Dr. Goldstein
ENGL 2207
Fall 2003

Dante's Inferno: Background

Please read this page before beginning to read the poem.  Study Questions for Inferno are available at: Dante Study Questions.

For a brief biographical essay, "Dante in His Age," please consult pages 319-29 of the Mandelbaum edition.  The following is based on information Mandelbaum provides.

Dante and Politics
Although we will not focus much attention on the political dimension of Inferno in class discussion, a little information will help you understand many of the poet's concerns.  Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), was born and raised in Florence, the most important city in Tuscany, a region in central Italy.  Italy was not a politically unified state in the Middle Ages.  Italy was especially affected by warfare in the decades immediately before, during, and after Dante's life.   In the European politics of his period, two rival international factions were frequently at odds (see pp. 322-23):

Florence was a city-state or commune with a Republican form of government for most of the second half of the thirteenth century until the fifteenth century.

Between the two republics were six years of anti-republican government, beginning with the Ghibelline defeat of the Florentine Guelfs in 1260 in the battle of Montaperti (see Inf. X, 85-93), and ending with the defeat of the Ghibelline forces under Manfred, illegitimate son of the Emperor Frederick II, at the battle of Benevento in 1266, after which the Ghibellines were banished from Florence.

Dante took great pride in his city's civic and cultural achievements: its republican traditions of non-aristocratic self-rule and its importance as a major cultural and economic center.  He was a public figure who held an important civic office as prior in the late 1290s, a decade of much political conflict within Florence.  Soon after the Ghibellines were removed from Florence, the Guelf party broke into two factions: the White and Black.  Dante was allied to the Whites; however, Dante was a friend of a prominent Black Guelf and was married to a woman distantly related to the leader of the Blacks.

While Dante was on a diplomatic mission to Pope Boniface VIII in Rome in 1301, the Black Guelfs came to power in Florence; he was accused of various crimes against the commune and sentenced to temporary exile in Jan. 1302.  When he failed to appear to answer the charges, his sentence was raised to burning at the stake if he ever returned to Florence.  He spent the rest of his life wandering from city to city, receiving patronage from various Italian notables; he produced The Divine Comedy during this period of exile. As you read Inferno, you will notice his sadness and anger at his native city, as well as his disgust with other Italian cities and other worldly powers.  He came to believe that the papacy should be solely concerned with spiritual matters, and that the only hope for restoring justice in secular government was to have all Europe ruled by one Emperor (see pp. 326-27).

Highlights of Dante's Artistic Career

As we shall see, Dante's guide through Hell is the pagan poet Virgil, author of the Aeneid, the great Latin epic poem written for the first Roman Emperor, Augustus Caesar.  Virgil's Aeneid imitated the form of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey.  The first six books recount the wanderings of Aeneas, a Trojan prince who survived the destruction of Troy; the last six books recount his conquest of Italy, laying the foundations for what would become the Roman Empire.  Book 6 is of particular importance to Dante, because it narrates Aeneas's journey to Hades (Dante couldn't read Homer in Greek) and inspired much of the detail found in Inferno.

Terms for the Unique Poetic Form of the Work

Canticle
(cantica): the three major divisions of the Divine Comedy
Canto: the numbered subdivisions of each canticle.  Each canticle comprises thirty-three cantos except Inferno, with thirty-four, since canto 1 serves as an introduction to the entire poem.
Terza rima: the rhyme scheme of the poem, where all but the first and final rhyme of each canto appears three times.
Tercet: unit of three lines of verse, rhyming aba

Page created 8-17-03