Home > 13th Century, Alighieri Dante, Classics, Italian Literature, Poetry > Dante’s Inferno: Veni, vidi, vici

Dante’s Inferno: Veni, vidi, vici

Dante’s Inferno by Dante Alighieri. circa 1317.

On a crazy impulse of optimism, I started to read Dante’s Inferno. OK, a trip to Florence prompted it as well. To be honest, before reading it, Dante’s Inferno meant little to me, a poem with horrible descriptions of hell and some vague notions about Dante’s true love Beatrix. Nothing more. You can say I started it with an open mind, not enough cultural references and a little apprehension about how much I’d get from the book. Let’s face it, I’m not able to discuss Dante’s work and I bet thousands of scholars did it thousand times better than anything I could write. I’m just able to relate my response to it.

I read the French translation by Rivarol which dates back to the 1780s. I didn’t choose the translation, I just went for the free kindle version and it happened to be by Rivarol, with many typos. But it’s free, I can’t complain. Then I checked an online book store, Rivarol’s seems to be a famous translation. I suspect it’s not always faithful to the text but when it comes to a book written in Toscan in the 14thC, I don’t mind that it’s a bit unfaithful as long as it helps me read the book. And Rivarol is good to make Dante’s masterpiece accessible to a naïve audience: the language is light and easy, the footnotes are relevant and helped a lot. It’s in prose, I don’t think I could have read a version in verses anyway. Now, the book.

Dante is visiting the inferno with the Roman poet Virgil as a guide. The Inferno is composed of 33 canti and each one describes a torture inflicted on souls who committed the sin aimed at that specific circle. The sins are various from gluttony to sodomy, via hypocrisy, ruse, bribery, corruption, deception, betrayal and all kinds of religious and political misbehaviours or crimes. In each canto, Dante gets to talk to one or several souls stuck there to atone their sin.

In my ignorance, I didn’t expect this strange mix of Ancient Rome, Ancient Greece and Christianity. For example, three characters are by Satan’s side: Judas, Brutus and Cassius. One Christian reference and two from Ancient Rome. Virgil guides Dante through his journey and it places the young poet under the protection of this monument of poetry. The inferno resembles the Hades. We encounter Charon, Cerberus and some tortures reminded me of the ones from the Greek mythology. It’s the be-attached-with-your-liver-eaten-by-a-bird kind of torture. But it’s mingled with Christian themes and references. For example, one circle imprisons fortune-tellers. Virgil says:

On est sans pitié pour des maux sans mesure. Ne sont-ils pas assez criminels, ceux qui osèrent être les émules d’un Dieu?

Here pity most doth show herself alive,

When she is dead. What guilt exceed his,

Who with Heaven’s judgement in his passion strives?

It’s a strange condemnation in Virgil’s mouth since the Roman people believed in auspices, oracles and couldn’t make important decisions without consulting priests, magicians and fortune-tellers.

What I didn’t expect as well is the political aspect of the book. In each circle Dante meets and talks with people he recognises. He wrote The Divine Comedy in exile. He’s incredibly upfront: he gives names of various famous people and make them end up in hell in the appropriate circle according to their past life (war crimes, abuses, political fights) In Canto 19, he meets Pope Boniface in the third valley, where he condemns the wealth and greed of the Church.

Oh! si l’antique respect pour vos ombres pontificales n’enchaînait ma langue, elle vous poursuivrait bien plus âpre ment encore, pasteurs mercenaires! car votre avarice foule le monde ; elle est amère aux bons et douce aux méchants. C’est de vous qu’il était prédit à l’évangéliste, quand il voyait celle qui était assise sur les eaux se prostituer avec les rois ; celle qui naquit avec sept têtes, et dix rayons qui s’éclipsèrent avec les vertus de son époux. C’est vous aussi qui vous êtes fait des dieux d’or et d’argent; et si l’idolâtre encense une idole, vous eu adorez mille. Ah! Constantin, que de maux ont germé, non de ta conversion, mais de la dot immense que tu payas au père de ta nouvelle épouse

If reverence of the keys restrain’d me not,

Which thou in happier time didst hold, I yet

Severer speech might use. Your avarice

O’ercasts the world with mourning, under foot

Treading the good, and raising bad men up.

