Dante, Ritratto di Sandro Botticelli, 1495
Dante, Ritratto di Sandro Botticelli, 1495

This month’s essay deals with one of the greatest poets of Italy, in fact, of the world. This September will be the 700th anniversary of his death. He personally did more than anyone in developing the Italian language as we know it. His erudition emerges in the various poems he produced, the greatest being La Commedia (The Comedy), later titled by the Italian poet Boccaccio La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy), which was written in the vernacular Tuscan dialect, not in the usual Latin. It is the greatest literary work in the Italian language and one of the greatest masterpieces of world literature. T.S. Eliot, in his 1929 essay Dante, placed Dante on the highest possible rung of European poetry. “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them,” he wrote. “There is no third.”

CELEBRATED: Language, poetry,

Dante Alighieri was born Durante di Alighiero degli Alighieri in the Florentine Republic, probably in  1265. The date of his birth is unknown, but we can surmise the date from autobiographical allusions he gave in his masterpiece, La Commedia. (N.B. We will use the original title that Dante gave to his work since he used that title throughout his life). His father was Alighiero di Bellincione Alighieri, a moderately wealthy landowner, and his mother was Bella di Abati Alighieri. Thus, he grew up among the Florentine aristocracy. We know very little about his family other than the family had a long history of involvement in the complex Florentine political scene. However, since Dante was born around 1265, and the exiled Guelphs, to whose party Dante’s family historically adhered, did not return until 1266 from exile, we can speculate that Dante’s father apparently was not a figure considerable enough to have warranted exile. (Dante never mentions that his father was exiled).

Very little is known about Dante’s early years and his early education. His mother died when he was around ten years old, and his father then married Lapa di Chiarissimo Cialuffi and they produced a son, Francesco, and a daughter, Gaetana. Dante’s father died prior to 1283, since at that time we know that Dante, having come into his majority at 18, was able as an orphan to sell a credit owned by his father. He left his three children a modest yet comfortable patrimony of property in Florence and in the countryside.

Scholars surmise that Dante received the usual education for a child of the aristocracy in Florence: formal instruction in grammar, language, and philosophy either at home or at one of the chapter schools of the ­­Dominicans or Franciscans that was attached to a church or monastery in the city. During his teens, Dante demonstrated a keen interest in literature. By the age of 18, he undertook an apprenticeship with Brunetto Latini, a celebrated poet and prose writer of vernacular Italian, and he befriended the poet Guido Cavalcanti. It is also known that he studied Tuscan poetry and that he admired the compositions of the Bolognese poet Guido Guinizelli, whom he characterized as his “father” in Purgatorio Canto XXVI. All these poets became leaders of the movement Dolce Stil Novo (The Sweet New Style) which held that personal and political passions were the purpose of poetry, a movement that greatly shaped Dante’s view of poetry.

He also discovered the Provençal poetry of the French troubadours, such as Arnaut Daniel, and the Latin writers of classical antiquity, including Cicero, Ovid, and especially Virgil, who would play a central role in his La Commedia.

Dante and Beatrice

Dante and Beatrice, Carl Osterely, 1845

When Dante was about 12 years old, he was betrothed to Gemma Donati, the daughter of Manetto Donati, a member of the powerful Donati family and a friend of Dante’s father. (Contracting marriages for children at such an early age was quite common at the time, involving a formal ceremony that included contracts signed before a notary). The couple married around 1285; we do not know the exact date, but we do know that before his exile from Florence in 1301, Dante had fathered three children with Gemma (two sons, Pietro and Jacopo, and one daughter, Antonia).

Dante, however, was in love with another woman—Beatrice Portinari, who would be a huge influence on him and whose character would form the backbone of his La Commedia. Dante had briefly glimpsed the 8-year-old Beatrice when he was 9 years old. He was struck by her beauty and immediately fell in love with her, apparently without even talking to her at the time. Dante claimed to have seen Beatrice again frequently after he turned 18, exchanging greetings with her in the streets of Florence, though he never knew her well.

