illustration of a human covered in a starry sky walking from the sky and plains toward a fiery opening to hell

The Divine Comedy

by Dante Alighieri

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Historical Context

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Papacy and Empire: The Decline

Dante Alighieri was born into one of the most chaotic periods of Western European history. His birth in 1265 and death in 1321 meant that he witnessed the decline of the two most powerful social institutions of the Middle Ages: the Holy Roman Empire and the papacy. This degeneration—this loss of power, control, and respect—affected Dante emotionally, psychologically, and politically. The conflicts between church and dtate constitute a major thread in Dante's Divine Comedy and are the subject of his Latin treatise De Monarchia (On Monarchy). This work is his plea for a universal monarchy, one that would coexist peacefully with a pope who would hold spiritual sovereignty over the same subjects.

The process of decline began well before Dante’s birth and continued long after his death. By the thirteenth century, the papacy’s interests had grown ever more political and less and less spiritual. As C. Warren Hollister writes, it was at this time that the papacy “[lost] its hold on the heart of Europe” (Medieval Europe: A Short History, p. 206). By moving into national and imperial power politics and business, it created and widened the gulf between its increasingly secular agenda and the increasing spiritual needs of its members. Not only had the church lost the respect of its flock, it found itself constantly at odds with purely secular authorities. Kings of Western and Northern European countries were centralizing their power during the thirteenth century and felt threatened by the presence in their midst of this independent, very powerful institution. These monarchs found themselves in constant conflict with this massively influential power, an institution controlled from Rome and therefore less easy to control on a local level, for the hearts, minds, and coffers of its subjects.

This was particularly true of the kings of England and France. After Boniface VIII passed the bull Unam Sanctum in 1302, declaring that all Christians concerned with the salvation of their souls owed allegiance to the papal monarchy, things decidedly took a turn for the worse. The king of France, Philip the Fair, captured Boniface at his palace in Anagri and tried to spirit him off to France for trial (Hollister, p. 208). Philip’s spiritual coup failed, but Boniface died in shame soon after. After Boniface’s death, the body of cardinals elected the politically subservient Frenchman Clement V pope. Clement’s moving the papacy from Rome to Avignon in 1309 instituted the so-called Babylonian Exile or Captivity, which lasted until 1377 and meant the end of the strong medieval papacy.

The secular empire fared no better. Moving back three decades or so before Dante’s birth to the reign of the Sicilian-born Emperor Frederick II, it seems that chaos was the norm in the secular realm, too. Pope Innocent II was Frederick’s mentor and supported his bid for the throne, thus demonstrating one significant instance of papal involvement in secular politics. Frederick’s desire to unify a fractious Italy and to make it the imperial center earned him the hatred of the papacy, caused him to lose a good portion of his German holdings, and set much of Italy against him in rebellion. His enterprises made particular enemies of Gregory IX and Innocent IV. These popes built political alliances and used all their powers and sanctions to thwart Frederick’s plans, until 1245 when Innocent and a universal church council excommunicated this enemy of the papacy, this “Antichrist.” Frederick, deposed, died in 1250 and was not succeeded until 1273. In that year, Rudolph the Hapsburg was crowned emperor after a nineteen-year interregnum that further weakened the already unsteady imperial monarchy. Like Frederick in Italy, Rudolph wanted to extend and solidify his holdings and, like his predecessor, aroused nothing but princely discontent. This discontent and the events leading up to it meant the start of 600 years of German instability (Hollister, p. 205). Henry of Luxembourg followed as Emperor in 1308, submitted to papal authority, and pledged to restore peace, beginning with Italy. Dante had high hopes for Henry’s monarchy, hopes which were never fulfilled. By this time Dante had grown more and more critical of Florentine politics and of the papacy and went so far as to urge Henry to attack Florence in 1311, when he was in Italy for his coronation. The emperor marched on Florence, but his efforts failed and meant “the end of Dante's hopes for the reestablishment of effective imperial power in Italy in the foreseeable future” (Chiarenza, The Divine Comedy: Tracing God's Art, p. 3).

