The ''Divine Comedy'' ( it|Divina Commedia ) is a long Italian narrative poem
by Dante Alighieri
, begun c.
1308 and completed in 1320, a year before his death in 1321. It is widely considered to be the pre-eminent work in Italian literature
and one of the greatest works of world literature
. The poem's imaginative vision of the afterlife
is representative of the medieval world-view
as it had developed in the Western Church
by the 14th century. It helped establish the Tuscan language
, in which it is written, as the standardized Italian language
. It is divided into three parts: ''Inferno
'', and ''Paradiso
The narrative takes as its literal subject the state of the soul after death and presents an image of divine justice meted out as due punishment or reward,
and describes Dante's travels through Hell
, and Paradise or Heaven
the poem represents the soul's journey towards God, beginning with the recognition and rejection of sin (''Inferno''), followed by the penitent Christian life (''Purgatorio''), which is then followed by the soul's ascent to God (''Paradiso''). Dante draws on medieval Roman Catholic
theology and philosophy, especially Thomistic philosophy
derived from the ''Summa Theologica
'' of Thomas Aquinas
. Consequently, the ''Divine Comedy'' has been called "the ''Summa'' in verse". In Dante's work, the pilgrim Dante is accompanied by three guides:
(who represents human reason
(who represents divine revelation
, and grace
), and Saint Bernard of Clairvaux
(who represents contemplative mysticism
and devotion to Mary the Mother
). Erich Auerbach
said Dante was the first writer to depict human beings as the products of a specific time, place and circumstance as opposed to mythic archetypes or a collection of vices and virtues; this along with the fully imagined world of the ''Divine Comedy'', different from our own but fully visualized, suggests that the ''Divine Comedy'' could be said to have inaugurated modern fiction.
The work was originally simply titled ''Comedìa'' (; so also in the first printed edition, published in 1472), Tuscan
", later adjusted to the modern Italian . The adjective was added by Giovanni Boccaccio
due to its subject matter and lofty style, and the first edition to name the poem ''Divina Comedia'' in the title was that of the Venetian humanist Lodovico Dolce
, published in 1555 by Gabriele Giolito de' Ferrari
Structure and story
The ''Divine Comedy'' is composed of 14,233 lines that are divided into three ''cantiche'' (singular ''cantica'') – ''Inferno'' (Hell
), ''Purgatorio'' (Purgatory
), and ''Paradiso'' (Paradise
) – each consisting of 33 canto
s (Italian plural ''canti''). An initial canto, serving as an introduction to the poem and generally considered to be part of the first ''cantica'', brings the total number of cantos to 100. It is generally accepted, however, that the first two cantos serve as a unitary prologue to the entire epic, and that the opening two cantos of each ''cantica'' serve as prologues to each of the three ''cantiche''.
The number three is prominent in the work, represented in part by the number of ''cantiche'' and their lengths. Additionally, the verse scheme used, ''terza rima
'', is hendecasyllabic
(lines of eleven syllables), with the lines composing tercet
s according to the rhyme scheme
''aba, bcb, cdc, ded, ...''. The total number of syllables in each tercet is thus 33, the same as the number of cantos in each ''cantica''.
Written in the first person, the poem tells of Dante's journey through the three realms of the dead, lasting from the night before Good Friday
to the Wednesday after Easter
in the spring of 1300. The Roman poet Virgil
guides him through Hell and Purgatory; Beatrice
, Dante's ideal woman, guides him through Heaven. Beatrice was a Florentine woman he had met in childhood and admired from afar in the mode of the then-fashionable courtly love
tradition, which is highlighted in Dante's earlier work ''La Vita Nuova
The structure of the three realms follows a common numerical pattern
of 9 plus 1, for a total of 10: 9 circles of the Inferno, followed by Lucifer contained at its bottom; 9 rings of Mount Purgatory, followed by the Garden of Eden
crowning its summit; and the 9 celestial bodies of Paradiso, followed by the Empyrean
containing the very essence of God. Within each group of 9, 7 elements correspond to a specific moral scheme, subdivided into three subcategories, while 2 others of greater particularity are added to total nine. For example, the seven deadly sins
of the Catholic Church that are cleansed in Purgatory are joined by special realms for the late repentant and the excommunicated
by the church. The core seven sins within Purgatory correspond to a moral scheme of love perverted, subdivided into three groups corresponding to excessive love (Lust
), deficient love (Sloth
), and malicious love (Wrath
In central Italy's political struggle between Guelphs and Ghibellines
, Dante was part of the Guelphs, who in general favored the Papacy
over the Holy Roman Emperor
. Florence's Guelphs split into factions around 1300the White Guelphs and the Black Guelphs. Dante was among the White Guelphs who were exiled in 1302 by the Lord-Mayor Cante de' Gabrielli di Gubbio
, after troops under Charles of Valois
entered the city, at the request of Pope Boniface VIII
, who supported the Black Guelphs. This exile, which lasted the rest of Dante's life, shows its influence in many parts of the ''Comedy,'' from prophecies of Dante's exile to Dante's views of politics, to the eternal damnation of some of his opponents.
