"Who made through cowardice the great refusal"

(Canto 3, line 60)

There are different speculations on who this may refer to, but most commentators believe it is Pope Celestine V, famous for abdicating the papacy. Also known as Pietro da Morrone, he was born sometime around 1210-1215 in a humble household. Most of his life was spent in asceticism and solitude. After the death of Pope Nicholas IV in April 1292, he was elected Pope by an assembly of cardinals at Perugia two years later. After hesitating some time, he finally accepted and was crowned in August 1294. However, Celestine remained in Naples and did not go to Rome to take the office. It is sometimes speculated that his election as Pope may have been the result of pressure from Charles II of Naples. Very soon, he starting feeling powerless towards the political environment around him and decided to abdicate, in spite of opposition from Charles. His abdication in December 1294, not four months after his coronation, may also have been prompted by cardinal Gaetani, who succeeded him as Pope Boniface VIII the same month. After his abdication, Celestine, who wished to resume his life of solitude, was however imprisoned by Boniface in the castle Fumone, where he died of disease in May 1296.

Dante regarded Boniface VIII as the instigator of both the factional fighting in Florence and the persecution of himself. Because Celestine V's abdication opened the way for Boniface's rise to power, Dante places him here among the uncommitted souls of no ambition. However, Celestine has otherwise mostly been portrayed as virtuous and respected, and he was subsequently canonized, in 1313. Scholars puzzled by Dante's condemnation of Celestine have proposed that this line refers to some other person, like Pilate, who seeked to avoid the responsibility for Jesus' death; Roman emperor Diocletian, who likewise abdicated as emperor after 20 years' reign; or Esau, who sold his birthright as eldest son in the Genesis account.