Inferno (Dante)

"Dante's Inferno" redirects here. For other uses, see Dante's Inferno (disambiguation).
Canto I from the Inferno, the first part of The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri.

Inferno (pronounced [inˈfɛrno]; Italian for "Hell") is the first part of Dante Alighieri's 14th-century epic poem Divine Comedy. It is followed by Purgatorio and Paradiso. The Inferno tells the journey of Dante through Hell, guided by the ancient Roman poet Virgil. In the poem, Hell is depicted as nine concentric circles of suffering located within the Earth; it is the "realm...of those who have rejected spiritual values by yielding to bestial appetites or violence, or by perverting their human intellect to fraud or malice against their fellowmen."[1] As an allegory, the Divine Comedy represents the journey of the soul toward God, with the Inferno describing the recognition and rejection of sin.[2]


Cantos I – II

Gustave Doré's engravings illustrated the Divine Comedy (1861–1868); here, Dante is lost in Canto 1 of the Inferno

The poem begins on the night of Maundy Thursday on March 24 (or April 7) 1300 A.D., shortly before dawn of Good Friday.[3][4] The narrator, Dante himself, is thirty-five years old, and thus "midway in the journey of our life" (Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita[5]) – half of the Biblical lifespan of seventy (Psalm 89:10, Vulgate; Psalm 90:10, KJV). The poet finds himself lost in a dark wood (selva oscura[6]), astray from the "straight way" (diritta via,[7] also translatable as "right way") of salvation. He sets out to climb directly up a small mountain, but his way is blocked by three beasts he cannot evade: a lonza[8] (usually rendered as "leopard" or "leopon"),[9] a leone[10] (lion), and a lupa[11] (she-wolf). The three beasts, taken from the Jeremiah 5:6, are thought to symbolize the three kinds of sin that bring the unrepentant soul into one of the three major divisions of Hell. According to John Ciardi, these are incontinence (the she-wolf); violence and bestiality (the lion); and fraud and malice (the leopard);[12] Dorothy L. Sayers assigns the leopard to incontinence and the she-wolf to fraud/malice.[13] It is now dawn of Good Friday, April 8, with the sun rising in Aries. The beasts drive him back despairing into the darkness of error, a "lower place" (basso loco[14]) where the sun is silent (l sol tace[15]). However, Dante is rescued by a figure who announces that he was born sub Iulio[16] (i.e. in the time of Julius Caesar) and lived under Augustus: it is the shade of the Roman poet Virgil, author of the Aeneid, a Latin epic (Canto I).

On the evening of Good Friday, Dante is following Virgil but hesitates; Virgil explains how he has been sent by Beatrice, the symbol of Divine Love. Beatrice has been sent with prayers from the Virgin Mary (symbolic of compassion) and of Saint Lucia (symbolic of illuminating Grace). Rachel, symbolic of the contemplative life, also appears in the heavenly scene recounted by Virgil. The two of them then begin their journey to the underworld (Canto II).

Vestibule of Hell

Dante passes through the gate of Hell, which bears an inscription ending with the famous phrase "Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate",[17] most frequently translated as "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here."[nb 1] Dante and his guide hear the anguished screams of the Uncommitted. These are the souls of people who in life took no sides; the opportunists who were for neither good nor evil, but merely concerned with themselves. Among these Dante recognizes a figure implied to be Pope Celestine V, whose "cowardice (in selfish terror for his own welfare) served as the door through which so much evil entered the Church."[18] Mixed with them are outcasts who took no side in the Rebellion of Angels. These souls are forever unclassified; they are neither in Hell nor out of it, but reside on the shores of the Acheron. Naked and futile, they race around through the mist in eternal pursuit of an elusive, wavering banner (symbolic of their pursuit of ever-shifting self-interest) while relentlessly chased by swarms of wasps and hornets, who continually sting them.[19] Loathsome maggots and worms at the sinners' feet drink the putrid mixture of blood, pus, and tears that flows down their bodies. This symbolizes the sting of their guilty conscience and the repugnance of sin. This may also be seen as a reflection of the spiritual stagnation they lived in.

Gustave Doré's illustration of Canto III: Arrival of Charon.

After passing through the vestibule, Dante and Virgil reach the ferry that will take them across the river Acheron and to Hell proper. The ferry is piloted by Charon, who does not want to let Dante enter, for he is a living being. Virgil forces Charon to take him by means of another famous line: Vuolsi così colà dove si puote / ciò che si vuole ("It is so willed there where is power to do / That which is willed"),[20] referring to the fact that Dante is on his journey on divine grounds. The wailing and blasphemy of the damned souls entering Charon's boat contrast with the joyful singing of the blessed souls arriving by ferry in the Purgatorio. The passage across the Acheron, however, is undescribed, since Dante faints and does not awaken until he is on the other side (Canto III).

Nine circles of Hell


Virgil proceeds to guide Dante through the nine circles of Hell. The circles are concentric, representing a gradual increase in wickedness, and culminating at the centre of the earth, where Satan is held in bondage. The sinners of each circle are punished for eternity in a fashion fitting their crimes: each punishment is a contrapasso, a symbolic instance of poetic justice. For example, later in the poem, Dante and Virgil encounter fortune-tellers who must walk forward with their heads on backward, unable to see what is ahead, because they tried to see the future through forbidden means. Such a contrapasso "functions not merely as a form of divine revenge, but rather as the fulfilment of a destiny freely chosen by each soul during his or her life."[21] People who sinned, but prayed for forgiveness before their deaths are found not in Hell but in Purgatory, where they labour to be free of their sins. Those in Hell are people who tried to justify their sins and are unrepentant. Allegorically, the Inferno represents the Christian soul seeing sin for what it really is.