Florence: Civic Strife

Before and during Dante’s time, Italy was, as Charles T. Davis writes, “a peninsula united by language and history but not by any central government.” Indeed, “Italy remained, after the failure of Frederick II’s attempt to conquer her, in her habitual state of political chaos” (Dante’s Italy and Other Essays, p. 1). Dante was intensely displeased with the state of Florentine politics. Although the Florentine city-state was one of the most prosperous of its day, and although it flourished artistically, intellectually, and commercially, it had long been the site of intermittent civil war, gang violence, and family feuds which took on regional and even international dimensions. This highly accomplished place was, then, something of a paradox: a thriving commercial and artistic center and yet a very dangerous place to be. This paradox produced Dante’s love/hate relationship with his native city. It did not help that he thought of Florence as the “most beautiful and famous daughter of Rome,” as he referred to it in De Vulgari Eloquentia (On the Vulgar Tongue). We have already seen what state Rome and her empire were in at this time.

Much of the internal strife in Florence was caused by the Guelf and the Ghibelline parties, Italianized forms for the German Welf and Weiblingen. These groups had a long-standing adversarial relationship in Germany, dating to the twelfth century. Guelfs were traditionally associated with papal power and the French monarchy, and the Ghibellines with imperial power, although the situation is far more complex than that. They were introduced into Florentine politics following a quarrel arising out of the murder of Buondelmonte de’ Buondelmonti by members of the Amidei family on Easter Sunday 1215. The Buondelmonti family headed the Guelf faction, and the Uberti the Ghibelline one. After the murder, the Guelfs reached out to the papacy for support, the Ghibellines to the empire, and Florence became bitterly divided. Their struggles lasted in earnest (although did not really end) for sixty-three years, until 1278, and control of Florence shifted back and forth, from Guelf to Ghibelline hands. In 1266, one year after Dante’s death, the Guelfs regained control of Florence and began nearly thirty years of peace and prosperity. They prevailed but in 1300 split themselves into factions, the White Guelfs and the Black Guelfs. The Whites were led by the rich and powerful Cerchi, a family of prosperous merchants who eventually associated themselves with the Ghibellines. The Blacks were led by the Donati, a family with banking interests all over Europe.

Dante was intimately involved in this conflict, and although he was born into a Guelf family, he came to side with the Whites and the Ghibellines in opposition to a papal monarchy and to Charles of Valois. Dante saw military service as a member of the cavalry, which he joined in 1289. He fought with Florence and her Guelf allies against Arezzo in their victory at the battle of Campaldino in 1289 and in the Guelf victory at Caprona in August of that year. In 1295 he served on the People’s Council of the Commune of Florence and as a member of the council that elected that city’s priors. In 1296 he was on the Council of the Hundred, an influential political body involved in Florentine civic and financial matters. He traveled as ambassador to San Gimignano in 1300 and was elected that year to the high office of prior. Again as ambassador, he was sent by the Whites to meet with Pope Boniface at Anagni.

While he was away, the Whites lost power, and the Blacks exiled Dante for two years. They charged him with conspiracy against the pope and Florence. Dante refused to appear at his hearing in 1302 or to pay his fines, since he thought doing so would be an admission of guilt. The Blacks told him that if he ever returned to Florence he would be arrested and burned alive. There is no evidence that he ever did return there.

Literary Style

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Not all epics conform to one definition; however, they share enough of the same poetic characteristics so that we can group them under the genre label of epic. Traditionally epics deal with grandly important themes, often begin “in the middle of things,” in medias res, take place over an extended period of time and a large area, have a large cast, and involve heroic, often legendary, characters. In keeping with their serious subject matter, epics often involve the gods or God in some way. They are narrative in form; in other words, they tell a story. Epics are written in verse of a high register; that is, their authors use formal language and poetic devices like symbolism, metaphor, and simile, which is a kind of metaphor or figurative language. Dante’s Divine Comedy utilizes all of these characteristics.

