Considered the finest poet that Italy has ever produced, Dante is also celebrated as a major influence on western European culture. His masterpiece, La divina commedia (1306-21; The Divine Comedy) is universally known as one of the greatest poems in world literature. Divided into three sections – the Inferno, the Purgatorio, and the Paradiso – The Divine Comedy presents an encyclopedic overview of the mores, attitudes, beliefs, philosophies, and aspirations, as well as the material aspects of the medieval world. More than a summa of medieval life, however, Dante's poem is a superb work of fiction with poignant dramatic episodes and unforgettable characters. The eminent 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 was born in Florence in 1265. Little is known about his early education, but scholars surmise that he received formal instruction in grammar, language, and philosophy at one of the Franciscan schools in the city. In 1274, at the age of nine, he was introduced to Bice, or Beatrice, Portinari; they met again nine years later, and Dante became profoundly affected by her consummate beauty and grace. As a result of Beatrice's untimely death in 1290, Dante was inspired to commemorate her in several works, most notably as the ideal lady who leads him to redemption in The Divine Comedy. During his teens, Dante demonstrated a keen interest in literature and undertook an apprenticeship with Brunetto Latini, a celebrated poet and prose writer who wrote in the Italian vernacular. Through Latini's instruction, Dante expanded his knowledge of literature and rhetoric and began to interact with a circle of respected Florentine poets. Through this association, Dante befriended Guido Cavalcanti sometime around 1283, and the poet helped Dante refine his literary skills into a cohesive, albeit still immature, style. The same year, having reached his eighteenth birthday, Dante inherited a modest family fortune from his parents, both of whom had died during his upbringing. Two years later, he married Gemma Donati, a union arranged by his father as early as 1277. In 1287 Dante enrolled in the University of Bologna and completed at least one course, but two years later, he enlisted in the Florentine army and took part in the Battle of Campaldino.
The death of Beatrice Portinari in 1290 proved to be a turning point in Dante's life. Stricken with grief, he began an intensive philosophical study of the works of Boethius, Cicero, and Aristotle, among others. In addition, he began to write poetry in earnest, breaking free from the influence of Latini and Cavalcanti and establishing his own poetic voice in innovative canzoni, or lyrical poems. During this time, Dante also became increasingly active in Florentine political affairs: in 1295 he enrolled in the Guild of Doctors and Pharmacists; 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 Guelfs. In Florence, papal interests were represented by the Guelf party, whereas the Ghibellines influenced the opposing party. The political situation became even more confusing when the Guelfs split into two factions, the Whites and the Blacks. The Whites were not as fiercely anti-Ghibelline as the Blacks, but the Blacks had the support of papal forces in Florence. In 1301 the Blacks, backed by Pope Boniface VIII and the French forces of Charles of Valois, staged a coup in Florence and established themselves as absolute rulers. Prominent Whites, including Dante, were stripped of their possessions and banished from the city. Never resigning himself to exile, Dante continued to support the opposition to Boniface in the hope of returning to Florence after the pope's defeat. It was with great enthusiasm, therefore, that Dante greeted Henry of Luxembourg, Holy Roman Emperor from 1312 to 1313, who in 1310 attempted to wrest Italy from papal control. Henry's Italian expedition failed, however, and with the emperor's death in 1313, Dante lost hope of ever returning to his native city. He spent his remaining years in Verona and later in Ravenna, where he died in 1321.
In a famous letter to his Veronan benefactor, Can Grande della Scala, Dante defines his purpose for writing The Divine Comedy as an attempt "to remove those living in this life from the state of misery and lead them to the state of felicity." Furthermore, the poet describes his masterpiece as "polysemous," specifying the principal levels of meaning as both literal and allegorical. In the literal sense, the subject of the entire poem, according to Dante, is "the state of souls after death," whereas in allegorical terms, the poem is about humankind, who by exercising free will bring "rewarding or punishing justice" upon themselves. Dante's magnum opus 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, bore the stigma of vulgarity, as evidenced by the word Volgare, the Italian term for the vernacular. Despite Dante's universality and truly 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 skillfully harmonized his semantic inventiveness and poetic sonority to create what is widely considered the foundation of Italian literature and a point of reference for subsequent writers.
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 La vita nuova (c. 1293; The 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 divine and mystical spiritual revelation. Written in commemoration of Beatrice's death, The New Life reflects Dante's first effort to depict her as an abstract model of love and beauty. Il convivio (1304-07; The Banquet) is another collection of canzoni that further develops the poet's use of the stil nuovo. Completing Dante's register of principal works are De vulgari eloquentia (1303-07; Eloquence in the Vernacular Tongue), an unfinished Latin tract that examines the origin of languages and dialects and how they relate the composition of vernacular poetry, and De monarchia (c. 1313; On Monarchy), a Latin treatise that analyzes the poet's political philosophy.
