The recent release of Dan Brown’s latest best seller Inferno created a renewed interest in the works of the great Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321). Brown’s book draws continuous reference to Dante‘s masterpiece, Divine Comedy, to help the protagonist of his book to solve the riddle that could help to save nearly half the world’s population from annihilation. All very fanciful stuff and the book is more or less a typical Dan Brown kind of thriller but the author helps to enlighten the reader on the genius of the Italian Master and take the reader on a fascinating journey through the history of two great Italian cities – Florence and Venice.
It’s true by the time I reached the last few pages of Brown’s book, I was worn out by the over description of roads, bridges, buildings, museums, people etc. and just wanted it to end but I was eager to read up more on Dante about who I knew nothing more than the fact he was an Italian poet who wrote the epic Divine Comedy. Having turned the last page on Dan Brown’s Inferno, I opened up the page of a book I ve had for long on my book shelf which contained a fascinating article on Dante.
I also downloaded an electronic version of the Divine Comedy but reading it is no mean task given its length and complexity but the translation of it done by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow can be downloaded free of charge. Interpretation of poetry is at most times a brain wrecking experience for me so while I decided to go-slow on the poem, I read up the more simplified description of Divine Comedy which I can share with all of you.
On Good Friday in the year 1300, Dante Alighieri, a citizen of the thriving Italian city-state of Florence found himself lost in a dark forest. Divine Comedy begins thus and describes the feelings of terror he encountered.
Inferno: Canto I
“Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah me! How hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern?
Which in the very thought renews the fear.“
Fleeing from its terrors, he encounters the Ghost of his favorite author, the Latin poet Virgil. The poet told Dante that he could escape from the forest only by taking a road that led down into Hell and through it to Purgatory and then onto Paradise. With Virgil as his guide, Dante undertakes the journey and begins the terrible descent. Hell was a huge funnel-shaped pit with ledges circling its sides, on which the sinful suffered pains appropriate to their offences.
As the two climb down, Dante encounters some of his unimportant Florentine contemporaries as well as some well-known persons from history. The worst places in Hell are where he encounters Judas, the betrayer of Jesus and Brutus, the betrayer of Julius Caesar.
The two eventually leave Hell and come to the foot of Mount Purgatory which is in the exact opposite form of Hell, a peak rising up to the skies. Like Hell, the peak has a series of circles inhabited by those who have committed various classes of sin. Those guilty of sins such as pride were at the bottom of the mountain while those who were guilty of sins like lust were at the top. Unlike the lost souls of Hell, all the inhabitants of Purgatory were working, with the certainty of ultimate release from their sins.
When Dante emerges to the summit of Mount Purgatory, Virgil being a pagan is not allowed to pass into the next region. Here Virgil is replaced as guide by Beatrice, a woman Dante had known and loved in Florence and remained the symbol of perfection to him ever since. She married another man and had died young. Beatrice leads Dante into Paradise and in the celestial region; his journey becomes a weightless one. Finally he is admitted to the Empyrean of God and the saints and here he acquires a new guide St Bernard. He is then led before the Virgin Mary by whose intercession he is allowed to look into the light of the Trinity.
The Divine Comedy is essentially a Christian epic and is considered the greatest of Christian allegories ever written.
Link below to an article I wrote for the Sunday Times on “Inferno.”