Dante, 1265-1321, is one of the most important
writers of European literature. He straddles the Middle Ages
and the Renaissance. His other major works include La vita nuova,
De monarchia, and Convivio.
Dante, born into a noble Florentine family, lost his mother
at the age of 7. Five years later he met Beatrice, who was
became the love of his life, but he was never to have her as
They were both promised to other people, as arraigned
marriages were common practice at the time.
Beatrice died when she was only 24, and Dante was heartbroken.
He buried himself in deep study of philosophy and Provencal
poetry, and Beatrice became his muse. He dedicated two major
her, Convivio and La vita nuova, and she was his guide through
Paradise in the third part of The Divine Comedy.
The Divine Comedy is Dante’s most famous work. He wrote
it in exile in 1310-1314, but dated it 10 years earlier to give
it’s characters prophetic powers.
In The Divine Comedy we follow Dante the Pilgrim through Hell
(Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio), and to Paradise (Paradisio).
In all the realms Dante meets the famous and the infamous,
some from ancient times, and some from his own, contemporaries
he had met himself.
Dante’s Hell consists of nine circles, beginning at the
castle of wisdom, not truly part of Hell, but a limbo where
pre-Christian pagans live without God in death, as they did
in life. Among
these noble souls is the Egyptian Sultan Saladin, the philosophers
Plato and Socrates, and the Trojan hero Hector, Aeneas founder
of Rome, and Camilla, the warrior Princess who raised an army
Each of Hell’s nine circles is reserved for different kinds
of sinners. Caina, or Cain’s hell, the first circle,
is reserved for those who sinned against their family. Other
are reserved for people who committed suicide, fraud, murder,
and so on.
Among those confined to eternal torment in Hell is Bruno Latini,
a father figure for Dante after his own father had passed away
in his late teens. This one-time friend and, mentor is placed
in Hell’s seventh circle, among those guilty of “violence
against nature,” in this case sodomy. The deeply religious
Dante gave no pardons.
The journey through Hell leads Dante through a variety of dangers,
but his guide, the Roman poet Virgil, escorts him safely past
demons and devices of torture. Tired but relieved, they pass
through Hell and reach the foot of Mount Purgatory, the other
side of the world.
Dante’s Purgatory is a lofty island mountain divided
into seven terraces, where repentant sinners do their penance
to some day be worthy of Heaven. Here the proud circle the
mountain bent double for humility; the slothful run around
examples of zeal and the lustful are purged by fire.
On top of the mountain is the Garden of Eden, or earthly paradise.
The river Lethe runs through the beautiful lush garden, providing
forgetfulness before the cleansed souls ascend to heaven.
Beatrice meets Dante at the river. As the personification of
pure love, she has been sent to rescue him, while Virgil, his
former guide, returns to the Castle of Wisdom.
Beatrice leads Dante to Paradise where he is able to gaze upon
the supreme radiance of God. He ends his pilgrimage in rapture,
a vision of “the love which moves the sun and the stars.”
Only a few years after completing The Divine Comedy, the real
Dante ended his own pilgrimage as he died in exile. He was
56 years old and still longing for his Beatrice.
The Divine Comedy is fun and interesting to read. Dante creates
a fascinating world that has affected not only religious perceptions
and imagination, but also most subsequent allegorical creations
of imaginary worlds. Some of the characters, like Queen Dido
of Carthage, Aeneas’ lover in Virgil’s epic, are
considered mere myths today. Others, like the several popes who
are given a rather rough treatment in Hell, are historical people
with records that can be compared to Dante’s interpretations.
Dante shows imagination, and a certain vindictiveness, when
he “sentences” people.
To be stuffed down a hole of bubbling magma is considered fitting
punishment in for Pope Boniface II, who exiled Dante.
Written originally in Italian, The Divine Comedy is available
in most languages today. The most popular translation into
English was made by Henry Cary (1772-1884.) My personal favorite
easily read, and thoroughly explained 1984 translation by
Written almost 700 years ago, The Divine Comedy is a rock
solid classic, well worth the time it takes to read it.