Dante’s The Divine Comedy

Dante finished writing The Divine Comedy in 1321 shortly before his death. The subject of the final talk in my course on Dante’s Florence was The Divine Comedy, its sources, structure, an introduction to some of its characters, concluding with Dante’s legacy in art.

I don’t think that I’ve ever had such a long introduction to a literary work and I’m eager now to actually read The Divine Comedy. My copy is the Oxford World’s Classics publication. It is 741 pages long, including several introductory essays with plans and maps, and copious notes. I also have the much shorter The Descent Into Hell translated by Dorothy L Sayers. This is only 130 pages and contains extracts from the Inferno (the first part of The Divine Comedy).

Dante’s first title for this was The Vision. He wrote it in Italian, not Latin, so that it was accessible for everyone. It was recited and is basically a sermon, a sacred poem. He changed the title to comedy, which in the ancient tradition was a story, beginning as tragedy and moving to a happy ending. Boccaccio added Divine to the title in the 14th century. It’s an epic, allegorical poem and also an historical chronicle of Dante’s time packed with information on topics such as politics, theology, geography, the arts, and love.

It depicts three regions of the dead – Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise – a journey through the spiritual realms. There are 100 cantos, written in third rhyme – terza rima, invented by Dante, ie the first and third lines rhyme, with the second line indicating the next rhyme. This is an aid to memory and also helps to move the narrative forward. It’s packed with imagery, with multiple meanings and although it includes contemporary characters it’s amazingly modern. Florence is depicted as hell, with the Pope, Boniface VIII and clerics condemned because of the corrupt state of the church, although Dante describes meeting Christian theological thinkers in Paradise.

Dante used many sources, including the Bible, Greek mythology, Roman history, Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Livy, legends, miracle and medieval morality plays and his own stories. The poem begins with an exciting episode at the gates to the underworld in a dark, confusing wood, symbolising doubt, sin and the sterility of the soul. Dante, the narrator, has lost the path and is guided by Virgil through Hell and Purgatory to Paradise, where he meets his beloved Beatrice, who guides him through Heaven. Paradiso is the place of perfect harmony ordained by God. Dante followed the Ptolemaic system of the Cosmos in which Earth is the centre of the universe. He placed Hell at the centre of the Earth, underneath Jerusalem, reached through nine different circles, containing sinners suffering terrible punishments and torture. Purgatory was somewhere in the southern hemisphere, ascending up to Paradise located in Heaven above the Earth.

There are about 600 characters in the whole poem, 250 from the classical era, 80 from the Bible and 250 from Dante’s own time. Dante admired Virgil, his guide through Hell and Purgatory. He describes him as that fount of splendour, symbolising human reason and wisdom. Amongst the many characters are Brunetto Latini, Dante’s mentor who took an active role in politics and the art of oratory, found in Hell because of the sin of sodomy, which was considered as violence against nature; and Farinata degli Uberti, the leader of the Ghybelline party, also found in Hell as punishment for heresy because he was an Epicurean believing that the soul died with the body. He rises from the burning tomb of heretics to speak to Dante. The first mention of Florence is from Ciacco, guilty of the sin of gluttony, when he refers the bloodshed between the citizens of ‘the divided city‘.

Other people mentioned are members of the ancient Donati family (Dante’s wife was Gemma Donati) – Dante’s friend Foresi Donati, Corso Donati, a thief being changed into a serpent and Piccarda Donati his sister,  ‘pearl on a white forehead’, who had belonged to the Order of Poor Clares and was forced to marry to forge a political alliance; the violent tempered Agenti who opposed Dante’s recall from exile; Gianni Schicchi (the source of Puccini’s opera – including the beautiful aria O mio babbino caro); and Count Ugolino, the tyrant who had switched allegiance and was left to starve in Pisa’s Tower of Famine – he was said to have eaten his sons and grandsons and for punishment in Hell was forced to chew on the head of Archbishop Ruggieri.

The Divine Comedy has been read and copied ever since with commentaries coming very quickly after Dante’s death. The first biography of Dante was written in about 1351 by Giovanni Boccaccio, based on oral history from Dante’s contemporaries. The poem was seen as a difficult, obscure work, gothic and heavy going in 14th century England, but Chaucer mentioned it in the Monk’s Tale in his Canterbury Tales. English translations were made from 1802 onwards by Henry Boyd and Henry Cary (promoted by Coleridge). It influenced amongst others John Milton, Shelley and Byron, Wordsworth and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

There are many examples of Dante’s legacy in art – here are just a few:

Giotto’s Last Judgment, in the Arena Chapel in Padua.
Frescos in the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella showing the tiered compartments of Hell and Cerberus the monster with three throats, wings and the body of a beast guarding Hell and the Elect – Saints and Cardinals rising up from their tombs.
The Last Judgment of Fra Angelico.

The painting of the Madonna in Majesty by the Siennese painter Martini.
Botticelli’s scenes of Inferno commissioned to illustrate The Divine Comedy by the Medicis – 92 survive and are in the Vatican Library.

Drawn in pen and ink he intended to colour them all. The one shown below is of the City of Dis, the lower part of Hell, with winged monsters, and the Circle of Deceivers. Dante is shown in red and Virgil in blue.

Frescoes of the Last Judgment in Orvietto Cathedral in 1500 reflecting the doom and gloom of the times fearing the end of the world with images of the damned, a mass of contorted bodies, by Signorelli, a master of human anatomy – the Resurrection of the flesh showing skeletons and bodies emerging from their tombs.
Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel.
Gustave Dore’s illustrations of The Divine Comedy.

William Blake’s watercolour paintings of Inferno

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s translation of La Vita Nuova in 1848.
Christina Rossetti’s studies of Dante – she saw him as a figure of romance.
Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix 1863 – his portrait of Lizzie Siddell in a trance-like state. The white poppy because she was thought to have been poisoned with opium and the sundial pointing to 9 relating to the meeting of Dante and Beatrice when he was 9 years old. This is one of my favourite paintings.

Rodin’s Gates of Hell and The Thinker, also The Kiss, depicting Francesca de Rimini whom Dante meets in Canto 5 of the Inferno. Francesca had fallen in love with Paulo, her husband’s younger brother. The legend goes that they were killed by Giovanni, her husband.

There are many, many more – see this Wikipedia link.

2 thoughts on “Dante’s The Divine Comedy

  1. I have a copy for how long I do not remember. I read it a long time ago and I do need to re-visit it. After reading your post, I will do it sooner.Thanks for this.


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