Did you know that as much as Dante’s Inferno is a tale of torture and suffering - a dramatic portrayal of the barbaric punishment of sin in the depths of Hell - it’s also a love story? Neither did I.
I was captivated by a documentary which explored how Dante’s epic poem influenced Renaissance artists and transformed their creative depictions of Hell from barren landscapes to shocking, horrific, explicit and occasionally tender pieces, and was thus introduced to Paolo and Francesca.
Dante hears that, unable to deny their love any longer, Francesca shared a trembling kiss with her husband’s younger brother, Paolo, for which they met a violent death at the hands of her cuckolded spouse. It’s the dazzling blade, Paolo, she tenderly caresses in The Kiss, lovers entwined, locked in embrace, naked sweethearts forever immortalised in marble by sculptor Auguste Rodin. Rodin beautifully captures the breathless love between them, depicting the moment they realise the Arthurian fable they have been enjoying together, the tale of Lancelot & Guinevere, mirrors their own passion and thus embrace for the first time. Indeed, so successful was Rodin in depicting this erotica, the sculpture was deemed massively controversial and banned from public display.
Yet where do we find these dead lovers as they drift around the afterlife, awaiting the Final Day of Judgement? Celebrating their perfect love by enjoying eternal life in the beauty, glory and bliss of the celestial Paradise? No. They are doomed to eternal death, banished to the second circle of Hell, that of the adulterous Lustful, to spend an infinity thrashing and writhing in a cataclysmic storm, tumbling and spinning in a raging tempest, battling an infernal typhoon. For this smitten couple are never to know peace, only endless turmoil. Exhausted, desperate, yet deeply in love, they are bound together in perpetuity. In Hell. Still, they do not seem to mind.
But the real romance of The Divine Comedy is not one of fresh, new passion, rather one of ancient love. Our humble hero, the very much alive but scared and confused Dante, is cast into The Dark Wood to begin his quest to save mankind from spiritual destruction, and it is here we are first introduced to Beatrice, his dead lover. Virgil explains that he has been sent by her to act as Dante’s guide through the afterlife. Indeed, it is she who desires his victorious ascension to the celestial Heavens that, upon his death, they may share eternal life - and love - in Paradise. His gruelling navigation of the three realms is as much a trial to prove his love and desire but also his worth and, such is his passion, he is willing to oblige. The implied reunion with his dead sweetheart motivates him to triumph in his unavoidable journey and, indeed, they are blissfully reunited in the magnificent Pageant of the Sacrament.
Beguiled and blinded by Beatrice’s beauty - much evidenced throughout the trio of poems - it is clear that Dante considers her the epitome of perfection. We truly believe that nothing may compare to her captivating, mesmerising beauty; that he finds her loveliness so overwhelming and remarkable he is often reduced to tears. Yet it is not until he ascends through the celestial heavens that Dante concedes her exquisiteness is outshone by the glory, splendour and magnificence of Paradise. Her beauty is superb but Paradise is sublime, out-perfecting the perfection that is Beatrice, even. Beatrice is heavenly. Paradise is Heaven; flawless, glorious, wondrous and not to be topped. Even Beatrice’s infamous beauty can’t truly compare.
Intense and powerful as it is, the Dante/Beatrice love story is about the promise of a relationship to come rather than the here and now. Enticed by talk of a reunion, Dante suspects they will share eternal love from that point onward. However, there is an abrupt parting, albeit temporary, for in the interim Dante must return to Earth to instruct mankind, through his poetry, to repair his relationship with God. So, it is the love that will endure until Dante meets his own Day of Judgement that is the real tale of love. Beatrice’s untimely and premature death tragically cut the relationship short. A meeting in the afterlife promises Dante that, should he prevail and successfully restore his own faith in God, they shall be reunited to spend eternal life in the glory of the celestial spheres. So, in part, The Divine Comedy tells of a test of endurance for a love that will endure for all eternity. Seems a fair trade.
Dante and Beatrice, 1846 by Ary Scheffer