Major Themes: Love

For anyone reading the Inferno, one of the most difficult aspects of the text is the question of love. A positive view of what love is, or should be, will not be fully elaborated until the very end of the Paradiso when, in the last line of the Commedia, God is described as ‘l’amor che move il sole e le altre stelle’. Love, then, is in some sense the goal of the Commedia. In this section we will examine what the Inferno tells us about Dante’s view of love.

There are references to love very early on in the poem: in Canto II, for example, St Lucy describes Dante to Beatrice as ‘quei che t’amò tanto’ (104) and at the start of Canto III, divine power is described as love. This suggests that there are at least two fundamental aspects of the nature of love, which need to be kept in mind when thinking about the Commedia. On the one hand, love is related to Dante’s idea of God, and to the way in which human beings ought, for Dante, to relate to each other in order to merit salvation. On the other hand, love is also seen as a desire for things or people in the world.

A case study: Canto V

In relation to the Inferno, one way of approaching the question of love is by reflecting on the literary traditions which informed Dante’s culture. Canto V is widely considered to be the most interesting canto of the Inferno in this respect. In Canto II, Virgil’s account of how Beatrice was persuaded to come to Limbo and to call him to guide Dante recalls many of the ideas which were characteristic of the ‘dolce stil novo’, and which are present in Dante’s Vita Nuova: the phrase ‘donna gentil’ (94) to describe the Virgin Mary, for instance; or the coterie of women surrounding Beatrice, which recalls Beatrice’s entourage in the Vita Nuova. Heaven is described as being like a court – ‘la corte del cielo’ (125). This recalls the courtly love tradition, to which the Vita Nuova and the ‘dolce stil novo’ were indebted. The courtly love tradition was one of the dominant ways of writing about love in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries in Italy.

Francesca speaks of love in such a persuasive manner that Dante swoons. Yet she is condemned in Hell for her desire for her beloved Paolo. What is wrong with love, as Francesca presents it?

Francesca makes reference to a literary tradition: ‘Noi leggiavamo un giorno per diletto/di Lancialotto’ (127–8) [‘one day we read together, for pure joy/ of Lancelot’]. The fact that the consequence of Guinevere’s and Lancelot’s adultery was the destruction of the society in which they live suggests that love has a social dimension, which Francesca and Paolo failed to read about: ‘quel giorno più non vi leggemmo avante’ [ ‘that day we read no further down those lines.’](138)

It is important to note that the way Francesca speaks recalls the descriptions of love found in Dante’s early lyric poetry, and in the poetry of his immediate predecessors, in particular that of Guido Guinizelli. What do you think could be the significance of this intertextual reference? There are at least two possibilities. First, that Dante is suggesting that Francesca has misunderstood the sort of ideas expressed in his and Guinizelli’s poetry. Second, that he is trying to distance his Commedia from that poetry, by showing that it can lead to the sort of sin for which Francesca is punished.

© Vittorio Montemaggi, Matthew Treherne, Abi Rowson

This resource is a collaboration between the Leeds Centre for Dante Studies at the University of Leeds, and the Devers Program in Dante Studies at the University of Notre Dame