Dante’s epic tells the story of Dante’s journey from sin to grace. For medieval Christians there was no loftier theme about which to write than the soul’s salvation. As the poem opens, Dante the pilgrim, the poet’s alter ego, finds himself lost in sin, wandering “in the middle of the road of our life” (Inferno 1.1.1). Dante is at the midpoint along the road of his life, a familiar metaphor. The plural pronoun “our” pulls readers into the action and includes them as virtual pilgrims on this journey to God. Thus, Dante stands for all Christians, who may read and learn, as he learns, the nature of sin and how to overcome it.

Along with this lofty theme and beginning in the middle of things, The Divine Comedy takes place over a number of days and an infinitely large area. The narrative action stretches from Good Friday to Easter Sunday. The setting encompasses nothing less than the entire universe and includes places like the Mountain of Purgatory that Dante invented specifically for the poem. Dante travels with his guide, the classical epic poet Virgil (70–19 BCE), through the depths of hell, up the Mountain of Purgatory, and through the heavenly spheres to meet God face to face.

The theme and scope of this epic are matched by its huge cast of characters, many of them legendary, even mythological. There are over five hundred characters in The Divine Comedy, each of them somehow instrumental in Dante’s theological instruction. There are countless Italian contemporaries of Dante the poet, pagan and Christian heroes and martyrs, kings, queens, emperors, empresses, devils, angels, saints, philosophers, theologians, the Blessed Virgin Mary, Christ, and God the Father himself. There are also a number of poets, past and present. The most important, of course, is Virgil. What more important guide could an epic poet have than Publius Virgilius Maro, whose name—along with that of Homer—is virtually synonymous with the title of epic poet? Virgil’s Aeneid, the tale of Aeneas’s wanderings after the Trojan War, remains one of the great epics of all time. Book 6 of the Aeneid, in which the hero, who is predestined to found Rome, travels to the underworld, was especially inspirational to Dante.

The Divine Comedy—like the Aeneid and Homer's Iliad and Odyssey—devotes a good deal of time to supernatural beings. Being a Christian epic, of course, Dante’s divinities are saints, angels, and the Trinity. All of these divine characters intervene in some way to speed Dante along on his trip to the Empyrean, that space of pure white light where God dwells. The Virgin Mary notifies Saint Lucy that Dante is in spiritual trouble. Saint Lucy, in turn, notifies the blessed Beatrice, who sends Virgil to guide Dante, the man who loved her on earth, through hell and purgatory.

Dante chose to tell this massive tale of his alter ego’s trip through the three regions in verse, following the epic form. However, he did not write it in Latin, then the language of the church and of most serious religious poetry. Dante wrote in the vernacular, in the Tuscan dialect of his people. He did so because he wanted his message to be available to a wider audience, to include more than just those who could read Latin. Even though he wrote in the common tongue, his diction, the type of speech he used, is of the highest register, which perfectly suits his purposes.

Flexible and expressive though it was (and is), Dante’s Tuscan dialect was not completely up to the task. This is no criticism of the language, for it is doubtful whether Latin or any other language would have suited him any better. The problem was that many of the things Dante needed and wanted to represent were just too otherworldly. Put another way, he had trouble describing God and parts of his Creation. Dante invented words, most famously the nearly untranslatable trasumanar, and had to resort to metaphor, to figurative language, consistently as he tried to replicate Creation. The section in which trasumanar occurs stands as a good example of the poet’s acknowledging his impossible task: “The passing beyond humanity [trasumanar] may not be set forth in words” (Paradise 1,1. 70).

The closer Dante gets to God and the more he transcends (his) humanity, the more frequently Dante confesses that language fails him. Indeed, on a truly profound level, the entire poem is a metaphor, a figure for a journey that perhaps never happened but that seemingly had to have happened for Dante to write about it for his readers.

