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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The Poem

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Last Updated on January 14, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1976

Dante finds himself lost in a dark, frightening wood. To regain his path, he tries to climb a mountain, but a leopard, a lion, and a wolf block his way. The Roman poet Virgil approaches him and offers to conduct him through hell and purgatory as the only way back to the right path. Virgil comes at the request of a lady from heaven, Beatrice (a woman whom Dante once loved), who will guide the pilgrim through heaven once he reaches it.

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When the travelers arrive at hell’s entrance, Virgil explains that the large group of souls outside the gates lived their lives without committing to good or evil, so neither heaven nor hell will accept them. At the River Acheron, where they find the ferryman Charon, Dante is seized with terror and falls unconscious. Aroused by a loud clap of thunder, he finds himself across the river and follows his guide through limbo, the first of the nine circles of the funnel-shaped hell. The souls in limbo, most of whom lived in ancient times, lived virtuous lives but were not baptized (since Christ had not yet come to earth when they lived). Unlike the other souls in hell, they are not undergoing any torments.

The next four circles Dante and Virgil visit are reserved for those who committed sins of incontinence. In the second circle, they meet Minos, the infernal judge, who appoints newly arrived sinners to their appropriate circle for punishment. Dante is overcome by pity as he witnesses the souls who are guilty of sexual sin being eternally buffeted by a stormy wind. He speaks to two souls and faints when he hears their story. The third circle houses gluttons, who are forced to lie in muck under a constant rain of filthy hail, snow, and stagnant water and are guarded by the terrifying three-headed dog Cerberus. In the next circle, guarded by Plutus, Dante witnesses the prodigal and the avaricious in two semicircles rolling heavy boulders and clashing up against each other. Dante and Virgil reach the muddy river Styx, in which the wrathful are submerged and are tearing at one another. Dante meets someone he knows, as he does in many circles, but for the first time he feels no pity for the sinners as he begins to understand the justice of hell’s torments. At Virgil’s signal, the ferryman Phlegyas transports them across Styx to the city of Dis.

The city of Dis, or lower hell, encompasses the last four circles of hell. When Dante and Virgil are denied admittance by the fallen angels who guard the city’s walls and gates, a terrified Dante wants to retrace his steps and return the way he came. However, an angel arrives from heaven and commands the rebellious spirits to allow the two travelers passage. Once inside Dis, they discover fiery tombs that house the souls of heretics, and Dante speaks to two of the tormented. During a pause in their journey made necessary by the increasing stench from below, Virgil explains the philosophical rationale for the moral ordering of hell’s nine circles and describes the next three.

The Minotaur—the raging half-man, half-bull—guards the seventh circle of souls who committed violence against others, against themselves, and against God. Dante and Virgil see a red river of boiling blood, in which murderers are submerged. Dante is transported by a centaur across this river to a forest and discovers that the gnarled trees there contain the souls of those who committed suicide. Next, they come to a plain of burning sand, where they find those who sinned against God (blasphemers) or nature (homosexuals and usurers). Flakes of fire rain down on all three groups. Among the homosexuals, Dante is astounded to find a former mentor, and he speaks with three souls from Florence. The two poets then come to a precipice.

To reach the eighth circle far below, Virgil summons Geryon, a frightful flying monster with a scorpion’s tail, to transport them. When they reach the bottom, they see ten moat-like ditches in descending sequence, connected by rocky bridges. Each ditch houses sinners who committed a type of fraud. Dante finds here, for instance, seducers, flatterers, diviners, sellers of political offices and favors, hypocrites, and thieves. The ten separate torments endured by frauds range from sitting in dung (flatterers) to wearing leaden coats that appear golden on the outside (hypocrites). In this circle, Dante speaks to many people, and Virgil speaks to Ulysses.

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Hearing a horn blow, the travelers see a group of giants buried up to their waists who surround the ninth circle, in which traitors are encased in ice. After being lowered into this final circle by the giant Antaeus, Dante converses with some of the souls there and learns the nature of their particular betrayals. At the center of this lowest circle, they see the monstrous figure of Satan, with three faces and six wings, frozen up to his waist. Climbing down his leg, they reverse direction and journey up to the earth’s surface in the opposite direction of hell.

Dante and Virgil emerge on Easter Sunday morning from hell’s foul air to the pure atmosphere of the Island of Purgatory, located in the unexplored southern hemisphere. A grassy plain surrounds a conical mountain with seven circular ledges that has an insurmountable wall around its base. They soon see a boat propelled by an angel transporting souls of recently deceased people who are destined for heaven but who must first undergo purification. Dante recognizes a musician friend among them. As Virgil and Dante stroll through the plain, they encounter many souls who explain that they are kept in this area, ante-purgatory, because they delayed their repentance. They plead with Dante, as do many souls in this realm, to ask their families to pray for them when he returns to the northern hemisphere. While sleeping, Dante is transported up to the gate of Mount Purgatory by Lucia, a lady from heaven. The angel guarding the gate inscribes seven marks with the tip of his sword on Dante’s forehead, one for each of the seven capital sins common to human beings.

