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Life Work Post Mortum Advice to the Reader

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) was the famous Italian poet of Florence who wrote the poem, The Divine Comedy which describes a journey through hell, purgatory and heaven.


Dante was born in Florence in 1265 (about May 29th), to a poor family of noble birth, as many of lasting fame are. In 1274, when he was only nine, Dante saw Beatrice Portinari (1266-90) for the first time and fell in love with her. In 1285 Dante was married to Gemma Donati and had four kids (James, Peter, John and Antonia). In 1289, Dante fought in the battle of Campaldino against the Ghibbelines. Dante wrote about this battle in The Comedy when in purgatory. The Guelphs supported the pope and the Ghibbelines the emperor (in Germany) of the Holy Roman Empire. Italy in the day of Dante was torn apart by their repeated war.

In 1290, Beatrice died young and Dante, to escape his grief, buried himself in the study of philosophy, theology and Provencal poetry and wrote his first work, La vita nuova. In 1296, Dante took part in Florentine politics, joining the party of the White Guelphs.

In 1302, when Dante was away, the Black Guelphs conquered the White Guelphs and Dante was exiled, losing everything. Dante traveled throughout Europe -- to Paris and possibly Oxford -- and at last lived in the Italian city of Verona and later Ravenna, where he wrote The Comedy. Dante did all his important work in exile except for La vita nuova.

Dante died in exile in Ravenna en 1321.

His house still stands in Florence (where I saw it with my own eye). He went to mass at St John's. Giotto, the painter, was his friend.


La Divina Commedia (1314-21) ("The Divine Comedy"), a poem of 14 000 verses, a cry against the moral degradation of the world, describes a voyage through the post-mortum world of hell, purgatory and heaven, which Dante populated with men Christian and pagan, historical and contemporary. He even put a pope of his time (Nicholas III) in hell (with many other clerics) and a pagan (Cato) in purgatory. Writing while in exile, the poem has many hard words for Florence, his hometown. Dante is guided through hell and purgatory by Virgil and by Beatrice through heaven. The action takes place in spring of 1300, a dark part of Dante's life just before his exile. The poem was done in terza rima, a complicated form of pentameter.

The Comedy has three parts: Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory) and Paradiso (Heaven).

According to Catholicism, you go to one of three places after death: if you gravely sin (murder, adultery, theft, etc) and don't repent, you go to hell, where you are punished forever. If you sin but later repent, you go to purgatory, where you are punished but later go to heaven, the third place. If you believe and are without sin before God (because your sins have been forgiven), you go to heaven, where you live with God happily forever. Protestantism and Islam also believe in hell and heaven, but not in purgatory.

Although it is full of speculation and can be interpreted as an allegory, the description of the postmortum world is based on the best knowledge of his day. According to Dante, hell is under the earth, purgatory is a huge mountain in what we call the South Pacific, exactly opposite of Jerusalem, and heaven is the heavens from the Moon up to God Himself, who is outside the universe, outside of space and time. As Dante confesses, much of heaven is beyond the descriptive power of language.

Who's where (among others):

The sin which will put Dante in purgatory is his love of fame.

Note that Statius, the Latin poet of the first century, was a pagan according to historical knowledge, but Dante supposes that he converted to Christianity sometime before his death.

The poem beautifully summarizes the medieval worldview of Europe, being the poetic brother of the philosophical Summa Theologica of Aquinas, describing a worldview both Christian and Aristotelian. The Comedy was also the first major work of Western literature written in neither Latin nor Greek. Three centuries after The Comedy, nearly every original work of literature in the West was composed in a national tongue, not in Latin.

In its use of a national language and also in its uniting the Christian and the classical (from the characters to even the underlying philosophy), The Comedy was a precursor of the Renaissance.

Before this, Dante wrote La vita nuova ("The new life") around 1293. It is a collection of prose and poetry about Beatrice and love.

Dante also wrote about politics (De monarchia) and language (De vulgari eloquentia).

Dante much admired the Latin poet, Vergil, of whom he said, "Honor and light of the other poets ... You are my master and my author, you are alone the one from whom I draw the beautiful style for which I am honored".

Among other books, Dante read:

Post Mortum

Dante argued (in De vulgari eloquentia) and actually showed (through The Comedy) that a national language, and not just Latin, can be an effective and beautiful instrument of high literature.

Dante wrote in both Latin and Italian, helping to shape modern Italian and setting up his Tuscan dialect as the Italian of literature.

Dante influenced the English Romantic poet Blake.

Advice to the Reader

Dante assumed that his readers knew about Italian history during the 13th century (especially the history of Florence) and about ancient writers, especially Aristotle, Vergil, Ovid and the Bible. If you lack such knowledge, then you should read him with footnotes or a good introduction (although Dante is still well worth reading even without such help). Note that these authors are not only basic to Dante, but to European literature generally during 1250-1650, therefore knowledge about this is profitable in general.



Originally created by Stefano KALB at Mon Nov 16 22:24:21 UTC 1998.
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