Dante: Truth and Fiction in ‘The Divine Comedy’


Professor Peter Hainsworth, Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University

16 February 2015


The impression of realism is one of the most striking features of Dante’s Divine Comedy. That is, Dante convinces us and any reader of the consistency and solidity of the afterlife and his journey through it. He does this by giving it an exact geography, with physical features that we can plot out, and by dwelling on sense impressions of place and of encounters with the souls he meets and his reactions to them. A famous example of this is the meeting with Brunetto Latini in Inferno 15, which has the qualities of an encounter between two individuals that might occur in this life, with a conversational exchange that has the qualities of a similar exchange in life on earth. Dante convinces us of Brunetto’s reality and then of the reality of many more figures, some of them (devils, monsters, and so on) on the face of it fantastical. The concreteness is particularly evident in inferno but the impression of a real journey is continued even reinforced in Purgatorio and Paradiso, partly because Dante explains clearly and exactly what happens to him and what an effort it costs him to describe his experiences, using especially a series of complex, often highly visual similes to help us see the other world through comparison with experiences that are all familiar to us, or which we can readily imagine.

Dante Alighieri, attributed to Giotto, in the chapel of the Bargello Palace in Florence. This oldest picture of Dante was painted just prior to his exile 

All of this raises questions. First and foremost, what is Dante aiming at? Presumably it must be something more than just verisimilitude for its own sake. One way at looking at his realism is to see it in the light of medieval ideas of allegory in the particular form that Dante expounded them in the Convivio and the Letter to Can Grande. From what Dante says we can try to read the comedy as having a literal level (the story of the journey and its attendant realism), and then allegorical, moral and anagogical levels (the last term meaning significance in relation to eternal salvation). These four levels can be applied in one-way or another to the Comedy, or at least to specific episodes. Dante himself occasionally alerts the reader to look for allegory at certain moments (e.g. In Inferno 9). But it is impossible to apply these four levels systematically to the whole poem in a satisfactory way. There are always elements that cannot be fitted in without forcing the poem in one way or another, or without omitting important features of any part that is considered, let alone of the whole.

Dante Alighieri by Alessandro Botticelli

The only avenue of interpretation that can reasonably be followed is to accept the multiplicity of signification of the poem and the absence from it of a single system of meaning. In that sense it is not an allegory in the manner of Pilgrim’s Progress or the Roman de la Rose, with (broadly speaking, a one-to-one or even one-to-four set of set of meanings), but a much more open work, though one which at the same time has very definite things to say about the world, about what is wrong with it, and about god’s providence.

Dante illuminating Florence with his poem, painted by Domenico di Michelino

There are various places, particularly in Paradiso, where Dante seems to suggest that systematicity (that is, arrangement according to an ordered system of classification) of a human kind is neither to be found in god’s universe, nor in his poem. Rather there is something much richer and comprehensive that he (and we) can only partly grasp. Realism is one important element in his and the reader’s journey towards that realisation.

Peter Hainsworth  2016