The first formal biography of Dante was the Vita di Dante (also known as Trattatello in laude di Dante), written after 1348 by Giovanni Boccaccio. Although several statements and episodes of it have been deemed unreliable on the basis of modern research, an earlier account of Dante’s life and works had been included in the Nuova Cronica of the Florentine chronicler Giovanni Villani.
Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) remains Italy’s greatest poet. He was born in the city of Florence, in the region of Tuscany, Italy in the spring of 1265. He was betrothed in marriage to Gemma Donati and they were blessed with five children. He wrote La Commedia, the Divine Comedy, from 1308 to 1320, completing the work the year before he died. The Divine Comedy is one of literature’s boldest undertakings, as Dante takes us through Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio), and then reaches Heaven (Paradiso), where he is permitted to partake of the Beatific Vision. Dante’s journey serves as an allegory of the progress of the individual soul toward God. The work is arranged in 100 cantos in 3 parts, 34 for the Inferno, 33 each for Purgatorio and Paradiso. The work is written in groups of 3 lines, or tercets, reminiscent of the Trinity. While Dante was true to the Catholic faith he learned from the Dominicans and the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, he was quite critical of the Church as an institution. The Divine Comedy signaled the beginning of the Renaissance. Rather than Latin, Dante wrote La Commedia in the Tuscan dialect of Italian, which had an everlasting impact and became the national language of Italy. During that time, literary works were either Comedies or Tragedies, and since the poem ended on a positive note in Heaven, Dante called it a Comedy. He died in political exile in Ravenna, Italy in September 1321.
“Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray
from the straight road and woke to find myself
alone in a dark wood. How shall I say
what wood that was! I never saw so drear,
so rank, so arduous a wilderness!
Its very memory gives a shape to fear.
Death could scarce be more bitter than that place!
But since it came to good, I will recount
all that I found revealed there by God’s grace.”
Inferno, Canto I, lines 1-9
So begins the Inferno. Dante realizes he has wandered from the “True Way” in mid-life, and finds himself in the Valley of Evil. He is rescued by the spirit of Virgil (author of the Aeneid), who tells him he has been sent to guide him out of Hell because of prayers by Beatrice, the woman whom Dante admired all his life. To leave Hell, they must go through all nine circles of Hell, the deeper the circle, the more grave the sin and its appropriate punishment. Perhaps the worst punishment is that no one helps or cares for another in Hell. By going through Hell, Dante – and the reader – learn to recognize and detest man’s sinful nature and the power of evil, and the need to guard against it. Dante learns those in Hell choose to go there by their unrepentance. Dante enters Hell on Good Friday and reads the following posted above the gates of Hell as he is about to enter (Canto III, line 9):
“Abandon all hope ye who enter here.”
Dante and Virgil emerge from Hell just before the dawn of Easter Sunday, and in Purgatorio Dante begins the difficult climb up Mount Purgatory. Souls that are repentant of their sins against God and man go to Purgatory and become free of temptation, and know that they will eventually be with God. Purgatory is a Mountain with seven ledges or cornices, one for each of the seven deadly sins (pride, envy, anger, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust). The renunciation of sin occurs in Purgatory, as one begins his ascent to Purity by practicing virtue.
A virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to do the good (Philippians 4:8). For each cornice, Dante first offers biblical and classical examples of the particular virtue to encourage the penitents, and after they are reformed, examples of the sin to remind them of its destructive nature. On the first cornice (just above Hell) one is purified of pride, inordinate self-love or conceit, by learning the contrasting virtue, Humility. When one is cured of pride, he moves up to the second cornice, envy, resentful awareness of another’s good fortune and the desire to obtain the same advantage. Envy is purified by the virtue of Caritas, love of others. Anger is offset by Meekness and Patience, which leads one to become a peacemaker. Sloth, spiritual apathy and inactivity, is cured by Zeal and Diligence. Generosity is the virtue that overcomes greed. Gluttony, an excessive appetite for food and drink, is controlled by Temperance through Fasting and Abstinence. On the seventh and last cornice, lust is overcome by the virtue of Temperance through Chastity. Dante offers many Biblical examples of the Virtues that offset the seven deadly sins as well as the sins themselves:
Virgil, the voice of Reason, takes Dante step-by-step up the mountain of Purgatory to the Garden of Eden, where man resided before his fall, and releases him in Canto XXVII (27) to himself, as he is now purged from sin. He meets Beatrice, the unrequited love of his earthly life, in Canto XXX (30), and she leads him to Heaven. Repentant souls, even those with great sin, and even if they repent just prior to death, still go to Purgatory, as we learn from Canto V:
“We are souls who died by violence,
all sinners to our final hour, in which
the lamp of Heaven shed its radiance
into our hearts. Thus from the brink of death,
repenting all our sins, forgiving those
who sinned against us, with our final breath
we offered up our souls at peace with Him
who saddens us with longing to behold
His glory on the throne of Seraphim.”
Purgatorio, Canto V (5), lines 52-60:
Paradiso is Dante’s imaginative conception of Heaven. The more one loves on earth, the closer in Heaven one is to God, who is All-Love. The Seven Primary Virtues of Faith, Hope, Charity, Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Fortitude are fully displayed in Paradiso. Beatrice takes Dante through the 9 Spheres of Heaven to Canto XXXI (31), where Beatrice turns Dante over to St. Bernard, who leads him to the Beatific Vision of God. The passages are from the poetic and readable translation by the late John Ciardi (copyright John Ciardi 1970, Publisher, WW Norton Company, New York and London). The following is Canto XXXIII (33) of Paradiso, the final Canto of the Divine Comedy. The canto begins with a unique expression referring to the Blessed Virgin Mary, “O Virgin Mother, daughter of thy Son.”