Dante’s love of Beatrice was not a physical love, but a “courtly love” (which could be called an expression of love and admiration, usually from afar) and unrequited. It was the kind of love that the troubadours wrote and sang about—the love of an ideal woman. Beatrice died unexpectedly in 1290, and in 1294 Dante published Vita Nuova (The New Life), which detailed the history of his tragic love for her. The work reflected Dante’s first effort to depict Beatrice as an abstract model of love and beauty. In this collection of early canzoni, Dante used the refreshing and innovative approach in love poetry, Dolce Stil Novo, which he had developed earlier with his poet-friends that equated the love experience with a divine and mystical spiritual revelation. Vita Nuova ends with Dante’s promise to write “what has never before been written of any woman.” (The promise was fulfilled in his later poetic masterpiece, La Commedia). The story of Dante’s love for Beatrice is often taken as allegory, particularly by critics reading the book in the light of his later works. Beyond being Dante’s first book of verse, Vita Nuova is notable in that it was written in the Tuscan dialect, 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. As time went by, he was gradually drawn into these intrigues, and began to take an active part in local public affairs. To further his political career, he became a pharmacist. He did not intend to practice as one, but a law issued in 1295 required nobles aspiring to public office to be enrolled in one of the Corporazioni delle Arti e dei Mestieri (Corporations of Arts and Crafts), so Dante obtained admission to the Apothecary Guild. This profession was not inappropriate, since at that time books were sold from apothecary shops. As a politician, he accomplished little, but held various offices over some years in a city rife with political unrest.

The Guelphs vs The Ghibellines

Like most Florentines during his lifetime, Dante was affected by the Guelph-Ghibelline conflict, a political division of loyalty between the Papacy and the Holy Roman Emperor. Florence was a tumultuous city, with factions representing the papacy (the Guelphs) and the empire (the Ghibellines) continually at odds, and Dante was thrust into the melee by holding various public offices. His family had traditionally been associated with the Guelphs in this conflict. On June 11, 1289, he fought in the ranks of the Guelphs at the battle of Campaldino, helping to bring forth a reformation of the Florentine constitution.

After defeating the Ghibellines in this battle, the Guelphs themselves divided into two factions: the White Guelphs (Dante’s party), who were wary of the Pope’s political influence though still supporting him in all other matters; and the Black Guelphs, who remained absolutely loyal to the Pope. Initially the Whites were in power and forced the Blacks out of Florence; however, Pope Boniface VIII planned a military occupation of the city to bring the Blacks back to power. A delegation of Florentines, with Dante among them, was sent to Rome to ascertain the Pope’s intentions regarding the city. When the delegation departed Rome to return to Florence, the Pope, the major backer of the Black Guelphs, “suggested” that Dante remain in Rome for his own safety.

Meanwhile, while the delegation had been in Rome, the Black Guelphs returned to power in force, destroying much of Florence and establishing a new government. Dante received word that his assets had been seized and that he was considered an absconder. The delay caused by the Pope gave the leaders of the Black Guelphs (among them Corso Donati, who was a distant relative of Dante’s wife) the excuse that he had fled the city for nefarious reasons since he had not returned with the delegation. In March 1302, Dante was condemned to exile for two years and ordered to pay a large fine. He was falsely accused of corruption and financial wrongdoing by the Black Guelphs for the time that he had served as one of seven city priors (Florence’s highest civic position at the time) during two months in 1300.

Dante never returned to his beloved Florence. He did not pay the fine, in part because he believed he was not guilty and in part because all his assets in Florence had been seized by the Black Guelphs. He was then condemned to perpetual exile; if he had returned to Florence without paying the fine, he could have been burned at the stake. As an outcast, he wandered Italy for several years, beginning to outline La Commedia, his greatest work. (Pope Boniface VIII, in addition to countless other figures from Florentine politics, would find a place in the hell that Dante creates in the Inferno section of La Commedia —and an extremely unpleasant place it is!) Dante may have been driven out of Florence, but this would be the beginning of his most productive artistic period. His command of philosophy and his literary interests deepened while he was in exile and when he was no longer busy with the day-to-day business of Florentine politics. This is evidenced in his prose writings during this period.

In 1304, he seems to have gone to Bologna, where he began his Latin treatise De Vulgari Eloquentia (On the Eloquent Vernacular), in which he urged that the courtly language, used mainly for amatory writing, be enriched with aspects of every spoken dialect, especially the Tuscan dialect, in order to establish the new amalgam language as a serious literary one. (Ironically, the treatise was written in Latin!) The created language would be one way to attempt to unify the divided Italian territories. The work was left unfinished, but it remained influential nonetheless, with the Tuscan language eventually becoming the standard in Italian literature and language in general.
In March 1306, Florentine exiles were expelled from Bologna, and by August, Dante ended up in Padua. From this point, his whereabouts for several years are not known for sure. Reports place him in Paris at times between 1307 and 1309, but his visit to this city has never been verified.