Dante's Hell is structurally based on the ideas of Aristotle, but with "certain Christian symbolisms, exceptions, and misconstructions of Aristotle's text."[22] Dante's three major categories of sin, as symbolized by the three beasts that Dante encounters in Canto I, are Incontinence, Violence and Bestiality, and Fraud and Malice.[22][23] Sinners punished for incontinence – the lustful, the gluttonous, the hoarders and wasters, and the wrathful and sullen – all demonstrated weakness in controlling their appetites, desires, and natural urges; according to Aristotle's Ethics, incontinence is less condemnable than malice or bestiality, and therefore these sinners are located in four circles of Upper Hell (Circles 2-5). These sinners endure lesser torments than do those consigned to Lower Hell, located within the walls of the City of Dis, for committing acts of violence and fraud – the latter of which involves, as Dorothy L. Sayers writes, "abuse of the specifically human faculty of reason".[23] The deeper levels are organized into one circle for violence (Circle 7) and two circles for fraud (Circles 8 and 9). As a Christian, Dante adds Circle 1 (Limbo) to Upper Hell and Circle 6 (Heresy) to Lower Hell, making 9 Circles in total; incorporating the Vestibule of the Futile, this leads to Hell containing 10 main divisions.[23] This "9+1=10" structure is also found within the Purgatorio and Paradiso. Lower Hell is further subdivided: Circle 7 (Violence) is divided into three rings, Circle 8 (Simple Fraud) is divided into ten bolge, and Circle 9 (Complex Fraud) is divided into four regions. Thus, Hell contains, in total, 24 divisions.

First Circle (Limbo)

Dante wakes up to find that he has crossed the Acheron, and Virgil leads him to the first circle of the abyss: Limbo, where Virgil himself resides. The first circle contains the unbaptized and the virtuous pagans, who, although not sinful, did not accept Christ. Dorothy L. Sayers writes, "After those who refused choice come those without opportunity of choice. They could not, that is, choose Christ; they could, and did, choose human virtue, and for that they have their reward."[24] Limbo shares many characteristics with the Asphodel Meadows; thus, the guiltless damned are punished by living in a deficient form of Heaven. Without baptism ("the portal of the faith that you embrace")[25] they lacked the hope for something greater than rational minds can conceive. When Dante asked if anyone has ever left Limbo, Virgil states that he saw Jesus ("a Mighty One") descend into Limbo and take Noah, Moses, Abraham, David, and Rachel (see Limbo of the Patriarchs) into his all-forgiving arms and transport them to Heaven as the first human souls to be saved. The event, known as the Harrowing of Hell, would have occurred in A.D. 33 or 34.

Dante encounters the poets Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan, who include him in their number and make him "sixth in that high company".[26] They reach the base of a great Castle – the dwelling place of the wisest men of antiquity – surrounded by seven gates, and a flowing brook. After passing through the seven gates, the group comes to an exquisite green meadow and Dante encounters the inhabitants of the Citadel. These include figures associated with the Trojans and their descendants (the Romans): Electra (mother of Troy's founder Dardanus), Hector, Aeneas, Julius Caesar in his role as Roman general ("in his armor, falcon-eyed"),[27] Camilla, Penthesilea (Queen of the Amazons), King Latinus and his daughter, Lavinia, Lucius Junius Brutus (who overthrew Tarquin to found the Roman Republic), Lucretia, Julia, Marcia, and Cornelia Africana. Dante also views Saladin, a Muslim military leader known for his struggle against the Crusaders as well as his generous, chivalrous, and merciful conduct.

Dante next encounters a group of philosophers, including Aristotle with Socrates and Plato at his side, as well as Democritus, "Diogenes" (either Diogenes the Cynic or Diogenes of Apollonia), Anaxagoras, Thales, Empedocles, Heraclitus, and "Zeno" (either Zeno of Elea or Zeno of Citium). He sees the scientist Dioscorides; the mythical Greek poets Orpheus and Linus; and Roman statesmen Marcus Tullius Cicero and Seneca. Dante sees the Alexandrian geometer Euclid and Ptolemy, the Alexandrian astronomer and geographer, as well as the physicians Hippocrates and Galen. He also encounters Avicenna, a Persian polymath, and Averroes, a medieval Andalusian polymath known for his commentaries on Aristotle's works. Dante and Virgil depart from the four other poets and continue their journey (Canto IV).

Although Dante implies that all virtuous non-Christians find themselves here, he later encounters two (Cato of Utica and Statius) in Purgatory and two (Trajan and Ripheus) in Heaven. In Purg. XXII, Virgil names several additional inhabitants of Limbo who were not mentioned in the Inferno.[28]

Second Circle (Lust)

Gustave Doré's depiction of Minos judging sinners at the start of Canto V.

Dante and Virgil leave Limbo and enter the Second Circle – the first of the circles of Incontinence – where the punishments of Hell proper begin. It is described as "a part where no thing gleams."[29] They find their way hindered by the serpentine Minos, who judges all of those condemned for active, deliberately willed sin to one of the lower circles. Minos sentences each soul to its torment by wrapping his tail around himself a corresponding number of times. Virgil rebukes Minos, and he and Dante continue on.

In the second circle of Hell are those overcome by lust. These "carnal malefactors"[30] are condemned for letting their appetites sway their reason. These souls are buffeted back and forth by the terrible winds of a violent storm, without rest. This symbolizes the power of lust to blow one about needlessly and aimlessly: "as the lovers drifted into self-indulgence and were carried sway by their passions, so now they drift for ever. The bright, voluptuous sin is now seen as it is – a howling darkness of helpless discomfort."[31] Since lust involves mutual indulgence and is not, therefore, completely self-centered, Dante deems it the least heinous of the sins and its punishment is the most benign within Hell proper.[31][32] The "ruined slope"[33] in this circle is thought to be a reference to the earthquake that occurred after the death of Christ.

