: “Inferno” Dante’s “Inferno” was a great epic poem of the early Renaissance. It was known for its astute commentary on political and religious levels, both deeply woven into the work through allegory.
“Inferno,” written in 1314 by Dante Alighieri, was the first canticle of the “Divine Comedy.” Dante called it a comedy both because of its happy ending and its style, “which lies between that of the tragedy and that of the elegy.”(Vossler, 665) Although most respected writers of the time wrote in Latin, Dante wrote the “Divine Comedy” in the vernacular Italian language so that the common man could read it. The fact that this masterpiece was written in the vernacular helped elevate Italian as the written language of their new age. From the misery and corruption surrounding him in his beloved Florence, he wrote the comedy because he wished to show the path to goodness, the salvation of the human soul “guided by both reason and divine grace.”(Vossler, 665) Dante intended the work to be read on three levels: literal, allegorical, and moral. The work was structurally written in eleven syllable lines grouped in threes to make interlocking tercets. The rhyme scheme that he created f!
or this is called “terza rima”(Vossler, 664), which forms the words in the pattern aba-bcb-cdc-ded and so on. These are grouped into conceptual units of 150 lines each, called cantos. The entire “Divine Comedy” has one hundred cantos, consisting of one introductory canto and three “principal divisions”(Vossler, 664) or canticles of thirty-three cantos each.
In the spring of 1265 Dante was born to a modest noble Florentine family called Alighieri. Even though they were nobles, the family had lost its riches and high social stature through the generations. His mother died when he was young and his father is not often mentioned. He received a careful education, although little of it is known precisely. His family’s modest social standing did not prevent him from pursuing his studies. Dante probably studied rhetoric with the scholar Brunetto Latini, from whom he says that he learned “how a man becomes eternal”(Inferno XV line 85). As a young man, Dante largely taught himself how to write verse, but he also studied with the great troubadours of Florence, writing to them and circulating his own love lyrics. In 1295 he began an active public life, and within a few years he became an important figure in Florentine politics. He joined the Guild of Physicians and Apothecaries in order to participate in government.
Dante’s time was one of great instability. Between 1215 and 1278 the Guelfs, with whom Dante sided, and the Ghibellines of Florence had engaged in a bitter struggle for power, the conflict revolving around the Ghibellines favor of a feudal aristocracy. The Guelfs finally prevailed. Around 1300, however, the Guelf party split into two hostile factions: the Blacks and the Whites. The Blacks, the faithful Guelfs, remained in control. The Whites eventually associated themselves with the Ghibellines. Dante, meanwhile, fought to preserve the independence of Florence, and repeatedly opposed the schemes of Pope Boniface VIII, who wanted to place Florence under the control of the church. By taking advantage of the unrest in Florence, Boniface attempted to take control of the city and undermine his opponents by “promising protection to those who displayed some sympathy with his cause.”(Bergin, 8). In the summer of 1300, Dante, as one of the six magistrates of Florence, opposed Boniface!
. To show his displeasure Boniface wanted to excommunicate the members. Dante was saved from this fate only because his term of office was about to expire. The events, however, only served to worsen his already adverse opinion of Boniface.
In 1301, Boniface summoned Charles of Valois and his army to Italy attempting to neutralize antichurch forces in Florence. It was at this time that Dante was sent “as one of three envoys on behalf of the commune to the pope,”(Bergin, 12) in order to request a change in papal policy toward the city. After the talks, Dante was retained and during his absence Charles of Valois entered Florence. The Blacks staged a revolution and gained complete control of the commonwealth. Dante returned to find himself exiled on puffed-up charges of “embezzlement, opposition to the pope and his forces, disturbance of the peace of Florence,”(Bergin 13) and a number of other transgressions. Dante always felt that his difficulties had been brought about by the trickery of Boniface, and this added to his continually ailing opinion of him. When Dante refused to answer to the charges against him, and when he did not pay the fine levied for his crimes, a second sentence was imposed: “should he ever re!
turn to the commune, he would be seized and burned alive.”(Bergin 17) There is no evidence that Dante ever saw Florence again.
In Dante’s “Inferno” the two most vivid allegories are those of his journey as Everyman, and his commentary on the people and events of his time. In the first line, Dante awakens in the dark wood symbolizing the journey that every soul must make for salvation. “Midway this way of life we’re bound upon,/ I woke to find myself in a dark wood,”(Inferno I lines 1-2). The dark wood less represents a specific sin or perversion, but more a spiritual state called the “hardness of the heart”(Freccero 172) in which sinfulness has so taken the possession of the soul as to render it incapable of turning to God, or repenting. As Dante starts off on his journey he attempts to climb the mountain upon which he sees the suns shining, while behind him there is only the night. This ascent is path a soul takes to God once it is free of sin. His condition of “hardness of the heart” make the proper path up the mountain unavailable. As he tries to climb straight up the mountain, three beasts block !
his path: a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf. These beasts are said to have a double symbolism. Allegorically, the leopard is worldly pleasure, “politically it is the city of Florence, so given to worldly pursuits,”(Freccero 174); the lion is ambition, “politically the royal house of France, which sought to rule Italy,”(Freccero 174); finally, the she-wolf symbolizes greed, and “politically is the papacy”(Freccero 174) which Dante viewed as an avaricious religious entity seeking more and more secular power. The non-political meanings of each beast block his path for salvation.
Among the various religious and political allegories, Dante weaves in some of his personal secular views. Just as Dante passes through the gates of hell and enters the Vestibule, he starts to recognize the faces of spirits. Since the Vestibule is the realm of those with “the cautious cowardice for which no decision is ever final,”(Sayers 89), Dante finds Pope Celestine V. He says “I saw and recognized/ The coward spirit of the man who made/ The great refusal;”(Inferno III lines 59-61). The great refusal he mentioned is in reference to when Celestine gave up the papacy after 5 months because he couldn’t handle the pressure. Dante is especially bitter towards Celestine, because Pope Boniface VIII was chosen to take his place after he left.
Pope Boniface VIII had his place in Dante’s hell, too. Dante travels through the Eighth Circle of Hell, which is generally viewed as “the City in corruption: the progressive disintegration of every social relationship, personal and public.”(Sayers 185). The third bowge is the realm of the simoniacs, ones who have committed the sin of selling positions within the church. It is here that Dante finds Boniface standing in fire with his head lodged in the ground. It is actually one of the other spirits who says, “Already standing there?/Art standing there already Boniface?”(Inferno XIX lines 52-53).
The most treacherous crime Dante accuses Boniface of comes out of the mouth of another damned soul. Directly saying the pope had sinned was not a wise thing to do, one could be called a heretic and be killed. This poor spirit, Guido, was a soldier whose duty was to militarily advise Boniface when he broke into war with the Colonna family in 1297. Guido was very ill towards Boniface, saying, “But for the High Priest – may he rot in Hell!”(Inferno XXVII line 70). He says about Boniface that “he, the Prince of modern Pharisees,/ Having a war to wage by Lateran -/ Not against Jews, nor Muslim enemies,/ Every foe he had was a Christian,”(Inferno XXVII lines 85-88). Guido charges the pope with waging war not against Jews or Muslims, but other Christians.
“Inferno” was a manifestation of the frustration and pain Dante must have felt from the political and religious events of his day that exiled him from the city he so loved. Although Dante’s journey took him through the depths of hell and expressed Christian beliefs about the afterlife, his thoughts were secular as he condemned one religious leader after another to the depths of the hell they had created for him.