The Divine Comedy (Italian: Divina Commedia) is an epic poem written by Dante Alighieri between c. 1308 and his death in 1321.
The poem's imaginative and allegorical vision of the afterlife is a culmination of the medieval world-view as it had developed in the Western Church.
It is divided into three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso.
On the surface, the poem describes Dante's travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven; but at a deeper level, it represents allegorically the soul's journey towards God.
At this deeper level, Dante draws on medieval Christian theology and philosophy, especially Thomistic philosophy and the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas.
The Divine Comedy is composed of 14,233 lines that are divided into three canticas (Ital. pl. cantiche)—Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Paradise)—each consisting of 33 cantos (Ital. pl. canti).
The poem is written in the first person, and tells of Dante's journey through the three realms of the dead, lasting from the night before Good Friday to the Wednesday after Easter in the spring of 1300.
The Roman poet Virgil guides him through Hell and Purgatory; Beatrice, Dante's ideal woman, guides him through Heaven. Beatrice was a Florentine woman whom he had met in childhood and admired from afar in the mode of the then-fashionable courtly love tradition.
The structure of the three realms follows a common numerical pattern of 9 plus 1, for a total of 10: 9 circles of the Inferno, followed by Lucifer contained at its bottom; 9 rings of Mount Purgatory, followed by the Garden of Eden crowning its summit; and the 9 celestial bodies of Paradiso, followed by the Empyrean containing the very essence of God. Within each group of 9, 7 elements correspond to a specific moral scheme, subdivided into three subcategories, while 2 others of greater particularity are added to total nine.
In central Italy, a political struggle was happening between Guelphs and Ghibellines. Florence's Guelphs split into factions around 1300: the White Guelphs and the Black Guelphs. Dante was among the White Guelphs who were exiled in 1302 as the pope of Dante’s time supported the Black Guelphs.
Dante was exiled for the rest of his life. The experience influenced many parts of Divine Comedy, from prophecies of Dante's exile to Dante's views of politics, to the eternal damnation of some of his opponents.
The Divine Comedy can be described simply as an allegory: Each canto, and the episodes therein, can contain many alternative meanings.
The structure of the poem, likewise, is quite complex, with mathematical and numerological patterns arching throughout the work, particularly threes and nines, which are related to the Trinity.
Inferno opens on the evening of Good Friday in the year 1300. Traveling through a dark wood, Dante Alighieri has lost his path and now wanders fearfully through the forest. The sun shines down on a mountain above him, and he attempts to climb up to it but finds his way blocked by three beasts—a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf.
Frightened and helpless, Dante returns to the dark wood. Here he encounters the ghost of Virgil, the great Roman poet, who has come to guide Dante back to his path, to the top of the mountain. Virgil says that their path will take them through Hell and that they will eventually reach Heaven, where Dante’s beloved Beatrice awaits.
Virgil leads Dante through the gates of Hell, marked by the haunting inscription “abandon all hope, you who enter here.”
Allegorically, Dante’s story represents not only his own life but also what Dante the poet perceived to be the universal Christian quest for God. Dante’s situation is meant to represent that of the whole human race.
The only character besides Dante to appear all the way through Inferno, Virgil’s ghost is generally taken by critics to represent human reason, which guides and protects the individual (represented by Dante/Everyman) through the world of sin.
Inferno’s moments of spectacular imagery and symbolic power of the different types of sin and their corresponding punishment serve to illuminate the perfection of God’s justice. Hell exists to punish sin, and the suitability of Hell’s specific punishments testifies to the divine perfection that all sin violates.
Dante’s exploration of evil probes neither the causes of evil, nor the psychology of evil, nor the earthly consequences of bad behavior. Inferno is not a philosophical text; its intention is not to think critically about evil but rather to teach and reinforce the relevant Christian doctrines.
Dante places much emphasis in his poem on the notion of immortality through storytelling, everlasting life through legend and literary legacy. Dante presents storytelling as a vehicle for multiple legacies: that of the story’s subject as well as that of the storyteller. While the plot of a story may preserve the living memory of its protagonist, the story’s style and skill may serve the greater glory of its author.
Dante and Virgil now descend into the Second Circle of Hell, smaller in size than the First Circle but greater in punishment. They see the monster Minos, who stands at the front of an endless line of sinners, assigning them to their torments. The sinners confess their sins to Minos, who then wraps his great tail around himself a certain number of times, indicating the number of the circle to which the soul must go.
In the Second Circle of Hell, Dante and his companion Virgil find people who were overcome by lust. They are punished by being blown violently back and forth by strong winds, preventing them to find peace and rest. Strong winds symbolize the restlessness of a person who is led by desire for fleshly pleasures. Again, Dante sees many notable people from history and mythology including Cleopatra, Tristan, Helen of Troy and others who were adulterous during their lifetime.
Dante draws the character of Minos (the son of Zeus and Europa) from Greek mythology. By placing pagan gods and monsters in an otherwise Christian model of the afterlife. This tendency reflects Dante’s attempt to show Christianity as a supreme moral order. By subsuming pagan gods into the Christian conception of Hell, he privileges Christian thought as the authoritative system
The punishment corresponds in grotesque aptness to the sins themselves. Thus, the Lustful, those who were obsessed with the stimulation of the flesh in life, now have their nerves unceasingly stimulated by the storm. Also, they are in the dark—the conditions in which acts of lust generally take place. Finally, because they failed to restrain the internal tempests of their emotions, external storms now bludgeon their bodies.
The moral structure of inferno gives us insight into the relative gravity of different sins in Dante's mind. Carnal sins are relatively unimportant, and lust (which is so closely linked with love, to which Dante is not immune) is viewed with a great deal of compassion.
In the second circle, the there are more women than men. In medieval Christian thought, lust was often closely associated with women. A priest who felt himself tempted by the flesh might commonly associate the object of his desire with the desire itself: if men are tempted, women are seductresses.
The historical identities of Francesca and her lover are well known. Francesca da Rimini was married around 1275 to Gianciotto Malatesta of Rimini for political reasons. She unfortunately fell in love with her husband's younger brother Paolo and he with her. When her husband discovered their adultery, probably in 1285, he killed them both. Dante was then around 20 years old, and must have been profoundly saddened by the tragic affair.
Dante was awed by the sight of Lucifer, a gigantic figure who dwarfed the giant Nimrod. He had three heads and bat-like wings they were the cause of the freezing wind. His six eyes wept and the tears mixed with the blood of the sinners he was grinding between his teeth: the three were Judas Iscariot, Brutus, and Cassius. Judas was in the front mouth, and was clawed as well as bitten.
Virgil told Dante that night had come, and it was time to leave. He picked Dante up and climbed down Lucifer's body and made their way through a cavern. Dante saw the sky through an opening in the cavern, and finally they emerged to see the stars.
The four rings of the ninth circle are Caina (traitors to kin), Antenora (traitors to party), Ptolomea (traitors to guests), and Judecca (traitors to benefactors).
Lucifer's three faces make a perverted trinity, echoing the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Judas Iscariot was the apostle who betrayed Christ: in the legend, he identified Christ for his enemies by kissing him, for thirty pieces of silver. Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longus assassinated Julius Caesar in 44 BC, and both committed suicide two years later.
Dante emerges when it is night, before dawn on Easter Sunday. In symbolic holy time, he has been "dead" for the time after the crucifixion and before Christ rose, and now he rises with Christ.