The political background to Dante's Divine Comedy (composed between 1308 and 1320) is the conflict between The Guelphs and Ghibellines about the power of the emperor and the Pope. Dante supported the Guelphs who backed the pope. However his section of the party (the white Guelphs) wanted to see the Pope's power limited.
While Dante was attending a political meeting of the white Guelphs in Rome the Black Guelphs rose to power in Florence and conspired with the Pope to ban Dante. He was exiled for the remainder of his life. This probably infuenced his writings. For example he insists that Fortune is determinant in human life. Virgil taught that fortunes change fast and Dante applies this to his own exile. His political ideology also has an influence on who goes to hell in his Infierno. Those reponsible for his banishment are placed in hell, including the Pope.
The literary context of The Divine Comedy is epic poetry. The Greek epic poems the Illiad and Odyssey ask the Muse to inspire them and relate heroic adventures. In the Aeneid, Virgil, who is Dante's inspiration, changes the epic genre. It celebrates a larger than life hero but above all underlines the greatness of Rome and all Aeneid's actions are blessed by the divinities. Virgil's epic was written, not oral. That means it was accessible only to the literate class.
Dante includes Virgil as a character in his epic poem and uses some of the epic's characteristic components. The Muses are called upon for help and the Underworld plays a prominent part. However, Dante also updates the Roman epoch for Christian times. The hero is unself-confident and deeply in need of spirituality. Dante's version is critical of political and religious leaders: two Popes and several army commanders are placed in hell. This epic, unlike Virgil's, does not celebrate nationalism but focuses on spiritual improvement. The Comedy is written, not in Latin, but in the Tuscan vernacular, making it widely accessible.
The Divine Comedy is divided into three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso.
A middle-aged Dante gets lost in a dark forest. He wanted to climb an alluring mountain but is faced with 3 wild beasts. Luckily the ghost of the poet Virgil, sent by Dante's adored Beatrice, come to his rescue. However to get to the mountain they will have to take a long route through Hell. Virgil acts as guide into Hell where Dante is confronted by his sins disguised as condemned souls. These form 3 groups: the uncontrolled (who were addicted to money, food or sex); the violent; and the deceitful. The author travels the circles of Hell meeting sinners paying for their sins: the lustful never rest in a whirlwind, the heretics are entombed in flames, the violent boil in blood and the duplicious are caught in ice with their enemies. Hell is an integral part of the cosmos and dates to the same time as the world. Its population includes classical mythological beings. Virgil describes how he saw Christ rescue the patriarchs from Limbo.
Virgil himself is damned to Limbo, a place where poets and philosophers walk around conversing. They hanker for heaven which they will never get to. Virgil looks after Dante but as they descend the author realises what his guide lacks: an understanding of God's grace. This surpasses all heroism. All the condemned in Hell are there because they have not submitted to the grace of God. However, sins can be forgiven if the sinner repents.
In conversations with his fellow countrymen Dante understands his own sins. He also realises that Hell is not a place of vengeful chastisement but where justice is meted out. The condemned receive what they most wanted and the author recognises his own erroneos desires. He speaks to Francesca who misunderstood her adultery as a romance. His learns from his former teacher that his own desire for fame is a trap and from Ulysses that the wish to go beyond human bounds is sinful. Dante's meetings have lessons for his political enemies on earth and personal admonitions about his own failings.
Traitors are set in the the worst places in Hell. Their sins freeze their souls and reduce them to animals. Dante encounters there Count Ugolino who was tricked by an archbishop and walled up with his sons whom he cannibalised. Ugolino was consumed with vengeance and refused to comfort his sons. In Hell he gnaws at the archbishop's skull, imprisoned by his own revengefulness.
In the lowest part of Hell the travellers encounter Satan. He us a huge monster trapped in ice and gnawing on the three traitors Brutus, Cassius and Judas, with his three mouths. Dante is shocked at this spectacle but realises that Satan's power in not infinite. The pilgrims use the devil's own frozen body to descend through the earth's centre and then trek up towards the mountain which Dante recognises as Purgatory. They finally come put into the open and can see the stars.
In the first 9 cantos they arrive on the shores of Purgatory mountain. They are helped by some hymn singing penitents to find the entrance. An angel inscribes seven Ps on Dante's brow to represent the seven deadly sins: pride, envy, wrath, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust.
In cantos 10 to 26 they move through seven levels to purge each sin. They witness virtues and vices taken from pagan myth and the Scriptures. Dante takes up conversation with historical characters from the Middle Ages where they discuss sin, love and human development. They stress humanity's key feature - consciousness.
