Dante Writes Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Dante’s masterwork, in which he relates a journey through the three realms of the Christian otherworld—Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise—represents the summation of classical antiquity and the cultural landscape of the European Middle Ages.

Summary of Event

Dante Alighieri was born in the Tuscan city-state of Florence in May or June, 1265. Both his grandfather Alighiero Bellincione and his father Alighiero II were moneylenders, a fact that may have influenced the poet’s reticence in speaking of his immediate family in his opus. The noble lineage of Dante’s family is recorded in the poet’s encounter with his ancestor Cacciaguida Cacciaguida in La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802, in the first part, Paradise, XV-XVIII), who died in the Crusades in 1148 under Emperor Conrad III. Cacciaguida had married a noblewoman, perhaps from Ferrara, named Alighiera or Aldighiera—thus the name Alighieri. [kw]Dante Writes The Divine Comedy (c. 1306-1320) [kw]Divine Comedy, Dante Writes The (c. 1306-1320) Divine Comedy, The (Dante) Dante Italy;c. 1306-1320: Dante Writes The Divine Comedy[2630] Cultural and intellectual history;c. 1306-1320: Dante Writes The Divine Comedy[2630] Literature;c. 1306-1320: Dante Writes The Divine Comedy[2630] Dante Cacciaguida Beatrice Portinari Boniface VIII Henry VII of Luxembourg Vergil Statius Bernard of Clairvaux, Saint

A fragment from a fourteenth century manuscript of Dante’s Divine Comedy from the Bibliothèque National de Paris.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

Dante was born at a turbulent time for Florence, which was lacerated by internal and external conflicts between the Guelph Guelphs and Ghibelline Ghibellines parties. These two factions respectively represented the merchant and “middle” classes, sympathetic to the Papacy, and the old aristocracy, sympathetic to the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VII of Luxembourg Henry VII (Holy Roman Emperor) . Dante came from a Guelph family of modest means. The Battle of Benevento Benevento, Battle of (1266) (February 26, 1266), in which Charles of Anjou defeated King Manfred (Purgatory 3:103ff.), put an end to the Ghibelline domination of the southern Kingdom of Naples and established Guelph domination in Tuscany.

Before writing the The Divine Comedy (the adjective “divine” was added with the first Venetian edition of 1555), Dante was very much part of the intellectual and political life of his city. His poetic training was unmistakably linked to a group of Florentine poets, headed by his “first friend,” Guido Cavalcanti Cavalcanti, Guido (c. 1259-1300), who practiced the dolce stil nuovo Dolce stil nuovo , or sweet new style. These stilnovisti considered the Tuscan-Sicilian poets who preceded them to be artificial and provincial. At age eighteen, Dante, upon meeting Beatrice Portinari Portinari, Beatrice for the second time (he had met her nine years before, in 1274), had already written the first sonnet of La vita nuova (c. 1292; Vita Nuova, 1861; better known as The New Life New Life, The (Dante) ), “A ciascun alma presa e gentil cor” (to every-loving gentle hearted friend), and had sent it to fellow troubadours and to Cavalcanti, who replied with his own sonnet.

Beatrice, a simple young maiden, became Dante’s inspiration and muse, shrouded by the mystic and sublime image of the donna gentile, donna angelicata (the gentle, angel-like woman), a true miracle on earth and the subject of highest praise in the sonnets and canzoni of Vita Nuova. Beatrice’s sublime image is enhanced by her association with the number nine, a multiple of three; it is related in chapter 30 that she died in the first hour of the ninth day of the ninth month, in the ninth decade of the century, 1290. The Vita Nuova is an assemblage of prose-poems, or prosimetrum (completed c. 1294 in imitation of Boethius), a treatise on poetry Poetry;Italy Italy;poetry , and a fabula of the poet’s mystical and spiritual love for Beatrice. The poet states that he will write of her things he has never said of any woman, and in the very last sonnet, he expresses the lover’s desire to reach the light of Beatrice shining in the Empyrean, thus announcing the journey through the three realms of the The Divine Comedy.

In 1285, Dante married Gemma Donati, with whom he had three children, Pietro, Jacopo, and Antonia (a supposed fourth one, Giovanni, is dubious). He was a cavalryman against the Ghibelline city of Arezzo at the Battle of Campaldino (June 11, 1289) and at the Siege of Caprona (August, 1289). From 1290 (the year of Beatrice’s death) to 1293, he studied philosophy and theology in religious schools such as Florence’s Franciscan Convent of Santa Croce. In 1295 he joined the Guild of the Physicians and Apothecaries in order to be able to participate in the city’s political life, as established by the Ordinances of Justice of 1293. In 1296 Dante became part of the Council of One Hundred One Hundred, Council of , and from June 15 to August 15, 1300, he served as one of six priors.