Gianciotto Discovers Paolo and Francesca by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres

In this circle, Dante sees Semiramis, Dido, Cleopatra, Helen of Troy, Achilles, Paris, Tristan, and many others who were overcome by sexual love during their life. Dante comes across Francesca da Rimini, who married the deformed Giovanni Malatesta (also known as "Gianciotto") for political purposes but fell in love with his younger brother Paolo Malatesta; the two began to carry on an adulterous affair. Sometime between 1283 and 1286, Giovanni surprised them together in Francesca's bedroom and violently stabbed them both to death. Francesca explains:

Love, which in gentlest hearts will soonest bloom
   seized my lover with passion for that sweet body
   from which I was torn unshriven to my doom.
Love, which permits no loved one not to love,
   took me so strongly with delight in him
   that we are one in Hell, as we were above.
Love led us to one death. In the depths of Hell
   Caïna waits for him who took our lives."
   This was the piteous tale they stopped to tell.[1]

  1. ^ Inferno, Canto V, lines 100-108, Ciardi translation.

Francesca further reports that she and Paolo yielded to their love when reading the story of the adultery between Lancelot and Guinevere in the Old French romance Lancelot du Lac. Francesca says, "Galeotto fu 'l libro e chi lo scrisse."[34] The word "Galeotto" means "pander" but is also the Italian term for Gallehaut, who acted as an intermediary between Lancelot and Guinevere, encouraging them on to love. John Ciardi renders line 137 as "That book, and he who wrote it, was a pander."[35] Inspired by Dante, author Giovanni Boccaccio invoked the name Prencipe Galeotto in the alternative title to The Decameron, a 14th-century collection of novellas. The English poet John Keats, in his sonnet "On a Dream," imagines what Dante does not give us, the point of view of Paolo:

... But to that second circle of sad hell,
Where 'mid the gust, the whirlwind, and the flaw
Of rain and hail-stones, lovers need not tell
Their sorrows. Pale were the sweet lips I saw,
Pale were the lips I kiss'd, and fair the form
I floated with, about that melancholy storm.[36]

As he did at the end of Canto III, Dante – overcome by pity and anguish – describes his swoon: "I fainted, as if I had met my death. / And then I fell as a dead body falls"[37] (Canto V).

Third Circle (Gluttony)

The third circle, illustrated by Stradanus
Cerberus as illustrated by Gustave Doré

In the third circle, the gluttonous wallow in a vile, putrid slush produced by a ceaseless, foul, icy rain – "a great storm of putrefaction"[38] – as punishment for subjecting their reason to a voracious appetite. Cerberus (described as "il gran vermo", literally "the great worm", line 22), the monstrous three-headed beast of Hell, ravenously guards the gluttons lying in the freezing mire, mauling and flaying them with his claws as they howl like dogs. Virgil obtains safe passage past the monster by filling its three mouths with mud.

Dorothy L. Sayers writes that "the surrender to sin which began with mutual indulgence leads by an imperceptible degradation to solitary self-indulgence."[39] The gluttons grovel in the mud by themselves, sightless and heedless of their neighbors, symbolizing the cold, selfish, and empty sensuality of their lives.[39] Just as lust has revealed its true nature in the winds of the previous circle, here the slush reveals the true nature of sensuality – which includes not only overindulgence in food and drink, but also other kinds of addiction.[40]

In this circle, Dante converses with a Florentine contemporary identified as Ciacco, which means "hog."[41] A character with the same nickname later appears in The Decameron of Giovanni Boccaccio.[42] Ciacco speaks to Dante regarding strife in Florence between the "White" and "Black" Guelphs, which developed after the Guelph/Ghibelline strife ended with the complete defeat of the Ghibellines. In the first of several political prophecies in the Inferno, Ciacco "predicts" the expulsion of the White Guelphs (Dante's party) from Florence by the Black Guelphs, aided by Pope Boniface VIII, which marked the start of Dante's long exile from the city. These events occurred in 1302, prior to when the poem was written but in the future at Easter time of 1300, the time in which the poem is set[41] (Canto VI).

Fourth Circle (Greed)

In Gustave Doré's illustrations for the fourth circle, the weights are huge money bags

The Fourth Circle is guarded by a figure Dante names as Pluto: this is Plutus, the deity of wealth in classical mythology (he is a distinct figure from Pluto (Dis), the classical ruler of the underworld, though the two are often conflated).[nb 2] At the start of Canto VII, he menaces Virgil and Dante with the cryptic phrase Papé Satàn, papé Satàn aleppe, but Virgil protects Dante from him.

Those whose attitude toward material goods deviated from the appropriate mean are punished in the fourth circle. They include the avaricious or miserly (including many "clergymen, and popes and cardinals"),[43] who hoarded possessions, and the prodigal, who squandered them. The hoarders and spendthrifts joust, using as weapons great weights that they push with their chests:

Here, too, I saw a nation of lost souls,
   far more than were above: they strained their chests
   against enormous weights, and with mad howls
rolled them at one another. Then in haste
   they rolled them back, one party shouting out:
   "Why do you hoard?" and the other: "Why do you waste?"[1]

  1. ^ Inferno, Canto VII, lines 25–30, Ciardi translation.

Relating this sin of incontinence to the two that preceded it (lust and gluttony), Dorothy L. Sayers writes, "Mutual indulgence has already declined into selfish appetite; now, that appetite becomes aware of the incompatible and equally selfish appetites of other people. Indifference becomes mutual antagonism, imaged here by the antagonism between hoarding and squandering."[44] The contrast between these two groups leads Virgil to discourse on the nature of Fortune, who raises nations to greatness and later plunges them into poverty, as she shifts "those empty goods from nation unto nation, clan to clan."[45] This speech fills what would otherwise be a gap in the poem, since both groups are so absorbed in their activity that Virgil tells Dante that it would be pointless to try to speak to them – indeed, they have lost their individuality and been rendered "unrecognizable"[46] (Canto VII).

Fifth Circle (Wrath)

The fifth circle, illustrated by Stradanus

In the swampy, stinking waters of the river Styx – the Fifth Circle – the actively wrathful fight each other viciously on the surface of the slime, while the sullen (the passively wrathful) lie beneath the water, withdrawn "into a black sulkiness which can find no joy in God or man or the universe."[44] At the surface of the foul Stygian marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers writes, "the active hatreds rend and snarl at one another; at the bottom, the sullen hatreds lie gurgling, unable even to express themselves for the rage that chokes them."[44] As the last circle of Incontinence, the "savage self-frustration" of the Fifth Circle marks the end of "that which had its tender and romantic beginnings in the dalliance of indulged passion."[44] (Canto VII).

