Culture

Dante's Divine Comedy

Over the next few months we will be publishing a series of articles on great works of Christian literature. Today we begin with Dante's classic, The Divine Comedy.

Gustavo Milano-August 6, 2022-Reading time: 12 minutes

@Tbel Abuseridze

Speak highly of the Divine Comedyof Dante Alighierimay already be a cliché. It is difficult to find a list, be it extensive or minimal, of major classics Westerners who do not strongly suggest reading it. Here I will not be able to be different in this aspect, because it is indeed a premium work from many points of view. Let us proceed then to the presentation.

It is generally known that it is a long poem "a la medieval", perhaps a little indigestible, but surely very good (although you yourself have never read it, have you?). The intention of this article is to explain the context in which it was written and briefly tell you something of its content. As you discover how incredibly valuable the poem is, let's see if you manage to hold your breath and not start reading the Divine of Dante as soon as possible.

Historical context

We are set in Florence, one of the most prosperous cities in Europe, located between Rome and Milan, in the 13th-14th centuries. Politically, there are three sides: the White Guelphs (where our author militated), who defended the autonomy of Florence; the Black Guelphs, who supported the political aspirations of the Pope, who then ruled the so-called Papal States, lands near Florence; and the Ghibellines, followers of feudalism protected by the Holy Roman Emperor, based in present-day Germany.

Several times in the poem Dante groups the two Guelph factions into a single side, and simply mentions the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, that is, the pro-Italy and the pro-Germany, although these terms are anachronistic, for in that century there were no such countries as we know them today.

Dante

Then, the person of the author. Born in 1265 in a family of merchants, at the age of nine he saw for the first time a girl, Beatrice (in his language), Beatrice), and this encounter marked him deeply. According to Luka Brajnovic, "one can almost certainly identify this character [Beatrice] with Bice, daughter of Folco Portinari, married to Simone de Bardi, who died in 1290", therefore at the age of 25, since she was the same age as Dante.

This premature death of his beloved seems to have been the trigger for the beginning of Dante Alighieri's literary life, since a few years later (1295) he will publish New lifehis first book. But, unlike the fanciful muses that inspired the Greek poets, what Dante nurtures for her goes far beyond mere poetic illumination. He went so far as to promise to say of Beatrice "what has never been said of any woman," the size of the charm and veneration he paid her. And he will not be able to forget her for the rest of his life, for he will fulfill his promise precisely in the Divine ComedyThe work was completed in 1321, the same year of his death.

Photo: sculpture of Dante. ©Marcus Ganahl

Beatriz

Our author loved Beatrice in an idealized and platonic way, so that this passion did not prevent him from marrying Gemma di Manetto, a woman of the bourgeois aristocracy of the Donati house (of the black Guelphs), in 1283, when Beatrice was still alive, at the age of eighteen. They had four children: Jacopo, Pietro, Antonia (later a nun, with the significant name of Beatrice) and Giovanni. But a question is forced here: why didn't Dante marry Beatrice, if he loved her since he was nine years old? On the one hand, when you read the Divine ComedyYou notice a Beatriz who corrects Dante, who demands, reprimands him, barely smiles at him, perhaps indicating that he has not reciprocated her love at the time.

On the other hand, it is possible that, even if they had wanted to marry, they could not have done so, given that, at that time and place, it was not uncommon for the spouse to be chosen by the parents, and not by oneself (both in the case of the woman and the man). Perhaps at the age of eighteen Dante no longer had any hope of being able to marry Beatrice, so he agreed to marry Gemma.