The Inferno is the most popular and widely studied section of The Divine Comedy. In this sequence, Dante describes his journey through Hell, from the entrance at the lowest point, in the company of Vergil, his mentor and protector. Constructed as a huge funnel with nine descending circular ledges, Dante's Hell is a vast and meticulously organized torture chamber in which sinners, carefully and almost pedantically classified according to the nature of their sins, suffer hideous punishment, often depicted with ghoulish attention to detail. A lower circle indicates a graver sin; and the sins, which include different forms of carnal weakness, wrath, malice, fraud, and heresy, culminate in treason, the sin of the ninth circle, where Lucifer, "The Emperor of the Universe of Pain," reigns. Underlying the punitive reality of the Inferno is divine justice, which, as Dante understood it, manifests itself through the law of talion, or retribution. Hell, therefore, incarnates ultimate justice, which springs from divine love. But this love, transformed into merciless retribution, strikes – as the poet sees clearly – the unrepentant, while those who recognize and repudiate their sins are given the opportunity to attain Paradise through the arduous process of purification.
Dante's supernatural quest to attain purification extends beyond the Inferno and continues in the Purgatorio and the Paradiso. If Paradise is the ultimate reward, Dante's pilgrimage to Hell is a painful but necessary first step: necessary because it is impossible to reject sin without knowing its very nature. As the symbol of human reason Vergil helps Dante to understand sin, but beyond the Inferno, Vergil's power is useless. To gain his ultimate goal, Paradise, Dante needs a more powerful guide, who represents faith, the divine gift that infinitely surpasses reason. This guide is Beatrice. The transfer between human reason and divine revelation takes place in Purgatory, a place where penitents who await the final journey to Paradise continually reaffirm their faith and atone for the sins they committed on earth. The predominant mood among the inhabitants of Purgatory is one of brotherly love and modesty, as well as a longing to complete their pilgrimage to God. Dante's spiritual journey to God in the Paradiso is the manifestation of his voyage through the realms of Hell and Purgatory. Through the process of spiritual regeneration and purification, Dante has prepared himself to meet God, and through the light of God's divine truth and eternal goodness the poet is ultimately rewarded with perfect knowledge.
Dante's Divine Comedy was an immediate sensation during his life, and several versions were copied and circulated among his contemporaries. 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. Dante's fame waned during the Italian Renaissance, when scholars, intent on affirming humankind's importance in the universal scheme of things, rejected the poet's inherently theocentric world view. To the Renaissance mind, Dante represented the bygone world of medieval dogmatism. The fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries produced scholarly textual commentaries on The Divine Comedy, the most famous of which is by was Cristofo Landino; this commentary appeared in 1482, in the first Florentine edition of the poem, which was illustrated by Sandro Botticelli. Dante was very nearly ignored in the seventeenth century – a period of self-conscious neo-classicism – because the overwhelming fervor of his poetry seemed at odds with the classicist principle of subordinating poetical inspiration to canons of stylistic harmony and formal clarity. However, in Spain, where Dante's poetry had been respected throughout the Renaissance and the baroque period, the poet found such admirers as Francisco de Quevedo y Villegas, who emulated the Inferno in his Los Suenos (1627). In the eighteenth century, critics of the Age of Enlightenment found Dante utterly horrifying, even grotesque; for them, the apocalyptic tenor of Dante's poetry was at odds with the glorification of the power of human reason.
A turning point in the reception of The Divine Comedy came with a renewed interest in the Inferno in 1783. Antoine de Rivarol's important French translation of the first section of the Comedy set the stage for a revival of Dante in the period of romanticism, whose prominent representatives venerated the Italian poet. Poets like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron were attracted by what they perceived as the "romantic" qualities of the Inferno, whereas Dante's medieval religiosity strongly appealed to Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand, whose attachment to Roman Catholicism is a significant feature of the romantic spirit. Victor Hugo summed up the 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, but Dante criticism was dominated by Francesco De Sanctis, the illustrious Italian critic, who approached the Inferno as a superior and inimitable work of art. For De Sanctis, Dante's greatness lay in his ability to express the ungraspable plenitude of life. "Art," De Sanctis wrote, "like Nature, is a generator, and it generates not species or kinds nor types nor patterns, but individuals – res, not species rerum. So Hell is the most fully and richly alive, and the most generally admired, of the three worlds. And then the life of Hell, or the earthly life, is taken by Dante from the very reality of his own surroundings; it is the epic portrayal of barbarism, in which the superabundance of life and passion overflow their bounds."
