The dust jackets of modern editions of The Divine Comedy typically call it a “grand culmination” of late medieval civilization, yet Dante’s vision of politics, history, Limbo, Purgatory, and the church was anything but standard fare for the Middle Ages. His poem appears more like an act of epic defiance, or a thunderstorm coming up against the prevailing wind, to recall Kierkegaard’s characterization of genius.
Anyone reading The Divine Comedy for the first time knows how it comes at you with overwhelming strangeness, drawing you into its dark wood of confusion, down into the entrails of Hell, then up the terraces of the Mountain of Purgatory in the Southern Hemisphere before lifting off into the heavenly spheres of Paradiso, the canticle that ventures into “waters that have never yet been sailed,” stupefying those few readers who manage to make it this far into the journey. Who could have written such a poem, and how?
Unlike Shakespeare, whose corpus one searches in vain for insight into the author’s selfhood, we have abundant access to Dante’s psyche, thanks to the self-editorializing drive in all his major works, from the Vita Nuova to the Convivio to The Divine Comedy. Dante funneled everything—history, truth, cosmos, salvation—through his first-person singular, the famous “I” who finds himself “in the middle of our life’s way” as the poem opens. Yet despite his bold self-exposure, the writing of the Comedy remains a mystery. How did the vision come to him, and how much of it did he have inside his mind when he began writing? Some of it, most of it, all of it?
In Inferno 4 Dante and Virgil enter Limbo, Hell’s first circle, where the pilgrim’s pagan guide points out an august assembly of poets: Homer, Ovid, Horace, and Lucan. Virgil steps away to join the “beautiful school” (la bella scola), and after they exchange a few words with Virgil, the greatest poets of the ancient world turn to Dante and greet him. Then they do him “an even greater honor,” for “they made me one of their band, so that I was sixth among so much wisdom.”
The image of Dante as the sixth member of such a tribe does not strike us as preposterous today; yet when he composed that early canto, he had not yet written The Divine Comedy. He was a Florentine rhymester, known in select circles for some fine love lyrics, some of which were almost as good as those of his friend Guido Cavalcanti. In his splendid television commentary on this scene in Limbo, Roberto Benigni compares the bella scola to a group of scientists on the order of Einstein, Fermi, and Oppenheimer welcoming into their ranks a local electrician.
Marco Santagata, a professor of Italian literature at the University of Pisa, has written an impressive new biography that takes into consideration every bit of reliable and semireliable information available to us about Dante’s life, from his birth in Florence in 1265 to his death in Ravenna in 1321, yet you reach the end of its 485 pages without getting one step closer to understanding how an electrician joined the ranks of Einstein and Fermi. That is because little in Dante’s life story helps us understand how he conceived, composed, and completed the Comedy, this despite the fact that much of what was going on around him at the time found its way into his poem.
More insightful biographies of Dante exist—Barbara Reynolds’s Dante: The Poet, the Political Thinker, the Man (2006), for example—but if you are looking for the most thorough, factually based account of Dante’s life and times to date, Santagata is your man. In Dante: The Story of His Life you will learn more than anyone but a Dante specialist would want to know about the various antagonists in the conflict between the Ghibellines and the Guelphs in the late thirteenth century; about how the Florentine Guelph party, after finally defeating the Ghibellines at the Battle of Campaldino in 1289 (in which Dante fought), split into a White faction and a Black faction; and how the Blacks routed the Whites in 1302—exiling Dante, a White, from Florence in the process—but then split up in turn into subfactions, while the exiled Whites, with Dante as their senior secretary and letter writer, sought to ally themselves with various power groups in Tuscany and Romagna, including some of Florence’s bitter enemies.
It is a dizzying story of petty squabbles, rivalries, and blood feuds between Florentine families and the Tuscan city-states, a story that holds some interest today primarily because Dante got caught up in the factionalism and devoted much of his Comedy to diagnosing and denouncing it. A proper understanding of the poem will always require some basic knowledge of the civil strife that Santagata reconstructs in meticulous detail.
