Dante Alighieri

The Creator of the Divine Comedy



The year 1265 must be regarded as one of the most significant dates in the history of European culture, for in that year, in the city of Florence, one of Europe's greatest poets, Dante Alighieri, was born. The city had already become a large and prosperous place deriving its increasing wealth from banking and textiles and its growing fame from its art, architecture and learning. But it was also, like so many of the city-states in late medieval Italy, a place riven with the violent internecine strife of ambitious family groupings struggling for power. We know little certain knowledge of the early life of the boy, Dante, except that he grew up in an old Florentine family and probably received his education at the hands of both the Franciscan and Dominican friars: the relatively newly-founded, but dominant teaching orders. He himself was to become deeply immersed in the politics of the city, but long before he entered public life, and long before he wrote any of his poetry, an event occurred which was to be the focal point of his entire existence. The year 1274 is a date almost equally important as the birth date of Dante, for it was in this year that, at the age of nine, he met, and fell in love with, a girl only a little younger than himself whom we know as Beatrice. They met only two - or perhaps three - times after this early encounter, and no-one knows what the girl Beatrice Portinari, thought of the ardent young man, Dante Alighieri. Beatrice herself had, before her twenty-fifth birthday, already been married and had died; yet she became the source of the inspiration of his greatest poetry: the Divina Commedia, a work that has come to be universally recognised as one of the masterpieces of literature. It is not only a work to which later generations of writers refer with an admiration amounting to awe, but one that has helped to shape the thinking and imagination of the whole of Western European civilisation.

As a young man Dante became a member of a group of poets who were beginning to break away from the style and vocabulary of traditional forms of religious and love poetry to forge what became known as the dolce stil nuovo, the 'sweet new style'; and in 1292, four years after the death of Beatrice, Dante wrote the book which was to signal to the world the arrival of a major new talent, the Vita Nuova; a work which springs out his love for Beatrice and tells the story of that original encounter and the subsequent loss of his beloved. It still has echoes of style of the poetry of courtly love but it carries the connection between the passionate love of the beloved and the glory of divine love to remarkable, even scanda lous, lengths. It consists of thirty-one poems interspersed with prose commentaries and has, to modern ears, a formal, elaborate and extravagant method of presentation. In other words it is not the kind of love poetry that we have become accustomed to; nonetheless, it gives a vivid picture of the coming into being of a great poetic gift joined to a profound and penetrating mind. And it is revolutionary: Many of the love poets of the era address their beloved in terms of exaggerated praise, speaking of them as ones sent from heaven; Dante goes much further: Beatrice is seen as conveying in her person something of the glory of God appearing in the streets of Florence and, in the end, draws Dante up to heaven. Beatrice dies and is lost to Dante; but though lost to the poet in the streets of Florence, she will return to him later in his visionary imagination as he begins the Divine Comedy ten years later and encounters her again as he approaches Paradise.

