The women who appear in Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ are finally getting their due, 700 years later


In a 14th-century illustration, Dante reaches out to Sapia, whose eyes have been sewn shut.
Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, CC BY-NC

Laura Ingallinella, Wellesley College

When Dante Alighieri died 700 years ago, on Sept. 14, 1321, he had just put his final flourishes on the “Divine Comedy,” a monumental poem that would inspire readers for centuries.

The “Divine Comedy” follows the journey of a pilgrim across the three realms of the Christian afterlife – hell, purgatory and paradise. There, he encounters a variety of characters, many of whom are based on real people Dante had met or heard of during his life.

One of them is a woman named Sapia Salvani. Sapia meets Dante and his first guide, Virgil, on the second terrace of purgatory. She tells the two how her fate in the afterlife was sealed – how she stood at the window of her family’s castle and, with troops gathering in the distance, prayed for her own city, Siena, to fall. Despite their advantage, the Sienese were slaughtered – including Sapia’s nephew, whose head was paraded around Siena on a pike.

Sapia, however, felt triumphant. According to Dante and medieval theologians, she had fallen prey to one of the seven capital vices, “invidia,” or envy.

The portrayal of Sapia in the “Divine Comedy” is imbued with political implications, many of which boil down to the fact that Dante blamed the violence of his time on those who turned against their communities out of arrogance and greed.

But the real Sapia was even more interesting than Dante would have you believe. Documentary sources reveal that she was a committed philanthropist: With her husband, she founded a hospice for the poor on the Via Francigena, a pilgrimage route to Rome. Five years after witnessing the fall of Siena, she donated all her assets to this hospice.

Sapia is one among many characters from the “Divine Comedy” that deserve to be known beyond – and not just because of – what Dante decided to say about them in his poem. With my students at Wellesley College, I’m reviving the real stories behind the characters of Dante’s masterpiece and making them available to everyone on Wikipedia. And it was especially important for us to start with his female characters.

Why women?

Among the 600 characters appearing in the “Divine Comedy,” women are the least likely to appear in the historical record. Medieval authors tended to write biased accounts of women’s lives, motives and aspirations – if not ignore them altogether. As a result, the “Divine Comedy” is often the only accessible source of information on these women.

At the same time, Dante’s treatment of women isn’t free from misogyny. Scholars such as Victoria Kirkham, Marianne Shapiro and Teodolinda Barolini have shown that Dante relished turning women into metaphors, from pious maidens to villainesses capable of bringing dynasties to their knees.

Side profile of a man.
A recreation of Dante Alighieri’s death mask at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy.
Vincenzo Pinto/AFP via Getty Images

For this reason, fuller pictures of Dante’s women have been elusive. As a researcher, you’re lucky if you can come across a contemporary who supported or built upon Dante’s tangled reinvention, or documents in which the woman in question is mentioned as mother, wife or daughter.

Putting together the pieces on Wikipedia

The more my students asked me about the women in the poem, the more I wondered: What if we found a way to tell everyone their stories? So I approached Wiki Education, a nonprofit that fosters the collaboration between higher education and Wikipedia, to see if they would partner with me and my students. They agreed.

The recipe behind Wikipedia’s two decades of success is its stunning simplicity: an open encyclopedia written and maintained by a worldwide community of volunteers who draft, edit and monitor its free content.

Wikipedia’s status as a crowdsourced work is one of its greatest strengths, but it’s also its greatest weakness in that it reflects the world’s systemic flaws: The vast majority of Wikipedia contributors identify as male.

In 2014, only 15.5% of Wikipedia’s biographies in English were about women. By 2021, that number had risen to 18.1%, but that was after more than six years of sustained efforts aimed at bolstering the representation of women on Wikipedia by creating new entries and referencing scholarship authored by women.

Knowledge as advocacy

For my students, researching and composing Wikipedia entries on Dante’s characters doubled as advocacy.

Writing for Wikipedia is different from writing an essay. You must be unbiased, avoid personal flourishes and always back your statements with external references. Rather than producing an argument, you offer readers the tools to build an argument of their own.

And yet the very act of writing an entry about a person does advance a specific argument: that their life is worth being the focus of attention, rather than an easily forgettable name in the backdrop of a grand narrative. This choice is a radical one. It’s an affirmation that someone possesses historical value beyond the fact that they provided a spark of inspiration to an author.

Drawing of a woman floating before a surprised man.
Beatrice Portinari guiding Dante through paradise in a drawing by Sandro Botticelli.
The Print Collector/Heritage Images via Getty Images

Pursuing this goal was not without challenges; it could be difficult to maintain an unbiased tone while telling stories of violence and abuse.

That was the case with Ghisolabella Caccianemico, a young woman from Bologna sold into sexual slavery by her brother, Venèdico, who hoped to form an alliance with a neighboring marquis. Dante told his readers a “filthy tale” that would make them indignant. In it, Ghisolabella is a silent victim surrounded by men.

