Dante Alighieri was born in Florence in May 1265 in the district of San Martino, the son of Alighiero di Bellincione d'Alighiero. His mother died when he was young; his father, whom he seems to avoid mentioning as much as possible, remarried and produced two more children. The Alighieri family may be considered noble by reason of the titles and dignities bestowed upon its members, although by Dante's time it seems to have been reduced to modest economic and social circumstances. According to Dante himself, the family descended from "the noble seed of the Roman founders of the city" (Inferno 15.73-78). This claim remains largely unsubstantiated, as nothing is known of Dante's ancestors before his great-great-grandfather, Cacciaguida, who was knighted by Emperor Conrad III and died, as Dante tells us, during the Second Crusade, about 1147 (Paradiso 15.139-148).
Like most of the city's lesser nobility and artisans, Dante's family was affiliated with the Guelf party, as opposed to the Ghibellines, whose adherents tended to belong to the feudal aristocracy. These two parties came into Italy from Germany, and their names represent italianized forms of those attached to the two quarreling houses of Germany, Welf and Waiblingen. In Italy the parties were at first identified with broad allegiances: to papal authority for the Guelfs, and to imperial authority in the case of the Ghibellines. Eventually, however, this church-empire distinction disappeared, and the two parties became less clearly defined in outlook and purpose. The local connotations of the parties became much more important as their issues and activities became tied to geographical situation, rivalries of neighborhoods in the same city, family feuds, and private interests. Thus, the Guelfs and Ghibellines of Florence were factions peculiar to that region alone.
As far as one can tell from his writings, Dante's recollections of family life were pleasant ones. It is fairly certain that he received a careful education, although little of it is known precisely. He may have attended the Franciscan lower schools and, later, their schools of philosophy. The family's modest social standing did not prevent him from pursuing his studies, nor was he hindered in his effort to lead the life of a gentleman. His writings indicate that he was familiar with the ways of the country as well as with city life. Dante probably studied rhetoric with the scholar and statesman Brunetto Latini (ca. 1220-1294), from whom he says that he learned "how a man becomes eternal" (Inferno 15.85), during a period when he was driven by a desire to master the techniques of style. It seems that Brunetto fed his keenness for study and learning, and this may account for a trip in about 1287 to Bologna, where Dante elected to pursue his study of rhetoric in the highly renowned school there.
Dante tells us that as a young man he taught himself the art of writing verse (Vita nuova 3.9). In time he became acquainted with the best-known troubadours of Florence, corresponding with them and circulating his own love lyrics. For the youthful Dante, writing poetry gradually became an important occupation, nourished by his sincere love for art and learning, and his interest in the nature of genuine love. Equally significant at this time was his friendship with the wealthy, aristocratic poet Guido Cavalcanti (ca. 1255-1300). Guido exerted a strong influence on his early poetic endeavors. This period was also marked by the death of Dante's father (ca. 1283), and by his marriage to Gemma, a gentlewoman of the Donati family. The marriage had been arranged by Dante's father in 1277, well before his death. Gemma and Dante had two sons, Pietro and Jacopo, and at least one daughter. (There exist the names of two daughters, Antonia and Beatrice, but they could refer to the same person, the second, Beatrice, being a monastic name.) Dante's marriage and children seem to have had little influence on him as a poet; nowhere in his works does he make direct reference to his wife.
Besides his associations with Guido Cavalcanti and Brunetto Latini, Dante knew well the notary Lapo Gianni and became acquainted later on with the youthful Cino da Pistoia. Both of these men were poets. Dante was also on friendly terms with the musician Casella (Purgatorio 2.76-114), about whom there exists little information. The artists Oderisi da Gubbio and Giotto may also have been among his acquaintances. A comrade chosen with far less discrimination, perhaps, was Forese Donati (Purgatorio 23), a kinsman of Dante's wife and a regular rogue, with whom Dante had an exchange of reproaches and coarse insults in sonnet form. The exchange may have begun only as a joke in a moment of good humor.
Along with Guido, Dante refined and developed his poetic skill in Latin and began to distinguish himself in his art from the other writers of the time. In their poetry Dante and Guido presented their ideas on the nature of love and its ability to contribute to the inner perfection of man. Guido, however, was more interested in natural philosophy than was Dante, who, because of his more artistic orientation, favored the study and emulation of the Latin poets. He particularly admired Vergil , from whom he learned so much about matters of style. Though Dante was deeply influenced in his writing by the example of his friend Guido, he eventually responded to his own artistic temperament, to his study of Vergil, and to the example provided by a more recent poetic master, Guido Guinizzelli (ca. 1230-1276). The result was a shift to composition in the vernacular, a poetic innovation that is praised by Bongiunta Orbicianni in the Purgatorio (24.49-62).
Dante's life and writings were also influenced by his acquaintance with a noble Florentine woman of outstanding grace and beauty. He had named her among the sixty fairest women of Florence, but it was not until later that the poet truly "discovered" her. This revelation proved to be an extremely powerful force in his artistic development. According to the testimony of Boccaccio and others, the woman, called Bice, was the daughter of Folco Portinari of Florence. She later became the wife of the banker Simone de' Bardi. Dante called her Beatrice, the bringer of blessings, the one who brought bliss to all who looked upon her.
Dante is said to have met Beatrice for the first time when he was nine. Theirs was not an easy relationship, for Beatrice took offense at the attention he paid other women. The resulting rebuff caused Dante great sorrow. His emotional attachment to Beatrice brought him to idealize her more and more as the guide of his thoughts and feelings, as the one who would lead him toward the inner perfection that is the ideal of every noble mind. In his poems Dante praises his lady as a model of virtue and courtesy, a miraculous gift given to earth by God to ennoble and enrich all those who appreciated her qualities. Such an exalted view of this woman was bound to carry with it the fear that she would not remain long in this life; in fact, premature death did befall her. Beatrice's father died first, and then she died on 8 June 1290. Dante was overcome with grief at his loss. There followed a period of contemplating Beatrice's significance after her death. After the first anniversary of her death, another woman, who is never mentioned by name, succeeded in winning Dante's affection for a brief time. However, Beatrice soon came vividly to mind again, and while feeling guilt and remorse for having neglected the memory of her, Dante reaffirmed his fidelity to her. This experience prompted him to gather together all the poems he had written in her honor, in an attempt to celebrate her virtue. This collection, to which Dante added a commentary on the meaning and occasion of each poem, became the little volume that he called the Vita nuova (New Life), about which I shall have more to say later on in this essay.
