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Dante Alighieri and The Divine Comedy
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.
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.
This part represents the Christian soul seeing sin for what it really is. Three different beasts represent the three types of actionable sin:
Through perseverance and Virgil's help, Dante survives the depths of hell.
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.
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:
Three theological virtues:
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.