THE LITERARY WORK
A poem in thirty-four cantos, set in Hell in 1300; written in Italy between 1307 and 1314.
Written during Dante’s exile from Florence, Inferno maps Hell, which, according to the narrative, contains many of Dante’s political rivals, as well as wrongdoers from many periods of history.
Events in History at the Time of the Poem
Exiled from his native town of Florence, Dante Alighieri wrote the Divine Comedy, the first part of which is Inferno, as he wandered from city to city in northern Italy between 1301 and 1314. The poem reflects the political and social turmoil that plagued the region at the time.
Events in History at the Time of the Poem
In the early fourteenth century, Italian cities were engaged in making important decisions about their methods of government. The cities had a confusing array of choices, each championed by elements of society that were competing for control. Competitors included the popes in Rome, who wanted to incorporate the cities of Tuscany (an area of northern Italy) into the “Papal States”; the Holy Roman Emperors, German aristocrats who claimed an ancient right to rule Christendom; the local noblemen, who favored rule by a small, select group; and the rapidly rising merchant classes, who sought to establish a system of rule that would protect their newly acquired wealth. The personal vendettas and personality conflicts at the root of most of the trouble emerge clearly in the Inferno, as Dante, a staunch supporter of the Holy Roman Emperors, accuses—and punishes—individuals for the actions they have taken in public life.
The civic politics of Florence during Dante’s life were dominated by the strife between two rival factions, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. In general, the Guelphs represented ordinary citizens and were aligned with the papacy; the Ghibellines sided with the emperors. Dante came from a family of Guelphs, but he himself came to favor the Ghibelline cause, especially their promise to bring Florence within a stable empire.
The Guelphs and the Ghibellines were divided on the political issue of empire. Among Italy’s city-states, Florence provided the leading Guelph opposition to the idea of a pan-European state. The city fought to maintain and increase its own independence. Meanwhile, Dante was convinced that only under the wider authority of an empire could human beings enjoy the fullest freedoms and most moral lives. The sort of Christian empire favored by the popes in Rome did not appeal to Dante, however, primarily because he thought that the church was greedy, corrupt, and ambitious. In Dante’s Inferno, the fourth circle of Hell, reserved for the greedy, is filled with nothing but churchmen; the part of the eighth circle reserved for barratry (graft, including the buying and selling of church positions) is dominated by popes. Distrustful of the church and its leaders, Dante instead placed his hopes for political stability in the leaders of the Holy Roman Empire.
Florence during Dante’s lifetime was the fourth largest city in Europe, with a population of some 90,000. As the city became increasingly powerful, however, it also fell victim to increased corruption. Florence’s wealth was derived in large part from the trade and banking connections that it enjoyed all over the continent, from the city of London in the west to Constantinople in the east. Dante’s Hell is filled with people associated with the misuse of money and goods: usurers who lend money at interest, thieves, counterfeiters, and frauds.
Born into a nonaristocratic but respectable Florentine family, Dante had to assume responsibility for other family members after the death of his father. This new responsibility hurtled him into Florentine politics, where he reached his height of influence in 1300, when he was made one of the city’s seven prefects, or civic governors. The struggle for power in that city was such that prefects governed for only two months at a time—the city changed hands six times a year. During his brief term in office, the decision was made to banish the feuding leaders on both sides of the political conflict between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. This ban included two sets of Guelph families—the populist “Whites” and the pro-papal, pro-aristocratic “Blacks”—who had been in dispute with one another.
As part of a small city group, Dante went to Rome to negotiate with Pope Boniface VIII, who had been interfering in the dispute between the White and Black Guelph families. While Dante was in Rome, the new prefects of Florence, who assumed power during his absence, canceled the banishment of the Blacks. In addition, the new prefects exiled Dante for two years for his involvement in the original decision to exile the Blacks. When Dante refused to return to Florence to answer the charges against him, he was sentenced to death and permanently exiled from the city.
Of Dante’s life in exile not much is known with certainty; it is said that for a while he plotted the overthrow of the Florentine factions responsible for his downfall, but that effort did not last very long. He was for a time in the court of Verona. Dante died in Ravenna with his daughter by his side. She had become a nun and had taken the name Sister Beatrice. This name was significant, for Beatrice was also the name of Dante’s lifelong love.
According to another work by Dante, Vita nuova (1293-94), he was nine years old when he first set eyes on Beatrice and fell in love at first sight. Although she married someone else and died young, Dante’s love for her lasted the rest of his life. She figures prominently in many of his works, including those penned long after her death, and appears in works created throughout Dante’s marriage to another woman.
