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An Excerpt from “Dante and Violence” by Brenda Deen Schildgen

This month, celebrate the legacy of Dante Alighieri on the 700th anniversary of his death! Keep an eye on our blog for content featuring our Dante studies books, and take a peek in our William and Katherine Devers Series in Dante and Medieval Italian Literature catalog to learn more. Finally, through September 30th, enjoy 50% off a curated list of titles about the renowned poet and his work. Visit our sale page to see which books are discounted.

Although a number of articles have addressed particular aspects of violence in discrete parts of Dante’s oeuvre, a systematic treatment of violence in the Commedia is lacking. Dante and Violence: Domestic, Civic, Cosmic corrects this oversight. This ambitious overview of violence in Dante’s literary works and his world examines cases of violence in the domestic, communal, and cosmic spheres while taking into account medieval legal approaches to rights and human freedom that resonate with the economy of justice developed in the Commedia.

From the Introduction: Violence in the Commedia

To write of violence in Dante’s Commedia might at first glance appear to belabor the obvious. When they first read of the horrific punishments assigned to those condemned in hell, even callow undergraduates, used to the expansive brutality of video games and contemporary media-vision, are shocked by the poem’s gruesome violence. Eternally howling winds, torrents of rain, mud, and fire; lakes of ice, rivers of blood, perpetually itching sores; eternally maimed, entombed, drowning, and dismembered or frozen bodies: such are the wages for sin in the Inferno. We see enacted a brutal application of the lex talionis, a system of retribution demanding an “eye for an eye,” a judicial system that Dante assigns to God’s eschatological justice. These concrete punishments have led to the accusation that Dante is a hyena, who makes poetry in a cemetery (Nietzsche) or a “mystical sadist,” whose system of punishment constitutes a vendetta that goes far beyond the limits of what humans might consider justice. Some twentieth-century theologians have held Dante’s persuasive infernal vision partly responsible for reinforcing the idea of a frightening and vengeful divinity at the expense of a loving God. Dante’s visceral representation of violence clearly refuses to hide its repugnance, making him a forceful witness in exposing its brutal consequences.

The purgative punishments of the second realm represent many other types of violence against the body. Dante leads us to believe that intellectual or appetitive sins like pride, wrath, avarice, envy, and other moral failures caused the enmity that ruptures community and condemns sinners to their specific bodily punishments in Hell or penance in Purgatory. This aesthetic version of the torment of wrongdoers in the other world also emphasizes what we all know: Dante lived in a dangerous time and had no doubt witnessed many disturbing scenes in his own world not unlike those of his infernal other world. His brilliant synthesis of myth, history, legend, literature, and contemporary life, whether stemming from ancient or modern times, belies any effort to confine his work to the field of literary studies alone. Indeed, if we contextualize the Commedia in its times, we can also consider it an anthology of contemporary crimes, with Dante making his imagined divine system of just condemnation or vendetta modeled on current ideas of human justice.

However, this study does not focus on Dante’s rendition of violent punishment in the poem. Rather, it examines how the Commedia represents interpersonal, collective, and cosmic violence or coercion in the three spheres of the poet’s historic world: the household, civic and political domains, and the divine or cosmic realm. Including social coercion such as forced marriages as well as unnatural death, whether interpersonal (uxoricide or vendetta) or in civic or inter-civic conflict, or as redemptive deicide, these three areas present a panoramic view of the kinds of violence that were constitutive of fourteenth-century Italian life. The interpersonal and collective violence the poem features and condemns were often socially and politically sanctioned, or even structured into social behavior—forced marriages (Inf. 5 and Par. 3), personal vendetta (Inf. 29), or even hunger towers (Inf. 33), for example–despite the fact that they invariably violated moral and legal codes. Violence could be experienced everywhere, in visual art, where the suffering corpus of Christ or the pained bodies of martyrs took on greater importance from the thirteenth century onwards, or in poetic form, in the legacy of Roman poetry, encyclopedias, chronicles, and in medieval epic and chivalric literature, all abundant with battle-scene mayhem, rape, and blood-feud. Violence in the home, in city life, in intercity warfare, or in pan-European conflict in real time matched these artistic and literary bellicose scenes.

Dante’s treatment of violence in the Commedia has not been explored systematically, a point made in a recent article by Zygmunt Barański, where, remarking on how the question of violence is strewn across Dante’s works, notes what little attention Dantisti have given to the question in the Commedia. Barański also makes the important point that Dante’s literary sources were riddled with violence, whether the ancient and medieval epics, historical writing, or the visual representations all around him, yet scholars have ignored the topic in Dante’s work. Manuele Gragnolati’s discussion of the experiences of the disembodied, yet pained souls of Purgatory, does address a productive type of violence in the Commedia. Scholars have examined Dante’s treatment of war as well as peace including Jeffrey Schnapp’s Transfiguration of History at the Center of Dante’s Paradise and a recent collection of essays edited by John Barnes and Daragh O’Connell. Also, Dante’s use of martial references and metaphors in the Commedia has received attention. Richard Lansing’s 1981 essay, “Dante’s Concept of Violence and the Chain of Being,” defining violence in the poem as “yielding to unnatural and therefore inherently bad passions,” set out some important groundwork, perhaps most importantly that Dante does not define violence. Rather, “Dante gives the reader more than one concept or definition to work with; at times such plurality precludes total harmony of thought within the system.”

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