In one of the most poignant moments of Dante’s Commedia, the exiled poet anticipates his triumphant return to Florence:
Should it ever come to pass that this sacred poem,
to which both Heaven and Earth have set their hand …
should overcome the cruelty that locks me out
of the fair sheepfold where I slept as a lamb …
shall I return a poet and, at the font
where I was baptised, take the laurel crown.
It wasn’t to be. Dante’s friend Giovanni del Virgilio promised to secure him the laureate’s crown in Bologna if he produced a poem worthy of it, perhaps a military epic in Latin. Dante declined, just as he had declined the humiliating terms on which the Florentines offered to revoke his exile.
Posterity has made up for the slight. This year marks the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death – in Ravenna, on 14 September 1321, of malaria – and the tributes have been plentiful. Guy Raffa tells the remarkable story of Dante’s afterlife, by turns grotesque, lively and farcical, as the loss and recovery of his bones intertwines with the tempestuous fate of Italy. David Bowe reads Dante in dialogue with other lyricists of the duecento, while George Corbett examines his ethics and politics, appraising his magisterial synthesis of Aristotelian and Christian thought. John Took asks ‘why Dante matters’ and responds by casting him as an existentialist philosopher. And in a retrospective collection of nineteen essays, Zygmunt Barański addresses the state of Dante studies today, reflecting on everything from his treatment of the beatific vision to his use of obscenity.
Dante was above all a love poet, but only if we take ‘love’ in the broadest possible sense. He began his career as a poet of what he would later call the dolce stil nuovo, the ‘sweet new style’ inflected by the Provençal troubadours. The young Dante exchanged sonnets and canzoni with fellow poets such as Guido Cavalcanti, each vying to surpass his peers in formal intricacy and praise of his lady. Their poetics required a donna angelicata, often more symbol than person. As a pretext for the poet’s introspection and romantic projections, the lady could signify anything from divine wisdom to poetic glory; she didn’t even have to exist. Dante, however, was shaken to the core when his adored Beatrice died in 1290, aged 25. This lady, Boccaccio tells us, was Beatrice Portinari, later Signora dei Bardi, a banker’s wife. We don’t know what Dante’s own wife, Gemma Donati, made of his lifelong intellectual love affair, though we do know she remained in Florence when he went into exile in 1302. We know too that when their daughter Antonia took the veil, she became Suor Beatrice.
By any standards but his own, Dante scarcely knew his beloved. His poetic ‘autobiography’, the Vita Nuova, can’t be taken at face value but claims that he and Beatrice met as children, not quite nine years old. At once the boy fell into the clutches of Amore, ‘a god stronger than I’, who took possession of his body and soul. Nine years later the two met again and Beatrice greeted Dante courteously; on another occasion she snubbed him. Their flesh and blood relationship involved little more. Yet at the outset of the Vita Nuova Dante calls her ‘the glorious lady of my mind’, and at the end he promises ‘to speak no further of that blessed lady’ until he could ‘say of her that which has never yet been said of any woman’ – a promise he fulfilled in the Commedia. There she becomes his guide through Paradise, an emblem of divine grace and revelation, and a virtual doctor of the Church, expounding theology with supreme authority – ‘Thomas Aquinas in drag’, as one critic called her. All the while she remains the same Florentine lady he cherished on Earth.
Throughout his life, Dante engaged in an audacious project of self-exegesis and self-correction. The Vita Nuova anthologises his earlier lyrics and frames them in a prose narrative that supplies formal criticism as well as autobiographical context. It also reveals Dante’s deep engagement with his fellow poets. At one point a group of ladies ask him why he pursues Beatrice, since he is so in awe of her that he nearly faints in her presence. He responds that all his bliss used to lie in her greeting (seldom has such intense eroticism been so divorced from sexual expression), but now that she has denied this, he places his joy in something that can’t fail: words that praise her. Here, Bowe argues, Dante breaks with his ‘first friend’ Cavalcanti’s poetics and embraces those of an earlier Guido – Guido Guinizzelli. For Cavalcanti, love meant a violent, tortured subjectivity that fractured the self, setting eyes against heart, mind against spirits and so on, while Guinizzelli claimed to obey his lady as the angels obey God, because ‘she had the semblance of an angel of Your kingdom.’ Dante would carry this poetics of sublimation still further, addressing the celestial Beatrice: ‘O amanza del primo amante, o diva’ (‘O beloved of the first Lover, O goddess’). When he turns from the anguish of lyric subjectivity to theologically inflected praise, he redefines love as ‘a principle of radical self-transcendence’, in Took’s words, and so clears a path for the project of the Commedia.
