Dante's 'Inferno' is a journey to hell and back

Written more than 700 years ago, this terrifying epic poem is filled with damned souls, including Cleopatra, Judas Iscariot, and Dante's own enemies.

By Alessandra Pagano, Matteo Dalena
Published 21 Oct 2022, 09:47 BST
The worlds of Dante
The poet Dante holds a copy of his Divine Comedy, with hell and purgatory forming the background to this 15th-century fresco by Domenico di Michelino. The heavenly spheres arch overhead, while to the right rise the domes and towers of the city of Florence. The Florence cathedral, in which this fresco is housed, can be easily identified.
Photograph by Scala, Florence

Michelangelo placed him in heaven in his “Last Judgment”; Sandro Botticelli recreated the circles of hell created by his poetic imagination; and Hieronymus Bosch, William Blake, and Gustave Doré imagined his infernal visions in brilliant works of art. Even today, when the theology and politics of late medieval Florence seem so remote, Dante Alighieri’s masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, still fascinates and inspires readers the world over.

A 1555 edition of The Divine Comedy edited by Lodovico Dolce was the first printed version to use the attribute Divina (Divine), which was added to the original title by Giovanni Boccaccio.
Photograph by Alamy, ACI

Completed just before Dante died in 1321, it consists of three parts—Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. The Divine Comedy is a long poem recounting the author’s journey among the damned in hell, guided by the Roman poet Virgil. Later, he is reunited with his beloved, Beatrice, who guides him up to purgatory, and then to Paradise, where, in a moment of ecstasy, Dante glimpses God.

In naming his lifework Comedy, Dante employs an understanding of the word that means a narrative with a happy ending, unrelated to humor. Although it recounts an actual physical journey, The Divine Comedy is also an allegory of the soul’s progress through sin (hell), penitence (purgatory), and redemption (paradise), the last being the joyful ending promised in the title. 

Of the three sections, however, it is the lot of the souls in the Inferno that has had, by far, the greatest resonance with readers and artists. Peopled with figures from mythology, the Bible, and Dante’s own time, hell's descending circles (each one reserved for different sins) constitute some of the most vivid and emotionally charged scenes in world literature.

Construction of the Palazzo dei Priori (as it was known at the time) began in 1299 and finished in 1314. Dante was elected one of the six priors who governed Florence in 1300, a career move that later precipitated his downfall and exile.
Photograph by Michele Falzone, AWL Images

Florentine family

Durante Alighieri was born in Florence in May 1265, under the astrological sign of Gemini, a detail he mentions in the Paradiso. He never used his official name Durante, however. According to 14th-century chronicler Filippo Villani, he preferred the diminutive Dante. Alighiero di Bellincione, his father, was a businessman and moneylender, and Bella, his mother, a member of the influential Abati family. She died when Dante was a child, and Alighiero married a woman with whom he had already fathered at least one child. Although the poet’s parents never appear in his works, Dante mentions in the Paradiso an ancestor, Cacciaguida, said to have been knighted by the 12th-century king Conrad III during the Crusades.

Compared with many other figures of his time, there is considerable information about Dante available to historians. He offers extensive autobiographical details in his works and, because of his political activity—which later led to his downfall and forced him into exile—he was a much documented figure during his lifetime. Not all of it is flattering: According to sources, Dante was quick-tempered. It is said, for example, that he would fly into a rage against anyone who spoke ill of his faction, the pro-papal Guelphs. Historical records show that as a young man Dante had fought for the Guelphs at the 1289 Battle of Campaldino, in which they had defeated their regional enemies, known as the Ghibellines.

Love, politics, and war

Dante’s autobiographical writing furnishes historians with clues as to the identity of the woman who would become one of the most famous muses in literature. On May 1, Florence celebrated the arrival of spring with feasts and music throughout the city. Men and women celebrated separately, but children did not. And so, in 1274, Dante saw Beatrice for the first time at such a party, wearing “a subdued and crimson dress.”

Most scholars agree Beatrice was the daughter of Folco Portinari, a Florentine banker. Dante writes that she was about eight years old at the time, and he was nine. A second encounter between the two took place near the Arno River in Florence when both were in their late teens. “I say that, from that time forward, Love quite governed my soul,” he would later write in his first work, Vita nuova, published in 1294.

