Dante: The Divine Comedy

Notes to Dante's Inferno


InfNote 1. Structure

The regions of Dante's Hell are subdivided, mirroring his descent with Virgil, as follows. The conception derives from Aristotle, Cicero, and Christian teachings. There are twenty-four divisions in all. There are three major groupings divided into seven Circles, consisting of those who failed to exercise self-control (Circles 2-5), the violent (Circle 7), and the fraudulent and traitorous (Circles 8-9). Added to these are the Heathen (Circle 1), the Heretics (Circle 6) and, outside the Acheron, the spiritually neutral. There are thus nine Circles, plus the region this side of Acheron, making ten major divisions. This pattern of three, divided to make seven, augmented to nine and then ten, is the fundamental architecture of Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. The keynote of Hell is Charity or Pity, of the Purgatorio, Hope, and of the Paradiso, Faith.

Canto III. This side of Acheron. The Dark Plain.

The spiritually neutral, who lived 'without praise or blame' and the angels who 'were neither faithful nor rebellious'. Their punishment is to ' have no hope of death' and to 'envy every other condition than their own'.

Canto IV. The First Circle. Limbo. The Heathens.

Those who lived before Christianity or were unbaptised. Their punishment is 'without hope to live in desire'

Canto V. The Second Circle. Hell proper. The first division of those lacking self-restraint. The Carnal sinners.

The carnal sinners, blown endlessly though the air in darkness.

Canto VI. The Third Circle. The second division of those lacking self-restraint. The Gluttonous.

The gluttons, drenched in hail, snow and dark water.

Canto VII. The Fourth Circle. The third division of those lacking self-restraint. The Avaricious and the Prodigal.

The misers and the spendthrifts, endlessly rolling heavy weights.

Canto VII. The Fifth Circle. The Styx. The fourth division of those lacking self-restraint. The Angry and the Sullen.

The angry and sullen, sunk in the Stygian marsh. On top are the wrathful struggling with each other, below under the bog are the sullen and lazy who 'sigh and make it bubble at the surface'.

Cantos IX and X. The City of Dis (Lucifer, Satan). The Sixth Circle. The Heretics.

The Heretics and their followers, incarcerated in red-hot tombs.

Canto XII. The Seventh Circle of the Violent. The First Round. The River of Blood. The Violent against others.

The violent against others, the murderers, tyrants, and assassins, sunk in the River of Blood. They are guarded by Centaurs.

Canto XIII. The Seventh Circle of the Violent. The Second Round. The Wood of Suicides. The Violent against themselves.

The suicides, transformed to trees which bleed etc.

Cantos XIV-XVII. The Seventh Circle of the Violent. The Third Round. The Plain of Burning Sand. The violent against God and Nature.

The violent against God, the blasphemers, lying supine on the burning sand. The violent against Nature, the sodomites, roaming the sand. The violent against Nature and Art, the usurers, crouched on the sand.

Canto XVIII. The Eighth Circle of the Fraudulent. Malebolge. The First Chasm. The pimps and seducers.

The pimps and seducers scourged by horned Demons.

Canto XVIII. The Eighth Circle of the Fraudulent. Malebolge. The Second Chasm. The flatterers.

The flatterers, smeared with filth and excrement.

Canto XIX. The Eighth Circle of the Fraudulent. Malebolge. The Third Chasm. The Simonists, those who sell spiritual offices.

The Simonists, the soles of their feet seared endlessly with fire.

Canto XX. The Eighth Circle of the Fraudulent. Malebolge. The Fourth Chasm. The augerers, diviners, astrologers and prophets.

The augerers, their faces twisted round, forced to walk backwards.

Cantos XXI-XXIII. The Eighth Circle of the Fraudulent. Malebolge. The Fifth Chasm. The Barrators, who exploited their public office.

The barrators, barterers, or peculators covered in boiling pitch, and guarded and tormented by Demons.

Canto XXIII. The Eighth Circle of the Fraudulent. Malebolge. The Sixth Chasm. The hypocrites.