Cantos 28 to 33 take place in the Garden of Eden. Dante finds his childhood love, Beatrice, who will now be his guide. She chides Dante for losing his way after her death. Dante repents of his sins and he then bathes in the Lethe to forget them. Next he tales a dip in the Eunoe river to remember his good deeds. They face seven attacks of fierce beasts and Beatrice warns Dante of future punishments. She insists that he write about his experiences as a warning for others.
Beatrice accompanies Dante through the nine levels of heaven teaching him as they go.
In sphere 1, the moon, Dante meets Piccarda Donati who explains why souls are happy here. Beatrice tests Dante with questions about the spots on the moon. She explains that the waxing and waning of the Earth's satellite symbolises inconsistency which means that on the moon there are souls who are untrustworthy and not courageous. They meet Constance of Sicily who was taken from a convent and married to Henry VI. Beatrice ends the visit underlining that free will is sacred.
The second sphere is that of Mercury. The couple meet Justinian who describes the history and destiny of Rome. Planet Mercury is close to the sun and thus difficult to see. It represents those who acted well but only to gain recognition and achieve fame. Justinian explains Caesar's desire for power and glory which in heaven means nothing. Beatrice recalls the revenge of God on Jerusalem for its lust after glory.
Venus is the third sphere and here Dante encounters Charles Martel of Anjou. He advises the author that the secret of a well organised society is inclusive diversity. They then meet Folquet de Marseilles, musician and poet, who explains the temptations of love.
On the fourth level heaven appears as the sun. There are examples of prudence, the wise who enlighten the intellectual world. 12 lights from the souls of individuals circle round the couple. St. Dominic appears as a light to warn Dante against the dangers of hasty judgements.
Mars is the fifth level. Dante identifies it as the home of warriors who sacrified their lives for the faith. He meets Cacciaguida who recalls a virtuous Florence but criticises its present decline. He assures Dante that his exile is important since he has to explain to the world what he has seen in the underworld. Dante and Beatrice meet other defenders of the faith such as Charlemagne and Judas Maccabeus.
The sixth sphere is Jupiter linked to the home of the gods of justice. A giant eagle appears to remind Dante about divine justice and mystery. The rulers represented are the biblical kings, Constantine, Trajan and a pagan saved by God because of his rectitude.
Saturn is the seventh sphere and it represents temperance and prayerfulness. They are portrayed climbing up and down a golden ladder. The author here meets St. Peter Damian, the poet, who criticises the corruption of the Church and speaks of predestination. St. Benedict also shows anger at the immorality in the Church.
The Fixed Stars level is next. It is the sphere of Gemini. The couple meet the Virgin and other biblical characters like John, James and Peter who put Dante's faith, hope and charity to the test. Adam also talks of Eden and why he was expelled. St. Peter manifests his indignation with Pope Boniface VIII.
The last level of Paradiso, Primum Mobile, is the ultimate shpere of the physical universe. God controls it and his action has repercussons on all other levels. Dante catches sight of God as a bright point of light encircled by rings of angels. As they move up to the Empyrean Beatrice tells Dante the story of the Creation and of the angels.
On reaching the Empyrean the couple are in the divine realm, beyond physical existence. In the Paradiso Beatrice represented theology, now she becomes more beautiful. Dante is circled by light which allows him to see God. Finally Dante comprehends the representation of the 3 circles as the Trinity and God's eternal love.
It was Dante's disciple, Boccaccio, who, among others, began calling the poem 'Divina' since the content was about religious morality. The title of 'Comedy' may come from the structure of the poem since it parallels a comedy plot : sad beginnings in the dark forest of sin and progression to joy in the vision of God.
The subject is also a pilgrimage of a lost soul through the three stages of the afterlife to his final home. It is structured as a path to redemption: recognising sin, expiation and holy living. This is also the structure of confession: contrition, penitence and at-one-ment.
The epic is also structured through numbers:
- in the final sphere Dante understands the mystery of the Trinity. The poem uses the numbers 3 and 1 to reflect the trinity and unity of the Divinity:
- there are 3 canticles corresponding to the three parts of the afterlife
- each article includes 33 cantos and there is one introductory canto making the sum of 100.
- the verses are structured in terza rima which rhymes aba, bcb, cdc to form three line stanzas
- the poet uses the standard Italian 11 syllable line so that each stanza has 33 syllables, equivalent to the number of cantos in each canticle.
- the number 9 (3 x 3) plays a part in the structure, too. The Inferno is designed as nine circles and follows the nine astromomical spheres in Heaven. Purgatorio has seven terraces for the seven deadly sins as well as an anteroom for those awaiting and the Paradiso on top of the mountain.
- the canticles are divided into nine sections which constitute the three part constructions: Inferno has three types of sins: fraud, violences and incontinence; Purgatorio contains three kinds of love defects: misdirected, perverted and insufficient which are the frames for its terraces. In Paraiso God is portrayed as a point culminating in the Primo Mobile, a dimensionless point, the source of being.