Compare and Contrast

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Circa 1300: Dante's understanding of the universe, knowledge of which is key to understanding his work, was based upon the ideas of the Greek astronomer, mathematician, and geographer Claudius Ptolemy (circa BCE 100–circa 178). Ptolemy asserted that the stars and planets were embedded in crystalline spheres that revolved around the earth. This geocentric (earth-centered) belief placed earth and humanity at the center of all creation, in the location of greatest importance.

Late twentieth century: In 1543 the Polish scholar Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) published his theory that replaced Ptolemy’s. Copernicus argued that the earth is not the center of the universe, but that it and all the planets in our solar system revolve around the sun. This heliocentric (sun-centered) system changed classical and medieval notions of humanity’s importance in the grand scheme of creation and became the foundation of modern astronomy.

Circa 1300: Dante believed that the southern hemisphere was covered with water and therefore uninhabitable. World maps from the period illustrate this view and show only the inhabited northern hemisphere. Dante’s creation and placement of the Mountain of Purgatory—with the Garden of Eden at its peak—in the apparently uninhabited southern region were original to him. Nonetheless, he followed mapmaking conventions, also illustrated on some medieval world maps, which held that the Garden was, although earthly, very hard to reach. Such maps usually place it in the east, sometimes as an island, and show it surrounded by stone walls and a ring of fire. This is the island Ulysses and his crew see (Inferno 26, ll. 133–42), the one Virgil describes to Dante as they leave hell (Inferno 34, l. 121) and is the one the two climb in Purgatory.

Late twentieth century: Just after Dante’s time, in the early fourteenth century, seamen began to travel more widely and mapped much more of the oceans, seas, and shorelines. The Age of Exploration produced more accurate maps that changed dramatically the way people like Dante saw the earth. This image has changed even more with space exploration in the last decades of the twentieth century.

Circa 1300: Although Western Europe during Dante’s time was changing and expanding rapidly, it was still fundamentally hierarchical in nature—highly ordered. Christians believed that God presided over all, much like a king or emperor, and that they and all things were arranged under him in order of descending importance. The world of Dante’s Divine Comedy, his universe, owes its shape and structure to such hierarchical notions. Beatrice and Saint Bernard explain this to Dante when they show him how God’s love moves and orders the universe (Paradise 27-33).

Late twentieth century: Social structures clearly differ in the late twentieth century, although traces of medieval hierarchies remain, as do systems of class. Since at least the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, much of humanity has become more skeptical, less ready to put all its faith in a divinely ordered universe like Dante’s.

Circa 1300: During Dante’s time, the Christian church was perhaps the strongest institution in Europe. The pope’s power was rivaled only by that of the emperor, and the two were often in conflict. Along with its spiritual duties, the church was involved in world and local politics, and learned men in all regions the church reached spoke its language, Latin.

Late twentieth century: There is no comparable global power in the late twentieth century. No single institution has such a far-ranging spiritual and political reach. The United States perhaps comes closest as a world leader. English is fast becoming the global language, due early on to the scope of the British Empire and now to the strength of American business and tourism interests around the globe.

Media Adaptations

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The Divine Comedy, or parts of it, has inspired a number of films: Giuseppe de Liguoro directed a silent feature in 1912, called Dante's Inferno; in 1924, Henry Otto directed another silent version with the same title. In 1935 Harry Lachman directed Spencer Tracy, Claire Trevor, Rita Hayworth, Yakima Cannutt and Dorothy Dix in a film called Dante’s Inferno, about a carnival concession that shows scenes from Dante’s poem. Peter Greenaway produced TV Dante: The Inferno Cantos I–VIII. Greenaway shot his film on video for Channel Four television in Great Britain, where it aired in 1989. Tom Phillips wrote the screenplay for this highly stylized, almost experimental, interpretation of the first eight cantos of the Inferno. It features Sir John Gielgud as Virgil, Bob Peck as Dante, and Joanne Whalley-Kilmer as Beatrice. Hard to find since its television debut, Greenaway and Phillips’s graphic version is available as a Films for the Humanities videocassette. It runs ninety minutes and has been retitled The Inferno.

