Dante Alighieri

Isaac Padinjarekuttu

Dante was an Italian poet and philosopher. Little is known of his early life except that he was born in Florence, lost his parents before he was 18, was betrothed at the age of 12 and married in 1293. In 1274 he first met his Beatrice (probably, Bice Portinai, the daughter of a Florentine citizen and wife of Simone dei Bardi) and he became her poet nine years later. Her death in 1290 led to a crisis, resolved by writing the Vita nouva in which he promised her a poem “such as had been written for no lady before,” a promise he fulfilled in the La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy). He then turned to the study of philosophy, probably under the Dominicans at Florence, and wrote a series of allegorical Canzoni or Odes on the Lady Philosophy and literal ones on Courtesy, Nobility, Liberality and Justice. In 1294 he entered politics but having supported the opponents of Pope Boniface VIII he was exiled from Florence in 1301 and travelled widely in Italy. He returned to the study of philosophy, wrote among other things his De Monarchia in which he showed himself as an ardent supporter of the Emperor Henry VII. This work was condemned as heretical in 1329. In it he argued the need for a universal monarchy to achieve the temporal happiness of mankind and the independence of the Empire from the Pope and the Church which should abandon all temporal authority and possessions and concentrate on happiness in the world to come. Dante’s political prospects were shattered by the death of the Emperor Henry VII in 1313 and in 1315 his native city of Florence renewed its sentence against him. He spent some years at Verona and then at Ravenna where he died. The last period of his life was devoted to the completion of the La Divina Commedia which established him as one of the few poets who belong to all times and all nations.

Begun c. 1308 and completed in 1320, the poem consists of 14,233 lines. Written in vernacular, La Divina Commedia proved seminal for the development of the Italian language and is considered to be the preeminent work in Italian literature. In it he described the three realms of the world to come, hell, purgatory and heaven (inferno, purgatorio and Paradiso), with close reference to real persons and events in this life. Dante himself may have described the trilogy as a comedy; the epithet divine is a later addition. The poem describes a vision in which Dante travels for a week at Easter 1300 from a dark forest on this side of the world down through Hell to Satan at the centre of the Earth and up the seven terraces of the mount of Purgatory, as island in the Antipodes opposite Jerusalem, to its summit, the Earthly Paradise, where Adam and Eve were created. So far Virgil has been his guide but now he meets Beatrice, who conducts him through the nine planetary and stellar spheres to the Empyrean where St Bernard of Clairvaux takes her place. St Bernard presents Dante to the Blessed Virgin Mary at whose intercession the poet is granted a glimpse of the Beatific vision. The reflections that are intertwined in the narrative represent both philosophy and theology, yet they surpass in expression and vividness the Scholasticism characteristic of the universities. The outlook is deeply Christian and accepts the authority of the church and the office of the Pope but his criticism of some of the individuals, including churchmen and Popes is fierce and severe several of whom he places in hell.

The dates and names in the poem are symbolic. Virgil is commonly said to represent Natural Reason and Beatrice, Faith, Revelation, Theology or the Church though it is clear that she is also the Florentine girl, jealous of the honours Dante has paid to other women. St Bernard is not merely a symbol but a man who in contemplation has been granted a glimpse of the Beatific vision. The poem is an interpretation of a personal vision and a story of individual salvation in which Dante claims the rare privilege of the vision of God’s Essence in this life. It remains till today as the best known work of medieval vernacular literature.

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