The Divine Comedy by Dante ALIGHIERI · Digital Dante Edition with Commento Baroliniano · MMXV ·   Columbia University

Inferno 1


Myth Meets History, Isaiah Meets Aristotle

The Undivine Comedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), Chapter 2, “Infernal Incipits: The Poetics of the New,” pp. 21-26, 26-29; Chapter 5, “Purgatory as Paradigm,” p. 110; “Guittone’s Ora parrà, Dante’s Doglia mi reca, and the Commedia’s Discourse of Desire,” 1997, rpt. Dante and the Origins of Italian Literary Culture (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006), pp. 47-69;   “Medieval Multiculturalism and Dante’s Theology of Hell,” 2000, rpt. Dante and the Origins of Italian Literary Culture, pp. 102-21; “Aristotle’s Mezzo, Courtly Misura, and Dante’s Canzone Le dolci rime: Humanism, Ethics, and Social Anxiety,” in Dante and the Greeks, ed. Jan Ziolkowski (Cambridge: Harvard U. Press, 2014), pp. 163-79; Dante’s Poets, chapter 3.
  • life=voyage: Aristotle’s definition of time as a “middle-point” (“mezzo”)
  • mythic binaries in a visionary landscape
  • the universe governed by love: “l’amor divino” caused the stars to move in the moment of creation (verses 39-40)
  • la lupa as the embodiment of negative desire: from the existential to the ethical mezzo
  • Vergil/Virgilio: the introduction of history, from Roman history to that of contemporary “Italia” (106), from Roman poetry (the Aeneid) to contemporary Italian poetry (Dante describes himself as a poet who owes his “beautiful style” to Vergil)
  • the development of a virtual reality and the construction of character
  • mixing of classical with Christian yields a new hybrid textuality; classical culture both in bono and in malo
  • a blueprint of the afterlife

Inferno 1 and Inferno 2 are both introductory canti, although in quite different ways: Inferno 1 is more universal and world-historical in its focus, while Inferno 2 is more attentive to the plight and history of one single man. The hero’s journey through hell does not begin until Inferno 3. So what happens before we get to Inferno 3? What happens in Inferno 1 and 2?

In the first two canti of the Commedia, Dante-protagonist engages in conversations (with Virgilio, to whom we shall return) that lay out the ideological premises of the journey that he is about to undertake. Inferno 1 and 2 do not advance Dante-protagonist’s material journey so much as they provide the underlying ideological foundation on which Dante-poet can build. In other words, Inferno 1 and 2 lay the ideological foundation without which the pilgrim’s journey would lack credibility.[1] 

Because, in Inferno 1 and 2, Dante-poet is creating the premises that enable the subsequent action to occur—and that enable the reader to suspend credibility and to “believe” in that action—he is already engaged in the Commedia’s great project of creating a virtual reality.

Inferno consists of 34 canti, Purgatorio of 33 canti, and Paradiso of 33 canti, making Inferno 1 the “extra” unit of text, as befits a canto that offers a prelude to the journey as a whole. Inferno 1 concludes with a schematic outline of the three regions of the afterlife: verses 114-17 describe hell, verses 118-20 describe purgatory, and verses 121-29 refer to paradise. Together, this section offers a blueprint of the entire journey, of all 100 canti of the poem.

The Commedia is the story of a journey: a journey through the Christian “after-life” of hell, purgatory, and paradise. Ideas of the afterlife have histories, like all ideas, and Dante has a place in the history of the imagining of the Christian afterlife, one that can be traced and debated. His signature moves in the forging of his afterlife are the mixing of classical with Christian sources and of high with low culture:

Therefore, although Dante reflects the most informed theological thought on hell, he is certainly not constrained by it. Moving from the theological template, he widens the range of cultural resources available to him in two fundamental ways: one, he utilizes pagan sources as well as Christian ones; two, he does not limit his Christian sources to the high culture of theology. Thus, he explicitly borrows from such (high culture) pagan sources as Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, which he credits as a source for the structure of his hell, and Vergil’s underworld in Aeneid 6, various of whose characters and features he appropriates and transforms. But Dante’s hell also demonstrates clear links to the established popular iconography of hell and to popular cultural forms like sermons, visions, and the didactic poetry of vernacular predecessors such as Bonvesin da la Riva and Giacomino da Verona. As Alison Morgan correctly notes in Dante and the Medieval Other World, Dante ‘‘is the first Christian writer to combine the popular material with the theological and philosophical systems of his day’’ (“Medieval Multiculturalism and Dante’s Theology of Hell,” cited in Coordinated Reading, p. 103).

