- This article is about the epic poem, see also derivative works below.
The Divine Comedy (in Italian "Comedia" or "Commedia", later christened "Divina" by Giovanni Boccaccio), written by Dante Alighieri between 1308 and his death in 1321, is widely considered the greatest epic poem of Italian literature, and one of the greatest of world literature.
Structure and story
The Divine Comedy is composed of three canticas (or "cantiche"), Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Paradise), composed respectively of 34, 33, and 33 cantos. The first canto of Inferno serves as an introduction to the entire Divine Comedy, making each of the canticas 33 cantos long. The number 3 is prominent in the work, represented here by the length of each cantica. Also, that they add up to 100 cantos is not accidental. The verse scheme used, terza rima, is the hendecasyllable (line of eleven syllables), with the lines composing tercets according to the rhyme scheme ABA BCB CDC . . . YZY Z.
The poet tells in the first person his travel through the three realms of the dead, lasting during Holy Week in the spring of 1300. His guide through Hell and Purgatory is the Latin poet Virgil, author of The Aeneid, and the guide through Paradise is Beatrice, Dante's ideal of a perfect woman. Beatrice is named after a woman other than Dante's wife, with whom he was not believed to have been involved; he merely admired her from afar, never acting on these desires.
The poem begins on Maundy Thursday of the year 1300, "in the middle of our life's journey" (Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita), and so opens in medias res. Dante is thirty-five years old (half of the biblically alloted age of 70 (Psalm 90:10), again in medias res), lost in a dark wood (allegorically, contemplating suicide--as "wood" is figured in canto 13), assailed by beasts (allegorically, sins) he cannot evade, and unable to find the "straight way" (diritta via) to salvation. Conscious that he is ruining himself, that he is falling into a "deep place" (basso loco) where the sun is silent ('l sol tace), Dante is at last rescued by Virgil after his love Beatrice intercedes on his behalf (Canto 2), and he and Virgil begin their journey to the underworld.
Dante and Virgil enter the Gate of Hell, on which is inscribed the famous phrase, "Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate" or "ABANDON EVERY HOPE, ALL YOU WHO ENTER" (Mark Musa's translation) and first pass through the Vestibule of the Futile, containing those whose actions and characters were so insignificant and indecisive that they do not deserve to be counted in Heaven or Hell: They are forever chasing after a whirling pennant and being stung by wasps (Canto 3). Then Dante and Virgil are ferried across the river Acheron by Charon to Hell proper.
Virgil guides Dante through the nine circles of Hell. The circles are concentric, each new one representing further and further evil, culminating in the center of the earth, where Satan is held, bound. Each circle's sin is punished in an appropriately revengeful way to fit the crime. The nine circles are:
Circle 1. Limbo - the unbaptized and virtuous pagans, who, though not sinful, did not accept Christ. They are not punished in an active sense, but are merely unable to reach Heaven and denied God's presence for eternity (Canto 4).
All of the condemned sinners are judged by Minos, who sentences each soul to one of the lower eight circles. These are structured according to the classical (Aristotelian) conception of virtue and vice, so that they are grouped into sins of incontinence, sins of violence, and sins of malice. The sins of incontinence—weakness in controlling one's desires and natural urges—are the mildest among them, and, correspondingly, appear first:
Circle 2. Those overcome by lust, trapped in a violent storm, featuring Francesca da Rimini and her lover Paulo (Canto 5).
Circle 3. Gluttons, face-down in the mud and gnawed apart by Cerberus (Canto 6).
- Circle 4. The greedy, who hoarded possessions, and the indulgent, who squandered them, forced to push giant rocks in opposite directions (Canto 7).
Circle 5. The wrathful, fighting each other in the swamp-like water of the river Styx, and the slothful, trapped beneath the water (Canto 8).
The lower parts of hell are contained within the walls of the city of Dis, which is itself surrounded by the river Styx (Canto 9). These are the active (rather than passive) sins; first are the sins of violence:
Circle 6. Heretics, trapped in flaming tombs (Cantos 10 and 11).
Circle 7. The violent (Cantos 12 through 17). These are divided into three rings:
Outer ring: The violent against people and property, in a river of boiling blood (Canto 12).
- Middle ring: The violent against themselves—suicides —turned into thorny black trees [Uniquely among the dead, they will not be bodily reincarnated after the final judgment. Where others will continue to occupy Hell (and Heaven) in corporeal (rather than merely spiritual) form, suicides—because they alienated themselves from their own bodies—spend eternity in the body of a tree, their own corpses hanging from the limbs.] Also punished in this circle are profligates, chased perpetually through the trees by ferocious dogs (Canto 13).
Inner ring: The violent against God, art, and nature—blasphemers, sodomites, and usurers—in a desert where fire rains from the sky (Cantos 14 through 17).
