The Divine Comedy is an epic poem written by Dante Alighieri between c. 1308 and his death in 1321. It is widely considered the preeminent work of Italian literature, and is seen as one of the greatest works of world literature. The poem's imaginative and allegorical vision of the afterlife is representative of the medieval world-view as it had developed in the Western Church by the 14th century. It helped establish the Tuscan dialect, in which it is written, as the standardized Italian language. It is divided into three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso.
On the surface, the poem describes Dante's travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven; but at a deeper level, it represents, allegorically, the soul's journey towards God. At this deeper level, Dante draws on medieval Christian theology and philosophy, especially Thomistic philosophy and the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas. Consequently, the Divine Comedy has been called "the Summa in verse".
The work was originally simply titled Commedia and was later christened Divina by Giovanni Boccaccio. The first printed edition to add the word divina to the title was that of the Venetian humanist Lodovico Dolce, published in 1555 by Gabriele Giolito de' Ferrari.
Structure and story
The Divine Comedy is composed of 14,233 lines that are divided into three canticas (Ital. pl. cantiche)-Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Paradise)-each consisting of 33 cantos (Ital. pl. canti). An initial canto serves as an introduction to the poem and is generally considered to be part of the first cantica, bringing the total number of cantos to 100. It is generally accepted, however, that the first two cantos serve as a unitary prologue to the entire epic, and the opening two cantos of each cantica serve as prologues to each of the three cantiche.
The number three is prominent in the work, represented in part by the number of canticas and their lengths. Additionally, the verse scheme used, terza rima, is hendecasyllabic (lines of eleven syllables), with the lines composing tercets according to the rhyme scheme aba, bcb, cdc, ded, ....
The poem is written in the first person, and tells of Dante's journey through the three realms of the dead, lasting from the night before Good Friday to the Wednesday after Easter in the spring of 1300. The Roman poet Virgil guides him through Hell and Purgatory; Beatrice, Dante's ideal woman, guides him through Heaven. Beatrice was a Florentine woman whom he had met in childhood and admired from afar in the mode of the then-fashionable courtly love tradition, which is highlighted in Dante's earlier work La Vita Nuova.
The structure of the three realms follows a common numerical pattern of 9 plus 1, for a total of 10: 9 circles of the Inferno, followed by Lucifer contained at its bottom; 9 rings of Mount Purgatory, followed by the Garden of Eden crowning its summit; and the 9 celestial bodies of Paradiso, followed by the Empyrean containing the very essence of God. Within each group of 9, 7 elements correspond to a specific moral scheme, subdivided into three subcategories, while 2 others of greater particularity are added to total nine. For example, the seven deadly sins of the Catholic Church that are cleansed in Purgatory are joined by special realms for the Late repentant and the excommunicated by the church. The core seven sins within Purgatory correspond to a moral scheme of love perverted, subdivided into three groups corresponding to excessive love (Lust, Gluttony, Greed), deficient love (Sloth), and malicious love (Wrath, Envy, Pride).
In central Italy's political struggle between Guelphs and Ghibellines, Dante was part of the Guelphs, who in general favored the Papacy over the Holy Roman Emperor. Florence's Guelphs split into factions around 1300: the White Guelphs and the Black Guelphs. Dante was among the White Guelphs who were exiled in 1302 by the Lord-Mayor Cante de' Gabrielli di Gubbio, after troops under Charles of Valois entered the city, at the request of Pope Boniface VIII, who supported the Black Guelphs. This exile, which lasted the rest of Dante's life, shows its influence in many parts of the Comedy, from prophecies of Dante's exile to Dante's views of politics, to the eternal damnation of some of his opponents.
The last word in each of the three parts of the Divine Comedy is stelle ("stars").
The poem begins on the night before Good Friday in the year 1300, "halfway along our life's path" (Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita). Dante is thirty-five years old, half of the biblical life expectancy of 70 (Psalms 89:10, Vulgate), lost in a dark wood (understood as sin) assailed by beasts (a lion, a leopard, and a she-wolf) he cannot evade, and unable to find the "straight way" (diritta via) - also translatable as "right way" - to salvation (symbolized by the sun behind the mountain). Conscious that he is ruining himself and that he is falling into a "low place" (basso loco) where the sun is silent ('l sol tace), Dante is at last rescued by Virgil, and the two of them begin their journey to the underworld. Each sin's punishment in Inferno is a contrapasso, a symbolic instance of poetic justice; for example, fortune-tellers have to walk with their heads on backwards, unable to see what is ahead, because that was what they had tried to do in life:
they had their faces twisted toward their haunches
and found it necessary to walk backward,
because they could not see ahead of them.
