The Divine Comedy


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Suddenly, while in Heaven, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian appears and adds his two florins about the French king Charles of Valois, who was trying to undermine the Holy Roman Empire by lending military muscle to the papacy: That, via the translation of Clive James, was a personal score for Dante to settle as well, since the forces that had aligned with Charles had had him exiled from Florence — for almost the last 20 years of his life he was barred from his beloved city. Barrators, the term for politicians who are open to taking bribes, are stuck in hot pitch because they had sticky fingers when they were alive.

Caiaphas, the high priest who helped condemn Christ, is himself crucified. These are stunning images, but made all the more powerful by the language in which Dante chose to convey them: In the early 14th Century, Italy, a patchwork of city states with various external imperial powers vying for influence, was also a patchwork of different languages. Writing in the Florentine dialect of the Tuscan language could have limited the appeal of The Divine Comedy.


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It helped that he also incorporated, where appropriate, elements of other local dialects as well as Latin expressions, to widen its appeal. Florentine Tuscan became the lingua franca of Italy as a result of The Divine Comedy, helping to establish Florence as the creative hub of the Renaissance. Through the force of his words, Dante helped create the very idea of the Italian language that is spoken today.

To hell, and back again

Two centuries later, Protestant leaders would advocate that reading the Bible in your own vernacular meant that you could give it your own individual understanding, undermining the idea that salvation is possible only through the Roman Church — something Dante himself had already done by outright inventing elements of the cosmology he presents in The Divine Comedy. He had the presumption to fill in what the Bible leaves out.

How can happiness be attained? Dante chose to call his poem a comedy commedia in Italian because it ends happily. Before the Paradiso and its triumphant ending, the pilgrim must make his way through Inferno and Purgatorio , the first two parts of the poem. If Inferno, rather than Purgatorio or Paradiso, retains the strongest grip on our collective imagination, the best explanation for this is probably the simplest—the sinners of literature tend to be far more memorable than the saints.

By leaving the speaker of the poem nameless, Dante encourages the reader to identify with him.

Throughout the poem, Dante holds these two aspects of the pilgrim in tension with one another—on the one hand, his status as an individual with a particular past and a unique consciousness, and, on the other, his status as a kind of Everyman. This tension between the specific and the exemplary is even more pronounced in the sinners the pilgrim encounters. Each of them is associated with a specific sin and therefore plays a symbolic role, yet each is based on a real historical figure. As the pilgrim moves through the successive circles of Hell, each circle inhabited by more offensive sinners than the previous one, his reactions to the sinners and their stories evolve.

Again, Francesca and Ugolino are telling examples.

The Divine Comedy - To The Rescue

In Canto V, Francesca tells the pilgrim how reading the story of Lancelot and Guinevere caused her and Paolo to submit to their desire for one another. Francesca has told her story so as to elicit his sympathy, and she succeeds. The pilgrim sees her not as one of countless souls guilty of lust and deserving of their places in Hell, but as an individual whose present suffering is more affecting than the knowledge of her past sin.

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So too might the reader react to Francesca. Count Ugolino tells the story of being imprisoned along with his children for betraying his political allies; all of them die of starvation. Before they die, however, his children offer Ugolino their flesh as food. Whether he takes up their offer before he dies himself is not entirely clear, but his punishment is to gnaw at the skull of Archbishop Ruggieri, the ally who in turn betrayed him.


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Like Paolo in Canto V, Ruggieri never speaks. He seems less focused on the personal details of the stories they tell than on the sin itself. This could be due, in part, to the fact that the gravity of the sins increases as he descends; but it could also be because he has come to see their punishments as just.

Alighieri, Dante (–) - The Divine Comedy

Yet the power with which Dante renders the stories and suffering of the souls in Hell seems contrary to persuading the reader that the absence of mercy with respect to these souls should not be questioned. This kind of awareness on the part of the damned would have prevented their sinning in the first place. Virgil resides in Hell only because he lived before Christ. But this view of sin and punishment raises an important question: Sayers and Barbara Reynolds —62 , Charles S. Durling and Ronald L. We welcome suggested improvements to any of our articles.

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A complete English translation, with in-depth index and notes

Please note that our editors may make some formatting changes or correct spelling or grammatical errors, and may also contact you if any clarifications are needed. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Dec 6, See Article History. Learn More in these related Britannica articles: Moreover, external pressures forced the city to accept the lordship between and of King Robert of Naples and then again, between and ,….

The middle line of each terzina rhymes with the two outside rhymes of…. Late works example of Christian allegory In fable, parable, and allegory:

The Divine Comedy The Divine Comedy
The Divine Comedy The Divine Comedy
The Divine Comedy The Divine Comedy
The Divine Comedy The Divine Comedy
The Divine Comedy The Divine Comedy
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