The Poet (as Italians call him); b. Florence, May 1265; d. Ravenna, Sept. 13 or 14, 1321. He was the most learned layman of his time and deeply versed in theology. But he was first of all a man of action, an ardent combatant for the cause of justice and piety. His work is, for this reason, closely interwoven with the events of his life.
Early Influences. In his youth Dante seemed concerned exclusively with pure literature. As early as his 15th or 16th year, he took part in the game of exchanging with the Tuscan poets sonnets on the nature of love and its effects. These poets, the representatives of the new learned class, were proudly shaping the literature of the new free states. The old themes of the Provençal tradition, in being transplanted into a new middle-class environment, were losing their romantic tone and giving way to dry reasoning on the essence of love. Dante, however, soon discovered cavalcanti's poetry, considered him his "first friend," and listened with him to the sweet harmony and wisdom that came from Bologna. At first it was the smoothness of Guido Guinizelli's (1230 or 1240–76) poetry that appealed to him, but his friendship with Cavalcanti aroused his interest in Aristotelian philosophy. Several of his sonnets and canzoni reflect Cavalcanti's conceptions about the disastrous results of love and express Dante's own feeling of mortal distress at the approach of his beloved. However, his love for Beatrice, a girl whom he had known since his early youth, was connected more with sensations of devotion and exaltation than of fear. Thus he turned more confidently to Guinizelli's theories about the ennobling effects of love and drew a new feeling of mystic adoration from the corroboration they gave to his personal experience. From this stemmed some of his most inspired sonnets in praise of Beatrice as a living miracle and a supernatural appearance in the world. At the same time his verses reached the highest degree of smoothness and softness of language characteristic of the "new style" of the school. But then, when the poet was 25, Beatrice died.
Spiritual Crisis. At first Dante seemed to cling to an inner revelation that Beatrice was a saint, but this kind of rapture for the dead beloved did not last, and Dante soon gave himself over to despair, disordered life, and unbelief. Some sonnets exchanged with Forese Donati give testimony to this spiritual crisis, which lasted for some years. Toward the end of 1293, searching for a solution of this crisis, Dante began to attend lectures on philosophy and theology and found more than he was looking for. His struggle with philosophy was hard, but in 30 months he found himself regaining his lost faith. Beatrice appeared to him in a vision, and all his thoughts were recalled to the pure devotion of his youth. Overwhelmed by the conviction that he had experienced a miracle, he started (c. 1296) to write the Vita Nuova, the account of his youthful life and the miraculous influence of Beatrice. It was like a legenda of St. Beatrice. The dolce stil nuovo, with all its pagan philosophy of love,
was now a thing of the past. The Vita Nuova includes the poems after the manner of Guinizelli or Cavalcanti that on various occasions Dante had written about Beatrice; but clearly they are testimonies of the past and not expressions of his thought when he wrote the prose of Vita Nuova, which is several years later than the poems and reflects a thoroughly religious vision. However, this phase of mysticism did not long endure. The poet returned to his struggle with philosophy and wrote (c. 1296) the Rime petrose, which speaks of a lady (Philosophy) who is his Pietra (rock), unyielding to his passionate love. A little later these studies also were put aside.
Political Activities. In the last years of the century, Dante was prompted by his ardent temperament and also by religious zeal to take an active role in the political life of his town. Florence, as a result of a split in the dominant Guelf party, was divided into two factions: the Blacks, inclined to accept the influence of the pope, and the Whites, jealous defenders of the autonomy of the town. (see guelfs and ghibellines.) Dante soon became one of the rigorous supporters of the Whites. He was at this time probably under the influence of Petrus Olivi, a Spiritual Franciscan strongly opposed to the temporal power of the Church. In 1300 Dante was elected one of the priori (the highest office in the commune) and, in an attempt
to restore peace, agreed to the banishment of his friend Cavalcanti together with other leaders of the two conflicting factions. The following year, Pope Boniface VIII sent to Florence Charles of Valois, a member of the Angevin family, apparently as a peacemaker, but actually with the mission of helping the Blacks to seize power. Dante led an embassy to Rome to persuade the Pope to recall Charles. It seems that Boniface calculatedly detained him in Rome in order to give the Blacks in Florence time to assume control and issue decrees of condemnation against Dante and others. First the poet was condemned to pay a large fine; then, since he did not return to Florence to make the payment, he was condemned (1302) to be burned alive should he ever come under the power of the commune.
The Convivio. Thus began the exile that was to last until Dante's death. There followed years of wandering, poverty, and humiliation. For all his pride, Dante gives unmistakable somber hints of what he had to undergo. At first he took part in armed attempts of his party to reenter Florence, but then he forsook his companions. In order to restore his fame, but also to give his fellow men "the bread of the angels" he had found, he wrote a treatise on the virtues, the Convivio (1305), an allegorical "banquet" of the same philosophical wisdom that had been for him the path to salvation. Substantially it is a compilation based mainly on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, but Dante's intention was clearly to offer a body of edifying doctrine. The noble lady who is the symbol of philosophy is a friend dearer even than Beatrice, since philosophy by itself is able to bring most people to salvation. Dante followed Aristotle so confidently that he accepted even the principle that man's desire for knowledge can be entirely fulfilled in this life: an obvious denial of the Christian teaching that only in heaven can the human thirst for knowledge be quenched.
At this time, Dante thought also that there was an order of reason completely independent of revealed truth, and that the emperor's authority, based on the light of reason, was sufficient to itself and needed no guidance or control from the Church. Yet, despite these doctrines, the Convivio is far from representing a phase of rationalism in Dante's spiritual evolution, as is often said, for the work is pervaded with mysticism: Philosophy is Wisdom itself, "the very beloved daughter of God." While working on the Convivio, Dante must have acquired a more solid knowledge of the relationship between reason and revelation, but he did not complete the work. In the fourth and last book composed, "good brother Thomas" (Aquinas) is quoted. It was no longer possible for Dante to rest on the rather crude mixture of Aristotelianism and Christian truth of the first books. Above all, as a man of action, or rather as a reformer stirred by the urge to find a solution for the evils of Italy (and of Florence), Dante was at this time profoundly concerned with the concrete political problems of the Christian world.
The Monarchia. The long debate between the advocates of the sovereign authority of the emperor and the supporters of the hierocratic views of the popes had been renewed by the bull unam sanctam of boniface viii (1302), and the subsequent Annominatio. During the hard-fought conflict between Philip II of France and Boniface, many treatises appeared on both sides. In his fight against those who had exiled him, Dante had progressively approached the views of the Ghibellines, or the imperial party, and had become the guest of the Della Scala, the most powerful Ghibelline family in Italy. Dante's treatise Monarchia (c. 1309) was a rigorous reassessment of the contrasting views and a firm assertion of the independent sovereignty of the emperor. His position in the conflict, however, was fundamentally different from that of the lay supporters of the empire.
Dante's assumption was that the empire was itself a sacred institution proceeding directly from God's will, "from the very sources of religion," and, as such, needed no counsel from the Church. There were two distinct ends, earthly happiness to be provided by the emperor, and heavenly bliss to be attained through the Church. The biblical "render to Caesar what is Caesar's," and other sources seemingly asserting the total disjunction and independence of the temporal order from spiritual authority, were naturally utilized to the full to corroborate the principle of the separation of the two powers. Dante even used the Averroistic principle of the unity of the human intellect to defend the theory that there must exist only one emperor for all mankind. The idea of two separate orders was also closely linked to the doctrine of two independent orders of reason and revelation. Dante later rejected this idea in the composition of the Divina Commedia.
However, what then distinguished his conception from both the secular doctrine of the state and that of the religious, Franciscan opponents of the temporal power of the Church was his deep persuasion that the empire was sacred and that nature was itself divine ("Deus vult quod natura vult"). The emperor was for him "the Anointed," and those who elected him were directly inspired by the Holy Spirit. The history of the Roman Empire was to Dante a kind of revelation parallel to the history of Israel. Accordingly, when Emperor Henry VII came to Italy (1310) to assert his authority over the Italian states, Dante took part in the expedition with the deepest religious sense of hope and faith. In fervent letters exhorting the lords of Italy to welcome the emperor, he pointed to him as Agnus Dei. Dante's whole life, centered on the hope of returning to Florence, as well as the theories he held, his aspiration for peace and justice, and his faith in God, were all at stake in these fateful hours.
By 1313 everything had failed. The hope of returning to Florence that had given deep personal meaning to the mystical anticipation of the renovation of the world was extinguished. Dante had to revise all his views, all the projects of his life. From no earthly authority, it was now clear to him, could a remedy for the cupidity prevailing throughout Christendom be expected. Only a messenger from heaven was to be hoped for. Dante dreamed that he himself—having already experienced the miraculous help of Beatrice and having discovered the truth about the situation of mankind—had been chosen to announce the next Coming.
The Shaping Vision of the Divina Commedia. A vision came to him. He was persuaded that his mind had been elevated by God's grace to a supernatural vision of himself going through hell, purgatory, and paradise for the salvation of his own soul and of all mankind. He was able to be extremely precise about the details of that supernatural journey—and he happened to be the most gifted poet, perhaps, of all times. His poem was to be a combined work of heaven and earth ("Whereto both
heaven and earth have set a hand"): God's vision and his human skill.
There is no conclusive proof, of course, that the vision was real, but there is no ground for not accepting the poet's claim of having seen certain things. In his Letter to Cangrande he refers those who do not believe him to the works of St. Augustine, St. Bernard, and Richard of St. Victor, wherein the possibility of such supernatural experiences is explicitly stated. Without doubt, the poem he began to write after the failure of Henry VII had the feeling of reality, the impressiveness, the dramatic, concrete sense of a great epic. The allegories of the vices and virtues, philosophy, reason, love, friendship, and the arts, which had crowded so many pages of medieval literature, were left far behind. Dante spoke of historical sacred events in the same way (he pointed out) as the Bible had done.
Analysis of the Divina Commedia. Vergil was the guide given him for his journey to hell and purgatory. Vergil had spoken of a similar journey, a descent to the underworld, which in Dante's mind was somehow willed by God and contained truth. First of all Vergil had revealed to Dante the divine mission of Rome and the providential plan of human history. On this basis, Dante was able to reject the Averroistic doctrines of the eternity of the world and man's subjection to astrological influences. In the history of mankind leading to the coming of Christ, Vergil had been closest to Christian thought, almost foretelling the new age. No one but he was entitled to be the guide for a journey that was the symbol of man's historical pilgrimage to the height of revelation.
By the time the poet began the Divina Commedia, he had also reached a more consistent view of the relationship between reason and faith. Accordingly, there was in the work a transition from Vergil, the symbol of the lumen naturale, to Beatrice, who was to lead the pilgrim through heaven and was the symbol of the lumen gratiae: one was the complement of the other. The poem, however, does not deal with abstract figures. Just as the biblical account in Exodus (Dante himself makes the comparison) reports historical events that carry a moral or spiritual meaning, so the Divina Commedia deals with concrete facts and real historical figures, which, being ordered by God, also have a spiritual meaning.
Going through the circles of hell—a kind of funnel that plunges to the center of the earth—the pilgrim meets many historical personages, mostly from his own time or from antiquity: a very concrete, real world, the opposite of the allegorical construction of Le roman de la rose. The personages are distributed on the various levels of the realm of damnation so that the account of Dante's journey is also a kind of universal judgment and illumination of human vices and virtues. As the poet himself says in his dedicatory letter of the Paradiso to Cangrade della Scala, the subject of the work "is man, liable to the reward or punishment of Justice, according as through the freedom of the will he is deserving or undeserving" (tr. C. S. Latham).
