Art & Aesthetics Art Blog
The funniest part of "The Divine Comedy" is when Barbariccia signals his demons to march by tooting his butt trumpet. Otherwise, the story isn't too amusing. Dante Alighieri's epic poem, written in medieval Italy, chronicles his trip through hell, purgatory, and paradise (guided mostly by the ancient poet Virgil). Dante's trilogy brought the Italian language up to speed in the world of literature. The first of the three books is "Inferno" and it's a hellish read in any language - but at least in Italian it rhymes.
The Holy Bible portrays hell as the "gnawing and gnashing of teeth" and such. Dante's description is even more prolific. It's a freakish nightmare of a story. The torments have wretched souls howling like dogs, pale and colorless with sores and mold-encrusted orifices. Dante meticulously conveys the maladies and malfeasance that his eyes witness, his testimony intended to instill a fear of God. The punishments are on a graduated scale. There are nine rings of hell in the Inferno. The inscription above the entrance reads: "Abandon all hope whoever enters here." Hopelessness in a place where the sun never shines? A bummer for sure. Dante's Inferno is a malaise of fire and ice populated by "shades," sort of like zombies. Here's the tour: First ring: Non-Christians spend their endless days living with the likes of insatiable she-wolves. That's mild. Second ring: Fire storms are forecast in the region designated for those who lived a lustful life. A great sorrow is remembering happy times in misery. Third ring: A cold filthy rain pours on this squalid neighborhood where the gluttonous are food for Cerebus, a beast with three throats and blood in his eyes. That bad dog rips whatever flesh these shades have left. Fourth ring: In this ditch, the demon Plutus rides herd over prodigal types that will forever push huge stones back and forth but get nowhere. Fifth ring: The wrathful and sullen (apparently you can catch hell just for being moody) herein get to drink the slimy waters of the river Styx. Sixth ring: The heretics in this rut have to deal with the three Furies and Medusa with her hair of horned vipers. Here one cannot see the present but only the future - and it ain't good. Seventh ring: This is where common frauds inflict pain and death on their neighbors who are, of course, more panderers and sorcerers. There is hell fire aplenty, and serpents with hairy armpits. Eighth ring: This ring (Malebolge) and its subdivisions are reserved for treacherous frauds - the likes of Alexander and Dionysius (who knew?). For those not sunk up to their brows in boiling blood, it's the hounds of hell. Other sinners are in crap-filled ditches. Others have their noses hacked off and more scabs than fish have scales. Astrologers have their heads turned backwards. Ninth ring: This central pit of Dante's Inferno is where hell freezes over leaving its inhabitants, including Judas, with their tears frozen solid. One beast has tears rolling out of six eyes, down three chins into a bloody frozen froth. Dante supposedly bridged the gap between ancient and modern literature, but his version of hell is still medieval compared to, say, the existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre who proposed simply: "Hell is other people." Dante was not without his prejudices; he had a grudge against those who exiled from his home in Florence. Personal vendetta colored his view of the world - the ponderous blend of history, mythology, and religion expounded in this cautionary tome. For instance, Pope Boniface, who conspired against Dante in real life, is placed in the eighth ring of the Inferno.
Dante shows something akin to a sense of humor when, in reference to the diabolical tortures and ghastly scenarios that he sees in the Inferno, he wonders: "Tante chi stipa nove travaglie e pene?" which, very loosely translated, means: "Who thought this stuff up?" This is funny because obviously it was Dante himself; he wrote the damned book. Talk about poetic license. Things get a little better in Purgatory (the second book of the trilogy), and then finally in Paradise where Virgil can't go but where Dante hooks up with his childhood sweetheart and lifelong inspiration, Beatrice. It's the happy ending which, in my view, makes this comedy divine.
Top illustration: Botticelli (detail). Bottom illustration: Peterson.