Florence, Dome of Light

The Poet’s Dream and Its Consequences

Dante and Shakespeare divide
the modern world between them;
there is no third.


THOUGH ASSISI CONTAINS THE WORK of Giotto best known to the world and Padua the crown of his achievement, Giotto left his charmed handiwork in other places as well: Rome, Rimini, and Naples for sure, Bologna and Arezzo most likely, and especially Florence, where he decorated the still-extant, if much abused, Peruzzi and Bardi chapels of Santa Croce and carried out many other commissions, only some of which remain in our keeping. We know that late in life he even undertook architectural works: the classically graceful Carraia Bridge spanning the River Arno (reduced to dust in the Second World War) and the jocund bell tower that stands beside Florence’s great cathedral and is still known as the Campanile di Giotto. For in 1334, less than three years before his death, the humble painter was named chief of public works for the city of Florence and capomaestro (master builder) for the construction of its new cathedral.

Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, in Florence, surmounted by Brunelleschi’s dome; to the right is the Campanile, designed by Giotto. (Photo Credit 6.29)

Giotto hardly had time to leave his mark on the architecture of the Duomo di Santa Maria del Fiore (Dome of Saint Mary of the Flower), as the new cathedral would be called. But the appointment of the greatest artist of his age to be overseer of municipal planning is typical of the role proud Florence had begun to play along the length of the Italian peninsula—as unfailing magnet for creative genius. From the last decades of the thirteenth century, through the fourteenth and the fifteenth, and well into the sixteenth, Florence—Firenze, originally Fiorenza, the Flowering City as its name indicates—seemed almost continually to be burgeoning like a spring garden, blooming with fresh works of art and architecture. Spearhead of the Renaissance, Florence became in the course of these centuries undisputed leader of European learning in arts and sciences and the first city in seventeen hundred years to lay legitimate claim to the intellectual preeminence of ancient Athens. It was here in 1436 that Filippo Brunelleschi finally completed the dome of the cathedral, largest, highest, and most astounding building in the world of its time—“big enough to cover in its shadow all the Tuscan people”—and set a fashion in architecture that has scarcely run its course; it was here in the last years of the fifteenth century that Michelangelo transformed forever the art of sculpture; and it was here in the last years of the sixteenth century that a group of aristocratic intellectuals resolved to resurrect the art of ancient Greek drama in a new form, which came to be called opera.

But already in the time of Giotto, Florentines knew their city to be the navel of the world, unsurpassable in achievements intellectual and artistic. So it is almost unremarkable in such a city that as the teenage Giotto di Bondone was learning to be a painter in the cluttered bottega of Cimabue, the teenage Dante Alighieri, perhaps a year or two older than the painting peasant, was learning to be a poet, and an exceedingly architectonic one at that, as he strolled freely through the streets of his native Florence, observing the progress of its many architectural novelties. Like James Joyce, self-exiled from Dublin at the start of the twentieth century, the young Dante committed everything he saw and heard to memory—including his lessons in the liberal arts—and such ecumenical absorption would serve him well when, far from home, he began his masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, which would be, as are all works of art to some extent, an exercise in memory. But whereas Joyce was recalling the details of a paralyzed provincial capital, Dante would be remembering what was for him the bountiful center of the known world: “fiorian Fiorenza in tutt’ i suoi gran fatti” (“Florence flowering in feat and deed”).a

Baptistery of San Giovanni, Florence. (Photo Credit 7.2)

The octagonal Baptistery of San Giovanni—“il mio bel San Giovanni” (my beautiful San Giovanni), as Dante called the place of his baptism—had stood next to the old cathedral for centuries and had perhaps preceded it, dating possibly to as early as the fourth century. A smaller version of Rome’s pagan Pantheon, the baptistery was never left to be just another lovely old building. In the eleventh century, an operation was begun to encase the entire facade in white marble from Luni and green marble from Prato, a fashion that would migrate throughout Tuscany and return at last to Florence, there to enjoy its apotheosis in the white, green, and pink of the new cathedral. In the twelfth century, porphyry columns, booty taken by the Florentines in war, were added to either side of the Baptistery’s main entrance. In the early thirteenth century, a splendid mosaic pavement was laid within the building; in later years, in fact through the whole of Dante’s childhood and early manhood, the vault of the building was being decorated with colorful mosaic images, enclosed in elaborate geometric patterns. In the months preceding Dante’s death in 1321, Andrea Pisano would erect a set of gilded bronze doors, illustrating the life of John the Baptist; and in the early fifteenth century, Lorenzo Ghiberti would follow with two additional sets of bronze doors, one set illustrating in exquisite detail the life of Christ, the other principal scenes from the Old Testament, this last so fine that Michelangelo would call it “the Gate of Paradise.”

Mosaic of Satan in Hell, Baptistery of San Giovanni, Florence. (Photo Credit 7.3)

The perpetual drama of Florence—building, adding, embellishing, transfiguring—held the attention of the young Dante, not only in his beloved Baptistery but at so many other sites around the city: the decorative medieval fortress of the Palazzo Vecchio (Old Palace), now the town hall; the nearby grain market, designed by Arnolfo di Cambio and burned to the ground in 1304; the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge), spanning the Arno (along with three other handsome bridges), crowded with medieval houses, and reconstructed in the fourteenth century after a flood; the tenth-century churches of Santi Apostoli and Badia Fiorentina, the Benedictine Badia (or Abbey) containing a “rich complex of chapels, gardens, libraries, and shops,” which spread out just across the way from the Alighieri family house; and, farther on at opposite ends of the city, the Dominican foundation of Santa Maria Novella and the Franciscan foundation of Santa Croce, both built in the poet’s lifetime and at each of which he received instruction in philosophy and theology.