The premise of Dante’s journey as related in Inferno 1 is that he has lost his way—“ché la diritta via era smarrita” (for the straight way was lost [Inf. 1.3])—and that he is then found and aided by Virgilio. His guide was sent to rescue him by the same transcendent principle—the “divine love” of verse 39—that at the beginning of time first set the stars to moving in the heavens: “quando l’amor divino / mosse di prima quelle cose belle” (when Divine Love first moved those things of beauty [Inf. 1.39-40]). Dante will tell us more about the force that sent Virgilio in Inferno 2.

In the first verses of the poem, the pilgrim is lost in a dark wood at the mid-way point of life’s path, which is to say, at 35 years old. Very conveniently, Dante was born in 1265 and in 1300, the year he stipulates for his afterlife journey, he was precisely 35, midway through a lifespan of 70 years (see Psalm 90:10: “Our days may come to seventy years). The poet has combined biblical and classical motifs to create a uniquely hybrid “mixed” textuality. Dante’s beginning in the middle, “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita” (Midway upon the journey of our life [Inf. 1.1]), evokes, as critics have long noted, both biblical and classical precedents, both Isaiah 38:10 (“In the middle of my days I must depart”) and Horace’s injunction in Ars Poetica to commence a narrative “in medias res” (Ars Poetica, 148).

To the above intertexts for the concept of being in the middle (“Nel mezzo”), I would add the Aristotelian understanding of time. In the Physics, Aristotle describes time as “a kind of middle-point, uniting in itself both a beginning and an end, a beginning of future time and an end of past time” (Physics 8.1.251b18-26). In his philosophical prose treatise, Convivio, Dante cites Aristotle on time as follows: “Lo tempo, secondo che dice Aristotile nel quarto de la Fisica, è ‘numero di movimento, secondo prima e poi’” (Time, according to Aristotle in the fourth book of the Physics, is “number of movement, according to before and after” [Conv. 4.2.6]).

Dante’s use of the word “mezzo” in the first verse of his poem alerts us to our existential being in time—“a kind of middle-point” according to Aristotle—and possesses a metaphysical valence.

The metaphor “cammin di nostra vita”/“journey of our life” begins the work of conflating the journey of the poem with the existential and personal journeys through time and space that each of us on this planet experiences every day. As Dante had previously written in the Convivio, human life is a “new and never before traveled path”: “[il] nuovo e mai non fatto cammino di questa vita” (Convivio 4.12.15). The Commedia’s work of creating a virtual reality, of encouraging its readers to feel that they are journeying along with Dante, begins with the metaphor of life as a path on which we all walk. The walkers are plural and many, but the path is one, for the experience of life as a journey through time and space is an experience shared by all.

The opening metaphor of the path, of the voyage by land, will shortly be enriched by the simile of a disastrous voyage by sea. The shipwrecked man who climbs from the watery deep to the shore is the first “Ulyssean” reference of the poem (Inf. 1.22-24). The mythic Greek hero Odysseus, Ulysses in Latin, as Dante encountered him in Vergil’s Aeneid and Cicero’s De Finibus and other Latin texts, is a prime reference point in the Commedia: the quintessential voyager who comes to perdition, who is lost at sea. As many have noted, Ulysses is Dante-pilgrim’s negative double. However, as The Undivine Comedy argues, Dante-poet becomes ever more transgressive and Ulyssean as the Commedia proceeds: from the point of view of the writing poet, Paradiso is the most transgressive part of the poem.[2]

The protagonist sets out to climb a hill whose heights are bathed in divine light. He is repulsed three times and forced backward and downward by three beasts: by the leopard (lonza), by the lion (leone), and ultimately by the she-wolf (lupa). Particularly important for the essential Dantean theme of desire is the lupa, for the she-wolf represents the negative pole of the Commedia’s spectrum of desire.

Desire is defined in the Convivio as that which we lack: “ché nullo desidera quello che ha, ma quello che non ha, che è manifesto difetto” (for no one desires what he has, but what he does not have, which is manifest lack [Conv. 3.15.3]). Desire is defective, as I write in The Undivine Comedy:

Desire is defective, while the cessation of desire is happiness, beatitude, in a word perfection. Beatitude as spiritual autonomy—as emancipation from the new—is introduced as early as the Vita Nuova, where Dante learns to place his beatitudine not in Beatrice’s greeting, which can be removed (thus causing him to desire, to exist defectively), but in that which cannot fail him: “quello che non mi puote venire meno” (VN 18.4). Since nothing mortal can satisfy these conditions, we either learn from the failure of one object of desire to cease to desire mortal objects altogether, or we move forward along the path of life toward something else, something new. (The Undivine Comedy, p. 26)