... and since he wanted so to see ahead,
he looks behind and walks a backward path.
Allegorically, the Inferno represents the Christian soul seeing sin for what it really is, and the three beasts represent three types of sin: the self-indulgent, the violent, and the malicious. These three types of sin also provide the three main divisions of Dante's Hell: Upper Hell, outside the city of Dis, for the four sins of indulgence (lust, gluttony, avarice, anger); Circle 7 for the sins of violence; and Circles 8 and 9 for the sins of malice (fraud and treachery). Added to these are two unlike categories that are specifically spiritual: Limbo, in Circle 1, contains the virtuous pagans who were not sinful but were ignorant of Christ, and Circle 6 contains the heretics who contradicted the doctrine and confused the spirit of Christ. The circles number 9, with the addition of Satan completing the structure of 9 + 1 = 10.
Having survived the depths of Hell, Dante and Virgil ascend out of the undergloom, to the Mountain of Purgatory on the far side of the world. The Mountain is on an island, the only land in the Southern Hemisphere, created by the displacement of rock which resulted when Satan's fall created Hell (which Dante portrays as existing underneath Jerusalem). The mountain has seven terraces, corresponding to the seven deadly sins or "seven roots of sinfulness." The classification of sin here is more psychological than that of the Inferno, being based on motives, rather than actions. It is also drawn primarily from Christian theology, rather than from classical sources. However, Dante's illustrative examples of sin and virtue draw on classical sources as well as on the Bible and on contemporary events.
Love, a theme throughout the Divine Comedy, is particularly important for the framing of the sin on the Mountain of Purgatory. While the love that flows from God is pure, it can become sinful as it flows through humanity. Humans can sin by using love towards improper or malicious ends (Wrath, Envy, Pride), or using it to proper ends but with love that is either not strong enough (Sloth) or love that is too strong (Lust, Gluttony, Greed). Below the seven purges of the soul is the Ante-Purgatory, containing the Excommunicated from the church and the Late repentant who died, often violently, before receiving rites. Thus the total comes to nine, with the addition of the Garden of Eden at the summit, equaling ten.
Allegorically, the Purgatorio represents the Christian life. Christian souls arrive escorted by an angel, singing In exitu Israel de Aegypto. In his Letter to Cangrande, Dante explains that this reference to Israel leaving Egypt refers both to the redemption of Christ and to "the conversion of the soul from the sorrow and misery of sin to the state of grace." Appropriately, therefore, it is Easter Sunday when Dante and Virgil arrive.
The Purgatorio is notable for demonstrating the medieval knowledge of a spherical Earth. During the poem, Dante discusses the different stars visible in the southern hemisphere, the altered position of the sun, and the various timezones of the Earth. At this stage it is, Dante says, sunset at Jerusalem, midnight on the River Ganges, and sunrise in Purgatory.
After an initial ascension, Beatrice guides Dante through the nine celestial spheres of Heaven. These are concentric and spherical, as in Aristotelian and Ptolemaic cosmology. While the structures of the Inferno and Purgatorio were based on different classifications of sin, the structure of the Paradiso is based on the four cardinal virtues and the three theological virtues.
The first seven spheres of Heaven deal solely with the cardinal virtues of Prudence, Fortitude, Justice and Temperance. The first three describe a deficiency of one of the cardinal virtues - the Moon, containing the inconstant, whose vows to God waned as the moon and thus lack fortitude; Mercury, containing the ambitious, who were virtuous for glory and thus lacked justice; and Venus, containing the lovers, whose love was directed towards another than God and thus lacked Temperance. The final four incidentally are positive examples of the cardinal virtues, all led on by the Sun, containing the prudent, whose wisdom lighted the way for the other virtues, to which the others are bound (constituting a category on its own). Mars contains the men of fortitude who died in the cause of Christianity; Jupiter contains the kings of Justice; and Saturn contains the temperate, the monks who abided by the contemplative lifestyle. The seven subdivided into three are raised further by two more categories: the eighth sphere of the fixed stars that contain those who achieved the theological virtues of faith, hope and love, and represent the Church Triumphant - the total perfection of humanity, cleansed of all the sins and carrying all the virtues of heaven; and the ninth circle, or Primum Mobile (corresponding to Medieval astronomy of Geocentricism) which contains the angels, creatures never poisoned by original sin. Topping them all is the Empyrean that contains the essence of God, completing the 9 fold division to 10.
Dante meets and converses with several great saints of the Church, including Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, Saint Peter, and St. John. The Paradiso is consequently more theological in nature than the Inferno and the Purgatorio. However, Dante admits the vision of heaven he receives is the one that his human eyes permit him to see, and the vision of heaven found in the Cantos is Dante's own personal one.