The eleventh-century San Miniato al Monte, surmounting a green hill, affords incomparable views of the city below. One of the most beautiful churches in Italy, it has been a model for many. But for Florentines like Dante it was always a place to recall that “the city is born out of the valley, its monuments enclosed by an amphitheatre of hills,” in the words of Marco Chiarini, former director of the Palantine Gallery in the Pitti Palace, “its architecture … created by the human mind in imitation of its natural setting.”

We all know citizens of such vibrant cities as New York, London, Paris, and Rome (and of many smaller burgs) who would be forever cast down were they to be permanently separated from the city they love. Still, according to R.W. B. Lewis, “Dante associated himself with his native city to a degree almost incomprehensible in modern times. Florence was not merely his birthplace; it was the very context of his being.” There are three things everyone seems to know about Dante: that he was a native of Florence; that he fell in love with a girl named Beatrice, with whom he scarcely ever spoke and who became the vehicle for the concluding insights of his great poem; and that he died in exile.

All these things are true, as well as a few others that Lewis relates compactly:

He was Dante Alighieri, a distinct individual with a classic profile and a sometimes tempestuous disposition. He had intimate friends, like his sportive neighbor Forese Donati; literary colleagues, like the older poet Guido Cavalcanti; and deadly enemies, like Forese’s brother Corso. He was the dedicated lover, from a distance, of Beatrice Portinari, until her death at an early age in 1290 [less than a year younger than Dante, she would have been twenty-four], and a few years later he composed in her memory his first major work, the Vita Nuova, the story in prose and poetry of his devotion to her from the age of nine. In the course of time Dante became a married man (his wife was another and more sedate member of the Donati clan), with three [more likely, four] children. But he was an ardent personality, and more than once, in pursuit of other Florentine maidens, he lost the straight way, to borrow his phrase at the opening of the Inferno. Even in his lifetime, as the first two canticles of the Divine Comedy began to circulate (around 1315), he was recognized as the greatest Italian poet, the somma poeta, of his age. But he was first and last a Florentine, and indeed, on one level, his masterwork, the Comedy, is an expression of his passionate feelings about Florence, his rage against the conspirators who had driven him out, his longing to return.

In the eyes of today’s visitor, Florence seems a small polished gem of a city. But in Dante’s youth it was, with its population of eighty thousand, the largest city in Europe after Paris, home to Europe’s most influential bankers, and issuer in 1252 of the gold florin,bwhich quickly became Europe’s leading coin. Florence, run as a capitalist republic by merchant oligarchs, was the principal source for many of the continent’s most desirable luxuries—silks, tapestries, jewelry, embossed leather—an altogether more powerful nucleus than it would later be. What happened here commanded the attention of everyone.

Unfortunately, what happened here in Dante’s lifetime—an endless feud among the city’s leading families—was not atypical of city life in medieval Italy. Dante came from a well-established (if second-tier) family of landowners. He had lost his mother when he was seven and his father when he was still in his teens. He took an early and prominent role in the life of his city, first as a soldier in arms, then as a municipal official. It was this prominence that would bring him to grief when the tides of political power shifted.

The main fight was between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, two families to begin with, and, later, factions that drew to their sides other families and associations of partisans, till they had drawn towns, cities, provinces, and whole countries into their blood-soaked conflict. The names of the parties altered somewhat depending on the vernacular in which they were invoked: in Germany, where they had originated, the Guelphs were the Welfs; in the Norman tongue of Britain and Ireland the Ghibellines were the Fitzgeralds. Though the conflict had religious and political dimensions, it was always at base a struggle of willful and unyielding factions whose professed ideologies shifted and blended as circumstances required. The feud, which began in the reign of Frederick Barbarossa and grew out of his project to reassert imperial rule over Lombardy, lasted a century and a half, petering out only halfway through the fourteenth century, as the Black Death stalked Europe. The official line was that the Ghibellines were supporters of the emperor, the Guelphs of the pope—but only più o meno (more or less), to use modern Italian’s most characteristic phrase.

Pope Boniface VIII, wearing the papal crown, which he would soon forsake for the triple tiara. (Photo Credit 7.4)

Florence was a Guelph city, which after many humiliations had managed to expel its Ghibellines soon after Dante’s birth. Though Guelph by familial, civic, and religious loyalties, Dante nonetheless attempted to play fair. When in 1300 he was elected a prior of Florence—one of seven priors who, working together, were the highest civil authority—he ruled as harshly toward errant Guelphs as toward fugitive Ghibellines. But by this time, the Guelphs were fighting among themselves, divided into two factions, White and Black. After a sixteen-year-old White lost his nose, sliced off by one of the Blacks in a street fight, Dante and his fellow priors banished the ringleaders on both sides. That mutilation—“the destruction of our city,” as one chronicler termed it—and the subsequent banishments would prove Dante’s undoing as a Florentine.

One of the banished Blacks—Corso Donati, a relative of Dante’s wife—determined to have his revenge and fled to Rome, where he found an abundance of coconspirators, including the reigning pope. Boniface VIII, who had just proclaimed the first Holy Year to coincide with the turning of the century (and to rake lots of pilgrim gold into papal coffers), was one of the vilest men ever to sit on the throne of Saint Peter, a cleric wholly concerned with his own power and aggrandizement, who took to parading about in the costume of an emperor (“I’m pope! I’m Caesar!” he shouted) and who remodeled the papal crown into the novelty of the triple tiara, symbolic of his vaunted authority as high priest, king (of the Papal States), and emperor over the emperor. These last two roles were justified by a spurious eighth-century document, known as the Donation of Constantine, in which the first Christian emperor had supposedly made donations of vast tracts of land in central Italy to the papacy and had awarded to the pope “the privileges of our supreme station as emperor and all the glory of our authority.” Boniface’s overriding ambition was to establish clerical, and particularly papal, control over every aspect of European life. “Outside this [Catholic] Church,” he shouted in the historic bull Unam sanctam, “there is neither salvation nor remission of sins,” and “it is altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.”c Needless to say, this was not a bull the reigning emperor found agreeable.