Phlegyas reluctantly transports Dante and Virgil across the Styx in his skiff. On the way they are accosted by Filippo Argenti, a Black Guelph from a prominent family. When Dante was forced to leave Florence, Argenti took all his property. When Dante responds "In weeping and in grieving, accursed spirit, may you long remain,"[47] Virgil blesses him with words used to describe Christ himself (Luke 11:27). Literally, this reflects the fact that souls in Hell are eternally fixed in the state they have chosen, but allegorically, it reflects Dante's beginning awareness of his own sin.[48] Just as Argenti seized Dante's property, he himself is "seized" by all the other wrathful souls. (Canto VIII).

Entrance to Dis

Lower Hell, inside the walls of Dis, in an illustration by Stradanus. There is a drop from the sixth circle to the three rings of the seventh circle, then again to the ten rings of the eighth circle, and, at the bottom, to the icy ninth circle.

Cantos VIII—IX: In the distance, Dante perceives high towers that resemble fiery red mosques. Virgil informs him that they are approaching the City of Dis. Dis, itself surrounded by the Stygian marsh, contains Lower Hell within its walls.[49] Dis is one of the names of Pluto, the classical king of the underworld, in addition to being the name of the realm. The walls of Dis are guarded by fallen angels. Virgil is unable to convince them to let Dante and him enter, and Dante is threatened by the Furies (consisting of Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone) and Medusa. An angel sent from Heaven secures entry for the poets, opening the gate by touching it with a wand, and rebukes those who opposed Dante. Allegorically, this reveals the fact that the poem is beginning to deal with sins that philosophy and humanism cannot fully understand. Virgil also mentions to Dante how Erichtho sent him down to the lowest circle of Hell to bring back a spirit from there.[48]

Sixth Circle (Heresy)

In the sixth circle, Heretics, such as Epicurus and his followers (who say "the soul dies with the body")[50] are trapped in flaming tombs. Dante holds discourse with a pair of Epicurian Florentines in one of the tombs: Farinata degli Uberti, a famous Ghibelline leader (following the Battle of Montaperti in September 1260, Farinata strongly protested the proposed destruction of Florence at the meeting of the victorious Ghibellines; he died in 1264 and was posthumously condemned for heresy in 1283); and Cavalcante de' Cavalcanti, a Guelph who was the father of Dante's friend and fellow poet, Guido Cavalcanti. The political affiliation of these two men allows for a further discussion of Florentine politics. In response to a question from Dante about the "prophecy" he has received, Farinata explains that what the souls in Hell know of life on earth comes from seeing the future, not from any observation of the present. Consequently, when "the portal of the future has been shut,"[51] it will no longer be possible for them to know anything. Farinata explains that also crammed within the tomb are Emperor Frederick II, commonly reputed to be an Epicurean, and Ottaviano degli Ubaldini, to whom Dante refers to as il Cardinale (Canto X).

Dante reads an inscription on one of the tombs indicating it belongs to Pope Anastasius II – although some modern scholars hold that Dante erred in the verse mentioning Anastasius ("Anastasio papa guardo, / lo qual trasse Fotin de la via dritta", lines 8-9), confusing the pope with the Byzantine emperor of the time, Anastasius I.[52][53][54][55] Pausing for a moment before the steep descent to the foul-smelling seventh circle, Virgil explains the geography and rationale of Lower Hell, in which the sins of violence (or bestiality) and fraud (or malice) are punished. (Virgil's explanation of Hell's organization is explained above.) In his explanation, Virgil refers to the Nicomachean Ethics and the Physics of Aristotle, with medieval interpretations. Virgil asserts that there are only two legitimate sources of wealth: natural resources ("Nature") and human labor and activity ("Art"). Usury, to be punished in the next circle, is therefore an offence against both; it is a kind of blasphemy, since it is an act of violence against Art, which is the child of Nature, and Nature derives from God.[56]

Virgil then indicates the time through his unexplained awareness of the stars' positions. The "Wain," the Great Bear, now lies in the northwest over Caurus (the northwest wind). The constellation Pisces (the Fish) is just appearing over the horizon: it is the zodiacal sign preceding Aries (the Ram). Canto I notes that the sun is in Aries, and since the twelve zodiac signs rise at two-hour intervals, it must now be about two hours prior to sunrise: 4:00 A.M. of Holy Saturday, April 9 (Canto XI).[56][57]

Seventh Circle (Violence)

The Seventh Circle, divided into three rings, houses the Violent. Dante and Virgil descend a jumble of rocks that had once formed a cliff to reach the Seventh Circle from the Sixth Circle, having first to evade the Minotaur (L'infamia di Creti, "the Infamy of Crete", line 12); at the sight of them, the Minotaur gnaws his flesh. Virgil assures the monster that Dante is not its hated enemy, Theseus. This causes the Minotaur to charge them as Dante and Virgil swiftly enter the seventh circle. Virgil explains the presence of shattered stones around them: they resulted from the great earthquake that shook the earth at the moment of Christ's death (Matt. 27:51), at the time of the Harrowing of Hell. Ruins resulting from the same shock were previously seen at the beginning of Upper Hell (the entrance of the Second Circle, Canto V).