Beatrice’s identity and the relationship that she had with Dante have been a subject of considerable debate over the years. Although some critics wonder if the woman ever really existed, the consensus now is that she was the daughter of a powerful Florentine family, the Portinaris, with whom Dante had a passing acquaintance. As to their relationship, it should be remembered that marriage at that time did not necessarily exclude romance with a person other than one’s spouse. A highly ritualized form of romantic love
Inferno, Dante’s poem about Hell, forms one-third of the monumental epic known as the Divine Comedy. The other two parts are Purgatorio and Paradiso. which have Dante visiting the souls in Purgatory and Heaven, respectively. The term comedy may seem problematic since Dante’s trip through Hell is not a humorous one, but in fact the word is used in its classical meaning: “a story with a sad beginning and a happy ending.” Beginning in Hell and culminating in a heavenly vision of divinity, the Divine Comedy is in this sense a true comedy.
could exist between unmarried people. Often this sort of love was the subject of lyrical poetry in which the lady became an ideal, an unattainable object. In the Inferno, Beatrice is an angelic representative of the Virgin Mary, which puts a Christianized spin on a common romantic situation of the times.
Beatrice appears in the Divine Comedy as an image of spiritual love. Her largest role is in Paradiso, in which she helps guide Dante through Heaven. In Dante’s poem about Hell, the Inferno, she is one of three heavenly ladies—the Virgin Mary (Mother of Christ) and St. Lucy (to whom two churches in Florence were dedicated) are the other two—who watch over Dante. That Beatrice serves as a symbol of divine love marks a significant departure from the way in which Dante wrote of her earlier in his life. In the Vita nuova, Dante spoke of her in sacred terms, but in a manner that was rather shocking for the times; he appropriated wholeheartedly the language of religious devotion and applied it to a mortal woman. One critic points out that this action “approaches the limits of sacrilege” (Harrison injacoff, p. 36). The Divine Comedy treats Beatrice in a less controversial manner. While Beatrice has a heavenly role in the work, she is placed in an entirely Christian framework.
Pope vs. emperor
As one historian explains, “Italy in Dante’s time was a mass of self-seeking smaller states: the cities of northern Italy, the kingdoms of southern Italy and France … and the papal states. All had constantly shifting alliances” (Ferrante, p. 51). One subject of particular controversy concerned the amount of influence the popes in Rome ought to have in worldly affairs. The Holy Roman Emperor, who was in effect the king of all Christian lands (although this was a hard claim to back militarily), was supposed to be the ruler of rulers, and hence the king of the rulers of England, France, and Norway. But the pope, who had the sole authority to crown the Holy Roman Emperor, also claimed, on the basis of his absolute spiritual authority over all Christians, to be the supreme power in Europe. This tension is played out throughout the Inferno, primarily in the recurrence of evil churchmen in Hell’s many circles.
Matters came to a head in the late 1200s as Pope Boniface VIII and Philip IV of France (“Philip the Fair”) fought for control of Europe. Boniface’s immediate predecessor, Celestine V, was the only pope ever to abdicate; he lasted in the papal office for only five months. The College of Cardinals, the group of elite authorities and highest-ranking churchmen, had elected Celestine, a simple hermit, because they did not want to elect the most obvious candidate, the acidic and power-hungry Benedict Gaetani. When they eventually gave in and elected him, Gaetani took the name Boniface VIII. The new pope’s enemies, of whom there were many, accused him of forcing or tricking Celestine into resigning his duties.
One of Dante’s passages in the Inferno may refer to Celestine. There is some speculation that Dante places Celestine in Hell for relinquishing his sacred duties; he may be the person referred to in the lines “I saw and knew the shade of him who from cowardice made the great refusal” (Dante, Inferno, 3.59-60). While the identity of this person is not established decisively, the poem does accuse Boniface of tricking the old man into resigning. Canto 19, which takes place in Hell’s eighth circle, recites much of the political tension between kings and popes that dominated European society during Dante’s life. One of the sinners there, who cannot see because his head is buried, mistakes Dante for Boniface, and asks: “Are you already standing there, are you already standing there, Bonifazio? … Are you so quickly sated with those gains for which you did not fear to take by guile the beautiful Lady, and then do her outrage?” (Inferno, 19.52-7). The “beautiful Lady” referred to in this instance is the church.
Boniface and Philip first came into conflict when the French king insisted that he had the right to levy a tax upon the clergy who lived in his kingdom. Boniface was furious at what he saw as an attack upon his own authority and tried to excommunicate Philip, an act which amounts to denying a person all church sacraments, rituals believed to be necessary for the saving of one’s soul. Philip won this round of sparring, however, by cutting off the export of all money from France. Since Pope Boniface needed the rich revenues that came from the French clergy, he caved in and “allowed” Philip to tax the clergy in his country.