But before he began work on the poem that would establish his immortality as an artist, Dante was involved, between the years 1292 and 1302, in the fractious politics of his native city. By the end of the century he had become one of the six priors, high ranking officials who, with the podesta, governed the city. But as the thirteenth century turned into the fourteenth century, Florence was, once again, torn apart by civil conflict; conflict that arose, this time, out of the rivalry between the two factions of the Guelph party - Dante was on the losing side. While he was out of Florence on an ambassadorial mission to the Pope in 1301 his enemies came to power and in the following year pronounced a sentence of exile on him. He never saw his beloved city again, and it was in exile that he produced the great works by which he is known. Again, little is known in detail of the early years of his exile but he was given shelter for a large part of that time at the court of the ruler of the city of Verona, Can Grande della Scala. It was there that he was joined by his sons. But in 1318 we find him in the court of Guido Novella da Polenta, ruler of the city of Ravenna. It was in Ravenna that he died in 1321 and in that city that he was buried. In these years of bitter exile the works flowed from his pen - many of them unfinished, either because the manuscripts have been lost or because he himself abandoned them before completion. In 1303 he began his work De Eloquentia, a treatise in Latin which is both a disquisition on the nature of language and a defence of the use of the vernacular. In 1304 a substantial work of philosophy, Il Convivio, was begun. Written in Italian, it is essentially a commentary on three philosophical poems he had written earlier in his life which has the purpose of making accessible to the general reader some of the disputes that had occupied the minds of the professional philosophers in the great schools. In this work themes appear which are taken up in the Comedy. The outlines of Dante's Catholic philosophy and theology are already in evidence. Much attention is given to the relation between faith and reason and it is noticeable that Dante places a high value on the power of reason to realise, at the level of nature, the potentialities of the human being. For Dante, as for Thomas Aquinas, reason and intelligence prepare the ground for faith and revelation. This, in itself, is not remarkable; what, however, will seem remarkable to the modern reader is the place accorded to love. This love, as we shall see from the Comedy, is not mere emotion, but operates as the fundamental law of the universe; indeed, the universe is governed by love. It is here too that Dante adumbrates the cosmology, his theory of the disposition and movements of the stars and planets in the universe, that will inform and provide the context for the narrative of the Comedy. In 1312 - 1313 his work on political philosophy, De Monarchia, (in Latin) appeared. Here Dante is again revolutionary, for he proposes a radical separation of temporal and spiritual power. The authority of the State exists so that every person may reach his or her own 'liberty and power' at the level of natural existence and prepare the way for the grace of spiritual life. The authority of the Church exists to bring every human being to the enjoyment of the beatific vision. The State is under the governance of the Emperor: the Church under the governance of the Pope. Neither is to trespass upon the sphere of the other. And all the time, from 1302 to his death in 1321, he was writing what was to become, like the plays of William Shakespeare or Faust of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, one of the undisputed masterpieces of Western European literature, the Divina Commedia.

The Comedy is one of the most carefully wrought and meticulously organised of all great literary works. The number three, the number of the Persons of the Holy Trinity, dominates symbolically. The poem is divided into three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. After an introductory canto in Inferno, each part has thirty-three cantos. His verse-form is the terza rima a three-line stanza. Dante calls it a 'comedy' on the simple grounds that it begins in sadness and ends in happiness. It is not written in either the elaborate style of courtly love poetry or in the lofty style of philosophical verse, but in the swiftly-moving style of colloquial, Florentine Italian; and it is the story of the poet's visionary journey from darkness to light; from earth, through hell, to heaven. It is also a great Christian allegory of the journey of the soul as it is drawn from the chaos and confusion of this world to the sight of God. It is profoundly Christian in its sensibility and profoundly Catholic in its theology. But where it is most astonishing is in its portrayal of human love and the place it is given in the mystery of salvation; at the heart of this poem is Dante's love for Beatrice and the redemptive power of that love. This is where Dante transforms the tradition of love poetry he had inherited. As against the old tradition, love is not merely a hopeless passion or an exhilarating madness, it is also a matter of intelligence and obedience. As against the modern Romantic tradition, love is not an end in itself but points away from itself to its divine origin. This is precisely the function Beatrice performs in the theological scheme of the poem. She exists both as herself, the girl with whom Dante fell in love, and also as the sign and vehicle of the love of God.