He is at his best when tracing Dante’s whereabouts and activities during his obscure years of exile, when he wandered around central and northern Italy as a “stateless” person courting the hospitality of various patrons who found it useful to befriend a literate and learned Florentine who, among other things, could write eloquent letters in Latin for them. Santagata is not at his best when dealing with the Comedy as a poetic artifact. He tends to take what Dante’s pilgrim says and does as documentary evidence, and too often this blocks his access to the turbulent literary depths from which the poem’s thunderstorm draws its energy.
Thus Santagata takes at face value the pious reverence that Dante’s character shows toward Brunetto Latini in the subcircle of the sodomites, declaring on the basis of the scene that, in real life, Brunetto was “a father and a ‘master’ to [Dante], a master who taught ‘how man makes himself eternal,’ how he defeats death through writing.’” I will not repeat here what I wrote in these pages on another occasion, to the effect that the pilgrim’s posture of filial affection and veneration in Inferno 15 is fraught with an insidious irony. This undermines Brunetto’s authority and submits to a withering criticism—through dramatic irony, metaphor, and symbolism—the master’s doctrine that one conquers death and becomes eternal through writing, rather than faith.1 I will focus instead on another example of how the poem’s symbolism and subtexts tell a different story than the literal level of meaning. The example is Geri del Bello.
Geri del Bello is a minor figure in the Inferno whom Dante places among the schismatics and “sowers of discord” in the lower depths of Hell. In life he was Dante’s father’s first cousin and was killed by a member of the powerful Sacchetti family in 1287. In 1300—the year Dante’s pilgrim undertakes his journey in the afterlife—Geri’s death had still not been avenged. Dante’s character does not actually see Geri in the bolgia, or ditch, of the schismatics (he was too distracted), yet Virgil informs him a canto later that Geri had been making an angry gesture at Dante from a distance. The pilgrim explains to Virgil that Geri is aggrieved because his death remains unavenged, and that this weighs heavily on Dante’s conscience.
Taking Dante’s character at his word, Santagata writes: “We should not be surprised that Dante appears as a champion of vengeance. The private vendetta was one of the customs that a feudal society had passed on to city society.” He goes on to remark that “city laws had not gone as far as stopping it but only curbing it with a series of provisions that required the act of vengeance to be proportionate to the offense committed.”
Santagata makes no connection between those provisions and the ninth ditch of Malebolge, where Geri del Bello is located. I mention this because Inferno 28—one of the most important cantos of the canticle—revolves around the question of proportionate retaliation. Its last verse, spoken by the Provençal poet Bertran de Born, names for the first time the famous legge del contrapasso, or “law of counter-suffering,” that holds sway over the punishments in Hell. The term contrapasso comes from the Latin rendition of Aristotle’s term for retributive justice (tò antipeponthón). In his discussion of the biblical law of “life for life, eye for eye,” Thomas Aquinas states that “counter-suffering [contrapassum] denotes equal suffering repaid for previous action.”
This law of retaliation—life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth—would require that an Alighieri murder a Sacchetti in response to the murder of Geri del Bello, which in turn would lay the ground for a retaliatory response from the Sacchetti clan, and so on interminably. This is how blood feuds work, and this is how sectarian violence enters its infernal cycles.
Was Dante “a champion of vengeance,” as Santagata maintains? Let’s leave Dante aside for a moment and ask the same question of his poem. Does it champion retaliation as a mode of justice? Here it is necessary to read the poem in its poetic testimony and go beyond what the notes, commentaries, and biographies are able tell us about the contrapasso in Dante’s Inferno.
Every Dante student learns early on from teachers and the commentary tradition that the contrapasso posits a symbolic equivalence, if not identity, between a sin and its punishment. Thus the lustful who were swept up by their wayward passions in life are punished in Hell by being swept up in the infernal whirlwind of Inferno 5, and so forth. But why does the canto that names this law of counter-suffering open with images of extravagant excess and barrels overflowing their capacity? If one gathered up all the dead and wounded of all the wars fought on the Italian peninsula south of Rome since ancient times, Dante declares, “it would be nothing to equal the wretched mode of the ninth pocket,” i.e., the ninth ditch of Maleboge. Surely there is more to this preamble than hyperbole. If nothing can equal the punishments of the ninth pocket, what does this tell us about the law of “equal suffering repaid for previous action” that presumably governs the punishments?