St. Bernard offers a Prayer to the Virgin so that Dante is permitted the Beatific Vision of God.
The vision passes and Dante is once more mortal and fallible.
Yet the truth is stamped upon his soul, which he now knows will return to be one with God’s love.
“O virgin mother, daughter of thy Son,
humble beyond all creatures and more exalted;
predestined turning point of God’s intention;
Thy merit so ennobled human nature
that its divine Creator did not scorn
to make Himself the creature of His creature.
The Love that was rekindled in Thy womb
sends for the warmth of the eternal peace
within whose ray this flower has come to bloom.
Here to us, thou art the noon and scope
of Love revealed; and among mortal men,
the living fountain of eternal hope.
Lady, thou art so near God’s reckonings
that who seeks grace and does not first seek thee
would have his wish fly upward without wings.
Not only does thy sweet benignity
flow out to all who beg, but oftentimes
thy charity arrives before the plea.
In thee is pity, in thee munificence,
in thee the tenderest heart, in thee unites
all that creation knows of excellence!
Now comes this man who from the final pit
of the universe up to this height has seen,
one by one, the three lives of the spirit.
He prays to thee in fervent supplication
for grace and strength, that he may raise his eyes
to the all-healing final revelation.
And I, who never more desired to see
the vision myself that I do that he may see It,
add my own prayer, and pray that it may be
enough to move you to dispel the trace
of every mortal shadow by thy prayers
and let him see revealed the Sum of Grace.
I pray the further, all-persuading Queen,
keep whole the natural bent of his affections
and of his powers after his eyes have seen.
Protect him from the stirrings of man’s clay;
see how Beatrice and the blessed host
clasp reverent hands to join me as I pray.”
The eyes that God reveres and loves the best
glowed on the speaker, making clear the joy
with which true prayer is heard by the most blest.
Those eyes turned then to the Eternal Ray,
through which, we must indeed believe, the eyes
of others do not find such ready way.
And I, who neared the goal of all my nature,
felt my soul, at the climax of its yearning,
suddenly, as it ought, grow calm with rapture.
Bernard then, smiling sweetly, gestured to me
to look up, but I had already become
within myself all he would have me be.
Little by little as my vision grew
it penetrated faintly through the aura
of the high lamp which in Itself is true.
What then I saw is more than tongue can say.
Our human speech is dark before the vision.
The ravished memory swoons and falls away.
As one who sees in dreams and wakes to find
the emotional impression of his vision
still powerful while its parts fade from his mind –
just such am I, having lost nearly all
the vision itself, while in my heart I feel
the sweetness of it yet distill and fall.
So, in the sun, the footprints fade from snow.
On the wild wind that bore the tumbling leaves
the Sybil’s oracles were scattered so.
O Light Supreme who doth Thyself withdraw
so far above man’s mortal understanding,
lend me again some glimpse of what I saw;
make Thou my tongue so eloquent it may
of all Thy glory speak a single clue
to those who follow me in the world’s day;
for by returning to my memory
somewhat, and somewhat sounding in these verses,
Thou shalt show man more of Thy victory.
So dazzling was the splendor of that Ray,
that I must certainly have lost my senses
had I, but for an instant, turned away.
And so it was, as I recall, I could,
the better bear to look, until at last,
my Vision made one with the Eternal Good.
Oh grace abounding that had made me fit
to fix my eyes on the eternal light
until my vision was consumed in It!
I saw within Its depth how It conceives
all things in a single volume bound by Love,
of which the universe is the scattered leaves;
substance, accident, and their relation
so fused that all I say could do no more
than yield a glimpse of that bright revelation.
I think I saw the universal form
that binds these things, for as I speak these words
I feel my joy swell and my spirits warm.
Twenty-five centuries since Neptune saw
the Argo’s keel have not moved all mankind,
recalling that adventure, to such awe
as I felt in an instant. My tranced being
stared fixed and motionless upon that vision,
even more fervent to see in the act of seeing.
Experiencing that Radiance, the spirit
is so indrawn it is impossible
even to think of ever turning from It.
For the good which is the will’s ultimate object
is all subsumed in It; and, being removed,
all is defective which in It is perfect.
Now in my recollection of the rest
I have less power to speak than any infant
wetting its tongue yet at its mother’s breast;
and not because that Living Radiance bore
more than one semblance, for It is unchanging
and is forever as it was before;
rather, as I grew worthier to see,
the more I looked, the more unchanging semblance
appeared to change with every change in me.
Within the depthless deep and clear existence
of that abyss of light three circles shown –
three in color, one in circumference;
the second from the first, rainbow from rainbow;
the third, an exhalation of pure fire
equally breathed forth by the other two.
But oh how much my words miss my conception,
which is itself so far from what I saw
than to call it feeble would be rank deception!
O Light Eternal fixed in Itself alone,
by Itself alone understood, which from Itself
loves and glows, self-knowing and self-known;
that second aureole which shone forth in Thee,
conceived as a reflection of the first –
or which appeared so to my scrutiny –
seemed in Itself of Its own coloration
to be painted with man’s image. I fixed my eyes
on that alone in rapturous contemplation.
Like a geometer wholly dedicated
to squaring the circle, but who cannot find,
think as he may, the principle indicated –
so did I study the supernal face.
I yearned to know just how our image merges
into that circle, and how it there finds place;
but mine were not the wings for such a flight.
Yet, as I wished, the truth I wished for came
cleaving my mind in a great flash of light.
Here my powers rest from their high fantasy,
but already I could feel my being turned –
instinct and intellect balanced equally
as in a wheel whose motion nothing jars –
by the Love that moves the sun and other stars.