Why everyone should read The Divine Comedy

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Beginning on 8 September, Baylor Honors College, in conjunction with five other schools, will kick off 100 Days of Dante. The objective is to read one canto a day, until finishing on 17 April (the Catholic and Protestant Easter). Though I just reread the Commedia earlier this year, in the Mark Musa translation, I’m really excited to begin all over again.

I got the much-lauded Durling-Martinez translation of Inferno, which is dual-language and has excellent essays and notes. Though I’m pissed that less than 24 hours after I ordered it, the price dropped by five dollars, to $9.95, and I was unable to be refunded despite it not having shipped yet! I’m keeping an eagle eye on the price of Purgatorio and Paradiso. They’re extraordinarily, unacceptably, ridiculously high ($24 and $33), but if they sink to $15 or lower, I’m jumping on them.

If they remain high, I’ll get the Allen Mandelbaum translation for the other two canticles. That’s another edition I’m really eager to read for myself. I really like what I’ve heard of it so far.

So why should everyone, regardless of religion, read the Commedia?

1. It’s one of the greatest works of literature ever written. Right up there with Shakespeare, The Decameron, The Mahabharata, The Odyssey, The Iliad, The Tale of Genji, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, The Aeneid, Don Quixote, and any other work of classic world literature.

2. You can read it a hundred times and still discover something new each time. This isn’t a one and done book. There are so many delicious layers and nuances, you can’t discern or digest them all with a single reading.

3. It’s a priceless compendium of Medieval history, politics, and religion, as well as Classical Antiquity. There are also a lot of astronomical, geographical, and mathematical references and calculations. This truly was a continuation of Dante’s discontinued encyclopedia Il Convivio. Without Dante serving as the historian of record for many of these people, particularly the women, even hardcore Medieval history scholars wouldn’t know or care about them.

4. Despite being over 700 years old, it feels so modern and relevant, not like a book tied entirely to the Middle Ages. Yes, there are many other great works of Medieval literature with forward-thinking characters (e.g., the awesome Wife of Bath in The Canterbury Tales, many of the women in my belovèd Decameron). However, they ultimately belong to the world in which they were created.

5. The teacher and student relationship between Dante and Virgil is a joy to read and watch developing.

6. The use of language is nothing short of genius. Terza rima is so complex, even in a language with a plethora of rhyming words. Dante had to think so many steps ahead to ensure he stuck to that rhyme scheme through 14,233 lines and found the right words to end each line on. There are also times when he uses repetition of certain letters to evoke things like running water and dried, snarling tree branches.

7. The poetry gets more and more beautiful as the work wears on. Yes, many people do find it more difficult to comprehend or care about as theology comes more and more to the forefront, but don’t let that scare you away from the beautiful language. This is one of many reasons you should read the Commedia in Italian, even if you don’t have fluency!

8. Who hasn’t had an unrequited love like Dante had for Beatrice? Almost everyone can relate to that feeling of longing and grieving for a lost love.

9. There are lots of funny moments to lighten the intense mood.

10. Though most of the souls Dante encounters are men, he also meets a number of women, and they’re no shrinking violets. He gives them moral agency to tell their own stories, and contrary to the prevailing attitudes of his day, his sympathies lie with victims of domestic violence, not their abusers. And you have to love how he flips the trope of a damsel in distress being rescued by a man. Beatrice is the one who saves him.

11. Many of the lessons Dante learns along the way can easily apply to every reader. Yes, he primarily intended it as a story of his redemption and spiritual awakening, but you can find parallels to things in your own faith or life if you don’t share his exact beliefs. It’s just like how Shakespeare’s stories translate so well to other eras and cultures; e.g., Akira Kurosawa’s Ran and Throne of Blood.

12. It’s one of those works of literature which has massively influenced society. So many books, plays, poems, films, TV shows, video games, songs, musical compositions, and works of art directly reference it, were inspired by it, and/or depict events from it. My own Journey Through a Dark Forest and each of its four volumes got their titles from the famous opening lines!

13. It’s jam-packed with drama, beauty, intensity, power, and emotion.

14. His views on religious minorities and gay men are lightyears ahead of those of most of his contemporaries.

15. Many times throughout life, we find ourselves lost in a dark forest, no idea how we got there or lost the way so badly, overwhelmed by hopelessness and despairing of ever escaping. And just like Dante, sometimes we have to sink to the lowest, saddest, most hopeless point possible before we can begin slowly rising up to happier, more hopeful, more beautiful places and get back on track with our life. We also can’t do it alone, and need our own Virgil and Beatrice to help and guide us.