Dante’s work has inspired classical composers. In 1980 Carlo Maria Guihni, Dame Janet Baker, the Philharmoma Chorus and Philharmonia Orchestra of London recorded Giuseppe Verdi’s (1813–1901) Four Sacred Pieces. This work sets some of Dante’s texts to music and is available on a His Master’s Voice recording. The thirty-fourth and final canto of Dante’s Inferno, along with poetry by Francesco Petrarch (1304–1374), e.e. cummings (1894–1962), and Ezra Pound (1885–1972), inspired Eric Ericson’s modern choir music in 1987. Ericson’s contemporary compositions are available on a compact disc produced by Phono Sueica in Stockholm.

The tradition of illustrating Dante’s poem goes back almost to its composition in the early fourteenth century. Peter H. Brieger’s two-volume Illuminated Manuscripts of the Divine Comedy includes commentaries by the eminent Dante scholar Charles S. Singleton, along with a wealth of manuscript illuminations. Princeton University Press published it in 1969. Giovanni di Paolo (1403–1482) illustrated the last section of Dante’s epic, Paradise. John Wyndham Pope-Hennessy edited and published these illustrations with Random House in New York in 1993 under the title Paradiso: The Illuminations to Dante’s Divine Comedy by Giovanni di Paolo. Sandro Botticelli (1444–1510) illustrated the entire Divine Comedy. Sir Kenneth Clark brought out an edition of Botticelli’s work in 1976 with Thames and Hudson publishers in London. The English visionary poet William Blake (1757–1827) did a famous set of illustrations for Dante’s epic. In 1953 Albert S. Roe published these as Blake’s Illustrations to the Divine Comedy. Greenwood of Westport Connecticut reissued Roe’s 1953 collection in 1977. Paddington Press in New York reissued Gustave Dore’s (1832–1883) famous 1861 illustrations of the Inferno in 1976. This large-format edition, Inferno Dore: The Vision of Hell by Dante Alighieri also contains Henry Cary’s translation of the poem and is available in paperback.

Students of Dante’s work now have a variety of Internet sites to visit. A good place to start is the ELT Web Digital Dante Project. Jennifer Hogan of Columbia University in New York edits this wide-ranging page, which provides, among other things, the complete texts of The Divine Comedy in facing-page Italian and English format. The translation is by the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882). Also available are links to sites providing other works by Dante; images of medieval art; a variety of Bibles; classical, medieval, and Renaissance writing connected to Dante and his work; Sandro Botticelli, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), and Gustave Dore's images. The site's address is

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources for Further Study

Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy, Vol. I: Inferno, Vol. II: Purgatory, Vol. III: Paradise. Translated and with notes by Mark Musa. Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1984. Musa’s unrhymed verse translation comes close to representing the meter and sense of Dante’s difficult terza rima. This eminent Dante scholar provides a summary of each canto at its start, very thorough explanatory notes, illustrations, and bibliography.

———. The Divine Comedy. Translated and with notes and commentary by Charles S. Singleton, 3 vols., Bollingen Series 80. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970–75. Singleton’s facing-page prose translation is considered by many to be the best and is therefore the critical edition of Dante’s epic poem. His notes and commentary are the most thorough and provide full texts of all references, in both English and their original languages.

———. The Portable Dante. Edited and with introduction and notes by Mark Musa. New York: Viking Penguin, 1995. This single-volume paperback brings together Musa’s earlier translations of Inferno, Purgatory, Paradise and the Vita Nuova. Like the earlier Penguin editions, this volume contains summaries of each canto, a select bibliography and illustrations. Unlike in the Penguin editions, Musa’s commentary here appears in concise footnote form.

Bergin, Thomas G., ed. Dante: His Life, His Times, His Works. New York American Heritage Press, 1968. This older introductory study includes an anthology of excerpts from Dante’s writings, along with a number of useful sections: a brief biography, a select chronology of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, a section on the arts of the time, and one on the characters in The Divine Comedy.

