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Dante's Inferno, I-XI
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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.

Our text
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).

1215-1250 C.E. Political division in Italy between pro-Papal Guelph party and pro-Holy Roman Empire Ghibelline party.
1250 C.E. 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!)
1250-1260 First Florentine Republic, dominated by the pro-Papal Guelphs.
1260 Ghibellines regroup, defeat/depose Guelphs, end the First Republic
1265 Dante Alighieri born
1266 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.)
1274 9-year-old Dante meets 8-year-old B[eatr]ice Portinari; love at first sight, he claims
1277 12-year-old Dante betrothed to Gemma Donati
1283 Beatrice (now 17) speaks to Dante (now 18) for the first time
1285? Dante and Gemma marry
1290 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.

1294 Pope Boniface VIII takes office and tries to extend papal power over Italy, with the help of the Black Guelphs.
1301 October: Dante and two other ambassoadors sent to Rome to clarify Pope's intentions.
November: Successful coup by the Blacks in Florence. Prominent Whites exiled.
1302 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.
1303 Death of Pope Boniface VIII.
1303-5 Pope Benedict IX.
1305 Accession of Pope Clement V.
ca.1306-1315 Dante, exiled and wandering through an Italy torn by political strife, writes Inferno and Purgatorio.

Henry 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 other words, some peace and ascendancy for the Italians. Sound familiar...?

1309 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 untenable.]
1313 Death of Henry VII (and with him, any hope of renewed Empire and end to strife).
1314 Death of Clement V.
ca. 1315-1321 Dante writes Paradiso.
1321 Death of Dante.

Study Questions
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.

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