The motivation and the goal for the Commedia are deeply rooted in a logical and systematic view of the Cosmos. Although Dante's ascending worldview has a medieval basis he points to another way of seeing reality through numbers and measurement.
The events are set in reference to real time: the pilgrimage starts on Good Friday, 1300, and he reaches Purgatorio on Easter Sunday. He moves through Mount Purgatorio in three nights then goes up to Paradiso then on to Florence. Dante is thus able to relate the story of his own exile and his hope of reconciliation as well as his spiritual account of redemption.
The geography of the poem is also carefully crafted. Hell is a funnel, Purgatory a mountain formed from the displaced land when Lucifer fell and created the pit. The cosmography of Heaven follows the nine spheres of medieval astronomy: 7 planets, the fixed stars and the First Mover.
Dante as a historical figure banished from Florence, Beatrice is Beatrice Portinari, the elusive love of his earlier poetry, Virgil is his poetic idol. The souls who appear in the afterlife are historical people like Ciacco, Vanni Fucci, Donati and Cacciaguida. The historical people Dante meets come to represent their personal sins and virtues.
However, Dante is also a pilgrim and personification of the human soul. Beatrice symbolises God's grace and, as guide, divine wisdom. Virgil represents reason which can move humans to recognise sin and attain faith. Grace alone can bestow salvation so it is Beatrice who guides Dante into Paradiso.
The Divine Comedy is readable on different levels. The historical and literal level is a political statement about the need to check the power of the Popes. The moral level of the poem shows the pilgrimage of everyman from limited spiritual understanding to enlightenment. The religious level demonstrates salvation history through the pilgrim's moral development.
Immortality through Storytelling
Throughout the epic Dante meets sinning characters who recount their stories believing that this would help them to heaven. They believed that the more people heard their story the quicker they would be sent to heaven. One man in Purgatory asks Virgil and the author to scotch any bad rumours others may invent about him:
“I am Manfred, grandson of the blessed Empress Constance, and I beg you, when you return there over the horizon, go to my sweet daughter, noble mother, of the honor of Sicily and of Aragon and speak the truth, if men speak any other."(The Purgatorio, Canto III).”
Dante's own poem is also a pilgrimage from sin to penance to heaven. It is a pilgrimage of self-confession recognising his sin/exile in Inferno, his penance/banishment in Purgatorio and his Salvation/return to Florence in Paradiso. It is an expression of Dante's desire for earthly and spiritual redemption.
Dante's presentation of theological questions follows the tradition of other medieval works which include them in dialogue formats. Beatrice represents theology, particularly in Paradiso, where she discusses intellectual religious topics with Dante. These discussions cover problematic theological issues such as creation, divinity, and church practice.
The structure of the epic is also theological. The climax of the poem starts with the medieval format of a theological examination. Dante is demonstrating in his own words that he has the knowledge to pass the exams. He shows his precise grasp of theology and faith.
Dante was against the contemporary rise of nation states. To stop the cycle of regional conflicts he proposed that the Emperor, not Pope Boniface VIII, should be the final judge in civil issues. His native republic of Florence held that democracy should be the model. But in reality assassinations and revenge were the most common tools of government.
Dante puts some politicians of his native Florence in the circular Hell of self-promotion. The opposing factions, Guelphs and Ghibellines, are placed in a hot sarcophagus in the cemetery for heretics.
Other historical figures are set among the saved like Justinian which suggests support of the Holy Roman Empire. Charles Martel is also a nobleman who criticises corrupt contemporary politicians as does Cacciaguida in his speech. Even criticism of the Church is finally political since it held the greatest political power in the Middle Ages. However Dante still expresses the hope of a future free of violence and corruption through God's intervention.
The Divine Comedy is an allegory of the three different existences of the soul after death. In Inferno he describes the place where sinners suffer. Purgatorio announces the place for those who might have committed crimes but did not carry them out. Here they can learn to repent by labouring to go beyond their mistaken earthly decisions. Paradiso is the domain of the virtuous near to the Trinity. It represents the end of a good Christian life full of faith.
Dante attempts to place the three afterlife realms in physical space. Hell sits below Jerusalem, Purgatory is in the middle of the ocean, south of the equator. Paradise describes the orbit of Mars and Jupiter round the Earth. This is an synthetic outline of Dante's scientific grasp of the world combined with his religious beliefs.
Viewing the corruption surrounding him and aware of his own sins Dante constructed visions which he hoped would encourage change in his time in the same way that Beatrice expected Dante's pilgrimage to redeem him. Readers are taught that they can redeem sinners from Purgatory through prayer. They also learn what awaits them if they do not follow a virtuous earthly life.
This is the story of a spiritual journey and also an ordered universe with humanity's place in it.