by Dante Alighieri
Pope Boniface VIII
Even though Pope Boniface VIII never physically shows up in the Inferno, he is a major figure, both in Dante’s political life and as a symbol of sin. Boniface would have served nicely as Dante’s prime antagonist had our poet been able to include him in his story. Don’t think that Dante excluded Boniface from Hell out of some outpouring of generosity. This Pope not only betrayed Dante’s beloved White Guelphs, but had Dante personally exiled. (In case you were wondering, Ciacco tells this story in prophecy form in Canto VI.) The only reason Dante didn’t include him was that at the time of Dante’s writing, Pope Boniface VIII was still alive. But such is Dante’s genius that he can flesh out a character for his readers without actually having him once show his face. However, his name makes a number of appearances. Five, to be exact.
Boniface’s role as an emblem of deceit begins with the first obscure allusion to him in Canto III. In the circle of the neutrals, Dante spies a soul he calls the one "who made the great refusal." Scholars have conjectured this character to be Pope Celestine V, the incumbent pope before Boniface (learn more). History tells us that the only reason Boniface came to office was that Celestine suddenly and unexpectedly resigned. Rumors flew that Boniface planted doubts into Celestine’s head in the months prior to his abdication. If this is true, as Dante no doubt believes, it demonstrates an insincere use of language. That’s right – a fraudulent sinner! Since Boniface’s words are uttered to gain him a position of political power, that would mean eighth circle, sixth pouch.
The last three mentions of Boniface (in a simile concerning the panderers, by the Simonist Pope Nicholas III, and by fraudulent counselor Guido da Montefeltro) in the Inferno all point to his questionable practice of selling indulgences or absolution. Hmmm, selling the Word? Simony? This one was slightly more predictable in that Pope Nicholas III actually tells us that he’s waiting for Boniface to replace him in his fiery hole. Because he couldn’t put his nemesis in Hell just yet, Dante has reserved a spot for him.
Have you noticed that Dante tends to look for clerics in Hell? And to take special note of their suffering? (Check out Canto VII for an example.) Pope Boniface, then, in spearheading the Church, might indeed function as a symbol for everything corrupt within Catholicism. Simony, indulgences, barratry. Name your sin. Remember that the whole sticky situation in Florence – the Guelph vs. Ghibelline, White vs. Black fight – arose because of disagreements about the integrity of the Pope.