Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Divine Comedy

The Divine Comedy has had an amazing form of influence on our society, religions, and popular culture. Dante’s texts permeate with ideas not actually witnessed in the Bible, but accepted today as parts of the Christian religion, such as the description and image of the devil, the image of hell, and the expansion upon the creatures of hell and purgatory. Most of these were never named nor described in the Bible, leading to Dante’s incredible trilogy setting the standard for most of those ideas.

The trilogy includes Dante’s Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise, which follows as Dante himself travels through the three. It begins with Dante finding the entrance to hell, when Virgil, the famous philosopher, finds him and directs him through the circles of hell, each one worse than the last, and representing a different type of torture for different sins. When they arrive to the final circle, they see Satan continuously eating the bodies of the three greatest sinners: Judas, Brutus, and Cassius. Then, Virgil shows him through purgatory, where those who did not prove themselves in life, must do so now to gain entrance to Paradise. They walk through the seven gates of the Great Vices (wrath, lust, sloth, gluttony, pride, envy, covetousness) which is seen as a great mountain, until arriving to the peak of Paradise. There, since Virgil was seen as a pagan he is not allowed to enter, so Beatrice (believed to be Dante’s lady of love) continues to show Dante Paradise.
Depiction of Satan in the Codex Gigas, before the time of Dante

Depiction of Satan from Dante's Inferno

Not only did The Divine Comedy expand upon the Bible’s mythology, but it began a new genre for the newly created middle class at the time. Before, the literature that was available typically held the purpose of morality, learning, or religious prayer or education, and reading for entertainment was practically unknown. However, the emergence of the middle class gave the perfect scenario for the success of Dante’s Comedy
Archivo Storico Civico e Biblioteca Trivulziana - Comune de Milano, Cod. Triv. 1080, fol. 70

For the first time, there was a class of literate people with enough money to focus on activities other than just sustainment, that weren't the lofted higher class, which finally created a situation for a book trade outside of the clergy and students. Professional scribes, illuminators and illustrators would all work together to copy a work, which typically was requested by the middle class. When The Divine Comedy caught on in and beyond Italy, mass production of the text began and was funded majorily by the middle class. So many manuscripts were made, and it became such an influential part of life, that evidence of the Dante’s text can be found in art, orchestral pieces, and even The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer. Without realizing it, Dante created a form of heaven, hell and purgatory, that we still use today.

Gates of Hell, from Dante's Inferno, the Video Game

1 comment:

  1. One of the most outstanding features of Dante’s Divine Comedy is the dramatic effect that is achieved by the poem’s linguistic structure; more than half of the tale is dialogue between its characters. And here, “characters” primarily means Dante, Virgil, and Beatrice, however over a hundred others appear throughout the text, each of which speaks at least once, but many much more often that that. There is also a considerable amount of singing that occurs, though Dante does not include the whole song, only the first line or half line; this is done presumably to conserve space and because much of his readership would already have been familiar with the songs that he includes. (Fun fact: Inferno includes no singing, and Paradise no weeping.)

    But what does this tell us about this codex’s place in history? While I am no authority, as I have never read the text firsthand, texts that focus so heavily on dialogue generally have a theatricality to them that makes them dramatic and moving, especially when they are read out loud, as poetry and songs typically are. In Ernest H. Wilkins’s “Voices of the Divine Comedy,” where much of the information I discuss here came from, he makes exactly that point; he suggests that any students of Dante’s works organize a sort of staged reading, where each major voice has its own actor, so that they can experience the full effect of this linguistically dramatic work.