Dante’s Purpose: Poetic Political Advice

Isabella Morizio

Francesca da Rimini: Canto V – Gustavo Dore

Figure 1

Introduction: Dante’s Motivations

After being condemned to perpetual exile from his beloved Florence, Dante Alighieri spent years piecing together a work that would serve not only as a statement on political corruption but also as an overall statement on life, losing faith, and finding salvation. Dante uses his literary expertise to convey subconscious messages about the severity of political corruption he was witnessing contemporary to the composition of his masterpiece. He outlines which types of corruption he witnesses and their corresponding consequences as if he is writing his piece as a preliminary form of statute against those who sacrifice the common good of their societies. The purpose of this exploration into Dante’s politically motivated accountability checks is to digest how the poet uses literary skills to convey a sense of guilt and urgency towards ill government and poor leadership. 

Dante’s Inferno is a preeminent work of storytelling that goes beyond the grotesque descriptions of demons and the mutilated bodies of sinners. It is an arch across morality. It is a search for a cleansed conscious and a cleansed relationship with one’s self. There is still the question: Who does Dante place in Hell and why? Ultimately, the poet walks us through the intricacies of wrongdoings that land his sinners in Hell. However, his work is centered less on who resides there and more on Dante’s relationship to his journey through it. Dante starts off lost, but as he crosses the threshold through each circle of the underworld he is brought closer and closer to God. There is a distinct message that in order to find true peace and purpose, Dante must witness the truest impurities of the truest evils. Through the center of Hell and out into the lip of purgatory, Dante will finally be exempt from loss. This then surfaces the matter of how this theory tessellates into the political realm. This item is simple. In order to mediate political corruption, one must first be a witness to it. Throughout the entire Inferno piece, vision is a recurring theme. Vision and consciousness through Hell are intertwined to represent Dante’s existence within it. Furthermore, Dante must experience Hell and its complexities in order to progress to Heaven. This is a story arch meant to represent the complication of mending political corruption within government. Dante uses stark imagery and an emphasis on his own consciousness through Hell to convey the significance of awareness in the midst of wrongful politics. There are two crutches upon which the poet does this: instances of lost consciousness and confrontations with evil.

Francesca da Rimini: Empathy for Immorality

An evident example of the first crutch listed above appears in Canto V when Dante and Virgil stumble upon the spirit of Francesca da Rimini. Rimini had been a victim of a forced political marriage to a man well-suited to her father’s desire. However, she later fell into lust with her arranged husband’s brother. In accordance to Dante’s Inferno, Francesca is placed into Hell for this act of passion overtaking acts of morality. This circle of hell hosts those who fell victim to passion as their form of sin. For their punishment Dante choses to engulf them in a violent hurricane full of wind and chaos. The contrapasso of this canto lies in the common thread of remaining in control. There are a plethora of images that display this sense of lost control, however, not many artists execute this display as wonderfully as Gustavo Dore. For Doré, detailed silhouettes and accurate representations of the natural world bring concreteness to the punishments that Dante must impose. In figure (1.) Dore takes the liberty of visually depicting the harshness of Dante’s landscape as souls are whisked away in violent winds. The visual emphasises further how those who succumbed to passion were not in control of their emotions and instincts. It therefore makes sense that in the afterlife their world would consist of horrid wind gusts that are additionally completely out of their control. This scene bears significance, for it is evident that Dante as a writer recognizes the wrongness of Francesca and her lover. However, the character of Dante has an opposing reaction. Dante is filled to his brims with empathy for Francesca and her story. He is overwhelmed with a sense of pity to such an extent that he faints. This loss of consciousness suggests that Dante as a character has not yet learned to separate personal feelings of sympathy from the accountability individuals must face for their wrongdoings. This is now appropriate to connect to his political motives hidden behind the moral imagery of the Inferno. Dante understands that there are instances of sympathy amongst his personal political relationships. However, this scene of lost consciousness is a means by which Dante can admit this fault. Furthermore, by placing Francesca and other souls alike within such an unforgiving circle of Hell, the poet extends a statement that accountability for immorality should always take precedence over personal ties. 

The Three Beasts and their Political Representations

There is then another question that arises of what exactly these personal ties connect back to in the context of Dante’s writing. There has been much speculation by recent scholars that Dante calls directly upon Florence as an allegorical representation of Hell. Joan Ferrante, a professor of University of Toronto asserts in a short essay of hers that within Dante’s Inferno, his “morality of sins and virtues has an essential political aspect… that Hell as the model of a corrupt society.” (182) With this assertion the extension of adding Florence, the city of which Dante was of exile, is the model the poet used for his depiction of Hell and connection of personal and political ties. 