During all of this time Dante's passion for study had continued unabated. His vision had been broadened by the reading of Boethius and Cicero. The dissemination of Aristotle's works on physical and metaphysical subjects brought recognition of the need to harmonize the ideas of the great guide of human reason with the truths and teachings of the faith. Dante, by now a grown man, was attracted to many of the new schools and universities that were operating under the tutelage of the new religious orders. Among the Franciscans, Dominicans, and Augustinians were many eminent teachers and scholars. In this brisk intellectual environment of around 1290 Dante applied his energies to philosophy with such fervor that "in a short time, perhaps thirty months," he began "to be so keenly aware of her sweetness that the love of her drove away and destroyed every other thought" (Convivio 2.2.7). Dante read so much, it seems, that his eyes were weakened considerably because of it. Among Christian scholars and theologians, he certainly read Saint Thomas Aquinas, Albertus Magnus, Saint Augustine, Hugh and Richard of Saint Victor, Saint Bonaventura, Saint Bernard, and Peter Lombard. In the area of history he took up Livy and Paulus Orosius, among others. Evidence of this extensive course of study found its way into his poetry as he became interested in the glorification of philosophy as mistress of the mind. Dante also treated questions of moral philosophy, such as nobility and courtship, in a number of beautifully composed canzoni, or odes. Nevertheless, in spite of this ardent pursuit of philosophical matter he retained his view of love as the most important force behind noble actions and lofty endeavors. To his appreciation of the Latin poets he added an admiration for the Provençal troubadours, and this encouraged him to attempt new poetic techniques that would serve him well in his later writings.
Along with his spiritual and intellectual activities Dante engaged in civic enterprises as well. In 1289 he had fought on the Guelf side at the battle of Campaldino. In 1295 he began an active public life, and within a few years he became an important figure in Florentine politics. He had joined the Guild of Physicians and Apothecaries in order to participate in government (except for certain offices, government was closed to those without guild affiliation), and there is evidence that he served as a member of the People's Council of the Commune of Florence (1295), on the Council for Election of the Priors of the City (1295), and on the Council of the Hundred (1296), a body that dealt with finance and other important civic matters.
This was a time of political ferment and instability. Between 1215 and 1278 the Guelfs and Ghibellines of Florence had engaged in a bitter struggle for power, with numerous reversals of fortune for both sides, countless plots and conspiracies, and frequent expulsion orders issued against whoever was on the losing side. The Guelfs finally prevailed. Around 1300, however, there occurred a split in the Guelf party into two very hostile factions: the Blacks and the Whites. The Blacks, staunch Guelfs, remained in control of the commune. The Whites eventually associated themselves with the Ghibellines. Dante, meanwhile, fought to preserve the independence of Florence, and repeatedly opposed the schemes of Pope Boniface VIII, who wanted to place Florence and all of Tuscany under the control of the church. Boniface attempted to take advantage of the unrest in the city and undermine his opponents by promising protection to those who displayed some sympathy with his cause. He met with firm opposition from the six priors (magistrates) of Florence, of whom Dante was one in the summer of 1300. To show his displeasure Boniface moved to excommunicate the members of the priorate. Dante was spared this fate only because his term of office was soon due to expire. Obviously, none of this served to improve Dante's opinion of the pontiff. He made no secret of his opposition to the pope's ambitious policy; he regarded Boniface as an enemy of peace.
In 1301 Boniface summoned Charles of Valois and his army to Italy in an attempt to neutralize antichurch forces in Florence. It was at this time, as Charles approached the city, that Dante was sent as one of three envoys on behalf of the commune to the pope, in order to request a change in papal policy toward the city and to protest the intrigues of the Blacks. After the initial talks the other envoys were dismissed, but Dante was retained. During his absence Charles of Valois entered Florence, and the Blacks staged a revolution and gained complete control of the commune. Dante found himself sentenced to exile on trumped-up charges of graft, embezzlement, opposition to the pope and his forces, disturbance of the peace of Florence, and a number of other transgressions. Dante always felt that his difficulties had been brought on by the trickery of Boniface, and this only aggravated his already pronounced hatred for the pontiff and his methods. When Dante failed to appear to answer the charges against him, and when he did not pay the fine levied against him for his "crimes," a second sentence was imposed: should he ever return to the commune, he would be seized and burned alive. There is no evidence that Dante saw his beloved Florence again.
In 1302, shortly after his banishment, Dante conspired with his fellow exiles, most of them Whites, to regain admission to Florence. However, disapproving of their machinations and possibly in danger of his life because of their violence, he abandoned them and set off on his own to lead the life of an exiled courtier. It appears that he first took refuge with the Scala family at Verona. He is believed to have visited the university at Bologna, where he had been known since 1287. This visit probably occurred after the death in 1304 of his generous patron, Bartolommeo della Scala. It is generally thought that Dante traveled extensively in Italy, particularly in the north. He may have been in Padua in 1306. During that same year he appeared in Lunigiana with the Malaspina family, and it was probably then that he went to the mountains of Casentino, on the upper Arno. It is also thought that he went to Paris sometime between 1307 and 1309.
In 1310 Henry VII of Luxembourg, Holy Roman emperor from 1312 to 1313, entered Italy in an effort to reunite church and state, restore order, and force various rebellious cities to submit to his authority. His coming caused a great deal of excitement and conflict. Florence generally opposed him, but Dante, who attributed the woes of Florence and all of Italy to the absence of imperial guidance, welcomed Henry as a savior. Dante's state of great exaltation is documented in three letters that he wrote in 1310 and 1311. However, Henry's invasion proved fruitless; he met opposition from all sides, including Pope Clement V, who had sent for him in the first place. Just as the situation for Henry and his supporters began to improve, the emperor died near Siena in 1313. With him went Dante's every hope of restoring himself to an honorable position in his city. Thus in 1314 he took shelter with the Ghibelline captain Can Grande della Scala in Verona.
Dante did not totally abandon his quest to return to his native city. He wrote letters to individual members of the government, attempting to appease those who ruled. He even sent a canzone to the city of Florence, praising her love for justice and asking that she work with her citizens on his behalf. Dante strove to be acceptable to the Florentines, but for many reasons the public associated him with the Ghibellines; no matter how Dante tried to free himself of suspicion, he did not succeed. He also tried to appeal to them on the grounds of his poetic ability, and sought to show that if he had cultivated poetry in the vernacular it was not for lack of skill or study. He was compelled to display his love for learning and his great respect for philosophy and matters having to do with civic education. He therefore composed two treatises (both left incomplete), the De vulgari eloquentia (On Eloquence in the Vernacular) and the Convivio (Banquet), sometime between 1304 and 1307. In them can be seen his longing to reestablish himself in the good graces of his city and to find consolation for his wretchedness in the study of matters useful to man's well-being and his art. Thus, in the ten years or so between the Vita nuova and the Commedia (Divine Comedy), Dante's studies were essentially of a philosophical and artistic nature. The Convivio is often acknowledged as the key to his philosophical researches, while the De vulgari eloquentia is viewed as the key to his artistic inquiries.
Though he desperately hoped to restore his reputation as a Florentine and resume his life in the city that had turned against him, Dante refused to compromise his principles and turned down more than one opportunity to return to Florence, because such opportunities involved answering the false charges made against him. Such unwillingness to dishonor himself brought him yet another sentence of death, this one extending to his sons as well.
