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The Divine Comedy
Dante’s journey through the circles of Hell
The greatest poet of humanity, father of the Italian language and inventor of Italy, died 700 years ago, and throughout 2021 there have been celebrations for Dante death anniversary.
Dante called his great epic poem Commedia (“Comedy”, not in the modern usage of provoking laughter but in the traditional sense of something that ends well). Divina was added by those who came after him.
The Divine Comedy is a complex poetic work, written in vulgar Florentine language, consisting of 100 cantos divided into 3 canticas: Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise. Each cantica is composed of 33 cantos, except Inferno, which contains an additional proemial, or preface, canto.
The Florentine poet began writing Inferno in 1304 or 1307, after he was exiled from Florence, and finished Paradiso, the last cantica, in 1321, the year of his death, when the Divine Comedy was published.
The Divine Comedy is a didactic-allegorical poem: it wants to teach (didactics) about the great moral and religious truths through the use of images that have symbolic meaning (allegory).
THE INCIPIT, OR BEGINNING, OF INFERNO AND THE ENTIRE DIVINE COMEDY
Dante Inferno first words are “Midway upon the journey of our life”: this is how his journey in the afterlife begins. The keyword here is “our”: Dante immediately tells us that the story is about us, all of us, as human beings, because this travel through the Afterworld is also an inner journey to discover the boundaries of what is within us.
With this first verse, right at the start, which introduces all his epic work, Dante at once involves his readers, makes them active participants in his poem. That “our” emphasizes that Dante in this travel represents the whole of humanity.
And “our” also concerns Italians. Dante talks about Italy since the first canto of Divine Comedy.
Dante loves Italy but throughout his work he is indignant with Italians because they are too divided among themselves: Guelphs and Ghibellines, Whites and Blacks, Montagues and Capulets. Yes, Dante is the first to write about Montagues and Capulets, centuries before Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet.
THE DARK FOREST
The second and third verses complete the sentence described above, so the first tercet of Inferno, and therefore of Divine Comedy, is:
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
The Dark Forest in which Dante is lost is a symbol of his spiritual bewilderment and confusion, it is the forest of his errors and sins.
When, in the hope of getting out of it, he tries to climb to the top of a hill where the light of the sun is shining, his path is blocked by three beasts: a leopard, a lion and a she-wolf, symbolizing respectively lust, pride and avarice, three of the seven deadly sins preventing him from climbing the hill, and he is forced to turn back.
Then a shadow appears: it is the the soul of the Latin poet Virgil, author of the Aeneid, the great epic poem about the foundation of Rome, much admired by Dante. Virgil, Dante’s model of poet, saves the Florentine with his invitation to follow him by another path: in order to save himself from his condition of moral and intellectual misery it is necessary for Dante to go through the three realms of the Afterlife, crossing Hell and then Purgatory, after which Dante will be able to ascend to Paradise, where Virgil, not having been baptized, will have to leave him to another guide, Beatrice.
Dante accepts Virgil as his guide to salvation and follows him.
THE GATE OF HELL
In the Canto 3, the Gate of Hell is personified and speaks to Dante and Virgil in the first person, describing itself and its purpose of eternal punishment through a writing upon its summit.
Dante is terrified, but is reassured by Virgil and they cross the threshold. Virgil explains that they are in the Antinferno, “Ante-Hell”, a part of Afterworld preceding Hell proper, situated between the Gate of Hell and the River Acheron. In the Antinferno are the souls of those who “lived without infamy and without praise”, neither good nor evil, and are rejected even by Hell.
CHARON THE DEMON AND THE RIVER ACHERON
Still in the Canto 3, Dante and Virgil proceed until they reach the bank of the river Acheron, where the souls of the damned are waiting to be collected and transported by the devil Charon, the ferryman of the infernal souls, to their punishment. Charon carries them across the Acheron to Hell.
Dante brings figures from pagan classical mythology into the Christian Inferno, among whom Cerberus, the centaurs, the Harpies, the Minotaur, Medusa, Geryon, Minos. One of them is Charon, whom Michelangelo frescoed in his Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel.
The apparition of Charon in Inferno is grandiose and terrible:
And lo! towards us coming in a boat
An old man, hoary with the hair of eld,
Crying: “Woe unto you, ye souls depraved!”
