The original book & the TV commentary

Notes on this work

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The Inferno is the first part of Dante's great poetic trilogy The Divine Comedy (La Divina Commedia), written in the early fourteenth century. Dante originally called the work simply The Comedy, which implied that the hero (Dante himself) was neither a god nor king nor important enough to merit an appearance in tragedy. It suggested as well that the work did not end in catastrophe. In fact, his comedy ends in the most optimistic way possible, with a divine vision, a reunion of love and the redemption of the hero's spirit. The word 'divine' was added later by commentators. The three books, Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio) and Heaven (Paradiso), describe, in terms of a physical journey involving encounters with real people, the voyage that the soul itself must make in order to cleanse itself of the moral mud and spiritual grime that stick to it as it goes through life.

As in some deep and lengthy analysis, the writer must explore the dark corners of his mind and meet his worst selves face to face before he can make any sense of his dilemma and emerge into the light of reason. Each of the three sections is divided into thirty-three Cantos (roughly speaking verse chapters), plus an introductory Canto at the beginning of the Inferno as a prelude to the journey, thereby making a total of a hundred Cantos. Dante was obsessive about perfect numbers.

The action takes place in the high Easter days of 1300 when Dante was 'halfway through the journey of this life', by which he means, given the traditional allotted span of three score years and ten, that he had reached the age of thirty-five. The image of the Dark Wood in which he is lost is what mystics have called the 'dark night of the soul'. More ordinary mortals might now refer to this as 'the mid-life crisis'.


Books have footnotes. One way of steering courses through a tricky text packed with references, symbols and allusions is to refer to the notes on each page, or the numbered explanations at the back of the volume. The Divine Comedy has been one of the most written about and commentated upon books in history. Within a few years of Dante's death, commentaries to his great book had started to appear: indeed one of the very first was by his son. We should not therefore be shy if, over six hundred years later, we too need a bit of help towards following the poem and finding our way round its House of Memory, many of whose doors have rusted on their hinges.

Television does not usually have such apparatus, yet there are many precedents already (in sports programmes, for example) of the little chap in a box in the corner of the screen commenting on the action. By moving the expert to the middle of the picture, and by giving each interpolation a number, we have stressed the extra dimension an old text has of relevance to the present (by virtue of its universality) and the baggage of history and culture that it has acquired.