Infernal topography

Malacoda, everyone’s favorite farting demon, in Alpaca and Molotro’s “Infernal Topography” interactive map

Malacoda, everyone’s favorite farting demon, in Alpaca and Molotro’s “Infernal Topography” interactive map

Yesterday I ran across this great interactive map of Dante’s Inferno, the first third of his Commedia. Developed by Alpaca and Molotro, two Italian design companies, with the support of the Società Dante Alighieri, “Infernal topography” allows you to scroll through Hell from top to bottom, visiting most of the major characters along the way.

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The map has a lot of excellent and intuitive explanatory features. Clicking on a character highlights them, and their name and a portion of the relevant passage of Inferno (in either the original or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s English translation) pops up in a sidebar. The sidebar also displays information about each circle, who is punished there, and which cantos of the Inferno you can find it in. Another helpful graphic brackets and labels each particular level as you proceed downward toward “the bottom that devours Judas and Lucifer.” This might prove particularly helpful to students navigating the eight circle, with its subdivision into bolgia filled with different kinds of frauds.

There are also an alphabetical list of the characters in the book, a topographical breakdown of every level of Hell, and a clickable list of the 34 cantos which will take you to the relevant section of the map.

It’s not complete, but it’s really good. The article through which I discovered this describes the design as a “charming, children’s-book-graphic visual presentation” that “ditch[es] accurate human anatomy and horrific violence for a cartoonish video game romp through hell that makes it seem like a super fun, if super weird, place to visit.” I think that’s a little ungenerous. I think the visuals suggest the horrors of Hell well enough and are minimalist enough not to distract from the story itself. More detailed attempts to chart Dante’s Hell, like this famous one by Botticelli, skew toward being too busy to make sense of.

(You can argue that this makes artistic sense, as one of the defining traits of Hell is its pervasive, top-to-bottom noise and confusion, but that’s not usually an asset in visual art.)

It’s a trade off. When trying to reduce a vision as intricate and detailed as Dante’s Commedia to a single visual representation like a map, you can have a detailed but confusing image or an elegant but incomplete one. I love what Alpaca and Molotro have achieved here and appreciate their accomplishment—especially since I love maps, cross-sections, schematics, and illustrated guides as a tool for learning—and I hope this will encourage new readers to encounter the Commedia, students to stick with what can be a challenging, arcane work, and old readers to revisit it.

I just hope that they’ll make similar maps for Purgatorio and Paradiso (now there’s a visual challenge). In the meantime, take a few minutes to browse this map, which you can view in either English or Italian here. And here’s another Open Culture post about other attempts to map the Inferno, from Botticelli to a pretty twee 8-bit version.

Eliot on offensive content

In his essay "Dante" from The Sacred Wood, T.S. Eliot responds to people who object to Dante's vivid descriptions of the vile and disgusting, especially throughout Inferno:

The contemplation of the horrid or sordid or disgusting, by an artist, is the necessary and negative aspect of the impulse toward the pursuit of beauty.

Goodness never looks so good as it does when contrasted with evil. I think this is, at least in part, why we respond so strongly to self-sacrifice, heroism, and love in terrible circumstances.

Dante's rejection letter

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I recently rediscovered this bit I wrote for a contest almost a decade ago. The contest's theme was "Reject a Hit," fictional editorial rejection letters for great literature. I remember thinking myself terribly clever to bury a few Dante-related jokes—some obvious, some not so obvious—inside this. I would tweak a few things if I rewrote this now, but I was amused enough while rereading it to want to share. Enjoy!

* * * * *

Dear Signor Alighieri,

We are delighted to have received your manuscript entitled The Divine Comedy. Though your manuscript possesses some literary merit, we regret we are unable accept it for publication at this time. However, I felt your work was strong enough, often enough, to warrant more than the standard form letter.

There is a thriving market for supernatural narrative, and though you fail to incorporate current trends in werewolves and vampires, a story about the afterlife could certainly sell well. However, we find your constant topical allusions trivialize the subject. How are our readers in Venice, Paris, or London to know the reputation of Florence’s local glutton? Furthermore, your constant political references as well as inexplicable asides about Siena—which represents a large readership—also risk offending readers. In short, such allusions weaken your work’s staying power, which is to say nothing of your gratuitous toilet humor.

