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Visions of Dante



In the opening scene of the Divine Comedy, Dante portrays himself as a pilgrim wandering in “an obscure forest” (selva oscura*) bordering Hell. He has not committed any horrible crime, but he is no longer paying attention to anything in his life, or to the callings of God. In short, he doesn’t care. Medieval moralists and theologians would have described this apathetic torpor as acedia (from the ancient Greek from ἀ- “lack of” + κηδία “care”). According to Thomas Aquinas, melancholy becomes a mortal sin when the soul consents to man’s “flight” (fuga) from the divine good and from religious concerns. The ultimate expression of this is a despair that ends in suicide, a crime against God that cannot be forgiven. The suicide of pagans is considered differently by Dante, as shown by the postmortem fate of Cato of Utica.*


In Greek and Roman mythology, the river Acheron—also known as the "river of woe"—was one of the rivers of the Underworld. Though accounts vary significantly in their description of its location, both Virgil and Dante place Acheron at the gateway between the site occupied by the newly dead and Hades. The mythology of the river Acheron meshes with reality in an actual river called Acheron, located in Epirus, Greece.

Albumen print

A photographic print made from a negative that uses albumen (egg white) to produce a positive image.


According to the four canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (New Testament), the Annunciation of the Lord is the Christian celebration of the announcement by the Archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary, that she would conceive and bear and deliver a son through a virgin birth and become the mother of Jesus Christ, the Christian Messiah and Son of God.

Averroes (1126-1198 C.E.)

Ibn Rushd (Arabic: ابن رشد, Latinized as Averroes) was a Muslim Andalusian polymath and strong proponent of Aristotle. Dante read his commentaries on Aristotle’s treatises on the soul and the Heavens in the Latin translation by Michael Scot (1175–1232). Dante admired Averroes. Indeed, he was publicly charged with “Averroism” for supporting the idea of a universal soul or intellect from which all souls derive. In the Divine Comedy, Averroes appears in Limbo along with other virtuous pagans and controversial philosophers.

Beatrice Portinari (1265 - 1290 C.E.)

In books written prior to the Divine Comedy, Dante explains that he had a vision of a dead woman, an exceptional gentle lady whom he loved since he was a child but whom he betrayed as an adult. This vision (and remorse) inspired him with the desire to celebrate her in a unique way. “The real Beatrice is the Beatrice of the Vita Nuova, the Banquet, and the Divine Comedy. She is the creation of an artist. We know nothing and can know nothing of her, apart from what we derive from that artist […] That there existed a woman loved by Dante under the name of Beatrice is possible and even probable. It remains none the less true that Beatrice was born of the genius of Dante, not of the marriage of Folco Portinari and Cilia Caponsacchi.” Etienne Gilson, Dante and Philosophy, 1949.

Benedict of Nursia (c. 480 - c. 547 C.E.) and Benedictine Monks

A Christian missionary and the founder of the Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino, in Italy. He is widely considered as the father of Western monasticism. The Rule of St. Benedict made the preservation, reading, and study of Christian texts an obligation for monks. Muslim invaders sacked Monte Cassino in 883. However, other Benedictine monasteries such as St. Gall, Reichenau, and Melk became renowned for their manuscript collections. In Paradiso, Dante encounters St. Benedict in the seventh sphere of Heaven, Saturn, reserved for the greatest saints. Dante’s treatment of St. Benedict in the Divine Comedy illustrates the hold that monastic ideals continued to exert upon the imagination and the piety in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. In Dante’s view, Benedict’s “sons,” the monks of his own day, were generally corrupt and decadent, failing to fulfill their strict obligations. Benedict himself declared, “I wrote the Regula Monachorum, but since no one follows these rules anymore, they are not worth the parchment they are written on—and neither is my Order.”

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153 C.E.)

Saint Bernard was a major leader in the revival of Benedictine monasticism. He explained Mary’s major intercessory role in salvation. In Paradiso, canto 33, Bernard’s prayer to the Virgin inflames Dante’s heart and soul with desire, since, as Saint Thomas reminds us, “where there is greater charity, there is greater desire.”

Bonagiunta Orbicciani da Lucca (c. 1220 - 1290 AD)

Bonagiunta da Lucca was an Italian poet in the 13th century known for his lyric poetry influenced heavily by the Sicilian school. In Purgatorio, Bonagiunta's encounter with Dante results in the lyric poet explaining some of the distinctions between the style of poetry that he employed and that of Dante's new dolce stil novo ("sweet new style"), which was exemplified in La Vita Nuova.