"Along the brink of the vermilion boiling, / Wherein the boiled were uttering loud laments. / People I saw within up to the eyebrows..."[58]
Harpies in the wood of the suicides, from Inferno XIII, by Gustave Doré, 1861
Dante learns that these suicides, unique among the dead, will not be corporally resurrected after the Final Judgement since they threw their bodies away; instead, they will maintain their bushy form, with their own corpses hanging from the thorny limbs. After Pietro della Vigna finishes his story, Dante notices two shades (Lano da Siena and Jacopo Sant' Andrea) race through the wood, chased and savagely mauled by ferocious bitches—this is the punishment of the violently profligate who, "possessed by a depraved passion...dissipated their goods for the sheer wanton lust of wreckage and disorder."[60] The destruction wrought upon the wood by the profligates' flight and punishment as they crash through the undergrowth causes further suffering to the suicides, who cannot move out of the way (Canto XIII).
Brunetto Latini speaks with Dante in Canto XV, an engraving by Gustave Doré.
Protected by the powers of the boiling rivulet, Dante and Virgil progress across the burning plain. They pass a roving group of Sodomites, and Dante, to his surprise, recognizes Brunetto Latini. Dante addresses Brunetto with deep and sorrowful affection, "paying him the highest tribute offered to any sinner in the Inferno",[63] thus refuting suggestions that Dante only placed his enemies in Hell.[64] Dante has great respect for Brunetto and feels spiritual indebtedness to him and his works ("you taught me how man makes himself eternal; / and while I live, my gratitude for that / must always be apparent in my words"),[65] Brunetto prophesies Dante's bad treatment by the Florentines. He also identifies other sodomites, including Priscian, Francesco d'Accorso, and Bishop Andrea de' Mozzi (Canto XV).
The Poets begin to hear the waterfall that plunges over the Great Cliff into the Eighth Circle when three shades break from their company and greet them. They are Iacopo Rusticucci, Guido Guerra, and Tegghiaio Aldobrandi—all Florentines much admired by Dante. Rusticucci blames his "savage wife" for his torments. The sinners ask for news of Florence, and Dante laments the current state of the city. At the top of the falls, at Virgil's order, Dante removes a cord from about his waist and Virgil drops it over the edge; as if in answer, a large, distorted shape swims up through the filthy air of the abyss (Canto XVI). The creature is Geryon, the Monster of Fraud; Virgil announces that they must fly down from the cliff on the monster's back. Dante goes alone to examine the Usurers: he does not recognize them, but each has a heraldic device emblazoned on a leather purse around his neck ("On these their streaming eyes appeared to feast.".[66] The coats of arms indicate that they came from prominent Florentine families; they indicate the presence of Catello di Rosso Gianfigliazzi, Ciappo Ubriachi, the Paduan Reginaldo degli Scrovegni (who predicts that his fellow Paduan Vitaliano di Iacopo Vitaliani will join him here), and Giovanni di Buiamonte. Dante then rejoins Virgil and, both mounted atop Geryon's back, the two begin their descent from the great cliff in the Eighth Circle: the Hell of the Fraudulent and Malicious (Canto XVII).
A Gustave Doré wood engraving of Geryon, Canto XVII.

Geryon, the winged monster who allows Dante and Virgil to descend a vast cliff to reach the Eighth Circle, was traditionally represented as a giant with three heads and three conjoined bodies.[67] Dante's Geryon, meanwhile, is an image of fraud[68] (Canto XVII), combining human, bestial, and reptilian elements: Geryon is a "monster with the general shape of a dragon but with the tail of a scorpion, hairy arms, a gaudily-marked reptilian body, and the face of a just and honest man".[69] The pleasant human face on this grotesque body evokes the insincere fraudster whose intentions "behind the face" are all monstrous, cold-blooded, and stinging with poison.

Eighth Circle (Fraud)

See also: Malebolge

Dante now finds himself in the Eighth Circle, called Malebolge ("Evil Ditches"): the upper half of the Hell of the Fraudulent and Malicious. The Eighth Circle is a large funnel of stone shaped like an amphitheatre around which run a series of ten deep, narrow, concentric ditches or trenches called bolge (singular: bolgia). Within these ditches are punished those guilty of Simple Fraud. From the foot of the Great Cliff to the Well (which forms the neck of the funnel) are large spurs of rock, like umbrella ribs or spokes, which serve as bridges over the ten ditches. Dorothy L. Sayers writes that the Malebolge is "the image of the City in corruption: the progressive disintegration of every social relationship, personal and public. Sexuality, ecclesiastical and civil office, language, ownership, counsel, authority, psychic influence, and material interdependence – all the media of the community's interchange are perverted and falsified."[70]

Illustration by Sandro Botticelli: Dante and Virgil visit the first two bolge of the eighth circle
Punishment of sorcerers and diviners in the Fourth Bolgia, Canto XX, illustrated by Stradanus.
Dante's guide rebuffs Malacoda and his fiends between Bolge 5 and 6, Canto 21
The Thieves tortured by Serpents: engraving by Gustave Doré illustrating Canto XXIV of the Inferno.
Dante and Virgil observe the false counsellors, Canto XXVI

'Brothers,' I said, 'o you, who having crossed
   a hundred thousand dangers, reach the west,
   to this brief waking-time that still is left
unto your senses, you must not deny
   experience of that which lies beyond
   the sun, and of the world that is unpeopled.
Consider well the seed that gave you birth:
   you were not made to live your lives as brutes,
   but to be followers of worth and knowledge.'[1]

  1. ^ Inferno, Canto XXVI, lines 112-120, Mandelbaum translation.
Ulysses tells how he and his men traveled south across the equator, observed the southern stars, and found that the North Star had sunk below the horizon; they sight Mount Purgatory in the Southern Hemisphere after five months of passage (Canto XXVI). Dante is approached by Guido da Montefeltro, head of the Ghibellines of Romagna, asking for news of his country. Dante replies with a tragic summary of the current state of the cities of Romagna. Guido then recounts his life: he advised Pope Boniface VIII to offer a false amnesty to the Colonna family, who, in 1297, had walled themselves inside the castle of Palestrina in the Lateran. When the Colonna accepted the terms and left the castle, the Pope razed it to the ground and left them without a refuge. Guido describes how St. Francis, founder of the Franciscan order, came to take his soul to Heaven, only to have a devil assert prior claim. Although Boniface had absolved Guido in advance for his evil advice, the devil points out the invalidity: absolution requires contrition, and a man cannot be contrite for a sin at the same time that he is intending to commit it[86] (Canto XXVII).
Dante et Virgile by William-Adolphe Bouguereau: Capocchio, an alchemist, is attacked by Gianni Schicchi, who impersonated the dead Buoso Donati to claim his inheritance, Canto XXX.