Boniface was also a man who enjoyed involving the papacy in wars and skirmishes. In June 1301, he sent off a formal request that Florence supply him with two hundred horsemen to help with a small war he was waging to deprive the notorious Margherita degli Aldobrandeschi, the Red Countess of Tuscany, of her lands south of Siena, the rival city that served the Ghibellines as their Tuscan stronghold. It’s true that Margherita was quite an act, having (among other things) urged her lover to murder his wife, which he did. But Dante wisely advised the Council of Florence to sit on its hands. “Nihil fiat” (Let’s do nothing) is the phrase of Dante’s that echoes down the ages, an awfully good maxim for so many political situations in which violence is urged by some authoritarianhothead. In the end, the council capitulated to the pope, who never forgave Dante his daring.

Because the popes had long had an on-again, off-again alliance with the French monarchy against the German emperors, Boniface invited Charles de Valois,d the weak-kneed brother of the French king, into Italy, where he soon found himself at Siena plotting an invasion of Florence with Dante’s mortal enemy, Corso Donati. The invitation did not mean that Boniface had a high regard for Charles, any more than for any Frenchman. “I’d rather be a dog than a Frenchman,” shouted the pope, leaving earnest literalists to wonder if this bull of a pope believed in the soul (or in anything), since he would rather be a soulless dog than a Frenchman whose immortal soul had the possibility of reaching Paradise. Dante was sent by the Florentines, along with two other ambassadors, to plead with Boniface to call Charles off. The pope heard their plea, made no reply, released the other two ambassadors to return to Florence, and detained Dante.

On November 1, Charles entered Florence and occupied it with a large army, all the while making promises to preserve the peace. But soon, with Corso descending on the scene and issuing threats and curses left and right, Charles permitted widespread looting and burning, as urged by the Black extremists. Dante’s house was vandalized and his wife and children were forced to flee to relatives. By April, all the White belligerents had been made to abandon the city. In January 1302, Dante was charged by the newly elected Black priors with accepting bribes and diverting municipal funds to his personal use, for which gargantuan fines were assessed against him. Though the charges were fabrications, Dante’s failure to appear in person to answer them brought down on him (and on fourteen other former officials) the condemnation of death by burning. Dante, not quite thirty-seven years of age, would never again be able to return to his native city.

Dante in red in a fresco in the chapel of the Bargello, Florence. (Photo Credit 7.5)

Released at last by the pope and making his way back to Florence, Dante had reached Siena by the time he had news of the charges against him. He lingered in Tuscany awhile, allying himself briefly with the Ghibellines of San Godenzo, then with those of Forlì to the east. But within a few months, despairing that any good could come of these associations, he took off north to Verona, where he found shelter and welcome in the shadow of Bartolomeo della Scala, “il gran Lombardo” (the great Lombard), as Dante would call him and from whom he received “lo primo tuo refugio e ’l primo ostello” (“first refuge and first lodging”), words that carry a warm exhalation of relief after trials too chilling and too many.

Though Dante would remain forever grateful to the great Lombard, the Veronese refuge was short-lived. During the winter of 1303–4, Bartolomeo died and was succeeded by his antipathetic brother Alboino. Dante was on the move once more. In leaving Verona, he was also cutting himself off from his connections to the White Guelphs. He had first come to Verona as their emissary. Now, finding his party “malvagia e scempia” (evil and stupid)—never a winning combination—he resolved to set off on his own,“parte per te stesso” (a party of one). Anyone who has ever come to find his fellow partisans as dismaying as the opposition will understand the abiding loneliness that enveloped Dante.

There is a portrait of Dante in profile in the chapel of the battlemented Bargello, the massive “Palace of the Captain of the People,” official residence of the podestà, and Florence’s oldest surviving government building, constructed a decade before Dante’s birth. Dante may be found among the blessed in Heaven in the fresco of the Last Judgment on the altar wall. Though the fresco was made sometime after Dante’s death, there is every reason to believe that if it was not painted by Giotto himself it is from the hand of one of his assistants, at any rate someone who had known Dante, the citizen of Florence, but never saw him again after his banishment. The fading Dante on the chapel wall is a tall, thin, handsome man in his mid-thirties, clean-shaven, dignified in rich, dark-red velvet, and learned (for he carries a book). He has a strong, well-defined jaw; thin, firmly closed lips; and the aquiline nose of the ancient Romans. Many of the contented beati around him are smiling sweetly, looking here and there, as people will. Dante stares straight ahead, serious, intense, meditative, resolute. The portrait is a just one, according well with everything else we know about the man.

But the years to come would not be kind to Dante. For several years we have incomplete information on his whereabouts. He stays at Arezzo, Treviso, Padua (where he runs into Giotto, then at work on the Scrovegni Chapel), Bologna, Venice, the Lunigiana, and Lucca, and with several different hosts in the Casentino Valley. We lose track of him from time to time, but always he appears to be wandering in or near Tuscany, circling Florence, hoping. For ten years after the death sentence of 1302, Dante will almost never spend as much as a year in any one place; often enough his stay will be far shorter. He will learn, as one of the characters in the Commedia will tell him, the bitterness of exile:

    “Tu lascerai ogne cosa diletta

               più caramente; e questo è quello strale

               che l’arco de lo essilio pria saetta.

    Tu proverai si come sa di sale

               lo pane altrui, e come è duro calle

               lo scendere e ’l salir per l’altrui scale.

    E quel che più ti graverà le spalle,

               sarà la compagnia malvagia e scempiae

                    con la qual tu cadrai in questa valle.”

    “And everything you loved most dearly there

               You shall abandon. This opening shaft the bow

               Of banishment will shoot into the air.

    How salt another’s bread is you shall know;

               How hard the step will tread, mount or descend,

               Upon a stranger’s stairs where you must go.

    And what will most of all weigh down and bend

               Your shoulders is the venomous and foul

               Mob that will walk with you to this vale’s end.”

