Friday, January 13, 2017

The Universe of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy


The purpose of this post is to provide a very brief outline description of the universe of Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia. It is written in explanatory support of my poem, “Divina Commedia” at this link: 

Dante is a well-known giant of Western literature. In case you don’t know about him, Poetry Foundation provides an excellent write-up at this link:

Sandro Botticelli’s “Portrait of Dante” below is a likeness based on the poet’s death mask, the original irrecoverably lost.

Image was obtained from this Wikimedia link:

Portrait of Dante (1495) by Sandro Botticelli

Just a few personal notes. I read Inferno, English translation, when I was in third year high school, parts of Purgatorio and Paradiso sometime afterward. Subsequently, Divina Commedia I took to heart as a marvelous imaginative conception, rich in symbolism, similar in the foregoing respects to Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” It has many enduring literary merits besides, among them, characters of deep, lasting emotive power. 

Inspired illustrations have been rendered of Divina Commedia episodes. They are as compelling as the story itself is gripping. Here is one example, Gustave Doré’s illustration for the seventh canto of Inferno, the Circle of Greed, wherein souls damned for the sins of avarice or prodigality roll enormous weights against each other interminably, all the while exclaiming mutual accusations and recriminations. The weights are depicted by Doré as huge moneybags.

Canto VII - The Hoarders and Wasters (1857) by Gustave Doré

Handsomely muscled, Doré’s nudes are visually depilated, presumably to somewhat desexualize them and to advance their ostensibly symbolic meaning.

Interestingly, in the visual arts souls in Hell or Purgatory are usually shown naked, while those in Heaven are clothed in white robes. Both motifs are Biblically based (see comment below).

Musicality of Dante’s vernacular enhances Divina Commedia’s antique allure. If you listen to some very short audio excerpts at the University of Texas at Austin website, for example, the musicality comes through. Visit, for instance:

Audio files of Divina Commedia in the original Italian are readily available on the Internet.

Although I don’t understand Italian, it is not entirely alien since I formally studied the related Romance languages French and Spanish, and Latin.

Now to the task at hand.

Note: Images below are widely available on the Internet. I was unable to trace their original sources, and they might still be under copyright. In any case, I am using them according to the principles of fair use, that is, for the purposes of information and education.

Dante’s universe is geocentric, a spherical earth enclosed in a series of crystalline spheres in which planetary bodies and the stars are embedded. Beyond the outermost sphere, known as Primum Mobile or “first moved,” is an Empyrean dimension, Heaven.

This first graphic shows the tripartite world of Divina Commedia. The pit of Hell is accessed from the earth’s surface–in the story Dante travels directly to the gates of Hell and down a harrowing descent—and from Hell’s bottom exits a passageway emerging into the island of Mount Purgatory, directly opposite Jerusalem on the other side of the spherical earth. At the top of Mount Purgatory is the Biblical Garden of Eden.

This second graphic depicts the transparent spheres enclosing the earth like nested Matryoshka dolls. Primum Mobile, the outermost sphere, revolves under its own power, thereby imparting motion to the inner spheres.

This last graphic is a schematic of Mount Purgatory, clearly showing the seven stories of Thomas Merton’s famous mountain. His autobiography apparently conceives of his life before he joined the Trappists as a principally purgative stage, in allusion to Saint Bonaventure’s “The Triple Way,” among others. Presumably, Merton’s entrance into the monastery would mark his embarkation upon the illuminative and unitive phases principally, of the spiritual life.

If this post incites your interest in exploring further Divina Commedia, all’s well then.

In this pursuit, you might want to visit Dr. Norman Prinsky’s notes here:

1 comment:

  1. Hell and Purgatory

    Job said, “Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I go back there.” (Job 1:21)


    “The victor will thus be dressed in white, and I will never erase his name from the book of life but will acknowledge his name in the presence of my Father and of his angels.” (Revelation 3:5)

    Those dressed in white robes in the Book of Revelation are principally the martyrs of blood and in a secondary sense the elect of Heaven.