A Hell of a City: Infernal Rome (Inferno 18 & 27)

A Hell of a City: Infernal Rome (Inferno 18 & 27)

In Inferno 18, Dante and Virgil enter Malebolge (or Evil Pouches) in the eighth circle of Hell where fraud is punished. In the first pouch, the crowd of panderers and seducers conjures up the image of the pilgrims who go to Rome for the first jubilee promoted by Pope Boniface VIII in 1300, the same year in which Dante’s journey is set. Inferno 27 narrates the encounter with Guido da Montefeltro, a fraudulent counselor to the same Pope Boniface VIII. This infernal portrait of the holy city and its Pope leads up to the encounter with Satan at the bottom of Hell and the lowest point in the Cosmos.

Inferno 18 and 27. Instructions for Use: The Map of Malebolge

Presented by Theodore J. Cachey Jr.

This video introduces the map of Malebolge, the eighth circle of Hell where fraud is punished and situates Guido da Montefeltro, whose speech in Inferno 27 will be a focus of discussion.  

A Hell of a City: Infernal Rome. Introduction to Inferno 18 and 27

Presented by Theodore J. Cachey Jr.

After the seventh circle of violence, the monster Geryon carries the two poets in a downward flight deeper down in Hell. Fraud is punished in the eighth circle, called Malebolge, or Evil Pouches (cantos 18-31), divided into ten pouches or ditches where different categories of fraudulent sinners are distributed: panderers and seducers (1), flatterers (2), simoniacs (3), diviners (4), barrators (5), hypocrites (6), thieves (7), false counselors (8), schismatics (9), and counterfeiters (10) guarded by various kinds of devils, serpents, and the giant Cacus.

Malebolge is described at the beginning of canto 18 and appears like a stony and dark pit embedded in lower Hell, its ten ditches interconnected by a system of bridges coming together at the center of the pit. The first ditch is occupied by pimps and seducers, naked and scourged by devils, while walking in circles in opposite directions. The scene conjures up the image of the pilgrims walking to and from St Peter’s Basilica in Rome on two lanes of the bridge (Ponte Sant’Angelo) connecting the center of the city to the Vatican, during the first Jubilee proclaimed in the year 1300 by Pope Boniface VIII, Dante’s great political enemy whom the poet held ultimately responsible for his own exile from Florence. Boniface’s Jubilee is implicitly contrasted to Dante’s poem, which constitutes a counter-pilgrimage to that of Boniface.

Dante presents to the reader of the Commedia an infernal Rome here which introduces a dystopic journey through lower Hell Italy. Many other cities will be evoked in the following ditches of Malebolge and yet the centrality of Rome is reasserted through the figures of the recent Popes evoked in Inferno 19, especially that of Boniface who is one of the protagonists of canto 27, the second canto dedicated to the eighth ditch of false counselors whose souls are enveloped in flames.

Sandro Botticelli, Inferno 18, detail, 1480 ca.

Here Dante and Virgil encounter Guido da Montefeltro (1220-1298), famous captain and leader of the Ghibelline party in the region of Romagna, the party that in Italian medieval cities supported Imperial power against the Guelph party, which supported the Church. In 1296 Guido had joined the Franciscan order, but the following year Boniface solicited Guido’s counsel against the Pope’s personal enemies, two cardinals of the Colonna family, a rival to the Caetanis (Boniface’s own family). The Colonnas hadn’t recognized the election of Boniface to the Holy See, so Boniface excommunicated them. They took refuge in their fortress in Palestrina near Rome, and the Pope had it besieged, but the fight was at an impasse. Guido’s fraudulent counsel, which the Pope had promised to pardon and absolve in advance, consisted in promising the two Colonna cardinals the Pope’s pardon if they left Palestrina and surrendered. Once they had complied, though, the Pope, following Guido’s advice, didn’t maintain his promises and destroyed Palestrina. Having chosen not to maintain his promise to the Colonnas, Boniface was also deceitful in granting absolution to Guido for his fraudulent counsel. At Guido’s death, in fact, the devil snatched Guido’s soul and not even St. Francis could save him. No sinner can be saved unless their heart truly repents.

The ninth and last circle of Hell (cantos 32-34), Cocytus, a river of ice guarded by the giants, is the deepest part of Hell where traitors are punished in four different regions: Caina (traitors against relatives), Antenora (traitors against party or homeland), Ptolomea (traitors against guests), and Judecca (traitors against rightful lords). Satan is punished here, with Brutus, Cassius, and Judas in his three mouths.

Infernal Rome: The Donation of Constantine

Presented by Chiara Sbordoni

This video is a historical introduction to the relationship between the Church and the Holy Roman Empire according to medieval ecclesiastical propaganda as displayed in the frescoes that decorate the chapel of St. Sylvester in the complex of the Basilica of the Santi Quattro Coronati in Rome.

Infernal Rome: Pope Boniface VIII and the bridge to St Peter’s

Presented by Chiara Sbordoni

This video introduces the historical figure of Pope Boniface VIII and Dante’s characterization of him and presents the iconic bridge by which pilgrims to Boniface’s first Jubilee reached St. Peter’s Basilica.

T.S. Eliot’s Dante

Presented by David Lummus

Like many modern authors, T.S. Eliot looked to Dante both as a model for what it meant to be a poet and to Dante’s poetry for inspiration on how to represent the ills of his world. In this video, Lummus discusses how Eliot uses the figure of Guido da Montefeltro as an exemplar of modern man’s capacity for self-deception.

"What’s Wrong with this Picture?" Guido da Montefeltro and Pope Boniface VIII

Presented by Theodore J. Cachey Jr.

This video offers an interpretation of the encounter with Guido da Montefeltro, adviser of Pope Boniface VIII, punished in the eighth bolgia of false counselors.

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Presented by Theodore J. Cachey Jr.

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Featured Speakers: 

  • Theodore J. Cachey, Professor of Italian and the Albert J. and Helen M. Ravarino Family Director of Dante and Italian Studies, University of Notre Dame; Co-Director, University of Notre Dame Center for Italian Studies 
  • David Lummus, Visiting Professor of Italian and Co-Director, University of Notre Dame Center for Italian Studies
  • Chiara Sbordoni, Adjunct Professor of Italian, University of Notre Dame Rome Global Gateway

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Additional Resources

Presented by Theodore J. Cachey Jr.

  • Article: Theodore J. Cachey Jr., “Cartographic Dante.” Italica, vol. 87, no. 3, 2010, pp. 325–354. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25780734
  • Read Eliot’s “Prufrock.”
  • Short Videos: La Divina Commedia in HD (English subtitles available): Inferno 18 (4 minutes), Inferno 27 (3 minutes), and Inferno 34 (3 minutes)


Presented by Theodore J. Cachey Jr.

You’ve now completed all four parts of the series, A Hell of a City: Dante’s Inferno on the Road to Rome, a reading of salient cantos of Dante’s Inferno on the backdrop of Dante’s contemporary Rome, as well as its history, literature, and heritage.

Be sure to explore the other events, series, podcasts, articles, and videos on ThinkND.

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