The hypocrites, weighed down with cloaks of gilded lead.

Cantos XXIV-XXV. The Eighth Circle of the Fraudulent. Malebolge. The Seventh Chasm. The thieves.

The thieves, in the ditch of dragons and serpents.

Cantos XXVI-XXVII. The Eighth Circle of the Fraudulent. Malebolge. The Eighth Chasm. The evil counsellors.

The evil counsellors, wrapped in flames of conscience.

Canto XXVIII. The Eighth Circle of the Fraudulent. Malebolge. The Ninth Chasm. The sowers of discord.

The sowers of dissension, discord, scandal, sectarianism and schism. Their bodies are split or mutilated in some way reflecting their sin.

Cantos XXIX-XXX. The Eight Circle of the Fraudulent. Malebolge. The Tenth and last Chasm. The forgers.

The forgers and falsifiers in things, actions and words, tormented by disease and putrefaction.

Canto XXXII. The Ninth Circle of the Treacherous. Cocytus. The Central Pit or Well. The First Ring. Caïna. Treachery against kin.

The traitors to their kin, frozen in the ice. The ring is named after Cain, who murdered Abel.

Canto XXXII-XXXIII. The Ninth Circle of the Treacherous. Cocytus. The Central Pit or Well. The Second Ring. Antenora. Treachery against country.

The traitors to their city or country, frozen in the ice. The ring is named after Antenor who was supposed to have betrayed Troy to the Greeks.

Canto XXXIII. The Ninth Circle of the Treacherous. Cocytus. The Central Pit or Well. The Third Ring. Ptolomaea. Treachery against friends and guests.

The treacherous to friends and guests, frozen in the ice. The ring is named after Ptolemy the murderer of Simon Maccabeus.

Canto XXXIV. The Ninth Circle of the Treacherous. The Central Pit or Well. The Fourth and Last Ring. The Judecca. The traitors to their lords and benefactors.

The betrayers of their masters and benefactors, fixed solid under the ice. The winged form of the Arch Traitor Satan at the centre, towards whom all streams of Guilt flow, frozen from the chest downwards. The ring is named after Judas, the disciple who betrayed Christ.

InfNote 2. Chronology, See also the Chronology of the Purgatorio and Paradiso.

The Vision is set in 1300, when Dante was thirty-five, in the middle of a seventy-year life-span (Inf I:1, Inf XVIII:28-33, Inf XXI:112-114, Purg II:98-99, Par IX: 40). It is Easter. The poem begins at the Spring Equinox and the sun’s position remains fixed throughout, in Aries, as according to medieval tradition it was at the Creation. (Inf I:38-40, Par X:7-33, Par I:37-44).

The Inferno begins on the evening prior to Good Friday (Inf XXI:112-114) at the full moon (Inf XX:124-127, Inf XXI:112-114, Purg IX:1-9). The full set of conditions is imaginary, not corresponding to the actual equinox of 1300.

With the sun at the equinox, the sun will be in the following signs during the day:

Sunrise, 6-8am Aries  |   8-10am Taurus  |   10-12noon  |   Gemini  |   12-2pm Cancer  |   2-4pm Leo  |   4-6pm, Sunset Virgo

The following signs will be rising in the east and setting in the west during the night:

Rising 6pm Libra  |   8pm Scorpio  |   10pm Sagittarius  |   12midnight Capricorn  |   2am Aquarius  |   4am Pisces

Setting 6pm Aries  |   8pm Taurus  |   10pm Gemini  |   12midnight Cancer  |   2am Leo  |   4am Virgo

Canto I

Inferno Canto I:1-60. The poem opens on the evening prior to Good Friday in the dark wood. Dante witnesses the dawn of Good Friday at 6am on the equinox with the sun rising in Aries. He meets Virgil and travels with him until the evening of Good Friday.

Canto II

Inferno Canto II:1-42. The canto starts at the evening of Good Friday.

Canto VII:97-99

Inferno Canto VII:67-99. At this point in the Fifth Circle it is past midnight since the stars of Libra (The scales of Justice) that were ascending in the evening sky are now falling from the mid-heaven. It is now Saturday pre-dawn.

