Dante was born of a poor but noble Florentine family. Unusually well educated for his time and social class, he was knowledgeable in science, theology, and philosophy and was a well-known man of letters. He lived in politically tumultuous times and was active in his city’s government. During an absence from Florence in 1301, his party was overthrown and he was sentenced to exile in 1302. For a time, he tried to clear his name, but he was never allowed to return to his beloved Florence upon the threat of being burned. Dante wrote The Divine Comedy in exile and died in Ravenna.
Dante chose to write the masterpiece The Divine Comedy in Italian, although the language of scholarship at that time was Latin. Dante’s major writings in Latin include his political essay De monarchia (c. 1313; English translation, 1890; also known as Monarchy, 1954; better known as On World Government, 1957) and his compelling defense of the written vernacular as an appropriate medium of expression, De vulgari eloquentia (c. 1306; English translation, 1890). Although Dante used Latin for a number of very important letters and for a few poems, his language of choice was his native Tuscan dialect, which became the basis of modern Italian. His earliest major work—La vita nuova (c. 1292; Vita Nuova, 1861; better known as The New Life), a mystical-spiritual account of his love for Beatrice that combines prose and poetry—was written in Italian, as were Il convivio (c. 1307; The Banquet, 1887), a philosophical commentary on four of his poems, and a number of lyric poems. The greatest tribute to the eloquence of written Italian is, however, The Divine Comedy.
The work that Dante first titled La commedia (the adjective “divina” was added by others and first appeared in the 1555 edition) is an intentionally complex work. It is divided into three sections, or canticles: Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Heaven). The poem is subdivided into one hundred cantos: one for the prologue and thirty-three for each of the main sections. Each canto consists of three-verse units, terzine; each verse is composed of eleven syllables, for a total of thirty-three syllables in each terzina. The rhyme scheme that Dante invented for the poem, called terza rima, consists of each rhyme (except the first) occurring three times: aba; bcb; cdc, ded, and so forth. This scheme creates an interlocking pattern that produces a very closely knit poem.
Number symbolism plays an important part in The Divine Comedy. As a typical medieval poem, it relies heavily on mystical associations with numbers. It is not difficult to discern, for example, the relationship between one poem in three canticles and one God in the three form of the Trinity. The number two reflects the duality of nature as seen in the pairing of opposites such as corporeal and spiritual, active and contemplative, Church and State, Old Testament and New Testament, and the (inverted) mountain-shaped Hell and the purgatorial mountain.
Three signifies Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity; and other combinations. Dante’s terzine and terza rima are significant in this regard and are meant to honor the Trinity. Among multiple examples in the poem, the pilgrim is initially blocked on his path by three beasts, has three guides, spends three nights in Purgatory, and has three dreams there. The number four—the number of the seasons, elements, humors, directions, and cardinal virtues—combines with three to make the mystical seven: the number of days of creation, days of the week, days of Dante’s journey, virtues and vices (embodied in the structure of Mount Purgatory), and planets, among many other instances. Nine, the multiple of three times three, becomes the basis for the overall structure for each of the realms of the afterlife: There are nine circles of Hell, nine areas of Purgatory (ante-purgatory, seven ledges, and the garden), and nine spheres of Heaven.
In his famous “Epistle to Cangrande,” in which he dedicates the Paradiso to that Veronese nobleman, Dante sheds light on many aspects of his poem. He explains his poem’s title by indicating that a comedy begins with a difficult situation but has a happy ending and is written in a humble style that is accessible to all (as opposed to the dire ending and high style of tragedy). He claims that his poem, like Scripture, has various levels of meaning: Although the literal subject of the poem is the state of souls after death, its allegorical subject is the exercise of free will by men and women and the moral consequences of their choices resulting in torment or reward in the next world. He affirms that his poem’s purpose is practical, not speculative: to help lead readers from misery to happiness, which consists in the knowledge of God.
The journey of Dante’s pilgrim, which constitutes the poem’s plot, is an explicitly Christian journey, initiated by grace, through the world of an afterlife that is based on Christian teachings and principles. As such, Dante’s main source for the poem is the Bible, which is referred to directly or indirectly more than 570 times. Dante quotes, paraphrases, and alludes to many biblical verses; more than forty biblical personages appear in the poem; Christian dogma is explained; and biblical events are symbolically reenacted. The literal events of the poem signify corresponding spiritual realities. The pilgrim’s loss of the right path, for example, is also the loss of his path to salvation; the dark wood reflects his sinful state. The journey of Dante’s pilgrim from the dark wood of sin and error to the light and truth of Heaven is meant as a reenactment, on an individual level, of the spiritual significance of the Exodus. The removal of the seven marks from the pilgrim’s forehead as he climbs each ledge of Purgatory indicates his cleansing and healing from the stains and wounds of sin. His pilgrim’s descent into Hell on Good Friday, his emergence from it on Easter Sunday morning, and his rising into the heavens is an imitation of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension.