The Divine Comedy finishes with Dante seeing the Triune God. In a flash of understanding, which he cannot express, Dante finally understands the mystery of Christ's divinity and humanity, and his soul becomes aligned with God's love:
But already my desire and my will
were being turned like a wheel, all at one speed,
by the Love which moves the sun and the other stars.
According to the Italian Dante Society, no original manuscript written by Dante has survived, although there are many manuscript copies from the 14th and 15th centuries - more than 825 are listed on their site. The first printed edition was published in Foligno, Italy, by Johann Numeister and Evangelista Angelini da Trevi on 11 April 1472. Of the 300 copies printed, fourteen still survive. The original printing press is on display in the Oratorio della Nunziatella in Foligno.
The Divine Comedy can be described simply as an allegory: Each canto, and the episodes therein, can contain many alternative meanings. Dante's allegory, however, is more complex, and, in explaining how to read the poem - see the Letter to Cangrande - he outlines other levels of meaning besides the allegory: the historical, the moral, the literal, and the anagogical.
The structure of the poem, likewise, is quite complex, with mathematical and numerological patterns arching throughout the work, particularly threes and nines, which are related to the Trinity. The poem is often lauded for its particularly human qualities: Dante's skillful delineation of the characters he encounters in Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise; his bitter denunciations of Florentine and Italian politics; and his powerful poetic imagination. Dante's use of real characters, according to Dorothy Sayers in her introduction to her translation of the Inferno, allows Dante the freedom of not having to involve the reader in description, and allows him to "[make] room in his poem for the discussion of a great many subjects of the utmost importance, thus widening its range and increasing its variety."
Dante called the poem "Comedy" (the adjective "Divine" was added later in the 14th century) because poems in the ancient world were classified as High ("Tragedy") or Low ("Comedy"). Low poems had happy endings and were written in everyday language, whereas High poems treated more serious matters and were written in an elevated style. Dante was one of the first in the Middle Ages to write of a serious subject, the Redemption of humanity, in the low and "vulgar" Italian language and not the Latin one might expect for such a serious topic. Boccaccio's account that an early version of the poem was begun by Dante in Latin is still controversial.
Although the Divine Comedy is primarily a religious poem, discussing sin, virtue, and theology, Dante also discusses several elements of the science of his day (this mixture of science with poetry has received both praise and blame over the centuries). The Purgatorio repeatedly refers to the implications of a spherical Earth, such as the different stars visible in the southern hemisphere, the altered position of the sun, and the various timezones of the Earth. For example, at sunset in Purgatory it is midnight at the Ebro (a river in Spain), dawn in Jerusalem, and noon on the River Ganges:
- Just as, there where its Maker shed His blood,
- the sun shed its first rays, and Ebro lay
- beneath high Libra, and the ninth hour's rays
- were scorching Ganges' waves; so here, the sun
- stood at the point of day's departure when
- God's angel-happy-showed himself to us.
Dante travels through the centre of the Earth in the Inferno, and comments on the resulting change in the direction of gravity in Canto XXXIV (lines 76-120). A little earlier (XXXIII, 102-105), he queries the existence of wind in the frozen inner circle of hell, since it has no temperature differentials.
Inevitably, given its setting, the Paradiso discusses astronomy extensively, but in the Ptolemaic sense. The Paradiso also discusses the importance of the experimental method in science, with a detailed example in lines 94-105 of Canto II:
- Yet an experiment, were you to try it,
- could free you from your cavil and the source
- of your arts' course springs from experiment.
- Taking three mirrors, place a pair of them
- at equal distance from you; set the third
- midway between those two, but farther back.
- Then, turning toward them, at your back have placed
- a light that kindles those three mirrors and
- returns to you, reflected by them all.
- Although the image in the farthest glass
- will be of lesser size, there you will see
- that it must match the brightness of the rest.
A briefer example occurs in Canto XV of the Purgatorio (lines 16-21), where Dante points out that both theory and experiment confirm that the angle of incidence is equal to the angle of reflection. Other references to science in the Paradiso include descriptions of clockwork in Canto XXIV (lines 13-18), and Thales' theorem about triangles in Canto XIII (lines 101-102).
Galileo Galilei is known to have lectured on the Inferno, and it has been suggested that the poem may have influenced some of Galileo's own ideas regarding mechanics.
