Dante’s Ghost and Naming the Divine Comedy


…it occurred that, without bearing it in his mind that he was abandoning them, Dante died.

–Boccaccio’s Life of Dante


The three parts of Dante’s Comedy came too slowly. In order to feed his hungry audience, Dante circulated portions of his work, a few cantos at a time, as he completed them. But Dante died before circulating the last thirteen cantos–without letting anyone know where he had put them. After an increasingly frantic search by friends and family among his papers, it appeared that the final portion of the work was lost forever.


An image from Gustave Doré's famous illustrated edition of the Inferno
“Lucifer, King of Hell,” from Gustave Doré’s famous illustrated edition of the Inferno


Hence my opening quote by Boccaccio, who wrote the first formal biography of his fellow Florentine. While Boccaccio is (rightly) best known today for the Decameron, his Life of Dante (Vita di Dante) is worth reading for some curious anecdotes.*


Boccaccio relates how Dante’s children and “disciples” searched for the lost cantos for months, only to give up in despair, “enraged” that God would take Dante from the world before sharing the entirety of his work. Two of his children, Jacopo and Piero, decided they would attempt to complete the work themselves. Luckily, a miracle occurred to “check [this] foolish presumption.”


One night, Dante appeared to Jacopo in a dream. Dressed in white, and apparently radiating light, Dante told his son where the last thirteen cantos were hidden. Immediately after this revelation, Jacopo woke up and enlisted a friend to explore the spot indicated by his father’s apparition. Searching behind a mat within a recess in the wall, they found a collection of Dante’s writings “all moldy with the damp of the wall, and close to rotting if they had stayed there much longer.”


The statue of Dante at the Uffizi in Florence
The statue of Dante at the Uffizi in Florence


It is in this passage by Boccaccio that Dante’s famous work is first given the description “divine.” Dante simply called it the Comedy. By the mid-16th century, scholars were habitually referring to it as The Divine Comedy in honor of the quality of the work, as well as the subject.


divina (2)


But why call it the Comedy in the first place? It’s certainly not a funny work. (Although it’s hard not to crack a smile at Dante’s punishment for Flatterers: they spend eternity lying in a ditch of human feces.) By modern standards, the title makes no sense. Then again, “comedy” is not a peculiarly modern term.


Dante himself explains the title in a famous letter to Cangrande, the man to whom he first sent the completed cantos. Digging into the source, Ancient Greek theater, Dante opposes tragedy to comedy:

Tragedy “in the beginning is admirable and quiet, in the end or final exit it is smelly and horrible.”

Comedy “in the beginning…is horrible and smelly” (Inferno), but “in the end it is good, desirable, and graceful” (Paradiso).


An image from Doré's Paradiso.
“The Empyrean,” from Doré’s Paradiso.


(Dante adds: “it is easy and humble, because it is in the vulgar tongue, in which also women communicate. And thus it is obvious why it is called Comedy.”)


Suddenly titles like The Canterbury Tales seem rather stale, don’t they?


*Fun fact: Dante was exiled from Florence on pain of death by burning alive. In his biography, Boccaccio castigates the entire city multiple times for the sentence: “If all the other wrongs Florence has perpetrated could be hidden from the all-seeing eyes of God, would not this one suffice to call down his wrath upon her?” There’s even an entire section in the English translation named “Reproach of the Florentines,” in which various versions of the word “shame” appear five times in two paragraphs.


Sources and Further Reading:

  • I’ve used the Wicksteed translation (1904) of Boccaccio’s Life of Dante in a nice little Oneworld Classics volume. Guida Armstrong reviews the most recent translation (Nichols, 2002) in relation to previous translations like Wicksteed, and provides significant context for English translations in general, in this article.
  • The translations of Dante’s Epistle to Cangrande are by Marchand, found here.
  •  It should be noted that there has been dispute among scholars about whether the Epistle to Cangrande was actually written by Dante. However, the majority today agree that the letter is authentic. See Robert Hollander’s first paragraph here for a quick summary.
  • For more basic information on Boccaccio’s studies on Dante, check out Paget Toynbee’s classic work here.

12 Comments Add yours

  1. Antonello says:

    I first knew of Jacopo’s dream when I was a child (7 or 8 years old) and I was very scared about this. As many children of my generation, I believed in ghosts’ existence.

  2. pg says:

    My word, young lady, you do have a gift, an ability and an obvious bent, to boil it down and bring it out in a most pleasant and understandable fashion. What you do is fun for your readers.

  3. Charlie says:

    Interesting read, thanks for sharing your insights. Some days I think providing financial advice and insights may warrant the divine comedy description : )

  4. Voltaire says:


    Your article here reminds me that I have a couple of unpublished book manuscripts. If I should become terminally ill, I might send them to you so that there could be a chance that through you they would be saved for posterity. If you should read them at the very least, you will be substantially improved. You are already quite sensational; so, it would be a near goddess-like pinnacle that you would reach.

  5. Juan says:

    I’ve always like reading these shorts blogs , and I like it better with the way you give it to your audience Thanks Rebecca big fan of your work,greetings from Ecuador

  6. Fabio says:

    Tanto gentile e tanto onesta pare
    la donna mia quand’ella altrui saluta,
    ch’ogne lingua deven tremando muta,
    e li occhi no l’ardiscon di guardare. 4
    Ella si va, sentendosi laudare,
    benignamente d’umiltà vestuta;
    e par che sia una cosa venuta
    da cielo in terra a miracol mostrare. 8
    Mostrasi sì piacente a chi la mira,
    che dà per li occhi una dolcezza al core,
    che ’ntender no la può chi no la prova: 11
    e par che de la sua labbia si mova
    un spirito soave pien d’amore,
    che va dicendo a l’anima: Sospira.

    dedicated to your beauty 🙂 from “Vita Nova”

  7. Fabio says:

    “… And thus it is obvious why it is called Comedy.”
    Sorry i think it is uncorrect.

    Dal lat. comoedia, dal gr. kōmōidía ‘canto ( ōidḗ ) del festino ( kômos )’

    from latin comoedia, from greek kōmōidía, ‘Chant or Song’


    1. You are arguing with the wrong person, my friend. Those are Dante’s words, not mine. But isn’t it fascinating that regardless of the original meaning, the word took on a new life with Dante’s interpretation? As words are wont to do.

      Another example of this would be the word encyclopedia. From Too Much to Know by Ann Blair:

      “The word ‘encyclopedia’ was coined in the sixteenth century from a misinterpretation of a Greek expression held to mean the ‘circle of learning’ (as if from kyklos for circle). Modern scholars have shown that the Greek expression involved was actually enkuklios paideia, which designated ‘common knowledge’ or ‘general education,’ but the circle image has proved long-lived and is still invoked in modern encyclopedias.”

  8. Jreati says:

    I was interested in purchasing an old print of Dante’s inferno, bit I’m having a difficult time finding a reference to the exact print edition, most in finding online have a different cover or subtle details that are different.
    Would you have any expertise in this area, determining the edition or value?

    1. Hello. There are many different illustrated editions of Dante, although I’m most partial to Gustave Dore’s. Did you have a particular print in mind? Here is a look at Dore’s:
      The same site has a nice overview of other illustrated editions as well.

  9. Rachel says:

    Hi, I’m trying to track down the Paget Toynbee article that you mention, but the link you mentioned doesn’t work. Would you be able to send me the reference? Thanks very much.

    1. Hello, sorry, it looks like the material was taken down from where I linked. I’ve updated the link to a *less* ephemeral place, Google Books, so it should work now. The book in which you will find Toynbee’s discussion of Boccaccio’s Vita is called Dante Studies and Researches.

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