Why Should We Read Dante’s Divine Comedy? An Animated Video Makes the Case

Dante Alighieri’s 14th-cen­tu­ry Divine Com­e­dy is revered for the force of its imagery, its inno­v­a­tive terza rima and bold use of the ver­nac­u­lar, its cre­ative inter­pre­ta­tion of medieval Catholic doc­trine, its fero­cious polit­i­cal satire…

And the poignant auto­bi­og­ra­phy the poet weaves through­out the sto­ry. The epic is ani­mat­ed by Dan­te’s own roman­tic long­ing and his bit­ter dis­il­lu­sion­ment with life. He paints him­self in the first stan­za as over­come by mid­dle-aged bewil­der­ment. Robert Durling’s trans­la­tion ren­ders the first lines thus:

In the mid­dle of the jour­ney of our life, I came to
myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost.

He is already adrift when Vir­gil turns up to guide him to the famous­ly inscribed gates of hell—“Abandon all hope ye who enter here.”

The grim descent “sets into motion what is per­haps the great­est love sto­ry ever told,” says the TED-Ed video above, script­ed by Sheila Marie Orfano and ani­mat­ed by Tomás Pichar­do-Espail­lat. Dante takes this epic jour­ney with two mus­es, Vir­gil, then Beat­rice, who guides him through Par­adise, a fig­ure drawn from an unre­quit­ed obses­sion the poet har­bored for a woman named Beat­rice Porti­nari.

Dante turned his crush into a muse, and trans­formed desire into chaste reli­gious alle­go­ry. He turned his hatred of church and state cor­rup­tion, how­ev­er, into glee­ful revenge fan­ta­sy, tor­tur­ing a num­ber of peo­ple still very much alive at the time of his writ­ing. A mem­ber of the White Guelphs, a Flo­ren­tine fac­tion that pushed back against Roman influ­ence, Dante fought fierce­ly opposed the Black Guelphs, a group loy­al to the Pope. He was even­tu­al­ly exiled from Flo­rence, but not silenced.

“Dis­hon­ored and with lit­tle hope of return,” he “freely aired his griev­ances” in the Divine Com­e­dy, writ­ing in Ital­ian, rather than Latin, to ensure “the widest pos­si­ble audi­ence.” His read­ers at the time would have picked up on the ref­er­ences. Now, we need hun­dreds of notes to explain the full con­text. We should also know some salient facts about the poet: a life of polit­i­cal bat­tle and reli­gious devo­tion, an imag­i­na­tive lit­er­ary love affair with a woman he sup­pos­ed­ly met twice; a thwart­ed desire for jus­tice and vengeance and an obses­sion with integri­ty.

We do not need exten­sive notes and crit­i­cal essays to feel the force of Dante’s lan­guage, just as we do not need to believe in the Divine Com­e­dys reli­gion. Like all great epic poet­ry, its meta­phys­i­cal themes ampli­fy pro­found­ly human emo­tion­al jour­neys.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Free Course on Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy from Yale Uni­ver­si­ty

Visu­al­iz­ing Dante’s Hell: See Maps & Draw­ings of Dante’s Infer­no from the Renais­sance Through Today

An Illus­trat­ed and Inter­ac­tive Dante’s Infer­no: Explore a New Dig­i­tal Com­pan­ion to the Great 14th-Cen­tu­ry Epic Poem

Gus­tave Doré’s Haunt­ing Illus­tra­tions of Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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