Doorways into Dante’s World

The Divine ComedyBy Jessica Monk

Dante’s Italian epic poem, The Divine Comedy, is a work as rich and populous as a walled medieval city. But though its complexity invites exploration, the fortifications of its formal structure can seem intimidating. So how do you gain access to the teeming city of this work? There is no need to “abandon all hope” as you pass beneath the inscription that heralds the entrance to InfernoScolastica Tours offers a side-door into Dante’s world by tackling the poem through a secondary text: Martha Nussbaum’s Poetic Justice on their upcoming “Italian Exile: Dante’s Inferno and Early Renaissance Justice” tour. Nussbaum has spent her career arguing that poetry can deliver moral and philosophical messages. And there are few poems morally and aesthetically more ambitious than Dante’s Commedia.

For anyone beginning their journey into Inferno with Scolastica, there are plenty of secret passageways into the heart of the poem. Here are a few doorways into Dante’s world, before you begin your journey of discovery.

The Case for Divine Justice

For Dante, a guide was not an optional extra, it was essential. Hell was a theatre of horrors that could encourage voyeurism, undue sympathy and complicit participation in sin. Poetry itself occupied a dubious moral status in medieval thought, so the art of Inferno was a treacherous path. In hell, Dante’s alter ego crosses paths with characters from his own time — not just enemies, but men who had fought on the same side as him in Florence’s conflicts about Papal authority. His character is constantly faced with the psychological challenge of sympathizing appropriately with the sufferings of hell’s inmates without forgetting the gravity of their sin. To keep Dante on the straight and narrow, his guide is the poet Virgil, the classical Roman voice of reason. But even Virgil is subject to the rigors of divine law – as a Pagan, he is trapped in the first circle of hell. The concept of ‘contrapasso’, or ‘punishment fits the crime’, is the teaching device inherent in some of the more outlandishly cruel punishments in Inferno. The plight of the thief, Vanni Fucci in Canto XXIV-XXV, whose body is devoured and transformed into serpents, may seem like an excuse for gratuitous special effects, but the visual horror is there to remind us that thieves ultimately steal their own virtue from themselves.

Scolastica Tours provokes discovery through discussion and dialectic. Like Dante, you will be encouraged to debate your reaction to place and text. The debate is anchored by two readings: Dante’s Inferno in the Hollander translation and Nussbaum’s Poetic Justice. Scolastica Tours also offers custom local guides for your trip to Florence and Rome and the expert guidance of its tour manage, Kyle Hall.

Which Way to Hell?

It’s strange to think, but a journey to hell in medieval times would have been a geographical exploration of nature like Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. In medieval Aristotelian Cosmology, hell was quite literally a place on earth. Medievals understood earth to be the material center of the universe. Heavy objects fell to earth because they were drawn towards the material center of space. But the sinful nature of matter separated humans from the heavens and from God, who moved the outer spheres of the cosmos in the spiritual realm.

Dante’s vision took place on Good Friday in the Jubilee Year of 1300, declared a year of exceptional grace by Pope Boniface. His journey was intended to remind readers of the extremes of earthly torment the crucified Christ experienced as he passed through hell before he ascended into heaven. Scolastica Tours aims to make the connection between Dante’s earthly experience and his otherworldly vision by treading a route that takes in holy places like St. John Lateran and Scala Sancta, where historical echoes of that special year can be found. You will debate the text at atmospheric venues like the Caffe Letterario in Florence, enjoy a wine tasting at a winery outside the city and eat meals with a traditional emphasis on meat preparation, such as Roman butchery. And of course you will taste Florence’s famous unsalted bread, referenced in Paradiso, Canto XVII, 58-60.

The City of God, the City of Man

Dante’s exile is the lynchpin of Inferno – a tale of personal grievance transformed into a work of art. Dante was on the losing side in a conflict between the two factions of a pro-papal party called the Guelphs. He was exiled by Pope Boniface in 1302. Like any exile, Dante’s bitter memories of his city are inflamed by his love for it and his disappointment in its state of strife. In Canto XIII, a suicide condemned to be separated from his body for his violence against himself curses the day that Florence exchanged its patron Mars for John the Baptist. Since then, Mars’ vengeance has ensured that the city has been consumed with a kind of senseless violence against itself. In the medieval mind, the concept of the earthly city merged with the idea of the perfect heavenly city. All cities fell below the mark, and some (like Rome and Pisa, a stronghold of the party Dante opposed) even resembled hell. But the church, as the intermediary between humanity and god, was a space where these contradictions were resolved and man could make an appeal to God and his own higher nature.

With Scolastica Tours you will visit the Baptistery in Florence, a treasure for art historians, with its ornate doors designed by Lorenzo Ghiberti and its mosaic ceiling with depictions of hell and the last judgment. Dante was baptized in this octagonal building dedicated to John the Baptist. The building itself was built on an octagonal plan to recall the font where Christians received their renewal in Christ. The particularly graphic depictions of hell on the ceiling of this chapel very possibly inspired Dante’s tableaux of hell. This is the place from which the myth of Florence’s decline in Canto XIII is drawn. It was built on a Roman structure long believed to have been dedicated to the god Mars.

Dante’s Commedia is a master-text of Italian literature and its influence is seen and felt beneath the streets of Italian cities. Like many of the greatest works of literature, its afterlife in culture is not merely inspirational, but tangible and real. Scolastica Tours has planned a tour that will guide you through the literal and spiritual wellsprings of Dante’s creation, with plenty of time to take in the best of the Tuscan experience along the way.


For more information on upcoming dates for the  “Italian Exile: Dante’s Inferno and Early Renaissance Justice” tour, please visit the Scolastica Tours website.

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