“All hope abandon ye who enter here.”
That’s the inscription on the gate to Hell in one of the first English translations of The Divine Comedy, by Henry Francis Cary, in 1814. You probably know it as the less tongue-twisting “Abandon hope all ye who enter here,” which is the epigraph for Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, hangs as a warning above the entrance to the Disney theme park ride Pirates of the Caribbean, appears in the videogame World of Warcraft, and has been repurposed as a lyric by The Gaslight Anthem.
You may have never read a single line of The Divine Comedy, and yet you’ve been influenced by it.
But it’s just one line of the 14,233 that make up The Divine Comedy, the three-part epic poem published in 1320 by Florentine bureaucrat turned visionary storyteller Dante Alighieri. Born in 1265, literary ambition seems to have been with Dante from early in life when he wished to become a pharmacist. In late 13th Century Florence, books were sold in apothecaries, a testament to the common notion that words on paper or parchment could affect minds with their ideas as much as any drug.
And what an addiction The Divine Comedy inspired: a literary work endlessly adapted, pinched from, referenced and remixed, inspiring painters and sculptors for centuries. More than the authors of the Bible itself, Dante provided us with the vision of Hell that remains with us and has been painted by Botticelli and Blake, Delacroix and Dalí, turned into sculpture by Rodin – whose The Kiss depicts Dante’s damned lovers Paolo and Francesca – and illustrated in the pages of X-Men comics by John Romita. Jorge Luis Borges said The Divine Comedy is “the best book literature has ever achieved”, while TS Eliot summed up its influence thus: “Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them. There is no third.” Perhaps the epigraph to The Divine Comedy itself should be “Gather inspiration all ye who enter here.”
But it’s not just as a fountainhead of inspiration for writers and visual artists that The Divine Comedy reigns supreme – this is the work that enshrined what we think of as the Italian language and advanced the idea of the author as a singular creative voice with a vision powerful enough to stand alongside Holy Scripture, a notion that paved the way for the Renaissance, for the Reformation after that and finally for the secular humanism that dominates intellectual discourse today. You may have never read a single line of The Divine Comedy, and yet you’ve been influenced by it.
To Hell and back
Dante narrates The Divine Comedy in the first person as his own journey to Hell and Purgatory by way of his guide Virgil, the poet of Roman antiquity who wrote the Aeneid, and then to Heaven, led by his ideal woman Beatrice, a fellow Florentine for whom he felt romantic longing but who died at a very young age. Right there that suggests this view of the afterlife is coloured by authorial wish-fulfillment: Dante gets a personal tour from his father-figure of a literary hero and the woman on whom he had a crush. In the parlance of contemporary genre writing, Dante’s version of himself in The Divine Comedy is a Mary Sue, a character written to be who the author wishes he could be, having experiences he wishes he could have. Sandra Newman, author of How Not to Write a Novel, has said that “The Divine Comedy is really a typical science fiction trilogy. Book one, a classic. Book two, less exciting version of book one. Book three, totally bonkers, unwanted insights into author’s sexuality, Mary Sue’s mask slipping in every scene.”
The entire history of Western literature and theology is Dante’s fodder to sample and mash up like some kind of 14th-Century hip-hop artist.
Dante’s biases inform much about how we see Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. And he mixes Christian theology and pagan Greco-Roman myth as if both are simultaneously true – or rather, to use another term from contemporary sci-fi/fantasy writing, he “retcons” Greco-Roman myth so that its characters, including the gods, can co-exist with Christianity in a way that makes logical sense. Charon, the Greek mythological figure who ferries souls to the underworld, now ferries the damned to Hell. Satan himself is referred to as Dis, another name for Pluto, the god of the underworld.
And real-world history is placed alongside divinity too: who is Satan eternally devouring? Judas, the betrayer of Christ, in one of his three mouths, yes. But Brutus and Cassius, the betrayers of Julius Caesar, are in his other two mouths. Dante is indeed suggesting that Julius Caesar may have been on the same level of importance as Jesus. The entire history of Western literature and theology is Dante’s fodder to sample and mash up like some kind of 14th-Century hip-hop artist.