The Pilgrim and the Poet. The poem has to be, however, primarily the story of a man, Dante, passing through and suffering the various levels of hell. The grace of the journey has been granted to him so that he can have "full experience" of sin. In order to be saved he has to see and above all feel in the depths of his being the error of his own sins and those of his fellow men. Going through hell cannot be just a sightseeing trip; it is going into darkness and being affected by it. Sin is contagious. And the pilgrim with all his weakness and blindness is taken there. Only at the summit of purgatory will Vergil announce to him that his free will has been restored and his intellect is sane. But before that he must sympathize with the denizens of hell. He faints out of pity for Francesca da Rimini, a lady who had yielded to the illusions of courtly love, become enamored of her brother-in-law, and met death at the hands of her husband. His answer to Farinata, the great Ghibelline leader who had made politics the supreme end of life in substitution for God, betrays a fierce political pride, deep as the sinner's. In no case does the pilgrim manifest any awareness of the terrifying chasm between those dead souls and God; rather he sympathizes with them. He expresses his willingness to sit for a while with Brunetto, his former teacher, punished as a sodomite; he even says that if it were in his power Brunetto would still be among the living— a way of blaspheming against God's will. The pilgrim is so deeply attracted by Ulysses, the personification of vain curiosity, that he almost plunges into the valley where the sinner is transformed into a wandering flame. Such representation is most suitable to the task of describing the meetings of an infirm soul with the creatures of evil. These creatures speak, act according to their sinful nature, express in all their words the sin that for eternity has taken possession of their lives.
Errors in Interpretation. Unfortunately, much Dante criticism that has been rooted in secular culture has been unable to perceive the sinful character of the personages of Hell. Francesca da Rimini, Farinata, and Ulysses have been seen in a light of beauty and greatness very different from the light in which the poet really saw them. Further, such criticism has mistaken the reactions of Dante, the character of the drama, for the reactions and feelings of sympathy and pity of the poet himself. The general belief is that, while writing his poem, Dante was still entangled with the passions, hopes, and hatreds of the world and inevitably gave expression to these deep impulses of his soul. Francesca, Farinata, Brunetto, and Ulysses, it is said, were persons and symbols dear to his heart despite the fact that they were under God's condemnation. Because of these preconceptions, the Divina Commedia has been read rather as a representation of this life and the exaltation of all its passionate, heroic, worldly attachments than as a vision of supernatural reality. To F. de Sanctis, the greatest Italian critic of the 19th century, as well as to C. H. Grandgent and all contemporary Italian critics, Dante appeared and still appears much more excited by the "heroic" suicides of the ancient world than by the martyrdoms of the early Christians.
Such a view of Dante's work is entirely distorted. The sentiments of sympathy, admiration, and devotion expressed by Dante in presence of those in Hell, all the emotions he reveals, belong to the character Dante, the infirm, blind soul who is reexperiencing the sinful inclinations of earthly life and is unable to perceive the evil nature of the damned. The poet Dante has portrayed past meetings of his own weak and blind soul with the various figures of human perdition. His greatness as a poet consists precisely in the objectivity of this representation and the profundity of his perception of the terrible, often hidden aspects of human wickedness. Francesca, one sees, is the symbol and, at the same time, the victim of the subtle enthrallment of courtly love and the theories of the dolce stil nuovo; the man Dante who expresses his deepest pity to her is a person who has passed through the same delusions and now surrenders to the contagious presence of that sin. Farinata is clearly the exponent of a political commitment blind to all the superior values of the soul. Ulysses is the personification of a reason perverted by a vain curiosity directed to a false knowledge. The poet could not be more effective in revealing through the gestures, the words, often very few words, of the personages, and of the pilgrim among them, the sinful situation in which they are.
For one extraordinary moment the characters come forth on the stage of hell, revealing their prides, their stubborn, blind minds, their delusions, and the pilgrim who summoned them forth is with them on their own spiritual level, sharing their evil or unable to understand their depravity. Accordingly, he staggers when he approaches the terrace of sloth in purgatory; he is unable to see in the place of blind anger. Similarly, he will be filled with light and love in paradise. The Divina Commedia is the objective, coherent narrative of the ascent of a man from darkness to God; it is something very different from a work in which the author gives voice through his own character to his actual conflicting impulses of vengeance or love, tenderness or hatred.
Theological "Interpolations." From all this it is clear that the passages, especially in the Paradiso, that appear to be theological discussions inserted by the poet to communicate to the reader some of the truths that Dante himself had accepted, are by no means interpolations that reveal the poet's personal views. They too belong to the story. It is the personages who reveal in these passages their own understanding of truth and thus help the ascent of the pilgrim. Marco Lombardo's speech in purgatory on the relationship between the empire and the Church, which is always mistaken for the expression of Dante's own ideas and for a philosophical digression, is most evidently the utterance of a Ghibelline spirit, still blinded by worldly political passions and regretting the times of his emperor, Frederick II, still far from the truth that will be revealed in paradise. There is no break in the consistent line of the narrative.
One must look at the whole rigorously unitarian world the poet has represented in order to understand Dante's own vision of the world. With the characteristic medieval love for correspondences, Dante has also made use of some kind of recurring signs in order to direct our attention and to make us understand his point of view. The third canto of the Inferno treats of those who were pusillanimous; the third canto of the Purgatorio deals with those outside the Church who were courageous; the third canto of Paradiso speaks of those who had Christian fortitude. The sixth canto of the Inferno depicts citizens prone to greed, gluttony, and civil discord; the sixth canto of the Purgatorio speaks of princes who neglected the universal good; the sixth canto of the Paradiso presents those who were truly magnanimous and searched for the common good. To Farinata's total blindness correspond the vice of pride in purgatory and the love of wisdom in paradise.
Once the ordering mind behind the work is grasped and account taken of the views expressed in the Paradiso, it is clear that Dante's views and sentiments about the moral world, or the relationship between nature and Grace, reason and faith, are entirely consistent with those of St. Thomas.
An Allegorical Poem? It must be made clear, however, that the Divina Commedia is far from being a kind of Summa put in verse or translated into allegory. There is no more false way of describing Dante's work than to call it an allegorical didactic poem. At the basis of the poem's vision there is indeed a system that matches St. Thomas's in sweep and profundity, but Dante's mentality was not a theologian's. He was concerned with the concrete problems of the world, with persons, with Florence and Italy, with ways to restore the empire. He had rather the mind of a pastor, of a prophet. He judged people, not ideas; he portrayed the life of the Church, and denounced the deficiencies of the leaders of the world; when he did introduce St. Thomas, it was not to have him speak of theology but to deliver a panegyric on St. Francis of Assisi. First of all it must be realized that Dante's vision is essentially a profound and consistent vision of history rivaling St. Augustine's and Vico's; and a vision is not speculative theology. For Dante, God operates through history and in contemplation of the historical process His will can be seen and understood. The development of Rome was clearly in Dante's thought the central line of this divine operation, the mainstream of mankind's salvation. Before and after the Advent, Rome is the place and the temporal institution where the City of God can be built on earth. This emphasis on secular history and politics as an essential foundation of God's kingdom is the most important characteristic of Dante's vision.
The Goal of Christian Unity. In an age when many irrepressible intellectual, political, and economic forces were undermining the universalistic structures on which the civilization of the Middle Ages had rested, Dante was driven by a deep prophetic urge to renew the empire as man's only hope, under God, for salvation. His was the last attempt, or, at least, the final flowering of hope in the possibility of rebuilding, without denying the new autonomous forces of the world, the unity of Christianity as a temporal body directed to the divine goal.
From the point of view of literature, the Divine Comedy was the ultimate expression of Gothic aesthetics, and its very characteristics tend toward the multiplicity of elements, the search for correspondences, elevation, difficulty, subtlety, and extreme refinement. Only two decades later petrarch was to begin a completely new style, the style of the renaissance.
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Excerpt from the Divine Comedy
Published in The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, 1906
"Beneath my head the others are dragged down / Who have preceded me in simony, / Flattened along the fissure of the rock."
T he poet Dante Alighieri (DAHN-tay al-eeg-YEER-ee; 1265–1321), usually referred to simply as Dante, is considered one of the greatest writers of all time—on a par with figures such as the Greek poet Homer (700s b.c.) or the English playwright and poet William Shakespeare (1564–1616). By far the most widely admired of Dante's works is the Divine Comedy, which is not a comedy in the traditional sense: here the term refers to the fact that the story, told in a series of 100 "chapters" called cantos, has a happy ending.
The term "divine" is a reference to God, an abiding presence in the narrative as the poet journeys into the depths of the Inferno or Hell, guided by the departed soul of the Roman poet Virgil (70–19 b.c.; sometimes rendered as Vergil or Virgilius). Later, Dante describes a journey into Purgatory, a place of punishment for people working out their salvation and earning their way into Heaven or Paradise. A journey through Heaven constitutes the final section of the Divine Comedy.
This vast work is so complex and rich in detail that it is hard to do it justice in just a few words (see box, "The Divine
The Divine Comedy
Considered one of the world's great literary works, Dante's Divine Comedy is a long poem describing the author's journey into Hell, or the Inferno; then through the center of the Earth to Purgatory, a place of punishment for people working out their salvation; and finally, through the planets and stars into Heaven or Paradise.
Dante places the events of the Divine Comedy at Easter Weekend 1300, when he was—as he wrote in the open lines of Canto I—"in the middle of the journey of our life" (in other words, thirty-five years old). But the Divine Comedy is not meant to be understood as a literal story; rather, it is an allegory, or symbolic tale. Nor is it a comedy as that word is normally used: rather, the term "comedy" refers to the fact that after passing through great misfortune, the author is given a glimpse of the Heaven that awaits believers.
The Divine Comedy consists of 100 cantos, or chapters, which are in turn composed of verses. After an introductory canto in which Dante describes how he entered Hell through a darkened forest, each section comprises thirty-three cantos. In each place, Dante travels with a guide: in the Inferno, the Roman poet Virgil (70–19 b.c.), and in Purgatory and Paradise, his beloved Beatrice. The book is densely packed with references to people and events in Europe from ancient times through the early 1300s, and in order to enjoy it fully, a modern reader must consult extensive reference notes. It is a rewarding exercise, however, and anyone who reads the entire Divine Comedy comes away with an encyclopedic knowledge of the medieval world. Those fortunate enough to read it in Italian also have an opportunity to enjoy Dante's simple but beautiful language in the original.
Comedy"). The passage that follows is drawn from Canto XIX of the Inferno, where Dante witnesses the punishment of popes and other Church leaders guilty of simony—the buying and selling of offices within the Church. Their punishment is particularly gruesome: they have been shoved headfirst, one on top of another, into a bottomless hole in the ground. The newest arrival must suffer the burning of his feet; but when another simoniac (someone who practices simony) dies, the earlier ones will be pushed farther down, deeper into the earth. As Dante notes, this was like the means used to execute hired killers, who were placed headfirst in a pit, then covered with dirt until they suffocated.
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from the Divine Comedy
- The Divine Comedy is an example of allegory, a style of writing popular throughout the Middle Ages. In allegory, characters and events are meant to be understood as symbols: obviously Dante did not actually journey into Hell, but used it as a symbolic setting in which to address a number of earthly problems. In this passage, the issue addressed is simony, the buying and selling of church offices.
- The simoniac with whom Dante talks in this passage is supposed to be Pope Nicholas III (ruled 1277–80), who came from the Orsini family—a clan known as "the cubs of the she-bear." Later, Dante mentions Nicholas's "intrigue against Charles." This is a reference to Charles of Anjou (ahn-ZHOO), a leader against whom Nicholas supposedly joined in a conspiracy.
- Nicholas mistakes Dante for Pope Boniface VIII (BAHN-i-fus; ruled 1294–1303); but the events of the Divine Comedy were supposed to take place in 1300, three years before Boniface's death. After Boniface, Nicholas predicts, will come an even worse offender. This was a reference to Pope Clement V (ruled 1305–1314), who in 1309 moved his headquarters from Rome to Avignon (AV-in-yawn) in southern France as a symbol of his submission to the king of France. This in turn sparked one of the greatest crises in the history of the Catholic Church. Nicholas compares Clement to Jason, a high priest of Jerusalem during the 100s b.c. After bribing the local ruler in order to become high priest, Jason tried to force the Jews to adopt the Greek religion. These events are recorded in the Book of Maccabees (MAK-uh-beez), which appears in some Catholic versions of the Bible.
