Background to The Inferno

The Divine Comedy
The Inferno
By Dante Alighieri
Dante’s letter to Can Grande (epigraph)
He was the ruler of Verona(1308-1320). He is Dante’s vision of wisdom and virtue
“The subject of the whole work, then,
taken in the literal sense alone, is simply
’The state of souls after death,’
 If the work be taken allegorically, the
subject is ‘Man- as, according to his merits
or demerits in the exercise of his free will,
he is subject to reward or punishment by
Works Cited
Mazzotta, Giuseppe, edit, A Norton Critical Edition:
Inferno, “ The Contrapasso and the relation between
poetic details and structure”, NY: W. W. Norton &
Company, 2008
Dante’s life
Born 1265-1321 in
Family was of a lesser
Joined the military in
Took part in politics(prior)
1300 he was 1 of 6 priors
in charge of government
1302 sent from Florence
on a diplomatic mission
to Rome. When he
returned an opposing
faction was in power
Pope Boniface VIII
supported the new power
Dante was sentenced to
death if he ever returned
to Florence
Background (cont.)
…so he lived his life as a wanderer.
 …and bitter, craving justice
 Buried in Ravenna
 Betrothed to Gemma Donati at 12,
married at 20/an unhappy marriage
 2 sons maybe 2 daughters
 One of the most learned men of the
Middle Ages
Dante’s Death Mask
Dante’s death
Mask in the
Pallazza Vecchio
The times: imagine a triangle
God at the top of a triangle
the pope on one side, the emperor on the other
The pope is the spiritual head of the Church
The emperor the head of state
The pope wants both sets of power
Both answer to God
Dante has the opposite view of the Pope. Not
good for Dante
Two political powers
Guelfi in favor of Pope
 Ghibellini in favor of emperor
 Then the Guelfi split into 2 parties:
 The whites (emperor)
 The blacks(Pope)
 Dante was a white Guelfo
 Dante was accused of barratry
The issue of Beatrice
Dante wrote poetry in his youth
 He fused courtly love with chivalric love
with philosophical love, with spiritual and
divine love.
 Love is the instrument to real God
 He devoted his writing to Bice Portinari, a
real woman, and his symbol of divine
beauty and wisdom
 Beatrice means “bringer of blessings”
Beatrice (cont)
Dante met Beatrice at age 9 and fell in love
He met her again nine years later (probably at her own
marriage). It is said that she laughed at his adoration,
causing him embarrassment
This crisis becomes the catalyst for Vita Nuova, which is
his account, fiction and truth of his love for Beatrice
He completes this work at age 27 and felt nothing he
ever wrote could surpass this work
Beatrice becomes his ideal. He places his joy into
something that can never fail him.
She marries banker Simone de Bardi and dies in 1290
He writes the book from 1290-1300
The Divine Comedy
Dante is fascinated by political issues
 Conflicts between the Roman Catholic
Church and the Holy Roman Empire
 Conflicts that led to his exile
 The Divine Comedy is an allegory
 It is a journey through the future world
 It is the first important composition in
The Apostles’ Creed
What Catholics believed
I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth:
And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord
Who was conceived by the Holy ghost, born of the Virgin Mary:
Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried: He descended into
The third day and he rose again from the dead:
He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almightly:
From thence he shall come and judge the quick and the dead:
I believe in the Holy Ghost:
I believe in the holy catholic church: the communion of saints:
The forgiveness of sins:
The resurrection of the body:
And the life everlasting.
All can have double or triple meetings
Dante is Mankind
Virgil is Dante’s guide. He is Reason, Philosophy, or/and the Roman
Empire. In the poem he is pagan (denied salvation b/c he is born
before the coming of Jesus as the Christ
Beatrice is Revelation, theology, the Church
Cato is free will
Punishments are all symbolic
2 journeys: escape the dark woods, descent into Hell
The way up is down
You must ascend to the truth by accepting humility
Characters are presented as if they are at odds with one another
Dante takes sides, condemns, judges
The classical poets that Dante
Homer – intimate knowledge of the Greeks
Horace – a satirist, a moralist
Ovid – the most widely read Roman poet, a
keen source for mythology
Lucan – expert on Roman civil wars
Virgil – the greatest influence on Dante, master
of classical verse, legends of Rome
St. Augustine: great Roman philosopher;
obected to the imperial ideology of Rome
Stilnovo (new style)
Dante invents this new poetical movement
 Dante and his friend Guido Cavalcanti were the most
important Stilnovo poets
 This movement was used to speak about love, to
celebrate it
 Call it “love theory”
 Love is the ideal, it will save man; women are examples
of purity
 A lover must comes to terms with his owns flaws to be
worthy of the woman he loves
 This is Dante’s first major work
The architectural structure of the
Relationship of three
 3 line stanzas
to one
(terzine) tercets
Trinity to Unity
 Rhyme scheme: terza
rima: aba/bcb/cdc
Medieval writers loved
numbers and
 First and third lines
rhyme, second line
rhymes with first and
Numbers 10 and 100
second lines of next
100 Cantos
3 places
Failing as a person
Dante believed people have free agency to commit sin
There are sins of incontinence (human nature/can’t help
And sins of malice (failure of human intellect/you know
exactly what you are doing)
The cliché: love the sinner not the sin, DOES NOT apply
to people who do not accept God’s grace according to
 Avarita
 Luxuria
 Invidia
 Gula
 Ira
 Acedia
No individual punishment matters
 Justice matters
 sins were chosen
 Justice demands the damned be punished
because they are beyond change
 If they were capable of
change/repentance then they would not
be punished eternally
The lustful are driven by a whirlwind
 The violent are surrounded by boiling
 Traitors are set in ice
Think about each of these punishments
100 Cantos
34 Inferno ….Here
there are 9 circles of
Hell plus the
 Upper Hell
(incontinence), circles
 Lower Hell (malice,
violence and fraud)
circles VI-IX
33 Purgatory…9 divisions
plus the Garden of Eden
 33 Paradise…9 revolving
heavens plus Empyrean
(absolute heaven)
 Dante followed the
Ptolemaic system
 Satan: frozen to above
his waist in ice with vast
bat like wings that create
blasts of evil
Most political Cantos
 XV
Our Story
….starts with Dante lost in a world of worldliness
and sin. Dante spends a night in this wooded
area and tries to climb unaided the Mountain of
Righteousness. He has the shade of Virgil as his
 Hell shows the consequences of our sin. We
must “see” what that looks like.
 Dante enters Hell on Good Friday, emerges at
Purgatory just before sunrise on Easter Sunday
 A rustic song
 A happy ending
 The language of a comedy is humble not