In 1308, Henry of Luxembourg was elected Holy Roman Emperor as Henry VII. In 1310, Henry marched into Italy at the head of 5,000 troops. Dante saw in him a new Charlemagne who would restore the office of the Holy Roman Emperor to its former glory and also retake Florence from the Black Guelphs. He wrote to Henry and several Italian princes, demanding that they destroy the Black Guelphs. Mixing religion and private concerns in his writings, he invoked the worst anger of God against Florence and suggested several particular targets, who were also his personal enemies. Through his firsthand experience of the ill effects of papal involvement in political matters, one of the most fervently outspoken defenders of the Guelph’s position began to argue that the empire does not derive its political authority from the pope.

Full of optimism about these changes, sometime around 1312 or 1313, Dante wrote his famous work on monarchy, De Monarchia (On Monarchy, published in English also as On World Government), in three books, in which he claimed that the authority of the emperor is not dependent on the pope but descends upon him directly from God. He proposed a universal monarchy under Henry VII. The work differs from other political treatises of the tradition in that Dante tries to argue philosophically and dispassionately for a good end from good means, something that the traditional political treatises did, but his emotion as a poet soon comes to the fore and he argues forcefully and in anger for the end and means he desires. Most importantly, the position was also stated strongly throughout La Commedia.

In 1312 Henry turned his forces to an assault against Florence and ultimately defeated the Black Guelphs, but there is no evidence that Dante was involved. Some say he refused to participate in the attack on his city by a foreigner; others suggest that he had become so unpopular with the White Guelphs that any trace of his passage back to Florence to be involved in the attack had carefully been removed from the records. Whatever the reason, which will remain a mystery, when Henry VII died (from a fever) in 1313, Dante’s hope of ever seeing Florence again was gone. He went to Verona, where Cangrande I della Scala allowed him to live in definite security and, presumably, in a fair degree of prosperity. (Dante admitted Cangrande to his Paradiso section of La Commedia).

In 1315, Florence was forced by Uguccione della Faggiuola (the military officer controlling the city) to grant an amnesty to those in exile, including Dante. But for this, Florence required public penance in addition to payment of a huge fine. Dante refused, preferring to remain in exile. His death sentence was commuted to house arrest, on condition that he go to Florence to swear he would never enter the town again. Since he refused to do this and pay his fine, his death sentence was again confirmed and extended to his sons. (In June 2008, nearly seven centuries after his death, the city council of Florence passed a motion rescinding Dante’s sentence!)
In the spring of 1312, Dante seemed to have gone with the other exiles to meet up with the new emperor at Pisa. However, his exact whereabouts during this period are uncertain. By 1314, however, we know that Dante had completed the Inferno section of La Commedia, and in 1318 he settled in Ravenna under the patronage of Guido II da Polenta where he completed the entire La Commedia soon before his death in 1321.

“Inferno” illuminated manuscript. (Wikimedia commons)

La Commedia

La Commedia 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 to the path of righteousness: “to remove those living in this life from the state of misery, and lead them to the state of felicity.” Unlike the epic works that came before it, La Commedia was written in the vernacular Florentine language that would become what we know as Italian, instead of the more acceptable Latin or Greek. This allowed the work to be published to a much broader audience, contributing substantially to literacy and to the development of a singular Italian language.

The poem is composed of 100 cantos, written in the measure known as terza rima (third rhyme) that is an interlocking three-rhyme scheme in which the divine number 3 appears in each part of the poem. Dante modified this style from its popular form so that its use here might be regarded as his own invention. Some readers often wonder why the poem, which is dealing with such a serious subject, is titled “Commedia.” In the classical sense the word Commedia refers to works which reflect a belief in an ordered universe, one in which events tend toward not only a happy or amusing end, but one that is influenced by a Providential will that orders all things to an ultimate good. By this meaning of the word, the progression of the pilgrimage from Inferno to Paradiso is the paradigmatic expression of Commedia, since the poem begins with the pilgrim’s moral confusion and ends with the vision of God.

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, purgatory and finally heaven. The Roman poet Virgil serves as Dante’s guide and protector through hell (Inferno) and purgatory (Purgatorio). However, he must stop at the gate to heaven since he is not a baptized believer. The parting of the two at the end of the Purgatorio is emotional and wrenching as Dante bids farewell to his great poetic precursor. His ex-love, the beautiful Beatrice, returns to Dante’s imagination, joyously and lovingly guiding him through heaven (Paradiso). The journey in the poem lasts from the night before Good Friday (i.e. evening of Holy Thursday) to the Wednesday after Easter in the spring of 1300 (placing it before Dante’s real exile from Florence, which looms throughout the Inferno and serves as an undercurrent to the poet’s journey).