The last years of the poet's life were spent at Ravenna, where he was offered asylum by Guido Nevella da Polenta, the nephew of the famous Francesca da Rimini, the only woman sinner who actually speaks in the Inferno. These years seem to have been serene ones. In Ravenna he was greatly esteemed, and he enjoyed a very pleasant social life and an eager following of pupils, for he was already well known for his lyrics, especially the Convivio, Inferno, and Purgatorio. Shortly before his death he was sent by Guido on a mission to Venice. Although Florence still rejected him, other cities very much valued his presence. Dante's friendship with Can Grande della Scala remained intact, and Dante placed great store in him; it is to him that he dedicated the Paradiso. Ravenna was Dante's home until his death on 13 or 14 September 1321.
The Vita nuova, one of Dante's earliest works, is a combination of prose and poetry (thirty-one poems inserted into the prose text). It is one of the first important examples of Italian literary prose and probably the first work of fiction that has come down to us in which the prose serves the purpose not only of offering a continuous narrative but also of explaining the occasion for the composition of each of the poems included. The originality of the Vita nuova consists of the functional relationship between the poetry and the prose.
In recent years the critics of the Divine Comedy have come to see more clearly the necessity of distinguishing between Dante the poet, the historical figure who wrote the poem in his own voice, and Dante the pilgrim, who is the poet's creation and who moves in a world of the poet's invention. In the case of the Vita nuova it is more difficult to distinguish between Dante the poet and Dante the lover, because in this book the lover, the protagonist, is himself a poet. More important, however, is the fact that the events of the Vita nuova, unlike those of the Divine Comedy, are surely not to be taken as pure fiction, and the protagonist himself is no fictional character: he is the historical character Dante at an earlier age. But we must attempt, just as we must in the case of any first-person novel, to distinguish between the point of view of the one who has already lived through the experiences recorded and has had time to reflect upon them in retrospect, and the point of view of the one undergoing the experiences at the time. What we have in the Vita nuova is a more mature Dante, reevoking his youthful experiences in a way that points up the folly of his younger self.
Also significant is the chronological relationship between the composition of the poems and that of the prose narrative, which reflects the way in which the author has adapted to a new purpose some of his earlier writings. In general scholars agree that when Dante, sometime between 1292 (that is, two years after the death of Beatrice) and 1300, composed the Vita nuova, most, if not all, of the poems that were to appear in the text had already been written. The architecture of the work, as has been said, consists of selected poems arranged in a certain order, with bridges of prose that serve primarily a narrative function: to describe those events in the life of the protagonist that supposedly inspired the poems included in the text. By giving the poems a narrative background, Dante was able to make their meaning clearer or even to change their original meaning or purpose.
For example, though the beauty of the first can zone in the book, "Donne ch'avete intelletto d'amore" ("Ladies who have intelligence of love"), is independent of its position in the work, the poem owes entirely to the preceding narrative its dramatic significance as the proclamation of a totally new attitude adopted by the young poet-lover at this time in the story. This is also true, though from a different point of view, of the most famous poem in the Vita nuova (and probably one of the most exquisite sonnets in all of world literature), which is quoted below in the original (as well as in my own translation):
Tanto gentile e tanto onesta pare
la donna mia quand'ella altrui saluta,
ch'ogne lingua deven tremando muta,
e li occhi no l'ardiscon di guardare.
Ella si va, sentendosi laudare,
benignamente d'umiltà vestuta,
e par che sia una cosa venuta
da cielo in terra a miracol mostrare.
Mostrarsi si piacente a chi la mira,
che dà per li occhi una dolcezza al core,
che 'ntender no la può chi no la prova;
e par che de la sua labbia si mova
un spirito soave, pien d'amore,
che va dicendo a l'anima: "Sospira!"
Such sweet decorum and such gentle grace
attend my lady's greeting as she moves
that lips can only tremble into silence,
and eyes dare not attempt to gaze at her.
Moving, benignly clothed in humility,
untouched by all the praise along her way,
she seems to be a creature come from heaven
to earth, to manifest a miracle.
Miraculously gracious to behold,
her sweetness reaches, through the eyes,
(who has not felt this cannot understand),
and from her lips it seems there moves
spirit, so deeply loving that it glides
into the souls of men, whispering: "Sigh!"
Just how much of the narrative prose is fiction we shall never know. We can never be sure that a given poem actually arose from the circumstances related in the prose preceding it. A few critics believe that all of the events of the narrative reflect biographical truth; most, fortunately, are more skeptical. But it goes without saying that to enjoy reading the Vita nuova we must suspend our skepticism and accept as "true" the events of the narrative. For only by doing so can we perceive the significance that Dante attributed to his poems by placing them where he did. And most critics of the Vita nuova seem to be agreed that in interpreting this work as a piece of literature, in seeking to find its message, the reader must try to forget the biographical fact that any given poem may have been written before Dante could know the use he would make of it later on.
In the opening chapter or preface (for it is so short) of his little book the author states that his purpose is to copy from his "book of memory" only those past experiences that belong to the period beginning his "new life" · a life made new by the poet's first meeting with Beatrice and the God of Love, who together with the poet-protagonist are the three main characters in the story. And by the end of chapter 2 all of the motifs that are important for the story that is about to unfold step by step have been introduced.
The first word of the opening sentence is "Nine": "Nine times already since my birth the heaven of light had circled back to almost the same point, when there appeared before my eyes the now glorious lady of my mind, who was called Beatrice even by those who did not know what her name was." The number nine will be repeated twice more in the next sentence (and it will appear another twenty times before the book comes to an end). In this opening sentence the reader not only finds a reference to the number nine of symbolic significance, but he also sees the emphasis on mathematical precision that will appear at frequent intervals throughout the Vita nuova.
In the opening sentence also the child Beatrice is presented as already enjoying the veneration of the people of her city, including strangers who did not know her name. With the words "the now glorious lady of my mind" (the first of two time shifts, in which the figure of the living Beatrice at a given moment is described in such a way as to remind us of Beatrice dead) the theme of death is delicately foreshadowed at the beginning of the story. As for the figure of Beatrice, when she appears for the first time in this chapter she wears a garment of blood-red color · the same color as her shroud will be in the next chapter.
In the next three sentences the three main spirits are introduced: the "vital" (in the heart), the "animal" (in the brain), and the "natural" (in the liver). They rule the body of the nine-year-old protagonist, and they speak in Latin, as will the God of Love in the chapter that follows (and once again later on). The words of the first spirit describing Beatrice anticipate the first coming of Love in the next chapter and suggest something of the same mood of terror. The words of the second spirit suggest rapturous bliss to come (that bliss rhapsodically described in chapter 11), while in the words of the third spirit there is the first of the many references to tears to be found in the Vita nuova. It is the spirit of the liver that weeps. It is only after this reference to the organ of digestion that Love is mentioned. He is mentioned first of all as a ruler, but we learn immediately that much of his power is derived from the protagonist's imagination · this faculty of which there will be so many reminders in the form of visions throughout the book.
We are also told that Love's power was restricted by reason, and later in the book the relation between Love and reason becomes an important problem. Two more themes are posited in this beginning chapter, to be woven into the narrative: the godlike nature of Beatrice and the strong "praise of the lady" motif. Both sound throughout the chapter as the protagonist's admiration for Beatrice keeps growing during the nine years after her first appearance.