Charon the demon, with the eyes of glede,
Beckoning to them, collects them all together,
Beats with his oar whoever lags behind.
Dante seems to have predicted the damages that result from the excesses of finance. Maybe because, being from Florence, the city where capitalism was born, he had many opportunities for observing and witnessing.
Florence was the Manhattan of the time, it had more inhabitants than Paris, and it already had banks.
In Canto 17, the giant Geryon from Greek mythology guards the Third Circle of Hell, that of the violent in art, namely usurers, seducers and flatterers. Usurers are forced to sit at the edge of the desert, near the abyss, in the sand red-hot from the rain of flames and flagellated by the fiery rain. They wear around their necks bags bearing the coat of arms of their family, and Dante recognizes some of them.
For Dante, usurers offend God and human labor. In life they got rich from borrowed money and not from hard work. Nature is the daughter of God; the art of men imitates nature, therefore it can be said to be the granddaughter of God. Men derive their bread from nature, or from art. But those who make money from other money, on the skin of poor people, for Dante deserve Hell.
Finally the two poets Dante and Virgil climb on the back of the giant Geryon who takes them to the bottom of the infernal abyss.
Homer does not say in the Odyssey how Ulysses dies. Dante imagines that he has not returned to Ithaca, but has taken to the sea, beyond the Pillars of Hercules. Dante’s Ulysses is the first modern man, because modernity is not born from wisdom, but from ignorance, or rather from the awareness of being ignorant.
One of the greatest philosophers of all time, Socrates, used to say: “I know that I don’t know”. Our knowledge is very tentative, hardly ever, if not absolutely never, certain. One of the very few things of which we can be certain is of our ignorance. Therefore, knowing the limitations of our knowledge is a good starting point.
Ulysses is the hero of knowledge. He is the man who knows that he does not know, and therefore he sets out on a journey beyond the horizon, “di retro al sol”, in the “mondo sanza gente”, uninhabited world. He will be shipwrecked. But little more than a century and a half after Dante’s death, Christopher Columbus, another great Italian, will take to the sea along the route of Dante’s Ulysses, beyond the Pillars of Hercules, changing history.
In Canto 26, Dante descends into the eighth bolgia, where the fraudulent counselors are imprisoned in tongues of fire, turned into flames.
Dante and Virgil ascend a cliff until they reach the point from where the eighth bolgia underneath is visible. The moat is littered with moving flames, like fireflies on a summer evening, and each guards a sinner, guilty of suggesting and advising fraud. Remaining at the top of the bridge, Dante notices a forked flame and expresses the desire to know whom it conceals; after learning that Ulysses and Diomedes are punished there together, co-responsible both for the deception of the horse that allowed the Greeks to conquer Troy and for the fraudulent theft of the statue of Pallas, he begs his guide to bring the flame closer.
Virgil agrees to Dante’s wish, but reserves for himself the task of questioning the flame: the tongue of fire Ulysses tells him of his thirst for knowledge of the world and men, which led him to leave the country to undertake a journey to a mountain (the Purgatory) beyond the Pillars of Hercules (in antiquity, the name of the Strait of Gibraltar separating the Mediterranean from the Atlantic). Defying the divine prohibitions, Ulysses with a small group of companions reached the open sea: but, by now in sight of the mountain of Purgatory, a whirlwind sank their ship before they could reach the goal of their desire to know.
Dante Circles of Hell
Hell, in the shape of an inverted cone, is a dark funnel at the bottom of which is stuck the angel of Evil, the rebel Lucifer, thus placed in the farthest place from God in the whole universe.
Dante and his spiritual guide Virgil descend the funnel completely, meeting the damned guilty of increasingly serious crimes.
Dante’s characters are historical and mythological, but also contemporary with the poet, protagonists of the internal struggles that tore apart all the Italian municipalities, and Tuscan in particular.
The poet’s indignation strikes all these protagonists of the Italian ills, and is particularly directed against the corruption of the clergy and the papacy, more inclined to concern themselves with temporal goods than with the spiritual health of Christendom. The personal events of Dante, forced into exile after years of fighting between the factions of the Black and White Guelphs of Florence, offer the key to understanding the work.