The first sinner Dante sees in the ninth pocket is Muhammad, whom Dante, following medieval traditions, erroneously took to be a Christian apostate who instigated a schism within Christianity by founding Islam in the seventh century. As he circles the bolgia Muhammad is hacked open from his chin to his anus by a demon’s sword every time he appears before the demon. When Dante first lays eyes on him, Muhammad’s bowels are spilling out, dangling between his legs. And if that’s not enough, Muhammad then opens his chest with his hands and invites Dante to “see how Muhammad is torn open” (Vedi come storpiato è Mäometto).
Ahead of Muhammad walks his cousin and son-in-law Ali, founder of the Shiite sect. He too is cloven, from chin to forehead, completing the vertical gash that runs along Muhammad’s body. The symbolism could hardly be more suggestive for our day and age, when sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites continues to open gaping wounds in the body politic of the Middle East. (Divisiveness within the body politic of course has any number of other forms much closer to home.)
After a procession of other mutilated sinners, Inferno 28 ends with Dante fixated on the sight of Bertran de Born, the lord of Hautefort who fomented discord between King Henry II and his son. Bertran walks around the ninth pocket holding his severed head in front of him by its hair, like a lantern. Stunned by this gruesome sight, Dante fails to notice that some ways away the shade of his relative Geri del Bello, himself a sower of discord, is making angry gestures at him, clamoring for revenge on the Sacchetti—clamoring, that is, for Dante to reenact the law of counter-suffering on his behalf.
Why is it precisely in canto 28 that the punishments strike Dante (and his readers) as unbearably excessive, beyond any measure of equivalence? Perhaps it has something to do with recent changes in the laws of Italian city-states, whose governments in Dante’s time were beginning to demand reparations for certain crimes they considered harmful not only to specific individuals but also the body politic. These “enormous” crimes, either in scale or offense, called for enormous punishments, with the state demanding satisfaction as one of the injured parties. As the Dante scholar Justin Steinberg speculates in a book I reviewed in these pages, what Dante observes in Inferno 28 is “this very surplus that public authorities demanded from citizens who had violated the symbolic body of the state.”2
Whether Dante had such laws in mind or not, another reason for the enormity of punishment in canto 28 probably has to do with the infernal nature of revenge itself, which, when left to its own inner dynamic, tends quickly to spiral out of control and exceed all norms of equivalence. Hatred does not favor equivalence or proportion. Where it can, it retaliates to excess. This applies to individuals as well as states, and perhaps even to God, or at least a certain kind of God, when they consider themselves the injured party.
Hell’s ultimate image of the self-consuming and self-perpetuating nature of revenge comes in cantos 32 and 33, when Dante sees Count Ugolino trapped in a hole in the ninth circle’s lake of ice. In the hole with him is his archenemy Ruggieri, the back of whose head Ugolino gnaws at ferociously, like a dog on bone. Because Ruggieri had locked Ugolino and his children in a tower and starved them to death, Ugolino’s postmortem hunger for revenge is insatiable. The more he eats at the head of his “neighbor,” as Ugolino calls the one who shares his hole, the more he hungers for that “savage repast.”
If revenge and reciprocal violence are the essence of God’s justice, Dante’s Inferno despairs of God. It is impossible, at least for this reviewer, to read the cantos that bring Inferno to a close and not come to the conclusion that “Dieu n’est pas là,” as a French nun said of Bosnia-Herzegovina when it tore itself apart with civil war in the 1990s. The extravagance of the punishments in lower Hell suggests that in those cantos, if not in the canticle as a whole, an infernal rather than divine justice is on display.
When violence enters its cycles of reciprocity, when it spreads like a contagion out of all proportion, it turns into a form of mimetic insanity, drawing everyone, including God, into its vortex. Because Dante scholars operate on the assumption that their author is always in full control of his poem, they tend to blind themselves to all the indications that Dante—the author as well as his character—is starting to lose his mind at the end of Inferno.
