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Rarely has a writer left a more indelible mark—and under less favoring circumstances—than Dante Alighieri (1265–1321). His major work is considered one of the crowning achievements of human expression. It lives even today, nearly seven hundred years after its making, as one of the two or three greatest poems ever written. Its author was born in Florence into a family of minor nobility, Guelph in its political alignment and thus siding with the popes in the city’s political tensions (as opposed to Ghibellines, at the time mainly banished from Florence, who favored the imperial cause). The struggle between the two largest political forces in medieval Europe (a struggle delineated in Robert Louis Wilken’s essay on Gregory VII, FT, January) had not abated in Dante’s time.

Dante was significantly involved in politics, eventually holding office as one of Florence’s six Priors in 1300. Within a year, perhaps after an encounter with Pope Boniface VIII in 1301—Dante may have been part of a political mission to the Holy See—he was sent into exile when an opposing Guelph faction in Florence took over the city. Refusing the humiliating compromises offered by his enemies, Dante saw his exile eventually become permanent. After 1302 he never again entered his native city, at that time one of the most wealthy, beautiful, and important urban centers in the Western world. The exile was a difficult period, and we know little of his itinerary around northern Italy during the last twenty years of his life. He enjoyed two lengthy sojourns at the court of the Scaligeri, in Verona (ca. 1303–06 and 1312–18). Upon his return from a political mission to Venice on behalf of that city’s ruler, he died in Ravenna of malarial fever in September 1321.

If his life seems fairly unremarkable except for the bitterness of the exile and of his unfulfilled political hopes, it resulted in an overpowering single work, the Comedy (which was not known as The Divine Comedy until 1555, an apt editorial intervention that has remained with the poem to this day). His earlier literary activity is also of considerable interest. Perhaps as early as 1293 he had composed a work called Vita nuova (“New Life”), in which he assembled thirty-one poems written during the previous ten years, many of which celebrated a woman named Beatrice. There is still some debate as to the actuality of this “relationship,” which in the telling seems to have been totally devoid of sexual concourse, no matter how defined. Suffice it to say that the pretext of the work is that the miraculous woman it celebrates was a flesh-and-blood Florentine woman. What is most remarkable about Vita nuova is that it contrives, in ways that remain securely on the side of calculated understatement, to make the reader understand that Dante’s lady is to be understood as directly, and miraculously, related to the physical and noumenal presence of Christ. Beatrice is a “nine,” he once explains, because the root of nine is three and that is the number of the Holy Trinity. While the poems themselves may on occasion hint at this equation, the prose, which controls them and our understanding of them, eventually serves to release a secret: loving Beatrice was his way of finding Christ in his “new life” (a phrase that can hardly fail to bring to mind Paul’s frequent insistence on our conversion from the old way of being to the new). The figure of Beatrice was probably derived indirectly from the life of St. Francis, who was thought to have offered his followers as close an approximation of an experience of the nearness of Jesus as anyone since apostolic times had ever felt. Vita nuova is the first work in the history of Western writing to take the form of commentary on one’s own poems. In Dante’s startling decision to frame the work in this manner, we find the demon of experiment that always drove him. Indeed, De vulgari Eloquentia (Concerning Eloquence in the Vernacular), one of the two succeeding unfinished works that he began while in exile, begins by claiming, rather presumptuously but altogether accurately, that no one had ever before written about the rules governing writing in the vernacular. It was written in Latin, but argued that vernacular poetry, which had only begun in Italy 150 years before with the poems of St. Francis, was worthy of all the consideration previously bestowed on Latin alone. This polemical analysis was in Latin because Dante knew that to beat those who exalted Latin, and scorned all who wrote in the “vulgar” Italian, he had to join them—at least when composing a work on such a subject.

