At the gates of Hell, this is Dante’s welcome and warning.
Reading Dante in the original Tuscan dialect of Italian for a 14th century Italian literature unit at university was, naturally, a daunting task. The first of a three-part poem entitled La Divina Commedia, L’Inferno has since turned out to be one of my all-time favourites. Dante himself is the main character, and he is guided through the nine circles of Hell by Virgil. Virgil is, in fact, the author of the Aneid, and in real life was revered for his great wisdom.
A gruesome tale, to say the least, L’Inferno is also a history lesson on the prominent families and political situation of Italy at the time. As they enter each circle, Virgil provides Dante with a commentary on the occupants and the crime they committed to get there. Dante uses a system of contrapasso – punishment that fits the crime, and as an example, he meets Francesca da Rimini, the daughter of Guido da Polenta.
Around 1275, Francesca is united with Gianciotto Malatesta through a politically arranged marriage. Gianciotto is, apparently, an uncouth and physically deformed man. Francesca tells Dante of her love affair with Gianciotto’s brother, Paolo. One day they were reading Galahaut, the story of Lancelot and Guinevere. Seeing themselves in the story and reading of their kiss, they were overcome with emotion, and Paolo kissed Francesca. Gianciotto was spying on them, however, and had them killed before they had a chance to seek God’s forgiveness. They are now condemned to the second circle of Hell where they are locked together for eternity in a sexual embrace, tossed around in a black hurricane, representing the winds of passion. For all eternity, they receive no rest or satisfaction.
From here on, it’s quite literally all downhill to the bottom of Hell, where Lucifer himself dwells. Dante and Virgil meet an assortment of characters along the way, who with each descending circle, have committed increasingly heinous crimes. Pope Nicholas III is there, guilty of simony, and he is inserted upside down in the ground, with flames burning the souls of his feet. Bertran de Born is also there, carrying his own head around for eternity.
Fortunately, there a multitude of translated versions of L’Inferno available, complete with historical and explanatory notes. It really is a fascinating and entertaining read.