Alighieri, Dante 1265–1321

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Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri was born in Florence in 1265, but from 1302 on he lived in exile for political reasons. He died in Ravenna in 1321.


He is most famous for the Commedia, later labeled Divina (Divine Comedy), composed from circa 1308 until his death. The poem narrates the visit of a hero-everyman to the Christian underworld, the Inferno (Hell, punishment), and then to the realms of Purgatory (expiation) and Paradise (beatitude). It comprises 100 cantos divided into a prologue and three canticles, or cantiche (1+33+33+33) totaling 14,233 verses (13, 10+3), written in terza rima, so that, in medieval numerology, everything is based on the numbers one and three. Aiding the viator (the hero-everyman or journeyman) are three female figures, Mary, Lucia, and Beatrice, constituting a female Trinity, contrasted to the three-headed monster Lucifer, and the three wild beasts who block the viator's path. The poem raises many ethical, political, and theological questions and is a profound meditation on the significance of life, free will, and Christianity. The viator is guided through Hell and Purgatory by Virgil, the Roman poet whose hero, Aeneas, founded Rome and was a privileged instrument of providential history, because Jesus, the Messiah, chose to be born under Roman jurisdiction in Palestine. In Dante's view, Rome's providential history becomes reality as the center of Christianity and of the Holy See, through the evangelization and martyrdom of the apostles Peter and Paul. Thus, Dante the viator is chosen to visit the other world as a new Aeneas and a new Paul, combining the classical and Christian traditions. Beatrice, his muse, is the pilgrim's second and most important guide from the top of the Mount of Purgatory, the new Eden, to the Empyrean in Paradise, his inspiration and savior as the poet is lost in a dark wood. The mission to rescue him originated in Heaven with the Blessed Virgin Mary who, in turn, asked Lucia, and then Beatrice herself, to intervene on behalf of her friend. Thus the feminine Godhead is the sole originator of the salvation of one about to be lost forever in the second death, that of the soul.

In meeting Francesca da Rimini in the circle of the lustful (Inf. 5), the pilgrim-poet offers a meditation on love—courtly love and the dolce stil nuovo (sweet new-style) love Dante practiced—while her adulterous love story cannot but elicit condemnation from the Christian pilgrim and theologian. Such dichotomies are frequent in the work, combining pathos, sympathy, and ethical/religious condemnation. Similarly, in Inferno 13, amidst the sodomites, the pilgrim encounters his teacher Brunetto Latini, a famous rhetorician and most worthy citizen of Florence. The pilgrim shows him sincere affection, admiration, and recognition, for he recalls how the tutor taught him on Earth "how man becomes eternal"; yet, Brunetto is relegated to a circle of vice for eternal damnation. In Inferno 16, still among the sodomites, Dante is eager to encounter souls of other worthy Florentines, among them Jacopo Rusticucci, who sarcastically blames his sexual preference on his wife: "e' certo la fiera moglie piu' ch'altri mi nuoce" [surely my proud wife more than anything else hurts me] (Inf. 16:44-45). Such ambiguous representations render this work vastly significant and appealing. The classical sources, the encyclopedic knowledge, the rich poetic content, the historical, mythological, legendary, and folkloric elements, and the scientific and philosophical texture contribute to making this a widely imitated poem with a long-lasting impact.

Beatrice, above all, is the prime mover who guides the pilgrim-poet through the spheres of Paradise and represents divine grace, the "donna gentile" who encapsulates humanity's highest dignity, closest to the divine in this hierarchical universe. Her role exemplifies the way to God through the seven known spheres of the Ptolemaic system, the Heaven of the Fixed Stars, the Primum Mobile and the Empyrean, and the heaven of the blessed souls in which she herself resides. The grace she imparts has far exceeded that of any other figure of religious import. Her seat is next to Rachel, symbol of contemplation, a figure of the nation of Israel and the church, on the third tier of the Symbolic Rose. She has led the pilgrim-poet from slavery to freedom (Par. 31:79-90), from that first encounter when she was nine years old, to the second one nine years later, to her reproaches in Purgatory that made him weep, her step-by-step illumination through Paradise, and her final signal of assent to the lover, directing him to the Highest (31:91-93).