The description of the lupa connotes desire as lack, for she eats and remains hungry, embodying Augustinian cupidity and lack of peace:

The lupa of Inferno 1 illuminates the negative side of the basic human condition whereby disire è moto spiritale and recalls Augustine’s own reduction of all desire to spiritual motion, either in the form of “charity,” desire that moves toward God, or “cupidity,” desire that remains rooted in the flesh. As cupidity, our dark desire, the lupa is quintessentially without peace, “la bestia sanza pace” (Inf. 1.58). Her restlessness and insatiability denote unceasing spiritual motion, unceasing desire: heavy “with all longings”—“di tutte brame” (49)—her greedy craving is never filled, and after eating she is more hungry than before: “mai non empie la bramosa voglia, / e dopo ’l pasto ha più fame che pria” [Inf. 1.98-99]). Her limitless hunger is both caused by unsatisfied desire and creates the condition for ever less satisfaction, since, in Augustine’s words, “When vices have emptied the soul and led it to a kind of extreme hunger, it leaps into crimes by means of which impediments to the vices may be removed or the vices themselves sustained” (De Doctrina Christiana 3.10.16). When the “antica lupa” is recalled as an emblem of cupidity on purgatory's terrace of avarice (again indicating the common ground that underlies all the sins of inordinate desire), her “hunger without end” is once more her distinguishing characteristic: “Maladetta sie tu, antica lupa, / che più che tutte l’altre bestie hai preda / per la tua fame sanza fine cupa!” (Cursed be you, ancient wolf, who more than all the other beasts have prey, because of your deep hunger without end! [Purg. 20.10-12]). (The Undivine Comedy, p. 110)

Desire is lack, but therefore it is also the imperative of forward motion: the “spiritual motion” in which we engage to fill the lack. As Dante tells us in Purgatorio 18, desire is spiritual motion: “disire, / ch’è moto spiritale” (Purg. 18.31-32]). Desire leads us astray, but desire also leads us to the good. How we negotiate our impulse of desire, whether we regulate it with our reason—these are the keys to our destiny. Desire for Dante is not wrong per se, but must always be controlled by reason, as discussed in the Introduction to Inferno 5.

Dante’s interest in the regulation of desire by reason leads him to value misura, the mean or mezzo in the Aristotelian ethical sense. One of the themes of this commentary is the degree to which the Aristotelian idea of virtue as the mean permeates the deep structures of Dante’s thought. In other words, although Dante certainly resonates to Augustine on the topic of desire, he does not keep his analysis within a binary structure, but opens it to a spectrum, for Aristotle’s idea of the mezzo belongs within a unified and non-dualistic construction of human behavior. On this topic, see my essay “Aristotle’s Mezzo, Courtly Misura, and Dante’s Canzone Le dolci rime: Humanism, Ethics, and Social Anxiety,” cited in Coordinated Reading above, and the Introductions to Inferno 5Inferno 7, and Inferno 11.

The word mezzo in the poem’s first verse thus possesses both metaphysical and moral significance.

* * *

Structurally, Inferno 1 is a canto that divides into 2 parts: the part that precedes the arrival of Virgilio, and the part that follows the arrival of Virgilio.[3] The first part of Inferno 1 takes place in an ambiguous surreal topography, one that is dream-like and uncanny, organized around mythic binaries: up/down, straight/crooked, light/dark, true/false, life/death. The actual landscape does not change until the entrance into hell at the beginning of Inferno 3, but the narrative atmosphere, the poem’s tonality, shifts with the arrival of Virgilio, whose presence historicizes and grounds the text.

In the dialogue between the pilgrim and Virgilio, Dante-poet moves his narrative from the mythic and visionary exordium (the visionary “sleep” of verse 11) toward that mimetic and historical engagement with “reality” for which the Commedia is renowned. Indeed, the suture marks that tie the mythic to the historical are apparent when we consider that the lupa is—rather unrealistically—present during the entire encounter with Virgilio. The lupa drives Dante back and, in verse 62, Virgilio appears and the encounter between the two poets ensues. In verse 88, 26 verses later, the encounter with Virgilio ends; now finally the pilgrim points to the lupa that had terrified him prior to the Latin poet’s arrival, and asks for help:

Vedi la bestia per cu’ io mi volsi:
aiutami da lei, famoso saggio,
ch’ella mi fa tremar le vene e i polsi.  (Inf. 1.88-90)

You see the beast that made me turn aside;
help me, o famous sage, to stand against her,
for she has made my blood and pulses shudder.

