Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)


Taking this infernal  pilgrimage with Dante offers us an opportunity for self-examination: contemplating our sins and their possible consequences.

On the other hand, this could be the most interesting place. Isn’t it the reporting of crime and ‘sin’ that fills and sells newspapers? Hell is where the fun-loving folk go, where the happy-go-lucky people are. Heaven is where the boring people congregate in serene stillness .

It has been unkindly said that Dante puts all his enemies in Hell, and populates Paradise with his friends. There is certainly a host of Italians in his Hell.

[1] This is an introduction to the whole poem; each part has 33 cantos, with this one making a hundred in all.  Each canto has at least 130 lines (sometimes as many as 157).

The dark wood.     Maundy Thursday night (1300 CE)
In the middle of the journey of our life / I found myself within a dark wood / where the straight way was lost.
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita / mi ritrovai per una selva oscura / che la diritta via era smarrita.
(Age 35 years, half of the allotted “three-score and ten”, in the Bible. This is a worry to me, at the 70-mark, hearing about all the people who have actually died at that point on their personal time-scale. Dante himself did not even achieve 60 years. )

This is Dante’s mid-life crisis.  Like Martin Luther his personal problem is:
How do I get rid of my sin?

Good Friday morning.
The sunny hill leading to Paradise (Sun = God).  He wants to climb this stairway to Heaven.

Three beasts prevent him ascending. (Jeremiah 5:6)
‘Therefore a lion from the forest shall slay them, a wolf from the desert shall destroy them; a leopard is watching against their cities; anyone coming out of them shall be dismembered; because their transgressions are many, and their apostasies are numerous.’

The animals represent three types of sin which correspond with the three divisions of Hell (see Canto 11).
Leopard  = Lust, incontinence, sins of self-indulgence  (Inferno Circles 2 – 6; Cantos 5-11)
Lion = Pride, bestiality, sins of violence (Inferno Circle 7:1-3; Cantos 12-17)
She-wolf = Avarice, fraud, sins of malice (Inferno Circles 8:1-10, 9:1-4; Cantos 18-34)
A greyhound (veltro) will eventually destroy her (possibly Dante’s friend Can Grande, ‘big dog’).

Virgil (Vergilius, 70-19 BCE) the Latin poet (author of the Aeneid epic) will be his guide, through Hell to Saint Peter’s gate (entrance to Purgatory, not the gate of Heaven) and through Purgatory.

[2] Discouragement. Good Friday evening
Dante will be retracing Christ’s descent into Hell, but he is not equal to:
Aeneas (=the Roman Empire) who went into the underworld (Aeneid 6),
or Saint Paul (=the Church) who was lifted mystically into Heaven (2 Corinthians 12:4).

“Three blessed ladies” (tre donne benedette) are supporting him in Heaven: Saint Lucy (his patron saint, giver of light), and his beloved Beatrice (a woman he had known and admired since childhood), and also the Virgin Mary.
[3] The gate of Hell.

“Abandon all hope, ye who enter” (Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate).

But Dante will be allowed to exit from Hell now, and as a repentant sinner go straight to Purgatory when he dies. Here he will be a living soul, distinguished from the dead souls. The denizens of Hell and Purgatory are ‘shades’, but they have no shadow(ombra,'shade' and 'shadow'), and Dante will arouse great interest whenever he stands in the light and casts a shadow.

Charon ferries the eternal shades across the Acheron river, into ‘heat and cold’ (in caldo e ’n gelo). Notice that fire and ice are both there for tormenting wilful reprobates.

Virgil tells Dante: “My son, all who die in the wrath of God come together here from every land; and they are ready (pronto) to cross the river, because divine justice spurs them so that their fear turns into desire” (la tema si volvo in disio) (3.121-126).

It should be understood that sinful souls choose and desire Hell, just as they willingly and obstinately engaged in their sin. The damned fear the Inferno but long for it, just as in this life they committed sin in fear and trepidation, but enjoyed it. (So, perhaps, in Hell they become accustomed to wallowing in their torment, and the fire or the wind or the frost feeds their masochistic appetite?)

By the way, notice that Greco-Roman mythical characters and objects appear alongside Biblical images.  Thus we see Charon and the Acheron River. And the giants of Genesis are equated with the rebellious giants of classical mythology.

[4] First circle, Limbo
The unbaptized (particularly babies) and virtuous heathen are ‘suspended’ here. Virgil dwells in Limbo with the noble pagans and great classical philosophers, including Plato and Socrates, and they are ‘neither happy nor sad’ (4.84). I don’t know where they are now or whether they are pleased or dismayed by the fact that Pope Benedict (formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) has decreed that the concept of limbo should be abandoned, because it was "only a theological hypothesis" and "never a defined truth of faith". The Church's International Theological Commission said limbo reflected an "unduly restrictive view of salvation"; God is merciful and "wants all human beings to be saved".