The last word in each of the three ''cantiche'' is ''stelle'' ("stars").
The poem begins on the night before Good Friday
in 1300, "halfway along our life's path" (''Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita''). Dante is thirty-five years old, half of the biblical lifespan of 70 (Psalms
89:10, Vulgate), lost in a dark wood
(understood as sin), assailed by beasts (a lion
, a leopard
, and a she-wolf
) he cannot evade and unable to find the "straight way" (''diritta via'') – also translatable as "right way" – to salvation (symbolized by the sun behind the mountain). Conscious that he is ruining himself and that he is falling into a "low place" (''basso loco'') where the sun is silent (l sol tace''), Dante is at last rescued by Virgil, and the two of them begin their journey to the underworld. Each sin's punishment in ''Inferno'' is a ''contrapasso
'', a symbolic instance of poetic justice
; for example, in Canto XX, fortune-tellers
must walk with their heads on backwards, unable to see what is ahead, because that was what they had tried to do in life:
Allegorically, the ''Inferno'' represents the Christian soul seeing sin for what it really is, and the three beasts represent three types of sin: the self-indulgent, the violent, and the malicious. These three types of sin also provide the three main divisions of Dante's Hell: Upper Hell, outside the city of Dis, for the four sins of indulgence (lust
); Circle 7 for the sins of violence; and Circles 8 and 9 for the sins of fraud and treachery. Added to these are two unlike categories that are specifically spiritual: Limbo, in Circle 1, contains the virtuous pagans who were not sinful but were ignorant of Christ, and Circle 6 contains the heretics who contradicted the doctrine and confused the spirit of Christ.
Having survived the depths of Hell, Dante and Virgil ascend out of the undergloom to the Mountain of Purgatory
on the far side of the world. The Mountain is on an island, the only land in the Southern Hemisphere
, created by the displacement of rock which resulted when Satan's fall created Hell (which Dante portrays as existing underneath Jerusalem
). The mountain has seven terraces, corresponding to the seven deadly sins
or "seven roots of sinfulness." The classification of sin here is more psychological than that of the ''Inferno'', being based on motives, rather than actions. It is also drawn primarily from Christian theology, rather than from classical sources. However, Dante's illustrative examples of sin and virtue draw on classical sources as well as on the Bible and on contemporary events.
Love, a theme throughout the ''Divine Comedy'', is particularly important for the framing of sin on the Mountain of Purgatory. While the love that flows from God is pure, it can become sinful as it flows through humanity. Humans can sin by using love towards improper or malicious ends (Wrath
), or using it to proper ends but with love that is either not strong enough (Sloth
) or love that is too strong (Lust
). Below the seven purges of the soul is the Ante-Purgatory, containing the Excommunicated from the church and the Late repentant who died, often violently, before receiving rites. Thus the total comes to nine, with the addition of the Garden of Eden at the summit, equaling ten.
Allegorically, the ''Purgatorio'' represents the Christian life. Christian souls arrive escorted by an angel, singing ''In exitu Israel de Aegypto
''. In his ''Letter to Cangrande
'', Dante explains that this reference to Israel leaving Egypt refers both to the redemption
and to "the conversion of the soul from the sorrow and misery of sin to the state of grace." Appropriately, therefore, it is Easter Sunday
when Dante and Virgil arrive.
The ''Purgatorio'' is notable for demonstrating the medieval knowledge of a spherical Earth
. During the poem, Dante discusses the different stars visible in the southern hemisphere
, the altered position of the sun, and the various time zone
s of the Earth. At this stage it is, Dante says, sunset at Jerusalem, midnight on the River Ganges
, and sunrise in Purgatory.
