Italian Poetby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
The faith is the foundation of what you hope and the firm belief of what you can’t see.” In his ‘Divine Comedy’, Italian poet Dante Alighieri exhorted the importance of spiritual renewal for everyone. He is ranked with Virgil, Homer, and Shakespeare as one of the world’s greatest poets. ‘The Divine Comedy’ has been called the greatest literary work of the Middle Ages. Dante’s epic work is the basis for the Italian language today, and its timeless message still inspires those who read it.
Durante Alighieri (Dante was a nickname) was born in Florence in May or June of 1265. He was born into a low-aristocracy family which was not particularly wealthy. At this time in Italy there were two political parties that took the place of a political union, while the emperor and the pope held the place of the highest rulers. The two parties were the Guelfi, who preferred the pope, and the Ghibellini, who preferred the emperor. Dante’s family belonged to the Guelfo party. During this time, in the late Middle Ages, much change was occurring in Europe. Ties to the Roman Catholic Church were becoming looser. The traditional medieval culture was dissipating. In the fourteenth century the Guelfi party became prominent. It was in Florence that the Guelfi party split into the black and white guelfi. Dante eventually became a white guelfi, preferring the emperor, while the black guelfi were in favor of the pope.
In 1285, Dante married Gemma di Manetto Donati. They had four children: Giovanni, Pietro, Iacopo, and Antonia. Dante first studied rhetoric, grammar, literature, philosophy, and theology. Eventually, he narrowed his focus to philosophy and theology. When Dante began writing his poetry, a new poetical movement was taking place. This movement was founded by Guido Guinizzelli and became popular mainly in Tuscany. Dante named the new movement Stilnovo, or “new style” in Italian. Stilnovo poetry focused on love as a perfect ideal that was the best way to save mankind.
In addition to poetry, Dante discovered another passion in politics. He began his political career in 1295 when he joined a Medical Corporation. His career was very successful over the next five years, and around 1300 he became a priore (a kind of governor). During this time, the strain between black and white guelfo became tighter and some serious problems began to arise. Dante made the decision to oppose some of the pope Bonifacio VIII’s policies which were supported by the blacks. The blacks, however, with the support of French prince Carlo di Valois, won against the whites in the end. Due to his status as a white guelfo and his opposition of the pope, the defeated Dante was accused of fraud and was sentenced to pay a fine and spend two years in exile. He did not pay the fine and was sentenced to death.
Rather than succumb to his death sentence, Dante chose to leave Florence and roam the different courts of Italy. He lived in various cities including Verona in 1303, Lunigiana in 1306, Poppi and Lucca, and back to Verona in 1313 where he stayed until 1319. He then moved to a court in Ravenna and stayed there until his death at age 56 in 1321. He was buried in San Pier Maggiore’s Church and his tomb remains there today.
Dante began writing ‘The Divine Comedy’ around 1308 and worked on it the remainder of his life. It includes more than 14,000 lines divided into three canticas: Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Heaven). The story is written in first person as Dante is guided through the three realms of the dead. The structure of the poem is very complex, with numerous circles (Hell), terraces (Purgatory), and spheres (Heaven) in which the souls resided. In Hell, for example, the unbaptized pagans would reside in the first circle called Limbo, while the violent were housed in the seventh circle. These descriptions do not come directly from the Bible, but, in the most part, they do not contradict God’s word. Dante was the first major poet in the Middle Ages to write on a serious topic in the “low” Italian language instead of Latin, which was the norm for writings on theology at the time. Dante’s main motive for writing ‘The Divine Comedy’ was to communicate that everyone needs spiritual renewal by God in order to be saved and spend eternity in heaven. Dante was an orthodox Catholic, but many attempts were made to find heresy in the ‘Divine Comedy’ because of Dante’s placing of quite a few popes in hell.
In the Inferno, Dante is lead through the nine circles of Hell by the poet Virgil. Dante portrayed Hell as a nightmarish land filled with pits, cesspools, and boiling rivers of blood. He witnessed sinners being beaten, burned, and tortured by demons. In Hell, Dante met Homer, Aristotle, Socrates, Muhammad, and many popes, among other historical figures. Virgil also guided Dante through Purgatory, “that second kingdom in which the human soul is cleansed of sin”. Beatrice, a woman Dante met in his childhood and admired from afar, guided Dante through Paradise. She is portrayed as a symbol of God’s love. Dante wrote many other books in addition to ‘The Divine Comedy’. Among them are Vita Nuova, a collection of poems; Convivo, a philosophical essay; Monarchia, a political essay advocating monarchy; and De vulgari eloquentia; an essay about the usage of language.
Possibly Dante’s greatest contribution was his opposition to the popular belief that Latin was the only suitable language for literature. He advocated the use of Italian with spoken dialect, and his works are the basis for modern Italian. Dante’s legacy is not only significant in the areas of the Italian language, however. The theology he related in ‘The Divine Comedy’ was, for the most part, Biblical. He did not fear to portray hell as a horrendous, grotesque place where sinners spend eternity separated from God. He also portrayed heaven as a paradise where there is “no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” In a world filled with false prophets and deceitful philosophies, Dante managed to craft a work that brought glory to God and a message much needed to mankind.
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