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The Symbolic Use of Colors in Dante's Inferno

In order to fully understand the multidimensional world that lies among the pages of The Divine Comedy, it is important to unravel its deep connection to symbolism. Through this, the Divine Comedy appears as a glorious example of how an author can invent and shape a whole cosmology within his work. The array portrayed is complex yet easily intelligible, as it refers to many symbols known throughout Western Culture. One of the many aspects that can be explored is the domain of colors. Different shades may convey different meanings, especially to a man of Medieval times. Indeed, in that period, colors carried a strong symbolic significance.

Colors play a multifaceted role in various aspects of society. In this era, where written and spoken language were not as universally understood as they are today, colors served as a powerful means of communication and symbolism (Rinaldi, 2011). They were used in heraldry to represent noble houses, in religious art to convey spiritual truths, and in clothing to indicate social status. Medieval manuscripts were illuminated with vivid pigments, showcasing the craftsmanship of scribes and artists. Additionally, colors were often associated with virtues and vices, providing moral and allegorical lessons in art and literature. The understanding and significance of colors in the medieval period offer valuable insights into the culture, beliefs, and values of the time, making them a rich study area for historians, art scholars, and cultural researchers (Schneider, 2011).

Figure 1: Dante in a watercolor (Dalí, 1959).

Colors in Medieval Literature

Medieval literature, including epic poems, chivalric romances, and allegorical tales, frequently utilized colors as symbols to convey deeper meanings. For example, the use of white represents purity and innocence, while red signifies love or passion. Authors often employed colors to evoke emotions, highlight character traits, and emphasize moral lessons within their narratives. These symbolic color choices added layers of interpretation and complexity to the stories, making them accessible to an audience with varying levels of literacy. As a result, understanding the role of colors in medieval literature is essential for deciphering the nuanced messages, values, and cultural ideals embedded in these timeless works of storytelling. It is crucial to underline that during the 12th-14th century colors blossomed, thanks to the renewed trade routes towards the East, and new techniques of extraction of colors (Baxandall, 2001).

This article will focus on the importance of colors in Dante’s Divine Comedy. This paragraph will follow the evolution of two colors in particular, black and red. These two hues particularly have a strong meaning in medieval society and the first chapter of the Divine Comedy.

In medieval symbolism, black often carried a dual nature, representing both the negative aspects of life and the potential for transformation and renewal. It was frequently associated with death, mourning, and sin. Black served as a reminder of mortality and the transient nature of human existence, as evident in the ubiquitous use of black in depictions of death, funerals, and the macabre. Conversely as Jane Schneider noticed in her essay “Peacocks and Penguins: The Role of cloth in Europe” (1978), during Medieval times white was used as a funerary color. She refers to this information to clarify the very essence of colors represented in society, and the fundamental evolution of meaning throughout the ages. Colors have significance, but also precise timing and geography, she argues. In this sense, colors are compared to a lens that focuses the tastes and uses of one particular culture, which can change and evolve. It becomes clear that both the moment and the place where this significance is conceived, plays a pivotal role.

For example, black also held a more positive connotation, signifying the potential for rebirth and spiritual awakening. The darkness of night and the void represented a blank canvas on which divine or redemptive forces could work. Thus, while black symbolized the human condition's imperfections and the inevitability of death, it also carried the promise of spiritual renewal and transformation, making it a complex and multifaceted color in medieval symbolism (Inglese, 2002).

Figure 2: The beginning of the journey (Dalí, 1959).

The color red occupied a central place in medieval symbolism, signifying a wide range of emotions, concepts, and societal roles. It was often associated with love, passion, and desire, signifying both romantic and spiritual ardor. In chivalric romances, red was frequently linked to the brave and passionate knight, emphasizing courage and valor. Additionally, red was used to depict the blood of Christ, symbolizing redemption and salvation in Christian theology. Red was also the color of royal authority, worn by monarchs and rulers to convey their power and divine right to rule. Its vibrant and multifaceted symbolism made red a rich and versatile color in medieval literature, capable of conveying a broad spectrum of emotions and themes, from love and devotion to bravery and divine grace.

