The Hell That Dante Created
Dante’s Inferno is one of the most famous poems ever written in the vernacular. Dante is renowned for being a master of words and a great artist. But what few people know is Dante’s personal history, and the climactic events that prompted him to write Inferno. Dante’s anger towards those who exiled him from Florence was so all-consuming that it poured out in the written word as a personal journey to help him overcome this anger. This is the central idea behind Inferno. Without understanding this, the poem simply seems like a story about a man’s journey through hell. But to really understand Inferno and all of its hidden meanings or insinuations, you must understand Dante’s history and rage over his current situation in life.
Life of Dante, as told by Giovanni Boccaccio, gives us an idea of the political strife Dante faced, prompting the rage which he used to write Inferno. It seems that the citizens of Florence were divided into two political parties, the Black and the White Guelphs. The wars and bloodshed they cost Florence, his beloved city, weighed heavily on Dante, and, wanting to alleviate the situation, he devoted his “genius, art, and learning” (Boccacio, 23) to the party he most agreed with: the White Guelphs. After some time, it seemed as if the Black Guelphs had triumphed, and the leaders of their adversary saw no choice but to admit defeat. “With them Dante, thrust down in an instant from the highest place in the city’s government, saw himself not only fallen to earth, but thrust out from the city” (25). Dante, along with his fellow leaders, were sentenced to perpetual exile by the Black Guelphs, and their property was confiscated. As one might imagine, this did not sit well for our poet. He was forced to leave his wife and children, his property and possessions, and everything he loved about the city which his ancestors built. As he had been a man of means in Florence and unaccustomed to physical labour, he was not pleased when he had to work to sustain himself while traveling. “Oh, what honest indignation he had to repress, more bitter to him than death, while hope promised him that his exile would be brief and his return speedy!” (27). It was under these direst of circumstances of impotent fury and loss that Dante took up his writing of Inferno.
It is improbable that Dante would have written Inferno in the same words had not he been so angry with his life. He saw himself as a brilliant poet who, despite giving everything he had to his beloved city, was left alone and penniless, and in his eyes, mistreated. He is his own main character. In Inferno, he is a man, desperate and confused, who is approached by Virgil to make a spiritual journey through the afterlife. He obviously thinks of himself as worthy enough to be singled out by God to go on this journey, with a world famous poet as his guide. He compares himself to Aeneas and St. Paul, and says, “I alone, I was the only one preparing, as in war, to onward march and bear the agony that thought will now unfailingly relate” (Inf. 2.3-6). When Dante the Pilgrim starts questioning whether he is strong enough to go on this journey, Beatrice comes down from Heaven as an angel to convince him. As Dante makes his journey through hell, he is rewarded for casting further judgement upon sinners, and yet he himself is inexplicably sin-free. When considering that Dante wrote all this about himself, it seems slightly narcissistic. This evidence shows how righteous Dante felt about himself, and this perhaps reflects on how wronged he thought he had been in his real life.
Dante’s anger is evident throughout Inferno, and it gets increasingly angry as the poem goes on. As Dante journeys through the nine circles of Hell, he describes the types of sin and the sinners that he encounters. But unlike the writers of his time who would personify sin, Dante uses actual people who were well known in his time to represent each of the sins. This was a risky move on Dante’s part, since family, friends or supporters of these people could take offense with him over the fact that their comrade was placed in Hell, and the graphic torture they received at Dante’s hand. Dante clearly had anger he wanted to express, and was not afraid to proliferate tensions between himself and his enemies. For example, Pope Boniface VIII, who backed the Black Guelphs and had much to do with Dante’s exile is referenced in Canto VI. Since he is still alive at the time Dante wrote Inferno, Dante avoids placing him in the poem. However, he has reserved a spot in Hell for Boniface. In the eighth circle, Dante and Virgil come across the sinners who have committed simony. They are placed head first into holes in a rock, with their feet on fire. As Dante approaches Pope Nicholas III in such a position, he mistakes Dante for Boniface, whom he is waiting on as his replacement (Inf. 19.52-57). Later Dante again shows his indignation towards the betrayers of himself and Florence. In Canto 32 he meets a multitude of men trapped in ice up to their necks, and he asks one of their names, to which the shade replies, “I’m Camiscion de’ Pazzi. I wait for Carlin. He’ll acquit me here” (Inf. 32.68-69). Alberto de’ Pazzi, nicknamed Camiscion de’ Pazzi, murdered a man named Ubertino. However, Camiscion had a relative, Carlino de’ Pazzi, who had promised to protect some White Guelph exiles in a castle. He then betrayed them and surrendered his castle to the Blacks. As you can see in this Canto, Dante has damned Carlino to the ninth and most treacherous circle of Hell. Like Pope Boniface, Dante cannot place Carlino in Hell just yet as he is still alive, but that does not hinder him from expressing his anger.
Dante’s anger over his situation was so great that it prompted him to write an epic poem as a way to punish the people who had wronged him by placing them in fictional Hell, and inventing more and more shocking and sickening ways for them to suffer. This point is entirely missed by the reader, unless he or she understands Dante’s personal history and reasons why he might want to write so off-putting a story. This understanding is absolutely essential to properly understand Inferno. For this reason alone, Dante’s anger against those who victimized him is the central issue of his work as a whole.
Alighieri, Dante TR Robin Kirkpatrick. Inferno: The Divine Comedy I. London: Penguin Classics, 2010. Print.
Boccaccio, Giovanni TR J.G. Nichols. Life of Dante. London: Hesperus Press Limited, 2002. Print.
One might say that Dante’s meeting with Lucifer is an anti-climax because of the contrast between it and the trials he has faced throughout the rest of Hell. Having been […]
Inferno narrates Dante’s journey through Hell which is guided by the Roman poet Virgil. During their travels through each of the nine circles of Hell, Dante and Virgil witness contrapasso, […]
The difference between death and dying can often seem minute. The dying are merely those on the way to death. Yet the intrinsic difference between the process of dying and […]
Literature has many essential elements like theme, plot, structure, and character development. But in The Inferno by Dante there is said to be little to no character development. So the […]
While Dante is supported, both physically and mentally, by his guide Virgil throughout Canto 17, he demonstrates his increasing independence and understanding via his analysis of the events he faces. […]
In the Inferno, Dante responds to the sinners’ torments with fear and compassion. Compassion comes from the Latin root meaning “to suffer with” and Dante often engages in the sinners’ […]
“Abandon all hope ye who enter here” reads the Gates of Hell in Dante Alighieri’s The Inferno. After awakening at the bottom of a hill, Dante learns that he must […]
The poet Dante, for all intents and purposes, is the God of The Inferno. He is the author, creator, and judge of all the sinners he has placed in his […]
The most puzzling circle of hell in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno is also one of the first. It is here, in the second circle, where the lustful spend eternity. Canto V […]
Dante’s Inferno is one of the most famous poems ever written in the vernacular. Dante is renowned for being a master of words and a great artist. But what few […]