But many digressions hindered his progress. One was exile. Dante pursued politics as ardently as love, poetry and philosophy, and in 1300 he served briefly as one of the six priors of Florence – the city’s highest political office. In the vicious politics of the day, winning parties often expelled the losers from their cities. When Dante’s party, the anti-papal White Guelphs, were in the ascendancy they exiled the pro-papal Black Guelphs, who returned the gesture on regaining power two years later. Dante, in Rome at the time on embassy to Boniface VIII, was exiled in absentia for alleged corruption and ordered to pay a hefty fine, which he couldn’t do because the Blacks had confiscated his assets. Soon afterwards the Florentines condemned him to perpetual exile on pain of death by burning at the stake if he returned. So he didn’t, though he participated in several failed coup attempts by the Whites. The city finally revoked his sentence in 2008, seven centuries too late for Dante, who spent the rest of his life wandering Italy, dependent on the hospitality of his patrons. He spent several years in Verona with the most zealous of them, Cangrande della Scala, who is remembered gratefully in the Paradiso.
Dante responded to exile with a prose text, the unfinished Convivio, which like the Vita Nuova interleaves and reinterprets some of his lyrics. In the Vita he had been consoled after Beatrice’s death by an unnamed donna gentile, a ‘noble lady’ who gazed at him with such compassion that he found himself guiltily falling in love again. The Convivio saves the day by allegorising her as Lady Philosophy, ‘wondrous in her wisdom and resplendent in her freedom’, as Boethius praised her in his Consolation of Philosophy. Released from political duties and enjoying his friends’ private libraries, Dante did in fact study philosophy at this time. As Barański points out, the consoling lady of the Convivio is a double figure of philosophy, both ‘a glorious Sapientia with close ties to the poet’s first love, and a new and distinct brand of rationally rigorous “severe” Philosophia whose supreme auctor was Aristotle’. Theories that Dante flirted with heresy in these studies are baseless. Yet, in a searing moment near the end of the Purgatorio, he seems to repudiate the Convivio even more thoroughly than that book repudiated any hint of an affair with the donna gentile.
By this point Dante has made his way through all nine circles of Hell, clambered over the body of Satan through the centre of the Earth to the antipodes, ascended the seven terraces of Purgatory, passed through a wall of fire, and arrived at the Earthly Paradise, where at last he encounters the sainted Beatrice, whose love, mediated by Virgil, has enabled his entire journey. Angels sing alleluias and, in a last telling allusion to the Aeneid, Dante trembles to feel once again ‘the signs of the ancient flame’. He turns to Virgil to say so, but Virgil has vanished, leaving Dante alone to face his – shockingly – furious Lady. A lesser poet would have crafted a scene of tender reunion. Beatrice, however, greets her lover with scathing anger, even sarcasm: ‘Look over here! I am, I truly am Beatrice./How did you dare approach the mountain?/Do you not know that here man lives in joy?’ Although Dante has already been purged of all seven vices, she now charges him with betrayal: he ‘took himself from me and gave himself to others’, setting his steps ‘upon an untrue way’ and pursuing ‘false images of the good’ so avidly that his soul would have been lost had she not visited the threshold of the dead to summon Virgil. Beatrice forces a confession, which Dante can scarcely utter through a flood of tears and sighs. ‘Present things with their false delights’ (col falso lor piacer), he admits, distracted him as soon as her face was hidden.
Although this accusation sounds both pointed and specific, it is in fact maddeningly vague. Most critics read Beatrice’s anger as a response to Dante’s dalliance with the donna gentile, but they differ as to whether his sin was amorous, intellectual, or both. The second charge is the more serious. Mere jealousy would have demeaned Beatrice’s exalted stature, but the sublime lady of the Convivio – perhaps a purely secular philosophy, and therefore a ‘false image of the good’ – poses a greater threat to the Christian beatitude Beatrice represents.