Continuing off of this theme of personal and political dichotomies, confrontations of evil within The Inferno serve as another means by which Dante draws a political parallel to his work. The first main confrontation Dante presents in his work is the scene in which he is approached by the three beasts. In the opening Canto of The Inferno, Dante stands humbly in an open woods ignorant to his whereabouts. He is eventually surprised with the presence of a lion, leopard, and she-wolf that block his path towards a safer place. This scene is best visualized again with a piece by Dore illustrated in figure (2.). Even though the three beasts serve a literal purpose in terms of plot, there is a symbolic arch attached to them. 

Dante Lost in the Woods: Canto I – Gustavo Dore

The exact state of this symbolism is easily overstretched, as explored in-depth by scholar John G. Demaray of the American University of Beirut. In an article of his the three beasts are dissected through the lens of old pilgrim religious traditions contemporary to Dante’s writing. Although this is a religious application versus a political one, Demaray makes an acute argument about the existence of three beasts. He explains how most interpretations of the beasts are taken in their context to their roles on earth. Perhaps a lion appearing to Dante’s character in a crowded forest is regarded as so violent and concerning due to its unrealistic nature. However, when such expectations of a known world are absent, Demaray explains that the beasts can be “regarded in the literal sense as real, their physical presence in turn supporting varying symbolic values.” Essentially the scholar is trying to convey the meaning of the three beasts without preconceived notions of their realism and instead with the context of their physical bodies and representation in the scene. This then suggests that only Dante’s physical description of each beast within their introductory Canto can expose their meaning. An example of this depiction through Dante’s poetry is illustrated in figure (3.) by the English painter William Blake.

Advancing this idea forward, each beast based upon their physical stature in the opening of The Inferno represents a different form of sin. The leopard represents sins of incontinence, for it is only vicious due to its hunger and instincts. This is a sin led by passion. The lion represents sins of violence as it is introduced with a strong body advancing towards Dante. The lion possesses the control and intellect that the leopard did not, yet it still is driven to act upon evil. The she-wolf represents sins of fraud and treachery. She acts upon both lack of good intellect and lack of love, making her aggression the worst of all. Each beast has an allegorical severity of sin attached to its back, however, there are political motives behind this categorization that Dante purposefully drives throughout his story. Connecting back to the logic that Demaray outlined, these political motives are not necessarily contingent upon the context of the three beasts within the setting they appear but more so upon their physical appearance and description outlined above. This allows for Dante to use these beasts as a method for categorizing sins not only in relation to the natural habits of each animal but instead in relation to how severe each sin would affect the common good of societies and corrupt political systems.

Dante Running from the Three Beasts – William Blake

To Conclude: Dante’s Drive Behind his Inferno

In summary, Dante’s Inferno is nothing more than a portrait of those who are lost to sin and morality. The piece presents a story of a lost man commencing his journey towards salvation and becoming found. Upon the opening of is masterpiece Dante states: 

  Death could scarce be more bitter than that place!

   But since it came to good, I will recount 

  All that I found revealed there by God’s grace. (I.7-I.9) 

In these lines Dante regards Hell and his journey through it to be more bitter than death itself. However, he still decides to retell his journey, for good has come of it. All that he found brought him farther from being lost and closer to finding God’s grace. The process of being found, even from the first stanza of the Inferno, is Dante’s literary purpose. Likewise, it is the priority of Dante to show a direct parallel between this sense of personal salvation and the sense of political remedy. Dante makes clear through confrontations with evil and his instances of fainting that there is a connection between a literal journey through Hell and a journey towards the mitigation of political corruption. His piece is a bold reminder that personal motives must be succumbed in order to prioritize the common good of society. Being lost, both politically and morally, is only a state. This state is therefore necessary to embark upon a journey towards what is right. Being lost is an escapable condition, and once escaped we land on the doorstep of salvation and grace, however one defines those. This is the overwhelming purpose Dante presents in his Inferno

Bibliography

Dore, Gustavo. “Dante Alone in the Forest.” Wikipedia, url

Dore, Gustavo (1832 – 1883) – Dante’s Divine Comedy: Hell – Purgatory – Paradise. 

Illustrations by Gustave Doré, Translation by Henry W. Longfellow, Published by 

Arcturus Books, 2007, url

Iannucci, Amilcare A. Dante : Contemporary Perspectives, 1997, url

John G. Demaray. “The Pilgrim Texts and Dante’s Three Beasts: Inferno, I.” Italica (New 

York, N.Y.), vol. 46, no. 3, 1969, pp. 233–241, url

William Blake – Dante running from the three beasts – Google Art Project, url

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