Why Map Dante’s Inferno?


The next large mapping project Booma will be taking on is the first part of Dante’s Divine Comedy, the Inferno. As I work through this project, I will be sharing my progress here as well as plenty of my thoughts about this work, which I have yet taken the time to articulate.

Why map Dante’s Inferno?
Dante’s Inferno is 700 years old and set entirely in an imagined world that is mostly underground, so it might not seem like an obvious choice at first. The breadth of the text, however, offers many opportunities for a project like this.

In the Divine Comedy, Dante is working on many levels: he is creating a work that expresses his Catholicism; he is establishing himself as one of the great poets by writing an epic that succeeds Virgil’s Aeneid, which succeeded Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey; and he is leveling lasting criticism against all of his contemporary rivals and political enemies. So, while the Inferno is a tour through Hell, it is also a tour through the religious-political and literary-mythological world that Dante knew. All of these locations can be mapped.

What might mapping the Inferno reveal?
One of the challenges of reading the Inferno 700 years after Dante wrote it, especially while living outside of Europe, is that many of the references to events that happen across Italy have little significance. Any reading of the Inferno needs to be accompanied by copious notes that explain the religious and political context of most of Dante’s conversations in Hell. Having a map of those locations would help a modern reader grasp the scope of Dante’s political life. When combined with a map of the literary and mythological geographic allusions, which at times blend seamlessly with historical references, the extent of Dante’s world will be revealed. I am already eager to compare the extent of this map to similar maps for other historically significant and prolific writers.

What are the biggest challenges to mapping a work like this?
I have encountered an added layer of difficulty in mapping books outside of the United States in the past. Sometimes this is because the map data that is currently available on the Internet for locations outside the United States and more developed parts of Europe just is not that robust.

More often though the language barrier becomes the biggest obstacle. Some locations are easy to map–big cities, large geographic features, specific landmarks–but many of the locations mentioned in a text can be more uncertain. Sometimes it is not even clear if the location exists in the real world. For these locations, bookmapping becomes slow, plodding detective work. For a single, obscure location, I might spend an hour or more just scanning a map for similar place names and searching for references as I discover them. When the language of the map is unfamiliar, this work becomes exponentially more difficult. The age of the Inferno, which means locations may have changed names of disappeared entirely, will make finding some locations even more difficult.


Last September and October, I was able to travel to Italy and visit Florence and a few of the locations that Dante mentions in the Inferno, so I am excited about starting this project and seeing what the process reveals. If you would like to join in the project, send us an email at booma+inferno@booma.us.

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