2. • Born and lived in in Florence
• A soldier, he fought in the
• A public figure – a politician and
an outspoken thinker
• Well-educated, and a lover of
Latin literature like The Aeneid,
written by the blind Roman poet
Facts about Dante
3. Beatrice Portinari
Not much is known about Dante’s
great love, Beatrice. But he
apparently fell in love with her at
first sight when he saw her at a
party when he was nine years old.
He courted her throughout his
teenage years, but she would die
at twenty-four. Much of Dante’s
poetry is about her beauty.
4. Florence in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Century
• Florence was embroiled in political turmoil.
• Two groups were arguing about the relationship between
secular and ecclesiastical power
• The Guelphs supported the Pope (the church)
• The Ghibellines supported the Holy Roman Emperor
(also religious, but supporting a state that had its
own exclusive power)
• To complicate matters more, the Guelphs split into two
groups – one (the “Black Guelphs”) supporting the Pope,
and another opposing him (the “White Guelphs”)
• Dante supported the White Guelphs and, while traveling,
the Black Guelphs seized control of the city. Dante was
exiled and forbidden from re-entering Florence.
• Abandoned from his home, bitter at his enemies, Dante
continued to write – what you’ll read is full of his
antagonism and disdain for his enemies.
5. The Divine Comedy
• Dante’s Divine Comedy is broken up into three sections:
The Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso
• This reflects his contemporary Catholic beliefs: Purgatory
was a place of “limbo” for souls that needed to undergo
purification – those who needed prayer from the living
and offerings and tithes from below – the sale of
“indulgences.” This is what led Martin Luther to nail his
“95 theses” on the door of the Wittenburg church,
symbolically beginning the Reformation.
• We’ll be focusing on Dante’s description of Hell. For those
of you well-read in the Bible, you’ll know that Hell is rarely
mentioned, and is not described. This comes out of
Dante’s vivid imagination, but is also based on a theology
that might seem foreign to modern Christians, who
believe in a theology of grace and love.
6. The Divine Comedy
• There are nine circles in Dante’s Hell, and as you get lower
it gets worse and worse. There’s a hierarchy for hell, as
there is in heaven.
• The punishments are ironic – that is, they’re designed to
fit the sins that consumed the sinner. The punishment fits
the crime or what Dante calls Contrapasso. For a funny
example of this, see here:
• Separated from God, Hell makes suffering purposeless,
and thus more awful.
• Notice what happens in Circle I: Dante meets “virtuous
pagans.” These are people who lived before Christ,
including Virgil – his guide.
• Much like Homer was the great poet of Greece, Virgil was
the great poet of Rome. But Virgil actually existed.
• Virgil’s grand epic poem, The Aeneid, mythologized the
creation of Rome, beginning at the end of the Trojan War.
• Virgil was blind, but he was honored by Augustus Caesar –
one of the most powerful rulers during the height of the
Roman empire. Because of this, Virgil became more or
less the best kind of propaganda writer: a poet who wrote
verses celebrating the empire.
• Medieval scholars and lovers of literature (like Dante)
loved Virgil, and they even saw him as anticipating Christ’s
coming in some of his poems.
Dante is writing in the style of Terza Rhima. That means each stanza, or set of lines, has
three lines, and one rhyme (in Italian).
Then was the fear a little quieted
That in my heart's lake had endured throughout
The night, which I had passed so piteously.
Notice how each stanza has its own unity. It exists in the poem itself as part of a larger
narrative, but in this stanza Dante describes the effect of his fear being calmed. It’s almost
like a little poem in and of itself about fear and night and the “heart’s lake.
As you read, stop to appreciate what I’ll call this “poetic performance.” The way Dante uses
poetry to tell a story, and makes each three line stanza a contained way of doing that.
9. This is written on the “Gate of Hell” when Dante enters. Note
that Hell is created out of “justice.” Do you think that’s the case
as Dante travels through hell?
10. Dante as a character is
compelling, and confusing.
It’s obviously not the real Dante,
but a kind of observer who learns
things and – along with Virgil -
tells us how to interpret them.
Dante enters hell as one of the
living, and therefore he’s
immune to his punishment. It’s a
learning experience for him, and
Yet at other points, Dante meets
people who he knew in his life,
and responds to them.
12. Dante Faints
In Canto V, Dante faints –
he “swoons” away as a
dead body falls? Why?
He never explains – what
causes him to faint?
13. The Virtuous Pagans?
For such defects, and not for other guilt,
Lost are we and are only so far punished,
That without hope we live on in desire."
Dante seems vexed
about the fact that
cannot get into heaven
because they are
“pagans.” What does it
mean to “live on in