And don’t forget to find a translation that works for you, read it carefully instead of mindlessly powering through, and take advantage of extratextual sources.

How Il Convivio became La Commedia

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Il Convivio (The Banquet) is an unfinished book Dante wrote from about 1304–07. Its title refers to the banquet of human knowledge contained within, which he intended as an encyclopedia similar to those written by his dear mentor Brunetto Latini, Li Livres dou Trésor and Tesoretto. The first part serves as a general intro, and the next three parts each have a long poem followed by a commentary or allegorical interpretation serving as a jumping-board for many different subjects—astronomy, politics, linguistics, history, science, mathematics, nobility, virtues, philosophy, theology, love.

Unless we miraculously discover Dante’s original notes for The Divine Comedy with dates, and/or a secondary paper trail such as letters or journal entries, we’ll probably never know when exactly he began composing his magnum opus. However, some scholars believe he may have been working on it as early as 1304, or even started it before his exile and resumed writing after a Good Samaritan reunited him with those precious pages.

Thus, he may have at one point been writing Il Convivio and La Commedia simultaneously.

Obviously, Dante ultimately abandoned Il Convivio to focus solely upon his magnum opus. Yet this unfinished book wasn’t written in vain, since many of the ideas expressed therein found their way into the Commedia. Not only that, the Commedia is in many ways an extension of Il Convivio. If it were just an ordinary epic poem about the afterlife and Dante’s spiritual reformation, it wouldn’t be peppered with so many historical figures, astronomical calculations, geographical references, or philosophical and theological points!

Dante’s great-great-grandfather Cacciaguida degli Elisei, the poem’s fifth-most recurring character after Statius, appears from Cantos XV–XVIII of Paradiso and merits 550 lines. During his lengthy addresses to his descendant, he entreats Dante to be brave and reveal the whole truth, however unflattering, about well-known people. By only including people of renown, he’ll ensure lasting fame and power for himself and his poem.

Think about it. Would the poem have had the same impact if everyone Dante met were Guido and Gianna Nobody down the street, or purely fictional characters? It was easier for his audience to grasp all these deeper lessons precisely because he used real people everyone knew, both contemporaries and important historical figures. Besides, Dante always presents this as a real story, and many people absolutely believed him. (I’m inclined to believe he may have experienced at least some of these things in dreams or intense visions.)

Sure, these aren’t household names to most modern people, unless they’re Medieval history scholars, but Dante’s original audience didn’t need any footnotes to know who they were or the details about their lives.

Additionally, his original audience was Italian. Of course he primarily used people from their native land and Classical Antiquity. It wouldn’t have had the same impact if the poem were peopled with Germans, Russians, Englishmen, Chinese, Turks, or Egyptians. In an era long before instant mass communications and easily-available translations, people knew more about their own backyards than the wider world.

Dante did intend his poem first and foremost as a religious instruction manual to help other people who lost the way just as he did. But many of the components don’t relate to theology at all. They’re in there to finish the encyclopedic job Il Convivio started and celebrate the banquet of all existing human knowledge.

Gay men in The Divine Comedy

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When I first read the Commedia at 24, I wasn’t exactly happy to see gay men depicted in Hell. But now that my prefrontal cortex is fully developed, and because I’ve done a lot of supplemental study, I’m able to see this aspect of the poem in a markedly different light. Dante’s views on homosexuality are quite nuanced and sympathetic for someone born in 1265.

Yes, he does depict his dear teacher and mentor Brunetto Latini in the Third Ring of the Seventh Circle of Hell, where so-called sodomites are punished, but this part of Hell more generally is for those who’ve been violent against Nature, God, and art. Some modern scholars believe the real reason Brunetto shows up there is because he was violent against his native tongue by writing a book (Li Livres dou Trésor) in French. While Dante himself wrote a number of books in Latin, that was Europe’s lingua franca. It would be some centuries until French eclipsed Latin in that regard.

