The Divine Comedy is a celebrated piece of epic poetry that has been read and studied by many generations of literary enthusiasts. As with many medieval works, the literary form of the Divine Comedy is the dramatization of the writer’s own theories, beliefs and judgments on politics, religion and society. Dante is a firm believer of Christianity and had strong political aspirations. Thus, his opinions on certain events and people have often seeped through his literature. Inferno is no exception. Take a look at the top ten real life people that Dante has condemned to a life in hell.
10. Pope Celestine V
Pietro da Morrone, who was Pope Celestine V in 1294, is believed to be one of the subjects of a passage in the Inferno that states, “the shade of him who in his cowardice made the great refusal.” Here, it’s implied that the “great refusal” is his resignation from the papacy. He was Pope for only 161 days.
Being a devout Christian, Dante would have seen this not only as a sin against God, but a crime against society. If you read the Divine Comedy, you will find that Dante held societal order in high regard and hated those who wished to disrupt it or refused their responsibility to uphold it.
And also, the papacy then went to Pope Boniface VIII, whom Dante despised and referenced in Inferno quite often, but couldn’t place in hell because he was still alive at the time of his writing. He placed Pope Celestine V in the land of the Uncommitted after the gate of Hell, where souls of people who refused to do nothing, not any good or evil, in their lives linger, constantly pursuing a banner representing self-interest while being chased and stung by hornets and wasps.
And as if that wasn’t enough, insects and maggots festered in the bodies, drinking their blood and tears.
9. Julius Caesar
Dante believed that Julius Caesar was destined to govern the world by divine intervention and that his death signified the end of Italy’s unification. So why did he put him in hell?
Dante envisioned seeing Julius Caesar in the first circle of Hell, Limbo, along with other souls of virtuous pagans such as philosophers, scientists, mathematicians and uncorrupted leaders and politicians.
Again, Dante was a devout Christian. He believed that baptism is essential in ascending to heaven and since Julius Caesar had not been baptized, he was condemned to live in a place that’s just a shade of what heaven really was, with green fields and a castle with seven gates representing the seven virtues.
The people in Limbo were, in fact, guiltless and that their only “sin” was existing before Christ. In what is known as the Harrowing of Hell, it was said that Jesus descended to hell and successfully brought salvation to the righteous in Limbo before his resurrection.
8. Francesca da Ramini
Dante condemned Francesca da Ramini in the second circle of hell, the realm of the lustful. She lived in mid-thirteenth century Italy and was the daughter of Lord Guido da Polenta of Ravenna.
She was forcibly married to Giovanni Malatesta, the crippled eldest son of Lord Malatesta da Varucchio of Rimini, as a political strategy. Francesca then fell in love with Giovanni’s younger brother, Paolo, who is with her in the second circle. They had an affair and were caught by Giovanni who instantly killed them with his sword.
It was said that the two were actually inspired by the courtly love between Guinevere and Lancelot. Though they were murdered, Dante found their lustful love contemptible. But there are hints of Giovanni’s fate in the ninth circle of hell for fratricide. In the second circle, Francesca and Paolo, along with a host of others, were constantly blown about by forceful, violent winds. Interesting fact, there’s an opera based on their love story titled, “Francesca da Rimini.”
7. Filippo Argenti
Filippo Argenti was a famous politician and a Black Guelph whom Dante encountered in the fifth circle of hell, where the wrathful bit, clawed and clashed with each other in the muddy waters of the river Styx.
Being a White Guelph, Dante was politically at war with Argenti but it is known that they clashed in personal matters as well. He and his family have been said to have taken all of Dante’s possession when he was forced out of Florence and had also been avid supporters of his continued exile. It is also believed that he once slapped Dante right across his face.
In Inferno, Argenti accosts Dante as they floated past him, to which Dante replies, “In weeping and in grieving, accursed spirit, may you long remain.” After which the other wrathful in the river Styx grabbed him and proceeded to dismember and tear him limb from limb. Ouch.
6. Emperor Frederick II
Not even an Emperor escaped Dante’s judgement. In the middle ages, Emperor Frederick II was one of the most powerful Holy Roman Emperors and the Head of House Hohenstaufen. But that didn’t stop Dante from placing him with the heretics in the sixth circle where the souls were entrapped in fiery tombs.
This was perhaps due to the fact that he was excommunicated four times. He was first excommunicated because he had promised to go on a crusade but instead dragged it on for 15 years and used the Church’s influence to further his stronghold on his empire.
After his excommunication, he actually went on the crusade despite Church rules prohibiting excommunicates from participating in it. He then successfully won Jerusalem from the Muslims and declared himself King of Jerusalem, forcing the Church to excommunicate the whole city, the center of Christian worship, for harboring him. No wonder Dante wanted to burn him. The Church hated him so much that when he died, they actually rejoiced and celebrated.
