Professor Celia Easton HUMANITIES 220, SUNY Geneseo

Background to The Inferno

Dante Alighieri, 1265-1321

Born in Florence: middle class

Two poltical parties in the 13th century dominated Florence. The Guelfs: supported the Pope. The Ghibellines: supported the Emperor and the aristocratic families. These two groups had bitter conflicts; ultimately only the Guelfs survived.

1290's: Guelfs split into White Guelfs and Black Guelfs. The White Guelf party--associated with the old Ghibelline party--was composed of merchants and traders. The Black Guelfs were led by old banking families.

1300: Dante, age 35, has an important government post--prior or magistrate. He is closer to the White Guelf party.

Pope Boniface VIII sides with the banking interests, the Black Guelfs.

In 1300, the six priors of Florence stated their opposition to Boniface's plans to have the Catholic Church control the economies of Florence and Tuscany. Boniface moves to have them ex-communicated.

In 1301, Dante leaves Florence on a mission to gain support for his and others' opposition to the Black Guelfs. While he is away, the Black Guelfs completely take over Florence, and Dante is EXILED from his native city. He refuses to face the charges and is sentenced to death in Florence. This keeps him in exile for the rest of his life.

Dante writes all of The Divine Comedy (Inferno, Purgatory, Paradise) away from Florence. The Inferno is was completed by 1314.

The FICTIONAL date of this poem is 1300. The week is "Passion Week" or the days leading up to Easter, the anniversary, for Christians, of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

The work contains "prophecies," but these are real events that Dante the POET (the writer of the poem) experiences after his exile that would seem like "prophecies" from 1300 when Dante the PILGRIM (the character in the poem) goes through Hell.

The Divine Comedy is written in 100 CANTOS (34, 33, 33). The verse form of the poem is "terza rima," sets of three interlocking, rhyming lines.

Dante's guide through Inferno is Virgil, the Latin author of The Aeneid. In Paradise (which Virgil cannot enter because he is a heathen, though a "virtuous" one), Dante is met by Beatrice, the woman who came from Heaven to ask Virgil to help her friend. She was an admired friend of Dante's in Florence (she died in 1290), and is idealized in the poem.

Dante had a friend and patron named Con Grande Della Scala. In one letter to Con Grande, Dante explained the plan of The Divine Comedy. This is an excerpt from that letter:

The title of the work is, "Here beginneth the Comedy of Dante Alighieri, a Florentine by birth, not by character." To understand which, be it known that comedy is derived from comus, "a village," and oda, which is "song"; whence comedy is, as it were, "rustic song." So comedy is a certain kind of poetic narration differing from all others. It differs, then, from tragedy in its content, in that tragedy begins admirably and tranquilly, whereas its end or exit is foul and terrible; and it derives its name from tragus, which is a "goat" and oda, as though to say "goat-song," that is fetid like a goat, as appears from Seneca in his tragedies; whereas comedy introduces some harsh complication, but brings its matter to a prosperous end, as appears from Terence, in his comedies. And hence certain writers, on introducing themselves, have made it their practice to give the salutation: "I wish you a tragic beginning and a comic end." They likewise differ in their mode of speech, tragedy being exalted and sublime, comedy lax and humble….And hence it is evident that the title of the present work is "the Comedy." For if we have respect to its content, at the beginning it is horrible and fetid, for it is hell; and in the end it is prosperous, desirable, and gracious, for it is paradise. If we have respect to the method of speech the method is lax and humble, for it is the vernacular speech in which very women communicate.