Dante’s The Divine Comedy is the beginning of Italian literature and the single most significant work of the Middle Ages because its allegory emphasizes the importance of salvation and divine love in a work that is inclusive and tightly structured. It is so thoroughly infused with Christian ethics that any overview has to touch on major Christian themes, beginning with the plot being set during Easter week 1300.
The work is a complex narrative with many allusions to biblical stories, classical myths, history, and contemporary politics; however, the plot’s symbolism provides clarity in that it celebrates the ideal of universalism, where everything has its place in God’s world, and its ultimate goal of salvation triumphs over the contemporary reality of the power struggle between worldly and religious leaders.
The structure of the entire work, as well as of its parts, is symbolic of the story it tells, as the use of numbers shows. The number 3 (symbolic of the Trinity: God as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost) and the number 10 (the “perfect” number: 3 × 3 + 1) are the most conspicuous examples. The Divine Comedy has three “cantiche,” or parts (Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven). Each cantica has thirty-three cantos, or songs, with the exception of the first cantica, which has thirty-four cantos, adding up to a total of one hundred (the perfect number squared: 10 × 10). Each canto is written in terza rima, that is, in tercets that rhyme in an interlocking manner.
The first canto of Inferno, is considered to be an introduction to the whole work (making the structure even more symmetric: 1 + 33 + 33 + 33 = 100) because all three parts of The Divine Comedy are present in the first canto’s symbolic landscape. Dante finds himself lost in a dark forest. Looking for orientation, he decides to hike up a mountain, whose sunlit top represents Purgatory, while the sky and the sun represent Heaven. However, Dante’s path is blocked by three animals on the mountain’s slope: a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf, which represent the three main types of sin that correspond to the three main divisions of Hell.
The spirit of Virgil appears and promises to get Dante to salvation the long way: through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Dante’s doubts are assuaged because Virgil has been sent by three heavenly ladies (the Virgin Mary, Saint Lucy, and Beatrice); in the combination of human reason with divine grace, Dante’s salvation may yet be achieved. After they enter Hell in the third canto, Dante learns through conversations with Virgil and individual souls that each sin is punished according to its severity, systematically going from the lighter sins of incontinence (giving in to one’s desires) to the more severe sins of violence (actively willing evil) and fraud (adding malice). Hell, which is presented as a huge funnel-shaped underground cave, extends in ever-smaller and more-constricting circles to the middle of the earth; there, in the pit of hell, sits Satan himself, forever stuck frozen in the ice of the lake Cocytus, chewing on the three worst human traitors: Judas, Brutus, and Cassius.
Climbing past Satan, Dante is headed toward salvation. While all sinners in Hell will remain there forever to suffer their horrible punishments because they did not admit their sins, souls in Purgatory are already saved and eventually will go to Heaven because they confessed their sins before death. Therefore, the mood has completely changed: The souls are not stuck in everlasting isolation but learn in groups from examples of the virtue and vice that correspond to their penance. Purgatory is presented as a huge cone-shaped mountain and the only landmass in the southern hemisphere. Purgatory proper is organized in seven rings according to the traditional seven deadly sins (pride, envy, wrath, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust). At the top of the mountain is earthly paradise (the Garden of Eden); this is as far as human reason can lead, so Virgil leaves and Beatrice becomes Dante’s guide.
Cleansed of his own sins, Dante rises naturally toward Heaven. In keeping with the Ptolemaic worldview, Heaven is organized in spheres with the earth in the center. Dante identifies ten spheres that he relates to the so-called four pagan virtues of fortitude, justice, temperance, and prudence in varying degrees (first to seventh Heavens), the three Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity (eighth Heaven), the Primum Mobile (the ninth heaven, which moves all others), and the Empyrean (the tenth Heaven outside of time and space, where God dwells). The Empyrean as a state of being also contains the Celestial Rose, where all blessed souls reside. The souls do not reside in the individual heavens where Dante encounters them but are put there so that he may more easily understand their place in the divine order. The blessed souls in Heaven form a true, though strictly hierarchical, community that exists in an all-permeating feeling of love and bliss, which comes from the joy and peace of being in the proper place in God’s creation. Dante evokes in images of light what lies beyond human experience, such as the radiance of the blessed souls and Dante’s vision of God.