The young, attractive, enviable presence that almost assaults us from the chapel wall of the Bargello will be transformed during these ten years of wandering into a very different older figure, “peregrino, quasi mendicando” (pilgrim, almost beggared), as he tells us, “a ship without a sail and without a rudder, cast about to different harbors and inlets and shores by the dry wind of humiliating poverty.” By the time he returns to Verona again—for the youngest of the della Scala brothers, the admirable Can Grande, had become lord of Verona on the death of the antipathetic Alboino—Dante is a stooped, prematurely aged man in his late forties whose large, dark eyes flicker starkly from a dark, thickly bearded face. As E. M. Forster describes him in his magical tale “The Celestial Omnibus,” he is “a sallow man with terrifying jaws and sunken eyes.” He walks slowly and always looks thoughtful and sad, though his manners are impeccable and his unfailing courtesy to all is a cause for comment. Boccaccio, who will interview many Veronese for his biography of Dante, tells of a cluck-clucking clutch of Veronese ladies who were taking the air one day and were terribly frightened by Dante when he appeared, as if from nowhere, and walked past them. With his gaunt, clouded face and air of sadness, he seemed as if he had suddenly emerged … dal inferno!

Indeed, Hell was much on Dante’s mind during this time, for he had begun his great poem, which he called simply Commedia (and which would earn the adjective Divina centuries later). It is divided into three parts (called canzoni, or song sequences): Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso (Hell, Purgatory, Heaven), each canzone having thirty-three canti (songs, lyrics, or, in this case, rounded episodes), with the Inferno having an extra introductory canto, thus making one hundred canti in all. The tightness of the structure cannot be overemphasized, for there is nothing like it, nothing so thoroughly architectural, in all the rest of literature, whether ancient or modern. The Comedy is a series of storeys, apartments, rooms, and frames in which everything fits into everything else, all planes leveled, all lines plumb, all corners perfectly squared. Even the novel rhyme scheme is amazing in its completeness. Terza rima, Dante called it: aba, bcb, cdc, and so forth, never deviating and never failing to rhyme—and rhyme gracefully and naturally—through its 14,233 lines of eleven syllables each.

If this sounds—to the reader who has never attempted the Comedy—like an invitation to dry schematization and considerable pain rather than to the normal pleasures of literature, I plead with you to lay aside your prejudice. The real problem for the English-reading reader lies not in the poem’s architectonics, which (once you have been alerted to them) fade imperceptibly into the background, but in the language. Dante’s Italian is simple—like its predecessor, medieval Latin—and can be understood by anyone reading a straightforward bilingual translation.f But the use of language—the severity of diction, combined with an ambiguous allusiveness—is unlike almost anything in English. There is in Dante some of the music we hear in Milton, but whereas Milton overwhelms us with his gorgeously vibrating organ chords, Dante, poor in resources, sticks to the chastity of chant. There is something of Spenser’s Faerie Queene in Dante (or rather something of Dante in The Faerie Queene), but this comparison is more misleading than helpful, because Spenser’s bullheaded politics have grown entirely irrelevant and his elaborate allegory weighs one down after a while and becomes at last a bore. Dante’s politics remain universal, his allegory so subtle that one seldom need advert to it; he seems rather to be telling a poignantly personal story. The only English poet to approach language in a way truly close to Dante’s is George Herbert, who can be sweet but severe, confessional but colloquial, realistic but hopeful, symbolic but ordinary all at once. Yet Herbert never attempted anything remotely similar in scale to the Comedy.

Enough of comparisons. Let us approach the work, beginning with the most famous first line in all of literature:

    Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita

               mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,

               ché la diritta via era smarrita.

    Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura

               esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte

               che nel pensier rinova la paura!

    Tant’ è amara che poco è più morte;

               ma per trattar del ben chi’i’ vi trovai,

               dirò de l’altre cose ch’i’ v’ho scorte.

    Along the journey of our life half way

               I found myself in a dark wood

               Wherein the straight road no longer lay:

    How hard it is to tell, make understood

               What a wild place it was, so dense, adverse

               That fear returns in thinking on that wood.

    It is so bitter death is hardly worse.

               But, for the good it was my chance to gain,

               The other things I saw there I’ll rehearse.

In his first three lines (literally, “In the middle of the journey of our life / I found myself again in a dark wood / where the straight way was lost”), he alerts us to three things: he is thirty-five, halfway to his allotted “three score years and ten”; this, though his personal story (“I”), will have universal meaning (“our life”); he is lost. The verb form ritrovai can mean “I found” or “I found again.” To find oneself lost is paradoxical but also the beginning of a realistic assessment of one’s position. Because mi ritrovai,considered by itself without the phrase that follows, suggests “I found myself again,” there may even be a slight hint, here at the very beginning of the work, that Dante will in the end find his way out of the savage (selvaggia) darkness.

This first canto, Canto I of the Inferno, is set on Good Friday 1300, the same year that Dante was elected a prior of Florence and the same year the dreadful Boniface proclaimed as the first Holy Year. In 1301, Dante voted in the Council of Florence against aiding the pope in his war; in the same year, Charles occupied Florence, while Dante was detained at Rome. In early 1302, Dante was condemned to death in absentia and banished. The tumult of these three years—and Dante has an endless fascination for threes and their multiples—forms the personal backdrop of the Comedy: they are the years of Dante’s life when “all changed, changed utterly.”

Dante, writing nearly a decade later, is looking back on his former self, the intense young man with prospects in view, whom we met on the wall of the Bargello. The Comedy is an allegory because it presents Dante, its main character, on a pilgrimage through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, a pilgrimage not unlike the one the Holy Year pilgrims made to Rome. But whereas they visited an earthly city—and one where, as Dante (thinking of Boniface, who sold church offices for a price) says, “Christ is bought and sold the whole day long”—Dante will journey to the world beyond the veil, even to the heavenly city itself. The great poem is a comedy because it ends well. But in the course of a largely painful journey, Dante the poet has so universalized the sufferings of Dante the man that his personal story can serve as a template for the lives of all readers in every age.