Central Well of Malebolge

Titans and giants, including Ephialtes on the left, in Doré's illustrations.

Dante and Virgil approach the Central Well, at the bottom of which lies the Ninth and final Circle of Hell. The classical and biblical Giants—who perhaps symbolize pride and other spiritual flaws lying behind acts of treachery[91]—stand perpetual guard inside the well-pit, their legs embedded in the banks of the Ninth Circle while their upper halves rise above the rim and can be visible from the Malebolge.[92] Dante initially mistakes them for great towers of a city. Among the Giants, Virgil identifies Nimrod (who tried to build the Tower of Babel; he shouts out the unintelligible Raphèl mai amècche zabì almi); Ephialtes (who with his brother Otus tried to storm Olympus during the Gigantomachy; he has his arms chained up) and Briareus (who Dante claimed to have challenged the Gods); and Tityos and Typhon, who insulted Jupiter. Also here is the Giant Antaeus, who did not join in the rebellion against the Olympian Gods and therefore is not chained. At Virgil's persuasion, Antaeus takes the Poets in his large palm and lowers them gently to the final level of Hell (Canto XXXI).

Ninth Circle (Treachery)

Dante speaks to the traitors in the ice, Canto 32.

At the base of the well, Dante finds himself within a large frozen lake: Cocytus, the Ninth Circle of Hell. Trapped in the ice, each according to his guilt, are punished sinners guilty of treachery against those with whom they had special relationships. The lake of ice is divided into four concentric rings (or "rounds") of traitors corresponding, in order of seriousness, to betrayal of family ties, betrayal of community ties, betrayal of guests, and betrayal of lords. This is in contrast to the popular image of Hell as fiery; as Ciardi writes, "The treacheries of these souls were denials of love (which is God) and of all human warmth. Only the remorseless dead center of the ice will serve to express their natures. As they denied God's love, so are they furthest removed from the light and warmth of His Sun. As they denied all human ties, so are they bound only by the unyielding ice."[93]

Ugolino and His Sons by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, at the Musée des beaux-arts de la ville de Paris, which depicts Ugolino della Gherardesca's story from Canto XXXIII. Imprisoned for treachery, Ugolino starves to death with his children, who, before dying, beg him to eat their bodies.

Centre of Hell

Satan in the Inferno is trapped in the frozen central zone in the Ninth Circle of Hell, Canto XXXIV (Gustave Doré)
See also: Dante's Satan

In the very centre of Hell, condemned for committing the ultimate sin (personal treachery against God), is the Devil, referred to by Virgil as Dis (the Roman god of the underworld; the name "Dis" was often used for Pluto in antiquity, such as in Virgil's Aeneid). The arch-traitor, Lucifer was once held by God to be fairest of the angels before pride caused his rebellion against God and resulted in his expulsion from Heaven. Lucifer is a giant, terrifying beast trapped waist-deep in the ice, fixed and suffering. He has three faces, each a different color: one red (the middle), one a pale yellow (the right), and one black (the left):

...he had three faces: one in front bloodred;
and then another two that, just above
   the midpoint of each shoulder, joined the first;
   and at the crown, all three were reattached;
the right looked somewhat yellow, somewhat white;
   the left in its appearance was like those
   who come from where the Nile, descending, flows.[1]

  1. ^ Inferno, Canto XXXIV, lines 39–45, Mandelbaum translation.

Dorothy L. Sayers notes that Satan's three faces are thought by some to suggest his control over the three human races: red for the Europeans (from Japheth), yellow for the Asiatic (from Shem), and black for the African (the race of Ham).[100] All interpretations recognize that the three faces represent a fundamental perversion of the Trinity: Satan is impotent, ignorant, and full of hate, in contrast to the all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving nature of God.[100] Lucifer retains his six wings (he originally belonged to the angelic order of Seraphim, described in Isaiah 6:2), but these are now dark, bat-like, and futile: the icy wind that emanates from the beating of Lucifer's wings only further ensures his own imprisonment in the frozen lake. He weeps from his six eyes, and his tears mix with bloody froth and pus as they pour down his three chins. Each face has a mouth that chews eternally on a prominent traitor. Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus dangle with their feet in the left and right mouths, respectively, for their involvement in the assassination of Julius Caesar (March 15, 44 BC) – an act which, to Dante, represented the destruction of a unified Italy and the killing of the man who was divinely appointed to govern the world.[100] In the central, most vicious mouth is Judas Iscariot, the apostle who betrayed Christ. Judas is receiving the most horrifying torture of the three traitors: his head is gnawed inside Lucifer's mouth while his back is forever flayed and shredded by Lucifer's claws. According to Dorothy L. Sayers, "just as Judas figures treason against God, so Brutus and Cassius figure treason against Man-in-Society; or we may say that we have here the images of treason against the Divine and the Secular government of the world."[100]

At about 6:00 P.M. on Saturday evening, Virgil and Dante begin their escape from Hell by clamoring down Satan's ragged fur, feet-first. When they reach Satan's navel, the poets pass through the center of the universe and of gravity from the Northern Hemisphere of land to the Southern Hemisphere of water. When Virgil changes direction and begins to climb "upward" towards the surface of the Earth at the antipodes, Dante, in his confusion, initially believes they are returning to Hell. Virgil indicates that the time is halfway between the canonical hours of Prime (6 a.m.) and Terce (9 a.m.)—that is, 7:30 A.M of the same Holy Saturday which was just about to end. Dante is confused as to how, after about an hour and a half of climbing, it is now apparently morning. Virgil explains that as a result of passing through the Earth's center into the Southern Hemisphere, which is twelve hours ahead of Jerusalem, the central city of the Northern Hemisphere (where, therefore, it is currently 7:30 P.M.).

