Dante Alighieri and The Divine Comedy

Dante Alighieri
Dante Alighieri | Source
Statue of Dante at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy.
Statue of Dante at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. | Source

Background of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)

He is so important to Italian literature, that he is known only by his first name, Dante. That he wrote the Divine Comedy, probably the greatest literary work ever composed in the Italian language and a masterpiece in world literature, is known by most educated people today. In Italy he is known simply as "il Poeta", the poet, because his importance to Italian literature is so strong that no other poet in Italy comes close to what Dante has accomplished.

Dante was an Italian poet, prose writer, literary theorist, moral philosopher and political thinker. He is best known for his epic poem Divine Comedy (La divina commedia), although he wrote many other pieces of works. He is also given the name "father of the Italian language," as he was the first Italian writer to write in the vernacular rather than in classical Latin.

Dante was born in Florence, Italy, in the region of Tuscany, on or about 1265. His date of birth is not certain, but he writes in Divine Comedy that he begins his journey at 35 years of age and so historians have counted backwards from 1321 to establish his birth year. Not much is known about his formal education. It is presumed he studied at home or at a "chapter school" attached to a church or monastery in Florence. We do know that he studied Tuscan poetry and the Latin writers, Cicero, Ovid, and Virgil.

At the age of 35, Dante was much involved in Italian politics of the time and refused to pay a fine issued by the certain political party in Florence and so he was banned from Florence on pain of death. The political parties were fighting and Dante happened to be on the wrong side of one of them and was banished for life from Florence. Hence, he went to live in Verona and then Lucca, Italy for the rest of his days.

It was during his exile that he experienced a mid-life crisis and it was during this exile that he wrote the Divine Comedy. He turned inward to search his own sould and draw back the curtain of darkness in his life. Exile from Florence was a form of death for Dante, stripping him of much of his identity and heritage. Beatrice, a mere child he had fallen in love with when he was nine years of age, became the main protagonist of his epic poem.

Dante met Beatrice Portinari at this young age and he claimed to have fallen in love with her at first sight. She became the epitome of his "ideal woman." He saw her frequently after the age of 18, but never knew her well. He did pursue her under the rules of "courtly love" but was never close to her and the pursuit did not end in marriage.

However, during his exile and the writing of the Divine Comedy, Beatrice returned to his imagination and she became in the poem the symbol of his salvation.

The Divine Comedy became the cornerstone in the evolution of the Italian language as an established literary language. At the time, prose, poetry and really anything else was written in Latin, the established language of writing. In writing the Divine Comedy, Dante was a forerunner of the Renaissance Era in its effort to create a vernacular literature in competition with earlier classical writers.

Dante wrote in "Italian", which was a literary language based on the regional dialect of Tuscany in Italy. Dante meant to reach the readership throughout Italy. By creating an epic poem in Italian, he established that the Italian language was suitable for the highest form of expression. He was one of the first, Chaucer and Boccaccio being the other two, to break free from the standards of publishing only in Latin. Dante was considered an "original genius" by Italians because he set his own rules, created characters of overpowering stature and depth and went beyond any imitation of the patterns of earlier poetic masters. Dante basically standardized the Italian language.

Dante, standing in front of hell, purgatory, and heaven.
Dante, standing in front of hell, purgatory, and heaven. | Source

Divine Comedy

The epic poem, Divine Comedy, is Dante's personal journey through Hell (Inferno) Purgatory (Purgatorio) and Paradise (Paradiso) guided first by Virgil, the classical Latin writer, and then by Beatrice, his ideal woman. It is Dante's imaginative and allegorical vision of the afterlife. It is medieval world view of the afterlife as presented by the western Catholic Church. On the surface, Dante travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Allegorically, it is Dante's soul's journey toward God's love and the basic content of the poem comes from the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas.

There are 14,233 lines to the entire poem and they are divided into three canticas; inferno, purgatorio, paradiso with each consisting of 33 cantos. There are 100 cantos in total in the poem with one canto being an introductory one at the beginning. The number 3 is very prominent in the work.

Dante's journey through the three realms of the dead begins the night before Good Friday (Holy Thursday) and ends on the Wednesday after Easter in the spring of 1300. Virgil guides Dante through Hell and Purgatory and Beatrice, his ideal woman, guides him through Heaven.

Inferno

This part represents the Christian soul seeing sin for what it really is. Three different beasts represent the three types of actionable sin:

  • self-indulgent
  • violent
  • malicious

Through perseverance and Virgil's help, Dante survives the depths of hell.


Purgatorio

This is represented by the Mountain of Purgatory, which is on the far side of the world. There are seven terraces on the mountain and each corresponds to one of the seven deadly sins which are cleansed while in Purgatory:

  • excessive love (Lust, Gluttony, Greed)
  • deficient love (Sloth)
  • malicious love (Wrath, Envy, Pride)

Here the classification of sin is more psychological and based on motives rather than actions drawn from Christian theology rather than classics. This visit to Purgatory takes place on Easter Sunday and represents the Redemption of Christ - the conversion of the soul from the sorrow and misery of sin to a state of grace.


Paradiso

His great love, Beatrice, guides Dante through nine celestial spheres of Heaven. Here Dante experiences the four cardinal virtures and the three theological virtures.

