The Divine Comedy is a three-part journey in which Dante, as himself, travels through Hell, then Purgatory (in Catholic theology, the place that is kind of like God's waiting room for souls not yet ready for Paradise), then Heaven. It is set in 1300, around the time of Dante's exile, even though Dante was actually writing it around 1308 or 1309. As Dante explained later, nearly every line in the Comedy could be interpreted in multiple ways - be it theological, philosophical or autobiographical. The work "was undertaken, not for speculation but for a practical end," Dante wrote, "to remove those who are living in this life from the state of misery, and lead them to the state of felicity."4 The Comedy was also the story of Dante's own personal "death" by banishment and rebirth.
He began with the Inferno, by far the best known piece of the trilogy. "Midway on our life's journey, I found myself/ In dark woods, the right road lost,"5 Dante-as-narrator began. He is suddenly confronted by the ghost of Virgil, sent to offer him guidance by none other than the celestial Beatrice. From a position that everyone has been in—the feeling of everything being irretrievably screwed up—Dante went to a place where no living human being has been: Hell. Dante's Hell was a seriously nasty place, a series of descending circles leading to the devil himself. The worse your sin, the closer you were to the devil. Those at the center of the circle—the very worst of the sinners—were those who betrayed others' trust. It was peopled with real-life characters who had lived in Florence. This contributed to the poem's popularity—readers were eager to see whom Dante had condemned in his poetry.
Along the way, Dante encountered people whose sins served as a lesson both to the reader and to the pilgrim. Meeting the spirit of Ulysses in Inferno, Dante reflects that he also chose the pursuit of adventure and worldly excitement over a life of simple duty. In Purgatorio, Dante-as-pilgrim reversed his journey and climbed upward, purging himself of the seven deadly sins along the way. By the time he met Beatrice in Paradiso, his soul was purified. The completion of the Comedy unified all the things Dante sought to understand in his life—love, wisdom, and poetry. Dante wrote that the Comedy was a journey from "the human to the divine, from time to the eternal, from Florence to a people just and sane."6
Inferno was completed around 1314 in Verona, where Dante had moved two years earlier. It circulated throughout Italy and was immediately popular, raising Dante's reputation as one of the greatest poets in the country. The government of Florence began thinking that it might not be so bad to take him back. In June 1315, Dante received word that the Priors were willing to offer him a deal. He could come back to Florence, as long as he was willing to submit to a humiliating ritual in which he would dress like a penitent and parade through town. Dante was furious. "Is this the glorious recall whereby Dante Alighieri is summoned back to the fatherland?" he fumed.7