Of shepherds, like to you, th’ Evangelist

Was ware, when her, who sits upon the waves,

With kings in filthy whoredom he beheld,

She who with seven heads tower’d at her birth,

And from ten horns her proof of glory drew,

Long as her spouse in virtue took delight.

Of gold and silver ye have made your god,

Diff’ring wherein from the idolater,

But he that worships one, a hundred ye?

Ah, Constantine! to how much ill gave birth,

Not thy conversion, but that plenteous dower,

Which the first wealthy Father gain’d from thee!”

I didn’t know you could speak so freely in the 14thC without risking your life. I can’t imagine it in the France of that time but perhaps I have misconceptions about freedom of speech in the Middle Ages. After all, I’m not a specialist.

There are constant references to Florence and the politics of his time. Thank you, Count Rivarol, for all the explanations included in the footnotes. They helped.

I have little to say about the style, especially for English-speaking readers. You wouldn’t read the same version as me and the quality of the translation is crucial. Dante does create powerful images and poetic metaphors.

Vers le retour de l’année, jeune encore, où déjà le soleil plonge son front pâlissant dans l’urne pluvieuse : quand le jour s’accroît des pertes de la nuit, et que les voiles transparents de la gelée imitent au matin la robe éclatante de la neige, le pâtre qui n’a plus de fourrages se lève et regarde autour de lui ; mais voyant partout blanchir la plaine, il se bat les flancs, et troublé par son malheur, il rentre sous ses toits, court, s’écrie et se désespère. Il sort enfin, et renaît à l’espérance lorsqu’il voit qu’un temps si court a changé l’aspect des champs: déjà la houlette en main, il chasse devant lui son troupeau, qui bondit sur la verdure.

IN the year’s early nonage, when the sun

Tempers his tresses in Aquarius’ urn,

And now towards equal day the nights recede,

When as the rime upon the earth puts on

Her dazzling sister’s image, but not long

Her milder sway endures, then riseth up

The village hind, whom fails his wintry store,

And looking out beholds the plain around

All whiten’d, whence impatiently he smites

His thighs, and to his hut returning in,

There paces to and fro, wailing his lot,

As a discomfited and helpless man;

Then comes he forth again, and feels new hope

Spring in his bosom, finding e’en thus soon

The world hath chang’d its count’nance, grasps his crook,

And forth to pasture drives his little flock:

So me my guide dishearten’d when I saw

His troubled forehead, and so speedily

That ill was cur’d; for at the fallen bridge

Arriving, towards me with a look as sweet,

He turn’d him back, as that I first beheld

At the steep mountain’s foot.

But it’s hard for me to say what comes from Dante and what comes from Rivarol’s interpretation. However, I did get the gory details I expected:

Un homme se présenta d’abord, ouvert de la gorge à la ceinture: ses intestins fumants pendaient sur ses genoux, et son cœur palpitait à découvert.

As one I mark’d, torn from the chin throughout

Down to the hinder passage: ‘twixt the legs

Dangling his entrails hung, the midriff lay

Open to view, and wretched ventricle,

That turns th’ englutted aliment to dross.

Nice vision, isn’t it?

So after struggling to read it, what’s my opinion? I’m glad I read it but I guess I won’t remember more than what is in this billet. I don’t have enough education in literature and history to fully grasp the beauty and the innovation of this text.

PS: I used the free English translation by Cary. I hope I found the right passages corresponding to the French version. Honestly, I hardly understand that kind of English, I did my best.

  1. Brian Joseph
    May 28, 2012 at 10:32 pm

    Great commentary Emma.

    Though it is difficult read, I love this work. As you mention, all the historical and mythological references are indeed dizzying. I myself relied on detailed notes on my last go. If I ever reread it I will likely heavily utilize the internet.

    One of many things that I found astounding about the Inferno was the wild, phantasmagoric scenes of the various levels of hell.

    I found the other parts of the Divine Comedy just as entertaining. Do you plan to give the other sections a try?