The structure of the three realms of the afterlife follows a common pattern of nine stages plus an additional, and paramount for that realm, tenth stage: 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 the nine celestial bodies of heaven, followed by the Empyrean (the highest stage of heaven, where God resides).

Virgil guides Dante through Inferno and a phenomenal array of sinners in their various states of punishment. Constructed as a huge funnel with nine descending circular ledges, Dante’s Inferno features a vast, meticulously organized torture chamber in which sinners, carefully classified according to the nature of their sins, suffer hideous punishment, often depicted with ghoulish attention to detail. As they descend through this torture chamber, Dante and Virgil stop along the way to speak with some of the characters. They discover a mood of overwhelming despair and total lack of faith and hope in anything beyond the eternal punishment that the sinners experience here. Each circular ledge of hell is reserved for those who have committed some specific sin, and Dante spares no artistic expense at creating the punishing landscape. For instance, in the ninth circle (reserved for those guilty of treachery), occupants are buried in ice up to their chins, chew on each other and are beyond redemption, damned eternally to their new fate. The Inferno also contains criticism of what Dante saw as the corruption of Papal authority; in fact, several popes find themselves in Inferno, accused of being shepherds who have favored gold over their flocks. Down there in the pit with the popes are clergy who sold ecclesiastical positions and privileges for personal profit. In the final circle, there is no one left for Dante and Virgil to talk to. Satan is buried to the waist in ice, weeping from his six eyes and chewing Judas, Cassius and Brutus, who are, by Dante’s accounting, the three greatest traitors in history.

Following a brief sojourn at this final circle, the most terrible place in Inferno, the duo moves on to Purgatorio. Here, Virgil leads Dante in a long climb up the Mount of Purgatory, through seven levels of suffering and spiritual growth, which is an allegory for the seven deadly sins, before finally reaching the Garden of Eden, the earthly paradise at the top of the mountain. It is a far different suffering place from Inferno since it is here that sinners recognize and repudiate their sins and have hope that they will eventually attain the eternal peace and happiness of Paradiso with its vision of God. It is the Christian waiting room of the afterlife, where the sinners are given the opportunity to attain Paradiso through the arduous process of purification that is the hallmark of this place. There is a shift from human reason to divine revelation that takes place in Purgatorio; it is a place where penitents awaiting the final journey to Paradiso continually reaffirm their faith and atone for the sins they committed on earth. There is a mood of brotherly love, modesty, hope, and longing for God that prevails in Purgatorio. The poet’s journey here represents the Christian life, in which Dante must learn to reject the earthly paradise with its temporal goods that he craves and are not really satisfying, for the heavenly paradise with all its permanent good that he desires and that awaits him.

Dante the character, in Purgatory, begins his process of spiritual rehabilitation while Dante the writer continues to show a breathtaking conceit in placing his villains and his heroes where he thinks they belong either in Inferno or Purgatorio, according to their deeds in this life. It is a ruthless attack on Dante’s political rivals and the poor political and moral health of Italy, which he contemplated at the time of writing. However, in the end, it does not really matter if Dante’s assessments are accurate; the point of these sections is really for the reader to more clearly identify the consequences in eternity of one’s actions in this life. The condemnation of real people in a fictional tale certainly adds to the power of Dante’s message but it was a strategy not without its consequences. The banker Reginaldo Scrovegni of Padua, for example, was a notorious moneylender, and he is mentioned by Dante as the worst example in Purgatory of the sin of usury. This unflattering appearance is suggested to have led Reginaldo’s son, Enrico, as a sort of penance on behalf of the family, to build the Scrovegni chapel near his villa (known popularly as The Arena Chapel) and to have Giotto decorate its interior.

Beatrice, representing divine enlightenment, takes over from Virgil and leads Dante through Paradiso, up through the nine levels of the heavens (represented as various celestial spheres) to true paradise: the Empyrean, where God resides. Along the way, Dante encounters those who on earth were giants of intellectualism, faith, justice and love, such as St. Dominic, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Bernard, King Solomon and Dante’s own great-great-grandfather, Cacciaguida. It is in encountering these giants of humanity that Dante is carried beyond himself—it is the start of his rehabilitation. In the final sphere of Paradiso, Dante comes face to face with God himself, who is represented as three concentric circles, which in turn represent the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, i.e. the Trinity. The journey ends here with true heroic and spiritual fulfillment and eternal happiness. Thus, the Paradiso is a poem of fulfillment and of completion: it is the fulfillment of what is prefigured in all the earlier canticles of La Commedia, and it aesthetically completes La Commedia’s elaborate system of anticipation and retrospection.

