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Dante Alighieri

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Learn about the historical and cultural context surrounding Dante Alighieri's epic poem Inferno with Course Hero's video study guide.

Inferno | Context


Dante's Inferno is informed by Florentine politics, classical philosophy and mythology, and Catholic doctrine. It uses a rhyme scheme invented by the poet for the work.

Florentine Politics

In the late 13th century Italy was not a united country (it would unify much later, in the 19th century), and individual city-states had widely varying dialects and cultures. Each region had its own political structure. Florentine politics were divided into those who supported the pope, the leader of the Catholic Church, and those who supported the Roman emperors. The Guelphs, supporters of the pope, eventually prevailed over the Ghibellines, the emperors' supporters. However, by the 1290s the Guelph party had divided into two opposing factions: Whites, the lesser citizens who became opposed to the pope; and Blacks, the rich merchants who held fast in their support of the papacy and Pope Boniface VIII. By 1300 Dante had become one of the six priors, a high public office and position of leadership. When Pope Boniface VIII tried to gain more control of the Florentine economy, the six priors, including Dante, opposed him. The Blacks, supported by the pope, took control of the city and had Dante exiled while he was away on a diplomatic mission, so that, without warning, he was unable to ever come home again.

Classical Philosophy and Mythology

Inferno is full of references to classical works written by Greek and Roman philosophers and poets. Virgil, who becomes Dante's guide, is the author of The Aeneid, a famous Roman epic poem in which Aeneas, among other adventures, visits the underworld and converses with the dead there. Dante's Hell is structured according to the categories of sin set forth in the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle, a 4th-century BCE Greek philosopher. It is populated by creatures from Greek and Roman mythology and characters from Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. Because Dante expected his audience to be familiar with these works, as well as with Florentine current events, he does not explain every allusion or reference. Footnotes or an annotated version of the poem will help dedicated readers keep track of Dante's references to literature, the Bible, and real-life Florentine figures.

The Catholic Church

Catholic teachings are found throughout Inferno. Two in particular help to inform the plot of the poem. The Harrowing of Hell is an event in which Christ descended to Hell after his own death but before his resurrection. While there, he released those imprisoned who deserved to go to Heaven instead. Although the Harrowing of Hell was an official teaching of the Church, its source is only loosely biblical; just one verse in the Bible implies such an event. However, apocryphal sources included this event in even greater detail and the idea became popular. The Last Judgment is another event that is important in Dante's Inferno. According to Catholic teaching, the Last Judgment occurs at the end of time, when Christ returns to judge all who have ever lived, determining their eternal fates. The dead will rise in a mass resurrection to be judged. Many in Dante's time believed that when people died, they were immediately judged, and their souls, but not their bodies, were sent to the appropriate section of the afterlife to await this final, more perfect, judgment.

Canto and Terza Rima Form

Inferno, an epic poem, was written in Italian, rather than in Latin or Greek, as was the norm for this genre. It is divided into cantos, or major sections, and written in terza rima. This poetic form consists of three-line stanzas with a chain rhyme scheme (aba bcb cdc, and so on) that Dante invented for this work, and which other Italian poets, including Petrarch, adopted. The terza rima form is not often adopted by English translators of the poem because the limitations created by the use of rhyming words can obscure shades of meaning in the original poem.

Inferno as Allegory

Inferno is an allegory—a literary device in which symbolism and imagery help readers understand abstract ideas in an accessible way. Dante's journey through Hell symbolizes his quest to live a virtuous life and go to Heaven. The fierce leopard, wolf, and lion he encounters are allegorical animals, each one symbolizing a vice that puts temptation in Dante's way and could lead him to stray from the path to Heaven. The suffering of the sinners in Hell is also allegorical; the punishment for each kind of sinner is representative of the sin.

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