[5] Second circle. Minos, judge of Hell (Aeneid 6.432).
An intriguing question: Does Dante make the penalty suit the offence (‘let the punishment fit the crime’)?

The lustful are tossed eternally on a howling wind. These include Tristan (and Isolde), Paris and Helen (“on whose account so much evil time revolved”), “lecherous” Cleopatra, Dido, and lastly Francesca and Paolo, two lovers known to Dante.

Francesca da Rimini (5.73-142) tells of her sinful love for Paolo da Rimini, brother of her husband, who killed them when he found them together. There are about two dozen operas based on this story, notably Francesca da Rimini by Riccardo Zandonai, and  Tchaikovsky composed a tone-poem on this subject. 

It is worth noting that sexual sins with love and mutuality are judged to be the least of the deadly sins, but the torments of the transgressors are grievous and they have no hope of passing on to a higher realm.  The fault of these "carnal sinners" is that they "subject reason to lust" (talento, meaning pleasure and will as well as talent). 

Francesca tells Dante about her undying passionate love for Paolo, and Dante weeps in sympathy with her , and in the end he swoons as if in death.

"If you have such a great yearning to know the first root of our love, I will tell as one who weeps while telling. One day, for our delight, we were reading about Lancelot, how love [for Queen Guinevere] constrained him. We were alone, with no apprehension. Many times that reading brought our eyes together and changed the colour in our faces, but it was one point alone which overpowered us: as we were reading about the desired smile being kissed by so great a lover, he who never shall be parted from me, all trembling, kissed my mouth.... That day we went no further in reading the book."

[6] Third circle. The gluttonous  

They wallow like swine in mire. Having been self-indulgent and self-centered, each soul is oblivious to others.

This is where he speaks about the last judgement  (6:94ff): at the sound of the angelic trumpet of doom, each soul will “find again the sad tomb, and again take on his flesh and form, and hear that which echoes in eternity” (the divine decision on his or her everlasting destiny).

[7] Fourth circle. The avaricious and the prodigal

 Hoarders and spendthrifts roll huge rocks as their punishment.

Pluto, God of the underworld, and also of wealth, is opposed to:
Fortuna, Fortune or Lady Luck. She has a wheel, which she turns, to distribute prosperity; people start at the bottom of her wheel, then gradually rise to the top as it revolves; they attain fortune (material wealth) and fame (celebrity status); but when they have passed the top of her wheel they fall. In Dante’s view she is equivalent to Divine Providence.

Fifth circle. The wrathful 

They are located in the marsh of the river Styx.
The raging types attack one another physically; the sullen sulk in the slime.

[8] Phlegyas ferries Dante and Virgil across the Styx to the city Dis (Nether Hell) with iron walls (=obstinacy). Dis is another name of Pluto, king of the underworld, for Virgil; Dante uses Judeo-Christian denominations: Beelzebub, Satan, Lucifer.

[9] The Furies
threaten to let Medusa the Gorgon loose; her ugly face turned men to stone. Nevertheless the two poets enter the city.

 Sixth circle. The heretics in their blazing tombs, made of iron (symbolic of their obduracy in holding their own opinions against the dogmas of the Church).

[10] Dante meets two Florentines from opposing factions.
[11] The lay-out of Hell (a prose diagram) . The geography of Hell will be passed over in this study, but the essential idea is that Dante is descending to the centre of Earth.

In his conversation with Brunetto Latini (15.49-54), the poet speaks of having lost his way in a valley and being rescued by Virgil 'yesterday morning' (Good Friday), so it is now Holy Saturday, and this day would have begun at sunrise, when the Constellation of the Fishes rose just before the sun (at the end of Canto 11), as the two poets were making their way down into this seventh circle.

[12] Seventh circle. The violent, of three kinds.

First round violence against others
Those who have done injury to others are boiled in Phlegethon, the river of blood, guarded by the Minotaur and centaurs (combinations of human and beast). Tyrants such as Alexander and Attila the Hun are there, stewing in blood for their mad brutishness against others.

[13] Second round. Those who do violence against themselves (suicides) or against their property (profligates who wantonly squander their goods) become bleeding trees. Property was considered an extension of one’s self. A man who offended on both counts was Piero:
“I made a gibbet for myself of my house” (Io fei giubbetto a me delle mie case) (13.151). He hanged himself from his own house in Florence, showing disrespect for the family property and name. 