Panel about monkey from the bestiary section of Li Livres dou Trésor

Other scholars feel Brunetto was placed there to show how even the greatest of people may be guilty of private sins (whatever they may be). After all, Brunetto is treated more lovingly and respectfully than almost anyone else in Inferno (apart from Virgil), and there was an obvious bond of love and intellectual kinship between Dante and Brunetto in real life. Brunetto is also the only person in Inferno with whom Dante uses voi, the formal form of you.

In recent years, a love poem some believe Brunetto sent to poet Bondie Dietaiuti was discovered, but the intent may be open to interpretation. After all, many close friends in bygone eras expressed their love for one another (both physically and in words) in ways that suggest romantic or sexual feelings to modern people, but weren’t seen as such historically, let alone considered in that way by the friends themselves.

For obvious reasons, it’s often difficult to definitively prove historical figures were gay or lesbian, and Brunetto is no exception. We have nothing but this poem (whatever its true intentions), rumours of the time, and his inclusion in a part of Hell which punishes more than just so-called sodomites.

We also need to be careful about applying modern definitions and concepts to historical figures. Of course gays, lesbians, and bisexuals have always existed, but our modern conception of sexual orientation is relatively recent. E.g., many adult men slept with teen boys in Ancient Greece because that was held as an important coming-of-age ritual, education, and mentorship, not because they considered themselves same-sex attracted.

Even the very word “homosexual” didn’t exist till 1869. The word “sodomite” was used because of a false connection with the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah. In contrast, the Jewish teaching has always been very clear that their sin was lack of hospitality and had nothing to do with sexual behaviour.

But wait, there’s more!

In the very next canto, Dante meets three more so-called sodomites, who are also fellow Florentines, Jacopo Rusticucci, Guido Guerra, and Tegghiaio Aldobrandini. After they introduce themselves, Dante says:

“If I could have been sheltered from the fire,
I would have thrown myself below with them,
and I think my guide would have allowed me to;

but, as I knew I would be burnt and seared,
my fear won over my first good intention
that made me want to put my arms around them.

And then I spoke: ‘Repulsion, no, but grief
for your condition spread throughout my heart
(and years will pass before it fades away)….'”

At first glance, this doesn’t seem any different than his sympathy for other people he’s encountered, like Francesca da Rimini and Ciacco dell’Anguillaia. But when he takes pity on someone, it’s because their conduct reminds him of his own behaviour. E.g., he’s so moved by Francesca’s story of indulging forbidden love because he himself loved a woman who wasn’t his wife, a married woman no less.

An essay in the Durling-Martinez translation (considered by many to be the current gold standard) suggests this is Dante’s way of admitting he’s had sexual desires for other men, but fought not to satisfy this curiosity.

In stark contrast to most other depictions of Hell in that era, and indeed into the modern era, there are no sexualised tortures (of either women or men) in Inferno. The closest we get is the scene of thief Agnèl being turned into a snake in Canto XXV.

Then something very curious happens in Canto XXVI of Purgatorio, on the Seventh Terrace. Here, where the lustful purify themselves, are equal numbers of gay and straight men. Everyone in Purgatory is guaranteed eventual entrance to Paradise, so Dante clearly didn’t think homosexuality or bisexuality were truly a sin. In fact, many of the souls in Purgatory committed similar acts to those punished in Hell. The difference is that souls in Purgatory admit their wrong instead of dying without remorse or blaming other people.

There’s also a distinction between the motivation and manifestation of these same acts. E.g., souls in the Second Circle of Hell conducted illicit love affairs, but people on the Seventh Terrace of Purgatory just loved too intensely and didn’t channel their natural sexual desires (for the same or opposite sex) through the best channels. It’s not about the act itself, but how one chooses to pursue it, and why.

Given the attitudes of his era, Dante could’ve easily left gay men out of Purgatory, meted out sexual tortures to the ones in Hell (which would’ve been entirely in line with contrapasso, a punishment reminding the souls of their sins), and castigated them as perverts, deviants, degenerates, etc. Yet he treats them with great respect and even feels sympathy for them.

Religious minorities in The Divine Comedy

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Despite my love of The Divine Comedy after reading it for the first time at age 24, I nevertheless managed to come away with a rather shallow, surface reading of many things. I blame my translation, the speed at which I read, and my lack of supplementary study materials. There’s also the uncomfortable fact that my cognitive development wasn’t quite finished, and so I was incapable of thinking like a complete adult about certain things.

One of those things was non-Christians automatically going to Limbo.

