Dante Alighieri was an Italian Medieval poet, moral philosopher, political thinker, and author of the poetic trilogy, The Divine Comedy, whose first part lends its name to Dan Brown’s novel Inferno.
He is widely considered the major Italian poet of the Middle Ages and is recognized as the father of the Italian language.
Early Years and Love for Beatrice
Dante Alighieri, in full, Durante degli Alighieri, was born in Florence in 1265 and died in Ravenna in 1321.
He was the son of Alighiero di Bellincione and Bella degli Abati, the latter of which died when Dante was not yet ten years old.
Dante’s family had loyalties to the Guelphs, a political alliance that supported the papacy and that was completely opposed to the Ghibellines, who were backed by the Holy Roman Emperor.
When Dante was 12, he was promised in marriage to Gemma di Manetto Donati, daughter of Manetto Donati, member of the powerful Donati family.
They were married around 1285, but by this time Dante was in love with another woman, Beatrice Portinari, whom he first met when he was only nine. His love for Beatrice would be his reason for poetry and for living, together with his political passions. In many of his poems, she is depicted as semi-divine, and watching over him constantly and providing spiritual instruction.
Beatrice died unexpectedly in 1290; five years later, Dante published Vita Nuova (The New Life), a work composed of verse and prose. It contains 42 brief chapters with commentaries in 25 sonnets, one ballata, and four canzoni; a fifth canzone is left dramatically interrupted by Beatrice’s death.
The story is quite simple and details his tragic love for Beatrice. The New Life is notable because it was written in Italian, whereas most other works of the time appeared in Latin.
Around the time of Beatrice’s death, Dante began to immerse himself in the study of philosophy and the machinations of the Florentine political scene.
Dante’s Exile Period
Florence was a tumultuous city, with factions representing the papacy or the empire, namely the Black Guelphs and The White Guelphs, who were continually at odds. Dante held a number of important public posts as a White Guelph.
In 1301, Charles of Valois, brother of King Philip IV of France, was expected to visit Florence because the Pope had appointed him peacemaker over Tuscany. However, since it was believed that Charles had received other unofficial instructions, the city council sent a delegation to Rome to ascertain the Pope’s intentions. Dante was among the delegates.
Pope Boniface VIII quickly dismissed the other delegates and asked Dante alone to remain in Rome. At the same time, Charles of Valois entered Florence with the Black Guelphs, who in the next six days would destroy much of the city and kill many of their enemies.
In 1302 a new Black Guelph government was instituted and Dante was exiled from Florence for the rest of his life. Although Dante was driven out of Florence, this would be the beginning of his most productive artistic period.
During his exile Dante traveled and wrote, and completely withdrew from politics.
In 1304, he went to Bologna, where he began his Latin treatise De Vulgari Eloquentia, in which he urged that courtly Italian, used for amatory writing, be enriched with aspects of every spoken dialect to establish Italian as a literary language.
In March 1306, Florentine exiles were expelled from Bologna, and Dante ended up in Padua.
In 1308, Henry of Luxembourg was elected emperor as Henry VII. Full of optimism about the changes that this election could bring to Italy, Dante wrote his famous work on the monarchy, De Monarchia, in three books, in which he claimed that the authority of the emperor is not dependent on the Pope but is granted to him directly from God.
Around this time, he began writing his most famous work, The Divine Comedy, which he completed in 1317 in Ravenna, where he lived till his death in 1321.
Dante’s Masterpiece: The Divine Comedy
The Divine Comedy is an allegory of human life presented as a visionary trip through the Christian afterlife, written as a warning to a corrupt society to steer itself unto the path of righteousness.
The poem is written in the first person, from the poet’s perspective, and follows Dante’s journey through the three Christian realms of the dead: Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio), and Heaven (Paradiso).
The Roman poet Virgil guides Dante through Hell and Purgatory, while Beatrice guides him through Heaven.
The journey lasts from the night before Good Friday to the Wednesday after Easter in the spring of 1300, before Dante’s exile from Florence.
The structure of the three realms of the afterlife follows a common pattern of nine circles, with an additional tenth: nine circles of hell, followed by Lucifer’s level at the bottom; nine rings of purgatory, with the Garden of Eden at its peak; and nine celestial bodies of heaven, followed by the empyrean, the highest stage of heaven, where God resides.
The poem is composed of 100 cantos, written in the metre known as terza rima, a rhyming verse stanza form that consists of an interlocking three-line rhyme scheme.
Virgil guides Dante through Inferno where they meet people who have committed specific sins during their lifetime. For each sin Dante notices a specific punishment. For instance, in the ninth circle, occupants are buried up to their chins in ice, chew on each other, and are beyond redemption, fated to eternal damnation.
In the Purgatorio, Virgil leads Dante on a long climb up the Mount of Purgatory through seven levels of suffering and spiritual growth, before reaching the earthly paradise at the top. Here, the poet’s journey represents the Christian life, in which Dante must learn to reject the visible earthly paradise for the heavenly one that awaits.
Beatrice, representing divine enlightenment, leads Dante through the Paradiso. Along the way, Dante encounters those who were luminaries of intellectualism, faith, justice, and love, such as Thomas Aquinas, King Solomon, and Dante’s own great-great-grandfather. In the final sphere, Dante comes face to face with God himself, who is represented as three concentric circles, which in turn represent the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
The journey ends here with true heroic and spiritual fulfillment.
The Divine Comedy has made Dante one of the most important and recognized poets of the Middle Ages and has assured him the epithet of Sommo Poeta.
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