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NA431712 - DANTE: Divine Comedy (The) - 1. Inferno (Unabridged)
The Divine Comedy is an epic poem in three parts, describing the poet’s imagined journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, and culminating in his vision of God.
To this extent it has much in common with the epic masterpieces of Homer and Virgil whose roots are in history and myth; but the Commedia is also an allegory, dealing with nothing less than man’s relationship with and place within the universe. Dante’s universe was, of course, a medieval one in which the sun and stars revolved around the Earth, and while the Commedia takes account of contemporary science in minute detail, his vision of the way in which the regions of the afterworld might be contained within this framework is brilliant in its originality. Hell (the Inferno) is conceived as a tapering funnel plunging down into the earth beneath the northern hemisphere. At its deepest point a passage leads out into the southern hemisphere, where Mount Purgatory—its shape mirroring that of Hell—tapers upwards towards Heaven. Paradise itself is conceived as a series of ten ‘spheres’ encircling the Earth, with God somewhere beyond the tenth, merely glimpsed by Dante as consciousness ebbs from him.
This colossal construction is subdivided to create a zone for every facet of human nature. In Hell and Purgatory a place is allotted for every sin and foible which exists within the world, while in Paradise the pure and just, the saints and the Holy Trinity are arranged in a strict hierarchy. Dante peoples each region with figures from literature, history and from his own contemporary society. This allows him to comment on issues of morality not in merely abstract terms, but in relation to actual people and events, many of them of titillating contemporary relevance. Because of this many of the names encountered mean nothing to modern readers, and this is one of the reasons why most editions of Dante incorporate many pages of notes for each page of text (a practice which began, incidentally, within a few years of the poem’s first publication). The main purpose, however, is not to point the finger or poke fun at friends and enemies (though there is undoubtedly an element of this, especially in the Inferno), but to examine the reality of man’s human and spiritual nature in all its various and complex manifestations.
One of the principal characters in the Divine Comedy (though she does not actually appear in the Inferno) is Beatrice, whose significance in Dante’s life needs to be understood. Dante first met and fell in love with Beatrice Portinari when she was eight and he nine years old. He worshipped her from afar until her early death at the age of twenty-four. (The full story of this strange ‘love affair’ is told by Dante in his La Vita Nuova.) Beatrice then came to symbolise for Dante all that is pure and worthy. In the Commedia it is Beatrice who sends the poet Virgil to guide Dante through Hell and Purgatory. There she herself assumes responsibility for his journey of discovery, and it is she who reveals to him the splendours of Paradise, leading him eventually to “that love that moves the Sun and other stars”.
Dante calls the three books of the Divine Comedy ‘canzoni’. Each contains 33 chapters or ‘cantos’, except Infernowhich has an additional introductory canto—making 100 cantos in all. Each canto contains roughly 150 lines composed according to a strict metrical and rhyme scheme. The language of the poem is, importantly, not Latin (as was customary for high art in Dante’s day) but the language used by educated people in 14th century Florence. In addition Dante made liberal use of archaic language and regional dialects, all of which makes life very difficult for the modern translator. But Dante’s purpose was to make his work readable by the ‘ordinary’ reader—not merely clerics and academics—for despite its lofty theme and layers of symbolism, the Divine Comedy is intended to speak to us directly through the power of Dante’s imagery and narrative skill.
This work has not only endured, but has exerted a powerful influence on Western thought for almost seven centuries, especially perhaps the Inferno, whose characters and images can be found peppered throughout literature and art right up to the present day. Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini and Puccini’s Gianni Schicci are borrowed from it. Illustrations for Dante editions inspired well-known masterpieces by Botticelli, Blake and Doré, while the pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti—(his first name an obvious choice for a father who was a Dante scholar and reputedly able to recite the entire Commedia from memory)—returned time and again to Dante for inspiration, notably in the enigmatic “Beata Beatrix”. Samuel Beckett’s plays and novels are full of allusions to both Inferno and Purgatory—shades walking slowly weighed down by leaden cloaks (Inf. Canto XXIII), creatures swimming in mud poking and whistling at one another (Inf. Canto XXII), and indolent characters with little inclination to struggle any further (Purg. Canto IV).