Thus the opening chapter prepares for the rest of the book not only in the obvious way of presenting a background situation, an established continuity out of which single events will emerge in time, but also by setting in motion certain forces that will propel the Vita nuova forward · forces with which Dante's reader will gradually become more and more familiar.
In chapter 42, the final chapter of the Vita nuova, the poet expresses his dissatisfaction with his work: "After this sonnet there appeared to me a miraculous vision in which I saw things that made me resolve to say no more about this blessed one until I should be capable of writing about her in a more worthy fashion." As the result of a final vision, which is not revealed to the reader, he decides to stop writing about Beatrice until he can do so more worthily. The preceding vision he had in the course of the story had made him decide to keep on writing; this one made him decide to stop. If the main action of the book is to be seen, as some critics believe, as the development of Dante's love from his preoccupation with his own feelings to his enjoyment of Beatrice's excellence and, finally, to his exclusive concern with her heavenly attributes and with spiritual matters, then this action, and the Vita nuova itself, ends in an important sense in failure.
To understand the message of the book, to understand how it succeeds through failure, we must go back in time and imagine the poet Dante, somewhere between the ages of twenty-seven and thirty-five, having already glimpsed the possibility of what was to be his terrible and grandiose masterpiece, the Divine Comedy. We must imagine him rereading the love poems of his earlier years and feeling shame for a number of them. He would have come to view Beatrice as she was destined to appear in the Divine Comedy, and indeed as she does appear briefly in the Vita nuova, specifically in that essay (chapter 29) on the miraculous quality of the number nine (the square of the number three, the symbol of the Blessed Trinity) · that is, as an agent of divine salvation.
Having arrived at this point, he would have chosen from among his earlier love poems many that exhibit his younger self at his worst, in order to offer a warning example to other young lovers and especially to other love poets. This would imply on Dante's part, as he is approaching the midmost part of life (the "mezzo del cammin di nostra vita" of the Divine Comedy), a criticism of most of the love poetry in Italian literature, for which his century was famous, and also that for which Provençal poetry was famous in the preceding century.
One might even say that the Vita nuova is a cruel book; cruel, that is, in the treatment of the human type represented by the protagonist. In the picture of the lover there is offered a condemnation of the vice of emotional self-indulgence and an exposure of its destructive effects on a man's integrity. The "tender feelings" that move the lover to hope or despair, to rejoice or to grieve (and perhaps even to enjoy his grief), spring from his vulnerability and instability and self-love; however idealistically inspired, these feelings cannot, except spasmodically, lead him ahead and above as long as he continues to be at their mercy. In short, he must always fall back into the helplessness of his self-centeredness. The man who would realize a man's destiny must ruthlessly cut out of his heart the canker at its center, the canker that the heart instinctively tends to cultivate. This is, I am convinced, the main message of the Vita nuova. And the consistent, uncompromising indictment it levels has no parallel in the literature of Dante's time. But of course the Vita nuova offers more than a picture of the misguided lover: there is also the glory of Beatrice and the slowly increasing ability of the lover to understand it, although he must nevertheless confess at the end that he has not truly succeeded.
Both in the treatment of the lover and in that of Beatrice, Dante has gone far beyond what he found at hand in the love poetry of the troubadours and their followers. He has taken up two of their preoccupations (one might almost say obsessions) and developed each of them in a most original way: the lover's glorification of his own feelings, and his glorification of the beloved. Of the first he has made a caricature. Unlike his friend Guido Cavalcanti, also highly critical of the havoc wrought by the emotions within a man's soul, who makes of the distraught lover a macabre portrait of doom, Dante has presented his protagonist mainly as an object of derision.
As to the glorification of the lady, all critics of the Vita nuova admit that Dante has carried this idealization to a degree never before reached by any poet, and one that no poet after him will ever quite attempt to reach. However blurred may be the lover's vision of the gracious, pure, feminine Beatrice, Dante the poet, in chapter 29, probes to the essence of her being and presents the coldness of her sublimity. Thus the tender foolishness of the lover is intensified by contrast with the icy perfection of the beloved.
With a few exceptions, Dante's lyrical poems (and not only those contained in the Vita nuova) are inferior as works of art to those of Cavalcanti and Guinizelli, or, for that matter, to those of Bernart de Ventadorn and Arnaut Daniel. The greatness of the Vita nuova lies not in the poems but in the purpose that Dante made them serve. Certainly the book is the most original form of recantation in medieval literature · a recantation that takes the form of a reenactment, seen from a new perspective, of the sin recanted.
The Convivio, or Banquet, which Dante wrote in Italian sometime between 1304 and 1308, is an unfinished piece of work (it would be difficult to call it a work of art). His purpose in writing it is explained in the opening sentence, which is a quotation from Aristotle's Metaphysics: "All men by nature desire to know." Dante invites his reader to a feast consisting of fourteen courses (only three were completed), of which the "meat" of each is a canzone concerning love and virtue, while the "bread" is the exposition of it. Dante invites to his Banquet all those worthy people who, because of public duties, family responsibilities, and the like, have not been introduced to the science of philosophy. It is the laymen whom Dante invites to his feast, for it is through philosophy, he believes, that they can attain the temporal goal of happiness.
While the Vita nuova is Dante's monument to his first love, the lady Beatrice, the Convivio is a monument to his "second love," the lady Philosophy. That the lady who offers to console Dante a year after the death of Beatrice in the Vita nuova is that same lady Philosophy of the Convivio is revealed in book 2, chapter 2:
To begin with, then, let me say that the star of
Venus had already revolved twice in that circle
of hers that makes her appear at evening or in
the morning, according to the two different periods,
since the passing away of that blessed Beatrice
who dwells in heaven with the angels and
on earth with my soul, when that gentle lady, of
whom I made mention at the end of theVita
nuova,first appeared to my eyes, accompanied
by love, and occupied a place in my mind.
What attracted the poet-protagonist to this lady was her offer of consolation. In the Vita nuova his love for the lady at the window lasts for a short time, and he refers to this love as "the adversary of reason" and "most base," but in the Convivio he calls this love "most noble." It should be remembered, however, that Philosophy in the Vita nuova tries to make the young protagonist forget the fact that he has lost Beatrice · something of this earth (such as Philosophy) cannot replace the love of Beatrice. After the vision in chapter 39 of the Vita nuova, after grasping the true significance of his lady, he returns to Beatrice and vows to never again stray. In doing this he is to be thought of not as rejecting Philosophy, but rather as rejecting the ideal of replacing Beatrice with Philosophy. Never in the Convivio does he consider such a replacement.
Here Dante exalts learning and the use of reason to the highest, for only through knowledge can man hope to attain virtue and God. The Convivio seems to be the connecting link between the Vita nuova and the Divine Comedy, since a love that at first has earthly associations turns out to have religious significance. Furthermore, just as Dante praises reason in this work, we know that in the Divine Comedy, reason in the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom is man's sole guide on earth, except for the intervention of divine grace.
