could escape by sea. When the last transports had left, Cato, rather than make terms with the victor or endure imprisonment, committed suicide.

In canto XIII of Inferno, Dante watches those who committed suicide suffer terrible punishment—transformed into withered trees, they pour out blood and sorrow when their limbs are broken. But Cato appears later as the old man with flowing beard and "reverend mien" guarding the way up Mount Purgatory.

While pleading with the statesman on Dante's behalf, Virgil recounts Cato's deeds at Utica and his passion for liberty. He asks Cato to be merciful to Dante, who also seeks liberty. With these words, permission is granted, and the journey continues.

In a corrupt age, Cato provided the Optimates with honest leadership, and he became for Romans the model of Stoic virtue. In Dante's mind, therefore, his suicide was not a moral failure but rather the expression of supreme devotion to liberty. Commentators believe that this is why the pagan statesman guards the way upward, toward freedom.

—Janine Petry