- Angered by the simoniacs, Dante asks if Jesus charged St. Peter money before he gave the famous disciple a symbolic set of keys to unlock the gates of heaven (Gospel of Matthew, chapter 16, verse 19). This was particularly significant because the popes viewed themselves as successors to Peter, and thus as holders of those keys as well. Judas Iscariot had been the disciples' treasurer, but after he betrayed Jesus and committed suicide, Matthew took his place—but again, as Dante notes, none of the other disciples tried to obtain silver and gold from him.
- Later, Dante refers to another disciple by title rather than name: "The Evangelist." An evangelist is someone who preaches the Christian gospel; however, "The Evangelist" refers to John, disciple of Jesus and author of the Book of Revelation. This section of the Bible describes the end of the world, and among other events it depicts is an unholy alliance between a wicked woman—"she who sitteth upon many waters"—with the kings of the world. Early Church leaders compared the wicked woman to Rome before that city accepted Christianity, but Dante used her as a symbol for the corrupted Church. He also mentioned a beast with seven heads and ten horns, described in Revelation.
- In the final lines of this passage, Dante referred to Constantine (KAHN-stun-teen; ruled 306–337), the first Roman emperor to accept Christianity. This led to the Christianization of Rome, but in the belief of Dante and many others, it also corrupted the Church by giving it political power. His mention of the "marriage dower"—that is, a dowry or the wealth a bride brings to her marriage—referred to the New Testament idea of the Church ("mother" in this verse) as the bride of Christ. Dante and other people in medieval times believed that Constantine had formally granted political power to the Church in a document known as the Donation of Constantine, which was later proven to be a forgery, or falsified document.
Excerpt from The Divine Comedy
… I saw upon the sides and on the bottom The livid stone with perforations filled, All of one size, and every one was round….
Out of the mouth of each one there protruded The feet of a transgressor, and the legs Up to the calf, the rest within remained.
In all of them the soles were both on fire; Wherefore the joints so violently quivered, They would have snapped asunder withes and bands.
Even as the flame of unctuous things is wont To move upon the outer surface only, So likewise was it there from heel to point….
"Whoe'er thou art, that standest upside down, O doleful soul, implanted like a stake," To say began I, "if thou canst, speak out."
I stood even as the friar who is confessing The false assassin, who, when he is fixed, Recalls him, so that death may be delayed.
And he cried out: "Dost thou stand there already, Dost thou stand there already, Boniface? By many years the record lied to me.
Art thou so early satiate with that wealth, For which thou didst not fear to take by fraud The beautiful Lady, and then work her woe ?"
Protruded: Stuck out.
Transgressor: Offender or sinner.
Snapped asunder: Broken.
Withes and bands
Withes and bands: Strong ropes.
Friar: A preacher and teacher, as opposed to a priest, in the Catholic Church.
Confessing: Receiving confession from.
Fixed: Placed in the ground.
Recalls him: Asks him to come back.
Dost thou …?
Dost thou …?: Do you?
The beautiful Lady
The beautiful Lady: The Church.
Such I became, as people are who stand, Not comprehending what is answered them, As if bemocked, and know not how to answer.
Then said Virgilius: "Say to him straightway, 'I am not he, I am not he thou thinkest.'" And I replied as was imposed on me.
Whereat the spirit writhed with both his feet, Then, sighing, with a voice of lamentation Said to me: "Then what wantest thou of me?
If who I am thou carest so much to know, That thou on that account hast crossed the bank, Know that I vested was with the great mantle;
And truly was I son of the She-bear, So eager to advance the cubs, that wealth Above, and here myself, I pocketed.
Beneath my head the others are dragged down Who have preceded me in simony, Flattened along the fissure of the rock.
Below there I shall likewise fall, whenever That one shall come who I believed thou wast, What time the sudden question I proposed.
But longer I my feet already toast, And here have been in this way upside down, Than he will planted stay with reddened feet;
For after him shall come of fouler deed From tow'rds the west a Pastor without law, Such as befits to cover him and me.
New Jason will he be, of whom we read In Maccabees; and as his king was pliant, So he who governs France shall be to this one."
I do not know if I were here too bold, That him I answered only in this metre: "I pray thee tell me now how great a treasure
Our Lord demanded of Saint Peter first, Before he put the keys into his keeping? Truly he nothing asked but 'Follow me.'
Nor Peter nor the rest asked of Matthias Silver or gold, when he by lot was chosen Unto the place the guilty soul had lost.
As was imposed on me
As was imposed on me: In other words, "As I had been told to do."
Whereat: At that point.
Lamentation: Loud mourning.
I vested was with the great mantle
I vested was with the great mantle: In other words, "I was pope"; the mantle, a type of cloak or coat, is a symbol of authority.
Simony: The practice of buying and selling church offices.
Pliant: Easily manipulated or swayed.
Metre (or meter)
Metre (or meter): A line of poetry.
Superlative: Above all others.
Therefore stay here, for thou art justly punished, And keep safe guard o'er the ill-gotten money, Which caused thee to be valiant against Charles.
And were it not that still forbids it me The reverence for the keys superlative Thou hadst in keeping in the gladsome life,
I would make use of words more grievous still;
Because your avarice afflicts the world, Trampling the good and lifting the depraved.
The Evangelist you Pastors had in mind, When she who sitteth upon many waters To fornicate with kings by him was seen;
The same who with the seven heads was born, And power and strength from the ten horns received, So long as virtue to her spouse was pleasing.
Ye have made yourselves a god of gold and silver; And from the idolater how differ ye, Save that he one, and ye a hundred worship?
Ah, Constantine! of how much ill was mother, Not thy conversion, but that marriage dower Which the first wealthy Father took from thee!"
And while I sang to him such notes as these, Either that anger or that conscience stung him, He struggled violently with both his feet….
Afflicts: Causes suffering to.
Depraved: Wicked or sinful.
Idolater: Someone who worships a statue of a god.
Dower: Dowry, or the wealth a bride brings to a marriage.
What happened next …
Dante was not the only person angered by simony, or by the removal of the papal seat from Rome to Avignon. The Italian poet Petrarch (PEE-trark; 1304–1374), one of Dante's many admirers, called the Avignon papacy the "Babylonian Captivity," referring to the period in the Old Testament when the people of Israel were carried off to slavery in Babylon. Worse was to follow, as the Church became embroiled in the Great Schism (SKIZ-um; 1378–1417). During the Great Schism, there were not two but three rival popes: one in Rome, one in Avignon, and one in the Italian city of Pisa.
Infighting among Catholics weakened the Church, and made it vulnerable to the early stirrings of the Reformation (ref-ur-MAY-shun), an effort to reform the Christian religion. One of the most prominent leaders of the Reformation was the German preacher Martin Luther (1483–1546), who became outraged at a practice not unlike simony: the sale of indulgences, whereby popes and priests were charging believers money in exchange for forgiveness from God. Like Dante's work, the Reformation—which gained strength because of corruption in the Catholic Church—helped pave the way for massive changes in European life at the end of the Middle Ages and beginning of the Renaissance.
Did you know …
- The term simony refers to the magician Simon Magus, mentioned in the New Testament Book of Acts. Simon tried to pay the apostles Peter and John in order to gain the Holy Spirit's power to heal the sick and the lame, and Peter cursed him for behaving as though holy powers could be bought and sold.
- The nineteenth-century poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882)—who was actually born with the name Dante—modeled much of his work after that of Dante Alighieri.
- One of the most famous quotes from the Divine Comedy is the phrase that appeared on the gates of Hell, sometimes translated as "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here."
By writing primarily in Italian, Dante Alighieri—usually referred to simply as Dante—helped usher in an era of increased literary activity throughout Western Europe. After Dante, writers were much more likely to compose in their native languages, rather than in Latin. The latter had remained the language of educated men throughout the Middle Ages, despite the fact that there was no longer an active community of Latin-speakers. Thus it was a "dead language," and Dante's use of Italian brought a refreshing new energy to literature, which in turn helped lay the groundwork for the period of renewed interest in learning known as the Renaissance (RIN-uhsahnts; c. 1300–c. 1600).
Dante grew up in the city of Florence, which would become home to a number of influential writers and painters. After studying at several great universities, he became involved in complex political struggles that consumed Italy for many years. When in 1302 a rival group triumphed, he was exiled from (forced to leave) Florence with his wife Gemma Donati, who he had married in 1297. He would spend the remaining twenty-nine years of his life in a variety of cities throughout Italy.
In 1293, Dante had completed his first great work, La vita nuova (VEE-tuh NWOH-vuh; "New Life"), a collection of love poems to a woman he barely knew. This was Beatrice Portinari (1266–1290), whom Dante had first met at the age of eight. He had loved her from that time, though perhaps "admired" is a better word: Dante and Beatrice were never lovers, nor was Dante's affection for her that of a lover. Rather, he saw her as a sort of guiding spirit, an image of purity who inspired his work.
La vita nuova honored Beatrice after her death, and later she would figure in one of the world's greatest literary masterpieces: the Divine Comedy, which Dante began writing in 1308 and completed just before his death in 1321. He also wrote a number of other works, including poetry and nonfiction.
For More Information
Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. Translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1906.
Halliwell, Sarah, editor. The Renaissance: Artists and Writers. Austin, TX: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1998.
Dante Alighieri on the Web. [Online] Available http://www.geocities.com/Athens/9039/main.htm (last accessed July 28, 2000).
Digital Dante. [Online] Available http://www.ilt.columbia.edu/projects/dante/ (last accessed July 28, 2000).
The World of Dante. [Online] Available http://www.iath.virginia.edu/dante/ (last accessed July 28, 2000).
BORN: 1265, Florence, Italy
DIED: 1321, Ravenna, Italy
New Life (c. 1293)
The Divine Comedy (1307–1321)
Considered the finest poet that Italy has ever produced, Dante Alighieri is also celebrated as a major influence on western European culture. He wrote The Divine Comedy (La Divina Commedia, 1307–1321), the greatest poetic composition of the Christian Middle Ages and the first
masterpiece of world literature in a modern European language. Called “the Supreme Poet” in Italy, he forms, along with Petrarch and Boccaccio, one of “the three fountains,” so called because from them all later literature seemed to flow. His championing of using Italian instead of Latin in his writings has also led to his being called “the father of the Italian language.”
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Dante lived in a restless age of political conflict between popes and emperors and of strife within the Italian city-states. In particular, Florence was torn apart by strife between two warring political factions: the Guelphs, who were loyal to the pope, and the Ghibelines, who were loyal to the Holy Roman Emperor. Even within these factions, however, there were factions, and Dante's relationship with the various power brokers of Florence had a direct impact on his fortunes. Dante may be considered the greatest and last Italian medieval poet, although he paved the way for the great artistic and scientific flowering known as the Italian Renaissance, which would take root in Florence late in the fourteenth century.
Early Life in Florence Dante was born in Florence, the son of Bellincione d'Alighiero. His family descended, he tells us, from “the noble seed” of the Roman founders of Florence. His great-grandfather Cacciaguida had been knighted by Holy Roman Emperor Conrad III and died about 1147 while fighting in the Second Crusade.
Although his family was reduced to modest circumstances, Dante was able to live as a gentleman and to pursue his studies. It is probable that he attended the Franciscan school of Santa Croce and the Dominican school of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, where he gained the knowledge of the doctrine of St. Thomas Aquinas and of the mysticism that was to become the foundation of his philosophical culture. It is known from his own testimony that in order to perfect his literary style he also studied with Brunetto Latini, the Florentine poet and master of rhetoric. Perhaps encouraged by Brunetto in his pursuit of learning, Dante traveled to Bologna, where he probably attended the well-known schools of rhetoric.
Dante does not write of his family or marriage, but his father died before 1283, and soon afterward, in accordance with his father's previous arrangements, he married Gemma di Manetto Donati. They had several children, of whom two sons, Jacopo and Pietro, and a daughter, Antonia, are known.
