Monday, June 05, 2006


The author of the Divine Comedy, known to the ages by his first name, Dante, lived in a turbulent place and time, and knew his share of bitterness and violence. These harsh experiences, however, seem to have inspired Dante, turning him inward in an investigation of the goodness at the core of the human soul and encouraging in him an astonishing sense of hope and vision.

Throughout much of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, Florence was racked in conflict between the Guelphs (a political faction which recognized the authority of the papacy in secular affairs) and the Ghibellines (an opposing faction who maintained loyalty to the Holy Roman Emperor). Dante's father was a Guelph through and through, whose great-grandfather had died fighting on behalf of Pope Eugenius III during the Second Crusade; Dante's mother, however, was a Ghibelline, and thus Dante was the product of a cross-factional alliance which probably had more to do with assuaging the powers that raged among the local townsmen and nobility than anything as lofty as pope against emperor. Dante Alighieri was born on this day in Florence in 1265.

His parents saw to his education in Latin and in the Christian fathers at the Franciscan school at Santa Croce in Florence, and found a willing pupil, who so loved Virgil's Aeneid that he committed the entire work to memory. When he was but 9, he had a Fred Savage-Wonder Years, love-at-first-sight encounter while attending mass: the graceful 8-year old, white-frocked Beatrice Portinari captivated him, and though he wouldn't see her again for another 9 years (only to "court" her with furtive, tender glances thereafter) -- having in the interim been promised in marriage to Gemma Donati, the daughter of a politically powerful family -- Beatrice became Dante's central inspiration for his writing and his spiritual growth, "the glorious lady of my mind" to whom his imagination could retreat to seek comfort from the harsh realities of politics and war.

Although he fought against the Ghibellines at the Battle of Campaldino in 1289, Dante saw himself as a poet rather than a soldier, writing love poems and sending them to Guido Cavalcanti, the greatest among the new poets in Florence, for critical guidance. When Beatrice died in 1290, Dante's sense of loss set his compass: he spent the next 4 years writing Vita Nuova, a lyric sequence about his chaste, self-denying love for Beatrice, linked together by prose commentaries of critical self-analysis over his somewhat dissipated lifestyle -- written in Italian instead of the usual Latin, lending an intensely personal atmosphere for his explorations. He dedicated the work to his mentor Cavalcanti, yet politics would bring him in conflict with Cavalcanti.

From 1295, Dante gained political influence as a member of the Florentine electoral councils, and in June 1300 he was elected to the ruling council of Florence. By this time, Florence had seen a split among the ruling Guelphs into the "Bianchi" (merchants who wanted peace with neighboring states to improve the trade routes) and "Neri" (the wealthiest banking families who saw Florentine imperialism as the path to greater wealth) factions. Dante, a member of the Bianchi who were then in control of the city, proposed a ritual truce for the violence which called for sending the leaders of the 2 factions into exile. This sent his "first friend" Cavalcanti to malaria-stricken Sarzana, where the poet died shortly thereafter. (Perhaps it would in part be his shame over these events that would lead him to write, in the Comedy, that "the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in time of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.")

The following year, the Neri took control of Florence while Dante was on a diplomatic mission to confer with Boniface VIII, and Dante found himself permanently exiled from Florence, condemned to be burned alive if her ever set foot in Florence again. Deprived of his home, wealth and family and wandering from town to town, Dante distracted himself from his sense of loss and political intrigues by writing, beginning De Vulgari Eloquentia (1304, an argument in Latin for the charms of vernacular Italian as a unifying language of literature among the Italian city-states) and The Banquet (1307, a set of philosophical commentaries on of his own poems).

Yet there was enough rage in him to proceed with his masterpiece, the allegorical poem cycle known as the Divine Comedy (begun 1314), divided into 3 canticles -- Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso -- ostensibly as an account of Dante's own journey through the regions of the afterlife. With Virgil (representing human reason) as his guide, Dante scales the nine circles of hell from the "dark wood" of middle age where there is no hope, then up the mountain of Purgatory. As pilgrim and travel writer, Dante takes his readers through an encyclopedic commentary on the morality, political aspirations, philosophies and material desires of the Medieval world (in many cases naming names and taking no prisoners), interweaving autobiographical, historical and mythical elements through dramatic scenes ranging from the sarcastic to the horrifying to the poignant. As he leaves the Inferno, however, reason can no longer be his guide, and faith, represented by his beloved Beatrice, takes over as his guide through Purgatory, where penitents reaffirm their faith and atone for their sins, to Paradise, where after a journey of spiritual awakening and purification, he prepares to see God and attain perfect knowledge.

Dante, by this time a favorite at the court of Guido da Polenta in Ravenna, completed the final cantos of Paradiso on the night of his death, September 14, 1321. Even during his life, the Divine Comedy was a sensation, and his home-city of Florence did him the posthumous honor of appointing Giovanni Boccaccio to deliver a series of lectures on Dante's masterpiece. Chaucer was an admirer of his work as well, and although the apocalyptic aspects of Dante's work fell out of favor somewhat during the Renaissance and Enlightenment eras, Byron and Shelley saw Dante as their forbearer, and later T.S. Eliot quoted freely from Dante, finding in him a modern poet who articulated the meaninglessness of a life without God.

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