Early in the twentieth century, Benedetto Croce helped redirect the critical focus from the Inferno back to the whole Divine Comedy. According to Croce, "Dante's poetry has been obscured in several places by [the] aesthetic preconceptions and predilections of the Romantics. If they did not invent, they at least gave nourishment and vigor to the common belief that the poem of the Inferno is poetically superior to the other two, since it is that in which the human passions find their place, whereas they lose somewhat of their force and relief in the Purgatorio and vanish away altogether in the Paradiso." Many scholars began to examine the structural unity of The Divine Comedy, discussing the interrelationship between medieval symbolism and allegory within the different parts of the poem and exploring Dante's all-encompassing narrative strategy. During this period of intense critical scrutiny, Erich Auerbach developed a seminal analysis of The Divine Comedy, in which he defines Dante as a "secular poet" and argues that the Inferno, although seemingly about a supernatural realm populated by spectres, achieves "the astonishing paradox" of depicting life in its full richness. Through these observations, Auerbach developed the concept of figura, which denotes an earthly event or person – such as Vergil or Beatrice – as "a prophecy... of a part of a wholly divine reality that will be enacted in the future." It was Auerbach's hope that a figural approach to Dante's poem would assist scholars in overcoming the methodological difficulties inherent in interpretations based on symbolic and allegorical analysis. Indeed, the concept of figura enabled researchers to grasp the historical dimension of Dante's narrative and thereby understand the poet's journey beyond, which as Charles Singleton has stated, "exceeds metaphor" and cannot be reduced "to the kind of allegory in which it had its origin."
In recent years, critics representing various poststructuralist currents have marvelled at the seemingly inexhaustible richness, both formal and semantic, of Dante's poetic text. Philippe Sollers, for example, has interpreted the Inferno as a "text that writes itself," suggesting, paradoxically, that the author can be replaced by the text. This denial of the author's role as creator, stemming from the view that certain elements of the text figure independently of the writer's conscious intentions, shows, surprisingly, some similarities with Dante's conception of authorship. In accordance with the traditional medieval view of the artist as artisan, Dante believed that the world – including works of art – is created by the divine Word, and that meaning is ultimately bestowed only by God. Therefore, the Inferno, as a poem about the consequences of denying God, describes the horror of meaninglessness.
With its various enigmatic layers of philological and philosophical complexities, The Divine Comedy has remained subject to continuous scrutiny by critics, literary theorists, linguists, and philosophers. But Dante's masterful description of man's journey through Hell and Purgatory in pursuit of spiritual perfection in Paradise is above all a poem that speaks to essential human worries and concerns, primarily because it has the awesome power and poetic universality of myth. In the last analysis, The Divine Comedy is perhaps cherished as an immortal work of art precisely because it translates the harsh truth about the human condition into poetry of timeless beauty.
Born May, 1265, in Florence, Italy; died in Ravenna, Italy, September 13 or 14, 1321; son of Alighiero di Bellincione d'Alighiero (a member of the lesser nobility) and his first wife; married Gemma Donati, c. 1285; children: Pietro, Jacopo, Antonia Beatrice.
Received early education at Franciscan school in Florence; studied rhetoric at University of Bologna, 1287; studied in Padua, Paris, and probably Oxford. Apprenticed to writer, scholar, and statesman Brunetto Latini.
Allied with White Gueph faction.
Italian poet and politician. Served on People's Council of the Commune of Florence and Council for Election of the Priors of the City, both 1295, Council to the Captain of the People, 1295-96, Council of the Hundred, 1296; elected to one of six positions as Prior of Florentine guilds, 1300, then condemned to death in absentia as a result of conquest of White Guelph faction and banished from Florence for remainder of life.
Florentine army; fought during battle of Campaldino against Arezzo and Pisa, 1289.
Guild of Doctors and Pharmacists.
G. A. Scartazzini, "On the Congruence of Sins and Punishments in Dante's Inferno," translated by Thekla in The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, Vol. XXII, Nos. 1 & 2, January & April, 1888, pp. 21-83.
G. Wilson Knight, "Renaissance Prophets: Dante, Goethe, Shakespeare," in his The Christian Renaissance, Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1962, pp. 95-121.
Sheila Ralphs, in her Dante's Journey to the Centre: Some Patterns in His Allegory, Manchester University Press, 1972, 63 p.
Source: DISCovering Authors, Gale Group.