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Michelino's painting of Dante and his poem.

Italian poet Dante Alighieri's epic three-part poem detailing his allegorical journey through Hell, Purgatory, and his ascension to Heaven.

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Medieval vision of the afterlife

  • Aug 8, 2010

This was required reading for a graduate course in medieval history. Norton edition has great articles to help explain the work and is a great translation. Dante Alighieri's (1265-1321) "Devine Comedy" weaved together aspects of biblical and classical Greek literary traditions to produce one of the most important works of not only medieval literature, but also one of the great literary works of Western civilization. The full impact of this 14,000-line poem divided into 100 cantos and three books is not just literary. Dante's autobiographical poem Commedia, as he titled it, was his look into the individual psyche and human soul. He explored and reflected on such fundamental questions as political institutions and their problems, the nature of humankind's moral actions, and the possibility of spiritual transformation; these were all fundamental social and cultural concerns for people during the fourteenth-century. Dante wrote the Commedia not in Latin but in the Tuscan dialect of Italian so that it would reach a broader readership. The Commedia was a three-part journey undertaken by the pilgrim Dante to the realms of the Christian afterlife: Hell, (Inferno), Purgatory, (Purgatorio), and Paradise, (Paradisio).
The poem narrated in first person, began with Dante lost midlife. He was 35 years old in the year 1300 and in a dark wood. Being lost in the dark wood was certainly an allegorical device that Dante used to express the condition of his own life at the time he started writing the poem. Dante had been active in Florentine politics and a member of the White Guelph party who opposed the secular rule of Pope Boniface VIII over Florence. In 1302, The Black Guelphs who were allied with the Pope, were militarily victorious in gaining control of the city and Dante found himself an exile from his beloved city for the rest of his life. Thus, Dante started writing the Commedia in 1308 and used it to comment on his own tribulations of life, and to state his views on politics and religion, and heap scorn on his political enemies.

Dante's first leg of his journey out of the dark wood was through the nine concentric circles of Hell (Inferno), escorted by his favorite classical Roman poet Virgil, author of the Aeneid. Dante borrowed heavily from Virgil's Aeneid. Much of Dante's description of hell had similarities to Virgil's description in his sixth book of the Aeneid. Dante's three major divisions of sin in hell where unrepentant sinners dwelled, had their sources in Aristotle and Augustinian philosophy. They were self-indulgence, violence, and fraud. Fraud was considered the worst of moral failures because it undermined family, trust, and religion; in essence, it tore at the moral fabric of civilized society. These divisions were inversions of the classical virtues of moderation, courage, and wisdom. The fourth classical virtue, justice, is what Dante came to believe after his journey through hell that all its inhabitants received for their unrepentant sins. There were nine concentric circles of hell inside the earth; each smaller than the previous one. For Dante the geography of hell was a moral geography as well as a physical one, reflecting the nature of the sin. Canto IV describes the first circle of hell, Limbo, which is where Dante met the shades, as souls where called, of the virtuous un-baptized such as Homer, Ovid, Caesar, Aristotle, and Plato.
In the four circles for the sin of self-indulgence Dante met shades who where lustful, gluttons, hoarders and wrathful. In the second circle of Hell, lustful souls were blown around in a violent storm. In Canto V, one of the great dramatic moments of the poem, Dante had his first lengthy encounter with an unrepentant sinner Francesca da Rimini, who committed adultery with her brother-in-law. Like all the sinners in hell, Francesca laid the blame for her sin elsewhere. She claimed to be seduced into committing adultery after reading the story of Lancelot and Guinevere. At the end of the scene, Dante fainted out of pity for Francesca.

In Canto X, the sixth circle of hell reserved for heretics who are punished by being trapped in flaming tombs, Dante took the opportunity to use the circle to chastise political leaders for participating in political partisanship. A Florentine who was a leader in the rival Ghibbelline political party, Farinata degli Uberti, accosted Dante. Both men aggressively argued with each other, recreating in hell the bitterness of partisan politics in Florence. Farinata predicted Dante's exile. Dante used this Canto to show the dangerous tendencies of petty political partisanship that he harbored.

