Dante Alighieri

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Inferno Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Dante Alighieri's Inferno. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Dante Alighieri

Born around 1265 in the city of Florence, Dante Alighieri is now widely recognized as the greatest poet of Italian literature and, for his work in standardizing an Italian dialect, is often called the father of the Italian language. Dante grew up in Florence during a time of political unrest, with constant feuds between opposing political factions. It is unclear how wealthy his family was, but he was neither poor nor exceedingly noble. He had an arranged marriage with a woman of a noble background, Gemma di Manetto Donati, but he fell in love with a woman named Beatrice, who appears repeatedly in his poetry. Together with other educated men of Florence (including Brunetto Latini, who appears in The Inferno), Dante pioneered a literary movement based around the style known as dolce stil nuovo ("sweet new style"). As a result of backing a losing political faction, Dante was exiled from Florence for life and it is during this exile that he wrote The Divine Comedy. He is also known for writing La Vita Nuova, a work celebrating his love for Beatrice, and composed other minor works. Shortly after finishing The Divine Comedy, Dante died, still in exile from Florence, and was buried in the town of Ravenna.
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Historical Context of Inferno

In Dante's lifetime, Italy was not yet a unified nation, but rather an assortment of independent, feuding cities. Dante's native city, Florence, was the site of much social strife and political turmoil, especially between two groups: the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. The Ghibellines supported the primary secular power of the Holy Roman Empire, while the Guelphs did not. The Guelph's had defeated the Ghibellines and exiled the Ghibellines from Florence about a little over a decade before Dante wrote The Divine Comedy. After the Guelph's had taken power, though, they soon split into factions: the Black Guelphs, who wanted to work with Pope Boniface VIII (whom Dante despised) to maintain power, and the White Guelphs, who preferred Florentine independence from Papal influence. Dante was a prominent member of the White Guelph's, but they lost the struggle and were themselves exiled from Florence, including Dante. Dante, in fact, wrote The Divine Comedy while in exile. Many parts of The Divine Comedy serve as a way for Dante to comment on and criticize his Florentine and Italian contemporaries, by placing prominent citizens in hell as characters in his poem, for example.

Other Books Related to Inferno

Dante himself places his epic poem in a tradition of works by great classical authors like Homer, Virgil, and Ovid. His poem incorporates and rewrites characters and motifs from these earlier works. The Divine Comedy is also indebted to many theological ideas from the writings of the Christian philosopher and priest St. Thomas Aquinas.
Key Facts about Inferno
  • Full Title: The Divine Comedy (The Inferno is the first of three sections of The Divine Comedy)
  • When Written: Early 1300s (exact date unclear)
  • Where Written: Italy
  • When Published: Unclear, but at least by 1317
  • Literary Period: The (late) middle ages
  • Genre: Epic poem (written in an Italian rhyme scheme called terza rima)
  • Setting: Hell
  • Climax: While The Inferno is only the first third of Dante's Divine Comedy, one may locate a climax in Canto 34, when Dante sees Lucifer, the epitome of sin and evil, at the very core of hell, the final sinner he sees on his journey through hell.
  • Antagonist: There is no single antagonist, but sin is, in a sense, the main thing Dante struggles against. All the characters that threaten to thwart or delay Dante and Virgil's journey, from individual sinners to monsters to Lucifer himself, can be seen as agents of sin.
  • Point of View: Dante narrates the poem in the first-person, recalling his own journey.

Extra Credit for Inferno

How Divine. Dante originally titled his epic masterpiece simply La Commedia (the comedy), meaning that, as opposed to a tragedy, it had a happy ending. However, the Italian poet Boccaccio admired it so much that he suggested adding the word divina to the title, giving the work the name it has been commonly known by now for centuries: The Divine Comedy.

The Number 3. The number three is very significant for the structure of Dante's poem: there are three sections (Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso), and each section has 33 Cantos (except Inferno, which has an extra, introductory canto to make 34), while the entire poem is written in three-line stanzas (in an Italian form called terza rima). The number three and its multiples can be found all throughout The Inferno: hell has nine circles, for example, while Lucifer has three heads.