Book of hours

A book of hours is a collection of prayers for each liturgical hour of the day. There were eight times each day when Christians were supposed to pause for prayer: Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline. Books of hours included supplementary texts: calendars, prayers to particular saints, psalms, and masses for certain holy days. They constituted the dominant form of private prayer book for laypersons from the 13th to the 16th centuries. Thus, these little books were in high demand for 300 years, even though very few people were able to read fluently.

Brunetto Latini (1220 - 1294 C.E.)

Brunetto Latini was a notable philosopher and scholar from Florence and one of Dante's mentors. An admirer of the Roman statesman and orator Cicero, Latini nonetheless promoted the use of the Italian language (bel volgare e puro). Dante placed Latini within the third ring of the Seventh Circle of Hell, the Circle of the Violent against God and Nature. Dante feels sorry for his teacher and cries. He then praises Latini as “a radiance among men” and speaks with gratitude of “that sweet image, gentle and paternal, / you were to me in the world when hour-by-hour / you taught me how man makes himself eternal.” In the magnificent manuscript of Dante’s Inferno illuminated in the late 1320s and now kept in the Château de Chantilly near Paris, Latini is portrayed among other sodomites, in a proud and declamatory pose.

Cacciaguida degli Elisei (c. 1098 - c.1148 C.E.)

Cacciaguida degli Elisei was the great-great-grandfather of Dante, known historically only by a few other scant references to his name apart from his prominent appearance in Paradiso. When Dante meets him in Paradise, he is in the fifth of the heavenly spheres, Mars, reserved for those who heroically fought for the Christian Church. Cacciaguida himself was a soldier in the Second Crusade (1147-50), and Dante makes particular note of the knighthood bestowed upon Elisei by Conrad III Hohenstaufen at the time of his departure for the Holy Land. In Paradiso, Cacciaguida warns Dante about his exile from Florence (yet to come).


The canon (from ancient Greek κανών, kanṓn, meaning a measuring rod, or standard) is a list of works that achieved the status of “classics”, and must be assigned to students because of their formative value for moral education and personal development. The first writer to use the term "classic" was Aulus Gellius, a 2nd-century Roman writer who, in the miscellany Noctes Atticae refers to a writer as a classicus scriptor, non proletarius ("A distinguished writer, not a commonplace writer [or crowd-pleaser].")


In Greek mythology, Capaneus was known for his great strength and body size, and for his success as a warrior. During the war of the Seven against Thebes, he stood at the wall of Thebes and proclaimed that even Zeus could not prevent him from invading it. As he ascended a ladder up the walls of the city, Zeus struck him dead with a thunderbolt for his hubris. His first words to Dante, “Such as I was alive; such am I also in Dante” makes us think that he has not changed much.

Cato of Utica (95-46 B.C.E.)

This conservative senator and staunch defender of the Roman Republic claimed that the civil war was “the highest crime”. He chose suicide over dishonor and submission to tyranny after he was defeated (along with Pompey) in the civil war against Julius Caesar. Classical Latin authors, including Cicero, Seneca, and Lucan, considered Cato the embodiment of stoicism and political rectitude. Virgil, for instance, presents Cato as one who gives laws to the righteous (Aeneid, 8.670). Dante follows this legacy of praise for Cato, despite his status as a pagan suicide. He makes him the guardian of the mountain of Purgatory. What is more, Cato of Utica possesses in full the four cardinal virtues*, symbolized by the four "holy" stars lighting his face (Purgatorio, 1.37-9).

Cavalcante de Cavalcanti (1220 - 1280 C.E.)

A prominent Florentine Epicurean philosopher and a major leader of the Guelph faction, supporting the Pope in the struggle for power between the Holy Roman Emperor and the papacy in the central and northern Italian city-states. Also the father of Guido Cavalcanti, close friend of Dante's, he is considered a heretic (sentenced to Hell) for not believing in the afterlife.

Celestial Rose

The Celestial Rose is the symbol of divine love and is the physical expression of the part of Heaven that Dante sees after he leaves the ninth sphere in Paradiso. The realm outside of the nine spheres of Paradise is called the Empyrean, and it is the abode of God. In the shape of the Celestial Rose, the Empyrean is filled with all people who believed in Christ, whether it was the Christ to come (those of the Hebrew Bible) or the Christ who has already come (of the New Testament).


In Greek and Roman mythology, Charon is a guide for the dead on their way to Hades, and more specifically the ferryman who brought the souls of the deceased across one of the infernal rivers from the realm of the living to the realm of the dead. Most often, it says that Charon ferried souls across the River Styx, but in The Divine Comedy, Dante instead makes him the ferryman across the River Acheron, following earlier notions established by Virgil in his Aeneid.