After a night spent in fear “in the lake of the heart,” Dante sees beyond a hill the rays of the sun—“the beams of the planet that leads men straight on every road”—and heads east, only to have his way blocked by three beasts escaped from Hell: the spotted leopard of lust, the hungry lion of pride, and the lean she-wolf of avarice. They represent his (and everyone’s) temptations. In flight from them all, he runs smack into the ancient Roman poet Virgil, who is Dante’s principal model, “lo mio maestro e ’l mio autore,”as Dante most touchingly addresses him. “You are he from whom alone I took the beautiful style [lo bello stilo] that has brought me honor.” Beautiful style, most surely. Dante’s studious attention to Virgil’s felicitous refinements, transferred to the emerging Italian vernacular and widely praised as the dolce stil nuovo (the sweet new style), had brought him fame. His early poems, all in the rampant tradition of courtly love, made him preeminent among the fedeli d’Amore, the devotees of the god of Love, always in thrall to one mistress or another. But now as Dante meditates on the crisis of his life, his supple poetry, still dolce, must stretch itself considerably to embrace the all-encompassing theme of suffering.

There is no way past the she-wolf, so Virgil proposes to guide Dante by another route—through Hell—and what a tour it will be, though much of it so famous that it need not greatly delay us here. In Canto III they move through the entranceway that bears the awful notice ending with the words ABANDON ALL HOPE YOU WHO ENTER HERE. Their first encounters, if they can be called that, are with the Drearies, who, having no place of their own, mill about Hell’s entrance, “those who lived without blame or praise,” whining wraiths who never truly lived at all, the lukewarm, who are “as hateful to God as to his enemies,” the people no one claims. Among them Dante identifies a pope, Celestine V, a silly, weak-willed man who resigned the papacy at the urging of his ambitious counselor, who then engineered his own election—as Pope Boniface VIII.

Next, they cross the river of death on Charon’s boat and find themselves in a combination of the Greco-Roman Hades and Limbo, the place where the souls of the good who were unbaptized go after death: the heroes, poets, and philosophers of antiquity, Muslims, et al. (This is also where the “saints” of the Old Testament remained till they, as Christians by anticipation, were rescued by Christ, who, according to the ancient creeds, “descended into Hell” after his death to liberate all the Jewish saints from Adam and Eve to the latter prophets.) Though Dante is openly contemptuous of many of the men who occupied the throne of Peter, he is unquestioningly orthodox, in fact Thomistic,g in his theology. The problem of what happens to good pagans after their deaths may be the only point on which Dante appears uncomfortable with standard Catholic doctrine: he accepts the prevailing theory of his time—that, because the pagans were never saved by Christ through baptism, they lack the capacity for seeing God and must be kept somewhere apart from Heavenh—but it goes against the grain; and in the Paradiso he even manages (with courageous inconsistency) to sneak a few pagans into Heaven.

Sinclair puts it well when he writes, “The relation of the virtuous pagans to the Christian scheme of salvation was a matter of acute and peculiar difficulty for Dante. With his deep conviction of the divine ordering of secular history (represented mainly by the story of Troy and Rome [as told in Virgil’s Aeneid]) as a kind of parallel and complement of sacred history (represented by the Old and New Testaments and the Church), with his strong sense of the unity of humanity and of all its spiritual values, and with his profound reverence for all that was best in what he knew of pre-Christian paganism [especially Thomas’s version of Aristotle], the exclusion of the virtuous heathen from salvation, inevitable as he conceived it to be, put a great and painful strain on his mind.” Dante’s solution here is to give the good pagans “a noble castle” in Limbo, “seven times encircled by high walls and defended all around by a lovely stream,” and “a meadow of fresh verdure, where there were people with serious eyes which do not dart about and with great authority in their demeanor: they spoke seldom and with gentle voices.”i For unbaptized pagans, they’re doing well—and they don’t know what they’re missing.

It’s only after Limbo that the real Hell begins. The Drearies, clustered near the entrance, are betwixt and between; the good pagans in the First Circle exist in a sort of Greek Elysium. But in the Second Circle of Hell, where the Lustful are confined, there is real, if mitigated, suffering. It should be borne in mind that anyone who repents before death will not be found in any of Hell’s circles; only the unrepentant are here—in the case of the Lustful, usually those who had no time to repent. They are blown about like small birds on fierce gusts of wind. Virgil points out Semiramis, Cleopatra, Helen of Troy, Paris, Tristan, “more than a thousand shades, naming them as he pointed to each, whom love had parted from our life.”

Dante recognizes a pair of lovers, bound together, who “seem so light upon the wind,” and speaks to them kindly as they are borne near him. They are Paolo Malatesta, who had been the dashing Captain of the People of Florence when Dante was an impressionable teenager, and his mistress Francesca da Polenta of Ravenna. Dante certainly knew members of her family and may even have known her. Like all Italians of the time, he knew her story. She had been married for ten years to the crippled son of the lord of Rimini but fell in love with Paolo, her husband’s younger brother. At the time, she had a daughter of nine; Paolo was married, with two children. While they were making love, the cripple surprised and murdered them both.

Dante’s kind speech evokes a kind response from Francesca, blown about above him:

    “O animal grazïoso e benigno

               che visitando vai per l’aere perso

               noi che tignemmo il mondo di sanguigno,

    se fosse amico il re de l’universo,

               noi pregheremmo lui de la tua pace,

               poi c’hai pietà del nostro mal perverso.”

    “O living creature, gracious and kind to bear

               The black fumes, and visit us who stained

               The earth with blood when we were living there,

    If the King of all the universe remained

               A friend to us, our prayer would be your peace,

               Because you pity our fate perverse and pained.”

