The Divine Comedy is the masterpiece of the Italian poet and philosopher Dante Alighieri (1265-1321). A detailed account of a man’s journey through the afterlife, it has influenced Christian cosmology for centuries and formed the basis of the modern Italian language.
Born in Florence, Dante was active in the city’s public life. In 1302, he fled into exile after his political stances earned him a death sentence from the Florentine government. It was in this exile that he wrote La Commedia, as he himself titled the poem. The moniker La Divina Commedia came into use only after Dante’s death.
La Commedia is structured in threes, mirroring the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity. It includes three sections—Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso—each comprised of thirty-three divisions, or cantos. One additional canto, a prologue, brings the total to 100. Even the poem’s internal structure is based on threes: Dante wrote the entire work in terza rima, a form in which sets of three lines are joined in an interlocking rhyme scheme (ABA, BCB, CDC, etc.).
The protagonist of La Commedia is Dante himself. Lamenting his loss of direction in life, he encounters the spirit of the Roman poet Virgil in a forest. Virgil guides him to the gates of hell, which bear the legendary inscription Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate—“Abandon all hope, ye who enter.” Passing through the nine circles of hell, Dante sees damned souls suffering a host of eternal punishments. These terrifying images in Inferno culminate in the appearance of Satan himself, trapped in a lake of ice at the very bottom of hell.
In Purgatorio, Dante visits purgatory, the holding ground for souls not yet pure enough to meet God. After this stage, Virgil can go no further, for as a pagan he cannot enter heaven. Dante receives a new guide, Beatrice, who embodies divine grace in a figure of romantic love. After ascending the nine levels of heaven in Paradiso, Dante briefly sees God, culminating a journey that has mirrored that of the human soul on the path to God—from sin through repentance into salvation.
La Commedia had an enormous effect on the development of the Italian language. Virtually all Italian literature until the 1200s had been written in Latin, so Dante’s decision to use vernacular Italian was a significant change. When the Italian city-states became a unified nation in 1861, the Tuscan dialect used in the works of Dante was established as the standard for written Italian, still in use today.
Note: This excerpt is taken from The Intellectual Devotional by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim. ©2006 Rodale