After an initial ascension, Beatrice guides Dante through the nine celestial spheres
. These are concentric and spherical, as in Aristotelian
cosmology. While the structures of the ''Inferno'' and ''Purgatorio'' were based on different classifications of sin, the structure of the ''Paradiso'' is based on the four cardinal virtues
and the three theological virtues
The seven lowest spheres of Heaven deal solely with the cardinal virtues of Prudence
. The first three spheres involve a deficiency of one of the cardinal virtues – the Moon
, containing the inconstant, whose vows to God waned as the moon and thus lack fortitude; Mercury
, containing the ambitious, who were virtuous for glory and thus lacked justice; and Venus, containing the lovers, whose love was directed towards another than God and thus lacked Temperance. The final four incidentally are positive examples of the cardinal virtues, all led on by the Sun
, containing the prudent, whose wisdom lighted the way for the other virtues, to which the others are bound (constituting a category on its own). Mars
contains the men of fortitude who died in the cause of Christianity; Jupiter
contains the kings of Justice; and Saturn
contains the temperate, the monks who abided by the contemplative lifestyle. The seven subdivided into three are raised further by two more categories: the eighth sphere of the fixed stars that contain those who achieved the theological virtues of faith
, and represent the Church Triumphant
– the total perfection of humanity, cleansed of all the sins and carrying all the virtues of heaven; and the ninth circle, or Primum Mobile
(corresponding to the Geocentricism of Medieval astronomy), which contains the angels, creatures never poisoned by original sin. Topping them all is the Empyrean
, which contains the essence of God, completing the 9-fold division to 10.
Dante meets and converses with several great saints of the Church, including Thomas Aquinas
, Saint Peter
, and St. John
. The ''Paradiso'' is consequently more theological in nature than the ''Inferno'' and the ''Purgatorio''. However, Dante admits that the vision of heaven he receives is merely the one his human eyes permit him to see, and thus the vision of heaven found in the Cantos is Dante's personal vision.
The ''Divine Comedy'' finishes with Dante seeing the Triune God
. In a flash of understanding that he cannot express, Dante finally understands the mystery of Christ
's divinity and humanity, and his soul becomes aligned with God's love:
[Dorothy L. Sayers, ''Paradise'', notes on Canto XXXIII.]
According to the Italian Dante Society, no original manuscript
written by Dante has survived, although there are many manuscript copies from the 14th and 15th centuries – some 800 are listed on their site.
Early printed editions
thumb|right|Illustration of Lucifer
in the first fully illustrated print edition. Woodcut for ''Inferno'', canto 34. Pietro di Piasi, Venice, 1491.
The first printed edition was published in Foligno
, Italy, by Johann Numeister and Evangelista Angelini da Trevi
on 1472. Of the 300 copies printed, fourteen still survive. The original printing press is on display in the ''Oratorio della Nunziatella'' in Foligno.
The ''Divine Comedy'' can be described simply as an allegory
: each canto, and the episodes therein, can contain many alternative meanings. Dante's allegory, however, is more complex, and, in explaining how to read the poem (see the ''Letter to Cangrande
'') he outlines other levels of meaning besides the allegory: the historical, the moral, the literal, and the anagogical
The structure of the poem is also quite complex, with mathematical and numerological patterns distributed throughout the work, particularly threes and nines. The poem is often lauded for its particularly human qualities: Dante's skillful delineation of the characters he encounters in Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise; his bitter denunciations of Florentine
and Italian politics; and his powerful poetic imagination. Dante's use of real characters, according to Dorothy Sayers
in her introduction to her translation of the ''Inferno'', allows Dante the freedom of not having to involve the reader in description, and allows him to "ake
room in his poem for the discussion of a great many subjects of the utmost importance, thus widening its range and increasing its variety."
Dante called the poem "Comedy" (the adjective "Divine" was added later, in the 16th century) because poems in the ancient world were classified as High ("Tragedy") or Low ("Comedy"). Low poems had happy endings and were written in everyday language, whereas High poems treated more serious matters and were written in an elevated style. Dante was one of the first in the Middle Ages to write of a serious subject, the Redemption of humanity, in the low and "vulgar" Italian language and not the Latin one might expect for such a serious topic. Boccaccio
's account that an early version of the poem was begun by Dante in Latin
is still controversial.
Although the ''Divine Comedy'' is primarily a religious poem, discussing sin, virtue, and theology, Dante also discusses several elements of the science of his day
(this mixture of science with poetry has received both praise and criticism over the centuries). The ''Purgatorio'' repeatedly refers to the implications of a spherical Earth
, such as the different stars visible in the southern hemisphere
, the altered position of the sun
, and the various time zone
s of the Earth. For example, at sunset in Purgatory it is midnight at the Ebro
, dawn in Jerusalem, and noon on the River Ganges:
Dante travels through the centre of the Earth in the ''Inferno'', and comments on the resulting change in the direction of gravity
in Canto XXXIV (lines 76–120). A little earlier (XXXIII, 102–105), he queries the existence of wind in the frozen inner circle of hell, since it has no temperature differentials.