    • May 28, 2012 at 10:46 pm

      There were too many unknown references to my taste, I got lost in the footnotes, although they were easy to read. The political references were the worse. I took 5 years of Latin, I don’t remember anything about the language but I remember things from literature and mythology. I don’t have a very precise knowledge of mythology but it helped. With politics, I was totally lost.

      I don’t plan to read the other sections a try. It’s too difficult for me, I don’t have time to do the proper research needed to fully enjoy that kind of classics.


  2. May 28, 2012 at 11:51 pm

    I’ve read it–bits at a time but not all at once. For me it was too heavy going to read more than a bit at a time.

    On another note, I’ll be reviewing a Maugham soon that you will love, and coincidentally it ties into Dante.


    • May 29, 2012 at 7:50 pm

      It’s heavy reading, I agree.
      I’m impatient to read your review about Maugham

      I forgot to add in my billet that it’s worth reading I Always Loved this Place by Annie Proulx which is set in hell and describes tortures like The Inferno but it’s funny.


      • May 29, 2012 at 10:28 pm

        It’ll be up in the next couple of days.
        I’ve never read anything by Proulx.


        • May 29, 2012 at 10:42 pm

          Try that collection of short stories, it’s worth reading.


  3. May 29, 2012 at 1:41 am

    By coincidence, just about an hour before logging on and seeing your post, I’d tossed out my ancient and tattered pocket paperback copy of Inferno, the John Ciardi translation, vowing that I’d replace it with a new one soon. Reading all three parts of The Divine Comedy with an immensely talented teacher who’d learned Italian for the sole purpose of reading Dante in the original was probably the highlight of my literary education. It’s indeed an incredibly rich and complex work, and you deserve major kudos for just picking it up and plunging in. I’m tempted to pull the Ciardi out of the garage sale pile, hunt down my notes, and cancel my dinner plans.


    • May 29, 2012 at 7:53 pm

      So, what did you do last night? Cancel your diner plans? 🙂

      I have to admit that for once, I would have liked a teacher to read this along. (you’ve not read a lot of my entries but believe me, it’s very unlike me to say I missed a literature teacher when reading) There are so many references everywhere. Rivarol explains things very well in his notes but in the end, I was tired of reading more notes than Dante.


      • May 29, 2012 at 9:03 pm

        Cancel my dinner plans for Dante? To quote an old Monty Python skit, “I may be an idiot, but I’m no fool.” Having a teacher acutely conscious of her role as a guide to The Divine Comedy (the poet Virgil leading Dante through hell was actually a fundamental organizing principle of her entire pedagogy) indeed made navigation of the work far easier and more rewarding than it would have been had I approached it on my own. But I’m impressed that you tried it. I usually tend to ignore the notes unless they’re crucial, as with a second reading, I can always go back and fill in what I might have missed.


        • May 29, 2012 at 10:37 pm

          You’re right, food is more important… 🙂

          I studied a bit of Virgil in Latin classes, it helped. But I’m still puzzled by the mix of antiquity and Christianity in the text.


  4. May 29, 2012 at 6:49 am

    Hello Emma,
    A friend gifted me Rivalo’s translation of Dante on my last birthday, but I keep putting off reading it. But your review has piqued my interest. will pick it up now

    and please do visit my blog! eager to know your feedback.


    • May 29, 2012 at 7:54 pm

      I’ll read your review then, I subscribed to your blog yesterday. I liked your take on Mma Ramotswe.


  5. May 29, 2012 at 8:54 am

    In my first Italian classes we had to learn the first page by heart. That’s how far I got. I remember it has a nice musicality. While at the university I was interested in reading it as I read a lot of French works from that period but I’m not that tempted now. It certainly is an important work and the influences are considerable but nowadays I’d much rather read a book about it. Maybe then I’d be interested again.
    I’m not sure about the freedom of speech at all. It would be interesting to find out more.


    • May 29, 2012 at 7:56 pm

      Why did you take Italian classes? For written Italian?

      I’m glad I read it to recognise the influence it had on other works. I’m afraid I wasn’t able to enjoy it.