Canto XI:112-114

Inferno Canto XI:94-115. At the end of the canto, before the descent to the Seventh Circle, Pisces, the Fishes, is visible on the horizon and must have risen in the east at 4am some time before. Bootës, or the Wain, is (correctly: see a star chart for the northern hemisphere in April, or observe it) in the north-west. (Caurus is the north-west wind). It is therefore near dawn of Saturday.

Canto XX:124-129

Inferno Canto XX:100-130. At the end of the canto, in the Fourth Chasm of the Eighth Circle, the moon is about to set over the Pillars of Hercules in the West. Being full it will have set at dawn on Good Friday and now a day later will set after dawn. Dante does take account of the moon’s daily movement (See Purg IX:1-11). The moon moves about 12 degrees a day, relative to the ‘fixed’ stars, which equates to 48 minutes, and has not yet set, though it is touching the horizon, so subject to Dante’s astronomical sources, it is approximately 6.45am on Saturday morning, possibly a little earlier.

Canto XXI:112-114

Inferno Canto XXI:97-139. At this point of the Fifth Chasm of the Eighth Circle it is five hours earlier than the time of Christ’s death, at noon, so it is 7am Saturday. (As the Easter of the year 1300 =1266+34 full years from the crucifixion on Good Friday, supposing Christ to be incarnated in December of BC1 and to die at age 33, celebrating the anniversary of his 33rd year in December 33AD)

Canto XXIX:10

Inferno Canto XXIX:1-36. The moon is at nadir, in the Tenth Chasm, and allowing for its daily movement it is therefore approximately 1pm on the Saturday.

Canto XXXIV:67

Inferno Canto XXXIV:55-69. It is 6pm Saturday and night is falling as the poets leave Hell by clambering down Satan’s sides then turning and climbing up to the little sphere which marks the reverse side of the deepest point of the Judecca. This takes them an hour and a half until 7.30pm Saturday.

Canto XXXIV:94-97 and 103-118

Inferno Canto XXXIV:70-139. It is morning on the opposite side of the earth to Jerusalem, and evening in Hell is dawn there. It is now mid-tierce, the middle of the first of the four canonical divisions of the day. At the equinox each takes three hours, so tierce is 6am to 9am and we may take it that it is now 7.30am Sunday as the poets begin their ascent by the channel cut there by the River Lethe. Their ascent to the foot of Mount Purgatory takes them all this Sunday and Sunday night, so that they complete it just before dawn on the morning of Easter Monday.

InfNote 3. The Salvation of Italy

There are various interpretations of Dante’s imagery, for example that the leopard (panther) represents Florence and worldly pleasure, lust or envy; the lion the Royal House of France, and ambition or pride; the she-wolf the Papacy, and avarice. Lust, pride and avarice are the three roots of sin. The imagery of the three animals may come from Jeremiah (v.6). The she-wolf, the Papacy, made many alliances.

The Greyhound (Veltro) has been suggested to be Can Grande della Scala, born in Verona, between Feltro in Venetia and Montefeltro in Romagna, the great Ghibelline leader. Dante’s later patron, he may have been regarded by Dante as the deliverer who would restore Imperial power, reinstitute Roman law, eliminate avarice, bring peace, and establish a reformed order of things.

Dante, whose father Aldighiero was a Guelf, and supporter of the papacy, traced his ancestry back to Cacciaguida, a crusader under Emperor Conrad III, and identified with the Romans who had allied Florence to Imperial Rome. He was of the populo vecchio, the populus, the old inhabitants, not the plebs, from Fiesole etc. Dante’s opposition however to the dishonesty and corruption of the Papacy under Boniface VIII aligned him with the Ghibelline pro-Imperial cause, and opposed him to the pro-Papacy Guelfs. The Florentine families also split between the local Bianchi (white) and Neri (black) factions. Dante’s family belonged to the Bianchi. Ultimately the Bianchi combined with the old half-suppressed Ghibelline party, and the Neri aligned with the Papacy, claiming to represent the old Guelph traditions of Florence.