Historically, Limbo was seen as a holding-pen for the righteous people of the Bible until Jesus scooped them up during the Harrowing of Hell and took them to Paradise. Thereafter, it was designated for unbaptized babies.

Yet in Dante’s vision, we only find adults. Not a single baby or child appears, though he later affirms his belief in this second purpose of Limbo.

In Limbo reside all the lights of Antiquity, like Homer, Euclid, Julius Caesar, Lucan, Ovid, Horace, Diogenes, Galen, Ptolemy, Aristotle, and Hippocrates. There are also three Muslims, Sultan Saladin (who was renowned for his righteousness and magnanimity of character), Avicenna, and Averroës. Dante learnt about the latter two from his dear mentor Brunetto Latini, who got translations of their books while he was exiled in Spain.

Though as of 1300, the year the Commedia is set, Dante had only published one book, he’s nevertheless invited to join the noble school of Homer, Ovid, Horace, Lucan, and Virgil, and warmly welcomed as one of their own. The inclusion of Homer is particularly poignant, since Dante couldn’t read Greek. His love and respect of Homer was based on his reputation and partial Latin translations.

Dante also builds a beautiful castle for the souls in Limbo, and doesn’t subject them to any torments. They’re also the only people in Hell who wear clothes.

Through the entire poem, Dante struggles with the then-mainstream teaching that only baptized Christians can attain Paradise, no matter how righteous they were, even if they lived in a place where no one has ever heard of that religion, or if they lived before Jesus. He’s particularly upset about this because that means his belovèd Virgil will never leave Limbo.

He also says, in Paradiso, that it’s better to be an observant, committed Jew than an insincere, unrighteous Christian, and asks why Jesus’s death needs to be avenged (i.e., in the form of Church-sponsored antisemitism) when Christian doctrine teaches the Crucifixion was necessary.

This is one of those places where having supplementary study material is so important, since I didn’t interpret those passages that way at all in 2004. All I saw were a few comments that seemed like antisemitic jibes, and the deicide accusation really made me angry, since that’s the core of 2,000+ years of antisemitism and ultimately culminated in the Shoah.

BUT!

Dante also believed other things we now know to be completely false, like the Donation of Constantine, that Cleopatra was a promiscuous harlot and not a serious ruler, that Pope Anastasius II was a heretic, and that Prophet Mohammad was originally a Christian and therefore a schismatic. That didn’t make him ignorant or bigoted, just a product of the Middle Ages. He had no reason to doubt the inaccurate history he was taught, since there were no counterexamples.

Dante diverges from popular antisemitic tropes and propaganda of his era by making all his usurers Christians. His own father was a moneylender, and so were many of his friends and acquaintances. In fact, there are no Jews in Hell at all except Judas and Caiaphas. Everyone else Dante encounters are Christians, so-called pagans, and a few Muslims.

Given how almost all popular depictions of Hell into the modern era featured grotesquely stereotyped Jews, it’s remarkable how Dante refrained from that.

Immanuel ben Solomon of Rome, a contemporary of Dante who was also possibly his friend, was so inspired by the Commedia, he wrote a Hebrew poem patterned on it.

Dante was greatly influenced by Classical Antiquity, and constantly blends it with Christian theology and his own imagination in Inferno. There are many “pagans” who show up outside of Limbo, and they’re all punished for their respective sins instead of condemned merely for not being Christians. E.g., Tiresias is with the soothsayers; Achilles is with the lustful; Ulysses/Odysseus (seen above in the William Blake painting) is punished for leading his men on an impossible voyage; and Capaneus (seen below) is punished with the blasphemers because he said Zeus couldn’t stop him from invading Thebes.

Dante also makes Cato the guardian of Purgatory, despite not being Christian (and a suicide to boot), and saves three other “pagans,” Statius, Trajan, and Ripheus the Trojan. Statius, his second-favorite writer, joins him and Virgil as they’re leaving the Fifth Terrace of Purgatory and accompanies them until the Earthly Paradise.

Ripheus and Trajan appear as lights in the eyebrow of a beautiful eagle composed of souls in Paradise. They were made Christians through God’s Divine grace.

Given the prevailing attitudes in Medieval Europe, Dante could’ve done a lot worse than making a beautiful castle for righteous non-Christians, saving a few of his favorites, and protesting the teaching that only Christians can attain Paradise.

