This site presents the results of the project Mapping Dante, an experiment in geo-criticism and in Digital Humanities aiming at creating the first interactive digital map of all the geographical references included in the Divine Comedy. Developed from May 2015 to April 2016, it was funded by an Early Incubation grant from the Price Lab for Digital Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania.
As every reader of the Comedy knows, Dante based his poem on the structure of the three realms of afterlife – hell, purgatory and heaven, all placed within the geographical and cosmological representation of the world typical of his age’s culture. Dante’s precision in accounting for the structure of these realms has generated so many diagrams and drawings meant to supplement the reading of the poem.
The construction of fictional spaces is just one level of Dante’s geographical imagination. Another level, no less important, is his use of references to the geography of the “real” world: cities, town, regions, mountains, rivers, lakes and seas, the mentions of which run through the entire poem. How can we analyze their functions? What use did Dante make of single places? What is the distribution of places in the text? How do they match the representation of the “real” world in our time as well as in Dante’s?
Maps and lists with the places mentioned by Dante are not a novelty. However, the interpretive potential of such tools has been limited so far by the static one-dimensional nature of their traditional format: on a printed map (or an electronic map based on that model) we can place and find only a small amount of features, due to the limits and fixity of its surface (see a few examples The World of Dante).
Digital tools, on the contrary, give us the opportunity to create multi-layered dynamic visualizations and approach texts from a variety of angles, with different combinations of close and distant reading, qualitative and quantitative analysis.
The interactive map which is the core of this project allows users to visualize and sort places according to a number of literary, cultural, and geographical categories, in order to explore the connections between Dante’s text and geography. Each place name is visualized according to a set of parameters describing both historico-cultural aspects and rhetorical features of each mention.
The starting point of the project was a list of all the geographical references in Dante’s Comedy. Reading the Italian text, I made a note of any cities, town, region, mountain, lake, rivers and sea mentioned, for a total of 345 items and 729 mentions (both explicit and implicit) over the poem’s one hundred cantos. Commentaries, both ancient and modern, have been essential to the identification of places. When multiple identifications were possible, or when the place mentioned by Dante was irremediably vague in cartographical terms, I chose the most reasonable approximation according to the commentaries and, occasionally, on sources and repertoires out of the field of Dante Studies.
Constructing the database was an exercise in close reading. Any mention has been described through a series of categories which later served as a basis for the configuration of the map: types of geographical item (city, region, mountain, etc.), historico-cultural aspects (classical, mythological, biblical, visited by Dante), and rhetorical features (in direct speech, by periphrasis, by adjective, in a simile). For each mention I transcribed the terzina both in the original text and in the English translation. I chose to quote from Robert Durling’s version, clear in its prose and handy in its paragraph divisions corresponding to the original terzine.
The map was built thorugh ArcGIS, a powerful and versatile Geographical Information System software. The work was started with the Desktop version of ArcGIS, and then finalized as a webmap through ArcGIS Online. The project was entirely carried out with a free public account, which posed some technical limitations requiring a few workarounds. In its current version, the map leaves out rivers, lakes and seas. When it came to regions, I chose not to draw exact borders, because of the fluid nature of boundaries in medieval Europe, and because of the inevitable vagueness (in cartographical terms) of some regions mentioned by Dante.
The parameters used in the costruction of the dataset are the basis for the organization of the map in multiple layers which users can turn on and off and combine as they like (see the section How to Use the Map). Every layer offers an overall view of the distribution of a feature. Every symol on the map, in turn, offers a descriptive account of each place and mention recorded.
The map is a substantial visual translation of the dataset, yet further visualizations are possible to enhance the user’s experience in her/his exploration of the geographical encyclopedia of Dante’s Comedy. The network visualization focuses on intra-textual relations and gives visual priority to the geographically densest cantos and to the most frequently mentioned places. The sets of charts offer a sample of quantitative/visual representations of places and cultural/rhetorical features.
This site is a work in progress, which will be updated with more materials, reflections on methodology, and geo-critical analyses. If you have any questions about the project and its development, please use the Contact page on this website.
Philadelphia, May 2016