Virgil goes on to explain how the Southern Hemisphere was once covered with dry land, but the land recoiled in horror to the north when Lucifer fell from Heaven and was replaced by the ocean. Meanwhile, the inner rock Lucifer displaced as he plunged into the center of the earth rushed upwards to the surface of the Southern Hemisphere to avoid contact with him, forming the Mountain of Purgatory. This mountain—the only land mass in the waters of the Southern Hemisphere—rises above the surface at a point directly opposite Jerusalem. The poets then ascend a narrow chasm of rock through the "space contained between the floor formed by the convex side of Cocytus and the underside of the earth above,"[101] moving in opposition to Lethe, the river of oblivion, which flows down from the summit of Mount Purgatory. The poets finally emerge a little before dawn on the morning of Easter Sunday (April 10, 1300 A.D.) beneath a sky studded with stars (Canto XXXIV).


Series of woodcuts, illustrating Dante’s Hell by Antonio Manetti(1423 – 1497).
Dialogo di Antonio Manetti (1423 – 1497) cittadino fiorentino circa al sito, forma, et misure dello inferno di Dante Alighieri poeta excellentissimo. [Florence: F. Giunta, 1510?].
Everything Reduced to One Plan, 1506 
The Chamber of Hell, 1506 
Overview of Hell, 1506 
Circles Six and Seven, 1506 
The Lair of Geryon, 1506 
The Tomb of Lucifer, 1506 

See also


  1. There are many English translations of this famous line. Some examples include Verbatim, the line translates as "Leave (lasciate) every (ogne) hope (speranza), ye (voi) that (ch') enter (intrate)."
  2. Mandelbaum, note to his translation, p. 357 of the Bantam Dell edition, 2004, says that Dante may simply be preserving an ancient conflation of the two deities; Peter Bondanella in his note to the translation of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Inferno: Dante Alighieri (Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003), pp. 202–203, thinks Plutus is meant, since Pluto is usually identified with Dis, and Dis is a distinct figure.
  3. The punishment of immersion was not typically ascribed in Dante's age to the violent, but the Visio attaches it to those who facere praelia et homicidia et rapinas pro cupiditate terrena ("make battle and murder and rapine because of worldly cupidity"). Theodore Silverstein (1936), "Inferno, XII, 100–126, and the Visio Karoli Crassi," Modern Language Notes, 51:7, 449–452, and Theodore Silverstein (1939), "The Throne of the Emperor Henry in Dante's Paradise and the Mediaeval Conception of Christian Kingship," Harvard Theological Review, 32:2, 115–129, suggests that Dante's interest in contemporary politics would have attracted him to a piece like the Visio. Its popularity assures that Dante would have had access to it. Jacques Le Goff, Goldhammer, Arthur, tr. (1986), The Birth of Purgatory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0-226-47083-0), states definitively that ("we know [that]") Dante read it.
  4. Allen Mandelbaum on Canto XXI, lines 112-114: "the bridges of Hell crumbled 1266 years ago—at a time five hours later than the present hour yesterday. Dante held that Christ died after having completed 34 years of life on this earth—years counted from the day of the Incarnation. Luke affirms that the hour of His death was the sixth—that is, noon. If this is the case, then Malacoda is referring to a time which is 7 A.M., five hours before noon on Holy Saturday."[79]