The second encounter between Dante and Beatrice is depicted by Pre-Raphaelite artist Henry Holiday in 1883.
Photograph by Mary Evans, Scala, Florence

Love and family politics, however, did not necessarily coincide. By 1277, when Dante was about 12, his family arranged a marriage for him with Gemma Donati, the daughter of an influential Florentine family. Beatrice later married a wealthy Florentine banker before dying in her mid-20s in 1290, possibly in childbirth. Her demise seems to have partly inspired the composition of the Vita nuova in the following years. A blend of lyric poetry with prose commentaries, the Vita nuova touches on his love for Beatrice, and ends with a pledge: “that I shall yet write concerning her what hath not before been written of anyone.”

Beatrice was to be Dante’s muse in The Divine Comedy, taking over from Virgil as Dante’s guide as he ascends through purgatory. But what precipitated Dante’s major crisis, the years of exile that spurred him to write his masterpiece, was the brutal nature of Florentine politics.

The Guelph-Ghibelline rivalry that dominated 13th-century Florence had arisen the century before. The pro-papacy Guelphs fought with the Ghibellines—supporters of the Holy Roman Empire—over control of key Italian city-states. Florence was pro-Guelph, but in 1300, when Dante was elected one of the city’s six governing priors, Florence teetered on civil war. 

A bust of Dante sits under the 12th-century walls of the Poppi Castle, which overlooks the plains of Campaldino, where Dante fought with the Guelphs in 1289.
Photograph by Francesco Tomasinelli, Age Fotostock

The ruling party had split into the White Guelphs and the Black Guelphs. The former, with whom Dante was allied, defended more autonomy for the city, while the latter supported Pope Boniface VIII and his aim to rule over Tuscany. The Black Guelphs seized power in autumn 1301, and in January the next year, Dante—then in Rome—was sentenced to perpetual exile and, subsequently, to death. Unable to return to Florence, he spent many years living principally in Verona, finally settling in Ravenna.

The poet conceived the idea of The Divine Comedy at some point during this long period of exile. His experience of politics and banishment had shown him a chaotic, violent, and corrupt society, where the emperor took no interest in Italy, and the pope pursued temporal rather than spiritual power. Dante imagined a journey through the three kingdoms of the afterlife, where he intended to explore the suffering of hell, the repentance of purgatory, and the ascent toward God in paradise so as to show to humanity the way that had been lost.

Inferno is set in a real time: 1300, two years before Dante was expelled from Florence. Canto I opens with these lines:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita 
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Two centaur guards greet Dante and Virgil in the seventh circle, where the violent are condemned to immersion in boiling blood for eternity, in a late 15th-century codex.
Photograph by Dagli Orti, Scala, Florence

The dark forest is depicted both as a real place and an allegory in which Dante encounters three beasts representing aspects of sin. In desperation to exit the wood, he comes upon the Roman poet Virgil, author of the Aeneid (the first-century B.C. epic poem that recounts the founding of Rome by Aeneas). With Virgil leading the way, Dante undertakes a guided tour of hell.

To construct this infernal space, Dante drew on his deep learning of Greek and Roman myth, in which mortal characters such as Odysseus, Orpheus, Theseus, and Hercules all visit the underworld and return to tell the tale. He took inspiration from Virgil’s Aeneid, as well as Cicero’s discussions of government in De republica. The Bible, of course, is a key influence, especially the Book of Revelation and St. Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians. All these texts help build the work’s theological framework and poetic style, contributing to the definition of its overall structure and meaning.

Dante also introduced important innovations. While many of his predecessors portrayed hell as an indistinct, seething mass of souls, Dante adopted St. Thomas Aquinas’s ordering principle of sin. The nature and gravity of the crime designated each soul’s place in hell and the appropriate torments to which they are subjected to for all eternity.

Geography of the afterlife

Dante’s construction of the afterlife follows the cosmology developed by the second- century Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy. The entrance to Hell is placed in the land-filled northern hemisphere, under the city of Jerusalem, while the mountain of Purgatory rises in the water-filled southern hemisphere opposite. The second of the otherworldly realms is, in turn, surmounted by the nine spheres of Paradise. Although the structure of Dante’s Hell bears little resemblance to physical geography, the medieval mind conceived of it as a real place: Barren plains, caverns, swamps, cliffs and precipices, tongues of flame and dead waters give life to landscapes both terrifying and symbolic.

