Inferno (Hell) is the first part of Dante Alighieri’s epic poem The Divine Comedy.
It is followed by Purgatorio (Purgatory) and Paradiso (Paradise) and was written in the fourteenth century.
In his poem, Dante himself is the main character: he crosses the Christian afterworld, which is divided into three parts: one for sinners, one for sinners who can receive salvation after a period of expiation, and one for benefactors.
The Divine Comedy is Dante’s journey from Hell to Paradise, where he finally meets Beatrice, the women he loved platonically all his life.
The journey also has strong allegorical value, as it tells the journey to salvation, experiencing the abyss of evil.
The Divine Comedy is the first Italian poem written in a language different from Latin, which was called volgare (vernacular). Thanks to the success of this epic, the modern Italian language was born.
If you are interested in reading a good, easy to understand rendition of The Divine Comedy which includes several drawings selected from Botticelli’s series of illustrations, we recommend the Mandelbaum edition.
Dante’s Inferno is designed as an inverted funnel, which was illustrated by Botticelli in his famous Map of Hell.
Dante’s moral doctrine, as well as his vision of sin and the afterworld, is fully Christian, but he also used his imagination to “furnish” Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise.
In each circle, a different kind of sin is punished according to the rule of retaliation, or contrapasso, which comes from the Latin contra and patior, “suffer the opposite.”
Actually, according to this rule, each sinner is punished with something similar to the sin he inflicted on his neighbor or with something opposite.
One of many examples of contrapasso occurs in the fourth ditch of Malebolge, where astrologers have their heads twisted around backward on their bodies so that they could not see ahead as much as they pretended to do during their life.
Dante inherited the idea of contrapasso from medieval theological essays and novels.
The infernal funnel is divided into nine circles: the worst sins are placed lower down, near Satan.
Here you can find the complete structure of Dante’s Inferno:
- Anti-Inferno: sinner of slothful. Dante despises them even to the point of excluding them from Hell. There is no place for them in Hell.
- First Circle or Limbo: virtuous pagans and unbaptized children; their only punishment is not being able to see God.
- Second to Fifth Circles: sinners of lust, gluttony, greed, and anger.
- Sixth Circle: heretics and atheists.
- Seventh Circle: sinners of violence, divided into three rings.
- Eighth Circle or Malebolge: it hosts those who have committed fraud; it is divided into ten ditches, according to the type of fraud.
- Ninth Circle: it hosts traitors and is divided into four areas according to those who suffered from their sin.
Lucifer or Satan is located at the deep end of Hell, in the Earth’s center.
In Dante’s Hell, the eternity of evil is depicted, but it is presented as part of God’s justice.
In Dante’s Inferno, sinners and punishments have a strong physical representation; reality is exacerbated and intensified as well as cruelty and pain.
No one before Dante had made such a coarse representation of Hell!
In The Divine Comedy, human bestiality and spirituality emerge from the characters who are serving the sentences of divine justice and who regain their humanity.
For Dante, the destiny of a human being is twofold: born for goodness, he is always exposed to sin. A single virtuous action cannot erase a lifetime of defects in divine judgment.
Dante often refers to the characters he meets in Inferno as “shadows,” because they are only a shadow of what they were in life. Many of these characters are citizens of Florence, actors of the Florentine life that Dante puts into the scene.
The Divine Comedy was also an impressive, striking way to tell readers about the role of politics in Dante’s time.
The landscapes of The Divine Comedy are evocative: Hell is dark, with dense forests, rugged mountains, and treacherous swamps.
Dante, who is still alive and not a spirit, is not free to go through Hell alone; for this reason, he has a guide: Virgil.
Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro), author of the epic poem Aeneid, was perhaps the greatest poet of ancient Rome and intensely admired during the Middle Ages.
Virgil is with Dante in Hell according to Beatrice’s will: she is waiting for Dante in Paradise, which is the last part of Dante’s journey.
Virgil meets Dante at the beginning of the story, when he intervenes to save him from the three beasts faced at the entrance of Hell, and he accompanies him through Hell and Purgatory.
Dante identifies Virgil as his teacher and guide.
Never before had the concept of hell captivated the masses in such an entertaining way. Overnight, Dante’s work solidified the abstract concept of hell into a clear and terrifying vision—visceral, palpable, and unforgettable.
This is what Dan Brown writes in his Inferno about Dante’s work.
We agree: The Divine Comedy is one of the most beautiful—and terrifying—books of all time.
Dante’s descriptions in his Inferno were surely inspired by the beautiful ceiling mosaics of the Baptistry of San Giovanni in Florence.
Many artists—writers, painters, filmmakers—have been inspired by Dante’s text for their works: Michelangelo is one of them.
Just think about the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City in Rome.
Our way through Dante’s Hell has just begun…
» Now you can discover some books about Dante Alighieri or listen for free the full Dante’s Inferno audiobook:
The complete Divine Comedy audiobook – Part 1: Inferno
Pictures by Wikipedia (public domain)