Selection of The Divine Comedy – Dante Alighieri

The Divine Comedy (Divina Commedia) is an epic poem written by Durante degli Alighieri or Dante (1265–1321), between c. 1308 and his death in 1321. It is one of the greatest works of world literature. The The poem describes Dante’s travels representing the soul’s journey towards God, guided first by the Roman poet Virgil and then by Beatrice, the subject of his love. Dante said he first met Beatrice Portinari at age nine, and claimed to have fallen in love without ever talking with her. When Beatrice died in 1290, Dante sought refuge in literature. In many of his poems, she is depicted as semi-divine, watching over him constantly and providing spiritual instruction, setting an example of ‘courtly love’ in later French and Provençal poetry.

Divina Commedia was written in a language Dante called “Italian,” mostly based on the regional dialect of Tuscany, but with some elements of Latin and other regional dialects. He deliberately aimed to reach a readership throughout Italy including laymen, clergymen and other poets and his work helped establish the Tuscan dialect as the standardized Italian language. Dante was one of the first (with Geoffrey Chaucer and Giovanni Boccaccio) to publish in the vernacular (scholarly works were written in Latin until the Enlightenment). The work was originally entitled Comedìa and Divina was added by Giovanni Boccaccio. ‘Comedy’ in the classical sense indicates belief in an ordered universe, in which events tended toward a happy ending under the influence of God, as Dante explained in a letter to Cangrande I della Scala. The pilgrimage from Hell to Paradise is the expression of comedy, since the work begins with the pilgrim’s moral confusion and ends with the vision of God.

Dante draws on medieval Christian theology and philosophy, especially the Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas and early Islamic philosophy derived from Medieval Christian mysticism which shared the Neoplatonic influence of Sufism. Dante would have encountered these influences during his exile at the court of Alfonso X. In the poem, allegorically, Dante meets several great saints of the Church, including Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, Saint Peter, and St. John.

The poem is composed of 14,233 lines that are divided into three ‘canticas’ Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, each consisting of 33 cantos. the verse scheme used, terza rima (hendecasyllabic -lines of eleven syllables with the lines composing tercets aba, bcb, cdc, ded) The poem is written in the first person, and tells of Dante’s journey through the three realms, 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, and Beatrice guides him through Heaven. The structure is complex, with mathematical and numerological patterns related to the Trinity and the numerical pattern of 9 + 1 (=10): 9 circles of the Inferno + Lucifer at its bottom; 9 rings of Mount Purgatory, followed by the Garden of Eden crowning its summit; 9 celestial bodies of Paradiso, followed by the Empyrean containing the very essence of God. Hell is full of wild animals and there is no sun (sun symbolizes salvation). Dante and Virgil ascend out of the underworld towards the Mountain of Purgatory which is on an island in the Southern Hemisphere. Allegorically, the Purgatorio represents the Christian life. It has seven levels that correspond to the seven deadly sins. Dante offers illustrative examples of sin and virtue that draw on classical and biblical sources as well as on contemporary events. Love is the most important theme. While the love that flows from God is pure, it can become sinful as it flows through humanity. Human love can turn into sins like Wrath, Envy, or Pride, and weaken into Sloth, or become too strong (Lust, Gluttony, Greed). Below the level of the seven deadly sins there is an Ante-Purgatory, containing those excommunicated from the church and late-repentants who died without receiving rites, so the total comes to nine, with the addition of the Garden of Eden at the summit (10).

Purgatorio is notable for demonstrating the medieval knowledge of a spherical earth. Beatrice guides Dante through the nine celestial spheres of Heaven, following Aristotelian and Ptolemaic cosmology. While the structures of the Inferno and Purgatorio were based on different classifications of sin, Paradiso is based on the four cardinal (prudence, fortitude, justice and temperance) and the three theological virtues (faith, hope and love). The seven known planets of the solar system are interpreted in relation to earth and to Christian allegory. The Moon, contains the inconstant, whose vows to God waned as the moon and thus lack fortitude; Mercury, contains the ambitious, who were virtuous for glory and thus lacked justice; Venus the lovers, whose love was directed towards another than God and thus lacked temperance; Mars contains the men of fortitude who died in the cause of Christianity; Jupiter contains men of Justice; Saturn the temperant, and the Sun, contains the prudent, whose wisdom lighted the way for the other virtues.

The Comedy was an important source of inspiration to British poet John Milton, and to the poet and illustrator William Blake as well as other 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. The North-American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and others such as the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, and Russian Aleksandr Serguéyevich Pushkin.

See several interesting re-writings of the Comedy at the Paris Review (and illustrations), a literary journal based in New York and famous for publishing works by Jack Kerouac, Philip Larkin, V. S. Naipaul, Philip Roth, Adrienne Rich, Italo Calvino, Samuel Beckett, or Nadine Gordimer, among others.


For further information visit:

L’ Inferno by Francesco Bertolini, Giuseppe De Liguoro and Adolfo Padovan.


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