The last two circles of Hell punish sins of malice, or sins of the intellect; that is, sins involving conscious fraud or treachery, and can only be reached by descending a vast cliff into the "pit" of Hell:
- Circle 8 The fraudulent—those guilty of deliberate, knowing evil—are located in a circle named Malebolge (Cantos 18 through 30). This is divided into ten ditches:
- Ditch 1: Panderers and seducers, running forever in opposite directions, whipped by demons (Canto 18).
- Ditch 2: Flatterers, steeped in human excrement (Canto 18).
Ditch 3: Those who committed simony, placed head-first in holes, flames burning on the soles of their feet (Canto 19).
Ditch 4: Sorcerers and false prophets, their heads twisted so they can only see what is behind them (Canto 20).
- Ditch 5: Corrupt politicians, trapped in a river of burning pitch (Cantos 21 and 22).
- Ditch 6: Hypocrites, made to wear brightly painted lead cloaks (Canto 23).
- Ditch 7: Thieves, chased by venomous snakes (Cantos 24 and 25).
- Ditch 8: Fraudulent advisors, trapped in flames (Cantos 26 and 27).
- Ditch 9: Sowers of discord, whose bodies are ripped apart, then heal, only to be attacked again (Cantos 28 and 29).
Ditch 10: Falsifiers, i.e. alchemists, counterfeiters, perjurers, and impersonators. Each group is punished by being afflicted with a different type of disease (Cantos 29 and 30).
The passage to the ninth circle contains classical and Biblical giants (Canto 31). Dante and Virgil are lowered into the pit by Antaeus.
- Circle 9. Traitors, distinguished from the "merely" fraudulent, in that their acts involve knowingly and deliberately betraying others, are frozen in a lake of ice (Cantos 32 through 34). Each group of traitors is encased in ice to a different height, ranging from only the waist down to complete immersion. This is divided into four concentric zones:
- Outer zone 1: Traitors to relatives (Canto 32).
Zone 2: Traitors to political entities, such as party, city, or country (Cantos 32 and 33), Count Ugolino.
- Zone 3: Traitors to guests (Canto 33).
Central zone 4: Traitors to their lords and benefactors (Canto 34). This is the harshest section of Hell, containing Satan, who is eternally consuming the bodies of Brutus and Cassius, and the head of Judas Iscariot.
Having survived the depths of Hell, Dante and Virgil then ascend out of the undergloom, to the Mountain of Purgatory on the far side of the world (in Dante's time, it was believed that Hell existed underneath Jerusalem). The initial parts of the book describe the shore of Purgatory (Cantos 1 and 2) and its slopes, where those who were excommunicated, those too lazy to repent until shortly before death, and those who suffered violent deaths await their turn to ascend the mountain (Cantos 3 through 6). Finally, there is a valley housing European rulers and others whose devotion to public and private duties hampered their faith (Cantos 7 and 8). From this valley Dante is carried (while asleep) up to the gates of Purgatory proper (Canto 9).
From there, Virgil guides Dante Pilgrim through the seven terraces of Purgatory. These correspond to the seven deadly sins, each terrace causing the purging of a particular sin in an appropriate manner:
Terrace 1: Pride, by carrying a heavy weight tied around the neck that disables the wearer from standing up straight (Cantos 10 through 12).
Terrace 2: Envy, by having one's eyes sewn shut, and wearing clothing that makes the soul indistinguishable from the ground (Cantos 13 through 15).
Terrace 3: Wrath, by walking around in acrid smoke (Cantos 15 through 17).
Terrace 4: Sloth, by continually running (Cantos 18 and 19).
Terrace 5: Avarice, by lying face-down on the ground (Cantos 19 through 21).
Terrace 6: Gluttony, by abstaining from any food or drink (Cantos 22 through 24).
Terrace 7: Lust, by burning in an immense wall of flames (Cantos 25 through 27).
The ascension of terraces culminates at the summit, which is the Garden of Eden (Cantos 28 through 33). Virgil, as a pagan, is a permanent denizen of Limbo, the first circle of Hell; thus, he may not enter Paradise. Beatrice then becomes the second guide (accompanied by an extravagant procession), as well as a redemptrix and mediatrix. Beatrice is modeled after Beatrice Portinari, a woman Dante loved in childhood, and who passed away in 1290, leaving him grief-stricken. She is exemplified in La Vita Nuova ("The New Life") and is further beatified.
After an initial ascension (Canto 1), Beatrice guides Dante Pilgrim through the nine spheres of Heaven. These are concentric and spherical, similar to Aristotelian and Ptolemaic cosmology. The addition of a moral dimension means that a soul that has reached Paradise stops at the level applicable to it. The nine spheres are:
Sphere 1: The moon - those who abandoned their vows (Cantos 2 through 5).
Sphere 2: Mercury - those who did good out of a desire for fame (Cantos 5 through 7).
Sphere 3: Venus - those who did good out of love (Cantos 8 and 9).
