Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.
Ah, how hard it is to tell
the nature of that wood, savage, dense and harsh -
the very thought of it renews my fear!
It is so bitter death is hardly more so.
But to set forth the good I found
I will recount the other things I saw.
How I came there I cannot really tell,
I was so full of sleep
when I forsook the one true way.


Dark wood

The year is 1300 A.D. In a dark wood, near Jerusalem.


A man wanders, having lost his way. This man is Dante. 


Reaching the bottom of a bright, sunlit hill, he begins to climb it, hoping to have found the right path out of the surrounding darkness.

Suddenly, a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf erupt onto Dante’s path, blocking his way forward. The three menacing beasts begin circling each other, and with great fearsomeness, push Dante back toward the forest and its sinister shadows.

01 02 BLM Plut 40 03 f 1 r cropped

Beginning of the Inferno. Gilded Latin title, text of canto 1, and illumination representing Dante asleep and Dante facing the leopard, the lion, and the she-wolf. - Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Plut. 40.3, f. 1r.

Dante loses his way both literally and metaphorically. The darkened forest is the space of error and sin; the backlit hill is the tortuous path one must follow to seek out the Good. The three beasts recall the vices that pull humans away from the path of virtue: the leopard, the lion, and the she-wolf each represent, respectively, lust, pride, and greed. Like other authors who precede and succeed him, Dante tells a layered tale that must be read simultaneously in several ways: his poem is an allegory, a prophecy, a pilgrimage. The story unfolds somewhere between the world of dreams and that of reality, and the poet, himself caught between sleeping and waking, is hard-pressed to tell the reader just how he ended up in the dark wood in the first place.

01 03 BLM Plut 40 07 f 1 r 900x1213

In the historiated initial N, Dante is asleep, an open book in hand. In the margin, the illumination represents Dante terrified by the three beasts as Virgil appears atop the hill. - Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Plut. 40.7, f. 1r.

01 i01 Ude M PERRAULT 1509 2 front

Frontispiece with graphical adaptation of an illumination representing Dante, Virgil, and the three beasts. - Dante. Mélanges de critique et d’érudition françaises publiés à l’occasion du VIe Centenaire de la mort du Poète, Paris, Librairie française, 1921. Université de Montréal, Bibliothèque des livres rares et collections spéciales, Collection Joseph-Édouard-Perrault 1509.2.

Suddenly, a shade appears before the poet. Virgil reveals himself to Dante, who recognizes him as the celebrated Roman poet whose works he had read, studied, memorized, and adored.

Virgil has come to succor Dante, to offer him hope of salvation, and to guide him away from the dangers that surround him. The only way to reach salvation, he explains, is to journey through the three realms of the afterlife; Dante thus entrusts himself to his otherworldly guide to once more find his way.

And I answered: 'Poet, I entreat you
by the God you did not know,
so that I may escape this harm and worse,
lead me to the realms you've just described
that I may see Saint Peter's gate
and those you tell me are so sorrowful.'
Then he set out and I came on behind him.

EXCERPT OF THE COMEDY: Inf. 1, 131-136

As a poet, Dante was intimately familiar with the works of Publius Vergilius Maro, who lived between 70 and 19 BCE, under the reign of Roman Emperor Octavian Augustus. Dante learned the Aeneid, his predecessor’s most celebrated poem, by heart, an epic in which Virgil recounts the mythic founding of Rome by Aeneas of Troy. Like Dante, Aeneas descends into Hell -- a Roman, pagan Hell, mind you -- to speak to his deceased father. The Aeneid is in fact the most explicit substrate text in the Comedy, informing many of the poem’s core motifs and constituting the most frequently referenced non-religious text in Dante’s divine poem. Virgil, a poet of Hell in his Aeneid, becomes Dante’s perfect guide for the journey ahead.

01 01 BLM Plut 40 02 f IV v merged layers

On the verso, a graphical representation of the three realms of the afterlife (from top to bottom: Paradise, Purgatory, Hell). On the recto, the beginning of Inferno with an illumination of Dante reading a book in the historiated initial N. - Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Plut. 40.2, f. IVv-1r.

'But why should I go there? who allows it?
I am not Aeneas, nor am I Paul.
Neither I nor any think me fit for this.
And so, if I commit myself to come,
I fear it may be madness. You are wise,
you understand what I cannot express.'


Night falls.

Dante, hesitant, follows Virgil.

He is unsure whether he merits the grace that has been granted him, or if he is worthy to go on this otherworldly pilgrimage. Despite this great privilege, he nevertheless remains unsure of himself, and wonders who has sanctioned him this divine quest. 

Virgil assuages his doubts: Beatrice has sanctioned Dante’s journey, the self-same Beatrice for whom Dante wrote his early love poems and who, following her premature death, now resides in Heaven, blessed and happy in the light of Grace.

01 04 BNC Banco Rari 39 f 8 r cropped

Beginning of Inferno 2. The historiated initial L shows Beatrice descending from Heaven to send Virgil to Dante’s rescue. - Florence, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Banco Rari 39, f. 8r.

From her high place in Heaven, the Virgin Mary saw Dante erring amidst the dangers of the dark wood and sent Saint Lucy to exhort Beatrice to intervene on Dante’s behalf. Thus did Beatrice descend from Heaven to find Virgil in Hell, requesting the Latin poet’s help to save Dante’s soul.

Reassured by this explanation and by the name of his beloved, Dante's doubts are quelled, and he now entrusts himself fully to his guide.

"I who bid you go am Beatrice.
I come from where I most desire to return.
The love that moved me makes me speak."


Gate of Hell