Lyric Poetry Dante began early in life to compose poetry, an art he taught himself as a young man. Through his love lyrics he became known to other Florentine poets, and most important to him was his friendship with Guido Cavalcanti, which resulted from an exchange of sonnets.
Both Dante and Guido were concerned with the effects of love on the mind, particularly from a philosophical point of view. Only Dante, however, began gradually to develop the idea that love could become the means of spiritual perfection. While Guido was more interested in natural philosophy, Dante assiduously cultivated his knowledge of the Latin poets, particularly Virgil, whom he later called his guide and authority in the art of poetry.
The Love of Beatrice During his youth Dante had known a young, noble Florentine woman whose grace and beauty so impressed him that he immortalized her in his poetry as the idealized “Beatrice,” the “bringer of blessings,” who seemed “a creature come from heaven to earth, a miracle manifest in reality.” Dante's Beatrice is believed to have been Bice, the daughter of Folco Portinari, and later the wife of Simone dei Bardi. Dante had seen her for the first time when both were nine years old; he had named her in a ballad among the sixty fairest women of Florence. But it was only later that idealized “Beatrice” took on the role of Dante's muse, or inspiration, and became the guide of his thoughts and emotions.
When the young Beatrice died on June 8, 1290, Dante was overcome with grief but found consolation in thoughts of her glory in heaven. He was prompted to gather from among all his poems those that had been written in her honor or had some bearing on his love for her. This plan resulted in the small volume of poetry and
prose, the New Life (Vita nuova, c. 1293), one of the first important examples of Italian literary prose.
Political Intrigues Dante's literary interests did not isolate him from the events of his times. On the contrary, he was involved in the political life of Florence. In 1289 he had fought with the Florentine cavalry at the battle of Campaldino. In 1295 he joined the guild of physicians and pharmacists (membership in a guild being a precondition for holding public office in Florence). A year later he participated in a citizens' government known as the Council of the Hundred; and in 1300 he was elected to one of six offices of prior, or president, of the Florentine guilds.
As a prominent politician, Dante aligned himself with the “White” Guelphs. The Guelphs were the Florentine political faction that supported the pope, but the White Guelphs disagreed with some of the pope's policies. The “Black” Guelphs remained uncritically supportive of the pope. In October 1301 Dante was sent in a delegation from Florence to Pope Boniface VIII, and during his absence the Blacks gained control of Florence. In the resulting banishment of the Whites, Dante was sentenced to exile. Despite various attempts to regain admission to Florence, he was never to enter his native city again.
Exile In exile, Dante traveled from city to city, biding his time and hoping outside forces would change the political climate in Florence so that he might return. His hopes were raised when Emperor Henry VII's forces descended into Italy in 1310 to restore justice and order among the cities and to reunite church and state. When Henry VII, whose efforts proved fruitless, died in Siena in 1313, Dante lost every hope of restoring himself to an honorable position in Florence. His Latin treatise De monarchia, is a statement of Dante's political theories and as a practical guide toward the restoration of peace in Europe under a temporal monarch in Rome. This work was probably written around the time of Henry VII's military efforts in Italy, and was written in anticipation of or in response to the campaign.
In 1315 Dante twice refused pardons offered him by the citizens of Florence under humiliating conditions. He and his children were consequently condemned to death as rebels. He spent his last years in Tuscany, in Verona, and finally in Ravenna. There, under the patronage of Guido da Polenta and joined by his children and possibly also by his wife, Dante was greatly esteemed and spent a happy and peaceful period at work on his masterpiece, The Divine Comedy. This brought together all of the literary and philosophical influences of Dante's life. Dante's goal in the work, he revealed, was “to remove those living in this life from the state of misery and lead them to the state of felicity.” He achieved his goal: the work was an immediate sensation, and its perceived value and importance has grown with each passing generation. Dante died on September 13 or 14, 1321, still in exile, but in 1373, more than half a century after Dante's death in exile, the city of Florence honored its native poet by appointing Giovanni Boccaccio, the eminent writer and scholar, to deliver a series of public lectures on The Divine Comedy.
Works in Literary Context
Dante's work can be seen as the climax of the late medieval period in Europe. Dante's masterpiece was also an historic triumph for the Italian language, which, owing to the undisputed primacy of Latin as the idiom of medieval science and literature, was considered vulgar. Despite Dante's universality and cosmic view of life, there is something quintessentially Italian about The Divine Comedy. Probing the expressive resources and expanding the horizons of the Italian language, the poet created what is widely considered the foundation of Italian literature and a point of reference for scores of later writers, including Geoffrey Chaucer, Lord Tennyson, T.S. Eliot, and Jorge Luis Borges.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Dante's famous contemporaries include:
Petrarch (1304–1374): Often called the father of Italian humanism, Francesco Petrarca (or Petrarch, as he is known in English) was the first to seriously advocate the use of Italian in works of literature and was largely responsible for popularizing the sonnet.
Giotto di Bondone (1267–1337): A painter and architect from Florence, Giotto is usually credited with being the first artist to break away from the artistic traditions of the Middle Ages, thus setting in motion that which would eventually mature into the artistic Italian Renaissance.
Pope Boniface VIII (1235–1303): Patron of Giotto, Boniface is mentioned in both The Decameron and La Divina Commedia; in neither case in a flattering light due to his political activities. Dante goes so far as to imagine meeting Boniface in Hell, condemned for practicing simony, or the selling of holy offices.
The Spiritual Journey The literal narrative of the work involves Dante's journey through Hell and Purgatory on his way to Paradise. Thus, The Divine Comedy is part of a long tradition of stories about journeys through temptations and “evil” toward ultimate redemption. The ancient Greek epic the Odyssey by Homer and Virgil's epic The Aeneid (directly influenced by Homer's work) are both pre-Chrisian tales of spiritual journeys. Christian writers have used the idea of the spiritual journey to describe the path of mankind in a state of sin moving away from
temptation and toward salvation. St. Augustine' Confessions is an example of a personal narrative about a spiritual journey to salvation. Numerous works of fiction follow the pattern of the spiritual journey, too, including Joseph Conrad's 1899 novel Heart of Darkness, Somerset Maugham's 1944 novel The Razor's Edge, and Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian's 2000 novel Soul Mountain.
Allegory Dante constructs an allegory of a double journey: his experience in the supernatural world points to the journey of all humankind through earthly life. An allegory is a mode of literature in which the elements of a story are meant to be read figuratively, as symbols. In The Divine Comedy, for example, the poet finds himself in a dark wood (a symbol of sin); he tries to escape by climbing a mountain illuminated by the sun (symbolizing God). Impeded by the sudden appearance of three beasts, which symbolize the major divisions of sin in the Inferno, he is about to be driven back when Virgil (representing human reason) appears, sent to Dante's aid by Beatrice. Virgil becomes Dante's guide through Hell, in a descent which is the first stage in his ascent to God in humility.
The most famous examples of ancient, pre-Christian allegories include Plato's famous “Allegory of the Cave” and Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy (c. 524 c.e.), which Dante studied. Another Christian writer famous for his use of allegory was John Bunyan, author of A Pilgrim's Progress (1678), which was distinctly Protestant in its outlook and was read widely by the Puritan settlers of North America. American author Nathaniel Haw-thorne also made frequent use of allegory, especially in short stories such as “Young Goodman Brown.” More recent examples of allegorical fiction include William Golding's The Lord of the Flies (1954) and J.M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians (1980).
Works in Critical Context
Dante is known primarily for his masterwork The Divine Comedy, which has earned almost universal acclaim since its publication.
The Divine Comedy Victor Hugo summed up the nineteenth-century romantic view of The Divine Comedy thus: “Dante has constructed within his own mind the bottomless pit. He has made the epic of the spectres. He rends the earth; in the terrible hole he has made, he puts Satan. Then he pushes the world through Purgatory up to Heaven. Where all else ends, Dante begins. Dante is beyond man.” The general enthusiasm of the Romantic era for The Divine Comedy—also evidenced by tributes from such philosophers as Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling and Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel—secured Dante's preeminent position in world literature. Throughout the nineteenth century, The Divine Comedy—especially the Inferno—became the subject of extensive and detailed literary, historical, philological, theological, and philosophical analysis.
The eminent twentieth-century poet and essayist Jorge Luis Borges has recognized the relevance of The Divine Comedy for modern readers, asserting that it “is a book that everyone ought to read. Not to do so is to deprive oneself of the greatest gift that literature can give us; to submit to a strange asceticism.”
Dante's Other Works The monumental success of The Divine Comedy has all but overshadowed Dante's other works, which were also highly influential in his day. These include a collection of early canzoni published in New Life. Critics have praised these lyrics for their stil nuovo, or “new style,” a refreshing and innovative approach to love poetry that equates the love experience with a mystical spiritual revelation.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
The Decameron (c. 1353), a collection of stories by Giovanni Boccaccio. A medieval allegory of one hundred short tales told as the Black Death ravages the country-side, the bawdy tales of love's rising and falling fortunes satirizes Dante's literary style.
Canterbury Tales (c. 1380s), a collection of stories by Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer is often compared to Dante, for he too chose to write in the vernacular, in his case English. Borrowing the frame structure of The Decameron, Chaucer's unfinished masterpiece presents a series of tales told along a pilgrimage route to Canterbury Cathedral.
The Song of Hiawatha (1855), a poem by Henry Wads-worth Longfellow. This epic poem is written in the form of an ancient Finnish saga.
Responses to Literature
- In addition to his epic poetry, Dante wrote many sonnets as well. The Italian sonnet is one of the most popular and enduring forms of poetry. Research the properties of the Italian sonnet and write one of your own. The traditional subject is about love, but you can write about anything that interests you!
- In The Divine Comedy Dante is led by the ancient Roman poet Virgil. What were some of the circumstances in Dante's life and the times he lived in that led him to use a pagan instead of a Christian guide in his narrative?
- What were Dante's views of religion when he wrote The Divine Comedy? How did he feel about the papacy? Why did he meet some popes in Hell? What was the state of the Church during Dante's lifetime?
- Dante's view of the afterlife is certainly one of the more gripping and imaginative interpretations. Research other views of the afterlife held by other Christian writers over the centuries. How are their views different? How are they the same?
The Divine Comedy. Translated by Charles S. Singleton. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975.
The Divine Comedy. Translated by James Finn Cotter. Stony Brook, N.Y.: Forum Italicum, 1987.
Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism. Volume 3. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 1989.
Limentani, U., editor. The Mind of Dante. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965.
The Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) wrote "The Divine Comedy," the greatest poetic composition of the Christian Middle Ages and the first masterpiece of world literature written in a modern European vernacular.
Dante lived in a restless age of political conflict between popes and emperors and of strife within the Italian city-states, particularly Florence, which was torn between rival factions. Spiritually and culturally too, there were signs of change. With the diffusion of Aristotle's physical and metaphysical works, there came the need for harmonizing his philosophy with the truth of Christianity, and Dante's mind was attracted to philosophical speculation. In Italy, Giotto, who had freed himself from the Byzantine tradition, was reshaping the art of painting, while the Tuscan poets were beginning to experiment with new forms of expression. Dante may be considered the greatest and last medieval poet, at least in Italy, where barely a generation later the first humanists were to spring up.
Dante was born in Florence, the son of Bellincione d'Alighiero. His family descended, he tells us, from "the noble seed" of the Roman founders of Florence and was noble also by virtue of honors bestowed on it later. His great-grandfather Cacciaguida had been knighted by Emperor Conrad III and died about 1147 while fighting in the Second Crusade. As was usual for the minor nobility, Dante's family was Guelph, in opposition to the Ghibelline party of the feudal nobility which strove to dominate the communes under the protection of the emperor.
Although his family was reduced to modest circumstances, Dante was able to live as a gentleman and to pursue his studies. It is probable that he attended the Franciscan school of Sta Croce and the Dominican school of S. Maria Novella in Florence, where he gained the knowledge of Thomistic doctrine and of the mysticism that was to become the foundation of his philosophical culture. It is known from his own testimony that in order to perfect his literary style he also studied with Brunetto Latini, the Florentine poet and master of rhetoric. Perhaps encouraged by Brunetto in his pursuit of learning, Dante traveled to Bologna, where he probably attended the well-known schools of rhetoric.