One might say that the Convivio is the philosophical counterpart of the Vita nuova. Even from a quick reading of the canzone that opens book 2, "Voi che 'ntendendo" ("You who by understanding"), the reader easily sees that, given the appropriate prose background, it might well have fitted into the Vita nuova. But when Dante begins the exposition of this ode it is "the sail of reason" that bears him on.
In the preamble to the Convivio Dante suggests reform in his declaring the vernacular suitable for ethical subjects as well as amorous ones. He was a leader in considering the vernacular a potential medium for all forms of expression, and his impassioned defense and praise of it manifest his awareness of its value in scientific interpretation as he comments at length on its uses.
He tells his reader that writings should be expounded in four senses. The first is the literal level. The second is the allegorical; for example, when Ovid tells his reader that Orpheus moved both animals and stones with his music he is signifying the power of eloquence over what is not rational. In this case the literal level of the story or poem need not be true. If it is not true, it is known as the allegory of poets; if the literal level is taken to be the truth, it is known as the allegory of theologians, because the literal level of the Scriptures was considered to be true. The third is the moral level, and this has a didactic purpose: when Christ took only three of his disciples with him on the occasion of the Transfiguration, it was another way of saying that for those things that are most secret we should have little company. The fourth sense is the anagogical, as when Scripture signifies certain spiritual or mystical truths. When we read, for example, that the people of Israel came out of Egypt and that Judea was made free, we must take this to be literally true, but the statement also signifies the spiritual truth that when a soul turns away from sin it becomes holy and free.
The literal level of a writing must always be exposed first, for it is impossible to delve into the "form" of anything without first preparing the "subject" upon which the form is to be stamped · you must prepare the wood before you build the table. Dante, in book 2, chapter l of the Convivio, proposes to expound the literal level of his canzone first and then the allegorical, bringing into play the other levels or senses when it seems appropriate. There are very few passages in Dante's work where all four senses are at work; in fact, of the three canzoni expounded in the Convivio he manages to treat only the first two poems on two levels, while the third he discusses only on the literal level. And when Dante talks about the literal sense he means, of course, not the words but what the words mean. We must bear in mind that the literal sense contains all the other meanings.
In the third book Dante expounds the canzone "Amor che ne la mente mi ragiona" ("Love that converses with me in my mind"), which Cosella in the Divine Comedy will sing to the newly arrived souls on the shores of Purgatory. In discussing the literal level of this ode he gives most of his attention to the meaning of amor (love).
Dante begins the fourth book, which treats the third and final canzone, "Le dolci rime d'amor ch'i'soli a" ("Those sweet rhymes of love that I was wont"), by stressing the fact that his love of philosophy has led him to love all those who pursue the truth and despise those who follow error. He also tells us in chapter 1 of this book that in order to have the utmost clarity he will discuss the poem only on the literal level. The lady involved, however, is still Philosophy.
Critics have proposed a number of theories on why Dante completed only four of the projected fourteen books of the Convivio. Thomas Bergin goes as far as to suggest that the Convivio might be thought of as the selva oscura (dark wood) of the Divine Comedy, from which the poet's lady, Beatrice, in a more graceful and harmonious work of art, felt obliged to rescue her poet-lover. I tend to agree with Rocco Montano, who suspects that it was some kind of personal crisis or "conversion" that made Dante stop working on this project. Montano assigns such a conversion and the writing of the Divine Comedy to the insight that resulted from Dante the poet's great disappointment at the failure of Henry VII's expedition into Italy. In any case, whatever Dante's reason for cutting short his work on the Convivio, whether it was personal or political, if this meant he could get on with the Divine Comedy and complete his masterpiece, we should be grateful that he did.
In all his works Dante shows his concern for words and the structure of language. In chapter 25 of the Vita nuova he takes time to explain and illustrate the use of personification, as he does in the early chapters of the Convivio, where he defends the use of Italian rather than Latin. But this concern is most evident in his Latin treatise De vulgari eloquentia. Before it there was no such scholarly treatment of a language. Dante completed only the first and second books, but he refers to a fourth; it is not known if that one was to be the last.
In book 1 Dante deals with the origin and history of the Italian language. The first five chapters cover the basic definitions of human speech while a good deal of the rest is given over to a discussion of dialects and the principles of poetic composition in the vulgar tongue, which he calls the "illustrious" vulgar tongue · the language of Guido Guinizelli and, most perfectly, of Guido Cavalcanti, Cino da Pistoia, and Dante himself.
The second book of the De vulgari eloquentia is devoted to a more thorough discussion of Italian, which, Dante asserts, is just as appropriate for works of prose as for poetry. Early in this book (chapter 2) he discusses what kind of subject is worthy of this vernacular and concludes that it is suited for only the most elevated subjects. And they are three: war (or prowess of arms), love, and virtue (or direction of the will). He states that the greatest writers using a vulgar tongue wrote only on these three subjects. Among Provençal poets, Dante cites Bertran de Born, who wrote about war, Arnaut Daniel on love, and Guiraut de Bornelh on virtue; he also mentions that in Italian Cino da Pistoia wrote about love and "his friend" (Dante), about virtue, citing an example of verse from each poet and including one of his own. Then he admits that he can find no Italian poet who has written on the topic of war. In chapter 3 of this book we learn that while poets have used a variety of forms (canzoni, ballate, sonnets, and other irregular types), the most excellent form remains the canzone, and it is this form that is most suited to lofty subjects. In the remaining chapters of book 2 the author goes on to discuss style and the rules and form of the canzone; the work ends abruptly with the incomplete chapter 14, in which he intended to treat the number of lines and syllables in the stanza.
Most scholars agree that the De vulgari eloquentia is not a finished work, but is rather an unfinished first draft. There are three basic reasons for this belief: the paucity of manuscripts (there are only three), the way the work breaks off in chapter 14, and the fact that references to points the author promises to discuss in coming chapters are never followed up. Perhaps Dante stopped writing the work, as Aristide Marigo suggests, because he was not certain of the direction he was taking. There is an obvious difference between the wide, humanistic scope of book 1 and the dry, manual-like approach of book 2. Or could Dante simply have become bored with it?
The date of composition of the De vulgari eloquentia has not been definitively resolved. Boccaccio claims that it was written in Dante's old age. Marigo, who has done the standard edition of the work (Florence, 1938), dates it between the spring of 1303 and the end of 1304. And because in the Convivio Dante makes an allusion to this work in progress we must assume, at least, that he had the project in mind during this time.
It is also difficult to assign a date of composition to Dante's De monarchia (On Monarchy), primarily because it contains no references to the author's contemporaries or to events taking place at the time. Some say that it was written before Dante's exile because the work contains no mention of it; others tend to think that it was written even later than the Convivio, because a number of ideas appearing in an embryonic stage in that work are fully developed in the De monarchia. Nevertheless, it was most likely written between 1312 and 1313 (sometime before or after the coronation of Henry VII) to commemorate Henry's advent into Italy.