In Greek mythology, Chiron was a famous centaur (upper body of a man, lower body of a horse) known for his wisdom and knowledge of medicine. The son of the Titan Cronus and the sea nymph Philyra, he instructed such famous heroes as Heracles, Achilles, Jason, and Asclepius. The centaur was a familiar figure in medieval imagery, appearing most often as the Sagittarius of the Zodiac. Chiron appears in illuminated books of the Middle Ages, especially herbals.

Cicero (106 - 43 B.C.E.)

Marcus Tullius Cicero was a famous Roman political leader and writer known for his eloquence. He wrote more than three-quarters of the surviving Latin literature from the 1st century B.C.E. Dante does not include Cicero in the canon of major Latin writers in De vulgari, II 6 7, however, because he perceived him essentially as a philosopher. Indeed, Cicero appears, together with the filosofica famiglia (“philosophic family”) surrounding Aristotle, in Inferno IV (Limbo). In addition, the distinction, which Dante makes, between the two kinds of ingiuria (“injustice”), namely violence and fraud (Inferno, 11.22-24), is based on a passage from Cicero’s De officiis, I, 13.


In Greek mythology, the infernal river Cocytus—also known as the "wailing river"—appears in works by authors from Plato to Milton. In Dante's Inferno, Cocytus is located in the ninth and lowest circle of Hell, though it is actually depicted as a frozen lake.

Cunizza da Romano (c. 1198 - 1279 C.E.)

Cunizza da Romano was the sister of Alberto and Ezzelino da Romano and was notably a lover of the famous troubadour Sordello da Goito. Often used as a political pawn for her brother Ezzelino, Cunizza was married off to several different men at different points in her life for the sake of forging alliances. Despite this, her disdain for her brother and his treatment of her led her to take on several lovers over the course of her lifetime as well, including Sordello. Outliving both of her brothers, she appears in Dante's Paradiso in the third sphere of Heaven, that of Venus, for those who were lovers on Earth but lacked adequate temperance.


The order of Preachers, whose members are known as Dominicans, is a mendicant order of the Catholic Church founded in 1216 in Toulouse, France, by Saint Dominic. In Canto 10 of Paradiso, Thomas Aquinas, the highest theological authority of the thirteenth century, personally introduces himself to Dante with these words: “I was numbered among the lambs of the sacred flock which Dominic leads along a road where they wax fat, if they do not stray.” The whole canto 11 leads to the conclusion that the Dominican monks betrayed their founder’s ideal, as they engaged in temporal and political affairs.


Etching is a printmaking process whereby the lines in the copper plate that hold ink for printing are etched into it by means of acid. The printer/artist first covers a copper plate in an acid-resistant varnish called a ground, then draws through this soft ground with a pointed etching needle, exposing the bare metal. The plate is then dipped in a bath of acid, which "bites" into the metal, leaving behind the drawing carved into the wax on the plate. The plate is subsequently put through a high-pressure printing press together with a sheet of moistened paper. The paper picks up the ink from the etched lines, making a print in reverse from the plate.

Farinata degli Uberti (1212 - 1246 C.E.)

Farinata degli Uberti was a prominent Florentine aristocrat and famous leader of the Ghibelline faction, which was the pro-imperial party during and after the death of Holy Roman emperor Frederick II. Passing in 1246 C.E., Uberti was posthumously tried and found guilty as a heretic by the Inquisition, because of his disbelief in the afterlife. His daughter, Beatrice degli Uberti, married Guido Cavalcanti, a member of the opposing Guelph faction and a close friend of Dante.

Folco of Marseilles/Folquet de Marselha (c. 1150 - 1231 C.E.)

Folco of Marseilles was a famous troubadour* of the 12th century. He won the praise and admiration of Dante Alighieri. A courtly entertainer, he wrote and sang about his passionate loves until he experienced a drastic spiritual conversion around 1195, moving him from courtly life to monastic. He abruptly joined the Cistercian Order and encouraged his wife to do the same. In Paradiso, Folco appears in the third sphere of Heaven, Venus. Despite the inordinate amount of eroticism in his earthly life, he understood the superiority of Divine love.

Forese Donati (1250 - 1296 C.E.)

Forese Donati was a childhood friend of and, later, and a familial relation to Dante through Alighieri's marriage to Gemma Donati. He is best known for his tenzone — an exchange of elaborate insults with Alighieri. In the Divine Comedy, Dante pulls no punches in his tenzone with Donati, accusing him of being a bastard, of having a dishonored mother, of being a glutton, of thieving to feed his gluttony, and of a lack of sexual prowess with his wife. In contrast, there is abundant affection between the two when they meet in Purgatorio, where Dante expresses his greatest surprise at the sight of his friend already at the sixth terrace of Purgatory, having only died only four years prior.

