Divine Comedy: Dante’s Masterpiece

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52. Dante

Dante is one of those world figures so famous, that we refer to him only by his first name. When Dante decided to write The Divine Comedy, his masterpiece, in the language spoken in Florence rather than in Latin, the literary language of his day, he succeeded in establishing the local dialect of Tuscany as “official” Italian for centuries to come. Born in Florence in 1265, he heralds the dawning of that great rebirth of classical humanism that led to the Renaissance. Because The Divine Comedy was written as an allegory-that is a literary work with meanings beyond the literal-it has occasioned more critical commentary and exegeses than any other book in Western civilization other than the Bible.

The Divine Comedy (Dante called it the Commedia; the adjective “Divine” was added by critics in the sixteenth century) is the story of a pilgrim’s journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, and it is from this monumental work that we get our modern conception of these otherworldly places. The pilgrim is guided by the great Latin poet Virgil, whose Aeneid is Dante’s literary model for the poem he is writing. The epic also immortalizes Dante’s extraordinary love for Beatrice, a woman he first met as a child. Dante carried Beatrice in his soul for his entire life, although both he and she married others, and she died in 1290, some thirty one years before he did (in 1321). The story of Dante and Beatrice is told more literally in La Vita Nuova, a sonnet sequence that was his first important literary work. In The Divine Comedy, he must traverse the depths of human suffering and depravity and the middle ground of human desire and indecision before encountering her again in the bright light of Paradise, the epitome of human harmony and possibility.

Dante as painted by Sandro Bottecelli

The poetry of The Divine Comedy is unparalleled in world literature. Translators have particular difficulty with the verse form-a highly disciplined terza rima, or interlocking rhymed three-line stanzas. Some translators abandon any attempt to imitate the form of the poem-others merely approximate it. From the opening lines of the Inferno (the journey through Hell) the reader finds himself connected to and identifying with this narrator, who has lost his way in life and is searching for the right path:

Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself In dark woods, the right road lost.

Though Dante’s Hell is a literal place, the writing is so brilliant that it speaks to us in a modern voice. Hell becomes a state of mind, and Dante’s echoing phrase tells us exactly what it feels like:

Abandon all hope, you who enter here.

Where Was Dante’s Body?

In 1302 Dante was banished from his beloved Florence because he backed the losing Guelph party in the civil war. After living in various cities around the region, he was finally given a permanent home in Ravenna; it was during this time that he completed Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso which make up The Divine Comedy. When he died in 1321, Dante was thought to have been buried in the Church of the Frati Menori.

However, as his reputation grew in the centuries after his death, subsequent Florentine leaders regretted the exile and in 1519 Pope Leo X ordered his remains returned. However, when Dante’s tomb was opened they were nowhere to be found.

The mystery wasn’t resolved until Dante’s 600th birthday in 1865 where his bones were found hidden in another part of the church. Ravenna refused to hand over the newly discovered remains and they were buried in a special shrine near where they were re-discovered.

Dante’s Tomb built in 1780

Trip Advisor for Dante’s Tomb

More Information About Dante

Dante’s Divine Comedy Complete (Gutenberg Project) – Free

SparkNotes for Dante’s Inferno – Free

Open Yale Course: Dante in Translation – Free

Dante Alighieri Wikipedia page

The World of Dante – A multimedia research tool for understanding the Divine Comedy



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