In Inferno 28 the mimetic contagion is such that the pilgrim abuses a sinner with the words, “And death to your clan!” In canto 33, after Ugolino recounts how he cannibalized his children in the Tower of Hunger, Dante the author succumbs to wild murderous impulses. In his animus against the city of Pisa he bids the Arno River to overflow “so that it may drown every person in you!” Later in the same canto, Dante turns his rage against the city of Genoa: “Ah, men of Genoa, foreign to every decent usage, full of every vice, why have you not been driven from the world?” This is not the character but the author speaking. It is astounding, but true, that even the most acute commentators of The Divine Comedy pass over in silence these genocidal fantasies at the end of Inferno.
In his Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche declares that Dante made a crude blunder when he placed above the Gates of Hell the words “I too was created by eternal love.” He suggests that Dante would have done better to inscribe above the gateway to the Christian Paradise the words “I too was created by eternal hate.” He follows that with a quote from Thomas Aquinas to the effect that souls in heaven “will see the punishments of the damned, in order that their bliss be that much greater.”
Nietzsche’s claim about eternal hate would have some merit with respect to Dante if the souls in Dante’s heaven did in fact delight in seeing the damned suffer. Fortunately for him, and for his readers, Dante recovers his sanity once he exits Hell, and by the time he reaches the celestial spheres he is too enraptured to think about the sinners in Hell. Indeed, none of the souls in Paradiso shows the slightest interest in them. The only indication that they are even aware of the damned comes from Beatrice’s last words, in Paradiso 30, when she predicts the damnation of Pope Clement V, whose political conniving thwarted the campaign of the Emperor Henry VII in Italy between 1310 and 1313.3
Beatrice takes no pleasure in Clement V’s damnation, or in anyone else’s. What she expresses is anger—Dante’s own bitter anger—that those who make history on earth continue to opt for the lacerations of Hell rather than the sanity of justice.
While Santagata’s biography is short on insights into The Divine Comedy as a poem, it shows in granular detail what the peninsular history that Beatrice denounces in Paradiso 30 actually looked like up close—how randomly it unfolded, who its major as well as minor players were, and the power struggles that left almost no one untouched in central Italy. It was a story of shifting allegiances, rivalries, and crazed cycles of retaliation. The sectarian strife in Syria and Iraq today may be more devastating, thanks to modern weapons, but it is considerably less arbitrary and chaotic than the gratuitous, self-defeating infighting among Florentine families and Italian city-states in the late thirteen and early fourteenth centuries.
Thanks to its exquisite poetry of love, healing, and communion, the Comedy soars above this turbid local history, even while remaining bound up with it. The fact that it envisions an alternative—that it resolutely refuses to get trapped in Hell—renders the poem humanly beautiful as well as superhumanly sublime. In our time as much as in Dante’s time, Inferno gets most of the attention, for we recognize our world in its city of sorrows, but Purgatorio and Paradiso break through to the other side and show us that Hell is not the whole story.
Those two canticles reveal in manifold ways how the nightmares of history come under the sway of the human will. Hell is not a place. It is the series of consequences of human action. Dante understood human free will as a gift that we turn into a curse, especially when secular institutions of justice fail to fulfill their purpose on earth. Whether it assumes responsibility for its consequences or not, human agency takes charge of history.
When I say that there is no divine justice in Hell, I mean that God, in Dante’s vision, has put the human world under human jurisdiction. The freedom of human action is such that we humans choose whether to infernalize the world or render it humanly inhabitable through laws, education, and institutions of government. In the final analysis contrapasso is a law of consequence, of consequential counter-effect, built into human choices and actions.
Where tragedy reigns, human agency is ultimately powerless before the dictates of fate. Dante, by contrast, called his poem a Comedìa because in its vision fate is entrusted to human beings. Dante’s commitment to self-responsibility at the personal and collective levels was unconditional. In its expansive poetic manner, the Comedy declares that we have the world we deserve, and that we are the ones who must choose between communion or cannibalism.
At the time Dante had great hopes that Henry VII would put an end to civil strife and inaugurate a reign of peace in Italy, but Henry met with significant resistance in Tuscany and died unexpectedly near Siena, in August 1313, of malaria. ↩