Posted by: vikingsinspace | March 4, 2010

VI.03. Read Dante’s Divine Comedy

Date Accomplished: January 2005

Dante's Devine Comedy

Like most people, I had to ready Dante’s Inferno at some point during my education.  But since I’m a real geek for the middle ages, I decided I wanted to read the whole Divine Comedy.  To give the obligatory background information, the Comedy isn’t called such because it’s funny, but because it has a happy ending; the opposing situation would then be called a tragedy.  In fact, I think the word ‘Comedy’ was added to the title some point later in the 16th century, and was not a part of Dante’s original title.  Anyway, Dante is given an opportunity to view the afterlife and view the glory of God’s work, first by taking a tour of hell (Book I, Inferno), then climbing the mountain of Purgatory (Book II, Purgatorio), and finally entering the Celestial sphere of Heaven (Book III, Paradiso).  Dante is guided by the poet Virgil through Hell and Purgatory (Virgil is considered the most enlightened of the damned; he is only in Hell because Christ had not be born until after his death, and therefore was not given the opportunity for salvation), and then by his great love, Beatrice, through Heaven.  The Divine Comedy is one of the earliest works in Western Europe to be written in the vernacular (as opposed to Latin), but it is by no means the first as is commonly thought (I believe that distinction goes to Villehardouin’s account of the Fourth Crusade, but I could be wrong.  Regardless, there are plenty of works written in Old English hundreds of years previously to justify throwing this assertion out).

The Inferno: Panderers, Seducers and Flatterers

While the Inferno is of course interesting to see all the sinners being punished in such a way as fitting to how they sinned in life, and to see some of Dante’s historical enemies amongst the damned, I found this portion to actually be the least interesting portion of the book.  I admit it’s been too long now between my having read the book and my now writing this, but I do remember thinking that the Purgatorio was the most interesting portion of the book.  As Dante and Virgil leave the final sphere of Hell, where Satan is entrapped in ice and chewing on those who have betrayed their lords (the worst offence), they crawl down Satan’s body only to have to face gravity having turned around.  Yes, there was talk of how gravity worked, and explanations of how the world was a sphere (this notion that everyone believed the world was flat until Columbus sailed to America is a myth created by Washington Irvine in his biography of Columbus.  It had been known since ancient times that the world was a sphere through observations of shadows and mathematical equations).  Emerging into the southern hemisphere, Dante and Virgil then had to climb the mountain of Purgatory to reach Heaven.  I can no longer what trials were involved in Purgatory, but I remember them being much more interesting and telling than those faced in Hell.

Purgatorio: Beatrice and the Allegory of the Church's Vicissitudes

The structure of Heaven I found to be fascinating, and it is also Dante’s masterpiece of theological reasoning.  Actually reading Paradiso itself was rather boring, but the way Dante structured Heaven shows that the middle ages were anything but primitive people floundering under the loss of Rome.  Heaven was made up of the celestial bodies, starting with the moon, then moving to the sun and the various planets.  In the end, Dante comes to the firmament, or space itself.  This is where God himself resides.  The best way to think of how this worked, is that the black of space is not really space, but a giant felt cloth that covers the whole of the solar system.  The stars, are actually pin holes cut in the black felt, and not giant balls of gas.  So what one was seeing when they look at the stars, is actually the radiance of God himself penetrating the firmament and shining down on Earth and all of creation.

Paradiso: The Fixed Stars

Right, so having written this up, I now need to get to work on some of my other books on this goal list that aren’t written by Rafael Sabatini!  Sadly, I have little time to pleasure read while working on my PhD…  (And a great website for Dante, which I got all of these Botticelli pictures from, can be found here)



  1. […] VI.03. __ Dante’s Divine Comedy […]

  2. […] I have already written about my goal to read Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy (See VI.03. Read Dante’s Divine Comedy), but with the inclusion of goal VI.30. (Read Every Medieval Primary Source I Own), I felt I had […]

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