The descent to the infernal regions is easy enough, but to retrace one’s steps, and reach the air above, there’s the rub.–Virgil
Some of my favorite literary characters descend into a wild and terrifying underworld. One of them is Dante Alighieri, the great Italian poet and hero of the epic poem The Divine Comedy, who lost his way in the middle of his life.
Like many of us, he thought he was on the right path. He had a respected and influential job as a diplomat. He worked with the elite in Florentine society and even the pope. But then, he stumbled. Angering Pope Boniface, he was exiled from his beloved Florence.
And started his decent into poverty.
Losing faith in himself, his religion, in love, and even poetry, he descended further and further and ended up lost and alone.
Fortunately, he was rescued by his mentor, the great poet Virgil, who was summoned by Dante’s childhood sweetheart, Beatrice, who had died many years before. As Dante and Virgil made the descent into hell together, they passed through gates inscribed with dreadful and chilling warnings:
Abandon all hope, you who enter here.–Dante, The Inferno, Canto 3
The gates were guarded by demons, wild animals, and dark spirits.
Once inside, Dante met famous (and infamous) people from literature, history, and from his own life, who were assigned to various punishments in the 9 Circles of Hell. In the poem, Dante also got revenge on his political enemies, like Pope Boniface, who was the only person to appear twice in the Inferno.
For years, I’ve promised myself to learn enough Italian to read Dante’s Divine Comedy in the original version. Although I’m still mastering the devilish details of Italian grammar, I recently enrolled in a free online course on Dante’s works offered through Georgetown University and EdEx. Over three 6-week periods, we will read the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. It has been a terrific experience. Hundreds of students from around the world read the text, listen to lectures, and participate in online discussions of Dante’s work. One of the surprises in this course was discovering that the French sculptor, Auguste Rodin designed monumental bronze doors called The Gates of Hell, inspired by Dante’s Inferno. In fact, Rodin’s fascination with Dante lasted throughout his lifetime. Unfortunately, these gorgeous doors were cast after Rodin’s death, so he never got to view them. But you can if you visit The Rodin Museum in Philadelphia, which is definitely on my “to-do” list.
OK, all you art lovers. Let’s see how sharp you are. Can you identify the central figure on the frieze above the door?
Did you recognize The Thinker (Le Penseur), made famous as an independent sculpture? Were you surprised, like me, that it was originally part of this monumental work?
If you’re interested in exploring some thought-provoking courses offered through EdEx, click on this link. I have been stunned by the quality–both in terms of course design and instruction.
Now, it’s your turn. Do you enjoy these classic voyages into these hellish underworlds? Do you think that their messages are relevant to us today or have we moved “beyond” them?
To see some intriguing interpretations this week’s photo challenge, click on the links below: