Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Divine Comedy

(Bib. Trivulziana MS 1080. First page.)
      The Divine Comedy, written by Dante Alighiero (1265-1321) in the beginning of the fourteenth-century, is an epic poem that traces Dante’s journey through the three realms of the afterlife, namely Hell, Purgatory, and finally Heaven. The book is divided into three sections: the Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. Throughout Dante’s journey through Hell and Purgatory he is accompanied, and guided, by the Roman poet Virgil, the writer of the Aeneid. When Dante finally reaches Paradise (Heaven) he is reunited with his beloved, Beatrice, who guides Dante through the spheres of Heaven leading up to the Empyrean, the seat of God. Written in the Tuscan dialect and praised highly by Italian, particularly Florentine, society, the Divine Comedy assumes a prominent place in the history of medieval literature and it continues to have an influence on literary and artistic works even into the modern era. For this blog post you can see that we have been provided with more than one manuscript of the Divine Comedy, which should show exactly how popular the Divine Comedy was to medieval Europe as there exist several hundred different copies of Dante’s epic. There are subtle differences between the manuscripts that we have been provided, most notably that Biblioteca Comunale MS 88 that, while possessing very fine and beautiful illustrations, does not appear to specifically depict scenes from the Divine Comedy as Bib. Trivulziana MS 1080’s first page does; the illustration depicts Dante’s coming upon the dark wood in the beginning of the poem and being assaulting by several beasts before Virgil, having been sent by Beatrice, comes to Dante’s aid. Biblioteca Comunale MS 88, additionally, appears to boast Latin script written in the rubrics before switching back to what seems to be Italian which I will assume is of the Tuscan dialect, however, do not hold me to this for I am not, nor shall I ever claim to be an authority on medieval European languages of any kind. Each manuscript does, however, appear to have been fashioned in a very formal and traditional structure; the text being divided into two separate columns and the script is evenly distributed and neatly organized within the two columns.
(Domenico di Michelino, Dante holding the Divine Comedy, 1465)

     It is impossible to discuss the Divine Comedy without commenting on the breadth of its influence on various works of art, literature, and even more modern mediums such as movies, graphic novels, and video games (though I am loath to add this last one as each representation of Dante that I have seen in this medium has been filled with gaudy allusions created for the simple purpose of producing yet another over-the-top “historically signficant” gore fest to entertain people who can not be bothered to pick up a book; I am looking at you EA). The extent to which Dante’s journey through the afterlife has impacted creative work in the centuries since its creation simply can not be understated. Through his epic poem, Dante weaved an image of the afterlife that until its creation had not been readably available to Christian society despite its existence as being central to Christian dogma. By creating the Divine Comedy, Dante seemingly changed the way that people thought about the afterlife, how it functioned, and the way that it was presented. This is clearly evidenced by the multitude of artwork, created in just the fifteenth century, that is either directly influenced by or was created to depict scenes from the Divine Comedy. Dante holding the Divine Comedy by Domenico di Michelino in 1465 is one the most famous depictions of Dante. Adorning the interior of Florence’s Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower, the painting is of Dante holding a copy of the Divine Comedy with the circles of Hell, the mountain of Purgatory, the spheres of Heaven, and the city of Florence in the background. What was particularly interesting about the Biblioteca Comunale MS 88 was actually the lack of scene illustration from the Divine Comedy itself, as most of the manuscripts that I had seen of the Divine Comedy possessed some elements from the text itself. Whether it was the depiction of a triple-faced Satan imprisoned in ice at the bottom of Hell as his mouths busy themselves with their own Brutus, Cassius, and Judas chew-toys or Dante meeting the twelve wise-men in fourth sphere of Heaven, the Divine Comedy is a work that simply lends itself to illustration and is vivid enough in its detail that it is both easy to imagine and relatively easy to illustrate (with the exception of the artistically impotent such as myself).

Sandro Botticelli, Inferno, Canto XXXIV (detail), 1480s, silverpoint on parchment, completed in pen and ink (Staatliche Museen, Berlin

In addition to its influence, one of the elements of the Divine Comedy that has always interested me is the social commentary that Dante’s journey provides on how certain historical figures were perceived by Dante and as a possible extent by medieval European society. Being personally inclined towards Roman history, the use of Classical figures in the Divine Comedy has always drawn my attention, the appearance of Julius Caesar in Limbo in particular. Through each successive level of Hell that Dante passes way through he comes across dozens of notable historical figures. There are popes, mythical heroes, kings, generals, and queens littered throughout Hell’s landscape, all having committed some sin for them to have earned their place in their respective levels of Hell. Caesar, however, a pagan, known adulterer, and all around proud and vain individual is merely allocated a lesser form of Heaven because he had not been baptized and held belief in God. Additionally, men who assassinated him are given the prominent place beside Judas Iscariot inside the mouths of Satan. What does this say about Dante’s, and possibly medieval society’s, opinion of Julius Caesar? Through his narrative, Dante has placed Caesar as a being whose betrayal and death was near equivalent to that of Christ and Caesar, despite being a pagan, is simply subjected to a depreciated version of heaven. And being that Caesar had been noted for his more modest lifestyle, as he hardly drank and is even recorded as having consumed stale bread or crackers for dinner without complaint while the other guests turned their noses up to such a meager appetizer, I doubt he would have been complaining very much. Does “Divine” Julius still hold the same sway to medieval society that he did while he was still alive and is it possible that even Christian European society believed that Caesar was cut from a different cloth than the remainder of humanity? What if Caesar had been a Christian? Where might Dante have placed such a prominent Classical figure in his narrative had he been baptized and been of the Christian faith? Or is it simply coincidence that Dante has placed allusions to Caesar and he merely needed a prominent historical figure to tie together the narrative of his poem? These, and other inquires like them, are just some of the of the elements that one is able to pull out of this text. It truly speaks to the longevity of the Divine Comedy that, nearly seven centuries after its creation, Dante’s epic still manages to permeate modern society in multiple forms.

1 comment:

  1. Dante’s inferno is certainly an extremely interesting portrayal of hell, and a very influential one at that. A lot of what Christians and non-Christians alike know as scriptural ideas about hell actually consists of scenes from Dante’s inferno. The point that you bring up about the social ramifications of the portrayal of certain political figures in Hell is also very interesting, and has serious ramifications for the culture of the time period as a whole. It is interesting to imagine something similar being done today by a popular writer. Who would be in Hell? Who would be in purgatory? Who would have made it into heaven? It is easy to forget how similar to us the people from that time period (and it seems like most time periods) but people were just as snarky back then. Divine Comedy indeed!
    All in all the Divine Comedy represents an excellent piece of literature, and the manuscript reflects that. I like the illustrations on the page and I feel like they adequately represent the text. The borders on the first page promote the idea of the great journey hat Dante is about to undertake.