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Tabula Rasa

Dante Alighieri

The Bard Infernal

by David Carroll

First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#2, 1994

Dante Alighieri was a man firmly enmeshed in the world he found himself in -- thirteenth to fourteenth century Italy. Too early for the Renaissance, there was still a great deal of art and literature being created and fostered by the fashionable set. If nothing else it would take their mind off politics, an intricate and often bloody pastime in a world much smaller than our own -- local affairs having corresponding more import. As we saw in relation to Vlad Dracula last issue, Europe was still under the influence of the decaying Holy Roman Empire, the Catholic Church being the other major (often competing) power block.

This background is more than just detail from the poet's life, it permeates his own experiences and the writings based on them. The Comedy spends a lot of its time talking about the situation in Florence, and one interpretation has it as almost a treatise on the way to a fair and just political system. It has other interpretations, most of which Dante had a firm grasp of -- the journey of a soul to its redemption, the search through hell to find true love. It is a carefully juggled symbolic and allegorical work whose auto-biographical aspects are only another means to a complex end. A quick look at Dante's life, however, will certainly start to explain some of the poem's concerns.

Dante was born in the city-state of Florence, in Tuscany, Italy, sometime during May-June, 1265. He was the son of Alighiero Alighieri and Bella, born into a reasonably influential family. Both his parents would die by the time Dante was twelve, but he continued under the care of a stepmother. His family were Guelfs, one of two parties that defined a lot of the politics in Florence at the time. The Guelf versus Ghibelline conflict was, in some senses, simply that of two political parties -- the Guelfs (under the slogan 'Civic Liberty') represented indigenous Italians, including minor nobility and the middle-classes, and were essentially pro-Church, whereas the Ghibellines, representing the Aristocrats, upheld the authority of the emperor. It also went a lot deeper than that, involving family feuds, territorial claims and even the other European powers, who would lend their support to one or the other based on wider politicking. This conflict is not so important to us, though in the early years of Dante's life the battle was raging fiercely throughout Tuscany. In 1260 the province was under Ghibelline rule, by 1267 they had been driven out, and Guelfs ruled the area for many years. What is important is it illustrates two points about the poet -- his free-thinking nature was shown in that, while he cherished many of the traits of his Guelf heritage, he was also drawn to the Ghibelline princeliness, their patronage of art and learning, the public spirit of some of their leaders. Deeper than this, he also held a great distrust for the current papal system, and though a devout Catholic he loathed the avarice, corruption and political manoeuvring displayed by those at the top of the hierarchy. The second point comes out when in the late 1280s the Ghibelline menace grew again from the city of Arezzo and a number of Tuscan cities united to declare war. Dante Alighieri rode in the first rank of the powerful army, being, as he wrote, 'no novice in arms' (the Florentines won, by the way. Dante's division was broken by the initial charge, but managed to rally and stand firm).

A more important division existed within the Guelf ranks itself, a family feud that had gotten way out of hand. The family consisted of two warring branches, descendants of the two wives of Cancelliere, who gave the family its name. One wife was named Bianca and thus her side was called Bianchi (or Whites), so the opposition called themselves, naturally enough, Neri (or Blacks). At the turn of the century the White versus Black dispute moved to Florence, where two jealous families took opposing sides, it became a brawl and then a riot and progressed further so that the city was no less than two armed camps. At the time Dante was both a public official (a member of the Priors) and a White. To cut a long story short, this ended up getting him into all sorts of trouble, and he was brought up for trial, along with four other prominent Whites, on (undoubtedly trumped up) charges of fraud and corruption. He was exiled from Florence, and any return threatened severe consequences: 'such a one shall be burned with fire till he be dead'.

While the political side of the man can only be emphasised so far, it has led to a number of complaints about The Comedy -- best summed up by Dan Simmons in the story Vanni Fucci is Alive and Well and Living in Hell. The story concerns one Vanni Fucci of Pistoia, imprisoned in Hell for the crime of theft -- and given a chance to appear on an Evangelical television show to air his grievances -- 'But I didn't go to Dante's Hell just because of one little robbery about as common then as knocking over a convenience store today. No. I have prime billing in the Seventh Bolgia of the Eighth Circle because I was a Black and because Dante was a White and the unfairness of it all pisses me off' [120] [1].

Various people have made the same accusation, just as some people defend him of the charge of political and personal favouritism in his placement of actual characters in Hell, Purgatory or Heaven. There is no need here to go into the arguments, but I would like to say that he can hardly be blamed for letting his preferences be found in his work.