      • May 29, 2012 at 8:01 pm

        Yes, I wanted to learn the grammar properly. If you “only speak” it’s not the same.
        Yes, I think I wouldn’t like it too much at present either.
        I would maybe find it interesting but not enjoy it.


        • May 29, 2012 at 8:04 pm

          That’s what Agota Kristof said about French.
          I’m off to read your last posts, I lack time, it’s terrible.


  6. leroyhunter
    May 29, 2012 at 10:08 pm

    Kudos Emma…not an easy thing to just pick up and plunge into Dante. I have a nice edition (of the Cary translation) illustrated by William Blake, but I’ve only ever dipped into it. It sounds like it opened up Dante’s own world to you? Did it ever feel like a chore?


    • May 29, 2012 at 10:42 pm

      Now you just give me a great idea. I should start reading Ulysses, perhaps it wouldn’t seem that difficult after this. 🙂
      Here the Rivarol version is illustrated by Gustave Doré.

      Seriously, I don’t know how the English translation sounds to an English native but when I picked the quotes for you, I was so glad I had a version in prose. I don’t think I could have read it in verses.
      Unfortunately, it started well and ended a bit like a chore. Like the Tour de France after the Alps, which is one of the tortures Annie Proulx imagines in hell. 🙂


  7. leroyhunter
    May 30, 2012 at 10:43 am

    The Doré illustrations are famous as well, but I like Blake’s style I must say.
    Of course I would encourage anyone to try Ulysses, maybe not on the basis “it can’t be as bad as…” though!

    I’m not mad about the Cary version, I prefer more modern translations (of Homer for example). But it’s fine for dipping into and in a way it does transport you very definitely into the world of the book, if only because the verse is so different from what I’d usually read.


  8. May 30, 2012 at 4:51 pm

    I’m still puzzled by the mix of antiquity and Christianity in the text.

    Welcome to the Renaissance! Dante heads straight for the key intellectual problem of the next two hundred years, the reconciliation of medieval learning with the rediscovered Classical world.

    In English, we are blessed with a number of fine translations of Dante, especially Inferno, in both prose and verse.


    • May 30, 2012 at 7:23 pm

      I wasn’t clear enough. I know about the Renaissance and the re-discovery of classical works and themes. But usually, either it’s Christian or it’s mythological. Take Boticelli, The Birth of Venus. You only see Venus, nymphs and Zephyr. You don’t have the Virgin Mary staring at Venus coming out of the water.


      • May 30, 2012 at 7:50 pm

        Literature was different. E.g. Arisoto, Petrarch, Christine de Pisan. The mix is quite common – Christian ethics in Classical form, or Classical figures side by side with saints. Some of the results are quite bizarre.

        Well, no more bizarre than what is in Dante.


        • May 31, 2012 at 8:08 pm

          How interesting! Do you know why it’s different for literature?


          • June 1, 2012 at 3:32 am

            No, I do not know. Maybe it is easy to keep the clashing parts separate in writing. In a painting, everything is right there in front of you.

            In Ariosto, at least, it does not matter if the different pieces do not fit together. It’s all just crazy fantasy anyways. Dante is a much more complicated example.


  9. June 15, 2012 at 12:09 pm

    I love the opening to Inferno, which is good because that’s about as far as i’ve ever gotten with it.

    The topicality was something I’d heard of, but it must be difficult for what was essentially local politics to resonate with a reader so far away in time and place.

    For me this is a book I would have loved to study, but I’m not sure I’d get much from reading it on my own. It would be a good one to have a guide with, a personal Virgil leading one through the text and pointing out things to note along the way.


    • June 15, 2012 at 8:55 pm

      I agree with you, it was difficult to read and I missed a lot of things. Fortunately, the footnotes were useful.

      I’m glad I read it though.

      In a way, such books are lost for common readers since you need, like you said, a personal Virgil to help you.


  10. July 3, 2012 at 1:36 pm

    I read Robin Kirkpatrick’s English translation last year (I wrote a post about it in my blog), but i fear I missed much of its greatness. I’d guess that one needs to be immersed in the culture that produced this work to get much out of it.


    • July 3, 2012 at 9:01 pm

      It’s frustrating, isn’t it? It’s a book that deserves a teacher passing it along.


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