All images come from a 1555 Venetian edition of La Divina Comedia held in the British Library Collection.
Aromas can inspire nostalgia and transport me to a particular moment of time. Obviously, Dante Alighieri thought so as well and used the power of fragrance and memory to torment the penitent gluttons of Purgatory in The Divine Comedy.
Dante’s Divina Commedia was written between 1308 and 1320 and provides uncanny insight into the medieval world. On one level it addressed all things earthly: politics, the Church and the social condition. On the other, it is an exploration of personal faith. From a cultural perspective, it also helped to establish Tuscan as the foundation for a unified Italian language. That’s a lot to achieve in one book.
But despite all this complexity, each component part of Dante’s masterpiece – Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso – is also an adventure to read, filled with fear, sadness, hope and joy.
In the Sixth Terrace of Purgatory, Dante encounters the souls (or shades as he calls them) serving time for the sin of gluttony. To punish them, he creates a torturously tempting fruit with an intoxicating scent and luscious green colour that can never be eaten – a Biblical reference to Eve’s apple from the tree of knowledge.
Dante first sees the fruit tree hanging upside down over a mountain path. A voice tells him, ‘This fruit shall be denied to you’ (‘Di questo cibo avrete caro’). A shade he recognizes from life, named Forese Donati, explains the gluttons’ penance:
All of these souls who, grieving, sing because
their appetite was gluttonous, in thirst
and hunger here resanctify themselves.
The fragrance of the fruit and of the water
that’s sprayed through that green tree kindles in us
craving for food and drink and not once only,
as we go round this space, our pain’s renewed.
Tutta esta gente che piangendo canta
per seguitar la gola oltra misura,
in fame e ‘n sete qui si rifà santa.
Di bere e di mangiar n’accende cura
l’odor ch’esce del pomo e de lo sprazzo
che si distende su per sua verdura.
E non pur una volta, questo spazzo
girando, si rinfresca nostra pena.
So let’s draw inspiration from one of the world’s greatest works of literature to create a colorful, fragrant and fruity treat that we can actually eat!