The is at least one very blatant piece of favouritism in the poem, one, I believe, that was always meant to be recognised as such. This was the inclusion of Beatrice Portinari, the 'worthier spirit' that would lead Dante through Paradise, after the poet Virgil had shown him the sights of the Inferno and Purgatory. Beatrice was indeed a real person, the daughter of a wealthy Florentine family. Dante first met her at a party held by her father, and later writes that at first sight his heart trembled and said 'behold a god stronger than I that is come to bear rule over me'. Love indeed had smitten him, one that would last him throughout his life, no less strong for the fact that, at this first meeting, she was eight years and four months old, he was almost nine.

The affair was both memorable and one-sided. The girl first acknowledged Dante at the age of eighteen, speaking to him in the street, though later she would refuse to speak to him over some rumours circulating. At one time they were at a party together and (or so Dante believed) she made fun of him, grieving him deeply. She died in 1290 (at about the age of twenty-five) and it seemed to the poet that 'the whole city of Florence was widowed by her death' [117]. Marriage was in those days a matter of political alliance and he apparently did not look on her as a possible wife (it was a couple of years later that Dante himself was married, to one Gemma Donati (and, yes, one of his children was named Beatrice)), though he never admitted in his writings about her that she had married a banker in 1287 (with this sort of relationship it's lucky he went and wrote one of the world's great poems about her, rather than, say, cutting off her arms and legs and putting her in a box).

And a third aspect of the man, over and above his checkered career as a politician and his lesser success as a lover, is, naturally enough, Dante the poet. There were a great many young poets in Florence at the time, but he was soon acknowledged as one of the most promising of them. Before his exile he had published La Vita Nuova (The New Life), a collection of poems in which he also candidly talks about his relation to the now-deceased Beatrice, and Il Canzoniere, a collection of lyrics. At the end of that first work, he says that he will write no more of Beatrice until, with much study, 'I hope to write of her what never yet was written of any woman'. This would come to be, but he could not have known the circumstances under which it would be fulfilled. And after his exile, the tone of his writing began to change.

A parallel can be made to another disenchanted politician of Florence, some two hundred years later, one Niccoló Machiavelli. He was also caught up in the power-play within the city-state of his birth and the outside world, became a public official (a diplomat, mainly, a profession Dante never seemed too good at) and was dismissed from office and his chosen profession during all the to-ing and fro-ing (in this case the Spanish Medici repossession of Florence in 1512). He took up writing in earnest at this point, and published a body of work that gave us the word Machiavellian to mean political deviousness.

Dante's work could be seen to arise from similar circumstances. He certainly applied himself to political debate, believing that the Roman Empire should regain its power as a stabilising force in Europe, with the Papal system having no earthly power, but in place to provide an atmosphere conducive to good government. He also realised that law (and perhaps moral right) extended only as far as the power to enforce it.

He wrote the unfinished De Vulgari Eloquentia (Writing in the Vulgar Tongue), De Monarchia (Of Monarchy, his political commentaries) and Il Convivio (The Banquet), a book of verse wherein he describes his earlier work as juvenile, making way for more adult and masculine writing. Dorothy Sayers, in [117], describes the book as possessed of a cold passion, of nobility without charm, and not altogether Christian.

Dante was wandering now, penniless and bitter. The chance was given to him, after fifteen years, to return to Florence with the payment of a heavy fine and humiliating penance. He refused, saying 'this is the reward of an innocence known to all men!'. He saw only corruption in the world of politics, and only corruption in individual man.

The Inferno is set over Easter in the year 1300, before the exile, at the height of Dante's power and influence.

Midway this way of life we're bound upon,
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
Where the right road was wholly lost and gone.
And so the poem starts. The poet describes his travel through Hell, thence up Mount Purgatory and, accompanied by Beatrice, into the spheres of Heaven to gaze upon God.

But unlike Machiavelli, Dante refound his faith, and his final, great work is a poem of transition. No-one's quite sure when the poem was started (and it has been suggested there was the beginning of a very different version written before the exile itself), but the Inferno was first widely available around 1314 -- written in vulgar Italian, for the common people. It was not until his death, of fever in 1321, that the poem was released in completed form.

He spent his last years in peace, still in poverty but supported in the artistic community of the town of Ravenna. He died there and Florence, now realising the worth of its former citizen requested the body. They were refused -- repeatedly, even into the nineteenth century, and indeed the body had to be hidden at one point to foil a Papal order for the move.

Dorothy Sayers, again, describes Dante Alighieri as 'the supreme poet of joy'. It is not a universal classification, if for no other reason than the superb description of Hell he gives, along the way.