At about the same time (ca. 1304–1307) Dante also completed the first four books of what was to have been a fifteen-book encyclopedic treatise, written in the vernacular, on the nature of philosophizing. Called Il Convivio (“The Banquet”), it takes the Consolation of Philosophy of Boethius as its model. Although at the conclusion of Vita nuova Dante had promised to write still more about Beatrice, in Convivio he has a new and “allegorical” beloved, the Lady Philosophy. Convivio, like Vita nuova, is cast in the form of commentary on poems by its author. The poems in this case were canzoni, or odes, long lyrics of considerable artifice, which in De vulgari Eloquentia Dante claimed to be the highest possible literary form in the vernacular, lofty (“tragic” is Dante’s word for this) and serious. The fifteen “treatises” (trattati) of the work, after an introductory treatise that was to function as introduction to the whole, were each to comment on a canzone. The first two of the three succeeding treatises that Dante completed deal with his new love, Philosophy. Dante says that he sought “silver” (consolation) after the death of Beatrice but found “gold” instead in the counsels of philosophy, a “lady” better suited to the more mature man that he now was. These two unfinished works both contravene Vita nuova's celebration of Beatrice as the most valuable teacher of a fully charitable love that the writer could know. It is thus understandable that the Comedy, which presents Beatrice as giving essential meaning to Dante’s life and work, in turn contradicts things said in the two abandoned texts, while essentially presenting Vita nuova as a necessary and praiseworthy beginning.

The fourth and last treatise of Convivio that Dante completed moves in more political directions. Although a Guelph by family ties, early disposition, and Florentine political allegiances, Dante in this treatise turns in the direction of empire. He addresses the question of Rome and its authority as imperial seat. The question is presented as part of a larger discussion on the nature of philosophical and imperial authority, yet it is clear that the imperial part of the argument is not necessary to its main thrust, as a result standing out all the more. This matter will resurface in the first and second cantos of Inferno, where state and church are seen as equally important, and then as the central concern of his later essay, Monarchia. Monarchia is one of Dante’s few forays into explicitly political concerns. Written in Latin to guarantee the readership of the “cultural elite” he intends to engage, probably around 1317, it offers a ringing attack upon the hierocratic position so urgently put forward by many after Pope Gregory VII. According to Dante, God created Rome to be the imperial leader of the secular world. Dante’s concept of “monarchy” (synonymous with “empire”) as a current possibility, however, exists only as an ideal. Except for its Roman model, it refers to few precise past and no existing temporal states, but to the divinely sanctioned secular government of all Europe that should be the essential ordering force of human affairs in this world.

Its status as ideal rather than actual, however, hardly dampens Dante’s enthusiasm for the concept. The three questions that he addresses are as follows: 1) Is monarchy necessary to the well-being of the world? 2) Did the Roman people take on the office of the monarch by right? 3) Does the monarch’s authority derive immediately from God or from some (mediating) minister or vicar? The “correct” answers, over against defenders of the pope’s absolute authority, are “Yes,” “Yes,” and “Immediately from God.” Of all Dante’s works, this one got him into the deepest difficulty with the Church. In its own day, or shortly thereafter, it incurred the wrath of the Dominican Guido Vernani, who, in 1327, wrote a vitriolic but essentially convincing attack (De reprobatione Monarchia) on its logical procedures. Monarchia was burned in public at least once, in 1329. It was placed on the Index in 1554, and remained prohibited until 1881.

Dante’s politics in Monarchia, it is important to note, are more based in theology than one might expect. For him, Rome under Caesar Augustus, at the “fullness of time” when Christ chose to be born, was given the task of guiding all temporal efforts. It was thus a “universal monarchy.” Dante seems to have envisioned a revived empire coming in a second “fullness of time” before the Second Coming, in which the empire would again come to rule Europe, as it had done properly only once after the era of the Caesars, under Charlemagne. This millenarian view, never stated bluntly but informing the entire work (and the Comedy, too, in the eyes of this reader), is completely unauthorized by Church teaching, yet it was central to Dante’s political vision. The empire is God’s creation, but is totally independent of the papacy, and owes the pope no fealty except (and the exception is significant) in matters of the emperor’s own salvation.

