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Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) is considered to be one of the most important, inspired writers of the Middle Ages. His main work, the Commedia or the Divine Comedy is a verse work which combines both allegory and the real, in the hopes of promoting a true spiritual path for readers toward redemption and ascension into heaven. Dante’s life is, to many, less interesting than his primary work, but should however be noted before studying the Comedy.
Prior to writing the Divine Comedy, Dante wrote the Vita Nuova which chronicles and celebrates his chaste love for Beatrice Portinari, who he first met when he was 10. Beatrice remains his muse and inspiration for the Divine Comedy, but it is significant to note that the Vita Nuova ends with the lines that Dante will write no more, “until I can write of woman such has never been written before.” The writer was also shaken by Beatrice’s quite early death in 1290 at the age of 24.
When Dante wrote the Divine Comedy, he had elevated his muse to a state of beatification. She was his guide through the Paradiso section of the work. This non-sexual union, for Dante clearly discourages illicit sexual encounters, was perhaps all the writer ever desired of Beatrice. Medieval marriage was not based on love but on property. The fact that he loves Beatrice in a romantic sense is more indicative of the “courtly love,” of knights to ladies, which frequently meant nothing in the way of sexual gratification.
Of Dante’s other works, the Convivo, which predates the Comedy, is perhaps the most significant since it defines the writer’s philosophy, defends his politics, and begins his argument for how men must live in order to achieve heaven. Dante was a member of the White Guelf party, a political group that wanted greater personal freedoms. The Black Guelfs supported rule primarily from the papacy, while the White Guelfs supported various rulers. With Black Guelf triumphs came the exile of many White Guelfs. Dante spent much of his life after exile roaming the various courts of other areas in Italy, such as Verona and Lucca.
Studying the Comedy is an intricate process. The work is split into three sections: Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. Virgil is Dante’s guide through Hell and Purgatory, while Beatrice becomes his guide in Paradise. The beginning of the Inferno evokes a spiritual journey necessary for all men to take in their middle years. In this way the Comedy can be related to other literary quests of the time, such as that for the Holy Grail in the Arthurian legends.
Throughout the Inferno, Dante encounters many political figures of his time which his critics argue he placed in hell to gain political points and sympathy for his own views. There are 24 circles of hell, with the innermost inhabited by Satan. Satan is not the master of fire, as he is often depicted later, but trapped in agony. His massive wings beat continually, causing him to be frozen in ice from the midsection down. Satan, to Dante, is so corrupt that he cannot ever free himself, and will continually be trapped by his own malice. Virtually all those in Hell are most tortured by the knowledge that they will never see God.
While in Hell, Dante’s role as a character is more as an observer. In Purgatory, he identifies himself as a penitent, truly belonging there until he can shed those sins which keep him separated from Paradise. The journey of Dante through Purgatory resembles the journey of all its inhabitants, with its reward being a glimpse of Paradise with Beatrice.
Paradise often loses its readers because it is steeped in Catholic imagery rendering much of its symbolism obscure, even if the reader is a practicing Roman Catholic. It’s advisable to read the whole Comedy with a good guide. One of the best translations available is John Sinclair’s, published by the Oxford University Press in 1961. Each section of verse is followed by commentary and explanation, which is very helpful.
Another translation that many enjoy is the 1949 verse translation by Dorothy Sayers, the popular mystery novelist. The Sinclair version, though, is superior for all who are not scholars of Medieval Catholicism. The Sayers version is a great choice after studying Sinclair’s translation, or the two can be read together. Naturally, Italian scholars can best enjoy the original version, but modern translations are so excellent that the non-Italian reader will find the study of the Comedy a rich pursuit.