Virgilio’s first words embed the character in temporal and geographical specificity (at times resulting in curious anachronisms, like his reference to his family as “Lombard” in verse 68). In the phrase “Nacqui sub Julio” (I was born under Julius [Inf. 1.70]), Virgilio situates himself in history.

Virgilio asks Dante why he is going in the wrong direction, why he isn’t climbing the mountain that is “the origin and cause of every joy” (78). Dante does not answer these questions, although they offer the opportunity to address the presence of the she-wolf. In effect the pilgrim turns down the opportunity to beg for protection from the lupa, because he is much more interested by the identity of the shade whom he has just met.

Dante replies by posing his own amazed question, which amounts to “Are you really Virgilio?”: “Or se’ tu quel Virgilio . . . ?” (And are you then that Vergil . . . ? [Inf. 1.79]). In the slippage between the question posed, which pertains to the canto’s major plot-line of Dante’s distress, and the reply, which opens a new plot-line regarding Dante’s overpowering love for Vergil and his poetry—a love that in the moment takes precedence even over seeking refuge from the lupa and being able to climb the mountain—we see how Dante-poet uses dialogue to generate new plot-lines and to construct character.

After his arrival Virgilio explains the nature of the lupa and the threat that the beast poses. The all-encompassing negative desire that she embodies is cupidigia, an ever-unsatisfied hunger and greed that can never be filled: “e dopo ’l pasto ha più fame che pria” (when she has fed, she’s hungrier than before [Inf. 1.99]). The lupa is so fierce an impediment that the hill she blocks cannot be climbed. Unable to go directly upward, Dante must take a much longer route to the heights by traversing the three realms of the afterlife. Describing the three realms, Virgilio tells Dante that he will eventually come to a place where he must leave him and where another guide, a woman, will take his place: “con lei ti lascerò nel mio partire” (With her at my departure I will leave thee [Inf. 1.123]).

This verse, “con lei ti lascerò nel mio partire”—”With her at my departure I will leave thee”—provides a benchmark for the reader to measure Dante’s ability to conjure real affect in real time through the medium of language. Right now, in Inferno 1, Dante-protagonist (and mirroring him the reader) pays little attention to this announcement of Virgilio’s eventual departure. However, when that departure occurs in Purgatorio 30, much time and textual space later, the protagonist (and in my experience most readers) will be distraught, experiencing Virgilio’s “partire” as a personal abandonment.

Inferno 1 ends with the pilgrim’s embrace of Virgilio as his leader and guide. In the canto’s last verse the journey apparently begins: “Allor si mosse, e io li tenni dietro” (Then he moved on, and I behind him followed [Inf. 1.136]). And yet, the beginning will be delayed, and Inferno 2 will again end with verses that signal the beginning of the journey: “Così li dissi; e poi che mosso fue, / intrai per lo cammino alto e silvestro” (These were my words to him; when he advanced / I entered on the steep and savage path [Inf. 2.141-2]).

Dante in this way stages the beginning of the Commedia with multiple new beginnings, using a textured and layered approach that functions as a mimetic signifier of lived experience: life accrues incrementally as a function of time and is a state in which there are no beginnings and endings, for time “is a kind of middle-point, uniting in itself both a beginning and an end, a beginning of future time and an end of past time” (Aristotle, Physics 8.1.251b18-26). As discussed in chapter 2 of The Undivine Comedy, the poem’s rhyme scheme, terza rima, is a metrical embodiment of these same principles:

If we consider aba/bcb/cdc, we see that in each tercet the new enters in the form of the second or middle rhyme, while the rhyme that was “new” in the previous tercet becomes “old,” becomes the base onto which the newer new is added. This process, whereby an alterity, the new rhyme, becomes the identity of the subsequent tercet, imitates the genealogical flow of human history, in which the creation of each new identity requires the grafting of alterity onto a previous identity. (The Undivine Comedy, p. 25)

I mentioned the lovely interlude in which the pilgrim reacts with amazement to being in the presence of a poet whose work has been of seminal importance to him in his own poetic self-fashioning (Inf. 1.82-87). We readers too, in mimetic reflection of the pilgrim, should be amazed: the guide chosen for this quintessentially Christian quest is the great author of the Latin epic of the founding of Rome. Through the creation of the character of Virgilio and the story-line that he devises for him, Dante-poet engages his deep feelings about classical antiquity, a key theme of this poem.

