Dante’s Inferno – Its Influence on Civic Principles and the Common Good

Final Exploratory Essay by Justin Law Cobb, posted December 12, 2020.

In the Middle Ages, works such as Dante Alighieri’s Inferno which is the first of three books in the Divine Comedy, reflected common civic principles at the time and the Common Good of city states. In this time period, the development of powerful city states in northern Italy began with each city state seeking to establish its own identity based upon political and civic values. Florence is an example of a city state with conflicting political and civic principles where two political factions, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, fought for control. Dante’s status as a Guelph meant that he aligned with specific religious, political, and civic principles, which are reflected throughout the Inferno and the other books in the Divine Comedy. His work expanded on Christian teachings by applying them to historical and current religious and political figures at the time, all of whom were well known during the Middle Ages. This also ties into Dante’s depiction of fraudulent and greedy sinners found in the lower circles of Hell, such as Ulysses and Guido da Montefeltro. Despite being praised as significant heroes for their victorious battles and religious conversion respectively, Dante focuses on the sins by which both of these figures had violated the Common Good. The significance of Dante’s work in reflecting common civic principles during the Middle Ages is demonstrated by his political affiliation and principles and in his depiction of greed and fraud.

The Abyss of Hell, a depiction of Dante’s Inferno by Sandro Botticelli completed in 1485, now stored in the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana in Rome.

In the Inferno, Dante describes his structuring of Hell and the organization of sinners as he travels from the upper circles down to Lucifer with his guide Virgil. Dante commonly lists sinners whose actions are inconsistent with Dante’s political and civic principles as a Guelph Florentine, regardless of their governmental or religious standing. Dante’s political beliefs as a Guelph meant that he practised the Catholic faith and supported the papacy, which served as the ideological foundation for the Divine Comedy. Despite his religious beliefs, he demonstrated his willingness to condemn even religious figures to Hell if he felt they were deserving of it. One such example is described in a chapter of Dante: Contemporary Perspectives written by Joan M. Ferrante, who says,

“Dante continues to attack the papacy throughout the Comedy for interfering with the church, as well as for general greed and corruption. Popes are featured in Hell, but not in Paradise, although Beatrice reminds us that two popes, Boniface VIII and Clement V, are destined for Hell. Holmes… concludes that his anti-papalism was not simply a response to simony or excessive political interference, but a ‘fanatical’ belief that the providential plan of history required a savior to rescue the degraded papacy and the world” (Ferrante p. 185).

Ferrante demonstrates Dante’s willingness to use his political and civil principles to judge political and religious figures, including popes. She then continues this point by describing Dante’s “fanatical belief” in the need for a savior of the world, a belief that was likely shared by other Florentines during the Middle Ages. This is significant not only in Dante’s categorization of political and religious figures as sinners in Hell, but also due to his possible religious allusion to the second-coming of Jesus Christ. This meant that Dante’s beliefs were well regarded by the Florentine public, establishing his power and influence over Medieval political and civic principles empowered further by his creation of Inferno and the Divine Comedy.

An example of Dante’s depiction of fraud and greed is found in Cantos 26 and 27, where he introduces the sinners Ulysses and Guido da Montefeltro in the eighth circle of Hell. Ulysses is introduced in Canto 26 as the Greek God Odysseus who led the Trojan horse plan and was promised virtue and knowledge if he persuaded companions he was traveling with to travel past sirens who were waiting to kill the them. Guido was introduced in Canto 27 as someone who acted as a fraudulent advisor by giving fraudulent advice to Pope Boniface VIII. In his encounters with Ulysses, Virgil says to Dante, “Within there are the tormented Ulysses and Diomed, and thus together they unto vengeance run as unto wrath. And there within their flame do they lament, the ambush of the horse” (Alighieri, Canto 26). Then, when they meet Guido he says, “While I was still the form of bone and pulp my mother gave to me, the deeds I did were not those of a lion, but a fox” (Alighieri, Canto 27). Dante and Virgil are fearful of these men who have broken the trust of others by committing their sins. Another description of Ulysses and Guido rich with symbolism is offered by Massimo Verdicchio in his article Irony and Desire in Dante’s Inferno. He says,

“Ulysses and Guido are both examples of greed that for Dante originates in envy which is at the origin of all evil. In Inf. 1 (Inferno Canto 1) greed is symbolized by the ‘lupa’ which is empty but appears full” (Verdicchio p. 286).

Dante and Virgil encountering Ulysses and Diomed in the eighth circle of Hell, for sinners who have committed fraud.

In his description, Verdicchio alludes to the “lupa” from Canto 1 studied in our class which he claims symbolizes the greed of Ulysses and Guido. This could be describing Ulysses and his continuous desire to make evil military decisions as well as Guido and his continued offering of fraudulent advice. For Dante, both of these sinners had violated the trust among their companions and by doing so had undermined the Common Good. Dante displays his fear and distrust of these two sinners, a behavior that would likely be shared by others during the Middle Ages.

Linked is a video by Dr. Paola Basile, who discusses Ulysses and how he is depicted in Canto 26 of Inferno.

In the Inferno, common civic values during the Middle Ages were reflected in many ways through the effective use of allegory and symbolism of the Catholic faith. Dante blends these religious beliefs with his own political and civic principles to accuse many historical, political, and religious figures of being sinners imprisoned in a region of Hell befitting for their sin. In his encounters with many of the sinners, Dante attempts to make clear exactly what civic and political principles the sinner has violated and how they have disrupted the Common Good. He often displays the typical response of people living during the Middle Ages when they encounter sinners, but does not shy away from mocking the audience in order to maintain their commitment to civic principles. In summary, Dante’s use of varying literary devices including first and third person perspectives, imagery, and symbolism all work to demonstrate his religious and civic principles and subsequent responses when any of them are violated. Understanding the significance of Dante’s Inferno and its effort to display the integration of religious and civic principles during the Middle Ages requires an understanding of his Guelph political affiliation and principles as well as his depiction of fraud and greed.

Works Cited:


-Botticelli, Sandro. The Abyss of Hell. Rome, 1485. http://www.travelingintuscany.com/art/sandrobotticelli/danteillustrations.htm

-Dante Alighieri, 1265-1321. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri : Inferno, Purgatory, Paradise. New York :The Union Library Association, 1935.

-“Dante’s The Divine Comedy — 26th (Ulysses) Canto Preview.” Spoken by Dr. Paola Basile, Youtube, Dan Hanson, 23 Sept. 2011, youtu.be/rHcytfL3omI.

-FERRANTE, JOAN M. “Dante and Politics.” Dante: Contemporary Perspectives, edited by AMILCARE A. IANNUCCI, University of Toronto Press, Toronto; Buffalo; London, 1997, pp. 181–194. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.3138/9781442673717.14. Accessed 7 Dec. 2020.

-Giuliano. “Dante’s Ulysses, Symbol of Human Nobility.” Dante Poliglotta, www.dantepoliglotta.it/dantes-ulysses-symbol-of-human-nobility/?lang=en.

-Verdicchio, Massimo. “Irony and Desire in Dante’s ‘Inferno’ 27.” Italica, vol. 92, no. 2, 2015, pp. 285–297., www.jstor.org/stable/43895967. Accessed 7 Dec. 2020.

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