Francesca da Rimini (1255 - c. 1285 C.E.)

Francesca is best known for her infamous love affair with Paolo Malatesta. Around 1275 C.E., Francesca was married to Giovanni Malatesta, but fell in love with his younger brother, Paolo—himself also married—and entered into a decade-long affair with him until Giovanni caught and subsequently killed them both. The story became of the favorite passages among visual artists in the nineteenth century.

Gelatin silver print

A type of photograph in which silver metal particles are suspended in a thin gelatin layer on top of a pigment-coated paper to provide the image.

Grand Tour

The Grand Tour was a practice that became a rite of passage of sorts for wealthy European young men in the 18th century, wherein they would travel around Europe, especially Italy, to learn about the art of the Renaissance and the ancient Classical world. This cultural tourism more often than not resulted in the acquisition of various pieces of art and artifacts by these young European aristocrats, who would then take them back to their residences for decoration and displays of high status.


Ground refers to an acid-resistant coating used to cover a copper plate prior to etching.

Gryphon (or Griffin)

Gryphons are mythological creatures that have the characteristics of an eagle and a lion—combining watchfulness and courage. In Christian art, the dual nature of the griffin was often used to signify that of Christ himself: divine (the bird lives in the Sky) and human. Gryphons were used as guardian figures in churches and were placed in portals and choir screens. The Cleveland Museum of Art owns a spectacular pair of guardian gryphons sculpted in pink limestone (“Verona marble”) around 1150-1175. Dante dramatizes the symbolism of Virtues and Incarnation when he has the gryphon’s image, reflected in Beatrice's eyes, miraculously alternate between a complete eagle and a complete lion, while the creature itself remains fixed in its hybrid form (Purgatorio, 31).

Guido da Montefeltro (1223 - 1298 C.E.)

A prominent general of the Ghibelline faction—the faction that sided with the emperor in the struggle for power between the Holy Roman Emperor and the papacy—he was excommunicated after his defeat at Forlí. In 1296, Pope Boniface VIII (a favorite antagonist of Dante's) rescinded his excommunication and offered up absolution from the sin of council in exchange for information on the destruction of his enemies.

Horace (65 - 8B.C.E.)

Horace was a poet contemporary with Virgil and Ovid. Dante meets him in the vestibule of Inferno (Limbo) as the second scholar in line at the "beautiful school" of Classical poets. According to scholar Zygmunt G. Baranski, during Dante’s lifetime, he most basic way in which [Horace’s] Ars Poetica was interpreted was as a work that presented both the “vices’ and the “virtues” of poetry.


A particular printmaking process wherein the design is incised into a surface of a plate using either mechanical or chemical means.

Jerusalem vs. Babylon

Saint Augustine formed the idea of a universal religious city or community: “Just as there is only one holy city – Jerusalem – so there is only one city of iniquity – Babylon. All the wicked [souls] belong to Babylon just as all the godly ones belong to Jerusalem.” (Enarr. in Ps., 86).

Judas Iscariot (died c. 30 – c. 33 AD)

Judas Iscariot (Hebrew: יהודה איש-קריות‎ Yehūḏā ʾĪš-Qǝrīyyōṯ, "Judah, man of Kerioth") was a disciple and one of the original Twelve Apostles of Jesus Christ. According to all four canonical Gospels, Judas betrayed Jesus for money. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he kissed him and addressed him as "rabbi", thus revealing his identity to the crowd and the soldiers who had come to arrest Jesus. In canto 34 of Inferno, Dante places Judas in the mouth of Lucifer, along with Brutus and Cassius, the two traitors who murdered Julius Caesar. These three men betrayed those who sought to bring unity and salvation to the world. Their unforgivable crime consisted of ‘transgressing against the earthly world order appointed by God’ (Eric Auerbach).


In Greek mythology, the infernal river Lethe traces back to works such as Plato's Republic. It was thought that one would drink the waters of the river Lethe in order to forget about all of one's earthly life before death. The river Lethe was often juxtaposed with the river of Mnemosyne, which would restore one's memories and could even in some instances go so far as to impart upon the drinker the gift of omniscience. In Dante's Purgatorio, canto 33, the river Lethe is located atop the Mountain of Purgatory in the Earthly Paradise. A mysterious woman named Matilda shows him the way to purify himself to enter the realms of Paradise: he must drink of the Lethe to cleanse his mind.

Life Mask, Death Mask

Life masks and death mask are a likeness (typically in wax or plaster cast) of a person's face either during their lifetime or after their death, usually made by taking a cast or impression. Death masks may be mementos of the dead, or be used for creation of portraits. In Western Europe, during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, masks were not buried with the deceased. Instead, they were used in funeral ceremonies and were later kept in libraries, museums, and universities.


