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The Role of Identity in Dante's Inferno

DivineComedyFresco

One’s identity is made up of many facets: geographical location, country/state of birth, school and sports affiliation. One's role in a family also shapes identity: daughter, son, sister, wife, mother, or fiancé. A name clearly identifies: I am __________.

The importance of identity is a fairly simple concept, but it can also be undervalued. Losing your identity brings with it immense pain and confusion. We encounter exactly these feelings when reading one of the most influential books in Western history, namely Dante’s Inferno.

Throughout Canto III of the Inferno, themes of citizenship and identity hint at the inner struggles of Dante the wanderer, exiled from his home and forced to roam the Italian peninsula. One can feel the importance Dante placed on belonging and being known. As an exile, he lost not only material things (his home, wealth, and possessions) but also the identity and security that came from being attached to his city.

The Inferno is filled with the longings of a wanderer. When the pilgrim encounters the gates of Hell, he first sees an inscription:

Per me si va ne la città dolente,
Per me si va ne l’etterno dolore,
Per me si va tra la perduta gente.
Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore;
Fecemi la divina podestate,
La somma sapienze e ‘l primo amore.
Dinanzi a me non fuor cose create
Se non etterne, e io etterno duro.
Lasciate ogne speranza, voi chi’intrate.

(Through me the way into the suffering city,
Through me the way into the eternal pain,
Through me the way that runs among the lost,
Justice urged on my high artificer;
My maker was divine authority,
The highest wisdom, and the Primal Love.
Before me nothing but eternal things
Were made, and I endure eternally.
Abandon every hope, who enter here.)

It should not be overlooked that the Inferno is a city. Dante’s identification of Hell as a city brings with it several key ideas: boundaries, citizenship, and identity. A city, in Dante’s time, had walls—for both protection and exclusion. Those inside the walls were citizens, while those who did not hold citizenship were kept at bay. Your citizenship identified you. The same can be said of Dante’s “suffering city.” Those within were identified as the lost, separated from the divine, "Primal Love."

Furthermore, the Ante-Inferno is filled with the shades of those who lived neutral lives, those who lived "without praise and without blame." The essence of this idea can be found in the biblical passages regarding “lukewarm” Christians, those who neither rejected God nor rejected sin. What is fascinating about this canto is that it does not identify who these souls are. They are without a name. This is a beautiful representation of Dante’s own suffering in his exile. He was no longer “Dante of Florence.” He was without identity, nome, or without name.

Names, citizenship, and identity are fluid, interconnected threads that constitute a person as separate from another. Within such an influential work as Dante’s Inferno, the reader can find rich insights that will resonate with the modern reader, bringing new revelations for our own lives.

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