There is also—and I broach this subject cautiously—the issue of libel. This is, in fact, the deciding issue in our rejection. We began counting midway through the first section—which you tastelessly call Hell—and soon lost count of actual figures you have derided in your work. Such persons may in fact be dead (though you included a living pope at one point, then explained away his presence in hell by claiming that his body is possessed by a devil—a solution which in no way improves your legal stance), but they have friends and relatives still living, and belonged to organizations which could—and almost certainly will—object to your work. Issues of good taste aside, we cannot leave ourselves open to potential lawsuits which number in the hundreds.

I hope you understand our reservations, and accept our wishes for the best of luck in your other projects. We understand you have authored a few sonnets and a political tract—perhaps it is in those fields that you should pursue fame.

Thank you again for considering us.


Giovanni Rusticucci, Editor

Reading Dante

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Last week I finally got around to Reading Dante, by Prue Shaw. I've had it on my shelf for years, ever since it came out in paperback. I'm glad I finally took it down and read it. Significantly, I read this nearly 300-page work of expert literary criticism in five days. It's great.

Rather than give a full, detailed review, I want to point out two things that I appreciated about Shaw's book.

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First, she largely lets Dante's own work speak for itself, in its own terms, in the context of its own era. She mines his works, those of his contemporaries, and the commentaries of early Dantisti (like one of Dante's own sons) rather than trying to squeeze Dante into modern literary-critical theoretical molds. Dante is a medieval man, after all, and a medieval Florentine in particular, and while his work never lets you forget that, it's easy, with modern theory, to sand off the angles and edges and make Dante into anything you like. Here's C.S. Lewis, in conversation with Kingsley Amis and Brian Aldiss, on just this sort of thing:

Matthew Arnold made the horrible prophecy that literature would increasingly replace religion. It has, and it’s taken on all the features of bitter persecution, great intolerance, and traffic in relics. All literature becomes a sacred text. A sacred text is always exposed to the most monstrous exegesis; hence we have the spectacle of some wretched scholar taking a pure divertissement written in the seventeenth century and getting the most profound ambiguities and social criticisms out of it, which of course, aren’t there at all. . . . It’s the discovery of the mare’s nest by the pursuit of the red herring. This is going to go on long after my lifetime. You may be able to see the end of it, I shan’t.

Indeed, a lot of modern literary chatters seems primarily interested in turning a given text (always a "text," per postmodernism) into a profoundly political critique or subversion of this or that. It shouldn't take a lot of imagination to conjure up parodies: King Solomon's Mines as critique of imperialism and Victorian masculinity, etc. You can generate that kind of gobbledygook with a bot.

But Shaw gets out of Dante's way and lets him speak to his own times in his own clear and very specific way, and shows how this most topical of poets created a work of universal meaning. It's refreshing.

That's a high, theoretical problem with reading and talking about Dante. There's also a lower interpretive problem, one that affects first-time readers or uninformed discussion, and this is the second thing I appreciate about Shaw's book.

It's easy to read Inferno alone, as many students unfortunately do, thus getting only a third of the picture. Such readers often come away talking about Inferno as if the whole Commedia is nothing but a revenge fantasy fueled by Dante's rage at being removed from power and sent into exile. Couple that with the generally condescending attitude modern people feel toward the medievals ("chronological snobbery" in Lewis's term), whom they view as crudely literal-minded, superstitious, and morbidly religious, and you get a fairly widespread view of Dante as a particularly artful version of those middle school loners who keep enemies lists.

Here's Shaw, in a passage I read several times:

Dante is certainly not, as one sometimes hears said, vindictive, spiteful, sadistic. He is not merely engaged in score settling with old adversaries by assigning them to hell. The punishments in hell are horribly cruel, but the world in which he lived was horribly cruel. He had been sentenced to death both by burning and decapitation. Such sentences were almost routine. We think of the modern world as more civilised than his, but who could seriously argue that this is so, bearing in mind events on the world stage in the twentieth century?