The first, and highest, circle in hell is Limbo, whose residents are there through no fault of their own, so are not punished. Limbo is reserved for the unbaptised and the virtuous pre-Christian pagans, such as Virgil himself, Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan. From there, the eight remaining circles descend, filled with the damned and the punished, each one corresponding to a sin: Lust, Gluttony, Greed and Waste, Wrath, Heresy, Violence, and Fraud. The ninth circle is reserved for Treachery, and below this is the centre of Hell itself, where the devil resides in the form of a three-headed beast.

“All hope abandon, ye who enter here!” are the famous words inscribed above the threshold of Dante’s hell. Accompanied by the poet Virgil, Dante enters the upper part of the inverted cone that opened up in the earth when the rebellious angel Lucifer fell from heaven. The nine circles, descending to the frozen lake where Lucifer is trapped, are the abode of the damned, assigned to eternal punishment for the sins they committed in life. From top to bottom, they are vestibule, limbo, gluttony, greed and waste, wrath, heresy, violence, fraud, and treachery.
Photograph by Illustration by Santi Pérez

Dante’s Hell also has its own internal logic: The Rivers Acheron, Styx, and Phlegethon are said to come from a single river born from the tears flowing from the giant statue of “Veglio di Creta,” the “Old Man of Crete,” described in canto XIV. The old man represents humanity’s corruption by sin. Carried by the rivers, these tears reach the lowest point in Hell to form the frozen lake in which Lucifer is trapped. In this way, Hell is literally made from human sinfulness.

Dante’s story begins on the night of Maundy Thursday, shortly before the dawn of Good Friday in 1300. While Dante’s geography has its own consistency, so too does time: About 24 hours pass between when the poet loses his way in the dark wood to the moment when Dante and Virgil find themselves on Saturday, the day before Easter. In 1588 a young Galileo used the descriptions in the Inferno to calculate Hell to be over 3,245 miles deep. As Dante and Virgil do not walk in a straight line, they cover an even greater distance. By the time they emerge from Hell, it will be before the dawn on Easter Sunday.

Crimes and punishments

Inspired by both classical mythology and medieval demonology, Dante’s Inferno includes a hybrid of pagan and Christian features. The crossing of the River Acheron at the gates of Hell is presided over by Charon, the infernal ferryman “with eyes of burning coal,” (canto III). Dante’s guide, Virgil, had included Charon in the Aeneid, when the hero Aeneas descends as a mortal to the underworld, echoing Dante’s journey in The Divine Comedy.

The punishments that afflict the damned either contrast or mimic their actions in life. Shortly before meeting Charon, Dante and Virgil run into a host of “the melancholy souls of those / Who lived withouten infamy or praise” (canto III). These are the uncommitted, who are punished by analogy (the punishment fitting the crime). Unable to make moral choices in life, they are now forced to run naked, chased by wasps in the attempt to grasp a banner that remains out of reach, symbolising the causes they should have fought for while alive. Fortune-tellers, by contrast, are punished by the opposite: In life they had thrust their heads too far forward in order to see the future, so in Hell they are forced to walk with their heads on backward (canto XX).

While the “shades” or souls congregate in huge throngs, not all are faceless: Dante presents individuals from his own life, engaging them in often gossipy conversation. Among the slothful in canto III, Dante glimpses ”the shade of him / Who made through cowardice the great refusal,” identifying the figure as Pietro da Morrone, the hermit monk who was elected pope in 1294 with the name Celestine V. After a lifetime spent in passivity, the pope was a victim of plots that led him to give up the papacy. This choice was probably orchestrated by Cardinal Caetani, who succeeded him as Pope Boniface VIII and was secretly a supporter of the Black Guelph faction that seized power in Florence in the year 1301, forcing Dante into exile.

The second circle (described in canto V) is guarded by the snarling Minos. The ancient king of Crete known for his marked sense of justice has become a demon charged with judging the sins of the damned and decreeing where they belong in Hell. When delivering his sentence, Minos wraps his tail around himself a number of times corresponding to the circle to which the soul is doomed. 

Upon leaving Minos, Dante and Virgil come to a dark place ringing with wails of pain, where a host of souls are violently dragged along and knocked about by a “stormy blast of hell”: These are the lustful, who must now spend eternity buffeted by an endless tempest. Among them are the ancient queens Semiramis, Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, and Dido. 

Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini embrace as the infernal wind tosses them about in a 19th-century engraving by Gustave Doré.
Photograph by White Images, Scala, Florence

Among them, Dante notices two souls “together coming, and who seem so light before the wind.” They are Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini, famous lovers killed by Francesca’s jealous husband. Francesca’s story of suffering troubles Dante so much that he cries tears of pity before fainting.

In the third circle (canto VI), under an eternal, icy rain, is Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guarded Hades in Greek myth. The beast howls at the souls of the gluttonous—mired in mud—before devouring them. A soul named Ciaccio rises from the sludge to introduce himself, and he and Dante discuss the political situation in Florence. 

As the descent into Hell is set in 1300, Ciaccio’s words form a prophecy: Following a brief rule by the White Guelphs, the Black faction will triumph thanks to the support of Pope Boniface VIII. The just in the city can be counted on one hand, he says, but no one listens to them, while pride, envy, and greed are the “three fatal sparks” that sow discord in the spirit of the Florentines.

Going deeper

Two other subhuman creatures guard the fourth and fifth circles (cantos VII and VIII): Pluto guards the greedy and the prodigal, and Phlegyas, the wrathful.

The former are souls forced to push boulders in opposite directions and insult any others they crash into. Their sins were hoarding (the greedy) or the squandering of money (the prodigal); among them are several men of the church whose image is tarnished by their sin. The wrathful, meanwhile, are mired in the swampy waters of the River Styx, the wrathful viciously fighting each other.

As Dante and Virgil are swiftly ferried across the swamp by Phlegyas, a mud-covered sinner rudely asks Dante what he—being alive—is doing in the kingdom of the dead. The poet recognises him as Filippo Argenti, a Black Guelph belonging to the prominent Florentine Adimari family, known at the time for his insolent, arrogant manner. Dante addresses him as “damned spirit” and, when the sinner tries to overturn the boat, Virgil thrusts him back into the mud, where other damned souls hurl themselves at Argenti, who starts tearing off his own flesh. This canto reveals a somewhat vindictive side to the narrator and has inspired a great deal of commentary by critics and scholars.

In the infernal city of Dis (canto X, sixth circle), the heretics burn in fiery tombs. The Florentine Farinata degli Uberti—a Ghibelline posthumously tried for heresy—rises from one. Despite being enemies, he and Dante converse politely. Farinata prophesies Dante will be exiled from Florence—but does not tell him for how long.

Treachery is punished at the very depths of Hell in the ninth circle. Traitors are punished in a frozen lake produced by the icy wind emanating from Lucifer’s wings. From here, Virgil leads Dante to the lowest part of Hell, where they behold “the emperor of the kingdom dolorous”—Lucifer himself, who is trapped in ice from the waist down (canto XXXIV). “O, what a marvel it appeared to me, / When I beheld three faces on his head!” Dante exclaims in horror, watching Lucifer’s three mouths gnaw on Judas Iscariot, betrayer of Jesus, and the chief assassins of Julius Caesar, Brutus, and Cassius: “With six eyes did [Lucifer] weep, and down three chins / Trickled the tear-drops and the bloody drivel.”

In this late 19th-century illustration by Gustave Doré, Lucifer, trapped in ice, devours the traitors Judas, Brutus, and Cassius.
Photograph by White Images, Scala, Florence

To the poet’s astonishment, Virgil is able to pass down below Lucifer. Dante follows, and the pair climb down the devil’s legs where they find a channel to the centre of the earth that will lead them out of Hell to Mount Purgatory. It is there that Dante will finally be reunited with Beatrice in Purgatorio. Emerging on the other side of the world, Dante’s journey through the underworld, and the Inferno, has come to an end before the dawn on Easter Sunday: “Thence we came forth to rebehold the stars.”

Infinite inspiration

Dante died in Ravenna 1321 in his mid-50s, without ever returning to his beloved Florence. The Divine Comedy found its first major champion in another Florentine writer, Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375). The Divine Comedy crowns not just Italian literature but Western culture as a whole, and its impact on English literature is colossal. Centuries after its publication, it was a principal inspiration for English poet John Milton’s epic 1667 work, Paradise Lost. In the 18th century Dante was placed on a par with Homer. The English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge described Dante’s work as “a total impression of infinity,” and the 20th-century author James Joyce declared: “I love Dante almost as much as the Bible. He is my spiritual food.”


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