Although there is direct exposition of Christian truth, primarily in the Paradiso, many of Dante’s teaching points are not directly stated but, rather, are embedded in the things his pilgrim witnesses. The geographical layout of each realm of the afterlife, for instance, is an implicit running commentary on the spiritual conditions of souls. The sinners in Hell—in its traditional location under the earth—are cut off from the Sun. Since the Sun represents light, truth, and God, the very location of these sinners reflects the fact that they are cut off from God. Each successive circle is farther down in the earth and thus farther from the Sun, indicating Dante’s evaluation of the increasing seriousness of any given sin. On Mount Purgatory, as the souls climb upward, they are moving closer to the Sun and thus closer to God, signifying their growth in virtue as well. The gravity of each vice purged is reflected in the physical structure of the mountain, where the most serious sinful inclination (pride) is purged on its lowest ledge, and the least serious (lust) is cleansed on its highest ledge. In the Paradiso, the degree of blessedness for redeemed souls is indicated by the distance from or closeness to the Empyrean of the sphere in which they appear to the pilgrim. Dante’s topography, then, carries a nonverbal message.
Another indirect commentary can be found in the torments in Hell and the purifications of Purgatory. They are not merely innovative, interesting, or random; they are designed to provoke thought about the nature of each sin and vice. In Hell, each particular type of suffering, which Dante calls a contrapasso (counter-suffering), does not stem from God’s eye-for-an-eye retribution but rather reflects the essence of the sin the soul has committed, which now becomes its own punishment. Sinful lovers are whirled around by a tempestuous wind because they allowed themselves to be carried away by their passions. Murderers are submerged in a boiling river of blood because they chose to shed the blood of human beings; the degree to which they shed blood determines the degree to which they are submerged in the river. Those who betrayed others are encased in ice because they chose to be cold-hearted. Souls in Hell, then, experience an infernal version of the disordered condition of the sin to which they clung and that now constitutes their essential being for all eternity.
Unlike the torments in Hell, in Purgatory the souls’ sufferings are curative, not punitive: Souls do penance by practicing the opposite of their vice. The proud, with their haughty looks, are now bent over and have their eyes cast down. The envious, who looked greedily upon what others had, now have their eyelids sewn shut. The lustful, who burned with fiery passion, are now purged by a cleansing fire. Dante almost never spells out the connection between a sin and its punishment or a vice and its cleansing, leaving that connection for readers to ponder and to discover.
Just as the literal events in the poem have underlying significance, so too do the characters. The characters in Dante’s afterlife are, necessarily, all the people who have ever lived and died, beginning with Adam and ending on Good Friday of 1300. The more than six hundred characters specifically named in the poem are historical and classical figures, including personages from the Old and New Testaments, emperors and other rulers, artists and poets, popes and other clergy, and noble men and women. Since no group enjoys a favored status in the afterlife, people from each category can be found in all three realms. Although Dante’s characters can represent theological, political, philosophical, or moral realities, their historical reality and their complexity as human beings remain intact.
Dante shapes his characters according to the typological or figural approach to history, in which human beings continue to be themselves but carry other meanings as well. Dante’s Virgil is the historical Roman poet who wrote the Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553), but he also signifies natural philosophy, reason, poetry, and the Roman Empire (which Dante felt was divinely ordained to establish earthly peace and order). Beatrice (“blessed” in Italian) retains her identity as the young Florentine woman whom Dante loved since his youth and who died in 1290, but she often functions in the poem as the personified character of Wisdom in the Old Testament and thus also signifies revelation, grace, and theology.
The underlying significance of each of these two guides often dictates what they can or cannot do in the poem. For example, Virgil, as embodying natural philosophy and reason, can guide the pilgrim through Hell and Purgatory because the tools he embodies can discover that sin is a disordered state to be rejected (Hell) and that moral virtues are desirable (Purgatory). However, Virgil cannot go any farther because natural philosophy and reason have limits to the truths they can discover. In order for the pilgrim to understand the heavenly realities of God’s nature and salvation history, revelation and theology are needed. This is why Virgil is replaced by Beatrice as the guide through Heaven. As with other aspects of his poem, Dante does not explain these points for his readers, expecting them to arrive at an understanding of these things on their own.
Although he is writing a Christian poem with reliance on the Bible and theologians such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, Dante incorporates classical and mythological elements into his poem in a wide variety of ways. His references at the very beginning of the poem to Aeneas’s journey to the underworld and St. Paul’s journey to the heavens indicate that he intends his poem to syncretize classical and Christian traditions. Believing that ancient authors and myths attained some elements of truth—even if they did so imperfectly at times—he draws on Virgil’s and Ovid’s writings as poetic models, and he bases part of the moral order of Hell on the division between incontinence and malice found in Aristotelian ethics. On all the ledges of Mount Purgatory, the examples of virtue that the souls meditate on come not just from the Bible and history but from myth as well.
At times, Dante synthesizes and adapts classical elements to align with Christian truth for his own purposes. The guardians of the nine circles, for instance, are mythological or classical creatures that Dante chooses as embodiments of the sin of a given circle. Three-headed Cerberus—traditionally the classical guardian of Hades—has three mouths, so he now guards the gluttonous; Plutus—traditionally the Roman god of Hades—is also the god of wealth, so he now guards the avaricious and the prodigal, who misused wealth in different ways. Throughout the poem—even in the Paradiso, where the emphasis is on direct Christian teaching—classical stories, gods, and characters are referred to and used in similes, metaphors, and allusions to help describe the pilgrim’s inner experience and the things he sees.
No brief explanation can do justice to the majesty and depth of this monumental achievement in the history of Western poetry, and no sweeping generalization can adequately account for its complexity of ideas or the intricacy of its structure. Its epic scope and encyclopedic nature make The Divine Comedy a key to the study of medieval civilization. However, its focus on the ultimate issues of life and death, the Creator’s relationship to all of creation, and the moral consequences of human behavior transcend time, making Dante’s poem perennially relevant.