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Posts Tagged ‘inferno’

When Is Dante’s Birthday?

May 26, 2015 | by

Looking to the stars to find Dante’s birthday.


Sidney Hall’s etching of Gemini, 1825.

The exact date of Dante Alighieri's birth is, authorities say, unknown. For his sesquiquincentenary (that's 750th) in 2015, the Vatican played it safe by starting its celebrations on May 4, with Pope Francis expressing his hope that Dante and his work will accompany us during this year on our dark way. That same day, Roberto Benigni read from The Divine Comedy on the floor of the Italian Senate, a reading broadcast to the nation. (His lovely, nonhammy recital of Canto I of Inferno is online, along with many other clips.) Well, let church and state proceed with caution. I say it’s today.

Dante’s journey to the underworld, and overworld, took place during Easter week of the year 1300, when he was “midway on his life’s journey”: halfway to the Biblical seventy, or thirty-five years old. So he was born in 1265, as Boccaccio, in the first biography of Dante, confirms. Read More »

Recapping Dante: Your Midterm Exam

February 10, 2014 | by

Standardized Test Tom Woodward

Photo: Tom Woodward/Flickr

This week, we pause our winter-long recap of the Inferno (read along!) to quiz you on all that we’ve learned thus far. This is an open-book exam; all grades are final. Good luck!

Part I: Multiple Choice

1. Dante is
(a) The poet’s first name
(b) The poet’s last name
(c) The poet’s performance alias, à la Madonna or Ginuwine
(d) The owner of the peak in the 1997 Pierce Brosnan vehicle, Dante’s Peak

2. In canto 1, Dante encounters a Lonza, a beast best described as
(a) A leopard-lion hybrid
(b) Probably completely made up
(c) An allegorical stand-in for Dante’s enemies in the City of Florence
(d) All of the above

3. In canto 5, Francesca tells Dante that she was unfaithful to her husband after reading a love story. What story was it?
(a) The story of Dido and Aeneas
(b) The story of Lancelot
(c) Ars Erotica, Ovid’s bodice ripper
(d) Irrelevant. The story she was reading was merely a vehicle for the affair, not the cause of it

4. A Dantista is
(a) The Italian word for dentist
(b) A Dante scholar
(c) A female Dante scholar with attitude
(d) A superlative used to describe Dante’s best work
 Read More »


Recapping Dante: Canto 11, or Foul Smells and Boring Theological Discussions Ahead

December 16, 2013 | by


Detail of a miniature of Dante and Virgil looking into the tomb of Pope Anastasius.

As Dante and Virgil make their way through the City of Dis (and see the tomb of yet another pope), Dante has a moment very much like the one where you open the bathroom door at work and are assaulted by the fumes of a previous occupant’s abomination. Of course, in this case, it’s the smell of lower hell. Virgil gives Dante a few minutes to compose himself and assures him that he’ll find a way to make the time pass while Virgil describes the rest of hell. In many ways, canto 11 is a lot like canto 2—it’s a way of briefly making everything clear to both Dante and to the reader. It’s Virgil’s way of saying, I know what you’re thinking; did we go through six circles of hell, or only five? Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I kind of lost track myself. Let’s briefly recap!

And to be fair, Dante the poet couldn’t have picked a better moment to pause and explain what’s going on, because it’s starting to get very confusing. Read More »


Recapping Dante: Canto 10, or Why We Are Doing This

December 9, 2013 | by


Farinata by John Flaxman

This fall, we’re recapping the Inferno. Read along!

There is a circle in hell reserved for the people who stop reading Dante and never make it to canto 10.

If there’s ever been any question as to whether the Inferno is really a great work of art, the answer lies in canto 10. If there is ever any doubt that Dante is worth rereading always—perhaps every year, like the Torah—canto 10 will remind us. If somehow we forget what sorrow, or remorse, or horror, or despair looks like—if we forget that sometimes human beings are at once so callous, and strangely tender, there again is canto 10.

If canto 10 is magnificent, it is perhaps because Dante takes two characters who have fizzled out of history almost entirely—real nobodies, by twenty-first-century standards—and has made them immortal. After Dante, could we ever forget Farinata, the Ghibelline who took Florence from the Guelphs and defended Florence with his own sword as the city was about to be razed? Can we complete the Inferno without remembering Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti, whose heart breaks right before us? If ever I forget what exactly it is about art that I love—or worse, begin to feel disillusioned by it—canto 10 reminds me.