Dante's work is also considerably marked by certain female historical characters: Francesca da Rimini with her immortal love story and its powerful drama retold through her perfect knowledge of the art of rhetoric, while her lover Paolo does not utter a word and can only weep (Inf. 5:72-142); Pia dei Tolomei, victim of a malicious husband, with her strikingly courteous demeanor and paucity of words (Purg. 5:130-136); Sapia from Siena, an envious woman who acknowledges her faults, but also reproaches the viator for not understanding that everyone in this place is a citizen of the city of God (Purg. 13:85-154); Piccarda Donati and Costanza d'Altavilla, women in the Sphere of the Moon, who were forced to break their vows and are now most distant from God and perfection, but understand fully his design and accept in faith that "in sua volonta' e'nostra pace" [in his will rests our peace] (Par. 3-4). The courtesan Cunizza da Romano, along with the figure of Rahab, the harlot of Jericho, are unique in the way Dante transforms their ability to love and their eros (erotic love) into agapos (love of the divine), and places them in the heaven of lovers, Venus. A woman such as Matelda is idealized, with an aura of mystery and symbolism betraying the poet's admiration and deep respect for her figural model; further, she is the one who guides him through Eden before Beatrice appears, surely as a symbol of active life.

Other important women are the Hebrew women of the Mystic Rose of Paradise, who create the dividing wall between the New and Old Testament figures and are seated below Mary: Eve, Rachel, Sarah, Rebecca, Judith, and Ruth. They are figures of the church, and the mothers of humanity in the Hebrew and Christian tradition, although, interestingly, some of them were barren at first. These, together with Rachel and Leah, are respectively symbols of contemplative and active life, as Martha and Mary, their counterparts in the New Testament, are the most symbolically influential characters aside from Mary, Lucia, and Beatrice. Other notable women in Dante's Commedia include the many groups of mythological, historical, or legendary figures: eight of them in Limbo—Electra, Camilla, Penthesilea, Lavina, Lucretia, Julia, Marcia, and Cornelia—all worthy of praise as great souls (Inf. 4); and Semiramis, Dido, Cleopatra, and Helen of Troy, who all receive particular attention in the circle of lust.

Women are represented in exempla, such as the "vedovella" (Purg. 10:73-93) who contests the Emperor Trajan and forces him to do his duty to avenge the death of her son, an exemplum of filial devotion and tenacity. There is also Michal, "donna dispettosa e trista" (a woman scornful and afflicted) upset at the behavior of her husband David, King of Israel, whom Dante uses as an exemplum of humility. The most dramatic example of humility is of course Mary, who with her words "ecce ancilla Domini" accepts her charge (Purg. 10:4-45).


At the same time, Dante remains a product of the Middle Ages, his views reflecting the prevailing attitude toward women. And while his writings do not make him a champion of women in the modern sense, among his contemporaries, Dante appears to be the most receptive to criticism from women, as shown in the Vita nuova (New life) and even the Commedia, and most sensitive to their role and needs. The Vita nuova indeed shows how women friends were his audience, and how they engaged him in changing the mode of poetizing, and of writing in praise of them, not merely pursuing his self-centered adumbrations and meditation. He addresses women in his major canzone, "Donne ch'avete intelletto d'amore," [Ladies, Who Understand Love's Every Way] praising their deep understanding of love, their "leggiadro par-lare," (fair way of speaking), recognizing that they are just as seized by the power of love as the other sex, "e simil face in donna omo valente" [Likewise a woman by man's worth is taken] (Vita nuova, 20). Many of the poems in the Vita nuova, including the last one, "Oltre la spera" (Beyond the sphere), are written at the specific request of women.

Mary, for Dante, remains the catalyst and the aim of all his journeys in the Commedia, and to her is dedicated the prayer of the last canto in Paradise. His song of praise is a poetic reaffirmation of Marian theological teachings, but also the final praise of one who is a sublimation of humankind. Without women, the Commedia would not be what it is. In the Mystic Rose of Paradise, of the eighteen blessed people, excluding Mary and Bernard, ten are women and eight men. This is significant, and an indication that Dante's Paradise is a temple to womanhood.

see also Allegory; Beatrice; Fornication; Literature: I. Overview; Love Poetry; Middle Ages; Political Satire; Politics; Sodomy.


Di Scipio, Giuseppe C. 1983. "The Hebrew Women in Dante's Symbolic Rose." Dante Studies 101: 111-121.

Di Scipio, Giuseppe C. 1984. The Symbolic Rose in Dante's "Paradiso." Ravenna, Italy: Longo.

Ferrante, Joan M. 1992. Dante's Beatrice: Priest of an Androgynous God. Binghamton, NY: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies.

Kirkham, Victoria. 1989. "A Canon of Women in Dante's Commedia." Annali d'Italianistica 7: 16-41.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. 1990. Eternal Feminines: Three Theological Allegories in Dante's "Paradiso." New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Shapiro, Marianne. 1975. Woman, Earthly and Divine, in the Comedy of Dante. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

Singleton, Charles S. 1977 (1958). Journey to Beatrice. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

                                           Giuseppe Di Scipio