Dante’s personal ideals when fully developed were for an apolitical Church, and an earthly Empire, both enfranchised by God, supreme in their own spheres, one of spiritual and the other temporal power. He was therefore opposed to the Guelf principles of his father (the Ultramontanism of Gregory VII and Innocent III), and to the democracy and plutocracy of Florence. He was equally opposed to the supremacy of State over Church asserted by the Emperors Henry IV and Frederick II, by Henry II of England, and Philip the Fair of France. Dante therefore found himself ‘a party of one’ caught in the cross-currents of his time, supporting an autocratic view of the Imperial State, and a desire for a reformed, spiritual Papacy.

An alternative candidate for ‘the Greyhound’ is Uguccione della Faggiuola, head of the Ghibelline forces at Lucca in 1315 when the Guelphs were driven out, and at the siege of Montecatini (within ten miles of Florence) where he gained a decisive victory. However Uguccione was eclipsed by 1316.

InfNote 4. Ciacco’s prophecy in Canto VI.

Inferno Canto VI:64-93. Ciacco prophesies the events in Florence between April 1300, the date of the vision, and April 1303. Pope Boniface the VII exerted pressure on Florence to accept his authority. Dante was at Rome in May 1300, and returned quickly to Florence where he was appointed to the electoral body. Boniface then gave support to the Black (Neri) Guelphs against the White (Bianchi) Ghibellines who insisted on church reforms, and political liberty. The Whites lead by Vieri de’ Cerchi, were ‘the party of the woods’ since the Cerchi came from the wooded Val di Sieve in the Mugello.

The city expelled both Corso Donati, the leader of the Blacks, and the Cerchi (who included Dante’s friend, the poet Guido Cavalcanti.) This action, that Dante supported, led to life-long enmity against him. Corso Donati went to Rome, and allied himself to the Pope. Boniface VII allied himself in turn to Philip the Fair, Philip the IVth, of France against the Empire of Albert of Hapsburg. (‘King of the Romans’), Dante called this the alliance of the new Pilate and the New Pharisees, or the giant and the harlot (the Papacy) embracing.

Charles of Valois, the French king’s brother, crossed the Alps in August of 1301, and after treating with Florence, entered the city peaceably on November 1st. The banished Blacks followed him in large numbers. Corso Donati returned on November 5th. The houses of the Whites were sacked and burned, and the Prior, the magistrates were deposed. The Bianchi, the Whites were condemned and exiled. Dante was aligned with a weak Ghibelline party supporting a weak and uncommitted Imperial presence, and opposed by a strong Guelf party (aligned with France, and therefore a caricature of Dante’s Ghibelline beliefs) supporting a corrupt Papacy. What Dante desired was a reformed Papacy in the spiritual sphere, balanced with a strong Imperial presence derived from Roman Imperial history in the secular sphere. In different times he would have been a Guelph like his father in spirit, and a supporter of the Ghibelline Empire in secular practice. In April 1302 he heard that he had been exiled with the Whites, the Ghibellines. He never returned to Florence.

In March 1303 the exiled Whites under Scarpetta degli Ordelaffi (strangely a papal vicar, indicating a growing rift between Boniface and the French) tried to force an entry into Florence. It failed and many were taken prisoner and beheaded. France, the ‘giant’, had triumphed, and his ‘paramour’ Boniface VII died in October 1303, his policy having led to Italian disaster.

See also Vanni Fucci’s prophecy.

InfNote 5. Arles and Pola.

Inferno Canto IX:106-133. Dante compares the plain of Dis full of heretic tombs with Arles and Pola. Arles, in Provence, in southern France, at the mouth of the River Rhone, has at Aleschans (Les Alyscamps) rows of tombs, the graves of Charlemagne’s warriors, according to legend, buried there after the rout at Roncesvalles (See ‘The Song of Roland’), and of the Christian dead from the battle of Aleschans where the Saracens defeated William of Orange. (See Van Gogh’s painting ‘Les Alyscamps’, Niarchos Collection, Athens, and his letter to Theo, no559, Nov 1888, where he talks of ‘rows of old Roman tombs’.)