In one elegant paragraph, Shaw not only cuts down the simplified autobiographical reading of Dante and the condescending view of him as a medieval oaf, but also turns those stereotypes back on the reader for some much-needed perspective.

Reading Dante is one of the best books I've ever read about my favorite poet. Pick it up if you have ever enjoyed or would like to know more about Dante's Commedia. I recommend at least a passing familiarity with the poem's content, since Shaw organizes the book topically—Dante's life, friendships, political beliefs, poetic career and technique, and so forth—and moves at will through Dante's life, influences, and work. It's effortless on her part, but a reader should probably go in prepared. 

Happy St. Valentine's Day!

And I to him: ‘I am one who, when Love 
inspires me, takes note and, as he dictates
deep within me, so I set it forth.’
— Dante, Purgatorio XXIV, 52-4

As a brief St. Valentine's Day greeting, I want to encourage y'all to pick up Dante this year. But why Dante—grim, vengeful medieval poet, the "great master of the disgusting" according to one 19th century poet—and why on the most romantic day of the year?

Poet of love

Beatrice leads Dante into the heights of heaven, an engraving by Gustave Doré 

Beatrice leads Dante into the heights of heaven, an engraving by Gustave Doré 

While he's most famous now for Inferno, that book represents only the first third of his masterpiece, the Commedia, or Divine Comedy. So if you've ever been assigned the Inferno by itself or simply read it on your own (in which case, well done!), you've only read a third of his vision of love. 

Yes, love. Dante's Comedy has as its theme all kinds of love. His love of his hometown, Florence, from which he was exiled in 1302, is a poignant strain throughout, and the wicked so memorably punished in hell, we are reminded often, sinned because they loved the wrong thing or loved a good thing in the wrong way. Paolo and Francesca, adulterers punished together in the circle of the lustful, shift the blame for their sin to a bawdy love poem. And the mover and focus of much of Dante's journey is his famous beloved, Beatrice.

That's just a sampling. Love, as a theme, as a plot point, as a subject of conversation and debate, is present throughout. But all of these loves are subordinate to and—if rightly ordered—derive their ultimate meaning from "the love that moves the sun and other stars," the love of God. 

It's God's love for a fallen man that dispatches Beatrice—on behalf of St. Lucy, on behalf of the Virgin Mary, on behalf of God— to Dante as he wanders lost in sin at the beginning of Inferno. It's love that created Hell—a thought that makes moderns squirm—and love that sends sinners there and keeps them there. And it's love that changes and saves Dante, and grants him, in the last passage of the book, a vision of God himself. 

Dante's Comedy is the story of salvation, which means that it's the story of love.

So enjoy your chocolate (Lord knows I already have), enjoy time with your beloved, and celebrate love and the relationships that give us human creatures meaning, but consider as well the source of all love. And give Dante a shot. I think you'll be glad you did.

Happy St. Valentine's Day!

My recommendations

My favorite translation for pleasure reading is that by Anthony Esolen, available from Modern Library, but I've read and enjoyed many other good ones, including Mark Musa's heavily annotated one for Penguin Classics and Allen Mandelbaum's excellent but underappreciated translation for Bantam Classics. These are all readable, affordable, and easy to find. Enjoy!

Teen Dantexting

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Friend of this blog Jay has posted a fun parody of those guides to teen texting abbreviations. Parents, use his guide to find out if your teen has been texting about Dante.

A few samples:

NSFW: Ninth sphere for win
SMH: Saw Malebolge, horrible
YMMV: You must meet Virgil

A few of my own suggestions of what to look out for as you monitor your kids' High Medieval literature texting habits:

TTFN: Take that, Farinata
BC: Berate Ciacco
OMFG: On my flying Geryon or Only Malacoda farts—gross!
BBL: Burning Brunetto Latini
SMFH: Simony makes feet hot
ROTFL: Remember only things following Lethe
ICYMI: In Cocytus you meet icicles