A famous portrait of the young Dante done by Giotto hangs in the Palazzo del Podestà in Florence. We also have the following description of him left us by the author Giovanni Boccaccio: "Our poet was of medium height, and his face was long and his nose aquiline and his jaws were big, and his lower lip stood out in such a way that it somewhat protruded beyond the upper one; his shoulders were somewhat curved, and his eyes large rather than small and of brown color, and his hair and beard were curled and black, and he was always melancholy and pensive."
Dante does not write of his family or marriage, but before 1283 his father died, and soon afterward, in accordance with his father's previous arrangements, he married the gentlewoman Gemma di Manetto Donati. They had several children, of whom two sons, Jacopo and Pietro, and a daughter, Antonia, are known.
Dante began early in life to compose poetry, an art, he tells us, which he taught himself as a young man (Vita nuova, III, 9). Through his love lyrics he became known to other poets of Florence, and most important to him was his friendship with Guido Cavalcanti, which resulted from an exchange of sonnets.
Both Dante and Guido were concerned with the effects of love on the mind, particularly from a philosophical point of view; only Dante, however, began gradually to develop the idea that love could become the means of spiritual perfection. And while Guido was more interested in natural philosophy, Dante assiduously cultivated his knowledge of the Latin poets, particularly Virgil, whom he later called his guide and authority in the art of poetry.
During his youth Dante had known a young and noble Florentine woman whose grace and beauty so impressed him that in his poetry she became the idealized Beatrice, the "bringer of blessings," who seemed "a creature come from heaven to earth, A miracle manifest in reality" (Vita nuova, XXVI). She is believed to have been Bice, the daughter of Folco Portinari, and later the wife of Simone dei Bardi. Dante had seen her for the first time when both were in their ninth year; he had named her in a ballad among the 60 fairest women of Florence. But it was only later that Beatrice became the guide of his thoughts and emotions "toward that ideal perfection which is the goal of every noble mind," and the praise of her virtue and grace became the subject of his poetry.
When the young Beatrice died on June 8, 1290, Dante was overcome with grief but found consolation in thoughts of her glory in heaven. Although another woman succeeded briefly in winning Dante's love through her compassion, the memory of Beatrice soon aroused in him feelings of remorse and renewed his fidelity to her. He was prompted to gather from among all his poems those which had been written in her honor or had some bearing on his love for her. This plan resulted in the small volume of poetry and prose, the Vita nuova (New Life), in which he copied from his "book of memory" only those past experiences belonging to his "new life"—a life made new through Beatrice. It follows Dante's own youthful life through three movements or stages in love, in which Beatrice's religious and spiritual significance becomes increasingly clear. At the same time it traces his poetic development from an early phase reminiscent of the Cavalcantian manner to a foreshadowing of The Divine Comedy. In the last prose chapter, which tells of a "miraculous vision," the poet speaks of the major work that he intends to write and the important role Beatrice will have in it: "If it be the wish of Him in whom all things flourish that my life continue for a few years, I hope to write of her that which has never been written of any other lady."
The Vita nuova, written between 1292 and 1294, is one of the first important examples of Italian literary prose. Its 31 poems, most of them sonnets symmetrically grouped around three canzoni, are only a small selection of Dante's lyric production. He wrote many other lyrics inspired by Beatrice which are not included in the Vita nuova; in addition there are verses written to other women and poems composed at different times in his life, representing a variety of forms and stylistic experiences.
Dante's literary interests did not isolate him from the events of his times. On the contrary, he was involved in the political life of Florence and deeply concerned about the state of Europe as a whole. In 1289 he had fought with the Florentine cavalry at the battle of Campaldino. In 1295 he inscribed himself in the guild of physicians and pharmacists (membership in a guild being a precondition for holding public office in Florence). He became a member of the people's council and served in various other capacities. For 2 months in 1300 he was one of the six priors of Florence, and in 1301 he was a member of the Council of the One Hundred.
In October 1301 Dante was sent in a delegation from the commune to Pope Boniface VIII, whose policies he openly opposed as constituting a threat to Florentine independence. During his absence the Blacks (one of the two opposing factions within the Guelph party) gained control of Florence. In the resulting banishment of the Whites, Dante was sentenced to exile in absentia (January 1302). Despite various attempts to regain admission to Florence—at first in an alliance of other exiles whose company he soon abandoned and later through his writing—he was never to enter his native city again.
Dante led the life of an exile, taking refuge first with Bartolommeo della Scala in Verona, and after a time of travel—to Bologna, through northern Italy, possibly also to Paris between 1307 and 1309—with Can Grande della Scala in Verona (1314). During this time his highest hopes were placed in Emperor Henry VII, who descended into Italy in 1310 to restore justice and order among the cities and to reunite church and state. When Henry VII, whose efforts proved fruitless, died in Siena in 1313, Dante lost every hope of restoring himself to an honorable position in Florence.
During these years of wandering Dante's studies were not interrupted. Indeed, he had hoped that in acquiring fame as a poet and philosopher he might also regain the favor of his fellow citizens. His study of Boethius and Cicero in Florence had already widened his philosophical horizons. After 1290 he had turned to the study of philosophy with such fervor that "in a short time, perhaps 30 months" he had begun "to be so keenly aware of her sweetness that the love of her drove away and destroyed every other thought." He read so much, it seems, that his eyes were weakened.
Two uncompleted treatises, De vulgari eloquentia (1303-1304) and the Convivio (1304-1307), belong to the early period of exile. At the same time, about 1306, he probably began to compose The Divine Comedy.
In De vulgari eloquentia, a theoretical treatise in Latin on the Italian vernacular, Dante intended to treat of all aspects of the spoken language, from the highest poetic expression to the most humble familiar speech. The first book is devoted to a discussion of dialects and the principles of poetic composition in the vulgar tongue; the second book treats specifically of the "illustrious" vulgar tongue used by certain excellent poets and declares that this noble form of expression is suitable only for the most elevated subjects, such as love, virtue, and war, and must be used in the form of the canzone.
The Convivio was intended to consist of 15 chapters: an introduction and 14 canzoni, with prose commentaries in Italian; but only 4 chapters were completed. The canzoni, which are the "meat" of the philosophical banquet while the prose commentaries are the "bread," appear to be written to a beautiful woman. But the prose commentaries interpret these poems as an allegorical exaltation of philosophy, inspired by the love of wisdom. Dante wished to glorify philosophy as the "mistress of his mind" and to treat subjects of moral philosophy, such as love and virtue. The Convivio is in a sense a connecting link between the Vita nuova and The Divine Comedy. Thus in the latter work reason in the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom becomes man's sole guide on earth, except for the intervention of Divine Grace, in his striving for virtue and God. In the Convivio Dante also defends the use of the vernacular as a suitable medium for ethical and scientific subjects, as well as amorous ones.
The Latin treatise De monarchia, of uncertain date but possibly attributable to the time of Henry VII's descent into Italy (1310-1313), is a statement of Dante's political theories. At the same time it is intended as a practical guide toward the restoration of peace in Europe under a temporal monarch in Rome, whose authority proceeds directly from God.
During his exile Dante also wrote various Latin epistles and letters of political nature to Italian prices and cardinals. Belonging to a late period are two Latin eclogues and the scientific essay Quaestio de aqua et terra (1320). Il fiore, a long sonnet sequence, is of doubtful attribution.
In 1315 Dante twice refused pardons offered him by the citizens of Florence under humiliating conditions. He and his children were consequently condemned to death as rebels. He spent his last years in Tuscany, in Verona, and finally in Ravenna. There, under the patronage of Guido da Polenta and joined by his children (possibly also his wife), Dante was greatly esteemed and spent a happy and peaceful period until his death on Sept. 13 or 14, 1321.
The Divine Comedy
The original title of Dante's masterpiece, which he completed shortly before his death, was Commedia; the epithet Divina was added by posterity. The purpose of this work, as Dante writes in his letter to Can Grande, is "to remove those living in this life from the state of misery and lead them to the state of felicity." The Commedia is divided into three parts: Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Heaven). The second and third sections contain 33 cantos apiece; the Inferno has 34, since its opening canto is an introduction to the entire work. The measure throughout the poem is terza rima, consisting of lines in sets of 3, rhyming aba, bcb, cdc, and so on.
The main action of the literal narrative centers on Dante's journey to God through the agency of Beatrice; the moral or allegorical meaning that Dante wishes the reader to keep in mind is that God will do for everyman what he has done for one man, if everyman is willing to make this journey. Dante constructs an allegory of a double journey: his experience in the supernatural world points to the journey of everyman through this life. The poet finds himself in a dark wood (sin); he tries to escape by climbing a mountain illuminated by the sun (God). Impeded by the sudden appearance of three beasts, which symbolize the major divisions of sin in the Inferno, he is about to be driven back when Virgil (human reason) appears, sent to his aid by Beatrice. Virgil becomes Dante's guide through Hell, in a descent which is the first stage in his ascent to God in humility. The pilgrim learns all there is to know about sin and confronts the very foundation of sin, which is pride, personified in Lucifer frozen at the very center of the universe. Only now is he spiritually prepared to begin his ascent through the realm of purification.
The mountain of the Purgatorio is a place of repentance, regeneration, and conversion. The penitents endure severe punishments, but all are pilgrims directed to God, in an atmosphere of love, hope, and an eager willingness in suffering. On the mountain's summit Beatrice (divine revelation) comes to take Virgil's place as Dante's guide—for the final ascent to God, human reason is insufficient.
The Paradiso depicts souls contemplating God; they are in a state of perfect happiness in the knowledge of His divine truths. The dominant image in this realm is light. God is light, and the pilgrim's goal from the start was to reach the light. His spiritual growth toward the attainment of this end is the main theme of the entire poem.
For an understanding of how little scholars know of Dante's life, see Michele Barbi, Life of Dante, edited and translated by Paul Ruggiers (1954). Recommended as important guides to the study of Dante are Charles A. Dinsmore, Aids to the Study of Dante (1903); Umberto Cosmo, A Handbook to Dante Studies (trans. 1947); and Thornes G. Bergin, Dante (1965). A variety of critical approaches to Dante are offered in Bernard Stambler, Dante's Other World: The Purgatorio as Guide to the Divine Comedy (1957); Charles S. Singleton, Dante Studies I and II (1958); Irma Brandeis, The Ladder of Vision: A Study of Dante's Comedy (1960); Mark Musa, Essays on Dante (1964); Jefferson B. Fletcher, Dante (1965); and Francis Fergusson, Dante (1966). □
Politics and Poetry.
While The Romance of the Rose, the most influential poem written in French in the thirteenth century, had combined elements of courtly love, allegory, and philosophy, the Italian poet Dante Alighieri chose an even more daring strategy to write, in Italian, the first truly epic poem since Vergil's Aeneid. Born in the city-state of Florence in 1265, Dante brought to his poetry the near photographic recall of an intensely political life and the love of his native language, while also having a vision of heaven, earth, and hell that surpassed all previous efforts at encompassing the vast range of human experience. A member of the Guelph party, which supported the power of the papacy against the Ghibbelines, who took the side of the Holy Roman Emperor, Dante attempted a career in politics, which was aborted when his own party split into two groups and the power fell into the hands of the opposing faction, who sentenced him to death. He lived in exile from his beloved Florence for the rest of his life, a circumstance that intensified his sense of the contrast between happiness and deprivation, and allowed him to make literary use of the characters and events of recent history from which he was forcibly distanced. As a man who so intensely defined himself as a Florentine, in an age distinguished by a new sense of civic identity and participation, Dante is significant for employing the vernacular, rather than Latin (the official language of learning), in his most important writings. In fact, he produced a manifesto advocating the use of vernacular dialects or the "vulgar" tongue to produce serious literature. This treatise, De Vulgari Eloquentia (On Eloquence in the Vernacular), is itself expressed in Latin, not Italian. Dante distinguished between natural language, locutio prima, that children learn at their mother's breast, and a second artificial language, locutio grammatica, that they learn at school. Latin should be used only in technical works, such as the De Vulgari, while the first nobler, more natural language should be used to create art.