This is not to say that Dante wanted to regress to the situation that preceded Gregory or to roll back Gregory’s reforms. In the eleventh century Dante would probably have been almost as incensed about imperial intervention in the affairs of the Church—at least in the abstract—as he was in the fourteenth about papal intervention in affairs of state. Dante, for all his urgent attacks on papal prerogatives, did not want to see the papacy leave Italy. The Comedy contains vibrant calls for the papacy to return to Rome from Avignon, where Clement V had moved it in 1305. Had Dante been as anti-papal as some maintain, he would never have voiced such sentiment. He was, after all, not a Protestant, not even avant la lettre, as some would style him. At the end of Monarchia, Dante admits that the prince is in some respect subject to the pontiff, since earthly happiness is in some way (quodammodo) ordered toward immortal happiness. This is less a retraction than a necessary concluding gesture, aligning the responsibilities of the two great institutions.

Dante’s political thought had moved from an early Guelph allegiance, reflecting the views of his intimates, to an essentially Ghibelline one. Yet his belief in the empire was always under the aegis of his belief in God. It is no accident that perhaps the chief representative of the Ghibellines in the Comedy is Farinata degli Uberti, whom we meet in the company of other heretics in Inferno X. For Dante, Ghibellinism without God promises the certain spiritual failure of those who give themselves to the political world too enthusiastically. For him, the temptation of that world was always controlled by his Christian faith—or so he would often suggest. Such a political view found few to share it. And thus, as he puts it in his own ancestor’s words, he became a “parte per te stesso” (a party of yourself alone) [Par . XVII, 69].

It is important in this respect to note the dangers of taking the Comedy as a sort of summa of medieval thought. While one cannot deny that it at least appears to engage almost every subject that seized the imagination of the day, it is also true that to take Dante as the voice of late medieval Christendom is to fail to observe his heterodoxy and, one should add, his genius. Perhaps Dante’s strategic advantage lay in his ability to be completely himself, unworried should he oppose generally held beliefs, while also presenting his own ideas as though they were normative. A reader of the Comedy unversed in medieval debates and unaware of Dante’s idiosyncratic notions about them is easily persuaded that this work indeed represents the late middle ages in nuce . In fact, Dante finds something to quarrel with in the positions put forward by almost every recognized authority, even those he respects the most, from Aristotle (whom he honors perhaps more than any other thinker) to Aquinas (with whom he fights mainly friendly but nonetheless frequent little battles).

The Comedy was probably composed between 1307 and 1321. We can only begin to imagine how its germinal idea was conceived. It probably took no more than an instant for Cervantes to have the simple, fruitful idea that produced Don Quixote: take a middle-aged, down-at-the-heels landowner, fill his brain with the entire tradition of chivalric romance, and then have him ride forth into the world as a knight errant. In the case of Dante’s Comedy, we likely read the result of a similar sudden inspiration, one based on a perhaps even less promising pretext: take a not-very-successful (though respected), soon-to-be-exiled civic leader and poet, and send him off to the afterworld for a week.

We shall never know what brought the work to life in Dante’s mind, his first awareness of a plan. But we can see how largely the Comedy departs from his previous work, despite its thematic and stylistic links to his literary past. Vita nuova, De vulgari Eloquentia, and Convivio all put prose to the service of controlling and explaining verse. The Comedy sticks to verse. And almost everything about it is new.

To begin with, the Comedy's verse form (terza rima) is an innovation. “Loosing and binding,” in the words of Erich Auerbach, its rhyme scheme (aba bcb cdc . . . yzyz) is ideal for propelling a rhymed narrative. No one had written in the form before Dante. Perhaps surprisingly, no later writers of epic in Italian (e.g., Boiardo, Ariosto, Tasso) would follow him.

Dante calls each of the one hundred divisions of the work a “canto,” or “song.” This word in this context is so singular and foreign that many early commentators didn’t “get it,” and referred to the canti as “chapters,” a more usual and perhaps more dignified way to indicate the parts of a “serious” whole. Dante’s word seems to reflect epic precedents (Virgil too was a “singer”: “Arma virumque cano,” begins the Aeneid) as well as his pride in his own vernacular. In addition, the word he eventually chooses for the three large divisions of the poem, Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso—cantica—had never been used for such a purpose before him. Its resonance with the Canticle of Canticles is probably not coincidental.