Once past the gate, the two poets ascend a narrow winding path and arrive at the first ledge. They see souls bent over, carrying heavy stones on their backs. Here and on every ledge, the souls meditate on examples of the vice of which they are being cleansed and of its opposite virtue—in this case, pride and humility. As Dante climbs to the next ledge, the angel guarding the connecting stair removes the first mark on his forehead—a procedure that will be repeated from ledge to ledge. On the second ledge, the souls wear sackcloth and have their eyelids sewn shut with wire while they listen to examples of envy and generosity. The wrathful, on the next ledge, are enveloped in blinding smoke, and on the fourth ledge, Dante and Virgil witness the purging of sloth when they see souls forced to run continuously. One of the souls here asserts that human beings have free will and choose their ultimate destinies.

Virgil discusses the nature of love and the moral order of the mountain, explaining that the sinful dispositions on this mountain can be categorized as examples of misdirected, defective, or excessive love. On the fifth ledge, where avarice and prodigality are purged, the prostrate souls face the ground. Virgil and Dante are joined by the Roman poet Statius, who has completed his cleansing here and who accompanies them to the sixth ledge, where gluttony is purged by fasting. The souls on the seventh and final ledge are being cleansed of lust by fire. Afraid of being burned, Dante refuses to enter the fire until Virgil informs him that he will see his beloved Beatrice only if he walks through it.

An angel now directs the poets to a path that leads to the original Garden of Eden. As they stroll through a lovely forest, Dante comes to a stream; on the other side, a beautiful woman is gathering flowers. She tells him that this stream, Lethe, will remove his memory of sin and that another stream in the garden, Eunoe, will restore memories of good deeds. After Dante sees a procession that includes personages representing the books of the Bible, Beatrice arrives with heavenly attendants and Virgil disappears, returning to limbo. Beatrice reproaches Dante for his unfaithfulness to her after she died, but, convinced of his sincere repentance, she agrees to lead him through heaven.

After witnessing symbolic reenactments of church history in the garden, Beatrice and Dante rise effortlessly and instantly through the nine heavenly spheres, which are characterized by ever-increasing light and joy. Beatrice tells Dante that although the true dwelling place of all blessed souls is the Empyrean, which is outside space and time, souls appear as lights in each sphere to indicate to him their different degrees of blessedness. On the sphere of the moon, Dante finds those who were forced to break their vows of chastity in religious life. Here, as elsewhere in heaven, Dante asks many questions, and Beatrice or another blessed soul answers him. Beatrice then leads him to Mercury, where he sees the souls of those who were interested in their own glory and hears Justinian narrate a survey of the history of the Roman Empire. From there, they rise to Venus, where Dante converses with souls whose lives were marked by excessive passions.

Arriving at the fourth sphere, the sun, Dante and Beatrice are encircled by a group of lights representing the great theologians. As spokesman, Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican friar, names and comments on each of the souls and narrates the life of Saint Francis of Assisi. A second circle of lights surrounds the first, and a new spokesman, Bonaventure, a Franciscan friar, narrates the life of Saint Dominic and then names the souls in that second circle.

When Beatrice and Dante rise to Mars, the fifth sphere, they see crusaders and martyrs, who appear as sparks in the shape of a cross. Dante meets his ancestor Cacciaguida, who commissions him to report all that he has seen when he returns to earth and warns him that he will be driven into exile in the future. Next, on Jupiter, Dante sees the souls of those who administered justice faithfully, such as King David and Charlemagne, who appear in the shape of an eagle’s head and neck. In the seventh sphere, Saturn, Dante finds the great contemplatives such as Saint Benedict.

When they arrive at the sphere of fixed stars, Dante looks down on the earth and is astonished by its insignificance with respect to the cosmos. He undergoes examinations by the apostles Peter, James, and John on faith, hope, and love to see if he is properly prepared to enter the Empyrean. Adam approaches the group and tells Dante about his brief time in the Garden of Eden. Peter bitterly laments the corruption in the church and commissions Dante to repeat what he has just heard when he returns to earth.

In the ninth sphere, Dante sees God as a point of light encircled by the nine orders of angels who rotate all the lower spheres. Beatrice then leads him into the Empyrean, where he first sees symbolic visions of heaven’s assembly and is strengthened thereby to see it in its true form, which he compares to a white rose. After realizing that Beatrice has returned to her heavenly seat, Dante sees an old man at his side, Bernard of Clairvaux, a medieval mystic, who prays for his final vision of God. Dante sees God first as light, then as three rainbow-colored rings, representing the Trinity; his culminating vision is of humanity’s union with God in Christ.