Sphere 4: The sun - souls of the wise (Cantos 10 through 14).
Sphere 5: Mars - those who fought for Christianity (Cantos 14 through 18).
Sphere 6: Jupiter - those who personified justice (Cantos 18 through 20).
Sphere 7: Saturn - the contemplative (Cantos 21 and 22).
Sphere 8: The stars - the blessed (Cantos 22 through 27). Here, Dante is tested on faith, by Saint Peter; hope, by Saint James; and love, by Saint John.
- Sphere 9: The Prime Mover - angels (Cantos 27 through 29).
From here, Dante ascends to a substance beyond physical existence, called the Empyrean Heaven (Cantos 30 through 33). Here he comes face-to-face with God himself, and is granted understanding of the Divine and of human nature.
The Divine Comedy can be described simply as an allegory: Each canto, and the episodes therein, can contain many alternate meanings. Dante's allegory, however, is more complex, and, in explaining how to read the poem (see the "Letter to Can Grande della Scala "), he outlines other levels of meaning besides the allegory (the historical, the moral, the literal, and the anagogical).
The structure of the poem, likewise, is quite complex, with mathematical and numerological patterns arching throughout the work, particularly threes and nines. What has made the poem as great as it is are its particularly human qualities: Dante's skillful delineation of the characters he encounters in Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise; his bitter denunciations of Florentine and Italian politics; and his powerful poetic imagination. The fact that he uses real characters, according to Dorothy Sayers in her introduction to her translation of "L'Inferno", allowing Dante the freedom of not having to involve the reader in description, and allowing him to "[make] room in his poem for the discussion of a great many subjects of the utmost importance, thus widening its range and increasing its variety."
Dante called the poem "Comedy" (the adjective "Divine" added later in the 16th century) because poems in the ancient world were classified by High ("Tragic") or Low ("Comedy"). Low poems had happy endings and were of everyday or vulgar subjects, while High poems were for more serious matters. Dante was one of the first in the Middle Ages to write of a serious subject, the Redemption of man, in the low and vulgar language of Italian, not Latin as one might expect for such a serious topic.
Response and criticism
The work was not always so well-regarded. After being recognized as a masterpiece in the first centuries after its publication, the work was largely ignored during the Enlightenment, only to be "rediscovered" by the romantic writers of the nineteenth century. Later authors as disparate as William Blake, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Samuel Beckett, and James Joyce have drawn on it for inspiration, while modern poets, including Seamus Heaney, Robert Pinsky, and William Merwin, have given us powerful translations of all or parts of the book.
William Blake illustrated the Comedy and the engravings of Gustave Doré are widely used in modern editions. Salvador DalÝ also composed a cycle of paintings from each section of the Commedia. Contemporary artist Jennifer Strange offers dynamic charcoal drawings inspired by the Inferno and Purgatory in the Commedia Inspired by Dante.
Project Dante, of the Polish artist Dariusz Nowak-Nova, is an example of how the Internet and new technologies can contribute to the formation of various approaches to literature, and a new way to conceive the book.
The heavy metal band Iced Earth paid tribute to the poem with an epic song of their own, entitled "Dante's Inferno". Clocking in at 16 minutes and 29 seconds, and featuring long instrumental sections, abrupt tempo changes, and a pseudo-Gregorian chant choir, the song is found on the 1995 album Burnt Offerings.
The Industrial band Skinny Puppy used an illustration found in the Inferno as the cover to their single "Dig It".
The band Symphony X also pays tribute to the poem with an epic song of their own, entitled "The Divine Wings of Tragedy", although it contains some passages of famous classical music, such as The Planets by Gustav Holst.
Zao refer to the Divine Comedy on their 1999 album "Liberate te ex Inferis", covering the first five circles of the Inferno.
Thom Yorke of the pop band Radiohead has also referenced Dante's Inferno as a recurring source of inspiration for his music and many references to the poem can be found in the band's lyrics.
American composer Robert W. Smith also composed a four-part symphony titled after and based on the poem.
Authors Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle wrote a modern adaptation, reworking it into a sci-fi/fantasy novel about a book author who dies during a fan convention and finds himself in Hell. He escapes with the aid of various characters he meets along the way (including Benito Mussolini and Billy the Kid). Eventually, he decides to stay behind in Hell and convince its inhabitants that they can be allowed to leave if they repent and learn enough about themselves.
The poem inspired the 1935 motion picture Dante's Inferno directed by Harry Lachman, written by Philip Klein and starring Spencer Tracy.
Only two known copies of the original manuscript still remain. One is in Milan, and the other is owned by the Asiatic Society of Bombay. In 1930, Mussolini offered the society one million pounds sterling for the book, but was flatly refused.
According to the SocietÓ Dantesca Italiana, no original manuscript written by Dante survived; there are many manuscript copies from the 14th and 15th centuries (more than 800 are listed on their site ).
Last updated: 10-13-2005 22:06:17