Imagine that you are walking through a field of sepulchers, lids propped open, and all of the sudden a voice speaks to you in your native dialect. The voice belongs to Farinata. Who are your ancestors, he asks. Dante identifies himself as a Guelph, and the sinner tells Dante with a sort of unabashed pride that he twice chased his ancestors from Florence. Dante retorts that his ancestors returned twice—a skill the Ghibellines had struggled to learn. There’s something charming about this witty Dante—Dante later reminds the reader that there is also a pope and a cardinal in the sepulcher. You’ll see in the Inferno that there are countless bishops, popes, and cardinals in hell; Dante got political with his commentary.

Farinata is interrupted by Cavalcanti, who asks Dante why his son, Guido Cavalcanti, is not with him. Dante responds that he and Virgil are on their way to visit other sinners, some of whom Guido probably “held in scorn.” Cavalcanti bursts out—What? Did you say “he held?” Lives he not still? The moment in which Cavalcanti mourns the death of his son is one of high tragedy—Cavalcanti has, in an instant, lost everything at the hands of something as simple and as pathetic as a verb tense. Dante has broken away for a moment from his lyricism and into a sort of colloquial tone, almost as if he’s trying to elbow us in the rib, lean over, and whispering hey, remember, this is poem second, and it is art first. Of course Guido isn’t dead yet, but Cavalcanti is so overwhelmed by sadness that he falls back. Virgil warned Dante not to feel pity for the sinners, and with the exception of Pier delle Vigne, who will appear in a later canto, Cavalcanti may the easiest sinner to fall for.

But after Cavalcanti falls back, Farinata continues, and responds to Dante with a powerful premonition. Yes, he says, Farinata’s own faction, the Ghibellines, hadn’t yet found a way to get back into Florence, but soon enough, Dante would learn just how hard it really is to figure out such a thing. Dante too would be exiled.

To catch up on our Dante series, click here.

Alexander Aciman is the author of Twitterature. He has written for the New York Times, Tablet, the Wall Street Journal, and TIME. Follow him on Twitter at @acimania.



Recapping Dante: Canto 9, or Dial V for Virgil

December 2, 2013 | by


This fall, we’re recapping the Inferno. Read along!

A coarse, heavy rain pattered against the side of my cap, echoing like the sound of a rhythmic hailstorm pelting the skulls of sinners. The fumes from a black bog forming around the storm drain, not too subtle and very close behind us, obscured everything. I must have had a bewildered sort of look on my face, which my partner—standing just a few feet in front of me—mistook for fear. An instant later he was on his way over, cigarette floating right above his lip like a perfumed bird working the counter at Macy’s, elbows propped up against the etched glass surface.

The job had an attractive ticket, more than twice what we had ever made and with the promise of a nice bonus if we managed to expedite it. I asked Virgil if it would be possible to get into the municipal building at all. He didn’t answer my question and I didn’t press it; soon enough I would have it figured out on my own. Virgil was the only person to have ever made his way past the two secretaries guarding the county clerk’s files, and at the time he must have been new to the job and under the influence of a particular sort of luck that on occasion comes to the assistance of an ill-equipped dick.

Read More »


Recapping Dante: Canto 7, or Hell by the Numbers

November 18, 2013 | by

Virgil rebukes Plutus

Gustave Doré, "Virgil rebukes Plutus at the entrance to the fourth circle," 1885.

This fall, we’re recapping the Inferno. Read along!

Canto 7 opens with Plutus, the god of wealth, babbling unintelligibly at Dante and Virgil. Pape Satàn, pape Satàn, aleppe!, he shouts, a phrase that has left readers and scholars baffled ever since it was written. Many offer their own interpretations, but there is never enough evidence for any critic to settle definitively on a single meaning. Virgil, however, responds to Plutus as though the cry is somehow intelligible to him; Plutus doesn’t want to let the pair pass because he has been tasked with keeping the living out. Again, Virgil works some Roman magic and is able to pass by.

This canto is one of the first instances in which the sinner’s condition in the afterlife begins to correspond almost unambiguously to the sin committed. Here, Dante and Virgil come across avarice and prodigality. The Hollanders note that the reason the avaricious are shown with their hands closed is as a reminder of their greed. The prodigal have their hair cropped to show inattention to property. Virgil gives Dante a discourse on fortune, and, in brief, explains to Dante that fortune is impartial, and that the unlucky are quick to revile fortune, which Virgil suggests is a misguided aggression since in fact fortune couldn’t care less what people have to say. The two carry on and stop at the Styx.

But let’s see what happens of we break this canto down. Read More »