Pola (modern Pula) is a seaport, at the southern tip of Istria (modern Istra), that promontory, once belonging to Venice, and hence part of Italy, that hangs down into the Adriatic to the East of the Golfo di Venezia. The promontory on the East is bounded by the Gulf of Quarnaro (modern Kvarner). It is said that numbers of Slavonians were brought there for burial, and it has Roman remains.

InfNote 6. Sodom and Cahors.

Inferno Canto XI:1-66. The city of Sodom represented unnatural vice (Genesis XIX), while Cahors in Guyenne (on the River Lot) in southern France was notorious for its usurers, in the Middle Ages, so that ‘Caorsinus’ was a synonym for ‘usurer’.

InfNote 7. The Old Man of Crete.

Inferno Canto XIV:73-120. An allegory of human history. The concept is from Daniel ii. 32. The four metals are the four ages of man: gold, silver, bronze, and iron (See also Ovid’s Metamorphoses I). The iron and clay feet, are secular and spiritual authority, the latter foot being the one humanity looks to for support, but weakened and corrupted by temporal power. Crete in Virgil’s Aeneid iii 104-5 is the ‘cradle of our (Roman) race’ traced back via Troy to Teucer. Damietta stands for Egypt, superseded by Rome. The golden age alone was free of tears.

InfNote 8. The Origins of Florence.

Inferno Canto XV:43-78. According to tradition Catiline was besieged, by Caesar, in Fiesole (Faesulae), in the hills, three miles north-west of Florence. When the town fell a new town was established, in the valley, by the River Arno. The inhabitants were a mixture of Fiesolans and Roman soldiers. The Florentine commoners (Whites) were held to be descended from the Fiesolans, the nobility (Blacks) from the Romans. This was regarded as a source of the future conflicts. Dante was for a reformed Papacy and a strong (Holy Roman) Empire, and was active in the expulsion of both Whites and Blacks from Florence, he was therefore opposed by both parties, though ostensibly a Ghibelline (his father having been a Guelf) and courted and vilified by both. Dante is reconciled to this, and Farinata’s, prophecy, of a troubled exile.

InfNote 9. Vanni Fucci’s prophecy.

Inferno Canto XXIV:130-151.Vanni Fucci prophesies the defeat of the Ghibelline Whites (Bianci) by the Black Guelph (Neri) faction. The Blacks were expelled from Pistoia in May 1301. Dante was one of those who voted for the expulsions. In November 1301 the Blacks entered Florence, aided by Charles de Valois, and in April 1302 made the city drive out the Whites (changing the people, and its laws). Pistoia became a rallying point for the Whites in Tuscany, until their defeat by the Florentine and Lucchese Guelfs, under Moroello Malaspina, Marquis of Giovagallo in Valdimagra (the extremity of Lunigiana). Piceno’s field is the area between Serravalle and Montecatini. Malaspina took Serravalle in 1302, and reduced Pistoia in 1306. Pistoia was said to have been founded by the remnants of Catiline’s army, leading to Dante’s comment in the next Canto (‘you outdo your seed in evil-doing’)

See also Ciacco’s Prophecy

InfNote 10. Montereggione and the bronze pine-cone of St Peter’s.

Inferno Canto XXXI:1-45The Giants appear like the twelve turrets of the castle of Montereggione eight miles north-west of Siena, between it and San Gimignano. They were the monstrous sons of Earth and Tartarus, with many arms, and serpent feet, who made war against the gods, scaling heaven by piling mountains on one another (Mount Pelion on Mount Ossa, and both on Olympus.). They were overthrown by Jupiter’s thunderbolts and buried under Sicily.

Inferno Canto XXXI:46-81. The bronze pine-cone, to which Dante compares the size of Nimrod’s head, once on the top of the Mausoleum of Adrian and then moved to the Vatican Gardens, stood in front of St Peter’s, and was between seven and eight feet high.