Dante, full of sympathy for their torment, is moved to tears by Francesca’s words. He asks her then, “how love gave her to recognize her dubious desires”—in other words, how did she and Paolo come to sleep together? She answers with one of the Comedy’s most famous sentences: “Nessun maggior dolore / che ricordarsi del tempo felice / nella miseria” (No greater sorrow [is there] / than to recall the happy time / in misery). She goes on to explain that one day she and Paolo were reading together. It happened that the book was an engrossing Arthurian romance of Guinevere and Lancelot:

    “Per più fïate li occhi ci sospinse

               quella lettura, e scolorocci il viso;

               ma solo un punto fu quel che ci vinse.

    Quando leggemmo il disïato riso

               esser basciato da cotanto amante,

               questi, che mai da me non fia diviso,

    la bocca mi basciò tutto tremante.”

    “Several times the reading changed our tone

               And color, drove our eyes to meet; just one

               Defeated us, one moment on its own.

    When we had come to where the kiss was won

               From such a lover with that fondest smile,

               What he, who never goes from me, had done

    Was tremblingly to kiss my mouth.…”

Dante, himself a fedele d’Amore, a well-known writer of courtly love poetry, and (we may confidently surmise) an adventuring philanderer, knew just how such a temptation could overpower anyone. All the while Francesca spoke, the silent Paolo wept (“l’altro piangea”). It was too much for Dante; he grew so faint that he dropped to the ground as a dead body drops (“caddi come corpo morto cade”).

The poet never has another word to say about this couple, locked in their eternal embrace as they are blown about by the wind. But there are at least two unspoken thoughts here: sexual sins are the least of all, deserving of the most forgiveness and the most lenient punishment; and Dante, fainting, here repents of his own sexual adventures, which certainly during his lonely exile have been sins of adultery, and resolves to lead a better and more honest life. Native discretion and a sincere regard for the reputation of his long-suffering wife, still lodged uncomfortably at or near Florence, keep him from saying anything explicit. But in Dante’s poetry his most foundational thoughts are often implied and left for the reader to intuit, and his strongest impulses are subtly dissolved in the color of the atmosphere and the scent on the wind.

Honesty is the hidden key to understanding Dante’s Inferno. It is dishonesty the poet has come to hate most of all—the dishonesty of popes and politicians, of Guelphs and Ghibellines, of Whites and Blacks. It is dishonesty, which always begins with dishonesty to oneself, that has made such a mess of the world. In his tour of the world of sin—which is what the journey to Hell really is—Dante is trying with all his prowess to get things straight, the things that really matter. He is drawing, in all its latitude and longitude, as accurate a map of the moral universe as he can make. He has taken on this enormous task for all of us, but first of all for himself. He needs to know what is really true so that he can reorient his life and sail to his appointed end. He is tired of going rudderless. It is this new moral dimension in the middle-aged man that transforms his poetry from courtly love sweetness to ultimate seriousness. Dante retains the quick and playful sensibility that any great poet possesses. He has not lost his sense of ambiguity, his irony, his subtlety. But none of these things is an end in itself any longer, a bauble to pleasure a prince or to dazzle a crowd. All is now in service to his ultimate end.

Hell, as Dante conceives it, is an upside-down cone formed from concentric circles, something like the cone of a great volcano. It is largest at the top, where the Circle of Limbo is, a little smaller in the Second Circle, to which the Lustful are confined. The Third Circle, the Circle of the Gluttons, is smaller still—and so on, till one reaches the depths of Hell and the most confined circle of all. In each circle, the punishment fits the crime: the Lustful perpetually blown about, as they were in life; the Gluttons perpetually prostrate in a stinking sewer.

Sinclair has given us a lucid outline of “The System of Dante’s Hell,” which I reproduce here with some revisions.

Those who have sinned through incontinence (or lack of self-control) are the least guilty. They will never leave Hell, but, Dante learns from Virgil, their torments will lessen with time. Though heretics sin against truth, they may believe what they say, so they too are less guilty. The violent, likewise, lack self-control, though the consequences of their actions are far worse than those of the simply incontinent. But it is the Eighth and Ninth Circles of Hell, where those who have been dishonest and deceptive are incarcerated, that especially describe Dante’s vision of evil at work in the world.

The circles of Hell are fairly crammed with the once rich and powerful, especially with kings and other titled personages and with members of the higher clergy. The clergy are also well represented among the avaricious of the Fourth Circle. “These tonsured ones were clerics without doubt,” Virgil explains to Dante, “And cardinals and popes in whom the sin / Of avarice brings its worst excess about” [Dale’s translation]. For Dante, as for all other thinking people of his time, the worldliness of churchmen and their constant craving after wealth and power were the most destructive forces loose in the world.

In the Third Pit of the Eighth Circle, this circle called Malebolge (Evil Pits), Dante finds the simonists, those who bought and sold church offices for personal gain—“who prostitute the things of God for gold and silver.” These are buried headfirst in apertures of solid rock from which only their feet and calves stick out, the rest of their bodies buried deep in the flames of Satan’s oven. Though the Comedy is set in 1300, when Boniface was still on the papal throne, Dante sees that a flaming orifice has already been prepared for him. At the moment, it houses Pope Nicholas III, who died in 1280. Soon it will welcome Boniface (who died in 1303), as Nicholas is pushed farther down below him. One day, it will claim in his turn Clement V, the French pope who moved the papacy from Rome to Avignon at the behest of Philip the Fair and who was reigning as pope when Dante wrote the Comedy.

Dante is positively delighted at the prospect of so many terrible popes receiving their due at last and chortles expectantly: “Are you there already, there already, Boniface?” He then turns on the current occupant of the hellhole and delivers a mini-homily: “Pray, tell me now, how much money did our Lord ask up front from Saint Peter before he gave the keys [to the Kingdom of Heaven] into his charge? Surely, he asked nothing but ‘Follow me,’ nor did Peter or the others take gold or silver from Matthias when he was chosen [to replace Judas] …. So, stay where you are, for you are punished well. You are the shepherds,” Dante goes on, that Saint John the Divine had in mind when he foresaw the Whore of Babylon fornicating with all the kings of the earthj—the very imageMartin Luther will apply to the corrupt papacy a little more than two centuries later. “You’ve made a god of gold and silver, and what’s the difference between you and the idolaters but that they worship one and you a hundred? Oh, Constantine, how much evil was given birth, not by your conversion, but by the Donation the first rich pope had from you!” As already noted, the so-called Donation of Constantine was a forgery, used by the papacy to prop up its legitimacy in Europe, but Dante could not have known this. How much more righteously he would have railed had he known.