Listeners to this reading of the Inferno may be struck, too, by Dante’s extraordinary vision when, in Canto XXV, a serpent and sinner combine and transform one another in a way which, it might be supposed, was invented by computer ‘morphing’. And no horror film has yet surpassed the frozen wastes of the deepest region of Dante’s Hell, where the tears of the damned make their eyes freeze over, and where the mortal body of a sinner can begin its torture even before the point of actual death. Be warned.
Dante awakens in a gloomy wood. He tries to leave climbing a sunlit mountain but is driven back by three beasts (Leopard, Lion and She-wolf, symbolising worldly pleasure, ambition, and avarice). He meets Virgil, the poet, who offers to guide him.
Son of Anchises: This was Aeneas. In the Aeneid
Virgil retells the story of Aeneas’ flight from Troy
after its defeat by the Greeks and his foundation
of the city which would become Rome.
Late that evening. Dante doubts his worthiness for the journey. Virgil comforts him explaining that he was sent by Beatrice. Dante takes heart and they set out.
Silvius’ father: Aeneas, who also journeyed to
the underworld (in the Aeneid) where he met his
father who prophesied his son’s role in the future
glory of Rome.
The Poets arrive at the door of Hell and pass through to the antechamber. Within are shades who achieved neither praise nor blame in life, rejected by Heaven and Hell. Charon, who ferries the souls of the damned to Hades, refuses to ferry the living soul across the Acheron. Dante falls unconscious.
good of intellect: souls who lost sight of the
‘Supreme Truth’ or God.
They descend to the Second Circle where the lustful are carried aloft in a violent wind. Minos, who judges the dead and assigns them their place in Hell, bars their way. Dante hears Francesca da Rimini’s tale of love and death and faints with pity.
Semiramis: the Assyrian empress, rumoured
guilty of incest with her son.
Dante awakens in the Third Circle where the Gluttonous are tormented by freezing filthy rain and the three-headed dog Cerberus, the watchdog of Hell. Ciacco recognises Dante. He makes a prophecy. Virgil describes The Final Judgement.
solid human flesh: shades only appear to have
corporeal form, although they feel actual physical
The poets meet Plutus at the entrance to the Fourth Circle. Here the Avaricious and the Spendthrifts roll weights against each other in opposing semi-circles. They descend to the Fifth Circle where the Wrathful tear at each other and the Slothful bubble beneath the Styx.
Plutus: god of wealth in myth. The words are
Still in the Fifth Circle Dante and Virgil come to a tall tower. They cross the Styx with Phlegyas, encountering Filippo Argenti. They draw near the red-hot walls of the city of Dis. Their progress to lower Hell is obstructed.
Phlegyas:…guardian and ferryman of the Styx.
At the gate of Dis. Virgil tries to calm Dante’s fear. The Furies appear and Virgil warns Dante not to look at Medusa. The divine messenger arrives and orders the demons to let the poets through. They enter Dis and reach the Sixth Circle where they encounter the Arch-heretics in their red-hot sepulchres.
three Furies: Tisiphone, Megaera and Alecto,
bringers of retribution and torment. The Queen
of endless misery is Hecate, wife of Pluto.
Canto X Still in the Sixth Circle the poets come to the Heretics and the Epicureans. Farinata degli Uberti explains that souls in Hell know nothing of the present but are able to remember the past and foresee the future.
Jehosephat: a valley near Jerusalem where the
Last Judgement will take place and souls will be
reunited with their bodies.
Dante and Virgil pause beside Pope Anastasius’ tomb before descending to the Seventh Circle. Virgil explains the arrangement of punishment in Hell. Violence in the three rounds of the Seventh Circle; ordinary fraud in the Eighth Circle and complex fraud in the Ninth. Having passed through the circles punishing the (lesser) Mortal sins of Incontinence, Lust, Gluttony, Avarice, Sloth, and Wrath, the sins prompted by Envy and Pride lie ahead.