Round two began when Philip accused a French bishop (the priest responsible for church affairs within a certain jurisdiction, usually a city) of treason. Philip and the pope each claimed to be the final authority on such matters. Their battle escalated to the point where Philip’s men actually captured the pope and held him prisoner for several days before releasing him.
The power-hungry and unpleasant Boniface and the equally powerful French monarchy both earned Dante’s hatred; their perpetual wrangling and political maneuvering prevented the crowning of a rightful Holy Roman Emperor. Although the German Hapsburg dynasty continued to insist that it was entitled to the role of Holy Roman Emperor, the family had many rivals for the position. Nothing ever came of the Hapsburg efforts. Not until 1308 was another emperor (Henry VIII of Luxemburg) crowned in Rome; Boniface died in 1303.
The Poem in Focus
On Easter weekend, in the year 1300, Dante discovers himself at the brink of Hell. Afraid and threatened by a trio of wild animals, he feels relieved to see a figure approaching him from afar. He is wildly delighted to discover that this figure is Virgil, the great Roman poet and one of Dante’s literary heroes. The Roman poet has been sent by the heavenly Beatrice, Dante’s true love on earth when she was alive. Beatrice watches over Dante’s best interests from Heaven as he takes a tour of the Inferno, another name for Hell.
Dante’s Hell consists of nine concentric circles, with the widest at the top and the narrowest at the bottom, in the manner of a cone or funnel. In each of the nine circles live specific sorts of sinners, with the less serious offenders in the higher regions, and Satan, accompanied by Judas Iscariot, Brutus, and Cassius, in the lowest.
Virgil has been denied the possibility of going to Heaven because he was a pagan worshipper of many gods instead of one god. Along with a company of classical writers, philosophers, and legendary characters, Virgil inhabits Limbo, the least awful section of Hell. The first people that Dante meets are Virgil’s fellow poets: Lucan, Ovid, Homer, and Horace. They inhabit a self-contained city in which the citizens are unhappy but not tortured like the other residents of Hell. Also in the walled city that occupies the first circle of Hell are heroes and philosophers, including Aristotle, Julius Caesar, Socrates, and Plato.
From the relatively pleasant enclosure of the good pagans, Virgil leads Dante downward to the other circles of Hell. As the circles get smaller toward the bottom, the torments inflicted upon the sinners grow increasingly horrible. People are boiled in mud, transformed into hybrid snake-men, ripped to shreds by demons with pitchforks, embedded in ice, or subjected to having their brains eaten by lifelong rivals. Time and again among the sad company of the damned, the character of Dante recognizes people that he knew or had heard of from Italian politics and draws moral conclusions about the state of affairs in Italy.
Passing by horrific monsters and awful tortures, Virgil leads Dante to where Satan stands at the very center of the earth, embedded in ice from the waist down. Satan is a gigantic figure who is uglier than anything else in Hell. The two poets inch between Satan’s fur and the ice that surrounds him and end up on the other side of the world. Inferno concludes here. Purgatorio, the second part of the Divine Comedy, features Dante’s climb up the mountain that was pushed up at the point on earth directly opposite to where Satan fell.
Easter in the year 1300
Pope Boniface VIII proclaimed 1300 to be a Jubilee Year, the first such event in church history. It featured a festival that celebrated the church and the papacy. Since Boniface was an unpopular man, he may have ordered the festivities as a show of strength and unity.
Dante set the Divine Comedy on Easter weekend of 1300, the year in which he himself reached the estimated halfway point of a human life. According to Psalm 89:10 of the Bible, “Seventy is the sum of our years,” and Dante, born in 1265, was thirty-five when he wrote the poem. He set its beginning on Good Friday, the most solemn day of the Christian church calendar; on this day, says the New Testament, Christ died on the cross after being crucified.
Dante’s Hell is comprised of concentric circles, nine in all, each inhabited by a different kind of sinner, ranging from those who commit the relatively common sins, such as greed and lust, to the deepest circle of all, where Satan is punished for his treachery to God. The scheme is as follows:
The River Acheron
Circle 1: Limbo (for the unbaptized: Virgil, good pagans)
Circle 2: Carnality (sins relating to bodily desires)
Circle 3: Gluttony (sins relating to overeating and drinking)
Circle 4: Greed
Circle 5: Anger, sloth (laziness)
The River Styx
lower hell: the city of dis
Circle 6: Heresy (denial of or opposition to Christian teachings)
Circle 7: Violence (against others, against oneself, against God and nature)
Circle 8: Fraud (panderers and seducers, flatterers, those who lend money at a high rate of interest, diviners, barrators who buy or sell church or government positions, hypocrites, thieves, bad counselors, schismatics who separate or divide from the church, forgers)
Cocytus: The Frozen Lake
Circle 9: Treachery (traitors to family, to country, to guests, to lord or patron)
In Canto 34, line 117, Dante uses the word Giudecca to describe the lowest point of Hell. This word refers to Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Jesus Christ, who inhabits the place with Satan, but it was also used in Dante’s time to describe the ghettos of European cities in which Jews were confined.
