In Inferno 1 of his Comedy, Dante narrates how he once lost his way in a dark wood, which was “savage, dense, and harsh” and how three beasts, a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf, menace him in his efforts to get quicker to the sunlight. Dante is rescued by the spirit of his favourite author Virgil, “the fountainhead that pours so full a stream of speech.” Virgil asks why Dante does not “climb the peak that gives delight, origin, and cause of every joy” but turns back to misery instead. Dante replies, weeping, that he did this unwillingly, after the beasts forced him to do so. Virgil offers his assistance and promises to lead Dante “through an eternal” place, so that he will eventually reach the light.
Although Dante’s Comedy has traditionally been interpreted from the religious perspective, in particular three beasts have been allegorically interpreted as sins that destroy the soul and move it away from God, non-religious interpretation of the poem also deserves attention, especially if to consider the fact that Dante himself may not have conceived it as a collection of religious truths. Indeed, the adjective “divine” was added to the poem’s title only in 1555, more than two centuries after Dante’s death, and it is unclear whether the Venetian publisher did this as a way to praise Dante’s artistry or to relate to the poem’s content. MAIN CLAIM: Dante’s Inferno 1 is a political allegory representing the events from Dante’s life: his exile by his political opponents, his suffering in exile, and his attempts to formulate his vision in life in a community.
Considering Inferno 1 a political allegory, one should first mention the allegory of the “savage, dense, and harsh” wood, the only thought of which “renews [Dante’s] fear.” The author says that he happened to enter the dark wood “midway in the journey of […] life.” Here Dante possibly relates to political struggle in his native city of Florence, which ended with the victory of his political opponents, the Black Guelph, and his subsequent exile. The party that Dante and his family were loyal to – the White Guelphs – were against the influence of Pope Boniface’s VIII and Rome’s into the internal affairs of the state. When they were defeated (and many of them killed) by papal supporters Black Guelphs as a result of the military operation supported by Pope, Dante was sentenced to a large fine and two years in exile. Since Dante did not pay the fine (in part because he did not believe himself to be guilty of the corruption accusations, in part because the Black Guelphs had taken all his Florence possessions), he would be burned alive once he decided to come back home. As a result, Dante spent the rest of his life in wanderings, at the end of his life welcomed by the ruler of Ravenna.
In this context, the three beasts that menaced Dante’s ascending to light – allegory for building a community based on principles of justice and harmony – were his political opponents with their defining qualities. The leopard represents betrayal, the lion – tyranny and excessive pride, and the she-wolf – greediness and egoism of Dante’s enemies. In this reading, Dante may have wanted to show that he would have easily built a community that would live in peace and would have its leaders rule by the principles of Reason and Justice if he had not been menaced by his political opponents supporting the Pope and his intrigues. In this allegorical interpretation, when Dante and his state are in the midst of the political turmoil and Dante is experiencing a dark period in his life, Virgil comes as an allegory of Philosophical Mind and Wisdom, which are the means of finding the way out of the plight.
In this interpretation, based on political allegories, Dante’s Inferno 1 serves to set the context for the author’s future searches. It establishes the power of Human Wisdom in dealing with such matters as politics and statehood.