  1. John Ciardi, The Divine Comedy, Introduction by Archibald T. MacAllister, p. 14
  2. Dorothy L. Sayers, Hell, notes on page 19.
  3. Hollander, Robert (2000). Note on Inferno I.11. In Robert and Jean Hollander, trans., The Inferno by Dante. New York: Random House. p. 14. ISBN 0-385-49698-2
  4. Allen Mandelbaum, Inferno, notes on Canto I, pg. 345
  5. Inf. Canto I, line 1
  6. Inf. Canto I, line 2
  7. Inf. Canto I, line 3
  8. Inf. Canto I, line 32
  9. Allaire, Gloria (7 August 1997). "New evidence towards identifying Dante's enigmatic lonza". Electronic Bulletin of the Dante Society of America – defines lonza as the result of an unnatural pairing between a leopard and a lioness in Andrea da Barberino Guerrino meschino.
  10. Inf. Canto I, line 45
  11. Inf. Canto I, line 49
  12. John Ciardi, Inferno, notes on Canto I, pg. 21
  13. Dorothy L. Sayers, Hell, notes on Canto I.
  14. Inf. Canto I, line 61
  15. Inf. Canto I, line 60
  16. Inf. Canto I, line 70
  17. Inf. Canto III, line 9
  18. John Ciardi, Inferno, notes on Canto III, pg. 36
  19. Dorothly L. Sayers, Hell, notes on Canto III
  20. Inferno, Canto III, lines 95-96, Longfellow translation
  21. Brand, Peter; Pertile, Lino (1999). The Cambridge History of Italian Literature (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 63–64. ISBN 0-521-66622-8. Retrieved 2016-03-07.
  22. 1 2 John Ciardi, Inferno, notes on Canto XI, pg. 94
  23. 1 2 3 Dorothy L. Sayers, "Hell", notes on Canto XI, pg. 139
  24. Dorothy L. Sayers, Hell, notes on Canto IV
  25. Inferno, Canto IV, line 36, Mandelbaum translation.
  26. Inferno, Canto IV, line 103, Ciardi translation.
  27. Inferno, Canto IV, line 123, Mandelbaum translation.
  28. Purgatorio, Canto XXII, lines 97-114
  29. Inferno, Canto IV, line 151, Mandelbaum translation.
  30. Inferno, Canto V, line 38, Longfellow translation.
  31. 1 2 Dorothy L. Sayers, Hell, notes on Canto V, pg. 101-102
  32. John Ciardi, Inferno, notes on Canto V, pg. 51
  33. Inferno, Canto V, line 34, Mandelbaum translation.
  34. Inf. Canto V, line 137
  35. Inferno, line 137, Ciardi translation
  36. John Keats, On a Dream.
  37. Inferno, Canto V, lines 141-142, Mandelbaum translation.
  38. John Ciardi, Inferno, Canto VI, pg. 54
  39. 1 2 Dorothy L. Sayers, Hell, notes on Canto VI.
  40. John Ciardi, Inferno, Introduction, p. xi.
  41. 1 2 Wallace Fowlie, A Reading of Dante's Inferno, University Of Chicago Press, 1981, pp. 51–52.
  42. "Giovanni Boccaccio, ''The Decameron'', Ninth Day, Novel VIII". Archived from the original on October 18, 2013. Retrieved 2013-03-22.
  43. Inferno, Canto VII, line 47, Mandelbaum translation.
  44. 1 2 3 4 Dorothy L. Sayers, Hell, notes on Canto VII, pg. 114
  45. Inferno, Canto VII, lines 79–80, Mandelbaum translation.
  46. Inferno, Canto VII, lines 54, Mandelbaum translation.
  47. Inferno, Canto VIII, lines 37–38, Mandelbaum translation.
  48. 1 2 Dorothy L. Sayers, Hell, notes on Canto VIII.
  49. Allen Mandelbaum, Inferno, notes on Canto VIII, pg. 358
  50. Inferno, Canto X, line 15, Mandelbaum translation.
  51. Inferno, Canto X, lines 103–108, Mandelbaum translation.
  52. Richard P. McBrien (1997). Lives of the Popes: The Pontiffs from St. Peter to John Paul II. HarperCollins. pp. 82–83. ISBN 978-0-06-065304-0. Retrieved 8 March 2013.
  53. Alighieri, Dante (1995). Dante's Inferno. Translated by Mark Musa. Indiana University Press. ISBN 978-0-253-20930-6. Retrieved 8 March 2013.
  54. Hudson-Williams, T. (1951). "Dante and the Classics". Greece & Rome. 20 (58): 38–42. doi:10.1017/s0017383500011128. Dante is not free from error in his allocation of sinners; he consigned Pope Anastasius II to the burning cauldrons of the Heretics because he mistook him for the emperor of the same name
  55. Seth Zimmerman (2003). The Inferno of Dante Alighieri. iUniverse. ISBN 978-1-4697-2448-5. Retrieved 8 March 2013.
  56. 1 2 Dorothy L. Sayers, Hell, notes on Canto XI.
  57. John Ciardi, Inferno, notes on Canto XI, pg. 95
  58. Inferno, Canto XII, lines 101-103, Longfellow translation.
  59. John Ciardi, Inferno, Canto XII, pg. 96
  60. 1 2 3 Dorothy L. Sayers, Hell, notes on Canto XIII.
  61. Wallace Fowlie, A Reading of Dante's Inferno, University Of Chicago Press, 1981, p. 224.
  62. John Ciardi, Inferno, Canto XIV, pg. 112
  63. John Ciardi, Inferno, Canto XV, pg. 119
  64. Dorothy L. Sayers, Hell, notes on Canto XV.
  65. Inferno, Canto XV, lines 85–87, Mandelbaum translation.
  66. John Ciardi, Inferno, Canto XVII, line 56
  67. Dorothy L. Sayers, Hell, notes on Canto XVII.
  68. Wallace Fowlie, A Reading of Dante's Inferno, University Of Chicago Press, 1981, p. 117.
  69. John Ciardi, Inferno, notes on Canto XVII, pg. 138
  70. 1 2 3 4 5 Dorothy L. Sayers, Hell, notes on Canto XVIII.
  71. Inferno, Canto XVIII, line 94, Mandelbaum translation.
  72. Inferno, Canto XIX, lines 2–6, Mandelbaum translation
  73. Dorothy L. Sayers, Hell, notes on Canto XIX.
  74. 1 2 Dorothy L. Sayers, Hell, notes on Canto XX.
  75. John Ciardi, Inferno, notes on Canto XX, pg. 157
  76. Inferno, Canto XX, lines 28-30, Mandelbaum translation.
  77. Dorothy L. Sayers, Hell, notes on Canto XXI.
  78. John Ciardi, Inferno, notes on Canto XXI, pg. 171
  79. Allen Mandelbaum, Inferno, notes on Canto XXI
  80. Patterson, Victoria. "Great Farts in Literature". The Nervous Breakdown. Retrieved 7 March 2012.
  81. 1 2 John Ciardi, Inferno, notes on Canto XXIII, p. 180
  82. 1 2 Dorothy L. Sayers, Hell, notes on Canto XXIII
  83. Dorothy L. Sayers, Hell, notes on Canto XXIV.
  84. Dorothy L. Sayers, Hell, notes on Canto XXVI.
  85. Inferno, Canto XXVI, lines 98-99.
  86. Dorothy L. Sayers, Hell, notes on Canto XXVII.
  87. John Ciardi, Inferno, notes on Canto XXVIII, pg. 217
  88. 1 2 3 Dorothy L. Sayers, Hell, notes on Canto XXVIII.
  89. Wallace Fowlie, A Reading of Dante's Inferno, University Of Chicago Press, 1981, p. 178.
  90. 1 2 Dorothy L. Sayers, Hell, notes on Canto XXIX.
  91. Dorothy L. Sayers, Hell, notes on Canto XXXI.
  92. Dorothy L. Sayers, Hell, notes on Canto XXXII.
  93. John Ciardi, Inferno, notes on Canto XXXII, pg. 248
  94. Dorothy L. Sayers, Hell, notes on XXXII
  95. John Ciardi, Inferno, notes on Canto XXXIII, pg. 256
  96. Dorothy L. Sayers, Hell, notes on Canto XXXIII.
  97. Inferno, Canto XXXIII, line 125, Ciardi translation
  98. Inferno, Canto XXXIII, lines 149-150, Mandelbaum translation.
  99. Inferno, Canto XXXIV, line 1, Mandelbaum translation
  100. 1 2 3 4 Dorothy L. Sayers, Hell, notes on Canto XXXIV.
  101. Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander, The Inferno, notes on Canto XXXIV, pg. 641.

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