IAN THOMSON is a travel writer, and here he attempts the most ambitious journey of all in the company of Dante — “to hell and back”, as he puts it in his heading to the introduction. He is well aware that the Divine Comedy was written a long time ago, in medieval Italian, and in a world remote in many of its assumptions from those that he expects his readers to share; so he sets about providing a bridge to take them there.
His second chapter is a biography of Dante, set in the context of the warfare of Guelfs and Ghibellines in Dante’s Florence, which he sketches with a knowledgeable eye on modern Italian politics. There follows an exploration of the Beatrice story and the place that she — or the idea of her — played in Dante’s emotional and intellectual development as he grew up, and became a poet. Then come chapters on the explosive Florentine political scene where the young Dante was worsted, and from which he went into exile.
There was controversy when he wrote his De Monarchia: a call to bring back a Roman Empire that he thought was needed, to counter what he saw as the Roman Catholic Church’s excessive intrusions into secular affairs.
Some years into that poorly recorded period of exile, Dante began to write his story of journeying into the circles of hell, purgatory, and heaven. Cantos seem to have been circulated before the whole work was completed, but the Comedy had its innate order, as Dante describes it, covering the potential “journey of our life”, from the point of view of its consequences.
public domain/wikimedia commonsA young crimson-robed Dante in a fresco in teh Palazzo del Bargello, Florence. The portrait is thought to be by Giotto. From the book
Now Thomson introduces his readers to hell. Here, Dante’s guide was his fellow-poet Virgil, whose own descent into hell is recorded in the sixth book of the Aeneid. Dante’s hell is strictly Christian, written for a readership that was taught that it was statistically likely to spend eternity there, and ordered in its degrees of unpleasantness according to the nastiness of the behaviour that had put each sufferer into the appropriate circle. Leaving hell past Satan’s smelly feet, Dante and Virgil move into purgatory. Here, the sufferers have the comfort of knowing that, when they have served their time there, heaven awaits them.
The theology of purgatory was still relatively new, worked out only from the 12th century, and Thomson shows how Dante treats the subject partly as an educational experience. Virgil, a pagan, cannot guide Dante into heaven, and from heaven’s gate it is Beatrice who leads Dante on. But even she cannot show him everything; for the full reality of the glory of God is hidden from him.
The last chapters describe the after-history of the Comedy, its survival down the centuries into commentaries, translations, and today’s film-making. The book is nicely illustrated with a wide range of images, from the attempts of artists to illustrate Dante’s themes to photos of modern figures with links to the man and his work.
Dr G. R. Evans is Emeritus Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge.
Dante’s Divine Comedy: A journey without end
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