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10 Things You Might Not Know about Dante’s Divine Comedy
Few works of literature are as epic, lasting, and widely read as Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy. What other pieces of world literature have given rise to tournaments, such as those that used to take place among children on the streets of Turin in Dante’s native Italy, where one player recites the beginning of a passage from The Divine Comedy while another tries to finish it?
The timeless tale follows Dante down to the deepest depths of Hell, which he describes in all its terrifying detail before making his way back. The story, actually a long poem, is extremely intricate, and the sheer amount of detail Dante masterfully weaves in means there are plenty of surprises to be discovered. Here are ten of the strangest.
10 It Is Not Meant to Be Funny
Although The Divine Comedy has its moments, humor is not high on its list of priorities. But strictly speaking, it is a comedy. That is because when it was written in the 14th century, a comedy was simply an amusing narrative with a happy ending. It would not be until the 16th century that humor would become central to the definition of the word.
Funny moments in The Divine Comedy come not from Dante deliberately cracking jokes but from the creative punishments the author imagines inflicting upon his enemies in Hell. The poem was not originally “divine” either. A biographer added that word to the title later. Dante simply called it “La commedia”—”The Comedy.”
9 The Divine Number Three
The number three holds religious significance for Christians as it represents the Holy Trinity—three distinct figures who make up one God. Allusions to it recur throughout Dante’s Comedy, not least in the way it is structured. The poem comprises three sections known as canticles: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Each chronicles a different part of the narrator’s journey down to Hell, through Purgatory, and up to Heaven. In each, he is guided by a different person.
In Inferno, Dante encounters three wild beasts as well as a three-headed dog and the three-faced Lucifer in Hell. Each of the three canticles has 33 passages or cantos. However, Inferno has an additional one that introduces the poem and allows the total number of cantos to be an even 100. The poem uses a terza rima rhyme scheme (aba, bcb, etc.), which is another example of how the divine number three pervades the entire work.
8 Treachery and Fraud Are Worse than Violence
Dante’s Hell is made up of nine circles, each deeper and more punishing than its predecessor. In designing this, he essentially ranks sins in order of their seriousness, reaching some surprising conclusions. The seventh circle is reserved for those who are violent—yes, there are sins worse than violence, according to Dante. This is where things get interesting because he subdivides circles 7-9 into smaller rings with their own unique punishments.
Within circle seven, people who commit literal violence against others comprise one ring, while those who commit suicide make up another. The last concerns less literal forms of violence: blasphemy and unethical lending. Are they equivalent? Dante seemed to think so. He also strongly believed dishonesty was even worse than violence. The last two circles contained frauds and traitors, with the latter being the worst of all. These, too, were categorized by nature. For example, those who betrayed their masters received a different punishment from hosts who betrayed their guests.
7 Hell Freezes Over
Although he called it Inferno, not all of Dante’s Hell was hot. In fact, the deepest circle where traitors are punished takes the form of a frozen lake, which is constantly cooled by the wind produced by Lucifer’s beating wings. Lucifer himself is trapped in ice from the waist down. And in case it seems like the traitors are getting off lightly, rest assured, the cold is the least of their worries.
When Dante visits, Lucifer is snacking on some of history’s most famous traitors, including Judas Iscariot and Brutus. They get a personal mention and punishment for betraying their lords, who Dante believed were appointed by God. By his logic, this made them the ultimate sinners.
6 Dante’s Afterlife Is Borrowed from Ptolemy
Earth sits at the center of the three realms in Dante’s model of the afterlife. The nine circles of Hell descend into Earth’s core, and the nine spheres of Paradise surround it, separated from Earth’s atmosphere by a sphere of fire. Dante borrowed much of this model from Ptolemy, the second-century Egyptian astronomer. It was shared by all medieval thinkers.
No physical features on Earth exactly match his descriptions, but Dante conceived of the realms of the afterlife as geographical locations. He chose the city of Jerusalem for the entrance to Hell. At the same time, the mountain of Purgatory rises in the southern hemisphere. The places he visits in The Divine Comedy are full of features such as plains, caverns, swamps, cliffs, and rivers.
5 It Gets Personal
An amusing aspect of the Comedy is Dante’s score-settling with his contemporaries. One of these was his real-life enemy, Pope Boniface VIII. It is unusual to make an enemy of the Bishop of Rome, but the papacy at that time was as much a political role as a spiritual one. Boniface was savvy and ambitious. He is believed to have forced the abdication of his predecessor, Pope Celestine V, in 1294 (Dante also meets Celestine when he visits Hell.)
When he wanted to seize more power in Italy, Boniface backed the Black Guelphs, the eventual victors out of the two factions into which Florence’s ruling body had divided. Dante was one of the opposing White Guelphs. He sought more autonomy for the city. However, Boniface wanted more control and had Dante exiled from Florence along with the other White Guelphs.
In Inferno, Dante meets Pope Nicholas III, who mistakes him for Boniface. Nicholas remarks how he has arrived before his time, revealing where Dante expected Boniface to spend eternity.
4 Dante Professes His One True Love (and It Is Not His Wife)
It is hard to imagine Mrs. Alighieri, actually Gemma Donati, would have been too pleased to find out that after his journey to the depths of Hell and up the mountain of Purgatory, she was not the one to whom he would return to be led to Paradise. No, that woman was Beatrice Portinari, an Italian noble with whom Dante fell immediately in love when they met at a party aged just nine years old.
Dante wrote adoringly about her before in his La Vita Nuova around 1293. By that time, she had already died, and Dante was married to Gemma. He vowed never to write about Beatrice again after that until he could say something about her that had never been said about any woman before. He did so many years later in his Divine Comedy, where Beatrice takes up her place in Heaven after helping Dante to absorb himself in the divine.
3 It Is Not All Christian
Dante uses pagan gods and figures throughout The Divine Comedy, especially in Hell, placing them alongside important historical, contemporary, and biblical figures. For example, Dante and his guide Virgil meet Charon ferrying damned souls to Hell. Charon was originally a character from Greek mythology who ferried souls to the underworld. Satan is referred to by the name Dis, which is also another name for the ancient Greek god of the underworld, Pluto.
Dante also deals with the puzzle of where virtuous people who simply did not know about Christ end up, the so-called “virtuous pagans.” These include people like the Greek poet Homer and Dante’s guide, the Roman poet Virgil. Their souls were confined to Limbo, the circle of Hell with the least suffering but from which they could not ascend to Heaven.
2 It Was Written for the Man on the Street
One reason Dante’s book had such an impact on Italian culture was that he did not write it in Latin, the language used for important literature at the time. He wrote in Florentine Tuscan, the dialect spoken in the city of Florence. In doing so, The Divine Comedy helped create a shared vernacular for all of Italy because literate people from other cities would learn Florentine Tuscan just to read it.
Two hundred years later, Dante’s choice inspired Protestants to translate the Bible into local languages so people could understand it themselves rather than rely on the teachings of the Roman Church.
1 It Might Describe His Narcolepsy
In The Divine Comedy, Dante often recalls sleeping, dreaming, hallucinating, and falling. Some academics believe his descriptions of these events sound like symptoms of narcolepsy. He describes them with an accuracy which suggests he may have suffered from it. However, a lack of direct and biographical sources about Dante’s personal life means little is known about his traits and any conditions he may have had.
Narcolepsy is when the brain cannot regulate sleep patterns properly. It causes people to have disturbed sleep or to sleep at unusual times, sometimes dropping off instantly. It was not formally recognized until some six centuries after Dante’s death.