Dante’s feelings about classical culture are authentic and conflictual: Dante’s adoration of classical culture is real, as is his concern about the non-Christianity of that culture. Thus, he has his character Virgilio announce that he lived “in the time of the false and lying gods” (“nel tempo de li dèi falsi e bugiardi” [Inf. 1.72]), but he also makes clear his “great love” for the Roman poet: “O de li altri poeti onore e lume / vagliami ’l lungo studio e ’l grande amore / che m’ha fatto cercar lo tuo volume” (O light and honor of all other poets, / may my long study and the intense love / that made me search your volume serve me now [Inf. 1.82-84]). Dante’s love for Virgilio, and by extension for classical culture, is a great theme of the Commedia.

The Commedia will give us ample opportunity to ponder the novelty and significance of a Christian poet who chooses a Roman poet not only as his poetic model but also as a vehicle of his salvation. Let me note here that at the end of Inferno 1 Dante makes enormous claims for Vergil, and hence for classical poetry. In chapter 3 of Dante’s Poets, I trace Dante’s usage in the Commedia of four words that he uses for Virgilio in Inferno 1, namely poeta, saggio, volume, and autore:

As compared to poeta and saggio, terms that describe a trajectory or progression, volume and autore are used in only two contexts: in Inferno for Vergil, and in Paradiso for God. The transition is so immense that it both heightens Vergil, the only poet who is an autore and whose book is a volume, and shrinks him by comparison with that other autore, Who is God, and that other volume, which is God’s book (volume is used variously in the last canticle, but always with relation to texts “written by” God, for instance the book of the future, the book of justice, the universe gathered into one volume). Moreover, when God is termed an author, He is not “’l mio autore” (Inf. 1.85), but the “verace autore” (Par. 26.40). (Dante’s Poets, p. 268)

Compared to the words volume and autore, used only for Virgilio and God, the word poeta traces an important trajectory in the Commedia. This trajectory leads to Dante himself, in a crescendo that moves from Vergil to Statius to Dante (thus the sub-titles of chapter 3 of Dante’s Poets are: “Vergil: Poeta fui”, “Statius: Per te poeta fui”, and “Dante: ritornerò poeta”):

If Statius replaces Vergil in Purgatorio 22 when he appropriates for himself (albeit in modified form) the name poeta, the final displacement is accomplished by Dante, when he becomes the only poeta of the last canticle, announcing in Paradiso 25 that he shall return as poet to Florence to receive the laurel crown. Although that hope was never fulfilled, the impact of the phrase “ritornerò poeta” remains undiminished at a textual level, since it reveals the arc Dante has inscribed into his poem through the restricted use of the word poeta: the poetic mantle passes from the classical poets, essentially Vergil, to a transitional poet, whose Christianity is disjunct from his poetic practice (and hence the verse in Purgatorio 22 with its neat caesura: “Per te poeta fui, per te cristiano” [73]), to the poet whose Christian faith is a sine qua non of his poetics. (Dante’s Poets, p. 269)

The story that both singles out Virgilio for special honor and displaces him ultimately with Dante himself will unfold incrementally throughout the Commedia, as life unfolds incrementally for all of us.

The history that pierces the mythic penumbra of the Commedia’s overture is Roman history. The first historic stage that we encounter in this Christian poem is that of classical antiquity, which is immediately sutured to contemporary Italy. “Italia” in the present (it is far from transparent what “Italia” is in the fourteenth century, as Dante is well aware) is invoked as the place for which Vergilian heroes and heroines gave their lives in the past, in an uninterrupted continuum:

Di quella umile Italia fia salute
per cui morì la vergine Cammilla,
Eurialo e Turno e Niso di ferute.  (Inf. 1.106-8) 

He will restore humble Italy for which
the maid Camilla died of wounds,
and Nisus, Turnus, and Euryalus.

Myth meets history, and the Commedia has begun.


[1] I will use terms like “hero,” “protagonist,” and “pilgrim” to refer to the character who says “I” in this story, in order to distinguish him from the poet. The poet is the man named Dante Alighieri, who was born in Florence in 1265 and died in Ravenna in 1321.

[2] My usage of “Ulyssean” will be clarified going forward and is a major theme of The Undivine Comedy.

[3] I will throughout this commentary use “Virgilio” for the character in Dante’s poem to distinguish that character from Vergil, the Roman author of the Aeneid who lived from 70 BCE to 19 BCE. On the issue of the spelling of “Vergil,” see Dante’s Poets, p. 207, n. 25.

Recommended Citation

Barolini, Teodolinda. "Inferno 1 : Myth Meets History, Isaiah Meets Aristotle." Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. Center for Digital Research and Scholarship. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2015.

Coordinated Reading