In the same year, Pope Boniface VIII Boniface VIII , Dante’s fierce political enemy and supporter of the Blacks (one of two factions within the Guelphs—the other being the Whites), who believed in the supremacy of the spiritual over temporal power as he would express in his bull Unam sanctam Unam sanctam (Boniface VIII) (1302), proclaimed the first Jubilee. The political situation in Florence was deteriorating as a result of the civil war between Blacks and Whites, headed respectively by Corso Donati and Vieri dei Cerchi, and Dante was one of the magistrates who approved the banishment of fifteen leaders of the Blacks and Whites. Among them was his friend Guido Cavalcanti, who would contract malaria near Sarzana and die in the same year.

On June 19, 1301, in the Council of One Hundred, Dante was the sole opponent to the pope’s demand for Florentine troops to aid his forces in Tuscany. In September, while Boniface was entertaining Charles of Valois Charles of Valois in Anagni and plotting against Florence, Dante formed part of an embassy to placate the pontiff. In October, Boniface sent the ambassadors back but kept Dante in Rome. On November 1, Charles of Valois entered Florence, pretending to be a peacemaker, and Corso Donati and the Blacks took over the city.

In January of 1302, the Blacks falsely condemned Dante of barratry (breach of duty) and imposed a fine of five thousand gold florins and a two-year banishment from Tuscany. Thereafter Dante lived in exile and would never again set foot in his native city. Although he did participate in attempts to recapture the city, after the battle at Lastra Lastra, Battle of (1304) in July of 1304, he spent the rest of his life in intellectual pursuits and some ambassadorial duties.

In the years following, Dante produced a body of lyric poetry or canzoniere, an unfinished treatise in Latin on the virtues of the Italian vernacular (De vulgari eloquentia, c. 1306; English translation, 1890), an unfinished philosophical work (Il convivio, c. 1307; The Banquet, 1887), a political treatise presenting logical philosophical and theological arguments on the role of the emperor and the Church (De monarchia, c. 1313; English translation, 1890; also known as Monarchy, 1954; better known as On World Government, 1957), thirteen epistles in Latin (“Epistola X,” c. 1316; English translation, 1902), and one exegetical to Cangrande, lord of Verona, all in the lofty style essential to his ideas. In his final years, Dante composed two Latin eclogues (Eclogae, 1319; Eclogues, 1902) and the treatise Quaestio de aqua et terra (1320; English translation, 1902).

In the epistle dedicating the Paradiso to Cangrande (c. 1316), Dante explains that the work is titled Commedia because it ends well and is written in the humble style of the vernacular, not the lofty one of tragedy, as rhetorical rules required. The epistle, whose authenticity is disputed, proposes a fourfold exegetical method of interpretation of the Commedia so that the pilgrim’s journey in the poem is analogous to the redemptive journey of the soul from a state of misery and confusion to one of joy and salvation—just as the nation of Israel was freed from the slavery of Egypt to the glory of Jerusalem (Psalm 113).

The actual occurrence of the journey, lasting seven days, begins on Holy Thursday, April 8 of the Jubilee year 1300. The poem consists of 14,233 verses, 100 canti (1 + 33 + 33 + 33) divided into three cantiche (each with 10 subdivisions), written entirely in terza rima, a measure that relies on the numbers 1 and 3. All this and more underscores the poem’s numerological symbolism. The Inferno, the first and most dramatic cantica, begun after 1306, portrays in realistic and vivid terms a journey through a funnel-shaped Hell, after the poet is lost in a dark wood and rescued by Vergil Vergil (whose own Aeneid, c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553, appropriately, describes a journey of the Trojan hero Aeneas into the underworld). Dante, being a new Aeneas and a new Saint Paul (who was taken up to the third heaven), combines the classical and Christian traditions to explore the underworld.

