“Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”—These are the words inscribed above the gates of Hell in Dante Alighieri’s allegorical masterpiece, “The Divine Comedy.”
The first and most famous section of the Comedy is The Inferno, a vivid portrait of hell and its denizens, including many political enemies of Dante himself, the Florentine poet who penned the work in the 12th century. Dante was graphic in his description of the horrors of hell, from never-ending icy rain to rivers of boiling blood to harpies that feed upon corpses. Though his work is a historical relic, Inferno has had a lasting influence throughout the ages, inspiring a range of authors and artists to bring his imaginings to life in words, fine art, music, and film.
When you study at a great books college—a college that draws its lessons from great literature instead of academic textbooks—you’ll begin to notice how influential certain foundational texts are to our modern literature, film, and pop culture at large. Here are some modern works inspired by Dante's Inferno:
Great Books Studies Reveals Dante’s Influence on Great Literature
In any great books studies program, authors like Geoffrey Chaucer, John Milton, and T.S. Eliot are found on the syllabus. What they and many others have in common is a debt to Dante: their writings are replete with references to his work.
Other authors who have borrowed from Dante over the centuries include E.M. Forster, Jorge Louis Borges, Karl Marx and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Primo Levi, the philosopher and holocaust survivor, movingly refers to Dante's vision of Hell in his descriptions of the Nazi concentration camps' crematoriums.
Dante's own passionate portrayal of despair and pain speaks to many writers, who channel their own craft through Dante’s great books foundations. At a liberal arts and humanities college, you’ll get the opportunity to engage with works like Dante’s and access the inspiration and critical analysis these complex stories bring to the table.
Dante’s Inferno & Musicians: Inspiring Music throughout the Ages
Great books like Dante’s have been known to inspire musical works as well. A number of composers have based works off Dante's Inferno: 19th century pianist Franz Liszt composed a symphony based on the Inferno and its sequel, Purgatory. Tchaikovsky, best known for his ballets, composed a symphonic poem based on a scene in Inferno about two adulterous lovers.
In this century, a number of artists have albums and songs referencing Inferno, from Depeche Mode to Weezer and—perhaps unsurprisingly—a host of death metal bands.
Dante Alghieri himself—a man notorious for his sharp wit and ill-nature.
Great Books Studies Shines a Spotlight on Film & TV Inspired by Dante
As avid readers and students of great books studies may already know, one of the most recent and commercially successful allusions to Dante's tale is Dan Brown's novel Inferno. It draws heavily on the epic poem for a thriller so captivating it inspired a Hollywood film of the same name, as part of Brown’s ‘DaVinci Code’ franchise.
There have also been many direct film adaptations of Dante’s Inferno, along with movies that borrow from its dialogue, imagery, and ideas. The Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman movie Se7en features many allusions to the poem, as does the horror film Hannibal. On television, The Sopranos makes a number of references to Inferno, and the poem is shown to motivate murderers on crime shows like Criminal Minds and Law and Order.
All this may reveal an unfortunate truth, as Dante saw it: depictions of hell are wherever you look. At least many of these depictions are artful, offering important and interesting analysis for those students of literature willing to take a closer look.
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