Colors in Dante’s Inferno

In Dante's Divine Comedy, the utilization of colors, most notably black and red in the Inferno, emerges as a profound and multifaceted narrative device. Starting from the very beginning, Dante says he found himself in a “selva oscura”, a dark forest, where he cannot see any light. Because of this, it is clear that light represents reason, and therefore god in Dante’s imagery, and darkness is evil and guides each human to damnation (Inglese, 2011). Dante's genius lies in his ability to employ these colors to convey intricate layers of symbolism, emotion, and moral complexity. Thus, he renders the epic poem both accessible and compelling to his medieval audience. Within the Inferno, the realm of eternal damnation, the color black takes on a vital role and importance. It envelops the souls condemned to various levels of Hell, emphasizing their irrevocable separation from divine light and their descent into despair and punishment. This stark contrast of black against the divine light not only paints a vivid picture of the consequences of sin but also serves as a visual representation of the moral chasm that exists between the righteous and the damned (Gentile, 2014).

Dante uses many colors, and one of the most significant in the Inferno, is red. The adept use of red is notably evident in the episode featuring the character Ulysses (Inf. 26), whose fiery rhetoric and insatiable curiosity led him and his crew to a tragic end. Ulysses’ burning ambition is symbolized by the intense red flame he and Diomedes have been turned into. This imagery serves to underscore the perilous allure of reckless ambition and the tragic consequences that await those who heedlessly pursue their desires (Gentile, 2014).

In Dante’s Hell, everything is burning and exudes redness. The figures are then in strong contrast with the dark caves in which hell is imagined and represented.

Figure 3: An illustration of Inf. 22 (Dalí, 1959).

Similarly, in the heart-wrenching episode of Conte Ugolino (Inf. 33), red takes on a gruesome significance. It represents the bloodshed and horror that results from the heinous act of cannibalism. This chilling narrative of betrayal and despair is a poignant example of Dante's ability to use color to evoke visceral emotions and convey the depths of human suffering.

However, the real protagonist of the episode is black, and everything in the setting, recalls the idea of darkness. Conte Ugolino, a political figure in Pisa, is condemned to the ninth circle of Hell, where traitors are frozen in a lake of ice. He is imprisoned alongside Archbishop Ruggieri, his political rival and betrayer. Ugolino recounts the horrific tale of their imprisonment. He and his children were imprisoned in a tower and left to die of starvation. Here everything is characterized by a somber and gloomy environment and vocabulary. In a desperate act of survival, Ugolino succumbs to cannibalism, consuming the flesh of his children. This grotesque act of betrayal and suffering serves as a powerful illustration of the depths of human depravity and the consequences of treachery. Dante encounters Ugolino in the frozen lake, where he gnaws on the head of Archbishop Ruggieri for all eternity, mirroring the treachery they committed against each other in life (Inglese, 2002).

Furthermore, the settings within these episodes contribute significantly to the narrative's richness and impact. For instance, the dark forest that Dante finds himself in at the beginning of the Inferno is a powerful metaphor for spiritual confusion and moral uncertainty. The frozen lake in which Ugolino and his betrayers are trapped serves as a stark and chilling backdrop to their tragic fate, underscoring the coldness of their hearts and the depths of their depravity.

Figure 4: "Infierno" (Huys, 1570).

Dante's masterful command of color, as exemplified in these episodes, transforms the Divine Comedy into a tapestry of visual and emotional richness. His use of black and red, along with the skillful rendering of settings, enables the poem to communicate profound moral lessons, emotional depth, and the intricate complexities of the human condition. Through the interplay of colors and settings, Dante achieves a storytelling prowess that remains accessible and resonant for readers of the Middle Ages and continues to captivate and enlighten audiences to this day.

However, it is nonetheless crucial to underline the role of colors in other parts of the Divine Comedy. Shades become lighter when approaching god and Heaven. In the Paradiso, for example, the only real color that is to be seen is white. An appalling and bright white, as every figure he encounters is pure light. On the other side, Purgatory portals have a medium hue, so lilac, and pastel tones. As it happened with the very first verses of the Inferno, in the Canto of Purgatory Dante states the fundamental color of the Canticle, exemplified by the “oriental sapphire” (Cioffi, 1985).

Figure 5: Dante on the beach of the Purgatory in a watercolor (Guttuso, 1959/1960).