La Commedia was immediately popular as hundreds of manuscript copies were made and distributed across Europe. By the year 1400, no fewer than 12 commentaries devoted to detailed expositions of its meaning had appeared. There continued to be many commentaries written on it during the late Medieval and Renaissance periods. The work was praised and promoted in public lectures by such literary luminaries as Petrarch (1304-1374) and Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375). Boccaccio wrote a biography of Dante and delivered the first public lectures, commissioned by Florence, on La Commedia in 1373-74. In the end, La Commedia became inseparable from the author and was simply known as Il Dante. Boccaccio called Dante Il Divino Poeta (The Divine Poet), and later he applied the adjective to the poem’s title. Thus the simple La Commedia became La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy). Another boost to its popularity came around 1472 when it was printed for the first time. Since La Divina Commedia was written in the vernacular Italian (as spoken in Florence), instead of the more acceptable Latin or Greek, the work was published to a much broader audience, contributing substantially to literacy in Italy and making the Risorgimento both possible and successful. The success continued, and by 1600, 50 editions had been printed.

However, there was some criticism of Dante’s poem, most notably that his use of the vernacular meant it lacked the subtlety and finesse some thought only Latin could permit. Further, his choice of language made certain moral, philosophical, and scientific ideas accessible to less educated readers unable to read Latin, something considered, even during the Renaissance and later periods, as unsuitable and potentially dangerous.

Deathmask, Palazzo Vecchio, Firenze

Final Years

Dante’s final days were spent in Ravenna, where he had been invited to stay in 1318 by its prince, Guido II da Polenta. Dante died peacefully of malaria in Ravenna on September 14, 1321, at the age of 56. He had contracted the disease while returning from a diplomatic mission to the Republic of Venice. At his deathbed, he was attended by his three children, and possibly by his wife, Gemma Donati, along with friends and admirers from the city. He was buried in Ravenna at the Church of San Pier Maggiore (later called Basilica di San Francesco). Bernardo Bembo, the praetor of the Republic of Venice, erected a tomb for him there in 1483.
In 1329, Cardinal Bertrand du Pouget, the papal legate and the nephew of Pope John XXII, classified Dante’s De Monarchia as heretical and sought to have his bones burned at the stake as punishment. (Ostasio I da Polenta, the Prince-Bishop of Ravenna, and Pino della Tosa, the envoy plenipotentiary of Florence to Ravenna, powerful friends of Pouget, interceded and prevented the destruction of Dante’s remains).

Florence eventually came to regret having exiled Dante in 1302. The city made repeated requests for the return of his remains. However, the custodians of his body in Ravenna refused, at one point going so far as to conceal the bones in a fake wall in a monastery. Florence did build a tomb for Dante in 1829, in the Basilica of Santa Croce, but that tomb has remained empty ever since, with Dante’s remains remaining in Ravenna. (The front of this cenotaph in Florence reads Onorate l’Altissimo Poeta (Honor the Most Exalted Poet), a quote from the fourth canto of the Inferno). There is also a copy of Dante’s death mask that has been displayed since 1911 in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. However, scholars today believe it is not a true death mask and was probably carved in 1483.

Besides literature, Dante also influenced Renaissance painters. His vision of Hell, for example, inspired many works depicting the Last Judgement. Michelangelo (1475-1564) was said to have been able to reel off passages of the La Divina Commedia by heart. Finally, Dante himself became the subject of Renaissance art, most famously inside the cathedral of Florence. Here, in a 1465 painting by Domenico di Michelino, the poet is shown standing holding a copy of his La Divina Commedia in front of the hill of Purgatory and the city of Florence.

Today, La Divina Commedia continues to be studied at colleges and universities worldwide and continues, too, to perplex scholars with its breadth of language and depth of themes and characters. As the historian Michael Wyatt states, it is “a poem that resists classification in its employment of classical, medieval, and proto-Renaissance literary conventions in a wide variety of linguistic registers.” Perhaps here lies the key to the continuing fascination of both Dante and his work.

Adapted by James J. Boitano, PhD from:
Biography.com website;
Cartwright, Mark. “Dante Alighieri.” World History Encyclopedia website, October 12, 2020;
Poetry Foundation website;
Poets.org website;
Quinones, Ricardo J. “Dante: Italian Poet.” Encyclopedia Britannica website;
Wikipedia website;
Wyatt, Michael, editor. The Cambridge Companion to the Italian Renaissance. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2014, p. 4.

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