The Divine Comedy | Dante, Poem, Summary, Characters, & Facts (2024)

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The Divine Comedy, long narrative poem written in Italian circa 1308–21 by Dante. It is considered to be one of the world’s great works of literature. Divided into three major sections—Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso—the poem traces the journey of Dante from darkness and error to the revelation of the divine light, culminating in the Beatific Vision of God.

The Divine Comedy was begun during Dante’s years of exile from his home city of Florence, and the work expresses the crisis that this rupture caused in the poet’s life. The work also presents suggestions for the resolution of Italy’s factionalism and an allegory on the fall of humankind and the hope of redemption.

For a discussion of The Divine Comedy in the context of Dante’s life and work, see Dante: The Divine Comedy. For its place in Italian literature, see Italian literature: Dante (1265–1321).

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The poem begins with Dante at midlife—specifically, 35 years old—and lost inside a dark wood. He is guided by the Roman poet Virgil, who represents the epitome of human knowledge, from the dark wood through the descending nine circles of the pit of Hell (Inferno). Each circle represents one or more specific sins and is populated by various demons and mythical beasts and by people who are guilty of having committed that circle’s sin when they were alive. Moreover, their punishments perfectly correspond to the nature of their earthly transgressions. For example, the wrathful are condemned to Hell’s fifth circle, where they spend eternity attacking one another in the muddy waters of the Styx. The roster of wrongdoers in Hell’s circles includes figures from Italian history and politics, Greek and Roman mythology, and the Bible. Several of the condemned are Dante’s personal enemies, proving that The Divine Comedy served as an outlet for the author to cope with his exile.

Passing Lucifer at the pit’s bottom, at the dead center of the world, Dante and Virgil emerge on the beach of the island mountain of Purgatory, where repentant sinners are purged of their sins. As with Hell, Purgatory is envisioned as a place where sinners are separated according to different classes of sins. Rather than nine circles, however, Purgatory’s scheme features seven terraces, corresponding to the seven deadly sins. At the summit of Purgatory, Virgil departs, having led Dante as far as human knowledge is able, to the threshold of Paradise. There Dante is met by Beatrice, embodying the knowledge of divine mysteries bestowed by Grace, who leads him through the nine successive ascending spheres of heaven to the Empyrean, where he is allowed to glimpse, for a moment, the glory of God.

Language and structure

Dante’s choice to write The Divine Comedy in Italian rather than Latin had a revolutionary impact on the development of the Italian language and on Western literature. His use of the vernacular ensured that his writing would reach a wider audience, and it led to Italian becoming the primary literary language in western Europe for centuries.

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The basic structural component of The Divine Comedy is the canto. The poem consists of 100 cantos, which are grouped together into the three sections, or canticles: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Technically, there are 33 cantos in each canticle, plus one additional canto, contained in the Inferno, which serves as an introduction to the entire poem. Indeed, the divine number of three is present in every part of The Divine Comedy. The poem’s rhyme scheme is the terza rima, an Italian verse form consisting of stanzas of three lines (tercets). For example, the first tercet of the first canto reads:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.
When I had journeyed half of our life’s way,
I found myself within a shadowed forest,
for I had lost the path that does not stray.

In the complex metrical scheme of the terza rima, the first and the third line of the first tercet rhyme with one another. Additionally, the second line rhymes with the first and third lines of the stanza that follows. Finally, the entire canto ends with a line that rhymes with the second line of the last full stanza. Dante was the first poet to use the terza rima for a long poem.

Editions, translations, and visual interpretations

The standard critical Italian edition of the poem, La commedia secondo l’antica vulgata (1966–67; rev. ed. 1994), was edited by Giorgio Petrocchi. Henry Boyd produced one of the early English-language translations of The Divine Comedy; it was published in 1802. Notable translations of the 20th and early 21st centuries include those by John D. Sinclair (1939–48), Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Reynolds (1949–62), Charles S. Singleton (1970–75), John Ciardi (1977), Allen Mandelbaum (1980–84), Robert M. Durling and Ronald L. Martinez (1996–2011), Robert and Jean Hollander (2000–07), Robin Kirkpatrick (2006–07), and Alasdair Gray (2018–20). Among translations of the poem’s individual sections, those by Robert Pinsky (Inferno, 1994), W.S. Merwin (Purgatorio, 2000), Ciaran Carson (Inferno, 2002), and Mary Jo Bang (Inferno, 2012) are notable.

Many visual artists have been inspired by the rich imagery of The Divine Comedy (particularly the Inferno section), and some have illustrated editions of the work. Among the most prominent artists to visually interpret Dante’s masterpiece have been Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli, Romantic poet and artist William Blake, illustrator Gustave Doré, sculptor Auguste Rodin, and Surrealist painter Salvador Dalí.

René Ostberg The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica

The Divine Comedy | Dante, Poem, Summary, Characters, & Facts (2024)
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