Anastasius: Pope 494–498. Held as heretic
because of his support for Photinus of
Thessalonica who denied Christ’s divine birth.
The Seventh Circle, First Round: the Violent Against their Neighbours. The Minotaur and the Centaurs, half man, half horse, led by Chiron. Nessus guides them across the boiling blood of Phlegethon where the Tyrants and Murderers are immersed.
infamy of Crete: the Minotaur, part-man, partbull
born of Queen Pasiphaë who satisfied her lust
with a bull. He was killed by Theseus duke of
Seventh Circle, Second Round: the Violent against Themselves. The Wood of Suicides. Harpies and The Profligates, hunted by hounds.
Cecina and Corneto: the limits of the Maremma,
a Tuscan swamp.
Seventh Circle, Third Round: the violent against God, Nature and Art. Blasphemers, supine on the burning sand. The Ancient Man of Crete whose tears form the rivers of Hell.
Capaneus: one of the Seven who besieged
Thebes was struck by Jove’s thunderbolt after
blaspheming that the gods could not defeat him.
Seventh Circle, Third Round: Sodomites (scholars and clerics) eternally moving across the burning sand beneath a rain of fire.
Brunetto Latini: the Florentine, Guelph
statesman–politician and writer 1212–94 wrote
Livres dou Tresor, an encyclopaedic work and
Tesoretto a didactic poem. He was in some way an
early mentor of Dante.
Seventh Circle, Third Round: Sodomites (warriors and leaders). The decadence of Florence. Phlegethon plummets over the precipice. Dante’s cord summons a monstrous figure.
Guido Guerra and Tegghiaio Aldobrandi:
Guelph leaders. Little is known of Jacopo
Rusticucci. My downfall was my wife suggests
he was driven to homosexuality by her.
Geryon. Seventh Circle Third Round: Violent Against Nature and Art. Usurers with their purses. Virgil and Dante descend to the Eighth Circle.
the monster: Geryon was the mythological
Spanish giant king killed by Hercules in the course
of his Labours.
The Eighth Circle, Malebolge, with Ten Ditches containing those who committed Fraud against mankind in general. The First Ditch; Panders and Seducers, scourged by demons. The Second Ditch; Flatterers immersed in filth.
Malebolge: a word invented by Dante meaning
‘evil pouches’, where sinners are pocketed in a set
of concentric ditches.
The Eighth Circle, Third Ditch: the Simonists set head down into holes in the rock, flames tormenting their feet.
Simon Magus: tried to buy the power of the Holy
Spirit from Peter and John. The sin of simony, the
fraudulent use of the Church and sale of its offices
for money or power, derives from his name.
Eighth Circle, Fourth Ditch: Soothsayers, Astrologers, Magicians, whose heads are twisted so that they look only backwards. Virgil explains the origin of Mantua.
amazing deformation: these sinners who
attempted to divine the future, are forced to look
Eighth Circle, Fifth Ditch: Barrators, swindlers in civic and public office, plunged beneath boiling pitch guarded by demons. A new arrival from Lucca. Dante and Virgil proceed, escorted by demons.
Malebranche: the generic name for the demons.
Eighth Circle, Fifth Ditch Barrators. The demons fork out a Navarrese barrator from the pitch. The Navarrese plays a trick; two demons end up in the pitch.
You Aretines: Dante was at the battle of
Campaldino 1289, when Guelphs from Florence
and Lucca defeated Ghibellines from Arezzo.
Eighth Circle, Fifth Ditch: Barrators. Pursued by demons, Dante and Virgil escape by scrambling down the bank into the Sixth Ditch where the Hypocrites file along beneath cloaks of lead. The Jovial Friars of Bologna.
King Frederick’s: a punishment instituted by
Emperor Frederick II for traitors. They were given a
leaden cape, which was melted on their bodies.
A difficult passage to the Eighth Circle, Seventh Ditch. The Thieves. The sinner bitten by a serpent turns to ash, then resumes his shape. Vanni Fucci, and his prophecy.
heliotrope: a stone that protected the wearer
from snake bite.
