This study, which is divided into sections that correspond to the sequence of themes in the text, provides a step-by-step analysis of Canto III of Dante Inferno and its interpretation through the centuries. Two verses--namely, "vidi e conobbi l'ombra di colui / che fece per viltade il gran rifiuto" (vv. 59-60)--have received special attention for two reasons. First, the verses constitute the crux of the canto; second, their interpretation has remained an especially sensitive issue for successive generations of critics. Some commentators have sought to defend Dante from the accusation of heresy (see, in particular, the commentaries written toward the middle of the fourteenth century); others have aimed to protect the memory of a pope who had been proclaimed a saint (see the commentaries written in the nineteenth century as well as certain positions still advanced by "Catholic" scholars in recent times). The various explanations for these crucial verses seem to parallel the changes in intellectual moods that took place--especially in Italy--since the time of Dante's writing.
Yet there are other reasons for dwelling at great length on "the one who out of cowardice made the great renunciation." In my opinion, it is the theme evoked in these two verses--and not Virgil's presence-- which is central to the entire canto. Canto III long has been considered, most notably by classical scholars, "the most Virgilian of all cantos." Notwithstanding the unmistakable echoes from Book VI of the Aeneid (the Underworld, Charon, and the Acheron are all undoubtedly classical images), the fact is that little remains of the classical idea of the hereafter.
The chief purpose of these classical references was to establish a link between Dante's Christian poem and the classical iter ad inferos, a genre for which Homer and Virgil had provided the supreme models. The Christianized version of this genre became highly developed in the Middle Ages and was an essential component in the spread of the "good spell."
Dante, in his own way, considered himself part of the apostolate. His mission as poet was to restore the effectiveness of the two authorities . . .