Places Discussed

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Dante begins his journey in the grim nether regions. “Abandon hope all ye who enter in” is inscribed on the gates of hell. With Virgil, the most noble of pagans, as his guide, Dante enters the concentric circles of hell, where sinners are mired eternally in the crimes that have brought them there. Each punishment cruelly fits the sin. Sowers of discord are eternally rent asunder by demons; violent souls steep forever in streams of blood. There are degrees of punishment in hell. On the outer regions of hell, swept perpetually by a whirlwind, Dante finds the tragic adulterous lovers from his own time, Paolo and Francesco. The depths of hell are reserved for the most heinous of sinners, those who betrayed their masters. Here Dante finds Judas and Brutus, frozen in the devil’s mouth.

The Divine Comedy provides not only a poetic summa of the literature, philosophy, and religion of the Middle Ages, but a medieval Christian interpretation of all human history. Borrowing freely from Ptolemaic cosmology and the speculations of church leaders, Dante also found the epic poets, particularly Homer and Virgil, enlightening when it came to describing the realm of the dead. Only here could Dante freely mingle fictional personalities from earlier literature with semilegendary characters from epics and real figures from the Italian city-states. Only within this locale, constructed from his borrowings and own dreams and visions, could he hope to succeed in his acknowledged goals: to compose a Christian epic celebrating Italian civilization and to honor Beatrice, the woman he had loved from childhood.


The pangs of purgatory are mitigated by hope. All souls here will eventually be released. Some of these penitent shades discourse on the transience of human fame and the vanity of human wishes. Others answer Dante’s questions about free will and the influence of the stars upon earthly lives. Amazingly, even in this place, despite the urgency of purgation, the affairs of the Italian city-states remain pressing, and several of these penitents have political discourse with the visiting poets. Dante uses the unique setting not only to exercise his satiric vision but to air some of his own political opinions.


The final destination in Dante’s journey, paradise or heaven, is a place of perfect happiness, populated by saints. In paradise, Virgil is no longer Dante’s guide, having had the misfortune to be born shortly before the redeeming advent of Christ. Beatrice now takes his place. Paradise thus becomes the only setting in which Dante could truly have absorbed the great lesson of Christian neo-Platonism. On earth he had worshiped this woman from childhood, and she had inspired his art, even after her death. To see her again in paradise had been his abiding hope. Yet as he progresses through the heavens—meeting apostles, doctors of the church, the Virgin Mary herself—Beatrice’s own presence slowly fades, and at last Dante is able to perceive the ultimate reality toward which Beatrice’s image has always beckoned. He is to contemplate the radiance of divinity and to submerge himself in the most ecstatic of mysteries, the Triune God and the God-Man.

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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Sources for Further Study


Bemrose, Stephen. A New Life of Dante. Exeter, England: University of Exeter Press, 2000. Biography that includes a discussion following the plot of The Divine Comedy and differentiating between the real-life Dante and the character.


Cogan, Mark. The Design in the Wax: The Structure of the Divine Comedy and Its Meaning. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999. Argues that a complex system of interrelated values of sin, redemption, and blessedness is embedded in the work’s structure.


Dronke, Peter. Dante and Medieval Latin Traditions. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1986. Succinctly demonstrates in The Divine Comedy Dante’s debt to medieval Latin conventions. Marshals impressive evidence to argue that Dante did not write the expository part of the “Epistle to Cangrande,” which constitutes the cornerstone of Charles Singleton’s allegorical interpretation of Dante’s masterpiece.


Freccero, John. Dante: The Poetics of Conversion. Edited by Rachel Jacoff. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986. A collection of seventeen essays by a leading critic of Dante. Demonstrating the centrality of Augustine’s thought for Dante, Freccero builds on the writings of Charles Singleton while refining many Singletonian ideas.


Hollander, Robert. Dante: A Life in Works. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. Uses a thematic approach to The Divine Comedy by focusing on main characters; also thorough discussion of allegory.


Jacoff, Rachel, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Dante. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Fifteen essays by distinguished scholars that provide essential background to and critical evaluations of Dante’s life and work. Includes key studies by historians and literary scholars.


Singleton, Charles Southward. Dante Studies. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1954 and 1958. 2 vols. Often regarded as the most influential studies published by an American Dante scholar, these classic writings interpret Dante’s poem using a fourfold allegorical model. Though dated, Singleton’s approach remains a point of departure for much American Dante scholarship.


Sowell, Madison U., ed. Dante and Ovid: Essays in Intertextuality. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1991. Addresses the crucial question of how the Christian poet Dante made use of the classical poet’s texts. The essays highlight and offer perspicacious commentary on the Ovidian presence throughout Dante’s masterpiece.

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Critical Essays