The Inferno‘s First Geographic Reference

Via Dante Alighieri - Inferno

“Not man, though man I once was, and my blood
was Lombard, both my parents Mantuan.”

With Virgil’s opening lines midway through Canto I, Dante makes his first geographical reference in the Inferno, and so begins the journey into mapping this work. But, as this reference illustrates bookmapping is never as simple as it might at first seem.

Mantua is a village located in Lombardy and Virgil describes its origins at length in Canto XX, where I will examine it more closely. Lombardy, however, deserves a closer look now.

Today Lombardy refers to a region in northern Italy, which borders the Alps to the north, has its capital in Milan, and contains the small city of Mantua. In Dante’s time, though, the area of Lombardy would have included most of northern Italy, a region invaded by the Germanic Lombards in the late 500s CE and controlled by them for two centuries. While Dante refers to the area of Virgil’s birth as Lombardy, Virgil himself would have known this region as Gallia Cisalpina.

The fact the Dante the poet has the character Virgil refer to himself as having Lombard blood is an anachronism. I have read the book plenty of times, but this type of subtle detail has escaped me until now, and I look forward to the other revelations that are sure to come as this project continues, including the depth of knowledge I will gain about Italy.

While Lombardy may be the first location I have examined, mapping any book begins with a first reading for locations. This is less of a distraction when it is a book I have read several times and is made even easier with annotated texts. The Inferno has to be annotated for any modern reader due to both the many explicit and implicit allusions in Dante’s writing and the specificity of its contemporary commentary, so there are plenty of supporting notes available.

For this project I will be using John Ciardi’s translation (Amazon | Library) as my primary text. Despite thorough summaries and notes for each canto, I rarely see this version of the work mentioned among the best translations. If you have opinions about the Ciardi translation, please share them in the comments below. This is the version my school owns and the one I know the best, so I am comfortable with it. For my back up, I will be referring to Robert Pinsky’s translation (Amazon | Library).

Although I have not had the time to focus on mapping the Inferno until recently, I first made a list of locations that appear in the text when I read it with students in the spring of 2015. My preliminary list includes over 200 locations, and while I expect that number to shrink a little as I work through them, this will likely be my largest bookmapping project to date.

I typically record every possible geographic reference in a work, and while my list has already been filtered to only include real world locations, some of them may be combined with other nearby locations or left out completely for various reasons. In any case, Dante’s meticulous detail is sure to make for a wide ranging and interesting project.

Be sure to check out all of the posts about the Inferno here: http://booma.us/tag/inferno/.

If you would like to contribute to the project, send us an email at booma+inferno@booma.us.