The choice of guide is dramatic and challenging: Virgil, the greatest of the Latin poets (for Dante and many contemporary judges). What is a pagan, damned to Limbo forever for his lack of faith, doing as guide in a Christian poem? This was a bold decision. As has frequently been pointed out, Virgil’s example was seminal for many aspects of Dante’s poetic strategies in the Comedy: to write a poem that prominently features a visit to the underworld (Dante could not read Homer’s texts, though he did know of them, which explains why he can behave as though Virgil were uniquely qualified to serve as his model); that celebrates the Roman concept of political order as exemplified in the empire; and that is narrated by a poet who has been lent prophetic powers.

In addition, and perhaps most importantly, Virgil was a poet who wrote poetry as history, and Dante followed this example as well. As the work of Ulrich Leo demonstrated some years ago, Dante had been rereading the texts of Virgil and the other Latin writers of “epic” (Statius, Lucan, and Ovid) as he was finishing the fourth and last book of Convivio. We can say, then, that Dante chose Virgil as his guide because Virgil was his guide. Dante seems to be indicating that rereading the pagan Virgil redirected his attention to his good beginning as the Christian poet of Beatrice, the role to which he now returns in the Comedy.

Before Dante no one had dared to write a poem that claimed for itself revealed truth. And one can understand why. The question of the veracity of the Comedy's narrative is never far from its readers’ attention. In the first invocation of the poem (Inf . II, 7), the poet asks for the aid of the Muses (the rules of grammar and rhetoric?) and of alto ingegno (“lofty genius”—either, somewhat implausibly, the poet’s own capacities, or, more probably but also rather disconcertingly, that of a higher Power). What follows immediately is a claim (and not an “invocation”) for the ability of the poet’s memory to set forth an exact record of his week-long visionary journey: “O mente, che scrivesti ciò ch’io vidi / qui si parr la tua nobilitate” (O memory, that set down what I saw, here shall your worth be shown—II, 8-9). Dante here seems to acknowledge his need for two kinds of external assistance, that conferred by what one can learn about poetic discourse (figures of speech, rhetorical devices, rhymes, etc.), and that conferred by God so that the poet can conceive the meaning of his experience.

Dante’s claims for the absolute veracity of the Comedy offend, one might say, only two classes of reader: believers and nonbelievers. In ways that would have deeply surprised and troubled St. Thomas, Dante assumed for himself the ability to write his poem using the same procedures that interpreters like Thomas believed God employed in dictating Scripture. This tactic provides one of the continuing debates in Dante criticism. To this day there is controversy over whether Dante actually wrote the “Letter to Cangrande,” whose author overtly claims that he wrote the Comedy making use of the four senses of Scripture, almost exactly as these are defined by St. Thomas near the beginning of the Summa (I, i, 10). Even if Dante did not write the epistle, the techniques of signifying in the poem nevertheless centrally reflect “God’s way of writing.”

From Dante’s first insistence that what is narrated as having occurred is to be treated as having actually occurred, it is clear he does not actually expect us to believe that the journey really took place. He does want us, though, to pay particular attention to the fact that he has claimed that it did. Here lies the central difference between the Comedy and more “standard” medieval allegorical visions (e.g., the Roman de la Rose, Brunetto Latini’s Tesoretto. Take the moment in Inferno XVI when Dante stakes the credibility of his entire comedía on his having seen the fabulous monster Geryon. In such moments, we may sense that the poet realizes that his reader will not grant for an instant that such things really have occurred, but will recognize the reason for which the poet must make the outrageous claim. Dante does not want his poem categorized as a mere fiction, like those castigated by Aquinas and other theologians who held that poets are in effect liars and have little to say that is epistemologically valid.