[14 – 17] Third round. Those who do violence against God (blasphemy), Nature (homosexuality), or Art (usury) are punished on a burning sandy plain, with fire raining on them continually.

Blasphemers lie on their backs, looking up towards Heaven and God, whom they have insulted, and therefore they are forbidden the blessed vision of the Deity.

Homosexuals run perpetually towards the human body, which they have violated, constantly jogging together.They are stamped with the seal of Sodom (11.50), and hence 'sodomites' (based on the story in Genesis 19 about the men of the wicked city Sodom), men who practice 'sodomy' (anal intercourse). It is male homosexuality that is condemned here; Lesbianism is not mentioned.

Dante’s revered neighbour and mentor, Brunetto Latini, (c. 1210-1294) is in this sector, and other dignitaries of his city; Dante is shocked and saddened to see him in this situation, and they converse at length. Many scholars, teachers, and clerics were guilty of this supposed ‘abomination’ in Italian society (but how Dante found out about their secret sin is a mystery to me), and were otherwise virtuous. Maybe sometimes the things we read in the Bible are liable to lead us astray when we are trying to distinguish good from evil. Homosexuality is not included among the Ten Prohibitions of Moses. Adultery is one of the ‘crimes’ in these Ten Commandments, all of which incurred the death penalty in ancient Israel. (It was usually the married woman who was stoned to death, as shown, apparently, by a story in John’s Gospel about ‘a woman taken in adultery’, whereas the man could pay restitution to the husband for damaging his property). And yet Dante found that consenting adults who loved each other lustfully outside the boundaries of marriage were not consigned to the depths of Hell, but were floating around in the circle immediately below Limbo. We might have expected a similar position for consenting adults of the same ‘gender’ who engage in loving embraces motivated by feelings that we have always known to exist in the rest of the animal kingdom, and which are now scientifically attested. They are only doing what comes naturally to them, but the majority group in some human societies try to establish their kind of sexual attraction and practice as the natural norm. But only a bare majority of humankind is heterosexual; the remainder, along the sexual spectrum, is bisexual, homosexual, unsexual, or other.

Brunetto, in parting from Dante, recommends his Tesoro ('treasure'), his Thesaurus, an encyclopedia written in French. He also produced a Little Treasure, in Italian verse, describing an allegorical journey; this could have given Dante the idea for his own poem (Italian, allegorical, journey) (JDS).

Usurers sit on the burning soil with their purses, fighting off the  falling droplets of fire. If the homosexuals can be accused of making sterile the natural instincts that result in fertility, the usurers make fertile that which by its nature is sterile, namely money, which is made to ‘breed’ (Gelli, quoted by Dorothy Sayers). Furthermore, they promote the multiplication of ‘material luxuries at the expense of vital necessities’, with ‘no roots in the earth or in humanity’ (DLS).

[18] Eighth Circle. The fraudulent

 (1) Panders and Seducers  

Jason and the women of Lemnos (they slew their men for bringing home Thracian concubines; Jason and the Argonauts arrived, Jason coupled with Princess Hypsipyle but abandoned her; he moved on to Colchis, where he stole the golden fleece and Princess Medea; he married her but later took Creusa as his wife, with disastrous consequences.)

They run in opposite directions, as demons scourge them.

(2) Flatterers  

Thais the harlot (not the famous one who became a nun, surely) 

They are immersed in filth.

[19] (3) Simonists 

Simon Magus (the original simonist, buying or selling the church's benefits), Pope Nicholas III

They are in holes, head downwards, with flames scorching their feet. 

[20] (4) Diviners sorcerers, fortune-tellers

Their heads are twisted round so that they are forced to walk backwards.

[21-22] (5) Barrators 

These are malicious persons who stir up quarrels, here meaning traders in public offices (similar to simony in the Church). Dante was accused of barratry. 

They are now plunged in boiling pitch tormented by demons with hooks.

[23] (6) Hypocrites 

They walk in gilded cloaks lined with lead. Caiaphas, the High Priest of Israel, who condemned Jesus Christ to death and delivered him to the Romans for execution, is crucified on the ground.

[24-25] (7) Thieves  

They are tortured by reptiles, serpents with legs and claws.

[26-27] (8) False Counsellors 

These are miscreants who counsel others to practise fraud or use their intelligence for guile. 

 They are punshed in forked-tongued flames. Perhaps Dante was thinking of The Epistle of James (3:6):'The tongue is a fire ... set alight by Hell (Gehenna)'.

Ulysses is here, and he recounts his voyage (not as in Homer, since the Odyssey was not available to Dante). He was renowned for his cunning, and his chief fault was his craftiness in the war against Troy; the Trojans became the Romans, and so he was an enemy of the Roman empire.