Eighth Circle, Seventh Ditch: the Thieves. The centaur Cacus. Three Florentine thieves arrive, then two more in the form of snakes. Bizarre metamorphoses occur.
Pistoia: was supposedly founded by the remnants
of the army of Catiline, composed of criminals and
They leave the Seventh Ditch for the Eighth Ditch, Dante, condemns Florence. The poets view the Eighth Ditch, where those who counselled fraud burn in the flames that enclose them. Ulysses and Diomedes share a flame. Ulysses describes his final voyage.
avenged by bears: Elisha, mocked by some boys
who were later eaten by bears. He saw Elijah
ascend to heaven in a fiery chariot.
Eighth Circle, Eighth Ditch: Fraudulent Counsellors. The state of Romagna. Guido’s tale of self-deception.
As the torturer’s Sicilian bull: Perillus of Sicily
constructed a brass bull as an instrument of
torture for the tyrant Phalaris. Victims were
roasted inside the bull so fashioned that their cries
sounded as if the bull itself was bellowing. Perillus
was its first victim.
Eighth Circle, Ninth Ditch: the sowers of discord perpetually circling wounded after each turn by a demon. Mohammed and Ali. Warnings to those still alive.
Apulia’s fateful earth: to Dante ‘Apulia’
described southern Italy, scene of the following
Eighth Circle, Ninth Ditch: sowers of discord. Dante expects to see an ancestor. He and Virgil cross the bridge into the Tenth Ditch where the Falsifiers lie with their hideous diseases. The Alchemists.
Geri del Bello: kinsman of Dante and
troublemaker. Altaforte is Bertran de Born.
Eighth Circle, Tenth Ditch: the Falsifiers. Gianni Schicchi and Myrrha (impersonators); Master Adamo (counterfeiter) Potiphar’s wife and Sinon the Greek (perjurers). The quarrel between Adamo and Sinon.
Semele: a Theban princess seduced by Jupiter. In
revenge Juno drove mad Semele’s brother-in-law
Athamas. He took his wife Ino for a lioness and
their children for cubs then killed them.
Dante and Virgil descend to the Ninth Circle, the well at the bottom of the abyss. Around it the Giants are visible from the waist up. Dante sees Nimrod and Ephialtes. Antaeus lowers them to the frozen Lake of Cocytus, fourth river of Hell.
Achilles: Achilles and his father Peleus possessed
a lance that could heal the wounds it inflicted.
Ninth Circle, First Ring: Caïna, named after Cain, who killed his brother Abel. Traitors to their kin immersed in ice up to the neck. The Second Ring: Antenora, named after the Trojan traitor. Betrayers of their country. Dante encounters two traitors, one gnawing at the other’s head.
those ladies: the muses.
Ninth Circle, Second Ring. Ugolino’s tale of his death. Virgil and Dante proceed to the Third Ring, named ‘Tolomea’ after Ptolomy, the captain of Jericho, who killed his guests as they ate with him. The traitors to hospitality, eyes sealed by frozen tears. Some alive on earth but already in Hell.
Count Ugolino: a Ghibelline of Pisa, betrayed
Pisan strongholds to Florence and Lucca in 1284.
Later, plotting with Archbishop Ruggieri and the
Gualandi, Sismondi and Lanfranchi families
against his kinsmen the Visconti, he was betrayed by Ruggieri who imprisoned him in the Tower of
Hunger to starve.
The final division of Hell. Ninth Circle, Fourth Ring; Judecca, named after Judas Iscariot. Traitors to their benefactors totally immersed in ice. Lucifer rending Judas, Brutus and Cassius. Descent of the poets down Lucifer’s body, to the southern hemisphere. The stars.
Judas Iscariot: who betrayed Christ; Brutus and
Cassius conspired to kill Caesar.
Notes by Benedict Flynn
The music on this recording is taken from the NAXOS catalogue
Chominciamento di gioia
Gregorian Chant for Good Friday
Music programming by Roger Marsh
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