The poet’s next journey, into Purgatory, is related in Purgatorio. This journey takes place on Holy Saturday, the day on which Christ freed from Hell all the good people who could not go to Heaven until he opened the way. In Christian theology, Purgatory is a transitional place where souls that are not evil but are not yet holy enough to enter Heaven are purified. The final section of the epic, Paradiso, is set on Easter Sunday, the holiest day in Christian life, when Christ rose from the dead. In this section, Dante visits Heaven.
Virgil, the Latin poet (70-19 b.c.) who wrote The Aeneid (also covered in Literature and Its Times), the national epic for the Roman Empire, leads Dante through Hell and Purgatory. By associating himself with Virgil, Dante is perhaps making a claim for the comparable importance of his own work as a celebration of a Christian empire. This certainly fits with Dante’s lifelong political aspiration of seeing Florence and the other Italian city-states welcome the Holy Roman Emperor as the leader of a unified land.
Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid features a visit to the underworld, and Dante makes use of the details and imagery in that work to describe Hell in the Inferno. Virgil explains to Dante that, no matter how virtuous he and others like him might have been while alive, they are sentenced to Hell because they were pagans who worshipped many gods and did not receive the Christian initiation sacrament of baptism:
“[T]hey did not have baptism, which is the portal of the faith you hold; and if they were before Christianity, they did not worship God aright, and I myself am one of these. Because of these shortcomings, and for no other fault, we are lost, and only so far afflicted that without hope we live in longing.”
In the upper circles of Hell, Virgil’s power is quite strong; he is able to command other spirits to do his bidding and is confident that Heaven approves of his role as Dante’s tour guide through Hell. As the two poets descend, however, Virgil grows less sure of himself; in Lower Hell, where they encounter the heretics (people who disagree with official church teaching), he must have angelic help before he is allowed to enter the gates of the City of Dis. This may be because, as a pagan, he is unfamiliar with church controversy and is therefore out of his league. With such scenes, Inferno shows how pagan figures stand in a Christian concept of the afterlife, and it also upholds the supremacy of the Christian religion. There is also an implied suggestion that, as a baptized poet of the church, Dante himself will surpass the works of Virgil and the other pagan poets.
The Divine Comedy is a thoroughly Christian poem, and so it is no surprise that allusions to and quotations from the Bible permeate the entire work. But quotations from Virgil are also plentiful. In Canto I, Dante states that whatever fame he has already earned has followed from his imitation of Virgil: “O glory and light of other poets, may the long study and the great love that have made me search your volume avail me! You are my master and my author. You alone are he from whom I took the fair style that has done me honor” (Inferno, 1, 82-7).
Dante was the most famous European poet ever at the time he died in Ravenna in 1321. Immediately upon his death, a whole industry of commentators swung into production; Dante’s poetry became the subject of translation, speculation, and inspiration. In 1371 the Florentines established a public lectureship on Dante; they appointed Boccaccio, the famous poet, to take up the position. Boccaccio made it only part way through a discussion of the Inferno before his worsening health forced him to resign his post.
Maps of Hell
One of the more interesting offshoots of the Divine Comedy is the spate of map-making that arose in the Renaissance. Some scholars took very seriously the dimensions of Hell that Dante mentions from time to time in the Inferno. Debating the various aspects of Dante’s description, they created detailed maps of the circles, ditches, walls, and rivers of the underworld. Two Florentine architects, Antonio Manetti and Filippo Brunelleschi, started the project. Christophoro Landino, who published a literary commentary on the Inferno in 1481, included Manetti’s figures in his own work, and the following twelve editions of the Landino commentary generally featured Manetti’s work. In 1506 Girolamo Benivieni discussed Manetti’s work and provided “the first drawings of Hell to qualify unambiguously as maps” (Kleiner, p. 25). Even Galileo Galilei delivered lectures on the subject of infernal cartography, or Hell-centered mapmaking. To this day, very few editions of the Divine Comedy appear without an accompanying map of Hell.
For More Information
Chubb, Thomas Caldecot. Dante and His World. Boston: Little, Brown, 1966.
Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy: Inferno. Translated by Charles S. Singleton. Bollingen Series 80. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970.
Ferrante, Joan M. The Political Vision of the Divine Comedy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.
Hibbert, Christopher. Florence: The Biography of a City. New York: Viking, 1993.
Jacoff, Rachel, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Dante. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Kleiner, John. Mismapping the Underworld: Daring and Error in Dante’s ‘Comedy.’ Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1994.