Dante did not invent the notion of Limbo: the idea emerged in response to a set of theological questions that troubled many medieval thinkers. First, there was the problem of children who died before baptism. Besides, some people were disturbed by the thought that people otherwise virtuous according to Christian standards would end up damned for all eternity merely because they were born before Christ or in non-Christianized areas such as India. Such considerations led to the development among medieval theologians of the idea of Limbo, a place in between, neither quite Heaven nor Hell. Dante inherited the concept, but he developed it in a very unorthodox way, choosing to populate this VIP area with heroes and philosophers of Antiquity, but also stretching the idea of virtuous pagans to include “virtuous” or “heroic” Muslims such as Averroes and even Saladin.


A print made through lithography, in which a design is affixed to the smooth surface of a flat piece of limestone, using chemical reactions (often utilizing ingredients such as rosin and talc) and then pressed onto a page to produce a reverse of the design drawn on the stone. Alois Senefelder, the inventor of lithography, introduced the subject of colored lithography in his 1818 Complete Course of Lithograph, where he told of his plans to print using color (chromolithography). Color lithography became the modern printmaking technique par excellence in the 1890s, when the art critic André Mellerio called it “the defining art form of our time.” The initial chromolithographic technique involved the use of multiple lithographic stones, one for each color. However, cheap images, like advertisements, relied heavily on an initial black lithograph on which colors were then overprinted.

Lucia (Lucy) of Syracuse (283-304 CE)

Santa Lucia is one of the most famous female figures in the Roman Catholic tradition. The patron saint of virgins, she is one of eight women commemorated in the famous Canon of the Mass, alongside the Virgin Mary. Absent in the early narratives and traditions, at least until the fifteenth century, is the story of Lucia tortured by eye gouging. However, her presence in Paradiso has been often associated with the illuminating grace of God.


Malebolge is the eighth circle of Hell as described in Dante's Inferno. With Male meaning "evil" and bolgia meaning "purse" or "pouch", Malebolge consisted of ten concentric bolgie—ravines or ditches—in which each held punishments for different forms of fraud. Additionally, thirteen demons known as the Malebranche guarded the fifth of the bolgie, reserved for those who had used their positions in life to accrue personal wealth or advantage, such as speculators, extortionists, and blackmailers. Those damned to the fifth bolgia were thrown into a river of boiling pitch and tar.


A printmaking process in which the metal plate is roughened using a tool called a "rocker", which makes thousands of tiny dents in the plate with its metal teeth. Selectively burnishing the plate with a light abrasive allows for the creation of half tones without the use of linear cross-hatching or stippling. This makes it ideal for reproducing the tonal range of painting.


In Greek mythology, the man-eating Minotaur was a monstrous creature with the head of a bull and the body of a man. He dwelt in the famous labyrinth built by Daedalus served King Minos of Crete until Theseus killed him. In Inferno, XII, Dante underscores the bestial rage of the hybrid creature. The Minotaur is so busy biting himself that the travelers are able to proceed unharmed.

Muhammad (570-632 C.E.)

Prophet and founder of the word religion of Islam. One of the most controversial and highly sensitive passages in Dante’s Inferno (canto 9) concerns the description of Muhammad as one of the “sowers of discord and scandal” and creators of religious schism. The “false prophet” himself explains that, as he and his followers were responsible for division and rift, they are torn apart as they tore others apart in life. William Blake’s illustration for Inferno, 9 depicts Muhammad pulling his chest open and exhibiting his entrails. One has to keep in mind that, during the Middle Ages, in the context of general religious intolerance, Muhammad was not viewed by the huge majority of Christian clerics as the founder of a respectable and legitimate religion distinct from Christianity. Rather, Islam was believed to be a heresy within Christianity. Dante’s views of Muslims cannot be reduced to canto 9 of Inferno, as evidenced by his praise of Averroes or Saladin.

Oderisi da Gubio, the illuminator (born around 1240 C.E.)

In the Divine Comedy (Purgatorio, 13) Dante finds himself on “the Terrace of Pride”. There, he singles out three individuals among the proud penitents carrying heavy rocks on their backs. One of the penitents is Oderisi da Gubbio, an illuminator who painted colorful images in the margins of manuscripts. Attributed to Oderisi are a law book, the Digestium of Justinian (National Library of Turin) and the so-called “Conrandin Bible” now at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. Dante calls him “the honor of that art/which is in Paris called illuminating.” Oderisi confesses his excessive pride, and adds, “I should not be here [but in Hell], were it not/ That, having power to sin, I turned to God.”

