Abbandonate ogni speranza, voi che entrate!
Abandon every hope, ye who enter!
—posted above the entrance to Hell
Okay, amici—next up is Dante Alighieri’s (DAHN-tay ah-li-GYAIR-ee) masterwork, La Divina Commedia (lah di-VEEN-ah ko-MADE-yah), The Divine Comedy. Dante wrote it in Tuscan-Italian during his exile from Florence in 1308-1321. The word ‘comedy’ is used in its old sense—this time, it all turns out all right—there aren’t a lot of laughs in this poem. On the other hand, it’s chock-full of mind-boggling imagery. Dante glommed onto mediæval Christian dogma and wrung every last drop of inspiration from it. You and I think of Hell being devils with pitchforks. Dante gives us 9 levels of Inferno, each for the severity of a particular sin. What’s Purgatory like? Dante imagines it as a series of challenges souls need to work through. Heaven, too, has a hierarchy of levels with the Trinity at the tippy-top. Along the way Dante meets people from history, condemned souls frozen in ice, an enormous Lucifer chewing on sinners, sinners drowning in a sea of poison, sinners with their heads twisted backwards as punishment for blasphemously predicting the future (punishments are aptly just—they fit the sin)…it’s the stuff of nightmares. Dante has to be one of the most creative writers ever.
The plot is pretty straightforward. Dante is both the narrator and the main character. He is spiritually lost & confused. Politics forced him to leave his hometown and exile is getting to him. Dante is magically whisked away to the 3 realms of afterlife: Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise. Dante’s hero, the Roman poet Virgil, is his guide through Inferno and Purgatory. In Paradise, Dante’s lost love Beatrice (Bay-a-TREET-chay) takes over as guide (she died when they were both young). Virgil shows Dante the horrible eternal punishments for sinners in Hell. When they get to Purgatory, Dante doesn’t just go through and look around like he’s on a ride at Disneyland. He joins in with the other souls to work through his spiritual shortcomings. That way, he’s allowed to see Heaven. Dante’s soul is refreshed and renewed. This is known in writing circles as character arc.
The whole adventure takes place over Easter weekend in ad 1300.* Dante wrote it in his own Tuscan dialect which became standard Italian because of La Commedia’s popularity. Just like The Canterbury Tales, The Divine Comedy enjoyed a huge audience thanks to the printing press.
I’m an illustrator so I gotta tell you about this. Five centuries after Dante, Gustave Doré was France’s highest-paid illustrator (he could make his mortgage payments on time nearly every month) and he decided to illustrate La Commedia. He wanted to publish a deluxe edition. His publisher said, “Meh, not interested,” so Doré invested his own money and printed up just Inferno. Inferno was an instant blockbuster, his publisher said, “I’m an ass!” and together they produced Purgatorio and Paradiso. Don’t ever stop believing in yourself. Doré was a supremely talented artist. If you’ve never seen Doré’s stuff, you’re in for a treat. His images are every bit as inspired as Dante’s words.
WARNING! There are paintings of nekkid people in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oO1JTVuhymg
* Just like Ebeneezer Scrooge met 3 ghosts over Christmas Eve night.