In Inferno XXIX, Dante emphasizes this point by comparing counterfeiters, victims of a plague-like ailment in their eternal damnation, to those plague victims on the island of Aegina described by Ovid, who were replaced by “ant-people”—“secondo che i poeti hanno per fermo” (as the poets hold for certain). That dig in Ovid’s ribs—no one will (or should) believe what a lying poet tells—is a risky and amusing joke between us and Dante. For at heart we know that his sinners, as he portrays them, are as “fictive” as Ovid’s Myrmidons. Dante takes on Thomas’ objections by claiming total veracity for his poem as he smilingly capitulates to them: he is, after all, only another lying poet, but one who nonetheless claims to tell “the truth,” and indeed literal truth.

There are, to be sure, several moments in which he seems altogether serious about the truth claims made for his vision. Yet his careful (and often amusing) undercutting of their full impact makes the poem’s readers far more comfortable than they would be were such passages not present. They allow the poem to be utterly serious when its author wants it to be (one cannot imagine such playfulness being allowed in the climactic visions of Paradiso XXXIII), and they allow readers to think that Dante is at least as sane as they are. Dante, while as stern a moralizing poet as one is likely to find, is a surprisingly restrained visionary.

A final example of his witty playfulness about his role as prophetic seer is worth noting. In describing the six wings adorning each of the four biblical beasts representing the authors of the Gospels in Purgatorio XXIX, Dante assures us that their wings were six in number (Ezekiel’s cherubic creatures had only four [1:6]), that is, as many as are found in John’s description of the same creatures (Revelation 4:8). Verse 105 puts this in an arresting way: “Giovanni è meco e da lui si diparte” (John sides with me, departing from him). No one but Dante would have made this statement in this way. “Here I follow John” would have been a more acceptable gesture for a poet to use in guaranteeing the truthfulness of his narrative. Not for Dante. Since the pretext of the poem is that he indeed saw all that he recounts as having seen, that experience, in good Thomistic procedure, is prior–he knows this by his senses. And so John is his witness, and not vice versa. It is an extraordinary moment.

Nothing is more difficult for one who teaches this poem to students than to convince them that all of the damned souls, no matter how attractively they present their own cases, are to be seen as justly damned. The poem creates some of its drama from the tension that exists between the narrator’s view of events (in Inferno often represented by Virgil’s interpretive remarks) and that of the protagonist. What makes our task as readers difficult is that at some pivotal moments neither the narrator nor Virgil offers clear moral judgments. Instead, Dante uses irony to undercut the alluring words of sinners who present themselves as victims rather than as perpetrators of outrage in the eyes of God. Guido da Pisa’s gloss (to Inf . XX, 28-30) puts the matter succinctly: “But the suffering of the damned should move no one to compassion, as the Bible attests. And the reason for this is that the time for mercy is here in this world, while in the world to come there is time only for justice.”

If it was John Milton’s task in Paradise Lost to “justify the ways of God to men,” Dante before him had taken on the responsibility of showing that all that is found in this world and in the next is measured by justice. Everything in God is just; only in the mortal world of sin and death do we find injustice. And it is small wonder that Dante believes there are only few living in his time who will find salvation (Par . XXXII, 25-27). Words for “justice” and “just” recur frequently in the poem, the noun some thirty-five times, the adjective some thirty-six. If one were asked to epitomize the central concern of the Comedy in a single word, “justice” might represent the best choice.

In the Inferno we see this insistence on God’s justness from the opening lines describing Hell proper, the inscription over the gate of Hell (III, 4): “Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore” (Justice moved my maker on high). If God is just, there can be absolutely no question concerning the justness of his judgments. All who are condemned to Hell are justly condemned. Thus, when the protagonist feels pity for some of the damned, we are meant to realize that he is at fault for doing so. This is perhaps the most crucial test of us as readers that the poem offers. If we sympathize with the damned, we follow a bad example. In such a view, the protagonist’s at times harsh reaction to various sinners, e.g., Filippo Argenti (canto VIII), Pope Nicholas III (canto XIX), Bocca degli Abati (canto XXXII), is not (even if it seems so to some contemporary readers) a sign of his falling into sinful attitudes himself, but proof of his righteous indignation as he learns to hate sin.