Ovid (43-18 BCE)

Brunetto Latini, Dante’s mentor, named Ovid as the master of Love poetry. In De vulgari eloquentia, Dante identifies Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a narrative poem containing over two hundred and fifty myths, as an example of excellent poetry: “And perhaps it would be most useful, in order to make the practice of such constructions habitual, to read the poets who respect the rules: namely Virgil, the Ovid of the Metamorphoses, Statius, and Lucan…” In Inferno 4, Ovid appears beside Virgil, Homer, Horace, and Lucan. More importantly, the Divine Comedy is peppered with references to the myths collected by Ovid: the metamorphosis of Arachne into a spider (Inferno 17); details of Ulysses’s journey (Inferno 26); the comparison of sinners in Malebolge to the sick population on the island of Aegina (Inferno 29); Hecuba’s likeness to an angry dog (Inferno 30), etc.

Piccarda Donati

Piccarda Donati was the sister of Forese Donati, a close friend of Dante's. She joined the Order of Saint Clare as a nun, but later was removed from the convent by her brother Corso so that she might marry Rossellino della Tosa. She is the first person that Dante meets in Paradiso, in the sphere of the Moon. Her conversation with him reveals that no soul in Paradise is envious of the place of another, but rather that all are fully satisfied with their Heavenly place for it was determined by God's will and is, therefore, perfect.

Pier delle Vigne (1190 - 1249 C.E.)

This Italian jurist and diplomat acted as secretary to Emperor Frederick II. Falsely accused of treason, he was arrested, blinded, and tortured. He probably committed suicide. For this reason, he appears as one of the damned in the Wood of the Suicides in Inferno 13. Delle Vigne reveals his identity to the travelers Dante and Virgil with the words: "I am himself that held both keys of Frederick's heart / to lock and unlock and well I knew / to turn them with so exquisite an art."


Purgatory is a transitional place of suffering inhabited by the souls of sinners who are expiating their (non-mortal) sins before going to Heaven; an intermediary other world in which some of the dead are subjected to a trial that can be shortened by the spiritual aid of the living (prayers, alms, donations to the Church). In an authoritative book (1981), medievalist Jacques Le Goff defined the "birth of purgatory" as occurring between 1170 and 1200. Le Goff acknowledged that the idea of a slow purification after death, without the medieval notion of a physical place, already existed in Antiquity, arguing specifically that Clement of Alexandria, and his pupil Origen of Alexandria, derived their view from a combination of biblical teachings. Central to le Goff’s thesis, however, is the attribution of the birth of purgatory to social-historical causes. The 12th century, Le Goff argued, was a time when the traditional binary feudal social structure, powerful nobles and clergy on the one hand; and the powerless peasantry on the other, was being challenged by a new significant intermediate social group: the mercantile bourgeoisie. Investment, mutual aid, negotiation, “deals”, contracts, were an important part of the rising urban elites. They naturally turned the issue of the afterlife into something more transactional. A dogmatic definition of purgatory was issued only in 1245 during the Council of Lyon, in France. Therefore, Purgatory was a rather recent innovation when Dante wrote the Divine Comedy.


Risorgimento, (Italian: “Rising Again”), is the 19th-century movement for Italian unification that culminated in the establishment of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861.

Saladin (1137-1193 C.E.)

Saladin was a Sunni Muslim Kurd and the first sultan of Egypt and Syria. He led the Muslim military campaign against the Crusader states in the Levant, retaking Jerusalem after eighty-eight years of Christian control. Nevertheless, he was admired for his nobility and greatness as a warrior by his enemies, including bishop Willelmus Tyrensis (1130-86), the author of a history of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. It remains peculiar that Dante would place Saladin, the great warrior against Christianity, in Limbo, among other “virtuous pagans.”

Scribe (during the Middle Ages)

Before Gutenberg, all texts were written by hand by professionals: that is the original meaning of manuscript. The oldest known portrait of a scribe, in a copy of St Jerome’s commentary on the Book of Isaiah created at the end of the eleventh century in the French monastery of Jumièges: “Imago pictoris et illuminatoris Hugo”. A tonsured monk seats at a writing desk, holding a pen and a knife used as an eraser. The words “painter” and “illuminator” suggest that Hugo may have been in charge of the letters in red and green at the beginning and at the end of each chapter; as well as the imagery. Oxford Library, Bodleian 717.

