Weekly Photo Challenge: Descent Into Dante’s Underworld

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.

Le Ponte Vecchia, Florence

Ponte Vecchio, Florence

And started his decent into poverty.

The Piazza del Campo, Siena, Italy

The Piazza del Campo, Siena, Italy

Losing faith in himself, his religion, in love, and even poetry, he descended further and further and ended up lost and alone.

Tiffany window and staircase, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Tiffany window and staircase, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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.

Ogre, from the permanent collection, The Chicago Institute of Art

Ogre, from the permanent collection, The Chicago Institute of Art

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?

The Gates of Hell, Rodin, The Rodin Museum

The Gates of Hell, Rodin, The Rodin Museum

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?

Le Penseur, The Rodin Museum

Le Penseur, The Rodin Museum

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:


6 replies »

  1. You’ve hit on one of my favorite writers – one wonders about his mind when the book was written. There was a contemporary author who wrote a mystery thriller not long ago and the murderer was using the 7 circles of Hell – it was a terrific read – do you remember it? Anyway, great post, loved it. The photos are perfect for the text; I especially liked the Florence shot.


  2. Hi Tina! Thanks so much. I absolutely loved Florence and can’t wait until we go back. Those shots of Florence and Siena were taken a while ago, but I’ll never forget climbing to the top of the Duomo to get that aerial shot!


  3. My hat is off to you for even attempting to read The Divine Comedy in the original Italian. I’ve heard that modern Italian is based on the Florentine Italian, partly because of Dante. Do you know if that’s true?

    The course you’re taking sounds so interesting. I recently signed up for a course on 20th century literature through The Great Courses. We’ll have to exchange notes. 🙂


    • Hi Jackie. Oh, this has been a lifelong project! I am not sure if modern Italian is based on Florentine Italian, but there is no doubt that Dante’s influence is huge. His work had a powerful effect on so many artists–like T.S. Eliot, William Blake, James Joyce…. Let me know if you like the Great Courses class. I have taken a few of them and for the most part they are excellent.


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