Dante was not the first medieval writer to journey through the afterlife. Otherworld visions constituted a popular genre as early as the Carolingian period (780-900). Their protagonists included everyone from notorious sinners in need of correction to holy women rewarded for their devotion. From its outset, the genre had a political valence: under the guise of prophetic inspiration, visionaries depicted the damnation of the powerful to rebuke the sins of the living. Such visions usually offered a ferocious treatment of Hell and (from the 12th century onwards) Purgatory. But Heaven was rarely depicted. Everyone is familiar with wickedness and woe; it is easy enough to invent grisly torments. But to imagine eternal joy, much less to envision the social life of the blessed as richly as the Paradiso does, requires a more rarefied imagination.
As Alison Morgan showed in Dante and the Medieval Other World (1990), Dante didn’t innovate by incorporating contemporary figures in his epic. In fact, he included fewer than usual: contemporaries make up 69 per cent of the identifiable characters in popular otherworld visions, but only 36 per cent in Dante. His innovation was to insert classical figures, absent from earlier texts of this kind. Fully 84 of his three hundred or so characters are from the classical period, and more than half of them appear in the Limbo of the righteous pagans. This is a remarkable novelty. Limbo, a region on the outskirts of Hell, was normally reserved for faithful Jews before Christ’s Harrowing of Hell, and unbaptised infants after it. Scholastic theologians depicted it as a region where souls suffer no torture except the poena damni, the pain of loss, because they can never attain the vision of God. Morgan thinks Dante included righteous pagans in a bid for epic grandeur, but Corbett argues that they ‘figuratively represent secular human flourishing (man’s earthly goal)’ so as to reserve true beatitude – the supernatural goal – for Heaven. Dante’s Limbo recalls the Elysian Fields of Greek mythology, a realm of great dignity and breathtaking sadness. There he sees Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, ‘the master of those who know’, along with a host of Greek and Arabic philosophers, the physicians Hippocrates and Galen, the Amazons Camilla and Penthesilia, Aeneas, Julius Caesar, the sultan Saladin, and others renowned for their wisdom or courage. Virgil himself, consigned to the same realm, explains that together ‘sanza speme vivemo in disio’ – ‘we live in desire without hope.’
Virgil’s damnation has long saddened, even angered, readers of the Commedia. Must Dante sacrifice the poet he calls ‘my master and my author’ just to make a point about the necessity of baptism? The answer may seem obvious until we note that several righteous pagans are in fact saved. Two of them, Ripheus and the emperor Trajan, inhabit the sphere of Justice in the Paradiso. A popular legend held that Gregory the Great, bewailing Trajan’s damnation, secured a miracle: God resurrected him just long enough for him to be evangelised and baptised in the pope’s tears, thus saving his soul. But Ripheus? An obscure comrade of Aeneas, he is called by Virgil ‘the most just of all the Trojans’, so Dante rewards him by granting him a prophetic vision a thousand years before Christ’s birth. Ripheus attains salvation as a Christian, not a pagan. Still more surprising is the fate of Statius. Even in legend, there is no evidence for the first-century poet’s conversion. Dante, however, invents the tale that Statius became a Christian after reading Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, a ‘messianic’ poem from around 42 BCE interpreted by St Augustine as a prophecy of Jesus. So, like a man carrying a light behind his back, Virgil saves others though he himself is damned. Statius confesses that he kept his conversion secret out of fear, which explains why there is no record of it – and also why he has suffered in Purgatory so long that he is still there to greet the pilgrim.
Dante’s poetics and his relationships with literary precursors are thematised throughout the Commedia. Bowe maintains that even when Dante lavishes praise on another poet, it is always with ulterior motives, correcting and surpassing his model. Cavalcanti, his ‘first friend’ and a noted atheist, is implicitly damned among the heretics. Guinizzelli, the troubadour Arnaut Daniel and other singers of the dolce stil nuovo burn with the lustful in Purgatory. A gorgeous allusion to Guinizzelli shapes the moving speech of Francesca da Rimini, who was murdered by her husband after he caught her in bed with his brother – but she is damned nonetheless. This is the finale of amorous love.
With jaw-dropping audacity, Dante depicts his precursors praising him as often as he compliments them. When he arrives in Limbo, its five canonical poets – Virgil, Homer, Horace, Ovid and Lucan – welcome him as the sixth and implicitly greatest of their band, since he alone will be saved. The artist Oderisi, moralising about the transience of fame, notes that ‘one Guido [Cavalcanti] has taken from the other [Guinizzelli] la gloria de la lingua, and perhaps he is born who will drive both the one and the other from the nest.’ Dante means himself, of course, though he undercuts his boast with a reminder that ‘worldly fame is nothing but a gust of wind’ and sets it, fittingly, on the terrace where pride is purged. As he admits, he expects a much longer sojourn on his return there after death. Yet who would remember either Guido today if not for their ‘salvation’ by Dante? His astonishing confidence has proved to be justified.
To save a few virtuous pagans was one thing, but to damn contemporary popes was quite another. Dante reserves places in Hell for no fewer than five popes who reigned in his lifetime – some already there, others whose damnation is foretold. One, Celestine V, was canonised in 1313, just a few years after Dante wrote him into Hell. Two other recent pontiffs suffer humiliating torments in Purgatory, while only one is in Paradise. This is John XXI, but among the blessed he is hailed as Peter of Spain, a notable logician – with no hint of his high office. Corbett sees a ‘pamphlet-like immediacy’ in Dante’s view of the papacy, as he held not just that individual popes were sinners, but that the institution itself was profoundly corrupt. His vitriol towards the See of St Peter is voiced by Peter himself, as well as Beatrice and others in Paradise, where even beatitude can’t silence righteous indignation. Complementing the damnation of so many avaricious prelates is the prominence Dante affords to St Francis, whose commitment to radical poverty anchors what is arguably a reform programme for the whole Church. In his description of Francis’s allegorical marriage to Lady Poverty, Dante drew on Spiritual Franciscan sources deriving from the most radical – and heavily persecuted – wing of the order.
Among the infinite ways to read the Commedia, it is not least a political manifesto – in effect, imperial propaganda. In his Latin treatise De monarchia, Dante outlines a sharply dualistic sketch of the ‘two powers’, Church and Empire. The empire serves the goal of human flourishing in the present life; Dante saw it as part of the emperor’s role to put the doctrines of moral philosophers, especially Aristotle, into practice. Guided by revelation, the Church serves the goal of eternal beatitude, which can only be subverted by the possession of temporal wealth and power. Instead of subordinating the empire to the papacy, as Aquinas did, Dante held that each drew its authority independently from God. More remarkably, just as Scripture provides the foundation charter of the Church, so the Aeneid does for empire. Here is another reason for the exalted role of Virgil, lost soul though he is, as Dante’s guide to the earthly Paradise. For the poet of the Commedia, the Aeneid is, as Corbett puts it, ‘a divinely revealed text in which God authorises and legitimates the Roman Empire as imperium sine fine’. Strikingly, Beatrice identifies the City of God as ‘that Rome where Christ himself is a Roman’, referring not only to the first-century empire but to the imperium Romanum as divinely willed and eternal.
The Monarchia was long thought to be an early work that Dante later repudiated. But recent research has solidly redated it to 1317-18, when the Paradiso was well underway. At least in political terms, the Monarchia and the Commedia must be read as congruent. Five years after Dante’s death, when Emperor Louis of Bavaria marched into Italy against John XXII (one of the prophetically damned popes), the imperial side used the Monarchia to rally its troops. Conversely, the papal legate in Italy accused Dante of heresy, ordered that all copies of the treatise be publicly burned, and very nearly burned the poet’s remains. Placed on the Index of Forbidden Books in 1554, the Monarchia remained there until 1881.
Written in anticipation of the 2021 anniversary, Raffa’s account of Dante’s afterlife begins with the anniversary of 1865 – when, on his 600th birthday, Dante’s bones unexpectedly turned up outside his tomb in Ravenna. His monument had been restored many times over the centuries and, on this occasion, a mason working on the latest renovation accidentally dislodged a stone and out tumbled a wooden box labelled Dantis ossa with the date of 1677. Much bafflement ensued. The most likely explanation is that the Florentines had long ago sent grave robbers in the hope of repatriating their native son, after numerous diplomatic attempts to pry the sacred bones away from Ravenna failed. But the Franciscan friars who owned the mortuary chapel pre-empted the Florentine theft by stealing the relics themselves in the early 1500s, keeping them as an open secret in their convent. When the friars in turn moved away, they hid the wooden box inside a wall, where its presence was forgotten. No one remembered that the official tomb was empty. Meanwhile, a broken piece of Dante’s coffin found its way to the study of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he prepared the first American translation of the Commedia in 1867.