All these references to history, myth and scripture end up being rhetorical ammunition for Dante to comment on the politics of his day, the way some of us might invoke, say, instantly recognisable gifs from movies or TV shows to make sense of what’s happening in our world now. 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: “Let young Charles not think the Lord/Will change his eagle-bearing coat of arms/For sprays of lilies, nor that a toy sword/And putty shield will work like lucky charms”. That, via the 2013 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.
And my, there’s more score settling in The Divine Comedy than in every episode of every Real Housewives series combined. His wish for Pisa is the drowning of its “every soul”. In the same canto, he adds, also via James, “Ah, Genoese, you that know all the ropes/Of deep corruption yet know not the first/Thing of good custom, how are you not flung/Out of this world?” Of the mythical King Midas he says: “And now forever all men fight for air laughing at him.” There has never been a more artful master of the insult.
There’s also never been an imagination more attuned to inventive forms of punishment. 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. Pisa’s Count Ugolino is allowed to forever gnaw on the neck of Archbishop Ruggieri, the man who condemned him and his sons to die of starvation.
The turn of the spheres
These are stunning images, but made all the more powerful by the language in which Dante chose to convey them: not Latin, the language of all serious literary works in Italy to that point, but Florentine Tuscan. 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. But the work proved so popular, so endlessly read, that the literate in Italy adapted themselves to, or strained to learn, Florentine Tuscan in order to appreciate it in Dante’s own tongue. (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. It also became the language in which Dante’s literary descendants Boccaccio and Petrarch would write – eventually just known as Italian. Through the force of his words, Dante helped create the very idea of the Italian language that is spoken today.
Writing in the vernacular, and helping to create a new vernacular for much of Italy, allowed Dante’s ideas to take wide root – and helped set the stage for the intellectual revolutions to come in the Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment. 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. And, setting the stage for the Renaissance and its rebirth of Classical learning, Dante’s idea of Hell draws from Aristotle’s view that reason is the most important thing in life – which would be the later idea in Protestantism that an individual’s reason is their path to salvation. Each circle of Hell, and the Seven Deadly Sins assigned to them along with a few other categories, is classified based on either failures of reason (the lesser crimes, in which primal impulses overwhelm intellect, such as lust, gluttony, greed and sloth) or outright, conscious assaults on reason (such as fraud and malice, which are the direst crimes in Hell and for whom the damned are placed in the lowest, darkest circles).
Beyond Dante’s suggestion that faith in Christ through reason is the key to salvation, not the sacraments of the Church, it’s hard to think of a literary work so powerfully condemnatory of so many aspects of Roman Catholicism that exists before The Divine Comedy. He deplores the Church’s sale of indulgences and imagines many popes damned to Hell, with an entire line of 13th- and early 14th-Century pontiffs doomed to burn in an eternal flame for the crime of simony (the buying or selling of ecclesiastical privileges) until the pope following them dies and takes their place in the scorching. Dante also has a surprisingly global outlook, one quite fair to non-Christians. He heaps praise on the Saracen general Saladin, who he imagines merely occupying a place in Limbo, the place where the Just live who did not have faith in Christ in their lifetimes. There’s even a suggestion that there can be exceptions for those who did not know Christ but were Just, allowing them to ascend to Heaven.
The Divine Comedy is a fulcrum in Western history. It brings together literary and theological expression, pagan and Christian, that came before it while also containing the DNA of the modern world to come. It may not hold the meaning of life, but it is Western literature’s very own theory of everything.
BBC Culture’s Stories that shaped the world series looks at epic poems, plays and novels from around the globe that have influenced history and changed mindsets. A poll of writers and critics, 100 Stories that Shaped the World, was published in May.
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