If some readers think that the protagonist is occasionally too zealous in his reactions to sinners, far more are of the opinion that his sympathetic responses to others correspond to those that we ourselves may legitimately feel. To be sure, Francesca da Rimini (canto V) is portrayed more sympathetically than Thaïs (canto XVIII), Ulysses (canto XXVI) than Mosca dei Lamberti (canto XXVIII), etc. Yet it also seems to some readers that Dante’s treatment of Francesca, Ulysses, and others asks us to put the question of damnation to one side, leaving us to admire their most pleasing human traits in a moral vacuum, as it were.

It is probably better to understand that we are never authorized by the poem to embrace such a view. If we are struck by Francesca’s courteous speech, we note that she is also in the habit of blaming others for her own difficulties; if we admire Farinata’s magnanimity, we also note that his soul contains no room for God; if we are wrung by Pier delle Vigne’s piteous narrative, we also consider that he has totally abandoned his allegiance to God for his belief in the power of his emperor; if we are moved by Brunetto Latini’s devotion to his pupil, we become aware that his view of Dante’s earthly mission has little of religion in it; if we are swept up in enthusiasm for the noble vigor of Ulysses, we eventually understand that he is maniacally egotistical; if we weep for Ugolino’s piteous paternal feelings, we finally understand that he, too, was centrally (and damnably) concerned with himself, even at the expense of his children.

Dante’s innovative but risky technique was to trust us, his readers, with the responsibility for seizing upon the details in the narratives told by these sympathetic sinners in order to condemn them on the evidence that issues from their own mouths. It was indeed, as we can see from the many readers who fail to take note of this evidence, a perilous decision for him to have made. Yet we are given at least two clear indicators of the attitude that should be ours. Twice in Inferno figures from Heaven descend into Hell to further God’s purpose in sending Dante on his mission. Virgil tells of the coming of Beatrice to Limbo. She tells him, in no uncertain terms, that she feels nothing for the tribulations of the damned and cannot be harmed in any way by them or by the destructive agents of the place that contains them (Inf . II, 88-93). All she longs to do is to return to her seat in Paradise (Inf . II, 71). And when the angelic intercessor arrives to open the gates of Dis, slammed shut by the rebellious angels against Virgil, we are told that this benign presence has absolutely no interest in the situation of the damned or even of the living Dante. All he desires is to complete his mission and be done with such things (Inf . IX, 88, 100-103).

Such indicators should point us in the right direction. It is a continuing monument, both to the complexity of Dante’s poem and to some readers’ desire to turn it into a less morally determined text than it ultimately is, that so many of us have such difficulty wrestling with its moral implications. This is not to say that the poem is less because of its complexity, but precisely the opposite. Its greatness is reflected in its rich and full realization of the complicated nature of human behavior and of the difficulty of moral judgment for living mortals. It asks us to learn, as does the protagonist, as we proceed.

One tradition of deathbed utterance has it that Calderón’s last words were, “Dante, why were you so difficult?” Whether or not the anecdote is true, the lament is a fitting one. We might choose a different version of this question: “Dante, why were you so good?” His extraordinary gifts as poet—and these are the most salient aspects of what he has left behind—enable him to reach everyone who loves to watch or hear language do everything it can do. In this he is like Homer and Shakespeare. And, like them, he enjoys some of this power even when he is translated. He has the further ability to enter the hearts of nearly everyone: “Monarchists” read him their way; “Papists,” theirs.

For some conservative Catholics he is the authentic voice of the medieval Church; for many liberal atheists he is an authentic voice of human suffering and hope. Each of us reads his own Dante, and admires what he reads. How would Dante react, come back to experience it, to all our fuss over him? It seems reasonable to believe that, first of all, he would be pleased with the extraordinary amount of attention his work continues to gather. The poet who, with unbelievable boldness in Inferno IV, had made himself one of the six major poets between antiquity and his own day (Homer, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Lucan, . . . Dante), now looks modest, in the world’s estimation; he has eclipsed, for most readers, all but Homer.

But then do we not imagine hearing him complain, over and over, about how badly we now read him? Even posthumously he probably would consider that he had ended up what he had said he was in his political endeavors: “a party of one.”

Robert Hollander is Professor of European Literature at Princeton University and Director of the Princeton Dante Project.