Dante may be circumspect about his own peccadilloes, but not about his satisfaction in seeing his tormentors punished nor in seeing those responsible for the chief political ills of the medieval world receive their eternal comeuppance. He is a medieval man and has no need to feign the pious sympathy occasionally evinced by our contemporary media figures. If he feels like chortling, he’ll chortle.

The last and deepest circle of Hell is called Cocytus after the river of Greek Hades whose name means “Lamentation.” Cocytus is an eternally frozen place where Satan himself is confined. Its four rings are named for the historical and mythological characters Dante considers most treacherous: Caina, for instance, for Cain, the world’s first murderer—and of his brother, at that—Judecca for Judas, whose head lies inside one of Satan’s three enormous mouths, in the eternal process of being crushed by Satan’s jagged teeth. Though mountainous in stature, Satan is almost as much a figure of pity as of terror: “With six eyes he was weeping and over three chins dripped tears and bloody foam.”

The deeper circles of Hell will satisfy any schoolboy with a taste for comic gore, so full are they of body parts, human excreta, and every extreme of degradation. In Cantos XXXII and XXXIII, Dante encounters a couple who are the moral opposite of Paolo and Francesca. Whereas those two lovers are bound together for all eternity by their mutual love, Count Ugolino and Archbishop Ruggieri, both of Pisa, Florence’s western neighbor, are frozen together in mutual hatred. Ugolino succeeded in betraying everyone, first his fellow Ghibellines, then the Guelphs with whom he subsequently allied himself. Exiled from Pisa, he was invited back by the archbishop, who promised to effect a reconcilation between Ugolino and his many enemies. But on Ugolino’s return, the archbishop had him clapped in irons, along with his two sons and two grandsons. Imprisoned in the tower of the Gualandi, the count and his family were at length left to starve to death after Archbishop Ruggieri gave instructions that the tower be locked to all and its keys thrown into the Arno. When the fastness was at last reopened and the dead removed, it was found that Ugolino had feasted on his (already dead?) progeny before dying himself. “Hunger,” he explains to Dante, “soon had more power than grief.” Now he feasts on the head of Ruggieri:

    Noi eravam partiti già da ello,

               ch’io vidi due ghiacciati in una buca,

               sì che l’un capo a l’altro era cappello;

    e come ’l pan per fame si manduca,

               così ’l sovran li denti a l’altro pose

               là ’ve ’l cervel s’aggiugne con la nuca.

    We’d left him [another traitor] when I noticed, frozen hard,

               Two in the same hole, so cramped, one head

               Seemed, for the other one, a cap or guard.

    But, as when hungry one would chew at bread,

               So in that neck he sank his teeth to gnash

               Just where the brain into the nape is led.

The subsequent canzoni—the Purgatorio and the Paradiso—though meant to have equal weight with the first, do not invade the imagination and constrict the heartbeat as does the Inferno. Eternal damnation, after all, commands one’s attention as can few other themes. And, besides, as C. S. Lewis put it dryly, “The joys of heaven are for most of us, in our present condition, an acquired taste.” All the same, the sequence on Purgatory makes a splendid sequel to damnation, for, unlike Hell, Purgatory is a place of punishment that is also a platform of hope.

The denizens of Hell have chosen their sin over all else; it is because of this unwavering choice that they are unable to rise. The citizens of Purgatory, on the other hand, though hardly models of moral life, struggled while on earth—in some part of themselves—to overcome their attachment to their sin. For this reason they will rise to glory—one day, and in certain cases that day remains a long way off. But, cautions Dante to the reader:

    Non vo’ però, lettor, che tu ti smaghi

               di buon proponimento per udire

               come Dio vuol che ’l debito si paghi.

    Non attender la forma del martìre:

               pensa la succession; pensa ch’al peggio

               oltre la gran sentenza non può ire.

    I’d never wish you, Reader, ever to grow

               Fearful of a good purpose, because you learn

               How God decides what debt we undergo.

    Ignore the pain; think what such pain will earn.

               Think that at worst it cannot stretch or spread

               Beyond the great Day of Judgement’s sure return.

“Non attender la forma del martìre: / pensa la succession” (“Ignore the pain; think what such pain will earn”) is advice for thinking not just about Purgatory but about one’s life in this world. For Purgatory—a time of trial with glory at the end—is but a second chance at life, a second lifetime of suffering for sure, but this time with Paradise securely in reach. Purgatory was the mitigating invention of medieval theologians who felt that there must be a place of purgation beyond death where the great mass of humanity—those not evil enough for Hell nor pure enough for Heaven—could atone for their unatoned sins. “In Dante’s vision,” writes the insightful Peter S. Hawkins, “the point of purgatory was not so much to ‘serve time’ in a place of temporal suffering as it was to enter a process of transformation, to become someone new. In short, the poet took what was popularly imagined as an upper chamber of hell and turned it into an extended passage to heaven.”

Purgatory is also a passage of social leveling. Having encountered many popes in Hell, Dante meets more in Purgatory. One of these, atoning for the sin of clerical avarice, is Adrian V, to whom Dante kneels in reverence and whom he addresses using the honorific plural, voi. Adrian beseeches him to stand. “Straighten your legs, brother, and stand up straight,” urges the pope. “Make no mistake: I, like you and all the others, am just a fellow servant of the one Power.” All are brothers and fellow servants, all earthly titles and social differentiations are ultimately meaningless. Dante, democratic townsman and impoverished wanderer, possesses far greater insight into the human condition than cloistered Hildegard was capable of.