Inevitably, given its setting, the ''Paradiso'' discusses astronomy
extensively, but in the Ptolemaic
sense. The ''Paradiso'' also discusses the importance of the experimental method
in science, with a detailed example in lines 94–105 of Canto II:
A briefer example occurs in Canto XV of the ''Purgatorio'' (lines 16–21), where Dante points out that both theory and experiment confirm that the angle of incidence is equal to the angle of reflection
. Other references to science in the ''Paradiso'' include descriptions of clock
work in Canto XXIV (lines 13–18), and Thales' theorem
about triangles in Canto XIII (lines 101–102).
is known to have lectured on the ''Inferno'', and it has been suggested that the poem may have influenced some of Galileo's own ideas regarding mechanics.
Theories of influence from Islamic philosophy
In 1919, Miguel Asín Palacios
, a Spanish scholar and a Catholic priest, published ''La Escatología musulmana en la Divina Comedia'' (''Islamic Eschatology
in the Divine Comedy''), an account of parallels between early Islamic philosophy
and the ''Divine Comedy''. Palacios argued that Dante derived many features of and episodes about the hereafter from the spiritual writings of Ibn Arabi
and from the Isra and Mi'raj
or night journey of Muhammad
to heaven. The latter is described in the ''ahadith
'' and the ''Kitab al Miraj
'' (translated into Latin in 1264 or shortly before
[I. Heullant-Donat and M.-A. Polo de Beaulieu, "Histoire d'une traduction," in ''Le Livre de l'échelle de Mahomet'', Latin edition and French translation by Gisèle Besson and Michèle Brossard-Dandré, Collection ''Lettres Gothiques'', Le Livre de Poche, 1991, p. 22 with note 37.]
as ''Liber Scalae Machometi'', "The Book of Muhammad's Ladder"), and has significant similarities to the ''Paradiso'', such as a sevenfold division of Paradise
, although this is not unique to the ''Kitab al Miraj'' or Islamic cosmology.
Some "superficial similarities" of the ''Divine Comedy'' to the ''Resalat Al-Ghufran
'' or ''Epistle of Forgiveness'' of Al-Ma'arri
have also been mentioned in this debate. The ''Resalat Al-Ghufran'' describes the journey of the poet in the realms of the afterlife and includes dialogue with people in Heaven and Hell, although, unlike the ''Kitab al Miraj'', there is little description of these locations, and it is unlikely that Dante borrowed from this work.
Dante did, however, live in a Europe of substantial literary and philosophical contact with the Muslim world, encouraged by such factors as Averroism
("Averrois, che'l gran comento feo" Commedia, Inferno, IV, 144, meaning "Averrois, who wrote the great comment") and the patronage of Alfonso X of Castile
. Of the twelve wise men Dante meets in Canto X of the ''Paradiso'', Thomas Aquinas
and, even more so, Siger of Brabant
were strongly influenced by Arabic commentators on Aristotle
Medieval Christian mysticism
also shared the Neoplatonic
influence of Sufis
such as Ibn Arabi
. Philosopher Frederick Copleston
argued in 1950 that Dante's respectful treatment of Averroes
, and Siger of Brabant indicates his acknowledgement of a "considerable debt" to Islamic philosophy.