Scriptorium (plural: scriptoria)

A scriptorium is a medieval workshop or room set aside for the production of books. Most scriptoria existed in response to specific scribal projects; for example, when a monastic institution wished a large number of texts copied. The spectacular architectural plan of the Abbey of Saint Galen (Switzerland) [the only drawing of that sort for the Middle Ages, made ca. 816-830] mentions a sedes scribentium below the “library.” During a 966 inspection, the royal inspectors were shown a “scriptorium… proximum pirali” (a room for the copying of books, located next to the stove). There is often a confusion between the scriptorium and the armarium = the vault were the precious manuscripts were kept. It seems like even in large and wealthy monasteries such as Moissac (near Toulouse, southwest of France), there was no scriptorium before the last decade of the 11th century, when the quality of manuscripts improved significantly. Scribes worked in the cloister, closer to the stove during the winter. More scriptoria were developed in the 14th and 15th centuries, when scribes* would sometimes be taught and trained in universities.

Seven sciences and seven planets

Medieval education in the liberal arts was divided into trivium and quadrivium, and each science was associated with a planet. The trivium comprised grammar (the Moon), logic/dialectics (Mercury), and rhetoric (Venus). The quadrivium comprised arithmetic (numbers as abstract concepts and quantity, the Sun); geometry (numbers in space, Jupiter); music (numbers in time, Mars): and astronomy (numbers in both space and time, Saturn.)


The Eighth Circle of Hell (canto 19) is reserved for those who committed simony, the ecclesiastical crime of paying or using family connections to obtain ecclesiastical offices or positions. The Simoniacs are placed headfirst in holes, flames burning on the soles of their feet. The chief sinner in these pits is Pope Nicholas III Orsini (r. 1277-80), who elevated three of his closest relatives to the cardinalate and gave others important positions. This nepotism was lampooned both by Dante and in contemporary caricatures depicting him in his fine robes with three "little bears" (orsetti, a pun on the family name).

Statius (c. 45 - c. 96 C.E.)

Publius Papinius Statius was a Roman poet who serves as one of Dante’s guides through Purgatory – the fiction that he was a clandestine Christian convert allows that, since Virgil, a Pagan, is not permitted to continue the journey. Upon meeting Dante and Virgil, Statius says that Virgil’s major poem, the Aeneid, "was my mama and my nurse”, thus establishing a continuum in the genealogy of epic poets, from Homer to Virgil to Statius to Dante, albeit with a long interruption between ancient Rome and the first humanist Renaissance of the 12th and 13th centuries.


In Greek mythology, the river Styx was one of the rivers in the Underworld, dividing the realm of the living from the realm of the dead. One of the most feared and sacred places, oaths sworn on the river Styx were considered to be the most severe and solemn, and even gods were faced with extreme consequences in the event that they ever broke an oath made on that river. While some traditions suggested that the river Styx was the outermost river in the Underworld, where the newly dead would cross over it to enter into the Underworld, Dante places it in the fifth circle of Hell in Inferno.

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 C.E.)

Thomas Aquinas was arguably the most important Christian theologian of the late Middle Ages, and his work exerted an immense influence on Dante, who witnessed his canonization (in 1323). In the Summa Theologica, Saint Thomas undertook the ambitious task of using the teachings of rational philosophy (primarily Aristotle's works) in the service of religious faith and doctrine. In the Divine Comedy, Thomas Aquinas is the eloquent spokesman for the first circle of twelve wise spirits in the solar sphere, including Albert the Great of Cologne, Gratian, the Venerable Bede, Richard of Saint-Victor, and Isidore of Seville. As such, he is assigned the task of eulogizing the founder of the Franciscan order, Francis of Assisi (canto 11). This function reflects Church practice in Dante's day of having the feast days of Saint Francis and Saint Dominic celebrated by a member of the other, "rival" order, the Franciscans. Thomas also contributes to an important theme in the Paradiso by harshly criticizing his own order, the Dominicans, for its current failings.


The tonsure is a hairstyle among clerics and monks in which the top of the head is shaven, leaving a ring of hair around the head. The "first tonsure" was, in medieval times, the rite of inducting someone into the clergy, as well as symbol of continence and chastity. The full tonsure was reserved for the monks.


The poetic tradition of the troubadours began in the late 11th century in Occitania, with influences from Muslim Andalusia. It subsequently spread to Italy and Spain. Under the influence of the troubadours, related movements sprang up throughout Europe: the Minnesang in Germany, trovadorismo in Galicia and Portugal, and that of the trouvères in northern France. In his De vulgari eloquentia, Dante defined the troubadour lyric as fictio rethorica musicaque poita: rhetorical, musical, and poetical fiction. Several troubadours appear in the Divine Comedy, including Arnaut Daniel who speaks in Provencal in Purgatorio, 26. Moreover, Dante’s conception of love owes partly to the tradition of chivalric and courtly love invented (trovata) by the troubadours. Indeed, he ranked himself among the trovatori of his time (Vita Nuova, 3).