5. Pope Nicholas III
The Catholic Church has had its fair share of corrupt leaders and in Dante’s time, Pope Nicholas III earned the worst punishment for simony. Dante utterly despised his use of the papacy to advance political ambitions and sow corruption within the Church.
Though he was a learned man from a noble family, he wasn’t above promoting nepotism and gave his closest relatives high positions in the cardinalate and important offices. Through this, he also strengthened his hold on the papacy. For that, in the eighth circle of hell, Pope Nicholas III and other simoniacs were made to suffer a distorted form of baptism: they were placed head-first in holes in a rock with flames burning the soles of their feet.
Pope Nicholas III’s flames rose highest above all. It was also here that Dante revealed a dark prediction through the Pope, that his successors Pope Boniface VIII and Pope Clement V, both still alive at the time, were expected to follow him in hell. A little trivia on Pope Clement V, he actually started the vineyards in France that produced the robust red wine Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Pope’s got great taste.
4. Bertran de Born
Another soul in the eighth circle is Bertran de Born, condemned as a sower of discord. According to the book The Poems of the Troubadour Bertran de Born, he was instrumental in convincing and leading the rebellion of Henry the Young King against his father Henry II.
Dante, believing that Bertran had defied his need of intelligence, had him and others like him walk around hell in a perpetual round where, at one point, their heads were severed by a sword. As they followed their path, their wounds would begin to heal and they would eventually become whole only to be cut by the sword again, symbolizing their divided nature. For Bertran, this symbolized the division or strife he caused between the royal father and son.
What’s more interesting though, is that Bertran de Born was not a counsel in the court but was actually a troubadour, a travelling musician and poet who performed in royal courts, and is actually noted now as one of the greatest from the middle ages.
3. Guido de Montefeltro
Here’s another dig at the pope Dante loved to hate. Guido de Montefeltro was condemned to the eighth circle of hell reserved for fraudulent advisers.
Pope Boniface VIII, in an attempt to get rid of his enemies, particularly the Colonna family who had been questioning the legality of his ascension to the papacy and had taken refuge in a fortress, heeded Guido’s advice that they should promise amnesty and then revoke it once the family emerged.
For the value of his service, Pope Boniface VIII granted him absolution from his sins and Guido lived the rest of his life as a Franciscan monk. Although Dante recognized his effort in changing his ways, he firmly believed that his absolution was invalid.
With this thought, in Inferno, Guido related to Dante how in his death St. Francis had arrived to bring him to heaven but then a demon appeared and made his claim, which, it turned out, was valid. Poor Guido was then taken to hell where he was wrapped in his own individual set of flames.
2. Count Ugolino della Gherardesca
In the ninth circle of hell, Dante came to find those who have committed acts of treachery. Here, sinners were trapped in ice up to their chins.
It was also here that he came upon a gruesome sight: Count Ugolino gnawing and eating the head of Archbishop Ruggieri degli Ubaldini. This particular punishment was two-sided. Ugolino had lived a life of political treachery against Pisa. Ruggieri, on the other hand, was instrumental in his arrest and imprisonment.
Now, it certainly was fitting that Ugolino suffered in ice for his betrayals, but why was Ruggieri also condemned to hell? And in an even worse state, given that Ugolino was constantly feasting on his head. Dante must have imagined this as the perfect poetic justice for the pair.
Ruggieri imprisoned Ugolino in a tower but put in with him four innocents, namely Ugolino’s two sons and his two grandsons. After eight months, it was decided that the tower would be sealed and the key thrown in the river Arno. With no food, the younger prisoners starved to death and Ugolino, blind with hunger, consumed the bodies for survival.
The story of Ugolino and his sons was so gruesome and tragic that it had inspired an art piece by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, the leading romantic sculptor of the 19th century.
1. Marcus Junius Brutus
At the very pit of the ninth circle of hell was Satan, the ultimate traitor, a monstrous beast with three faces and six wings constantly flapping, trapped waist-deep in ice.
Dante reserved this worst place in hell for three people, those who have betrayed their lords and benefactors: Judas Iscariot, Cassius Longinus and Marcus Junius Brutus. To Dante, these three were the greatest sinners in human history and imagined the proper punishment for their heinous crimes.
As mentioned earlier in this list, Dante believed that Julius Caesar was divinely appointed to govern the world. That was not limited to politics. Dante was also convinced that Caesar was the key to bringing Christianity into Rome. As the lead instigators for the assassination of Julius Caesar, Dante deemed it fitting to plunge Brutus and Cassius feet-first in the left and right mouths of the beast where they will spend eternity being chewed by Satan.