15 important facts about Dante and the Divine Comedy

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March 25 is Dantedì, Dante Day! Everyone who is interested in the Italian language and culture should know Dante Alighieri! This date was chosen because, according to historians, it is the date of the beginning of Dante’s journey. Moreover, 2021 is a special year because exactly 700 years have passed since Dante’s death. But why are the Italian author Dante Alighieri and his Divine Comedy so important? Let’s find out together!

Dante Alighieri

Domenico di Michelino, Portrait of Dante and the Divine Comedy – © Kotroz

Dante Alighieri (* 1265, Florence – † 1321, Ravenna) was an Italian writer, poet and politician and is considered the father of the Italian language. He owes his fame to his work, the Divine Comedy (it. La Divina Commedia), which is generally considered the greatest work written in Italian and one of the greatest masterpieces of world literature. His work has shaped our modern view of the afterlife and inspired countless authors and artists in the years that followed.

1. Dante's afterlife: Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso

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In the Divine Comedy, Dante undertakes a journey through Hell (it. Inferno), down to Lucifer and then up to the mountain of Purgatory (it. Purgatorio) and finally up to Paradise (it. Paradiso).

In his imagination, the entrance to Hell is located just below Jerusalem. Hell is depicted as an abyss that reaches to the center of the earth, where Lucifer resides. Hell was formed by the fall of Lucifer from heaven itself. On the other side of the earth rises the mountain of Purgatory, which is a reflection of Hell, and which leads to Paradise, formed by the 9 heavens and the Empireo, where God resides.

2. The structure: 3 cantiche, 100 canti and other important numbers.

Let us look together at the structure of the Divine Comedy. First, you should know that it is a poem: it is all written in verse.

  • The work is divided into 3 books called Cantiche, which correspond to the three otherworldly realms: Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso.
  • Each Cantica consists of 33 cantos (it. Canti) except Inferno, which has an introductory canto in addition. Thus, there are 100 cantos in all.
  • All cantos consist of tercets (form scheme of 3 verses) with concatenated rhymes (ABA BCB CDC DED …).
  • Each verse consists of 11 syllables (it. endecasillabo).
  • The entire work has a total of 14,233 verses.

3 Cantiche

Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso

100 Canti

33 Canti for each Cantica + 1 introductory canto

14.233 verses

The total number of verses

11 syllables

Each verse consists of 11 syllables

3. The symbolic number three

The number 3 (and its multiples) is a recurring number in the Commedia (3 Cantiche, 33 Cantos, 9 Circles of Hell, 3 Wild Animals, 3 Guides…) and has a deep meaning: it represents the Divine Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit).

4. Dante as the father of the Italian language

Dante is considered the father of the Italian language. But why? In the fourteenth century there were several languages in Italy: the language of culture and literature was Latin, while the people spoke various vernaculars that did not yet form a single language. That is why historians speak of Italian vernacular languages (it. volgari italiani) and not yet of an Italian language (it. lingua italiana).

Dante did something revolutionary: instead of writing his work in Latin, he wrote it in his native language, the Florentine vernacular. With his work he gave such prestige to one of the Italian vernacular languages that it stood out from all the others. He thus laid the first pillar for the unification of the Italian national language on the basis of the Florentine.

5. The Commedia was immediately a bestseller

Due to the fact that Dante’s comedy was written in the Florentine vernacular, it had a success that went beyond the usual circle of intellectuals and literati who read books. The comedy was a work that found appeal even among people with less education and culture (It was read aloud in the squares, for example) and immediately had a huge success, comparable to a bestseller today!

6. "Divina" was added later

Actually, Dante simply called his work Commedia to indicate that it was not written in courtly language and had a happy ending. It was Boccaccio (also an important writer of the time) a few years later who called the work Divina.

7. Almost 900 characters

Who does Dante meet on his journey? A great many characters, in fact almost 900! And very different ones too, from heroes of antiquity, biblical or fictional characters to Dante’s contemporaries. And mostly in hell! After all, Dante was also a politician and through his work he was able to criticize the political situation of the time and the action of politicians and show them the “right” way.

8. Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita

Every Italian knows the beginning of the Divine Comedy:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

What does it mean? Dante is a middle-aged man who finds himself in a dark forest because he has lost his way. This forest, which represents sin, prevents man from perceiving hope (especially in the Christian sense). He is having a “mid-life crisis”, so to speak. Will he be able to get out of this darkness?