Colors in Dante’s Vocabulary

Dante Alighieri's mastery of vocabulary is a testament to his profound literary genius and his ability to craft a work that is both linguistically rich and thematically complex. Dante's choice of words goes beyond mere linguistic proficiency; it serves as a key instrument in conveying the intricacies of his narrative and his exploration of profound theological, moral, and allegorical themes.

As Ernst Robert Curtius points out in his book European Literature and Latin Middle Ages (1973), Dante, while choosing words, does seek perfection of sound as well. So the vocabulary follows the movements of the many characters that Dante encounters. Curtius says that this capability makes him one of the greatest authors to have ever lived, alongside with William Shakespeare (1564-1616) and Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832).

One of the distinctive features of Dante's vocabulary in the Divine Comedy is his adept use of "rime aspre e chiocce," or "harsh and rough rhymes." These are unconventional rhyme schemes that Dante employed purposefully to create a unique and striking poetic effect. By deviating from the traditional rhyme patterns of his time, Dante's use of "rime aspre e chiocce" (Inf. 32, v. 1) allows him to experiment with language, breaking free from established poetic conventions (Bellomo, 2002). This innovation in rhyme scheme serves as an artistic tool to mirror the dissonance and discord found in the narrative's depiction of Hell and its inhabitants. It underscores the unsettling nature of the Inferno and contributes to the poem's overall atmosphere of moral turbulence and spiritual unrest.

Furthermore, Dante's use of colors in his choice of words plays a significant role in the Divine Comedy. Colors are not merely descriptive but are laden with symbolic and allegorical meanings, as the previous paragraph pointed out. For instance, Dante often uses the color black to represent sin, despair, and spiritual darkness. The souls in Hell are enveloped in blackness, signifying their separation from divine light and the consequences of their sinful lives. Conversely, the use of red is prevalent when depicting elements of danger, passion, and intense emotion. The flames of Hell, the fiery rhetoric of Ulysses, and the deep-seated desires of the damned are all portrayed with vivid red imagery. Dante's careful selection of colors in his vocabulary is a visual and symbolic language that enhances the reader's understanding of the moral and spiritual themes embedded in the poem.

Figure 6: Capaneo among the other "bestemmiatori" (blasphemers) (Guttuso, 1959/1960).

Dante's vocabulary serves as a bridge between his medieval audience and his complex narrative. While the Divine Comedy is renowned for its profound philosophical and theological depth, Dante ensures that his language remains accessible to a broad readership. His choice of words balances the need to convey complex ideas with the need to engage his contemporary audience. This accessibility is crucial in conveying the moral and spiritual lessons of the poem to a medieval readership that may not have been well-versed in intricate theological debates. Through his vocabulary, Dante provides readers with a clear path to understanding the moral dilemmas, the consequences of sin, and the hope of redemption that lies at the heart of his epic work.

In conclusion, the intricate connection among disparate levels, from colors to the choice of one word over another, fabricates the rich tapestry of the Divine Comedy. A primary assumption is needed as Dante Alighieri, while composing a literary work, did not only write a story but imagined a whole universe. This metaphysical terrain had its own rules, its own planets, its own laws, and finally, its own colors. One first step that can be taken toward this outer world is forgetting light, and reason, to dive within these new colors surrounding the reader.

Bibliographical References

Alighieri, D. (2007). Commedia, (Original work published in 1472). Carocci

Baxandall, M. (2001). Pittura ed esperienze sociali nell’Italia del Quattrocento. Einaudi

Bellomo, S. (2002). Filologia e Critica Dantesca, La Scuola.

Cioffi, C. A. (1985). “Dolce color d’orïental zaffiro”: A Gloss on “Purgatorio” 1.13. Modern Philology, 82(4), 355–364.

Curtius, E. R. (1973). European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Bollingen Series / Princeton Press.

Gentile, S. (2014). Il fuoco di Ulisse in Per civile conversazione con Amedeo Quondam, Volume Primo, Bulzoni.

Inglese, G. (2002), Guida alla Divina Commedia, Carocci

Rinaldi, S. (2011), Storia Tecnica dell’Arte. Materiali e Tecniche della Pittura e della Scultura (secco. V-XIX), Carocci

Schneider, J. (1978). Peacocks and Penguins: The Political Economy of European Cloth and Colors. American Ethnologist, 5(3), 413–447.

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Alessandra Cipolloni

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