The seven-hundredth anniversary of Dante’s death this year has allowed us to make a gleeful return to the Divine Comedy, the greatest work of Schadenfreude in the Western canon. I refer to the part in which Dante is given a guided tour of hell and finds there, variously choking in the River Styx, sunk in sludge, ice, excrement or boiling blood, pursued by hounds or walking with their heads turned backwards, not only a host of biblical, historical and mythical sinners but also a selection of his own contemporaries. We would expect him to punish his enemies, like Filippo Argenti, the Florentine politician who confiscated the poet’s property after he was expelled from Florence in 1302, but the great delight of the ‘Inferno’ is that Dante also condemns his friends.
He discovers, for example, in the second circle of hell, Francesca da Rimini and her lover Paolo, both murdered by her husband (and his brother) in 1284. Dante was a friend of Francesca’s nephew Guido Novello da Polenta and was, moreover, in his debt: following his exile, the