9. The 3 wild animals: lynx, lion and wolf

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Joseph Anton Koch, Dante finds the three beasts and Virgil in the forest – © Sailko

Dante is in the dark forest and wants to go up to the Mountain of Virtue when three animals stand in his way: a lynx (it. lonza, nowadays lince) symbol of lust, a lion (it. leone) representing pride and a she-wolf (it. lupa) symbol of greed. The three animals represent the three major sins that hinder the path to salvation. Dante cannot get through and must return to the dark forest, where he meets the poet Virgil. Virgil will then guide him on his journey through the afterlife.

10. Lasciate ogni speranza, voi che entrate

All hope abandon, ye who enter in

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This sentence is located at the entrance to Hell and is also, together with the beginning of the Comedy, one of the most famous sentences of the work. Sometimes today it can be read as a joking allusion at entrances, doors and on doormats.

11. The Contrappasso Law

The sinners are punished for eternity according to the law of contrappasso (Legge del contrappasso): their punishment fits their sin, and it can be similar to it or the opposite. This law represents the divine justice.

12. The nine circles of hell

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Sandro Botticelli, The Map of Hell

Hell is certainly the most impressive of the three realms. It consists of 9 concentrically circles, representing a gradual increase in the severity of sin. The following is the list of the nine circles of hell, their sinners and punishments:

  1. Circle: Limbo, a place where the righteous of paganism wait for the Last Judgment without fearing the punishments of hell.
  2. Circle: The sinners of lust, whipped by terrible hurricanes.
  3. Circle: Showered by cold rain, the sinners of gluttony drag themselves through excrement.
  4. Circle: The miserly and profligate roll howling loads of stones.
  5. Circle: The fifth circle of hell is formed by the Stygian Swamp, in whose fetid waters the wrathful tear each other apart.
  6. Circle: Heretics lie in fiery graves.
  7. Circle: Various kinds of violent people.
  8. Circle: Different kind of deceivers.
  9. Circle: Various kinds of traitors. The three greatest traitors and sinners, Judas, Brutus and Cassius, will each be eternally mangled in one of the three mouths of Lucifer.

13. The difference between Inferno and Purgatorio

Both hell and purgatory contain people (or souls of people) who have sinned. What is the difference between these two realms?

In hell are those who have tried to justify their sins and who are not repentant. They are punished for all eternity and have no possibility of salvation.

People who have sinned but asked for forgiveness before they die are not found in hell, but in purgatory, where they struggle to get free from their sins.

14. Dante's 3 guides

Dante’s otherworldly journey requires the assistance of a guide, since the protagonist represents men who are lost to sin and are therefore unable to find the right path on their own.

Virgilio (Inferno, Purgatorio)

For the journey through hell and to the mountain of purgatory, the guide is Virgil, the ancient Latin poet and author of the Aeneid. Although he was a pagan, he represents natural wisdom and reason, because of the high moral value of his poetry.

Beatrice (Cieli del Paradiso)

Beatrice is the angelic woman with whom Dante was in love in his youth: now that she has become blessed, she shines with a light that makes her unspeakably beautiful. Beatrice makes him soar through the heavens with the power of a love that is the reflection of divine love. Beatrice represents the grace of faith, theology, and through it the impossibility for man to reach God through the sole means of human reason (Virgil).

San Bernardo (Empireo)

The role of guide in the last part of the journey is assumed by St. Bernard. He has dedicated his life to contemplation and therefore seems particularly suited to support Dante when he enters into direct contact with God. This symbolizes that faith (Beatrice) alone is not enough to ascend to the presence of God. It can only be reached through mystical contemplation (Saint Bernard).

15. All cantiche end with the stars

All three cantiche (Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso) end with the word stelle!

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Gustav Doré, illustration for Dante’s Divine Comedy.
 

Read Dantes Divina Commedia!

Would you like to read Dante’s Divine Comedy? There are many books and editions of the Comedy, some with beautiful illustrations. Here you can find a trilingual version Italian-English-English of the Inferno edited by Nicola, Giuliano Raucci.

Join Dante on his journey!

With this very nice animated video you can accompany Dante on his journey. Buona visione!

Need more Infos?

In the Wikipedia article about the Divine Comedy you can find more information about this great poem! 

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