A Note on Translations

Through me the road to the city of desolation,
Through me the road to sorrows diuturnal,
Through me the road among the lost creation.
Justice moved my great maker; God eternal
Wrought me: the power, and the unsearchably
High wisdom, and the primal love supernal.
Nothing ere I was made was made to be
Save things eterne, and I eterne abide;
Lay down all hope, you that go in by me.
          Dorothy L Sayers
Through me you reach the city of despair
Through me you reach eternity of grief
Through me you reach the region of the lost
Justice it was moved my high architect
Divine omnipotence created me
Transcendent wisdom and primordial love
Before me only endless things were made
And I too shall endure without an end
You that enter here, abandon hope
          Tom Phillips

The most one can do with passages like the one about Benaco, or the Last Voyage of Ulysses or the heart-breaking little vision of the brooks of the Casentino... is to erect, as best one can, a kind of sign-post to indicate: "Here is beauty; make haste to learn Italian, so that you may read it for yourselves" [117].

Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'entrate!

The translation of works between languages is not an easy thing, and the translation of poetry provides all sorts of challenges. Add to this six hundred and fifty years of evolving language and you get the idea. There are basically two approaches that have been taken in regards The Comedy, a reasonably strict translation of the original Italian, or to try and convey the effect of Dante's verse into English. I have read the Penguin edition translated in the late 1940s by Dorothy L. Sayers (who is, of course, not unknown for her own writing), which has taken the latter tack. Throughout the poem she has managed to keep up the proper number of syllables per line, and the strict rhyming scheme of aba bcb cdc... (with, as she admits, the cost of 'some rather acrobatic rhyme'). In addition she makes no small emphasis in her introduction on Dante's love of puns and conceits, internal rhymes and chimes, his use of language from learned, obscured and Latinised expressions to his abundance of colloquialisms, not to mention the simple humour of the poem -- all of which she has strived to retain (though, I found myself, getting into the proper rhythm is both difficult and distracting). Others, such as Tom Phillips, who provides the version for [118], have different concerns, and I have no desire to play one against the other. I point this out simply to indicate the complexities of the issue and to explain, for instance, why the famous line adorning the front cover of this issue (and in original form above) has a number of variations. Indeed, the title of the poem itself, generally known as The Divine Comedy, was never referred to as such by its author, who knew it as La Comedia -- where the word 'divine' came from, I cannot say.


[117] The Comedy of Dante Alighieri The Florentine: Cantica I: HELL, by Dante, translated by Dorothy L. Sayers, Penguin Books, London, 1949.

[118] Inferno (1988), trans Tom Phillips, p Denis Wigman and Kees Kasander, d Peter Greenaway and Tom Phillips, for Channel Four Television. A powerful evocation with reworked symbolism, made for TV but wonderful nonetheless (Edge of Darkness fans are in for a treat: Bob Peck plays Dante, and Joanne Whalley, his daughter in Edge, plays Beatrice).

[119] The Prince, Niccoló Machiavelli, Penguin Books, London, 1961, c1500s. Not much to do with hell at all, really, though in certain circles the words Machiavellian and diabolical have become synonymous.

[120] Vanni Fucci is Alive and Well and Living in Hell, Dan Simmons, in Dark Visions, Douglas E Winter (ed), Victor Gollancz Ltd, London, 1989.

[121] Tales of Love and Death: Dan Simmons, Leigh Blackmore, in The Australian SF Writers' News, Steven Paulsen (ed), number 6, Chimaera Publications, Belgrave, June 1993. In this interview Simmons says The Hollow Man is dealing with Dante's Inferno, and thus Vanni Fucci's inclusion. I didn't spot it myself.

[122] Sandman issue 3: A Hope in Hell, Neil Gaiman, DC Comics, New York, 1988. The universe of DC comics has a complex version of the infernal afterlife that is a cross between 'Hell is what you believe it to be' and a fiery abyss full of demons. Details can be found sporadically in issues of the like of Hellblazer, Sandman and The Demon (the Sandman arc Season of Mists is worth noting, in which Lucifer abdicates and empties the Pit, handing the Key of Hell to Dream). One of the most interesting aspects of this version is the splitting of roles between Lucifer, the fallen Angel and figurehead of the realm, and Satan, an original inhabitant who now handles the practical side of rule along with Beelzebub and Azathoth. Note that this was more due to the merging of different plot-lines than any deep theological significance.

[123] The Little Book of Smethers and other Stories, Lord Dunsany, Remploy, 1978, c19??.

* Inferno, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle...

* The Gates of Hell was an unfinished work by this French impressionist sculptor, Auguste Rodin. His well-known figure The Thinker was actually the projected lintel piece to crown the project.

* 'I hear my ill spirit sob in each blood cell, as if my hand were at its throat... I myself am hell. Nobody's here--' Skunk Hour Robert Lowell


[1] Dan Simmons, by the way, claims Vanni Fucci to be one of his favourite literary characters -- 'anyone who can stand in Hell and give God the fig has learned his lesson well' [121], and indeed the thief makes a cameo appearance in The Hollow Man, for no apparent reason.

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