The treatise is divided into three books. In the first book Dante attempts to prove that temporal monarchy is necessary for the welfare of the world. Temporal monarchy, or the empire, means a single command exercised over all persons; that is, in those things that are subject to time as opposed to eternal matters. In the opening sentence of the De monarchia the author pays tribute to both God and Aristotle while he establishes the reason for undertaking the present work: "All men whom the higher nature has imbued with a love of truth should feel impelled to work for the benefit of future generations, whom they will thereby enrich, just as they themselves have been enriched by the labors of their ancestors." According to Dante (and we find the idea throughout his writings) the man who does not contribute to the common good fails sadly in his duty.
Clearly Dante is convinced that he is doing something new in his treatise. There is nothing new, however, in his ideas of justice, freedom, and law · they are very much in line with the medieval philosophy of his day. The idea so elaborately set forth in book 1, that a higher jurisdiction is necessary whenever there is a possibility of discord or strife, was an argument that had already been used by Pope Boniface VIII and his followers. The originality of the De monarchia, the new element that Dante brings to the old idea of empire, rests precisely in its main premise, upon which and around which the treatise is constructed: Dante's justification from a philosophical point of view of a single ruler for all the human race. It is in his concern with founding a "universal community of the human race" ("universalis civilitas humani generis") that he is new and even daring · daring because in Dante's day this idea of a universal community existed only as a religious one, in the form of the church. His new idea, then, took its shape from universal Christendom; it is, in a sense, an imitation of it elaborated from a philosophical point of view. Working from the Averroistic concept of the "possible intellect," Dante affirms that the particular goal of mankind as a whole is to realize to the fullest all the potentialities of this intellect (to have all the intellectual knowledge it is capable of having); this can happen only under the direction of a single ruler, under one world government. And the most important essential, if we are to secure our happiness and if the human race is to fulfill its proper role, is universal peace.
Dante considers the monarch to be the purest incarnation of justice, for there is nothing for him to desire, nothing more to be greedy about. He is a man who has everything, having authority over all territories. Dante also tells us that the human race is at its best when it is most free · meaning self-dependent. Under the monarch the citizens do not exist for his sake; on the contrary, it is the monarch who exists for his citizens.
In the closing paragraph of the first book we hear the desperate voice of Dante the poet warning all humanity. Rarely do we hear this voice in the poet's Italian or Latin prose works, where his intention is to remain as objective as possible. It is a preview of what is to come, for Dante makes frequent and effective use of this device of authorial intervention in the Divine Comedy. After presenting his case for the necessity of a monarch in a logical and scholastic fashion, as Saint Thomas Aquinas or Aristotle might have done, Dante the poet bursts forth:
O humanity, in how many storms must you be
tossed, how many shipwrecks must you endure,
so long as you turn yourself into a many-headed
beast lusting after a multiplicity of things! You
are ailing in hoth your intellectual powers and
heart. You pay no heed to the unshakable principles
of your higher intellect, nor tune your
heart to the sweetness of divine counsel when it
is breathed into you through the trumpet of the
Holy Spirit: "Behold how good and pleasant it is
for brethren to dwell together in unity."
In book 2 Dante is primarily concerned with showing that the Romans were justified in assuming imperial power. He attempts to prove his thesis first by a number of arguments based on rational principles, then by the principles of the Christian faith.
In book 3 the poet proposes the question he has from the start wanted to ask and can ask only now that he has prepared the way in books 1 and 2: whether the authority of the Holy Roman emperor is directly dependent on God or whether his authority comes indirectly from another, a vicar or minister of God, meaning the pope. Dante ignores the vast historical distance between the Roman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire, preferring to see the two governments joined by historical and political continuity. First Dante must refute those scriptural arguments (based on Genesis 1:16: "And God made two great lights: the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night") used by his opponents to show the dependence of the emperor on the pope. Having done this, he turns to those historical arguments that must be refuted. The main one he must deal with is the very one that up to this point in his treatise he has been able to cope with only in a rather subjective, emotional, and even poetic way: the painful reality of the Donation of Constantine, a document that purported to prove that the emperor Constantine had invested Pope Sylvester with temporal authority. Dante proceeds by means of his two preferred sources: Scripture and philosophy (from Matthew and, on this occasion, Aristotle).
Man, who participates in two natures · one corrupt (the body), the other incorruptible (the soul) · has a twofold goal, and since he is the only being who participates in both corruptibility and incorruptibility, he has a goal for his body and a goal for his soul. God, who never errs, has, then, given man two goals: happiness in this life and happiness in the eternal life. The pope leads mankind to eternal life in accordance with revelation, while the emperor leads mankind to temporal happiness in accordance with philosophical teaching. The temporal monarch, who must devote his energies to providing freedom and peace for men as they pass through the "testing time" of this world, receives his authority directly from God.
Intellectual perfection, the happiness of this world, can therefore be attained without the church. With proper guidance from the universal monarch, man can regain the happiness of the earthly paradise · this is a dangerous conclusion that can easily follow from Dante's arguments in his treatise, and one that Dante himself does not draw. Not surprisingly, the book was placed on the Index of Forbidden Books. Unfortunately for Dante, what he wished and wrote for in the De monarchia did not come about. It is for this reason that the poet's main political focus shifted from the empire to the church when he wrote the Divine Comedy. With the death of Henry VII, Dante's hopes for the empire and the universal monarch began to fade; he was forced to put aside his ideal and face facts: a monarch and an empire would not overcome the power of the pope and the church.
While Dante divides temporal and spiritual authority in the De monarchia by means of ingenious logic and scholastic arguments (and in the Divine Comedy by its larger allegorical structure), his masterpiece reveals the sad truth that temporal and spiritual authority are often in the same hands. There are many passages that lament this fact. In the Purgatorio (canto 16), to cite one of the more famous passages, Marco Lombardo tells the pilgrim why the world has gone bad ("la cagion che 'l mondo ha fatto reo": 106-112):
On Rome, which brought the world to know the
once shone two suns that lighted up two ways:
the road of this world and the road of God.
The one sun has put out the other's light,
the sword is now one with the crook · and
fused together thus, must bring about misrule,
since joined, now neither fears the other one.
No one is quite sure if Dante is the author of a pedantic little essay written in Latin with the title Questio de aqua et terra (Discourse on the Nature of Water and Earth). According to a statement attached to the original manuscript, the essay is in essence a lecture delivered at Verona in 1320. It consists of twenty-four brief chapters that debate in detail the question of whether or not the water of the sea anywhere rises higher than land emerging from it. The document was first published in 1508 by G. B. Moncetti, who claimed that he had copied it from an autograph manuscript of Dante's; the manuscript, however, was never found.
Among Dante's other minor works we find his two pastoral odes in Latin, addressed to Giovanni del Virgilio, who was a professor of Latin at the University of Bologna, where Dante at one time had probably studied. The exchange of Latin hexameters between the two men took place when Dante was staying in Ravenna some two years before his death. In his verses Giovanni del Virgilio reprimands Dante for writing his great poem in Italian rather than Latin. The eclogues are interesting insofar as they reveal Dante's mood toward the end of his life: he seems to be playful, happy, and at peace with himself. Also evident in these verses is the poet's pathetic wish to return to his fair city to receive the laurel crown, as well as his feelings and hopes for the Divine Comedy.
