Dante’s poetic masterpiece can seem intimidating, preventing many a reader from picking it up. Even so, it has entered our cultural consciousness and it can feel like we know Dante even if we have never read him. But not everything you may have heard about Dante is true.
Beatrice Isn’t Really Dante’s Lover.
According to the Vita Nuova, Dante first sees Beatrice when the two are nine. She is dressed in crimson, the color of charity. From that moment she becomes for Dante a physical sign of divine love, always pointing Dante towards the greatest good, God Himself. The two are never involved romantically and are, in fact, married to two different individuals. After Beatrice’s early death (cause unknown), Dante resolves in the Vita Nuova to write no more until he can write something worthy of Beatrice, the blessed one. That work would become the Divine Comedy.
Beatrice Doesn’t Lead Dante Through Hell.
Beatrice’s role in the Inferno is to descend from heaven to ask Virgil to leave his place in Limbo and lead Dante through hell so that he may understand the true nature of sin and repent. Beatrice will not appear again until the end of the Purgatorio, just in time to answer some of Dante’s questions and guide him through heaven in the Paradiso.
The Inferno Isn’t All About Gruesome Punishments.
The Divine Comedy is an intricate work that mirrors the order of God’s universe. The whole work contains 100 cantos–33 for each book plus an extra one to serve as an introduction to the Inferno. Each canto is written in terza rima, a complex rhyme scheme that goes aba bcb cdc, etc. Dante is very interested in using his creation to reflect God’s work and his poem is an extended look at divine justice, divine charity and mercy, and the nature of free will. His work is full of philosophical and theological musings, as well as moving histories of the people who populate his hell. Even though pop culture focuses on the gore and horror, there is a lot more going on in his work.
Dante Sometimes Struggles with Catholic Teaching.
In Canto V, Dante meets the lovers Paolo and Francesca, who had an adulterous affair and now suffer eternally for their lust by being buffetted by winds. He feels so much sympathy for them (and perhaps some guilt over his own role encouraging lust through his older love poems) that he faints. This is just one moment in which Dante seems to struggle with the teachings of the Church, sympathizing with sins he himself might be guilty of.
In other moments, he questions why his models such as Virgil and the other virtuous pagans must suffer in Limbo by being separated eternally from God. They lead upright lives, but, because they were born before Christ, they could not be baptized and go to heaven. It all seems so unfair! Far from accepting whatever the Catholic Church says without any thought, Dante reveals a questioning and curious mind, one that modern readers can relate to.
You Don’t Need to Know Everything About Everything to Understand the Inferno.
Theology, science, politics, history, classical writers, Italian poets. The allusions throughout Dante’s work can sometimes feel overwhelming. However, you don’t need to understand everything about European history and politics to follow the trajectory of the poem. If you get a translation with a few good footnotes, you’re on your way.