Four cardinal virtues:

  • Prudence
  • Fortitude
  • Justice
  • Temperance

Three theological virtues:

  • Faith
  • Hope
  • Love

While in heaven, Dante also meets and converses with several saints of the Catholic Church: St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure St. Peter, and St. John. Dante finishes his journey by seeing the three person God (God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit) and at last, Dante understands the mystery of Christ's divinity and humanity and his soul becomes aligned with God's love.

This poem takes a long time to read and is Dante's personal journey and his soul's journey through the under life. His exacting description of it are the basic tenets and creed of the Catholic Church. This view is from the mid-age Catholic Church, but not much has changed over the centuries. The Catholic Church still believes in Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, although, not as much in the literal sense as Dante portrays it on the surface. Allegorically, it is still the story of the journey of the soul back to God's love - and God's love for us is still paramount to the teaching of the Catholic Church today.

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Comments 15 comments

alocsin profile image

alocsin 4 years ago from Orange County, CA

A great overview of one of the great works of literature. I am still hoping to read this in the original Italian -- but need to improve my knowledge of the language to a much higher level. Voting this Up and Interesting.


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 4 years ago from England

Hi, Suzette, I was really interested to read this, because I never ever manage to take in exactly what it was about, I had an idea, but the way you wrote it has actually made it sink into my brain now! lol! looking beneath the surface, he used a lot of numerology within it, the 33 Cantos, the number 9 and so on, and funnily enough I started to see Tarot cards emerging, and remembered reading somewhere that this is where they started, of course back then the Tarot were just cards to play a game with, or talk about, its only over the last few centuries that they changed them to 'psychic' cards, then I saw 'prudence, temperance and justice' there, and I realised it must be true. he certainly influenced a lot of history, and for that time managed to produce something that has stayed with us down the ages, fascinating hub, and really interesting, rated up and shared! nell


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

alocsin: Thank you. It was difficult to encapsule this daunting work. Good for you that you are going to read this in Italian. I've only read the English translation and so long ago at that. I didn't appreciate it when I was younger, but I appreciate it more now.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Hi Nell: I, too, was astounded by the numerology in this work. I had forgotten so much of this as I studied it so long ago. I just finally understood all of it completely for the first time myself. lol! I knew tarot cards had been around for a long time, but I didn't know the significance of this work to those cards which were popular at the time. Who knew? Thanks so much for reading and lending your perspective to all this!


ptosis profile image

ptosis 4 years ago from Arizona

From: Dante's Hell.

It’s true that I am cunning indeed, vessel of every deceit,

contriving greater sorrows for the band I dwell with.

It was the bestial life – not human, that pleased me best.

Mule that I was.

I must be thrust this far down because I was a thief, for which another, falsely was condemned .


Alastar Packer profile image

Alastar Packer 4 years ago from North Carolina

Dante used some of the occult in the Divine Comedy. Not meaning evil or bad but merely 'hidden' like the number nine for example. So numerology, definitely. I remember the first time reading it the level with all the sodomites was a shocker, well, all the levels of Hell really. Didn't no much about Dante's background so thanks for the enlightenment there Suzette. Nice to read some about you too. Still can't get over the synchronicity with Summer of 42!


Scarlett Black profile image

Scarlett Black 4 years ago from New York

Very Interesting!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

ptosis: Thank you for your response.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

wmhseo: Thank you for reading and commenting. I just read a bit of it recently and it brought back an interest and memories of studying at university, so I had to do a hub on it. It has been many, many years since I originally read this, so I was surprised to understand it so clearly at this age. Glad you enjoyed reading the Divine Comedy.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Alastar: Thanks so much for reading and commenting. I'm glad you enjoyed it. Yes, the numerology thing just jumped out at me when I realized the use of the number 3 in the construction and writing of this poem. I didn't know that about the number 9. I really don't know that much about numerology - I should research it and do a hub on it someday. I wanted to do just an overview of the poem rather than get into the meaning and religious philosophy of the work. I'll leave that to others.

"Summer of 42" - yes, this movie was out when I was a junior in high school, I believe. I had lots of fun behind the concession stand and then watching the movie so many times. When you are young and impressionable and love movies like I do, you dream about being Jennifer O'Neill - lol! I didn't and I don't look anything like her. Se la vie!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Scarlett: Hi! Thank you for reading and I'm glad you found this interesting. Read the real thing if you haven't already - it is much better!


RHPeat 4 years ago

Dante supposedly invented Terza Rima for his poems. And he used the common language of the docks and was criticized by his contemporaries for that usage. Yet it is his work that survives. It was written for the common man I guess, so it survives the ages.

a poet friend

RH Peat


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

RHPeat: Yes, you are right - Dante did invent Terza Rima for his poems. Yes, he was the first Italian and European for that matter to write in the vernacular. It was his beginning this that got the Italians to write in the vernacular instead of in Latin. Not only is his work important, but so is this fact. Everyone wanted to read Dante since it was available to "everyman."


StellaSee profile image

StellaSee 4 years ago from California

I have yet to read the Divine Comedy and I was thinking of taking it with a class because the material is intense. But maybe I'll just use this hub as a guide. Thanks for sharing your knowledge suzettenaples! :D


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

StellaSee: By all means take the class! This is just a general overview. With a class you will get into more detail, theme, symbols, characters, history - take the class. This work is so great and immense that a complete study of it is required. You will get more out of the class than this overview. But, thank you so much for the compliments.

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