However, we turned Ghisolabella into the subject of her story, threading the fine line between giving a starkly objective account of the violence she suffered and preserving her dignity.

“Ghisolabella’s extramarital relation[s] with the marquis, though against her will, was ruinous to her status,” wrote my student, citing early 20th-century scholars who canvassed the archives of Bologna for evidence on Ghisolabella.

“Dante’s inclusion of Ghisolabella,” she added, “eternalizes Venèdico’s sin.”

Turning the tables on Dante

Researching these women also turned into an opportunity to upend Dante’s personal views.

Take Beatrice d’Este, a noblewoman Dante criticizes for marrying again after her first husband died. Dante was outraged by widows who dared to remarry instead of remaining forever faithful to their late spouses. Not everyone, however, agreed with his defamation of Beatrice.

Side profile of woman with blonde hair.
Beatrice d’Este.
Wikimedia Commons

To tell Beatrice’s story, my student just needed to look into the right places – namely, an exceptional article by Deborah W. Parker, who put Dante’s treatment of Beatrice into context.

Parker explains how Beatrice was likely pressured into her second marriage and tried to negotiate her place in a world that subjected her to slander. By having the family crests of her two husbands carved side by side on her tomb, she made a pregnant statement about her identity and allegiances.

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Thanks to our work, in addition to Ghisolabella and Beatrice d’Este, there are now over a dozen biographies of these women on Wikipedia: Alagia Fieschi, Cianghella della Tosa, Constance of Sicily, Cunizza da Romano, Gaia da Camino, Giovanna da Montefeltro, Gualdrada Berti, Joanna of Gallura, Matelda, Nella Donati, Pia de’ Tolomei, Piccarda Donati and Sapia Salvani. They join Beatrice Portinari and Francesca da Rimini, the only two historical women from the “Divine Comedy” who had acceptable entries on Wikipedia prior to our work.

As feminist theorist Sara Ahmed writes in “Living a Feminist Life,” “citations can be feminist bricks: they are the materials through which, from which, we create our dwellings.”

One brick at a time – one page, revision or added reference at a time – Wikipedians can broaden our understanding of the past, centering women’s stories in a world that has long edited them out.The Conversation

Laura Ingallinella, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Italian Studies and English, Wellesley College

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Guide to the Classics: Dante’s Divine Comedy



File 20170926 10403 s09hgo
Giotto’s Last Judgment in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, inspired by Dante Alighieri’s vision of heaven and hell.
Wikimedia

Frances Di Lauro, University of Sydney

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here!

So warns the inscription on the gates of the inferno, the first realm of Dante Alighieri’s celebrated work, now known as the Divine Comedy. “La Commedia”, as Dante originally named it, is an imaginary journey through the three realms of the afterlife: inferno (hell), purgatorio (purgatory) and paradiso (heaven).

Dante and Beatrice see the Empyrean at the end of their journey to heaven.
Gustave Doré & Kalki

It might not sound all that funny, but Dante called his epic poem a comedy because, unlike tragedies that begin on a high note and end tragically, comedies begin badly but end well. The poem indeed ends well, with the protagonist, also named Dante, reaching his desired destination – heaven – a place of beauty and calm, light and ultimate good. Conversely, the inferno is dark, morose and inhabited by irredeemable sinners.

Dante wrote the comedy during his exile from Florence between 1302 and his death in 1321. It is the first significant text written in the Italian vernacular and is written in terza rima, an interlocking three-line rhyme scheme invented by the author.


Further reading: Guide to the Classics: Homer’s Odyssey


Dante set the beginning of the story on Holy Thursday, 1300, when he was 35-years-old. He alludes to being “middle aged” in the opening lines of the poem:

Halfway through our life’s journey

I woke to find myself within a dark wood

because I had strayed from the correct path.

Oh how hard it is to describe

how harsh and tough that savage wood was

The very thought of it renews the fear!

To hell, and back again

At the beginning of Inferno, Dante alludes to the apocalyptic vision of the biblical Book of Revelation. In a dark wood, three menacing beasts, a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf – respectively symbolising lust, pride and greed – prevent Dante from climbing a mountain.

William Blake, Dante running from the three beasts, 1824-1827.
Wikimedia

As Dante despairs, the Roman poet Virgil, author of the Aeneid, appears, announcing that he has been sent to guide him. They must first descend into hell, a cone-shaped crater that was caused by the fall of Lucifer.

Before beginning the journey, and in keeping with the classical epic tradition, Dante invokes the goddesses known as muses to inspire him, something he will do at the beginning of the next two books, Purgatorio and Paradiso.

Dante and Virgil must pass through nine circles of hell, in which the punishments increase in severity to match the gravity of the vices being punished. In the first circle are mythological and historical characters who died before Christianity was founded and were therefore not initiated through baptism. Lingering here are noble and virtuous characters – like Plato, Aristotle, Galen, Avicenna, Cicero, and Ovid.