A Poetic Autobiography.
Dante was a disciple of the poet Brunetto Latini, and with Latini, Guido Cavalcanti, and other poets early in his career he practiced the dolce stil nuovo ("sweet new style"), the expression of courtly love poetry (influenced by the troubadours) in various Italian dialects. Culminating Dante's early attempts to be a lyric poet was his creation of the Vita Nuova (New Life; 1292–1295), a 42-chapter collection of these early love poems, which are linked with a prose framework written in Italian, commenting on the poems themselves as well as generally about how to write and interpret poetry. This poetic autobiography, which attests Dante's fidelity to the ideals of the dolce stil nuovo, especially to the acceptance of the power of Love as an external force, also chronicles Dante's love for a young Florentine woman, which produced in him a spiritual renewal (hence the title). Although Dante was married to Gemma di Manetto Donati, with whom he had several children, the woman in the poem is Bice di Folco Portinari, whom he refers to in his poetry as Beatrice or Bea-Trice, a symbolic name meaning "triple blessed." Beatrice served as an artistic muse and spiritual inspiration to him throughout his writing career. Beginning with Dante's initial encounter with nine-year-old Beatrice and their second encounter nine years later, when she becomes a subject of his love poetry, Dante recounts his prophetic visions about her early death and her ascent to heaven. Upon her actual death in 1290, Dante abandoned writing secular love poetry, for in his perception Beatrice had now gone beyond incarnating earthly love and had become a vehicle of God's larger plan. In The Divine Comedy, Beatrice is nearly apotheosized. She not only guides Dante through Paradise towards the Godhead, but also takes her place near the Virgin Mary as a "petal" in the highly allegorical "Celestial Rose," Dante's metaphor for the most sublime reaches of Heaven.
Dante 's Divine Numbers.
Written over the span of 1314 to 1321, The Divine Comedy is a tripartite visionary pilgrimage to hell, purgatory, and heaven, a medieval masterpiece that is considered one of the greatest literary achievements of all time. The poem is a highly structured work revealing Dante's reliance on number symbolism, a favorite device of many medieval authors, including the poet who wrote the romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the dream vision Pearl, who made repeated use of the numbers three, five, and twelve. The entire Comedy is comprised of three major parts: Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Heaven). Each of the three parts, reflecting the sacred number associated with the Christian Trinity, is in turn divided into 33 cantos with one introductory canto in Inferno adding up to the sacred and mathematically perfect number of 100 cantos (songs) in all. At the beginning of the poem, after realizing he is lost in a dark allegorical wood of error, Dante envisions (significantly) three symbolic beasts—a leopard (lust), a lion (pride), and a she-wolf (greed/avarice)—that paralyze him with fear and prevent him from making further progress toward the hill of salvation, until another figure appears to prod the pilgrim into action. Even the verse form Dante invented for the Comedy, terza rima ("triple rhyme"), reflects his employment of the Trinitarian pattern to organize and unify the vast literary work in which his muse, triple-blessed Beatrice, leads him to the Beatific Vision at the end of the third part.
The Spiritual Journey of the Self.
Although the Comedy is in many ways a very personal poem, its framework ensures that Beatrice and Dante's other guide, whom he calls Virgil (spelled in Italian as "Virgilio" rather than as the Latin "Vergil"), does not lead only Dante to his goal. While on one level Dante's mind-boggling experience constitutes his own spiritual autobiography, he is careful to include the reader as a participant on the journey he takes to Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. In the famous opening lines of the poem, Dante admits, "When I had journeyed half of our life's way, I found myself inside a dark wood, for I had lost the path that does not stray." With his significant use of the plural possessive pronoun "our," Dante ensures that his experience will have universal applications. Similar to the trip to the Underworld taken by Vergil's Aeneas or St. Paul's ascent to Heaven in the New Testament (he later compares himself to both figures), Dante's allegorical journey begun in Inferno's first canto builds on a literary tradition of journeys that will later appear in the works of other great poets of the period, including Geoffrey Chaucer and William Langland. Dante's choice of Vergil, author of the Aeneid, as his guide in the first part of the poem is hardly random. Significantly, Vergil was the greatest Latin authority for medieval arts and letters, and his epic was also a narrative about the arduous journey of its protagonist Aeneas, the eventual founder of the Roman Empire.
Sin and Retribution.
The funnel-shaped landscape of Hell through which the character Virgil leads Dante is organized by various sins—not the traditional Seven Deadly Sins, but Dante's own personal ranking of sins that adversely affect mankind not only in the personal sphere of life, but in the public realm of the economic and political operation of the polis ("city"). Dante has the various sins and subdivisions of them represented by an assortment of figures that include historical personages, literary characters, mythological figures, and his own local Italian contemporaries, many of whom are now obscure to the modern reader. Dante observes how these sinners are punished for eternity. The principle behind the assignment of the specific punishments is known as contrapasso ("opposition"), in which the punishment suits the sin by being its ironic opposite. For example, the gluttons, who ate excessively in life, are punished by being pelted by hurricanes of excrement, the byproduct of their own overeating, raining down upon them for eternity.
The Circle of the Lustful.
In each circle Dante observes the sinners from afar, and then, in the most moving encounters, he actually converses with those being punished. For example, in Inferno's Canto 5, devoted to the circle of the lustful, Dante is powerfully affected by the punishment of a pair of near contemporaries, Paolo and Francesca, who, for succumbing to the "storms" of passion that drove them to commit adultery and cuckold her husband (who was also Paolo's brother), are forever within each other's sight, but swept from each other's touch by gale-force winds that fling them airborne. Francesca explains to Dante that what first sexually attracted them, impelling them to commit adultery, was their shared reading of a romance about the adultery of the Arthurian characters Lancelot and Guinevere. The reading led to kissing and beyond, and her husband, catching them, killed both. Dante has a violent reaction to Francesca's characterization of an Arthurian romance as their "go-between" or pimp; he falls into a swoon. Whether Dante's swoon was provoked by his pity for their fate or stemmed from his own stricken culpability as a writer who produced erotic poetry in his earlier career is a matter of interpretation.
Treachery, the Bottom of Hell.
Dante and Virgil continue through the circles of Hell, encountering representatives of the sins of gluttony, avarice, wrath, heresy, violence against others (tyrants and murderers), against the self (suicides), and against God (blasphemers, homosexuals, usurers), and fraud in many permutations. The worst sin, and the one punished in the deepest pocket of Hell, is treachery, whose various degrees culminate finally in a monstrous three-headed Lucifer, who betrayed God his creator. Lucifer is seen grinding an anti-Trinity of other traitors in his triple jaws: Judas, Brutus, and Cassius, who respectively betrayed Christ and Julius Caesar, representing Church and Empire. Closing Inferno with more "threes," Dante here underscores his significant use of number symbolism in the Comedy. Climbing out of Hell, he and Virgil spiral their way up Mount Purgatory, now encountering another varied group of sinners expiating the traditional Seven Deadly Sins (pride, envy, wrath, sloth, avarice, gluttony, lust) with punishments again assigned on the principle of contrapasso.
Reunion with Beatrice.
Virgil, technically a pagan, is capable only of guiding Dante through the bolgias ("pockets") of Hell and up the circular mountain of Purgatory to its pinnacle, the Earthly Paradise. Here he must yield his charge to an even higher authority, Dante's long-lost Beatrice, who leads the pilgrim through the spheres of the planets, to the fixed stars, through the Empyrean to the heights of Paradise, where he has a vision of Beatrice joining the Virgin Mary and other saints in the Celestial Rose, a symbol that had been exploited in a secular way by the authors of the Romance of the Rose. In the last moments of Paradiso, Dante experiences the light and love of God. In trying to convey his utter incapacity to render his vision into language commensurate with its significance, the great wordsmith compares himself to an infant babbling while suckling at his mother's breast. The poem, which started on a faltering note of moral paralysis, thus ends triumphantly with Dante restored to the primal innocence of a baby. In this way Dante's poem is justifiably called the Comedy, a title that, for his medieval audience, indicated its genre. As explained in the Letter to Can Grande, duke of Verona, traditionally believed to have been written by Dante himself, a "comedy" is a work with a fortuitous ending and is the opposite of a "tragedy," a story that ends badly for the protagonist. In those terms, Dante's poem is the greatest of all comedies because the plot concludes ultimately with the protagonist experiencing a vision of God in Heaven.
Robert Hollander, Allegory in Dante's Divine Comedy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1969).
Rachel Jacoff, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Dante (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
Giuseppe Mazzotta, Dante's Vision and the Circle of Knowledge (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993).
Mark Musa, Advent at the Gates; Dante's Divine Comedy (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1974).
Charles S. Singleton, An Essay on the Vita Nuova (Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977).
DANTE ALIGHIERI (1265–1321), Italian poet, theologian, and philosopher. Dante offered in his Commedia a "sacred poem" of enormous erudition and aesthetic power, which more than any other work of Christian literature merits the appellation conferred on it by a mid-sixteenth-century edition: "divine." After producing the Vita nuova in 1295, Dante entered the volatile world of Florentine politics, which, however unjustly, subsequently led to his banishment from the city in 1302. In exile for the remainder of his life, he wrote the Convivio, the De vulgari eloquentia, and the De monarchia in the following decade, works that together reveal a commonality of themes: an admiration for the Latin classics, a dedication to the study of philosophy, and a commitment to the revival of the Roman imperial ideal. These concerns are all transfigured in the long and elaborate course of the Commedia (Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso ), which represents an encyclopedic synthesis of late medieval thought subsumed within an overarching theological vision. The poem is at once profoundly traditional in its religious ordering of human experience and an innovation of substance and form that suggests an utterly new mentality at work. It can be seen both as an attempt to exorcise what would shortly become the spirit of the Renaissance and yet also as a brilliant precursor of it.
Dante came of age in Florence at a time when the papacy was embroiled with the Holy Roman Empire over temporal jurisdiction in Italy. Widespread corruption in the church, as well as within the powerful mendicant orders of the Franciscans and the Dominicans, seemed to give rise to many individualistic and charismatic expressions of piety that, while passionately Catholic, nonetheless found themselves alienated from the established religious institutions and hierarchies. It is in this context that a devout layman like Dante, discovering himself a mere "party of one," could dare to arrogate to himself the quasi-biblical role of prophet. He became a voice crying in the wilderness, instructing the powers of church and state in their true responsibilities at the same time that he was attempting to woo the ordinary reader (in a daring use of the vernacular for so ambitious a poetic work) into a full conversion of the heart.
Whatever the poet's personal upbringing may have given him, it is known that he studied for an extended period "in the schools of the religious orders and at the disputations of the philosophers" (Convivio 2.12). At Santa Croce he would have been exposed to the wealth of Franciscan piety, while at Santa Maria Novella the Dominican Remigio de' Girolami expounded the theology of Thomas Aquinas with special regard for the Aristotelian philosophy that subtends it. In such an intellectual atmosphere Dante found validated what was to be one of the most impressive characteristics of his own work: the massive appropriation of pagan and classical writers for Christian reflection and use.
In assessing Dante's relation to medieval theology and religious thought it is commonplace to emphasize the formative influence of "the Philosopher" (Aristotle) and the "Angelic Doctor" (Thomas); that is, to stress his strong debt to Scholasticism. It must be remembered, however, that the poet everywhere shows himself to be an independent and eclectic thinker, whose imaginative meditation on the Christian faith leads him far and wide: to the systematics of Peter Lombard, the Platonism of Bonaventure, the mysticism of Bernard of Clairvaux and the Victorines, the biblical exegesis (as well as the retrospective confessional mode) of Augustine. Thus, while we may well speak of Dante as standing at the crossroads of medieval religious thought, the intersection is one that he personally constructed rather than discovered readymade. The synthesis of the Commedia is idiosyncratically his own.
