VIRGIL’S INFLUENCE ON AND IN DANTE’S INFERNO
Dante Alighieri was born in Florence, Italy in 1265. In his life, he created two major books of poetry: Vita Nuova and The Comedy. The Comedy, which was later renamed The Divine Comedy, is an epic poem broken down into three books in each of which Dante recounts his travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven.
The first book of The Comedy, Dante’s Inferno, is an especially creative narrative. He narrates his descent and observation of Hell through the various circles and pouches. An excellent poet himself, Dante admired much about Virgil, revering him to such an extent that he turned him into the guiding character, the teacher to Dante the pilgrim, in the Purgatory and Inferno. Dante borrowed from Virgil much of his language, style, and content. While Dante improved upon Virgil’s works in many respects, his changes in the theological content in particular, reveal the differences between the religious views of the afterworld/underworld of the two authors’ respective time periods. Other writers that I have encountered describe Dante’s extremely ordered otherworld.
A large portion of Dante’s Inferno is merely an expansion of one book (VI -the Underworld) of Virgil’s Aeneid. Though much of Dante’s Hell is original, he seemed to use the Aeneid as a base and the parts which he did extract from the Aeneid, he carefully altered for his own purposes and beliefs. In pursuing his Christian vision of the afterlife, Dante created an otherworld theoretically and visually different from, yet still remarkably similar to Virgil’s Underworld. Dante, of course, structured his Hell to fit the theology and dogmas of his Christian beliefs, but still used the Aeneid as his foundation. Thus, in order to portray the Christian universe and to represent the afterworld concepts of justice for one’s actions during life, Dante used Virgil’s Aeneid for both, the inspiration to create and the tools to do so.
Similarities between Virgil’s Underworld and Dante’s Hell are fairly apparent. The entrance or gate to Virgil’s Underworld in the Aeneid marks a distinct separation, as also found in The Inferno, between the land of the living and the land of the dead. A threatening gateway gives entry to the Underworld, intending to say that there will be no ease in this journey toward the heart of Hades, and to help remind them that this is the afterlife they chose. Inhabiting Virgil’s gateway are the causes of death, imprisoned into spiritual forms as agents of death (Virgil, 274-280), but they are not clearly seen forms, nor are any of the forms in both, Virgil’s and Dante’s visions of Hell. All of the Underworld in Dante’s and Virgil’s interpretations is portrayed in a shadowy, colorless environment to create the illusion of death and hopelessness. “I am the way to the doleful city, I am the way into eternal grief, I am the way to a forsaken race. Justice it was that moved my great Creator; Divine omnipotence created me, and highest wisdom joined with primal love. Before me nothing but eternal things were made, and I shall last eternally. Abandon every hope, all you who enter.”-reading on Vestibule Gate (Dante, 89).
Virgil places high importance on this vestibule to delineate clearly one main difference between the Underworld and the outside: the first has an intangible, bodiless, and abstract quality to it, compared to the outside’s concrete, physical reality.
The presence of the agents of death, most notably “Sleep the brother of Death” (Virgil, 278), are here to symbolize the transition from the world of life outside the gateway, to a room full of the causes of death, and finally lead to the land of death itself, Hell. The vestibule can be considered to be a no-man’s-land, you are not completely in Hell yet, but there’s nowhere else to go except down. Dante’s Hell is also preceded by a foreboding gateway which is home to the souls who could not decide to do good or evil with their lives. The angels who did not pick a side in the fight between Michael or with Lucifer (Satan) in the battle of Heaven reside here.
This entrance of Hell begins the world of darkness and unidentifiable shades, colorless