Faces from Dante’s Inferno by Peter Celano
Many college and high school students start their journeys through Dante’s Inferno with a timid spirit not really knowing what they are getting into when reading this work. Yet, The Inferno is well worth the effort as Dante describes his view of the afterlife and hell in provocative and sharp terms. Peter Celano, author of Faces from Dante’s Inferno has provided the reader of this great poem with a guide to its people, their words, and the significance of the poem. The book is broken up into 13 chapters, with nine of those chapters focusing on the circles of hell, one chapter on the Inferno, one on the first three faces, one on Beatrice, and one on outside Hell’s gate. The reward of this book is its keen description of the various players or contemporaries of Dante, his political allies and foes, and the way Dante considers the church in all of this.
The opening introduction is a look into the life of Dante Alighieri. Growing up in a well-to-do family, Dante was well educated and destined for good things. After a brief stint as a prior (high political official), his political party was defeated by the Black Guelphs and he was exiled (14-15). We learn further on that Dante had a growing attachment to a young Beatrice Portinari, a woman whom he never even met but felt close to. Celano writes, “toward the end of Book, Two, Purgatorio,…she guides him toward the beatific vision of God in Paradiso, or paradise” (16). Although Dante married another man as did Beatrice, he continually was drawn to her and portrayed her in an almost angelic light. The first chapter is a foray into the meaning of hell for Dante, how he used various sources concerning Hell, and the way Dante’s allegorical rendering of the Inferno caught readers attention. Finally, we see the central message of the Inferno as “the reality and realization of sin” (22). Walking painfully through the circles of Hell, Dante brings together sin, Satan, and death to illuminate the radical power of sin in a human life.
We find some interesting historical information on Pope Celestine V in chapter four. Celano writes, “Celestine V (Brother Peter Morrone) was the first pope in history to willingly, and on his own accord, resign the holy office” (40). Dante records that this Pope was his men were ‘Hateful to God and to his enemies.’ We find down the page that the Catholic Church made Celestine V a saint soon after his death. (41). Dante was clearly not worried about bringing out the worst of people, including Popes and philosophers, and politicians. In the fifth circles of hell, chapter nine we find the rebellious angels and those who have deliberately turned away from God. I find it very interesting that alongside the rebellious angels in this circle of hell, Dante includes Filippo Argenti, who was a Florentine politician known for his ‘infamous anger’ (68). Celano mentions that his anger borders on self-hatred (69). There is a very strong sense in the Bible that God has a righteous anger against sin and its consequences, and yet here, we see the utter destruction of a man by his own anger getting the best of him. It is the unchecked and unbridled anger of a man that leads his to self-hatred.
Celano brings us to the practical wisdom of the Inferno in the last chapter by asking the right questions: “So what is the “takeaway” from reading Dante’s Inferno” (104)? Some points that Peter brings out here are the advice to learn from the past mistakes of others, guard your heart and be a follower of Christ and not be overtaken by the evil one (104). I would also point out that part of the message of the Inferno is that sin damages our relationship with God if unchecked and unforgiven, but it also pulls apart our humanity in such a way that we no longer see ourselves as image bearers of the Almighty. The full course of sinful living masks our true identity as sons and daughters of God for a life of pain, ruin, and destruction.
Thanks to Paraclete Press for the complimentary copy of this book in exchange for review.