As a propagator of the Christian religion Dante must, of course, be assessed by the achievement of his great poem, with its account of the state of the soul after death portrayed in the course of a journey undertaken by the poet himself (lasting from Good Friday 1300 to the Wednesday of Easter Week) through the realms of damnation, purgation, and beatitude. Granted this extraordinary experience through the intercession of his deceased love, Beatrice, the pilgrim-poet is led step by step through a process of conversion by a series of guides and mediators: the pagan poet Vergil, Beatrice herself, and the churchman-mystic-crusader Bernard. But in its larger aspect, the poem is itself an invitation to conversion: to the individual reader, to rediscover the Gospels' "true way"; to the church, to recover its spiritual mission; and to the state, to exercise its divinely ordained mandate to foster temporal well-being.
There are other transformations as well. Hell is portrayed not as a place of arbitrary horror, but as the eternal living out of the soul's self-choice, whereby punishments not only fit but express the crimes of sin. Dante also brings Purgatory aboveground and into the sun, turning the traditional place of torturous penance into more of a hospital or school than a prison house. No less striking is the presentation of Beatrice, at once the earthly lover praised in the youthful pages of the Vita nuova and the Christ-event for Dante: a woman in whom we see human eros accorded an unprecedented place in the scheme of human salvation. But perhaps most significant of all—and most singularly responsible for the Commedia 's immense and enduring popularity—is Dante's superb representation of the self: ineradicable even in death; more vivid than the theological context in which it is eternally envisioned; more subtly and realistically portrayed than in any other work of medieval literature. The poem's itinerary leads us along the paths of theology to a vision of God, but its hundred cantos offer an investigation of human nature and culture that grounds the reader's attention in the complex realities of earth.
The quantity of secondary material on Dante written in English alone is staggering. Carole Slade's extensive and somewhat annotated bibliography in Approaches to Teaching Dante's Divine Comedy (New York, 1982) gives a fine sense of the whole range. Among those works that deal sensitively with Dante's relation to Christian belief and tradition, one needs to accord special tribute to the critical oeuvre of Charles S. Singleton, who has exerted a powerful influence on American studies of Dante by underscoring the importance of the poem's theological assumptions. In addition to Singleton's translation and commentary (Princeton, 1970–1975), there are his earlier works: An Essay on the Vita Nuova (Cambridge, U.K. 1949), Dante Studies 1: Commedia, Elements of Structure, 2d ed. (Baltimore, 1977), and Dante Studies 2: Journey to Beatrice, 2d ed. (Baltimore, 1977). Charles Williams's The Figure of Beatrice (London, 1958) gives a coherent theological reading of all of Dante's works, whose point of view informs not only Dorothy Sayers's commentary and notes (Harmondsworth, 1951–1967) but her Introductory Papers on Dante (New York, 1954) and Further Papers on Dante (New York, 1957). There are also brilliant insights into the religious ethos of the Commedia in Erich Auerbach's Dante: Poet of the Secular World (Chicago, 1961) as well as in an important chapter of his Mimesis (Princeton, 1953). Robert Hollander's Allegory in Dante's Commedia (Princeton, 1969) and Studies in Dante (Ravenna, 1980) deal masterfully with the poet's claim to write an "allegory of the theologians" (and therefore in the manner of scripture itself). John Freccero's many brilliant essays on the Commedia, collected under the title The Poetry of Conversion (Cambridge, Mass., 1986), stress the poet's debt to Augustine's Confessions and the Christian Neoplatonic tradition. The latter connection is explored in Joseph Anthony Mazzeo's Structure and Thought in the Paradiso (Ithaca, N.Y., 1958). Finally, William Anderson's Dante the Maker (Boston, 1980) takes seriously the visionary origin of the Commedia and therefore forces us to examine again the literal level of the poem and its bid to be believed as a genuine vision of God.
Peter S. Hawkins (1987)
W hen listing the world's greatest writers, critics almost always include Dante Alighieri, whose reputation is so great that he is often identified simply as "Dante." His reputation rests primarily, but not solely, on the Divine Comedy, an extended poetic work depicting a journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven.
A book rich in images and details, the Divine Comedy can be read on a number of levels. To a student of the Middle Ages, it provides a vast and varied view of the time, particularly its leading figures and its attitudes. As a work written in Italian at a time when all "serious" literature was in Latin, it formed the foundation of Italy's literature and its national consciousness.
Pivotal early events
Born in the northern Italian city of Florence, Dante Alighieri (DAHN-tay al-eeg-YEER-ee) had the first significant experience of his life when he was eight years old. It was then, in 1274, that he first met Beatrice Portinari, who was a few months younger than he. Nine years later, on the threshold of adulthood, he again saw her, and instantly regarded her as a symbol of God's perfection in human form. From then until the day he died, he would love her deeply, though they never had a relationship of any kind; rather, Beatrice was Dante's muse, or the inspiration for his work.
During the course of his teens, Dante showed an early ability as a writer, and he studied under several great Florentine masters of literature. Among these was Brunetto Latini, celebrated for writing in Italian rather than Latin. Latini introduced the eighteen-year-old Dante to Guido Cavalcanti, another poet who had a great influence on the young man.
Also at eighteen, Dante inherited a modest family fortune, both of his parents having died when he was younger. Two years later, he married Gemma Donati in a union apparently arranged by their fathers years before. The couple would later have three children, and their son Pietro would grow up to become a well-known commentator on the Divine Comedy.
Marriage did not stop Dante from loving Beatrice, however; nor did her death in 1290, when Dante was twenty-five. It was then that he began writing poetry in earnest, attempting to overcome his grief. In the process, he also overcame the influence of his early teachers and forged his own style.
Political involvements and exile
Dante studied at a number of great universities in Western Europe, and his reaction to the death of Beatrice brought on an intensive reading of ancient and early medieval philosophers. In 1289, however, he left school to enlist in the Florentine army, and fought in the Battle of Campaldino that year.
Italy at that time was torn by a church-state conflict that pitted the Guelphs (GWELFZ), supporters of the Roman Catholic Church, against the Ghibellines (GIB-uh-leenz), who backed the Holy Roman emperor. In Florence, the political division was even more complicated due to a split between the Black Guelphs and the White Guelphs. Dante sided with the White Guelphs, who took a less hard-line approach toward the Ghibellines than the Black Guelphs did; but the pope, leader of the Catholic Church, put his support behind the Black Guelphs.
In the years between 1295 and 1301, Dante became intensely involved in politics and held a number of public offices. The Blacks staged a coup (KOO), or sudden takeover, in Florence in 1301, and forced all Whites to leave the city. Among those banished was Dante, who was stripped of all his possessions and forbidden from re-entering the city the following year. He would spend the remainder of his life wandering throughout Italy, living in a variety of cities.
Dante's other writings
Dante had written his first major work in 1293, during the five-year period between Beatrice's death and the beginnings of his political involvement. This work was La vita nuova, or The New Life, a collection of poems to Beatrice, which critics praised for its "sweet new style" and its refreshing approach to love as a spiritual experience.
In exile, he wrote another collection of poetry, Il convivio (The Banquet; 1304–7); and two significant prose works. The first of these was De vulgari eloquentia (Eloquence in the Vernacular Tongue; 1303–7), a defense of Italian literature. Ironically, De vulgari was in Latin, as was De monarchia (On Monarchy; c. 1313), an examination of Dante's political views. By far the greatest of his works, however, was the Divine Comedy, which he began in 1308 and completed just before his death thirteen years later.
Like Dante, Omar Khayyám (c. 1048–c. 1131) was a poet, but Khayyám established an equally great reputation as a philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer. Khayyám, who lived in Persia (now Iran), wrote a paper on algebra that is considered one of the most significant works on that subject from medieval times.
He is most famous to Western readers, however, from the Rubáiyát, a collection of verses first translated into English in 1859 by the English poet and scholar Edward FitzGerald. Among the most famous lines from the Rubáiyát as translated by FitzGerald is "A Book of Verses underneath the Bough, / A Jug of Wine, a loaf of bread— and Thou / Beside me singing in the Wilderness— / Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!" The last word is a poetic version of enough, and the line means, in effect, "with you even a wilderness is paradise."
Little is known about Khayyám's life, except that he was commissioned by Malik Shah, sultan of the Seljuk Turks, to work on reforming the calendar. He also helped plan an observatory in Persia, and spent his later years teaching mathematics and astrology. Seven centuries after his death, the rediscovery of his work by FitzGerald brought on an explosion of interest in Khayyám, who became perhaps more famous in the modern West than he had been in the medieval Middle East.
The Divine Comedy
The term "divine" is a reference to God, an abiding presence throughout the narrative. As for the "comedy" part, it is not a comedy in the traditional sense; rather, the term refers to the fact that the story, told in a series of 100 "chapters" called cantos, has a happy ending. Dante placed the events of the Divine Comedy at Easter Weekend 1300, when he was—as he wrote in the opening lines of Canto I—"Midway upon the journey of our life" (thirty-five years old).
The Divine Comedy depicts Dante's journey into the depths of the Inferno or Hell, guided by the departed soul of the Roman poet Virgil (70–19 b.c.). At the end of the Inferno, he is forced to leave Virgil behind as he travels into Purgatory, a place of punishment for people working out their salvation and earning their way into Heaven or Paradise. In these two sections, his guide is Beatrice.
The Divine Comedy is not meant to be understood as a literal story; rather, it is an allegory or symbolic tale. It concerns such spiritual matters as faith, revelation, and eternity; it also addresses the political issues of Dante's time. Clearly, however, there is something eternal and universal in the Divine Comedy, and this helps to explain the continued appreciation for this work.
In 1373, more than half a century after Dante died, Florence—the city that had once rejected him—honored his memory by commissioning Petrarch (PEE-trark; 1304–1374) to deliver a series of lectures on the Divine Comedy. Since that time, Dante has been in and out of favor, depending on the attitudes of the era; but overall his reputation continues to grow with the passage of time.
For More Information
Halliwell, Sarah, editor. The Renaissance: Artists and Writers. Austin, TX: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1998.
Holmes, George. Dante. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1980.
Dante Alighieri on the Web. [Online] Available http://www.geocities.com/Athens/9039/main.htm (last accessed July 26, 2000).
Digital Dante. [Online] Available http://www.ilt.columbia.edu/projects/dante/ (last accessed July 26, 2000).
"Omar Khayyam." [Online] Available http://www-groups.dcs.stand.ac.uk/~history/Mathematicians/Khayyam.html (last accessed July 26, 2000).
The World of Dante. [Online] Available http://www.iath.virginia.edu/dante/ (last accessed July 26, 2000).
Zahoor, Dr. A. "Omar Al-Khayyam, 1044–1123 c.e." [Online] Available http://users.erols.com/zenithco/khayyam.html (last accessed July 26, 2000).
Poet and politician
Political Background. Dante Alighieri, the most important poet of the Middle Ages, was born in Florence in May or June of 1265. His family belonged to the party known as the Guelfs (supporters of the Pope), who were opposed to the Ghibellines (supporters of the Holy Roman Emperor). The bitter feud between the two groups often erupted in open combat, and Dante himself is known to have fought in a battle against the Ghibellines in 1289. In 1266, shortly after Dante’s birth, Charles of Anjou had overthrown imperial power in Italy, and by 1269 Florence had become a Guelf city. Political tensions centering around Dante’s Florence were to play a major role in the poet’s life, for in addition to writing Dante served as an active figure in politics. The conflict between the Guelfs and the Ghibellines, and later between rival factions within the Guelfs, were to become a prominent theme in Dante’s most famous work, his allegorical Commedia.