Francesca and Paolo, adulterers, Gustave Dore, circa 1860.
Wikimedia

In the second circle, Dante is distraught by the cruelty of the punishment he observes. There, he encounters the souls of the lustful, including the legendary Tristan and Isolde and the historical Francesca da Rimini and her lover Paolo. Murdered by Francesca’s husband and Paolo’s brother, Giovanni Malatesta, these two souls drift aimlessly, their bodies fused together as punishment for adultery. They are joined for eternity, inverting the biblical prescription in Matthew that “what God has joined together, let man not separate.”

In the remaining seven circles of hell, Dante and Virgil observe punishments that are so grisly that sinners are reduced to grotesque conditions. These inspired the frescoes depicting the final judgement day that the painter Giotto painted around the walls and ceiling of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua.

The writer Dante’s friend and compatriot, Giotto was commissioned to paint the inside of the chapel by the son of an infamous usurer that Dante identifies in the seventh circle of hell. There, men with moneybags hanging round their necks flick off flames, just as dogs shoo away insects in summer.

In the next, the circle of the fraudulent, Dante and Virgil encounter popes guilty of simony (or the selling of church services). Having inverted the moral order, they face an eternity buried upside down with their heads in the trenches. Only their legs can be seen from above, waving around frantically.

Ugolino and his sons. Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, 1865-67.
Wikimedia

In the ninth circle, the pilgrims see the Count Ugolino chomping on the skull of Archbishop Ruggieri, the punishment for treachery. In reality Ugolino conspired against his party, the Ghibellines, to bring the opposing Guelfs to power. The Archbishop later betrayed and imprisoned Ugolino with his offspring, gradually starving them to death.

Finally the pilgrims arrive at the centre of the earth, where they must scale the hairy sides of Lucifer to be able to ascend to the surface of the earth to get to purgatory, where they must be cleaned of the stain of hell. At the entrance of purgatory, an angel inscribes the letter “P” on Dante’s forehead seven times with the tip of his sword, saying “Make sure you cleanse these wounds when you are inside”. Each “P” stands for piaghe (wounds) that form from peccati (sins). Dante must work off and cleanse away each of them in the seven terraces of purgatory. As he leaves each terrace repented, the angel brushes his forehead, removing one of the letters.


Further reading: In spite of their differences, Jews, Christians and Muslims worship the same God


Renewed and purified, Dante is now disposed to rise to “the stars”. Drawing on the writings of Saint Augustine, a woman called Beatrice, who has taken over from Virgil and guides Dante through heaven, explains that God’s creations, exiled to earth, long to return to their place of origin. Dante and Beatrice ascend through several heavens, the moon, and the planets, to the Empyrean, the heaven of divine peace. Like Inferno and Purgatorio, Paradiso ends with a reference to the stars:

Here high fantasy lost its impulse but my will and desire were already propelled, as a wheel is equally moved by the love that moves the sun and other stars.

Dante through the ages

Early commentators focused on interpreting the work as an allegory for the life of Jesus. In his Life of Dante, Giovanni Boccaccio, author of the Decameron, classified Dante as a prophet and his poem a prophecy. Humanist Cristoforo Landino (1424-98) viewed the poem as a metaphor for the soul’s journey back to God, and Neapolitan political philosopher Giambatista Vico (1668-1744) saw the Divine Comedy as a product of its barbarous time and Dante as the historian of his age, labelling him the Tuscan Homer.

More recently the Divine Comedy has inspired many creative works including art, architecture, literature, music, radio, film, television, comics, animations, digital arts, computer games and even a papal encyclical, Deus caritas est (2006), which, according to Pope Benedict XVI was inspired by the final verse of Paradiso.

It is most often Dante’s Inferno, its graphic imagery and twisted characters, that has inspired litterateurs like Chaucer, Milton, Honoré de Balzac, Marx, Elliot, Forster, Beckett, Primo Levy and Borges.

Few films have incorporated the entire epic tale. The earliest silent films, in 1911 (L’Inferno) and 1924 (Dante’s Inferno), and the first motion picture in 1935 (also Dante’s Inferno) all focused on the creatures and events of the inferno.

Peter Greenaway and Tom Phillips’s multi-award winning 1990 A TV Dante juxtaposes narration by John Gielgud, electronic images and sounds, with asides by experts, such as explanations of the three “beasts” by David Attenborough. A 2010 animation and 2012 documentary focus on the horror of the inferno, while another terrifying 2010 animation is based on a video game and departs considerably from the original.

The ConversationNor must the inferno be the focus to instil fear or terror. The film American Psycho is among 33 films with no connection to the Divine Comedy that contain, collectively, 64 occurrences of the iconic phrase at the gates of the inferno: “Abandon all hope ye who enter here,” a phrase that still inspires dread and terror in the audience almost 700 years later.

Frances Di Lauro, Senior Lecturer, Chair, The Department of Writing Studies, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.