Two Suns (according to Dante)

“The singular character of Dante’s doctrine is well indicated by the paradoxical interpretation that he has offered of the famous passage in Genesis, I, 16: Fecitque Deus duo luminaria magna, luminare majus, ut praeesset diei; et luminare minus, ut praeesset nocti. (And God made two great lights: the greater light to rule the day; and the lesser light to rule the night.” None could doubt that the reference there was to the sun and the moon… but no one before Dante had ever thought of saying that God had created two suns – one to lighten the way of this world, the other to show us the way of God (Purgatorio, 16, 106-8). The distinction between the road of the world and the road of God, each lightened by its own sun, is a faithful reflection of the distinction between the two final goals to which the Pope and the Emperor lead humanity in De Monarchia.” Etienne Gilson

Count Ugolino della Gherardesca (c. 1220 - 1289 C.E.)

Count Ugolino was a powerful political figure in 13th century Italy known for his divisive, self-preserving political moves. Born into a family of the Ghibelline faction—which primarily supported the Emperor—in Pisa, Ugolino first made tenuous enemies by marrying off his sister to Giovanni Visconti, one of the leaders of the Guelphs—the opposing faction that primarily supported the Pope. As a final punishment, Ugolino and his sons and grandsons were locked up in a tower and left to starve. His story is told by Dante's Inferno, wherein Dante meets him in the lowest circle of Hell in the company of betrayers. Dante's verse ambiguously remarks that after the two days following the death of his children, Ugolino's "hunger had more power than even sorrow" over him. Such verse has been interpreted to mean either that Ugolino eventually starved to death when his grief did not take him to his end, or that, in his madness of hunger, the count ate the corpses of his own offspring.

Virgil, Publius Vergilius Maro (70-19 BCE)

This Latin poet composed three of the most famous poems in Latin literature: the Eclogues (or Bucolics), the Georgics, and the epic Aeneid. During late antiquity and the Middle Ages, a desire emerged to view Virgil as a virtuous pagan and even a pre-Christian prophet. In a chapter of his book, Divinae Institutiones (The Divine Institutes), entitled "Of the Renewed World", Lactantius, the religious adviser to the Emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306-37), argued that the fourth Eclogue refers to Jesus's awaited return at the end of the first millennium C.E. Roman popes such as Innocent III (in the 13th century) also praised Virgil. Still, Dante’s unlimited devotion to Virigil, his guide through Hell (initially sent by Beatrice who feared for her friend and lover, assaulted by three ferocious beasts), goes very far. In canto 8, Dante addresses Virgil with the words, “Beata colei che in te s’incise!” (Proud soul, blessed is she who conceived thee!”), which clearly echoes the passage from the gospel concerning the Virgin Mary: “Beatus venter qui te portavit” (Blessed is the womb that bare thee [Jesus]”, Luke, XI, 27). As Etienne Gilson says, we cannot form an exact opinion of the profound impression produced on a contemporary of Dante by formulas of this kind.

Virgin Mary

Saint Mary was venerated in the early days of the Church, especially due to the narrative of the Annunciation. However, the cult of the Virgin remained relatively small until the tenth century, when it suddenly rose in popularity. By the fourteenth century, the importance of the Virgin had grown throughout the Christian world. Books of Hours are evidence of Mary's status in the medieval Church.


In Christian theology, the four cardinal virtues are Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Fortitude. Their name come from the Latin term “cardo, "hinge", the device on which a door turns, or the pivot of the axis on which the sphere of the world rotates. These four virtues were recognized by Plato and Cicero. Saint Ambrose, Saint Augustine of Hippo, and Saint Thomas Aquinas adapted them to the Christian context, while expanding on the three “theological virtues”: Faith, Hope and Charity. Thomas Aquinas explained that these three additional virtues are called theological "because they have God for their object, both in so far as by them we are properly directed to Him, and because they are infused into our souls by God alone, as also, finally, because we come to know of them only by Divine revelation in the Sacred Scriptures". Dante brought the cardinal and theological virtues together in the complex allegorical scheme drawn in Purgatorio 29 to 31. Depicting a procession in the Garden of Eden, he describes a chariot dragged by a gryphon and accompanied by a vast number of figures, among which stand three women on the right side dressed in red, green and white, and four women on the left, all dressed in red. The chariot represents the Holy Church, and the seven women represent the virtues.


A woodcut refers to a print made through relief printing, wherein the artist cuts away all of the areas of a woodblock that do not belong to the design, leaving the design as a network of raised ridges. Ink is then rolled onto the woodblock, coating only the raised edges, and then a sheet of paper is laid over the inked surface and either pressed or rubbed to transfer the image, in reverse of the design carved from the wood.