[28] (9) Makers of discord 

 For fomenting religious schism, civil strife, family disunity, they are perpetually cut asunder by a sword wielded by a demon.

Muhammad and `Ali  are in this section. (Islam was regarded as a Christian heresy, and `Ali is at the source of the schism between Sunnites and Shi`ites.)

[29-30] (10) Falsifiers 

Alchemists,  impersonators, perjurers, counterfeiters 

They are stricken with horrendous diseases, and are seen scratching off itchy scabs. 

The impostor Gianni Schicchi is singled out.
"I saw two shades, pale and naked, which ran biting like a (rutting) hog released from the pigsty. One came at Capocchio and bit into the nape of his neck, then, dragging him, made his belly scrape on the solid ground. And the Aretine Griffolino, who was left trembling, said to me: ‘That goblin is Gianni Schicchi, and he goes about in a fury treating everyone else in this way’." (30:25- 33)

Gianni Schicchi is being punished for impersonation, and he must have been notorious. He was a Florentine of the Cavalcanti family, and a clever mimic. When Buoso Donati died, his son Simone suspected that his father might have left a will restoring property (acquired fraudulently) to the rightful owners. He plotted with Schicchi, who got into Buoso’s bed and dictated a new will to his lawyer, in Simone’s favour, but also bequeathing a legacy to himself, notably a famous mare known as ‘the lady of the stud’.

In Puccini’s opera
entitled Gianni Schicchi, the third in his Tryptych (Il Trittico), the rogue is approached by all the relatives, who know the money will go to a monastery; he divides the wealth among them, according to their wishes, but he bequeaths the disputed properties to himself (the house, and the mills, and the mule! A mule that can breed? Not impossible.). His daughter Lauretta can now marry her beloved Rinuccio, who is a nephew of Buoso. Incidentally, the best-known aria  from this short opera, is Lauretta’s entreaty: "O mio babbino caro (Oh Daddy dear)". She tells Gianni that she will jump off the Ponte Vecchio and drown herself in the river Arno if he will not take pity on her and ensure the marriage takes place.

At the end of the opera Gianni speaks to the audience, telling them that for this crazy act he was hunted into Hell (cacciato all’inferno); but with "our great father Dante’s permission" he puts in a plea of "extenuating circumstances".

In this regard I have heard a suggestion that Puccini's three pieces are counterparts to Dante's three parts of his massive poem. Il Tabarro is Hell/Inferno (just like Francesca da Rimini, whom Dante spoke to in Hell, a woman and her lover are caught and murder occurs). Suor Angelica (Sister Angelica, the noblewoman who had a child out of wedlock and as locked away in a convent to conceal the family's shame) is said to go with Purgatory, and Gianni Schicchi with Paradise.

If we are going to make this scheme work at all, then it might be better to put the nun's story in Paradise (with its heavenly vision of her dead child and the Virgin Mary) and give Gianni another chance, taking him out of Hell and putting him in Purgatory for a clean-up.

[31] Giants 

They are now chained and restrained. 

These include Nimrod, (‘the mighty hunter  before the Lord’, who built cities in Mesopotamia/ `Iraq [Genesis 10:8-12]; he was also blamed for the Tower of Babel and the multiplication of languages [11:1-9]). The giants are chained, for their hubris, arrogance, defiance of the gods. The classical giants who rebelled against the gods are equated with the giants of Genesis (6:1-4), the nephilim, offspring of  women and “sons of God” (presumed to be fallen angels, like Lucifer).

Nimrod is portrayed as an imbecile: he gives a mighty blast on his horn, and then he cannot find it, until Virgil points out that it is on a strap around his neck and it is resting on his chest. Edward Elgar has a more sympathetic and glorious account of Nimrod in his Enigma Variations (identified as his publisher Jaeger, German for 'hunter').

[32-33] Ninth circle. Treacherous / Traitors

 Confined in the frozen lake at the bottom of the Pit, shivering and shuddering, and attacking one another; their frozen tears prevent them seeing another’s face.

Strange to tell, some people that Dante knows and meets in Hell are not dead, but they are so evil that their soul is already there.

[34] At last we see Dis/ Pluto/ Lucifer /the Devil.

His legs are encased in ice. He has six wings, and three faces on his head  (a blasphemous travesty of the Holy Trinity). In each mouth he crunches a sinner; one is Judas Iscariot; the others are Brutus and Cassius.

Dante and Virgil follow the course of the Lethe stream and emerge at the mountain of Purgatory, on Saturday evening (?), “to see again the stars”.