Throughout the journey Dante is guided: first by the 'shade' of the poet he most admired, Virgil, the poet par excellence, of the Roman Empire; then by Beatrice herself; and finally by St. Bernard of Clairvaux. It is Virgil who comes, at the behest of Beatrice, to lead him into hell and through the darkness and terrors of the circles of the damned to the place of salvation. Virgil, like Beatrice, is both himself, Dante's poetic master of the first century, and also the allegorical figure of Reason. The 'geography' of Inferno, while influenced by Virgil's description of the underworld in his own Aeneid, is, nonetheless, Dante's own creation. Having passed thr ough the limbo of the virtuous pagans, the two travellers enter the infernal regions themselves and move down through the circles of the damned: first through those in which the sins of incontinence are punished, then through the circles of false belief, then of malice, then of violence, and finally of treachery. Dante's characteristic rhetorical device throughout Inferno is the contrapasso: in each place an appropriate punishment is devised for the particular sin that is under discussion. The result is an astonishingly vivid and, often distressing, portrait sin and damnation. As they make their journey Dante speaks to the denizens of these terrible places to learn their history and articulate a theology. It must be stressed that no person is condemned to these regions by the arbitrary will of a vengeful deity; every sinner is there because a free choice has been made to reject the good and choose the evil. Dante's theological vision of the afterlife is based upon a doctrine of radical freewill; the belief that every human being is able to make this choice between good and evil freely. At the bottom of Inferno are the traitors, confined in a sea of ice, a sea in which Satan himself is also imprisoned. This figure of Satan is of particular interest, for the portrayal of him as helplessly beating the air with his wings, emphasises the conviction of Dante that human beings bring about, and are responsible for, their own condemnation: the b lame for wickedness cannot be shifted away from individual human beings, on to the influence of some supernatural malignan t force. Dante and Virgil emerge from this world of horror and damnation into the country of the redeemed: Purgatorio.








It is true that purgatory is still a place of suffering but it is also a region of love and joy. In classical Catholic theology it is the 'place', or the 'process', of purification in which the souls of the redeemed are already on their journey to God. The darkness, cold, fears, despair and horrors of hell are behind and Virgil and Dante emerge on to the shore of a high mountain rising out of a calm sea that is bathed in the soft sunlight of early morning. On the seven terraces of the mountain are the souls of those who are joyfully undertaking their purification as they progress towards their union with God. Here in Purgatorio Dante adopts a more conventional schema: the seven deadly sins. On each of the terraces of the mountain one of the sins is being purged. The most serious is at the first cornice, the least serious is at the top. So we are given: Pride, Envy, Anger, Sloth, Avarice, Greed and Lust. The arrangement of these sins is a significant part of Dante's theological apprehension. As in Inferno, Dante converses with those whose sins are being purged; he learns their histories and discusses theological and philosophical problems. Here, then, we are given sophisticated discussions on the nature of freewill, the soul and love. Where rudeness and violence were the marks of Inferno, courtesy is the rule of this holy mountain; and between the Church Expectant and the Church Triumphant there is a constant interchange of prayer. Heaven and hell are places, or conditions, of permanence; purgatory is a place, or condition, of change and movement. Here too the poetic device of contrapasso is used to telling effect: each sin is purged by an appropriate discipline.

When Dante and his guide arrive at the final terrace where the sin of lust is being purged, they are confronted by a wall of fire through which they must pass to reach the 'earthly paradise' beyond. In a touching scene Virgil can only persuade the terrified Dante to enter the purgatorial fire by invoking the name of his beloved Beatrice. On reaching the far side, Virgil utters his last words to the person he has been guiding with such tender care: 'No longer expect word or sign from me. Free, upright and whole is your will, and it would be wrong not to act according to its pleasure; wherefore I crown and mitre you over yourself'. (Canto XXVII, ll. 139-142) With these words he disappears. In this land of gently-flowing water, blooming flowers and green grass, Dante sees a procession approaching which heralds the arrival of Beatrice. These last cantos of Purgatorio contain some of Dante's most elaborate allegorical poetry, and in the midst of the splendour of this pageant, Beatrice herself appears and, greeting Dante, utters some of the most memorable words of the Comedy: 'Look at me well: indeed I am, indeed I am Beatrice! How did you deign to climb the mountain? Did you not know that here man is happy?' (Canto XXX, ll. 73-75) She now becomes his guide and the two of them ascend to paradise.