Although this philosophical influence is generally acknowledged, many scholars have not been satisfied that Dante was influenced by the ''Kitab al Miraj''. The 20th century Orientalist Francesco Gabrieli
expressed skepticism regarding the claimed similarities, and the lack of evidence of a vehicle through which it could have been transmitted to Dante. Even so, while dismissing the probability of some influences posited in Palacios' work, Gabrieli conceded that it was "at least possible, if not probable, that Dante may have known the ''Liber Scalae'' and have taken from it certain images and concepts of Muslim eschatology". Shortly before her death, the Italian philologist Maria Corti
pointed out that, during his stay at the court of Alfonso X, Dante's mentor Brunetto Latini
met Bonaventura de Siena, a Tuscan who had translated the ''Kitab al Miraj'' from Arabic into Latin. Corti speculates that Brunetto may have provided a copy of that work to Dante. René Guénon
, a Sufi convert and scholar of Ibn Arabi, rejected in ''The Esoterism of Dante'' the theory of his influence (direct or indirect) on Dante. Palacios' theory that Dante was influenced by Ibn Arabi was satirized by the Turkish academic Orhan Pamuk
in his novel ''The Black Book''
Literary influence in the English-speaking world and beyond
The ''Divine Comedy'' was not always as well-regarded as it is today. Although recognized as a masterpiece
in the centuries immediately following its publication, the work was largely ignored during the Enlightenment
, with some notable exceptions such as Vittorio Alfieri
; Antoine de Rivarol
, who translated the ''Inferno'' into French; and Giambattista Vico
, who in the ''Scienza nuova'' and in the ''Giudizio su Dante'' inaugurated what would later become the romantic reappraisal of Dante, juxtaposing him to Homer. The ''Comedy'' was "rediscovered" in the English-speaking world by William Blake
– who illustrated several passages of the epic – and the Romantic
writers of the 19th century. Later authors such as T. S. Eliot
, Ezra Pound
, Samuel Beckett
, C. S. Lewis
and James Joyce
have drawn on it for inspiration. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
was its first American translator, and modern poets, including Seamus Heaney
, Robert Pinsky
, John Ciardi
, W. S. Merwin
, and Stanley Lombardo
, have also produced translations of all or parts of the book. In Russia, beyond Pushkin
's translation of a few tercets, Osip Mandelstam
's late poetry has been said to bear the mark of a "tormented meditation" on the ''Comedy''. In 1934, Mandelstam gave a modern reading of the poem in his labyrinthine "Conversation on Dante". In T. S. Eliot's estimation, "Dante and Shakespeare
divide the world between them. There is no third." For Jorge Luis Borges
the ''Divine Comedy'' was "the best book literature has achieved".
New English translations of the ''Divine Comedy'' continue to be published regularly. Notable English translations of the complete poem include the following.
[A comprehensive listing and criticism, covering the period 1782–1966, of English translations of at least one of the three ''cantiche'' is given by Gilbert F. Cunningham, ''The Divine Comedy in English: A Critical Bibliography'', 2 vols. (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1965–67), esp. vol. 2, pp. 5–9.]
A number of other translators, such as Robert Pinsky
, have translated the ''Inferno'' only.
In the arts
The ''Divine Comedy'' has been a source of inspiration for countless artists for almost seven centuries. There are many references to Dante's work in literature
. In music
, Franz Liszt
was one of many composers to write works
based on the ''Divine Comedy''. In sculpture
, the work of Auguste Rodin
includes themes from Dante, and many visual artists
have illustrated Dante's work, as shown by the examples above. There have also been many references to the ''Divine Comedy'' in cinema, television
, digital arts
, comics and video games
* Allegory in the Middle Ages
* Book of Arda Viraf
* List of cultural references in ''Divine Comedy''
* ''Paradise Lost
* Seven Heavens
* Theological fiction
* Ziolkowski, Jan M. (2015). Dante and Islam
'. Fordham University Press, New York. .
Website that offers the complete text of the ''Divine Comedy'' (and Dante's other works) in Italian and English along with audio accompaniment in both languages. Includes historical and interpretive annotation.
* The ''Comedy'' in Englishtrans. Cary (with Doré's illustrations)
(zipped HTML downloadable from Project Gutenberg
)Cary/Longfellow/Mandelbaum parallel edition
* Full text of the ''Commedia''Dante Dartmouth Project
Full text of more than 70 Italian, Latin, and English commentaries on the ''Commedia'', ranging in date from 1322 (Iacopo Alighieri
) to the 2000s (Robert Hollander)
''A Dictionary of the Proper Names and Notable Matters in the Works of Dante''
by Paget Toynbee, London, The Clarendon Press (1898).
* Online manuscript codicesPhillips 9589Images of the 1564 edition of ''Divine Comedy''
First edition to contain both the commentaries by Landino and Vellutello published by Francesco Sansovino
bilingual (Italian and English)''Divine Comedy'' in pdf format in Online Library of LibertyMore images of the ''Divine Comedy'' by selecting the "Heaven & Hell" subject at the Persuasive Cartography, The PJ Mode Collection Cornell University LibraryMapping Dante: A Study of Places in the Commedia
Digital interactive map with the geographical references of the ''Divine Comedy''''La commedia divina''
Digitised copy of a 1497 edition of the ''Divine Comedy'' that includes an original sketch by artist Giorgione
, University of Sydney
Lino Pertile's reading
Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures, Harvard University.
Category:Works by Dante Alighieri
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