Dante Alighieri was born in Florence in 1265. He wasdescended from a well respected family. His hometown,Florence, was growing in greatness and riches, trading insuch goods as wool, silk, and leather. Florence, like the othercities in Italy at the time, was under the jurisdiction of Rome.
Yet Rome itself wasdivided. Both theEmperor and the Popeclaimed politicalauthority, and thus Italywas divided between thepartisans of theEmperor, theGhibellines, and thepartisans of the Pope,the Guelfs.
As can be imagined, such a situation caused chaos.The Guelfs gained control of Florence in 1266.Dantes family had been associated with the Guelfparty for a considerable time. In later years two subparties of the Guelfs were created: the Whites andBlacks. Both claimed they were Guelf, but the pope,Boniface VIII sided with the Blacks.
Dante was a member of the Whites and a member ofthe government council of the city. Dante soon found himself at odds with the Pope. In 1300 Dante was exiled. Thus, he was forced to spend the rest of his life away from his beloved hometown of Florence.
The Popes sentence carried a harsh penalty: shouldDante ever return to Florence, he would be burnedat the stake. Needless to say, Dante never returnedhome-- but, through the power of his pen he was togain sweet revenge! He lived with his friends andadmirers and spent his time in exile writing TheDivine Comedy.
The Love Lives of Dante At the time of his exile (1300) Dante was a married man with four children. He had been married some time between 1284 and 1292 to a woman named Gemma di Donati. Gemmas family, like Dantes was old and respected. It is thought that their marriage was arranged. Gemma never joined her husband after his exile, although Dantes two sons eventually did.
Beatrice Polinari. Like Romeoand Juliet, the names of Danteand Beatrice will forever belinked. Dante probably sawBeatrice only twice in his life,the first time when he was aboy of only eight years old. Heglimpsed her again, severalyears later and was delightedthat she smiled at him!
Like Dante, Beatrice was married, probably also through a politicalarrangement. In 1290, Beatrice died. She was only 24 years old.
Her death brought Dante into great despair, forBeatrice had become a wonderful symbol for Dante.Dante used Beatrice as a symbol through out hisworks. Beatrice -- a real woman -- became theallegorical symbol of Gods love, divine revelation,Christ, salvation or a number of otherinterpretations.
The Structure of the Divine Comedy The Divine Comedy is made up of 100 Cantos -- 33 in each section plus one extra in The Inferno. It was written in the vernacular Italian, not Latin, in a verse form having three rhymes called terza rima. The allegorical journey employing Dante and characters from mythology, ancient Rome (Virgil-classical reasoning), Christian theology and "real life" Florence (Beatrice-faith). The sinners in the Inferno are punished according to an elaborate scheme of divine retribution--you reap what you sow!
Allegory An expression, a narrative, by means of symbolic fictional characters and actions, of truths about human conduct and experience. A large, narrative, symbol, in otherwords.
Terza Rima An Italian form iambic poetry having sets of three lines, the middle line of each set riming with the first and last of the succeeding: ababcbcdc. It was invented by Dante.
Epic Poem A long narrative poem with an exalted style, theme, and hero.
Canto I The Vestibule Location: The Dark Wood Dante, in mid-life, finds himself lost in a dark and treacherous wood. It is Easter time -- Good Friday. In the distance he glimpses what he thinks is a way out, but immediately he is confronted with three wild beasts -- a leopard, a lion and a she-wolf. These creatures symbolize three types of error or sin: the leopard symbolizes mean-spiritedness and fraud, the lion represents violence, and the she-wolf represents unrestrained passions. Dante stands frozen in fear when suddenly the figure of Virgil appears. Virgil explains that he has been "hired" to guide Dante through the terrors of both the Inferno and the Purgatorio.
Canto II Dante is terrified and reluctant to make the journey. Virgil explains that he has been sent by Beatrice to aid Dante.
Canto III The poets make their way to the vestibule of hell. They must pass through a gateway with the following message carved into the stone: Abandon all hope ye who enter here. This place is like an anteroom or a foyer -- it is not part of Hell-proper so to speak. Here Dante -- and we, the readers -- see the plan of symbolic retribution that will make up the rest of the story. Dante is horrified at the sight before him. He is viewing the punishment of the uncommitted.