Early Years. Little is known about Dante’s early life, and much of the chronology is disputed. He went to school in 1277 and in the same year was betrothed to Gemma Donati. His mother died around 1270 and his father in about 1281. Dante is believed to have studied philosophy at the Franciscan and Dominican houses of study in Florence. He must have studied either there or in Paris, since he had acquired a sound knowledge of contemporary philosophy. He may have visited Bologna in 1287. Dante composed his first major poetic work and commentary in the vernacular, the Vita nuova (New Life), in about 1292 or 1293. These poems celebrate the influence and inspiration of Beatrice, who seems to have been a real person, a young woman who affected Dante deeply as a young man. The figure of Beatrice haunted Dante’s work and in the Paradiso became his celestial guide.
White and Black Guelfs. Between 1290 and 1300, a major quarrel occurred between the White and Black Guelfs, who seem to have represented rival families rather than political parties. Dante was a partisan member of the White Guelfs. In 1300 he assumed political power, acting as an ambassador of the White Guelfs to San Gimignano and becoming one of the priors of Florence. Street fighting among the rival factions was common in this period, and the priors had to banish fifteen aristocrats and their families, including Dante’s former poet-friend, Guido Cavalcanti. During this period Dante developed a strong dislike for the reigning Pope Boniface VIII, the advocate of absolute papal power. Dante was apparently sent on an embassy to Rome to help negotiate some of Florence’s difficulties with this pope. In his absence the papal forces led by Charles of Valois captured Florence, installing the Black Guelfs as its rulers. As a result Dante was sent into exile in late 1301.
De vulgari eloquentia and Convivio. From the time of his exile until 1303 Dante joined with White Guelf military forces in the hope of returning to Florence, but he eventually concluded that these efforts were a lost cause. He moved to Verona, where from June 1303 to March 1304 he received the patronage of the Scala family. Sometime between 1304 and 1308 he wrote his De vulgari eloquentia (On the Eloquence of the Vernacular) and the Convivio (The Banquet). Though unfinished, both works are quite important. The first provides a theoretical justification for the primacy of the vernacular tongue over Latin. The second is a sophisticated work of philosophy and morality, which seems to have been inspired by Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. It is in the Convivio that the great Roman poet, Virgil, makes his first appearance in Dante’s work.
De Monarchia. The years between 1308 and 1313 are marked by the unexpected coronation of Henry, Count of Luxemburg, as Holy Roman Emperor, followed by his visit to Italy and his death. By the time of Henry’s ascendency Dante had begun to express pro-imperial sentiments and had become allied with the Ghibellines. However, the same papacy that had worked for Henry’s coronation later turned against the emperor, and Henry failed to capture the city of Florence. He died, probably from malaria, near Siena on 24 August 1313. Henry’s visit, however, had a major influence on Dante’s later writings. The work De monarchia (On Monarchy) was composed in order to defeat papal claims to temporal power in the empire. While the exact date of its composition is disputed, the work makes direct reference to the period between 1300 and 1308. Although Dante as a Catholic Christian did not challenge the Pope’s authority on spiritual matters, he must have touched a raw nerve in the ecclesiastical hierarchy. A cardinal, Bertrand del Poggetto, and a major preacher, the Dominican Guido Vernani, condemned the work as heretical.
The Divine Comedy. From 1314 to 1317 Dante visited Verona for a second time, this time as a guest of Can Grande della Sala, who had been an Imperial Vicar under Henry and who retained the title despite protests and orders for excommunication from the new Pope, John XXII. According to most scholars, much of the Commedia was written at Verona in these years. After the victory of the Ghibellines in 1315 at the Battle of Montecatini, Dante expected to be able to return to Florence, but his hopes were let down when the Ghibellines failed to take the city. He spent the last years of his life in Ravenna, where he was reunited with his sons Jacopo and Pietro, and possibly with his daughter, Antonia, who seems to have become a nun, taking the name Beatrice. Dante went on a diplomatic mission to Venice, and he might also have visited Verona and there held a quest’io (medieval lecture-discussion) on the “Question of the Place of the Waters and the Earth” (Questio de situ aquae et terre). He died in Ravenna on 13 or 14 September 1321, probably as a result of a fever he may have picked up while in Venice. By that time he had managed to finish his Commedia, the last thirteen cantos of which were only discovered after his death. It is fitting that his life should end shortly after the completion of this work, which stands out as one of the greatest literary accomplishments of the Middle Ages.
Charles Allen Dinsmore, Aids to the Study of Dante (Boston & New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1903).
Robert Hollander, Dante: A Life in Works (New Haven, Conn. & London: Yale University Press, 2001).
Alighieri, Dante (1265–1321)
Alighieri, Dante (1265–1321)
Medieval poet who set his three-part work The Divine Comedy in Italian, breaking with the tradition of writing serious literary works in Latin, and who is considered the greatest poet of the Italian language. Born in Florence, Italy, he was a member of the minor aristocracy who traced their lineage to celebrated Crusaders and to the nobility of ancient Rome. Dante's clan sided with the Guelph faction, which supported the popes in their struggles with the Holy Roman Emperor. Dante was educated in monastic schools in Florence and also privately with Brunetto Latini, a renowned teacher of rhetoric. In 1289, he took part in the battle of Campoldino in
which the Florentine Guelphs soundly defeated their rivals in the Ghibelline faction.
Dante was a devoted student of the ancient Roman poet Virgil as well as Cicero, a famous Roman politician and orator. Drawn to poetry, he studied the ancient Latin poets as well as the songs of the troubadours of Provence (southern France). He began composing love sonnets as a young man. An encounter with a young noblewoman, Beatrice Portinari, who struck him as an ideal of beauty and grace, inspired many of his poems. Her death at an early age in 1290 moved him to collect his poetry in Vita Nuova, or “New Life.” The poems and prose passages of this book, which was completed by 1294, were written in Italian, and not Latin, and represent one of the earliest efforts by any Italian writer to express himself in the vernacular (everyday language) of his homeland.
Dante involved himself in the civil struggles that were then dividing Florence into two hostile camps. He joined the doctors and apothecaries guilds (guild membership was required for anyone who sought high public office), and a few years following the appearance of Vita Nuova, he became a member of the city council of Florence. When he traveled to Rome as Florentine envoy to Pope Boniface VIII in 1301, his opponents in the Guelph party who remained behind had him banished from the city, seized his property, and threatened him with execution should he ever return. For the remaining twenty years of his life, Dante lived in exile, wandering from town to town and never receiving a pardon from the city of Florence that would allow him to return. He lived in Verona, Bologna, and Paris, taking refuge in the homes of patrons and nobles who either admired his works or who shared his political beliefs. He became a supporter of Emperor Henry VII in the latter's drive to reunite the Italian city-states. In 1310 an invasion of Italy by Henry temporarily gave Dante hope for a return to Florence. These hopes were ended with the death of the emperor while on campaign in Tuscany in 1313. Dante's letters to Henry angered the Florentine leaders further; when the city offered him a pardon with certain strict conditions, Dante refused the offer and was afterward condemned to death.
While in exile, Dante wrote De Vulgarii Eloquentia, a treatise on Italian as a literary language, and On Monarchy, a work on politics in which Dante supported the idea of a king to unite and control the many squabbling political factions of Italy. Il Convivio, or The Banquet, was a second collection of poems and commentaries. The Divine Comedy, which Dante began about 1306 and originally named simply The Comedy, tells the story of the author's imaginary voyage through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. The three books of the poem consist of more than fourteen thousand lines, contained within one hundred cantos. In the first two books of the work, he is guided by Virgil, the historical author of the epic poem The Aeneid ; on the trip through Paradise he accompanies Beatrice, a distant love of Dante's youth to whom he dedicated all of his works. The poem is divided into three-line stanzas in a scheme known as terza rima, in which the first and third lines rhyme with the middle line of the previous stanza. The Divine Comedy is an allegory of an ordinary man's journey through life, and his striving to escape worldly sin and misery through reason, represented by Virgil, and the spiritual enlightenment and hope offered by God. Dante's work established the Tuscan dialect of Italian as a worthy language of poetry and other literary forms; the use of everyday language in his works and those of Giovanni Boccaccio greatly expanded the audience for poetry and prose. Dante's blend of religious and secular themes in his work also helped to bridge the medieval and humanist eras of European literature.
See Also: Boccaccio, Giovanni; Florence; literature
Early Life in Florence.
Dante Alighieri was born in Florence, a great commercial and banking center strategically located on a trade route between the Mediterranean and northern Europe. In Dante's lifetime the city was much involved in the controversy over the relative power of the pope and the Holy Roman Emperors. His father was perhaps a judge and a notary public, a lender of money and speculator in land. At this period the republic of Florence was split into two political factions, the Guelphs (supporters of the papacy) and Ghibbelines (supporters of the emperor), and the Alighieri family, as Guelphs, may have suffered exile at various times when their faction was out of power. Dante married Gemma di Manetto in 1283 and had with her three children, though when he himself was exiled from Florence (in 1301/02), he left without his family. At the age of nine, so the poet says, he had fallen in love with Beatrice Portinari, who served him as a muse. She died in 1290, and he memorialized her in his cycle of poems and prose commentaries La Vita Nuova, finished in 1295.
The political life of Florence was dominated by various guilds of artisans and merchants, and only through guild membership could one hold public office; thus, Dante joined the guild of physicians and apothecaries, though it is doubtful that he had any interest in these professions. From about 1295 through 1301 Dante held various public offices and served as an ambassador or emissary, but further political factionalisms were developing between two groups within the Guelph party, the "Whites" and the "Blacks." The latter of these two factions supported Pope Boniface VIII and Charles of Valois, while the whites, the faction Dante was allied with, were much opposed to both of these figures. While Dante was on an embassy to Rome, Pope Boniface VIII and Charles of Valois gained political control of Florence. Charles' forces killed or exiled the Whites, and Dante himself was banished in 1301/1302 for alleged financial misbehavior and for opposition to the political and ecclesiastical power. A second banishment on pain of death was pronounced in 1302. Dante wandered through Italy from 1302 ("eating another man's bread and climbing another man's stair," as he described it) until his death in 1321. Though he broke off his allegiance to the white party and indeed to politics altogether, he never returned to Florence, attaining instead some measure of security and fame in Ravenna.
Learned and Literary Works.
Dante wrote both in Latin and Italian and was the first poet to use the Italian language for a lengthy literary work in the high style, allowing it to compete in prestige with Greek and Latin. His Latin works, which demonstrate the range of his interests and knowledge, included De Vulgari eloquentia on the use of Italian as a literary language; De Monarchia, on temporal kingship and its relations to papal power; some letters and eclogues; and a scholastic scientific treatise Questio de aqua et terra on the levels of land and water on the surface of the earth. He is best known, however, for his Italian works. La Vita Nuova is a collection of lyric poems about Beatrice (centering on her death), interspersed with prose commentaries that develop a narrative and explain the poems. He also wrote other lyric poems, called canzoni, and a work called Convivio or The Banquet, a prose commentary on some of his canzoni. His three-part masterpiece The Divine Comedy appeared in 1314 (for the first part, Inferno), 1315 (for the Purgatorio), and 1320 (for the last part, the Paradiso). This monumental work combines in its three parts a number of important genres: the dream vision allegory of poems like The Romance of the Rose; the voyage to the other world, such as Saint Patrick's Purgatory; and the medieval encyclopedia, with its attempt to incorporate all human knowledge in a single book. It also made use of Dante's intimate knowledge of the political and social history of Florence, many of whose citizens Dante's narrator encounters on his journey from hell to heaven. A heavy reliance on trinitarian number symbolism, even down to the terza rima or three-rime verse structure, is another fascinating feature of the poem. Dante looks to the classical tradition of the Aeneid in his use of that work's author, Vergil, as a guide through hell in the first part of his imaginative journey. In the Inferno and the Purgatorio the poet examines human political and spiritual life, while in the Paradiso he considers the mystical union of the soul with the Divine in a beatific vision of God, the saints (including Beatrice), and the heavens.
Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Trans. Willard Trask (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1953).
Robert Hollander, Allegory in Dante's Divine Comedy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1969).
Rachel Jacoff, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Dante (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
Giuseppe Mazzotta, Dante's Vision and the Circle of Knowledge (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993).
Mark Musa, Advent at the Gates: Dante's Divine Comedy (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1974).