Dante's Divine Comedy is one of the great classics of world literature: a poem about Dante's journey through the three afterlives of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. During the course of these adventures Dante meets several historical people, including philosophers, artists and rulers, as well as contemporaries of Dante himself, in various stages of the afterlife.

From a modern perspective, it seems like the Divine Comedy is a work that would likely cause significant controversy: not only does it present a "fanfic version" of the afterlives, it also places several real people in each, while Catholic dogma asserts it is impossible to know for sure whether a person died in Divine Grace or not. Essentially, Dante recognizes saints not recognized by Catholic church. Even forgoing religious objections, several people would likely have differing political or personal reasons for objecting to Dante's "judgment" regarding the souls in the three afterlives.

Did any of these issues, or other issues concerning the Divine Comedy, spark notable controversy soon after the poem's release?

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    From the distance of 700 years, we see a brilliant piece of literary work. The contemporaries saw a political pamphlet which sharply criticized prominent figures.
    – sds
    Commented Aug 1, 2017 at 14:28

1 Answer 1


Dante wrote Divine Comedy because he had "little" (more) to lose. Put another way, "Divine Comedy" was written in revenge for wounds already inflicted.

The reason was that he was exiled from his native Florence on the pain of death, between 1302 and 1321. He considered this exile a form of death.

Dante responded by siding publicly with Florence's worst enemies (the enemy of my enemy is my friend). When these "allies" failed to satisfy Dante, he "did the job" himself by writing Divine Comedy to call down the curses of Hell on his enemies, a few years before his death.

Of course the work was highly controversial. Fortunately for him, Italy was in enough of a state of disunity so that there were places where he could live without being killed by his (numerous) enemies.

The work brought him more fame (and did more damage to his enemies) than his (military) allies ever did. In terms of its later impact on society, it was easily the equivalent of winning a major battle. It was the "bullet" that found its mark (and did a lot of "collateral" damage).

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    But did Dante face any censure on theological grounds, or was the fact that he wrapped his account in the thin disguise of being "fiction" enough to avoid being considered heterodox?
    – pokep
    Commented Aug 1, 2017 at 18:39
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    @pokep: From what I understand, he managed to stay on the right side of the Pope. A number of people "around" the Pope complained, but that is a different story.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Aug 1, 2017 at 18:44
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    @TomAu That sounds like an interesting story relevant to the answer, could you elaborate on that (preferably with sources)? Thanks!
    – kviiri
    Commented Aug 2, 2017 at 8:39
  • @pokep Keep in mind that Medieval society was in many ways more logical than our own, and that the Roman Curia was deeply fragmented and politicized by the Italian city-states and other powers. If Dante avoided being an adherent of a faction and publicly said that he was writing fiction, he probably would not be in anyone's sights. Those fighting heterodoxy had bigger fish to fry (and they couldn't convict him anyway, since he was willing to say "This is all a story. It is not true."). And the factions in the Curia couldn't waste energy messing with people not in the battle.
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Feb 25 at 13:31
  • The history of Orpheus going to hell to rescue Eurydice was very common a couple centuries before Dante, with various variations around it, mixing christian and pagan concepts in fiction. I would guess Dante was not the first to set his enemies in fictional hell. And at least, he was not the first to publish fantastic histories set in hell mixing sound theology with extraneous or even pagan concepts and imaginary details.
    – Luiz
    Commented Mar 6 at 18:47

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