The seventh circle of hell was subdivided into three areas where sinners were punished for doing violence against themselves, their neighbors, or God. In Canto XIII Dante encountered Pier della Vigne in the wood of the suicides. The shades there were shrubs who had to speak through a broken branch. Pier spoke to Dante about how he had been an important advisor to Emperor Frederick II, and how he blamed his fall, and his suicide, on the envy of other court members. This Canto was especially important because Dante came to grips with his own "future" fall from political power and exile. Pier's behavior served as a strong example to Dante how not to act in exile. Whether he had been tempted to commit suicide is not clear; however, he certainly had been prone to the selfish and despairing attitude that Pier represented.

The last two circles of hell contained the sinners of fraud. In the eighth circle, there were ten ditches for the various types of fraud such as Simony, thievery, hypocrisy, etc. Canto XIX described the third ditch, which contained those guilty of Simony, the sin of church leaders perverting their spiritual office by buying and selling church offices. Simonists were buried upside down in a rock with their feet on fire. Pope Nicholas III mistakenly addressed Dante as Pope Boniface VIII who was the current Pope in 1300, and whose place in hell was thereby predicted. This is not surprising since Boniface was the person most responsible for Dante's exile. In an interesting literary twist, Nicholas "confessed" to Dante, as if he was a priest, his sin of greed and nepotism. He admitted that even after becoming Pope he cared more for his family's interests than the good of the whole Church. Dante responded to Nicholas' "confession" with a stinging condemnation of Simony drawn from the Book of Revelation. After this encounter, Dante came to understand that hell was a place of justice.

Canto XXXIV, the last one in the Inferno, depicted Satan with three heads. Each head was chewing the three worst sinners of humankind. The middle head was chewing on the head of Judas Iscariot, who was a disciple to Jesus and his betrayer. The other two heads were chewing Brutus and Cassius; the murderers of Julius Caesar, and the two men Dante faulted for the destruction of a unified Italy. Dante considered the two ultimate betrayals against God and against the empire as the worst betrayals perpetrated in the history of humankind.

Thus, Dante's intent in his Commedia was to teach fourteenth-century readers that if one wanted to ascend spiritually towards God then one needed to learn the nature of sin from the unrepentant. By doing this, one could learn to overcome the same tendencies found in themselves. He wanted people to realize what he had come to learn that political partisanship would only stand in the way of unifying Italy and keep it from regaining any of its former glory that it enjoyed during the time of the Roman Empire.

Recommended reading for anyone interested in literature and medieval history.


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More The Divine Comedy: Inferno; Pu... reviews
Quick Tip by . August 26, 2010
Dante was absolutely breathtaking for the journey he took us on, the poetic style he chose, and the symmetry and structure of his creation. Before 'Narnia' and 'Lord of the Rings' came 'The Divine Comedy'!
review by . September 21, 2003
The Divine Comedy was written in the 14th century proximate  to the year 1313. The work traverses the reigns of Pope Clement  and Pope John the 22nd. Dante attempts to answer the question  "What happens when we die?" Through the character of Beatrice,  the author takes us through the regions of the underworld  both purgatory and hell in preparation for the glory of heaven.  This is literature of the highest quality in terms of  the …
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Michael Neulander ()
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Recently graduated with a Masters in Humanities degree from Old Dominion University reading in philosophy and history. I graduated from the Univ. of Miami in 1980 with a B.A. in Political Science; specializing … more
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The Divine Comedy (Italian: La Divina Commedia) is an epic poem written by Dante Alighieri between 1308 and his death in 1321. It is widely considered the preeminent work of Italian literature, and is seen as one of the greatest works of world literature. The poem's imaginative and allegorical vision of the Christian afterlife is a culmination of the medieval world-view as it had developed in the Western Church. It helped establish the Tuscan dialect in which it is written as the Italian standard. It is divided into three parts, the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso.

On the surface the poem describes Dante's travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven; but at a deeper level it represents allegorically the soul's journey towards God. At this deeper level, Dante draws on medieval Christian theology and philosophy, especially the teachings of Thomas Aquinas. At the surface level, the poem is understood to be fictional.

Originally the work was simply titled Commedia and was later christened Divina by Giovanni Boccaccio. The first printed edition to add the word divine to the title was that of the Venetian humanist Lodovico Dolce, published in 1555 by Gabriele Giolito de' Ferrari.

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Books, Poetry, Dante, Medieval Poetry, The Divine Comedy


Author: Dante Alighieri
Genre: Epic Poetry, Classic Literature, Religious Allegory
Format: Epic Poem

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1984 (British first edition)

Collection of Classics


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