Dante sees the souls of those who, in life, took no stand, keptno promises, honored no loyalties. Their punishment is toforever chase after an ever-moving flag, all the whilesurrounded by horrible fetid air full of stinging bees andwasps. As the insects bite the sinners, maggots emerge to suckthe pus that oozes from their sores. Dante now crosses theriver Acheron to visit the First Circle of the Inferno.
Circle One: Limbo Dante finds himself across the great river Acheron and views the First Circle -- Limbo. This circle is different from all the rest that he will visit. Here there is no punishment or torture. This place is inhabited by the "good pagans." These are the souls of those who died unbaptized; their only pain is that they will never see the face of God. Here Dante sees such great poets as Homer and Ovid.
Circle Two: The Lustful In order to pass to Circle Two Dante and Virgil must pass by Minos the great Judge of the Underworld. Minos evaluates each sinner as he appears before him and coils his tail reveal the sinners assigned circle. Two coils mean Circle Two, three coils mean Circle Three and so on. Dante now views the punishment of the Carnal and Lustful. These are sinners who let their passions sweep them away in life, now, in death they are condemned to be "swept away" for all eternity. A dirty, smelly, powerful and tempestuous wind batters and whirls these sinners at a fervid speed. Here Dante sees such memorable characters as Dido, Queen of Carthage; Helen, the beauty of Troy; and Cleopatra, the great ruler of Egypt. In honor of Dantes visit, the winds cease for a short spell -- long enough for Dante to hear the sad and famous story of the lovers Paulo and Francesca.
Circle Three: The Gluttons Dante and Virgil pass on to Circle Three to view the punishment of the gluttonous. They see all around them what resembles a disgusting garbage heap. And thus the symbolic punishment is once again revealed -- as these sinners "pigged out" in life, now they must live in a heap of swinish garbage as their eternal punishment.
To make matters even worse, they areguarded by the violent and powerful three-headed dog Cerberus. If the sinner attempts tomove away from the filth, Cereberus appearsto cover the sinner over with hellish-three-headed dog-slobber! Dante and Virgil thenmove toward the next Circle and view themonster Plutus.
Circle Four: The Hoarders and the Wasters In the Fourth Circle Dante and Virgil see two groups of sinners-- the greedy, avaricious hoarders and the immoderate and excessive wasters. These sinners are condemned to roll great boulders towards each other. When they meet, they divide and begin again. Thus greed and miserliness punish each other. Dante and Virgil also see Dame Fortune as they descend through the Marsh of the Styx to Circle Five
Circle Five The Wrathful and the Sullen The Wrathful, true to their angry nature, are fighting amongst themselves in a pit of disgusting and foul slime. The Sullen, true to their morose and sulky nature, lie mired underneath the swamp of the Styx, muttering and complaining about their fate.
Circle Six: The Fallen Angels and the Heretics Phlegyas, the surly boatman of the Styx, is forced to give Dante and Virgil safe passage across the disgusting waters of the marsh.
As the boat speeds across the water, Dante recognizes FillippoArgenti. Argenti, an enemy of Dantes family, is soundlycursed by Dante and then attacked by the other sinners.Dante and Virgil reach a great iron gate guarded by thefallen angels. In Circle Six Dante sees many strange anddisturbing sights. Dante has a close call with Medusa, mostdreaded of the infernal furies. Dante beholds the sufferings ofthe Heretics, those who did violence against God, as theysuffer in fiery tombs.
Cantos XII-XVIII: Circle Seven - The Violent In Circle Seven Dante sees the punishments of the Violent. The organization of this circle, and those that follow, becomes increasingly complex. Circle Seven is divided into three parts (or "rounds") with each section providing appropriate torments for different types of violence. In order to enter the Seventh Circle Dante and Virgil must first pass by the dreaded beast the Minotaur and circle around the Phlegethon River, the river of boiling blood. This boiling blood provides proper torment for the inhabitants of the First Round--the Violent Against Neighbors. In this section of the circle Dante sees the famous violent sinners Attila the Hun and Alexander the Great.
The poets progress to Round Two--the Violent Against Themselves. Here the inhabitants are imprisoned in trees. The leaves and branches are fed upon by Harpies, causing the wounds to bleed profusely.
In Round Three Dante sees theViolent against God, Nature and Art.These sinners are tormented on aburning plain.
It is in this circle that Dante sees the hideous monster Geryon,a creature that is emblematic of fraud. This disgustingcreature serves a "flying ferry" and carries Dante and Virgildown the cliffs to Circle Eight.