A brief mention should be made of Il fiore (The Flower), the authenticity of which has been questioned by many scholars. It is a sequence of 232 sonnets based on the French Roman de la Rose. Those few who are sure that this allegorical story of a successful seduction was written by Dante give two reasons: first, the author is referred to as Durante, which is a form of Dante; second, it is much too well composed to have been written by anyone else but Dante. Il fiore, which is worth reading in its own right, is to be found in one manuscript of the late thirteenth century (first published in 1881 in Paris by Ferdinand Castets).
There are approximately fifty-four (and a possible twenty-six more) short poems (not included in the Vita nuova or Convivio) that Dante did not group together or organize in any way, but that modern editors have collected and called the Canzoniere or Rime (Songbook or Rhymes). They consist of scattered lyrics written over a long period of the poet's life, many of which he probably tried to, but could not, fit into the structure of the Vita nuova or Convivio. Many, of course, were inspired by Beatrice, but there are some written for other women; some done as exercises, as part of his correspondence with other poets; and some composed simply to please ladies and gentlemen who were fond of poetry.
Dante undoubtedly wrote many letters. Unfortunately, only ten letters considered authentic have come down to us; all ten are written in Latin, and none is of a personal or intimate nature. There are also three other letters that Dante may have written on behalf of the countess of Battifolle, but they do not reflect his own thoughts.
To the student of the Divine Comedy the most interesting of Dante's letters is the one addressed to Can Grande della Scala in which the author sets forth his purpose and method in writing his poem. The letter is extant in six manuscripts, three of which (all sixteenth-century) contain the letter in its entirety. He talks about the different meanings contained in the Divine Comedy: the first is called literal, the second allegorical or mystical. We learn that on the literal level the poem is about the state of souls after death; on the allegorical level, "The subject is man, liable to the reward or punishment of Justice, according to the use he has made of his free will."
In his letter he also discusses why he has called his poem a "comedy." The word, he says, is derived from comus and oda and means a "rustic song." Unlike tragedy, which begins in tranquillity but comes to a sad end, comedy may begin under adverse circumstances, but it always comes to a happy end. The style or language of comedy is humble while that of tragedy is lofty. Therefore, because his poem begins in Hell and has a happy ending in Paradise, and because it is written in a most humble language, which is the Italian vernacular, it is called the Commedia. The letter goes on with a meticulous, almost word-by-word examination of the beginning verses of the opening canto of the Paradiso up to the invocation to Apollo. The letter is thought by many to be an important piece of literary criticism seen in the framework of Dante's time and tradition, and as such it certainly is worth reading in its own right.
The Divine Comedy
Dante's masterpiece is, of course, the Divine Comedy (the word divina was added to commedia by posterity). It is to some degree a result of his determination to fulfill the promise he made at the close of the Vita nuova: "If it be the wish of Him in whom all things flourish that my life continue for a few years, I hope to write of her that which has never been written of any lady."
No one knows when Dante began composing his great poem; some say perhaps as early as 1307. In any case the Inferno was completed in 1314, and it is probable that the final touches to the Paradiso were, as Boccaccio states, not made until 1321, the year of Dante's death. The purpose of the poem, which has moved readers through the centuries, is, as Dante reveals in his epistle to Can Grande, "to remove those living in this life from the state of misery and lead them to the state of felicity."
The poem is divided into three major sections: Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Heaven). Each section contains thirty-three cantos, with the exception of Hell, which has thirty-four · the opening canto serving as an introduction to the work as a whole. For the Commedia Dante invented a rhyme scheme known as terza rima (tertiary rhyme: aba bcb cdc), thus continuing to display his fascination with the number three, which was so much on his mind when he was composing the Vita nuova many years earlier. And each canto is divided into three-line stanzas called terzine, or tercets, in which the first and third lines rhyme, while the middle or second lines rhyme with the first and third of the next terzina. The basic metrical unit of the verse is the hendecasyllabic line, quite common in Italian poetry: it is an eleven-syllable line in which the accent falls on the tenth syllable.
The drama or main action of the poem centers on one man's journey to God. It tells how God through the agency of Beatrice drew the poet to salvation; and the moral that Dante wishes his reader to keep in mind is that what God has done for one man he will do for every man, if every man is willing to make this journey. The reader of the poem would do well to distinguish from the very beginning of the Commedia between the two uses of the first-person singular: one designates Dante the pilgrim, the other Dante the poet. The first is a character in a story invented by the second. The events in the narrative are represented as having taken place in the past; the writing of the poem and the memory of these events, however, are represented as taking place in the present. For example, we find references to both past and present, and to both pilgrim and poet, in verse 10 of the introductory canto of the Inferno: "How I entered there I cannot truly say."
There are times in the poem when the fictional pilgrim (Dante the pilgrim) embodies many of the characteristics of his inventor (Dante the poet); for the Commedia, though it is above all the journey of Everyman to God, is in many ways a personal, autobiographical journey. It is often difficult, most times impossible, to say whether what is happening in the poem belongs to the real-life biography of the poet or the fictional biography of the pilgrim. For instance, at the beginning of canto 19 of the Inferno the pilgrim alludes to having broken a baptismal font in the church of his "lovely San Giovanni" (verse 17). Now Dante the poet may well have broken the font to save someone who was drowning within, but it is highly unlikely (and most inartistic) that he would mention the incident for the sole purpose of clearing his name in connection with an act that some of his contemporaries would have thought sinful. The breaking of the font is an event that took place in the life of the pilgrim, and the pilgrim is not trying to "clear his name," as critics have suggested. Rather the poet is giving an example to the reader of the true nature of the sin of simony (the sin punished in canto 19), which "breaks" the holy purposes of the church by perverting them.
The poet is the poet, but he is not the pilgrim, and the story traced in the Commedia is the story of Dante the pilgrim, who is at once himself and Everyman. We must keep in mind the allegory of the opening verse of the poem: "Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita / mi ritrovai . . ." ("Midway along the journey of our life / I found myself . . ."). Dante begins to construct his allegory of the double journey; that is, his personal experience in the world beyond ("I found myself"), open to Everyman in his own journey through this life ("of our life"). The poet finds himself wandering in a dark wood (the worldly life). He tries to escape by climbing a mountain that is lit from behind by the rays of the sun (God). His journey upward is impeded by the sudden appearance of three beasts: a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf (the three major divisions of sin, signifying the three major divisions of Hell: fraud, violence, and concupiscence). The poet is about to be driven back when, just as suddenly, Vergil (reason or human understanding) appears. He has been sent by Beatrice (divine revelation) to aid Dante, to guide him on this journey that cannot fail. The only way to escape from the dark wood is to descend into Hell (man must first descend into humility before he can raise himself to salvation or God). The way up the mountain, then, is to go down: before man can hope to climb the mountain of salvation, he must first know what sin is. The purpose of Dante's journey through Hell is precisely this: to learn all there is to know about sin as a necessary preparation for the ascent to God. In fact, from the opening canto of the Inferno to the closing one of the Paradiso, Dante the poet presents his pilgrim as continuously learning, his spiritual development being the main theme of the entire poem. His progress is slow, and there are even occasional backslidings.