In 1919, Professor Miguel Asin Palacios, a Spanish scholar and a Catholic priest, published La Escatologia musulmana en la Divina Comedia ("Islamic Eschatology in the Divine Comedy"), an account of parallels between early Islamic philosophy and the Divine Comedy. Palacios argued that Dante derived many features of and episodes about the hereafter from the spiritual writings of Ibn Arabi and from the Isra and Mi'raj or night journey of Muhammad to heaven. The latter is described in the Hadith and the Kitab al Miraj (translated into Latin in 1264 or shortly before as Liber Scalae Machometi, "The Book of Muhammad's Ladder"), and has significant similarities to the Paradiso, such as a sevenfold division of Paradise, although this is not unique to the Kitab al Miraj.
Some "superficial similarities" of the Divine Comedy to the Resalat Al-Ghufran or Epistle of Forgiveness of Al-Ma'arri have also been mentioned in this debate. The Resalat Al-Ghufran describes the journey of the poet in the realms of the afterlife and includes dialogue with people in Heaven and Hell, although, unlike the Kitab al Miraj, there is little description of these locations, and it is unlikely that Dante borrowed from this work.
Dante did, however, live in a Europe of substantial literary and philosophical contact with the Muslim world, encouraged by such factors as Averroism ("Averrois, che'l gran comento feo" Commedia, Inferno, IV, 144, meaning "Averrois, who wrote the great comment") and the patronage of Alfonso X of Castile. Of the twelve wise men Dante meets in Canto X of the Paradiso, Thomas Aquinas and, even more so, Siger of Brabant were strongly influenced by Arabic commentators on Aristotle. Medieval Christian mysticism also shared the Neoplatonic influence of Sufis such as Ibn Arabi. Philosopher Frederick Copleston argued in 1950 that Dante's respectful treatment of Averroes, Avicenna, and Siger of Brabant indicates his acknowledgement of a "considerable debt" to Islamic philosophy.
Although this philosophical influence is generally acknowledged, many scholars have not been satisfied that Dante was influenced by the Kitab al Miraj. The 20th century Orientalist Francesco Gabrieli expressed skepticism regarding the claimed similarities, and the lack of evidence of a vehicle through which it could have been transmitted to Dante. Even so, while dismissing the probability of some influences posited in Palacios' work, Gabrieli conceded that it was "at least possible, if not probable, that Dante may have known the Liber scalae and have taken from it certain images and concepts of Muslim eschatology". Shortly before her death, the Italian philologist Maria Corti pointed out that, during his stay at the court of Alfonso X, Dante's mentor Brunetto Latini met Bonaventura de Siena, a Tuscan who had translated the Kitab al Miraj from Arabic into Latin. Corti speculates that Brunetto may have provided a copy of that work to Dante. Rene Guenon, in The Esoterism of Dante, rejected the influence of Ibn Arabi (direct or indirect) on Dante.
Literary influence in the English-speaking world and beyond
The work was not always so well regarded. After being recognized as a masterpiece in the centuries immediately following its publication, the work was largely ignored during the Enlightenment, with some notable exceptions such as Vittorio Alfieri; Antoine de Rivarol, who translated the Inferno into French; and Giambattista Vico, who in the Scienza nuova and in the Giudizio su Dante inaugurated what would later become the romantic reappraisal of Dante, juxtaposing him to Homer. The Comedy was "rediscovered" by William Blake - who illustrated several passages of the epic - and the romantic writers of the 19th century. Later authors such as T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Samuel Beckett, C. S. Lewis and James Joyce have drawn on it for inspiration. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was its first American translator, and modern poets, including Seamus Heaney, Robert Pinsky, John Ciardi, W. S. Merwin, and Stanley Lombardo, have also produced translations of all or parts of the book. In Russia, beyond Pushkin's memorable translation of a few tercets, Osip Mandelstam's late poetry has been said to bear the mark of a "tormented meditation" on the Comedy. In 1934, Mandelstam gave a modern reading of the poem in his labyrinthine "Conversation on Dante". Mikhail Lozinsky's translation of the poem, completed in 1945, is considered to be one of the greatest works of Russian poetry in the 20th century and arguably the best translation of any foreign-language poem into Russian ever.
New English translations of the Divine Comedy continue to be published regularly. Notable English translations of the complete poem include the following.
A number of other translators, such as Robert Pinsky, have translated the Inferno only.
In the arts
The Divine Comedy has been a source of inspiration for countless artists for almost seven centuries. There are many references to Dante's work in literature. In music, Franz Liszt was one of many composers to write works based on the Divine Comedy. In sculpture, the work of Auguste Rodin is notable for themes from Dante, and many visual artists have illustrated Dante's work, as shown by the examples above. There have also been many references to the Divine Comedy in cinema and computer games.