Cantos XVIII- XXXI - Circle Eight: Malebolge In Pouch One demons spur and drive the Panderers and Seducers. Pouch Two contains the Flatterers who are sunk up to their necks in excrement. Pouch Three holds the Simoniacs (sellers of church favors). These sinners are positioned upside down in "bins" that resemble baptismal fonts. The soles of their feet are set ablaze. They stay in this position until new sinners arrive, then they drop down into the rock crevices for all eternity.
In Pouch Four Dante sees the Fortunetellers. These sinners have their heads on backwards and must walk "backwards" for all time. In life, they attempted to "see" the future, now in death they must see the past. It is here that Dante sees Tiresias, the soothsayer from the ancient Greek myths.
Pouch Five holds the Grafters. They are immersed in sticky tar pitch-- a perfect punishment for their lives of "sticky fingered" crime. In Pouch Six Dante sees the Hypocrites who now wander through all eternity weighed down by heavy weighted robes -- robes which, on the outside appear golden and bright, but on the inside lack any sort of luster.
The Thieves are punished in Pouch Seven. Thethieves are provided with a particularly complicatedpunishment. They are at first surrounded bymonstrous snakes that coil around each sinner=shands, binding him fast. When thus immobilized,another reptile darts out to strike the sinner=sthroat, causing the sinner to explode into flame. Butthe punishment is not over yet--- from the flamingashes, the sinner re-emerges to undergo the tormentagain and again.
The Evil Counselors are punished in Pouch Eight, hidden in great cups of flame that symbolize their guilty consciences. Here Dante sees Ulysses and Diomede, the instigators of the Trojan Horse ploy. Pocket Nine holds the sowers of religious, political and family discord. In life thee people ripped apart peace and placidity; now in death they are ripped apart physically. Dante sees Mahomet, who, in Dante=s view represents religious schism. Mahomet=s torso is ripped by a sword slice. As he approaches, Dante observes that Mahomet is "mangled and split open." Dante then sees Bertrand de Born, a French troubadour/knight traditionally blamed for the rift between Henry II and his son. As he comes closer, Dante sees that de Born=s head has been severed-- as he advances he holds his head before him like a lantern. This is surely one of the most horrifying scene in the whole poem!
In Pocket Ten Dante views the falsifiers--alchemists,evil impersonators ( NOT Elvis impersonators!),counterfeiters, and false witnesses. These sinners, whoin life, corrupted all, now are made to endure everysort of corruption and pain. Darkness, dirt, filth,disease, hunger, thirst and noise surround them.Dante and Virgil now move on past a vast horde ofGiants who guard the "Central Pit" of Malebolge.
Cantos XXXII-XXXIV Circle Nine : Cocytus Dante and Virgil begin the last part of their journey. They have arrived at the Ninth and final circle of hell. The landscape here, perhaps surprisingly, is that of a vast frozen lake. It is described as "a lake so frozen/it seemed to be made of glass." Here are the sinners farthest away from the warm love of God. First Dante views the Treacherous Against their Kin. This particular section of hell -- Cocytus -- is called Caina, named of course, after the Biblical Cain.
Next Dante arrives at Antenora and sees the Traitors to Country. Here Dante, along with the reader, is mesmerized by the terrifying story of Count Ugolino and Archbishop Ruggieri.
The third section of Cocytus is called Ptolomea is the home of the Treacherous to Guests and Hosts. These sinners are pinned in the ice, their eyes shut with frozen tears. Section four, Judecca, named for Judas Iscariot, punishes the Treacherous to their Masters. At the center of this horrid ice-pit we find Satan. Although he is imprisoned in the ice, his great wings are free to beat the frozen air. He is a monster of the most grotesque nature. He has three faces. In each of his mouths Satan chomps on the greatest traitors in Dante=s view -- Judas, the betrayer of Christ, is ripped and guzzled in the center mouth of Satan. The other mouths shred Cassius and Brutus, the betrayers of Caesar. Dante=s reaction to this sight is one of the most awesome fear.
After observing the horrible image of Satan, Dante and Virgil must climb down the furry body of Satan, "repelling" off of this torso to arrive at the exit of Hell. They walk along the banks of Lethe, the River of Forgetfulness and emerge at the foot of Mount Purgatory. It is Easter Sunday morning.