Dante's paradise consists of nine heavens - a cosmic scheme he had inherited from the cosmological theories of the second century Egyptian astronomer, Ptolemy. His influence was widespread and his explanations were widely used in the Middle Ages to be replaced only centuries later by the heliocentric universe of Copernicus and Galileo. No doubt, Dante did believe that this was the 'arrangement' of the universe; more important, however, is the poetic use to which he puts this scheme. Seven planets circle the earth: the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Beyond these is the region of the fixed stars; beyond that the Empyrean. Light (the predominating poetic image) floods this universe: the symbol of truth and love. So the journey to God is not a movement into forgetfulness or darkness, but a passage into an ever greater clarity, knowledge and understanding: transformed and purified knowledge of the self, the Church and God. As in Inferno and Purgatorio, Paradiso is also appropriately populated. Lovers are in the heaven of Venus, the Wise in the heaven of the Sun (here are the great doctors of the Church including Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventura), the just in Jupiter, the mystics in Saturn. Everything is held in place by the love of God which is poured out on the whole of creation and, in this complex cosmos, each planet is guided in its motion by the burning intelligence of an angel. For Thomas Aquinas, the angels, knowing God and moved by love of Him, are the directing spirits of the universe. The ceaseless circular movement is the image of perfect changelessness of God.

As Dante and Beatrice ascend through the glorious spheres attention is drawn over and over again to the beauty of Beatrice. She who was once a little girl in the streets of Florence is now the poet's commanding and radiant guide; a guide who has to chide him, in words of exquisite tenderness, to look beyond her own beauty to the source of her loveliness: the beauty of God. In the last of the heavens Beatrice and Dante arrive in the sphere of Saturn, the heaven of the contemplatives. Here we are reminded of Thomas Aquinas's argument that the final goal for human beings, the culmination of their search and the achievement of their happiness and salvation, consists in the contemplation of God. But Dante goes further than Thomas to expand this notion of intellectual contemplation to include love - of beauty and goodness as well as truth.

But not even Beatrice can bring Dante into the presence of the Holy Trinity and in the penultimate canto she herself leaves his side to resume her place in the ranks of the communion of the saints. Her place is taken by the last of the poet's guides: St. Bernard, the symbol of affective and contemplative love. And it is into Bernard's mouth that Dante puts the great hymn of praise to the Blessed Virgin Mary which begins: 'Virgin Mother, daughter of your Son, humble and exalted more than any creature; fixed goal of the eternal counsel' (Canto XXXIII, ll1-2) When the poet reaches the beatific vision itself he is struck dumb with wonder and tells us that mere words cannot express the glory he sees and ends his poem with an invocation of love that links his own human love with that of the eternal Godhead: 'Here power failed high fantasy; but already my desire and my will were moved, like a wheel that is evenly turned, by the love that moves the Sun and the other stars, (Canto XXXIII, ll 142-145) That which began in the city of Florence in 1274 with a young boy falling in love with a young girl ends in paradise with the love of God. Will and intelligence have been united with love: theologically and poetically the adventure of the passionate intellect has been achieved.

We cannot pretend that the Divina Commedia is an easy book to read in the twenty-first century. It is a work which is rooted in its own age; late medieval Italy. This deep-rootedness is also part of its glory: the whole life of the era seems to pulse through its lines of verse. The sights and sounds; the streets and houses; the conflicts and disputes; the beliefs and passions of an entire society at a particular moment of its history are conveyed with incomparable vividness. Anyone wanting to gain an accurate picture of a culture, understand its inner workings and feel the actual tempo of its life will find it here in this text which, at the same time, addresses the deepest questions of the human heart. However, because it is so deeply-rooted in its own time, it is replete with references not only to the era of classical Greece and Rome, but also to events and persons, customs and controversies, which have either long since disappeared or of which we have, today, only a slight and hazy knowledge. Nonetheless, despite all the problems of understanding and interpretation, the genius of Dante reaches across the centuries with an intellectual and imaginative power to engage, enlighten and enthral readers in every age.

Brian Horne


Dr. Brian Horne was Lecturer of Systematic Theology at King's College London. Two of his most important publications are: A World to gain. Incarnation and the Hope for Renewal (1983), Imagining Evil (1996) He is especially interested in Dante and Charles Williams.

Dante Alighieri. Der Schöpfer der Göttlichen Komödie (German Translation)




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Copyright by Q.E.D. 13.01.2005