Dante Alegheri (1265-1321)
Every self-respecting reader must read this book. There is no option.
Sixteen years in the writing, it was released in 1555, one major part at a time and each part was an instant “great book”, as The Church proclaimed, as it felt that it gave demonstrative evidence to the nature of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, and would, thus, lead parishioners to ever more virtuous lives. Its early stature, of course, was based upon its pro-Christian leanings, its views of sin, grace, redemption and transcendence, sacrament, the Trinity, and for its rebuttal to the “reason-based” views of the agnostic or atheistic Virgil, Ovid and the Greek philosophers. The scope of DC includes everything from theology, religion, philosophy, politics, astronomy, science to human behavior, and, best of all to Italians, it was the first “great work” written in then contemporary Italian, rather than in Latin or Greek.
A “great author” has been defined as one whose works “have been loved by millions of more or less ordinary readers and by thousands of scholars.” Examples, to name the most prominent, include Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Horace, Dante, Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, Goethe, and, by now, Dickens at least. Dante Alegheri (known simply as “Dante” to millions) is best known, of course, for his “Divine Comedy”, which includes “Inferno,” “Paradise”, etc. which have also been published as separate works with extensive commentaries. Only Shakespeare’s works and the Christian Bible have been the subject of more commentaries than Dante’s. Dante’s earlier book of poems, La Vita Nuovo (The New Life), first brought him fame as he celebrated his love of Beatrice (Bice Partinari), who allegedly died at 25 and whose existence has been questioned by some historians. His poems ineluctably joined her with The Trinity, which lofty analogies render this historically debatable love-object even more suspect.
Dante married into one of the two most powerful families in Florence, and he served briefly as a form of Mayor there, and his works are filled with references to Florentine politics. Like Machiavelli, who followed him by 100 years or so, Dante longed for a great ruler (an “Augustus” or “Prince” to Machiavelli) to organize Florence and Italy, whose volatile factions ever-threatened chaos, coups and wars throughout Italy’s tempestuous feudal-states. (In the late 1800’s, Dante’s and Machiavelli’s dreams were realized, more or less, by the emergence of Garibaldi, who led Italy’s endless feudal factions to form a united Italy. Dante’s irascible political views led to his exile (then the easiest and least costly form of “prison”), and, from age 37, he lived a rather nomadic existence in Northern Italy, mostly around Verona, until his death in 1321 at age 56 – which was very near the time that the real Romeo and Juliet lived their tragedy, which Shakespeare memorialized some 200 years later.
Over 200 years after his death, Dante’s Comedy was renamed Divine Comedy (DC) by a Venetian publisher, as it had been so embraced and proselytized by The Church. The motivating idea of DC is this: Dante, age 35, was rescued “by the shade of the poet Virgil” (an idol of Dante’s), who led Dante through Hell and Purgatory, and he was then led by the living soul of his beloved Beatrice (pronounced “Be-ah-tree-chay” in Italian), who descends from Heaven to Hell to lead Dante on a journey the rest of the way to Heaven, through “the nine heavenly spheres” (reminiscent of Mohammed’s “Seven Heaven’s” from the Koran, c. 630 A.D.) into Paradise – where all live as angels in a passive, blissful adoration of God. The entire, thousand-page journey takes only one week of Dante’s life!
Can we understand Dante’s poetry? Yes and no, as he ranges from simple and straightforward to the most arcane and esoteric, as do Boccaccio, Chaucer, Milton and, sometimes, Shakespeare. As with the Christian Bible and other ancient (pre-printing press) works, there is no “original” or autographed copy, and various translations give us sometimes markedly different substance. Therefore, all versions suffer the imposition of edits and revisions that raise doubt as to the author’s original ideas, but, no matter! What is left is its own reward! Reading Dante is like listening to Bach; one cannot conceive how one mind could create such superhuman magic (as it does in its native Italian, which this reader has also read and understood in snippets, enough to see the amazing rhymes, cadence, flow and beauty of the poem), enthralling generations, even when refusing to reveal some of its secret meanings.
Above all, DC is an allegorical work. Virgil, as Dante presents him, is not so much the Roman poet as he is the embodiment of “human reason unenlightened by faith”, such music to The Church’s ears, and Beatrice, who is Dante’s second guide in DC, is removed from her role as Dante’s romantic obsession to represent the truths that we discover through faith and/or revelation. Dante-himself is the lead character of course, and he doesn’t represent the author, but, rather, the allegorical “Everyman” (akin to Arjuna in the Hindu scripture, Bhagavad Gita).. So, at risk of oversimplification, Virgil is “Reason,” Beatrice “Faith” and Dante “Everyman”, and the epic overflows with other allegorical characters and creatures. Yet, to equate these characters only with their key characteristic oversimplifies Dante’s often much deeper meanings.
In sum, Dante was a devoutly Christian poet, who ground the axe of The Church in beautifully rhymed verse and painted a picture of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory that the world has never forgotten – especially the graphic layers of Hell, each imposing punishments more excruciating than the last, to fit ever greater sins. The ominous words which Dante reports are written over The Gate to Hell (“Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here”), and the agonizing “everlasting fire” to which many of its denizens are sentenced (taken, no doubt, from no less an authority than Matthew 25: 41, 46), has resonated down through the ages, ever instilling fear in the minds of men. Dante’s “Limbo”, where the sinless without faith dwell (including, for example, Socrates, Plato, Homer, Virgil, Ovid) live in total darkness, a not much better plight than Hell. “Neutrals” reside outside the Gate and are tormented by stinging insects. Still, Dante presents many of the sinners very sympathetically, leaving the readers to decide if their punishments were just, but Dante, however compassionate, believes that God is just and that all of His punishments are equally just, although many are tragic beyond comprehension. Dante repeatedly said that he was speaking (writing) “to the few who were worthy” of hearing him, and he never expected such praise or resounding success from DC.
Dante brought the Middle Ages to a close. Shakespeare, Galileo, Bach, Newton, Voltaire et al were coming to the rescue, but Dante’s visions of Heaven, Purgatory and Hell remain vivid to countless Christians today (and far transcend anything on point in the Bible), and have been captured in innumerable oil paintings by masters, as well as in subsequent literature. For those who believe in Heaven, Purgatory and Hell, Dante’s masterpiece remains a must-read classic. The rest of us, except those who can enjoy its magical beauty in its native Italian, will find it a strain on credulity and a struggle to finish.