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Welcome to Hell!
On previous occasions when a protagonist (Odysseus, Comic Dionysus, Aeneas)
has visited the Underworld, we have been quick to observe, with Vergil's
Sybil, that "Black Dis's door stands open night and day,/But to retrace
your steps to heaven's air,/There is the trouble," or in plain English:
We all go to the Underworld eventually, but most of us don't come back.
As we approach the Inferno, in which Dante-pilgrim (see
below) will make his return trip to the Nether Regions, it's worth
reflecting on how often we, as readers, seem to be invited to make
this supposedly rare and special voyage. Why is this, do you suppose?
In the Inferno, we confront a slightly new state of affairs: first,
the Underworld, aka Hell, is only one of three possible after-death destinations;
the Divine Comedy [La Divina Commedia], of which Inferno
is Part I, has two further chapters, the Purgatorio and the Paradiso,
which we aren't reading. Secondly, the "pilgrim" who undertakes
the epic journey beyond the frontiers of death is identified with the
poet himself--not a separate, legendary hero.
Dante-poet and Dante-pilgrim
It's important, while reading the Inferno, to maintain a clear
distinction--insofar as Dante himself will allow it--between the two personae
contained in that narrative "I": Dante-pilgrim, who has
actually made the journey and whose reactions to the things he sees in
Hell are transmitted to us, and Dante-poet, who does the transmitting
(and includes a fair amount of implicit editorial commentary on the experiences
and responses of his pilgrim alter ego). Note that neither of these
two "Dantes" is identical with the "real-life" Dante,
the 13/14th-century poet who actually penned the Inferno.
Do not bother reading the introduction to our text of the Inferno
(tr. Allan Mandelbaum, Bantam, 1982), which reveals more about the
size of the translator's ego than about the poem and its context. However,
there are some crucial informative materials at the back of the book which
will help a lot to clarify things as you read. First, the biographical
and historical information on pp. 319-329 give a broad overview of events
in Dante's life and in Florentine history that seem to have influenced,
and/or been mentioned in, the Commedia. Second, useful maps of
(a) the universe, and (b) Hell, as Dante conceptualizes them, are on pp.
342-3. Finally, the notes on pp. 344ff. explain individual personages
(including the political figures, not all of whom were actually dead when
Dante write the Inferno) as they appear in the various Circles
of Hell--useful if, like most of us, you have not made an exhaustive study
of the political landscape of 13/14th-century Florence.
Background (in brief)
It's not important that you really get a handle on the political undercurrents
of Inferno, as we shall have plenty to look at without them. Therefore,
a detailed knowledge of Florentine history is not necessary. And little
is known about Dante's life, so we shall not pay much attention to that
either. However, I shall provide here a few orienting dates and facts:
Broadly, the history of Dante's Florence can be seen as a conflict between
the rival ambitions of Church (specifically, the Papacy) and State (on
a grand scale, the Holy Roman Empire; locally, the constitution and institutions
of the Florentine Republics).
||Political division in Italy between pro-Papal
Guelph party and pro-Holy Roman Empire Ghibelline party.
||Death of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II.
This weakens the pro-Empire factions in Italy and paves the way for
the formation of the First Republic of Florence, a proudly pro-Papal
commonwealth. (Note the inscription commemorating the First Republic
cited by Mandelbaum at the top of p. 319!)
||First Florentine Republic,
dominated by the pro-Papal Guelphs.
||Ghibellines regroup, defeat/depose Guelphs,
end the First Republic
||Dante Alighieri born
||Guelphs re-defeat Ghibellines and install
Second Florentine Republic, which will last into the 15th century.
(The young Dante thus grows up as the age-mate of the Second Republic.)
meets 8-year-old B[eatr]ice Portinari; love at first sight, he claims
betrothed to Gemma Donati
||Beatrice (now 17)
speaks to Dante (now 18) for the first time
||Dante and Gemma marry
||Death of Beatrice
Guelphs (ruling party of Florence) split into two factions: White
(committed to the independence of the Republic, i.e. to the separation
between secular government and the Church) and Black (favouring
collusion with the Pope).
Dante is a White.
Boniface VIII takes office and tries to extend papal power over
Italy, with the help of the Black Guelphs.
||October: Dante and
two other ambassoadors sent to Rome to clarify Pope's intentions.
November: Successful coup by the Blacks in Florence. Prominent Whites
||January: Dante (still
in/near Rome) placed under threat of being burnt alive should he ever
return to Florence. As far as we know, he never saw Florence again.
||Death of Pope Boniface VIII.
||Pope Benedict IX.
||Accession of Pope
||Dante, exiled and
wandering through an Italy torn by political strife, writes Inferno
VII elected Holy Roman Emperor, with the blessing of Pope Clement
V. His election brings hope for a reconciliation between the Empire
and the Papacy, an end to the Guelph/Ghibelline conflict, and a
return of the Imperial power to Italy.....in other words, some peace
and ascendancy for the Italians. Sound familiar...?
||Papacy moves to Avignon, where it will
remain until 1377 [a period known in Catholic history as the "Babylonian
Captivity," though it was voluntary and occurred for political
reasons: Avignon, a separate principality, was politically removed
both from King Philip IV of France (who had feuded with Boniface VIII
and "bought" the election of Clement V in order to get Boniface's
bulls annulled) and from the civil wars in Italy, which made Rome
||Death of Henry VII (and with him, any hope
of renewed Empire and end to strife).
||Death of Clement V.
||Dante writes Paradiso.
||Death of Dante.
Click here for the study questions
for Cantos I-XI.
By the way, you may be entertained by this visually splendid (if intellectually
only welterweight) site
devoted to the Inferno at the University of Georgia.