The sins portrayed in the Inferno are structured according to an Aristotelian and Ciceronian tripartite division of incontinence, violence, and fraud corresponding to the three animals that impede the pilgrim’s (Dante-Everyman’) path: Lonza-leopard, Leone-lion, and Lupa-shewolf, all with the letter L in Italian to represent Lucifer, the image of the evil Trinity. The Inferno’s vestibule contains the lukewarm, or neutral, souls; the first circle, or Limbo, is inhabited by those who lived before Christianity, the unbaptized virtuous pagans. The lustful, the gluttonous, the avaricious, the prodigals, the wrathful and sullen, and the heretics inhabit the second through sixth circles. The seventh circle holds three types of criminals who perpetrated violence against others: those violent against others (murderers and tyrants), those violent against themselves (suicides), and those violent against God, nature, and art (blaphemers, sodomites, and usurers). The eighth circle, devoted to simple fraud, is subdivided into ten pouches containing panderers and seducers, flatterers, simonists, diviners, barrators, hypocrites, thieves, fraudulent counselors, sowers of discord, and falsifiers. The ninth circle features compound fraud: treachery against kin (Caina), homeland or party (Antenora), guests (Ptolomea), benefactors (Judecca, holding Judas, Brutus, and Cassius), and traitors of church and empire. They are being chewed by the super traitor and rebel Lucifer, the three-headed monster, a horrible caricature of the Christian Trinity. The Inferno showcases memorable characters such as Francesca of Rimini, Ciacco, Farinata, Pier de le Vigne, Brunetto Latini, Ulysses, Guido of Montefeltro, Bertrand de Born, and Ugolino.

The Purgatorio (or Purgatory, completed c. 1316) is the most human and poetic canticle, a journey of love and hope from the shore of the island of Purgatory to the lofty mountain that Dante ascends in the company of Vergil and later Statius Statius . It is divided into an Ante Purgatory of Late Repentants and a Valley of Negligent Rulers followed by seven terraces expurgating seven capital sins—pride, envy, wrath, sloth, greed, prodigality, and gluttony—and then Earthly Paradise.

The author completes the most sublime and complex cantica, the Paradiso (Paradise, 1316-1320), a vision and journey of heaven, guided by Beatrice and later Saint Bernard of Clairvaux Bernard of Clairvaux, Saint , through the seven known spheres of the Ptolemaic system and the Heaven of the Fixed Stars, the Primum Mobile, and finally the Empyrean, the residence of all the blessed and God, the Beginning and the End, whose final vision is an exaltation of the human image.

Significance

Dante died on September 13 or 14, 1321, in Ravenna after having contracted malaria upon returning from an embassy to Venice on behalf of Guido Novello of Polenta. His remains, notwithstanding the efforts of the city of Florence, were never returned to his native city, perhaps ironically confirming Dante’s own dictum, “Florentine by birth but not by nature” and his belief in being a citizen of the world.

His eternal legacy, The Divine Comedy, is a lasting masterpiece, transcending the boundaries of a Christian vision but at the same time depicting the drama of everyone’s life—of human nature with all its passions, ambiguities, conflicts, and contradictions. It demonstrated immediately that the “sweet new style” of using vernacular Italian verse could communicate its lofty drama to a broad, not solely aristocratic or clerical, audience, heralding the humanism that was to characterize the Renaissance.

The journey of self-discovery that Dante outlined—from the depth and darkness of Hell to the height of reacquired freedom in the Earthly Paradise and on to the final vision of the “Love that moves the sun and the other stars” in Paradise—has left an indelible mark on all of modern literature and on the artistic and intellectual history of humanity, influencing artists, composers, and writers of all genres throughout the ages, from Michelangelo to contemporary popular culture. It has been translated into practically every known literary language and many dialects, and it consistently sees new editions and repays new readings and analysis.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barbi, Michele. Life of Dante. Translated and edited by Paul Ruggiers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1954. A concise and still reliable biography. Illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bemrose, Stephen. A New Life of Dante. Exeter, England: University of Exeter, 2000. The first biography in English, for nearly eighty years, of Italy’s foremost writer, from his early activity as a lyric poet and his political career in Florence to his exile and wanderings and his final years in Verona and Ravenna. Offers a chapter on the Guelphs and Ghibellines. Index, bibliographic references, list of Dante’s works.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bergin, Thomas G. An Approach to Dante. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965. Includes a useful chapter, “Dante’s Life.” Bibliographic references, illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hollander, Robert. Dante: A Life in Works. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. Hollander, a preeminent scholar of Dante at Princeton University, examines how Dante created his masterpiece by examing the life he tells through his other works. A masterful intellectual biography. Bibliographic references, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lansing, Richard, and Theodolinda Barolini, eds. The Dante Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 2000. A systematic introduction to Dante’s life, works, and sociopolitical milieu. Chronology, numerous illustrations, bibliographic references, index. An indispensable reference.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wicksteed, Philip H., trans. The Early Lives of Dante. London: Alexander Moring, 1904. Reprint. London: Chatto and Windus, 1907. A translation of two roughly contemporaneous biographies, by Giovanni Boccaccio and Lionardo Brunis. Index.

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