In Heaven, where Dante meets his great-great-grandfather, the crusader Cacciaguida, the ancestor bemoans the introduction into Florence of differences in affluence, rank, and power and recalls (in a famous passage) a simpler, more virtuous Florence of times past:

    “Fiorenza dentro da la cerchia antica,

               ond’ ella toglie ancora e terza e nona,

               si stava in pace, sobria e pudica.

    Non avea catenella, non corona,

               non gonne contigiate, non cintura

               che fosse a veder più che la persona.”

    “Florence, within its ancient bounds, from where

               She still hears tierce and nones [monastic hours of prayer], reposed as yet

               In peace, sober and chaste, serene and fair.

    There was no bracelet then, no coronet;

               No embroidered gowns; no girdle’s sway

               That strikes the eye before the person met.”

It is the lure of avarice, of a gluttonous desire for more than one needs—and at the expense of others—that has brought upon Florence all the fraudulence and treachery that have issued in its bloody wars and shameful divisions.

These brief incursions into the Purgatorio and the Paradiso must content us here. The Commedia is too great and too grand to be commented on by a shelf of good books, let alone by a single chapter in a book of many things. I leave it to you, the reader, to continue the awesome pilgrimage “parte per te stesso” (a party of your own), using this chapter only as a feeble introduction.

If you visit Florence, enter the baptistery to see the layered mosaics of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven that surely served Dante as inspiration. But then enter the cathedral and look upward at Brunelleschi’s amazing dome of light, suspended in space, it seems, without earthly supports over the cathedral’s crossing. There you will be reminded of the stupendous ode to the Light of God with which Dante closes the Commedia. Though the dome was not raised till more than a hundred years after Dante’s death, there can be no question that Brunelleschi, in this summation of all European architecture, ancient, medieval, and even modern, had Dante’s closing pages in mind, the dream of seeing God:

    Oh abbondante grazia ond’ io presunsi

               ficcar lo viso per la luce etterna,

               tanto che la veduta vi consunsi!

    Nel suo profondo vidi che s’interna,

               legato con amore in un volume,

               ciò che per l’universo si squaderna.…

    A quella luce cotal si diventa,

               che volgersi da lei per altro aspetto

               è impossibil che mai si consenta.

    O Grace abounding, in which I dared prolong

               My look, and in eternal Light immerse,

               Till power of vision waned at beams so strong.

    Within its depth I noticed intersperse,

               By love within a single volume bound,

               The scattered leaves of all the universe.…

    And, at that Light, a man becomes so he

               Could never turn from it to other sight,

               For that is past all possibility.

Remember always that, as Dante wrote in a letter to Can Grande della Scala, he intended the Comedy “to remove those living in this life from the state of misery and to lead them to the state of happiness.” He meant his poem for you, Reader, as much as for anyone, for his was a profound faith that one can actually be transformed by the experience of reading and that one’s desire and one’s will may be moved not by the cheap, winking lights of worldly success but, as Dante names it in the last line of the Commedia,by“l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle”—the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.

a When the English version of a phrase of Dante’s Italian is taken from Peter Dale’s translation of The Divine Comedy, as here, it is placed within quotation marks. When there are no quotation marks or when the quoted phrase is not preceded by the Italian original, the translation is mine. Whenever a longer passage is quoted and indented, the translation is Dale’s.

b The gold florin, which weighed 54 grams, was called fiorino (little flower) by the Tuscans in allusion to the figure of a lily stamped upon it, though this may also have been an allusion to Florence itself.

c The papal title of “supreme pontiff” is an illegitimate borrowing of the imperial title pontifex maximus (literally, “supreme bridgebuilder”), an ancient and mysterious appellation awarded the emperor as head of the Roman college of pagan priests.

d Charles, though never a king, was always trying to become one. He auditioned successively for the role of king of Aragon, king of Sicily, emperor of Constantinople, and Holy Roman Emperor but never got a part. “Fils de roi,” his countrymen said of him, “frère de roi, oncle de trois rois, père de roi, et jamais roi.”

e This phrase, which I earlier translated literally as “evil and stupid,” Dale, partly to keep with his rhyme scheme, translates as “venomous and foul.”

f There are two complete and admirable translations of the Comedy in English, each published in three paperback volumes and each with facing pages in Italian and English: John D. Sinclair’s literal (and somewhat archaic) prose translation, published by Oxford, which also offers a splendid commentary, and Allen Mandelbaum’s poetic but faithful translation, published by Bantam. Nearly fifty years separate the two translations, Sinclair’s published in the late 1930s, Mandelbaum’s in the early 1980s. I have chosen—at least in the longer passages—to quote from a less well-known translation by Peter Dale, published in 1996 by Anvil (London), because of Dale’s surprising success in approximating Dante’s terza rima in English, while remaining generally faithful to the Italian. See also Notes and Sources at the back of the book.

g In Cantos X and XI of the Paradiso, Dante will meet Thomas Aquinas, who praises many fellow theologians, including those condemned for heresy and those with whom he disagreed. In Heaven, their differences have been harmonized. The high praise by Thomas, a Dominican, for Francis of Assisi is paired (in Canto XII) with the praise by Bonaventure, a Franciscan, for Dominic. All these are indications of the loathing Dante came to have for partisanship.

i We can see in this description the sort of dignified, slow-moving demeanor that was prized by Dante and his contemporaries. A loud voice, abruptness, calling attention to oneself, excessive demonstrativeness were all indications that one should take one’s place among the fishmongers.

h No one seems to believe this anymore. The nub of the old argument, that baptism was absolutely necessary for salvation, has been more or less nuanced away. See this page.

j Dante’s New Testament references are to Matthew 16:19 (in which Jesus gives Peter “the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven”); Acts 1:26 (the choosing of Matthias); and Revelation 17 and 19 (descriptions of the Whore of Babylon).

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