With the Italian Risorgimento of the 19th century, Dante became a potent symbol – indeed a prophet – of national unity and greatness. Hailed as the Sublime Poet, he was exalted to near sainthood, his remains treated quite literally as holy relics. If he had described a region as Italian in the Commedia or included its dialect in his linguistic treatise, De vulgari eloquentia (‘On Vernacular Eloquence’), then it was part of Greater Italy and had to be ‘redeemed’ from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By 1921, the 600th anniversary of his death, Fascism was on the rise, and Il Duce was only too glad to be hailed as the fulfilment of Dante’s prophecy of the ideal emperor to come. Scholars obliged with Fascist-friendly readings, while two scientists examined the relics and used their measurements of Dante’s skull to laud him as supremely virile – a paragon of the glorious Mediterranean race. In a uniquely sinister moment in 1938, Hitler and Mussolini exchanged editions of the Commedia.
Popular reception of Dante has focused overwhelmingly on the first canticle. An Inferno video game, released in 2010, only proves that American popular culture still can’t handle Dante’s feminism. Its plot features the pilgrim as a hyper-masculine superhero, not so far from the Fascist model, who descends into Hell and battles monsters in order to rescue Beatrice, his damsel in distress. Curiously, this misogynist reversal recalls Dante’s exchange of Latin eclogues, near the end of his life, with the same Giovanni del Virgilio who wanted him to earn his laurel crown with a military epic. In one poem Dante teases his friend ‘Mopsus’: ‘Don’t you see how he blames the words of the Commedia because they sound so trite on women’s lips, and the Muses are ashamed to accept them?’ One of many standard arguments for the vernacular was, in fact, its appeal to a mixed audience. To earn Mopsus’s respect, Dante proposes to send him ten cantos from the Paradiso – where the pilgrim learns about the most sublime matters from the lips of a woman.
Why then, as Took asks, does Dante still matter? For him, to confront Dante in all his medieval otherness requires us to put our own selves in question, to seek ‘a common horizon of concern’. In this he follows Paul Tillich, who characterised the Commedia as ‘the greatest poetic expression of the Existentialist point of view in the Middle Ages’ because ‘it enters the deepest places of human self-destruction and despair as well as the highest places of courage and salvation.’ One of the great dantisti of the 20th century, Gianfranco Contini, ascribed to Dante ‘a terrifying seriousness’. The Inferno has its moments of low comedy and, as Barański reminds us, even scatology. But nothing is trivial: Dante matters because, according to his perspective, everything mattered. From a teenage girl snubbing her suitor to a dying soldier’s last-gasp prayer, any moment could shape an eternal destiny. In everything he wrote, whether on love, philosophy, politics, poetics or the fate of human souls, Dante committed himself to what Took calls an ‘arduous process of self-confrontation … and of self-transcendence’. Bowe shows him ceaselessly challenging not only his friends’ poetics, but his own.
Another way to put it is that Dante matters precisely because of his medieval otherness. No Catholic today believes in a geocentric universe or classifies sins and virtues as the 13th-century schoolmen did. Yet it would be a pusillanimous reader who could not respond to the appeal of a cosmos so complete in every detail, arrayed in such minute and magnificent order, and peopled with such wondrous creatures, from the sweet-faced, scorpion-tailed monster of fraud to the angels who fly like honeybees through the celestial rose. The divine, ordering principle of the whole is love, and in that Dante is thoroughly medieval. But he stands almost alone in rejecting the firm, dualistic line that most of his contemporaries drew between ‘carnal’ and ‘spiritual’ love. The passion must be purified, of course; that is the whole point of the Purgatorio, and of Beatrice’s pitiless reproach. But the purification is real, the earthly Paradise within reach – and from the other side we can trace a single golden thread straight from a little boy’s awe at a girl’s lovely face to the ‘love that moves the sun and the other stars’. It is a daring vision and there is none bolder or more worthy our attention.