In Inferno 4 the pilgrim and his guide, Vergil, who are now in Limbo, see a hemisphere of light glowing in the distance, and as they move toward it they are met by four great pagan poets. Vergil explains to his ward:
"Observe the one who comes with sword in
leading the three as if he were their master.
It is the shade of Homer, sovereign poet,
and coming second, Horace, the satirist;
Ovid is the third, and last comes Lucan.
Together with Vergil these four non-Christians form the group of those classical poets whom Dante most admired and from whom he drew much of the material for his poem. It must be said, however, that while Homer was known in the Middle Ages as the first of the great epic poets, the author of the Iliad and Odyssey, few people, including Dante, could read Greek; thus Homer's great epics were known almost entirely second-hand through the revised version of Dares and Dictys, who told the tale of the Trojan war in a way that exalted the Trojans and often disparaged the Greeks. Dante admired Homer more for his reputation than for any intimate knowledge that he had of his works. The second of the four is Horace, whom Dante calls the "satirist" but whom he must have thought of mainly as a moralist since Dante was familiar only with the Ars poetica. Ovid, who comes next, was the most widely read Roman poet in the Middle Ages, and he was Dante's main source of mythology in the Commedia. Dante, however, seems to have been acquainted with only the Metamorphoses. Coming last is Lucan, author of the Pharsalia, which deals with the Roman civil war between the legions of Pompey and those of Caesar. The book was one of Dante's important historical sources.
When the pilgrim and his guide have seen all there is to see of sin (canto 34) they find they must exit from Hell by climbing down Lucifer's monstrous, hairy body. Only by grappling with sin itself, by knowing the foundation of all sin, which is pride, personified in the hideous figure of Lucifer frozen in the ice at the very center of the universe, can they hope to make their way out "to see again the stars."
The island-mountain of Purgatory, invented by Dante, is divided into three parts. At the very top is the Earthly Paradise; the upper part of the mountain is sealed off from the lower by a gate that a resplendent angel guards, equipped with St. Peter's keys. This upper half, with its seven cornices corresponding to the seven deadly sins, is reserved for those who have been permitted to enter the gate from below in order to begin the self-willed torments of their purgation; after its accomplishment they pass to the Earthly Paradise, from which they ascend to Heaven. In the lower half, the "Antepurgatory," dwell those souls who are not yet ready to begin their purgation. As for the reason why certain souls are forced to put off the experience they all desire, the pilgrim is told by a number of individuals he meets that, while alive, they had put off repentance until the end (thus their delay is in the nature of a contrapasso, or retribution); it is generally accepted that all of the inhabitants of the Antepurgatory are to be considered as "late repentants." (The Antepurgatory is dealt with in the first nine cantos.) This mountain (whose creation was the miraculous result of Lucifer's fall) keeps not only those assigned to Purgatory but also those destined for immediate passage to Heaven.
The middle portion of the mountain of Purgatory is surrounded by seven concentric ledges, each separated from the other by a steep cliff. On each ledge, or terrace, one of the seven capital sins is purged: Pride, Envy, Wrath, Sloth, Avarice (and Prodigality), Gluttony, Lust. The setup of the First Terrace (cantos 9-12), where souls are being punished for the sin of Pride, establishes the pattern of purgation that is followed throughout Purgatory proper.
Each group of souls on its particular terrace is assigned a prayer. When a soul has finished purging his sin on one level, he climbs to the next via a stairway, where there is an angel-sentry who performs a final cleansing gesture. A beatitude appropriate to the sin that has been cleansed is assigned to each ledge. In addition, on each terrace of Purgatory, representations of the sin being purged there are found, as well as examples of the virtue which is opposed to that sin. The representation of the sin is intended to incite disdain for the sin, while that of the virtue is designed to inspire souls to the emulation of virtuous behavior. These representations take on various forms · on the First Terrace they appear as carvings in the stone of the mountain · and both "disdain for the sin" and "inspiration for virtuous behavior" are drawn from examples of Christian and pagan love. But the first example of every virtue is always taken from the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
In the first canto of the Purgatorio Dante and Vergil are at the foot of a mountain again, and the reader is naturally reminded of the first canto of the Inferno: it is the same mountain, the one they could not climb then, because Dante was not spiritually prepared. But now, having investigated all sin, having shaken off pride during his perilous descent into humility, Dante will be able to climb the mountain.
Purgatory is a place of repentence, regeneration, conversion. Though the punishments inflicted on the penitents here are often more severe than in Hell, the atmosphere is totally different: it is one of sweet encounters, culminating in Dante's reunion with Beatrice in the Earthly Paradise and Vergil's elegant disappearance. Brotherly love and humility reign here, necessary qualities for the successful journey of man's mind to God. Everyone here is destined to see God eventually; the predominant image is one of homesickness (especially in the Antepurgatory), a yearning to return to man's real home in Heaven. Toward the close of the Purgatorio the time comes for Beatrice (divine revelation) to take charge of the pilgrim; human reason (Vergil) can take man only so far; it cannot show him God or explain his many mysteries.
The Paradiso is an attempt to describe the religious life, one in which man centers his attention wholly on God, divine truth, and ultimate happiness. Only in perfect knowledge of the true God can man have perfect happiness.
Unlike Hell and Purgatory, Heaven in Dante's poem does not exist in a physical sense. The celestial spheres through which the pilgrim and his guide, Beatrice, ascend and in which the souls of the blessed appear to the wayfarer are not part of the real Paradise. That place is beyond the spheres and beyond space and time; it is the Empyrean, and Beatrice takes pains to explain this early in the Paradiso, while they are in the first sphere of the moon:
Not the most godlike of the seraphim,
not Moses, Samuel, whichever John
you choose · I tell you · not Mary herself
has been assigned to any other heaven
than that of these shades you have just seen
and each one's bliss is equally eternal;
all lend their beauty to the highest sphere,
sharing one sweet life to the degree
that they can feel the eternal breath of God.
The dominant image in this realm is light. God is light, and the pilgrim's goal from the very start was to reach the light (we are reminded of the casual mention of the rays of the sun behind the mountain in the opening canto).
The formal beauty of the Commedia should not be dissociated from its spiritual message. The universal appeal of the poem comes precisely from a combination of the two: poetry and philosophy. For Dante, though not for the majority of poets of the Renaissance, ultimate truth was known · in principle it was contained in the Summa of Saint Thomas Aquinas, and the doctrine of the Commedia comes largely from the writings of Aquinas and the other church fathers.
Dante was in accord with Hugh of Saint Victor, who, in his Didascalia (6.5), says: "Contemplating what God has done, we learn what is for us to do. All nature speaks God. All nature teaches man." Dante, then, with his special kind of allegory, tries to imitate God: the symbolic world he creates in his poem is in principle a mirror of the actual world created by God himself.
From: Mark Musa. "Dante." European Writers: The Middle Ages and the Renaissance, edited by George Stade, vol. 1, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1983.