Bergin, Thomas G. Dante. New York: Orion, 1965. A classic, scholarly study.

Chiarenza, Marguerite Mills. The Divine Comedy Tracing God's Art. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989. A study targeted to students who are new to The Divine Comedy Chiarenza provides accessible information on historical context, reception, and the importance of the poem, along with a reading of each canticle, a rather detailed chronology (1215–1321) and a nicely annotated bibliography.

Davis, Charles T. “Dante’s Italy.” Dante’s Italy and Other Essays. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984, pp.1–22. Focuses upon Dante’s views about language, in particular on his views about the power of Italian (not Latin) poetry. His political and religious views are also discussed.

Demaray, John G. The Invention of Dante’s Commedia. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974. Demaray argues that Dante modeled his heavenly pilgrimage on real-life medieval pilgrimages to the Holy Land and provides a good deal of historical and cultural information about such pilgrimages.

Fowlie, Wallace. A Reading of Dante’s Inferno. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981. Fowlie provides an analysis of each canto from the first canticle of Dante’s epic. Each entry concludes with a helpful section, “Principal Signs and Symbols,” and the work as a whole ends with an instructive section entitled “Note on Reading Dante Today.”

Freccero, John. Dante: The Poetics of Conversion. Edited and with an introduction by Rachel Jacoff, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986. A difficult but valuable collection of essays by the premier American Dante scholar. Freccero’s readings of selected cantos of Dante’s poem offers unique and original insights.

Friederich, Werner P. Dante’s Fame Abroad: 1350–1850, Studies in Comparative Literature 2. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1950. A comprehensive overview of existing scholarship on Dante’s influence on the Poets and Scholars of the United States and Europe.

Giamatti, A. Bartlett, ed. Dante in America: The First Two Centuries, Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies 23. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1983. This collection of essays, edited by the eminent scholar and former Commissioner of Major League Baseball, gathers together important critical studies by American scholars from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Kirkpatrick, Robin. Dante: The Divine Comedy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987. A scholarly study that includes a section on Dante’s development as a poet, an extended reading of each canticle, a short essay on Dante’s “impact,” and a useful “guide to further reading.”

Kleiner, John. Mismapping the Underworld: Daring and Error in Dante’s “Comedy.” Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1994. Kleiner investigates Dante’s “enthusiasm for error” and fruitfully works against a critical tradition that seeks perfection in The Divine Comedy.

Mazzeo, Joseph Anthony. Medieval Cultural Tradition in Dante’s “Comedy.” Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1968. This fundamental collection of essays by a renowned Dante scholar deals with the structure of The Divine Comedy and solidly sets the poem in its cultural context.

Musa, Mark. “The ‘Sweet New Style’ I Hear.” Advent at the Gates: Dante’s “Comedy.” Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1974, pp. 111–28. One of America’s foremost Dante scholars explains the poet's dolce stil novo, the “sweet new style” of lyric poetry in which Dante and some of his contemporaries wrote.

Quinones, Ricardo J. Dante Alighieri. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979. Quinones discusses Dante’s life and each work in the context of their cultural and historical events. Quinones’s chronology (1215–1321) is less informative than Chiarenza’s but provides a much more detailed history of Dante in his time.

Thompson, David. Dante’s Epic Journeys. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974. Accessible study providing a good discussion of Dante’s use of works by Homer and Virgil.

Toynbee, Paget. Dante Alighieri: His Life and Works, 4th. ed. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1971. Toynbee’s work, originally published in 1901, was long the standard bibliographical and historical study of Dante’s life. It contains still-useful background information.

——— . Dante Dictionary, rev. ed. Edited by Charles S. Singleton. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965. Toynbee’s original title, A Dictionary of Proper Names and Notable Matters in the Works of Dante, gives a general indication of its scope. First published in 1889, this work remains one the most valuable aids to the student of Dante’s works.

Yates, Frances A. The Art of Memory. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1966. Dated but still useful, especially for those interested in the role memory plays in texts like Dante’s.

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Critical Essays