Women in The Divine Comedy

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There were so many important details, nuances, and even major plot points I missed during my first reading of The Divine Comedy in 2003–04, on account of my translation, the speed at which I read, and not having any supplementary study material. One of those things I missed was the surprisingly modern treatment of female characters.

I didn’t know until earlier this year that Dante was the historian of record for many of the women who appear in his magnum opus. If not for him taking an interest in their stories, not even hardcore scholars of Medieval Italian history would’ve heard of them.

First and foremost, the familiar trope of a damsel in distress being rescued by a man is completely flipped. Beatrice is the one who saves Dante. Not only that, she sets out to recruit his first guide, Virgil, after a conference with the Virgin Mary and Saint Lucia (one of Dante’s favorite saints). Three women work together to hatch a plan to rescue this lost soul, whose folly has brought him so close to his final hour they’re almost too late.

We know Beatrice Portinari was a real woman because she’s mentioned (as Bice, her familiar name) in her father Folco’s 1289 will and in a 1280 notarial deed where her husband, Simone de Bardi, sold land to his brother with Beatrice’s approval. Historical record also shows her family lived very close to Dante’s family when they were children. But everything else we know about her comes straight from Dante. If not for those mentions in legal documents, some people might still believe she was a fictional character.

Many people in the Middle Ages were scandalized and outraged by the role Beatrice plays in the poem. Not only is she Dante’s teacher during the final leg of his otherworldly journey, she also teaches theology and knows more than he does. Many people (men as well as women themselves) believed women had smaller brains and weren’t capable of learning anything substantial, let alone being teachers. Theology in particular was considered a solely male enterprise, despite the example of many highly educated nuns like Hildegard of Bingen.

Love saved Beatrice from becoming one of the too many women whose names and stories are forgotten by history.

The first woman to directly appear and speak (since Virgil only quotes Beatrice) is Francesca da Rimini, who was murdered by her husband Giovanni when he discovered her affair with his younger brother Paolo. Dante speaks to Francesca, not Paolo, when he encounters them in the Second Circle (for the lustful), and thus gives her moral agency. She tells her own story instead of passively letting Paolo narrate it. Francesca also reveals herself as a literate woman, since she and Paolo were reading when they fell in love.

Though Francesca and Paolo’s love affair and tragic murder was well-known in Dante’s day, Francesca was only mentioned by name in her father-in-law’s will, by which time she was deceased. Because of her appearance in the Commedia, she’s become the subject of countless works of art and music. Another obscure woman rescued from historical oblivion.

The next woman to speak, in Canto V of Purgatorio, is Pia dei Tolomei, who was also murdered by her husband. In a world where wife-beating was not only legal but seen as socially acceptable and matter-of-fact, Dante’s sympathy is with the abused women, not their husbands.

The only reason we know anything about Pia, even her name, is because Dante was her historian of record.

Dante’s final guide in Purgatorio is Matelda, who appears in the Earthly Paradise (i.e., the Garden of Eden). She invites him to ask any questions he might have about this place, and explains the weather and rivers. Then she orders him to pay attention to the approaching heavenly pageant.

When Beatrice appears, she’s anything but sweetness and light. She immediately begins upbraiding Dante for his sins of forgetting her and not using his God-given talents after her passing. She’s so stern and tough, Dante compares her to the admiral of a ship.

For the umpteenth time, Dante passes out, and when he comes to, Matelda is reviving him in the river Lethe. Some people believe Dante may have had a condition like epilepsy or narcolepsy because of how many times he passes out, and how realistic his descriptions are of coming back to himself.

The first woman we meet in Paradiso is Piccarda Donati, who was forcibly removed from her convent by her dastardly brother Corso and married against her will. Yet another woman who was the victim of violence, and whom Dante sympathizes with.

Other women who appear are Sapìa Salvani (Canto XIII of Purgatorio), who rejoiced when Florence defeated her hometown of Siena, and Cunizza da Romano (Canto IX of Paradiso), who doesn’t regret her many love affairs and marriages.

Many other women are mentioned, among them Ghisolabella Caccianemico. When Dante encounters her brother Venedico in Hell, he condemns him for selling Ghisolabella into prostitution and pimping his own sister.

The depiction of women in the Commedia is one of many things which makes Dante feel so modern and relevant 700 years later, not like someone whose worldview is entirely tied to the Middle Ages.