Marriage

A small digression - rare in texts of this type - is worth making here. Was Dante's marriage to Gemma a false and pretended thing, since he did not love her, but Beatrice? Let us return to the beginning of the previous paragraph. Beatrice was real, but she was undoubtedly idealized, as good poets know how to do with their muses. Let's keep in mind that Dante begins to compose the Divine Comedy at the age of 39 (1304), more than two decades after he last met Beatrice (1283). Now you tell me, what memories do you have of something strong that you experienced 21 years ago? And 30 years ago (Dante met Beatrice for the first time in 1274)? Well, surely you have many memories of it (if you are old enough), but you must recognize that all this time is gradually changing the real impressions and turning them more and more subjective and affective, rather than impartial and dispassionate.

Besides, Dante and Beatriz had never been boyfriend and girlfriend or anything like that. Therefore, it is possible to suppose that perhaps much of the love he had for his wife Gemma had been poetically channeled towards the figure of Beatriz, in order to centralize everything in a single female figure. It seems impossible to me to affirm that a lifelong faithful marriage with four children would not have been maintained because of true love. It so happens that often a real and, so to speak, "realized" love apparently enjoys less emotional appeal for an epic poem. In this sense, Gemma may have been a second "beatific" of Dante's, a real source of inspiration for what he narrated in the Divine Comedy.

Exile

If the shock of the premature death of that beautiful lady may have caused him to fall in love with her retroactively in his memory, this was not the only factor in his choice of her as the key figure in this epic of the afterlife. We know that in 1302 Dante had to go into exile from Florence. He had gone to Rome as ambassador of his city, and, while he was away, the black Guelphs seized power, and would not let him return.

First he went to Verona, further north of the Italian peninsula, then to various nearby cities, until he ended up in Ravenna, where he died. The beginning of the writing of the Divine ComedyIn 1304, he was already in exile, outside of Florence. Not being able to return to his beloved homeland was heartbreaking, as with the early death of Beatrice.

Thus, Dante has a noble and nostalgic heart: he loves, but what he loves is always definitively taken away from him; he loves, and remains faithful to that love no matter what. In this sense, the city of Florence is like a new inspirational muse for him, a third "Beatrice", far from which he is inspired to create perhaps the most sublime work of Western literature. That is why the book will mix with such closeness his patriotic love (to Florence), his human love (to Beatrice) and his divine love (to God).

Photo: Florence Cathedral. ©David Tapia

The title

We have finally arrived at the book in question. Sorry for the long introduction; I just felt it was necessary. So why "divine" and why "comedy"? Dante had simply titled it "Comedy", not because it would elicit laughter when read, but because, as opposed to the tragedies, the narrative journey went from hell to paradise, that is, it ended well, it had a happy ending.

One gets the impression that the whole long poem had exhausted Dante's creativity and he had none left for the title of the work, so he put just that. But Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), commenting on the work in the church of Santo Stefano di Badia, Florence, for some reason called it "divine", and so it remained for posterity. Just like that: "Divine Comedy".

The parts of the work

After the cover, let's get down to the nitty-gritty. The book is divided into three canticles called hell, purgatory and paradise, that is, the novissimos, according to the doctrine of the Church. The first has 34 canticles (1 introductory and 33 body canticles) and the other two have 33 each, totaling 100 canticles. The symbolism of the numbers indicates the relationship with the Holy Trinity: one God and three divine persons. Literarily, it is included in the tradition of the so called Dolce stil nuovo (Sweet New Style), with accents on sincerity, intimacy, nobility and courtly love. As he explained in De vulgari eloquentia (1305), Dante also saw in the vulgar language (which is something similar to what today we call "Italian") "an instrument to make culture and produce beauty, and not only to be used for commercial exchanges". That is why he preferred to write his poem in the language he spoke: a mixture of Italian and Latin, in short. 

If a certain pragmatism can be seen in this choice, the opposite can be seen in the themes of the songs. There we find literary, political, scientific, ecclesiastical, philosophical, theological, spiritual and amorous themes. Since we are in the century following the beginning of the first European universities, whose aim was to achieve the profound unity and universality of knowledge (hence the word "universitas"(from Latin), he tries to encompass everything in his work. Looking ahead to the following two centuries, it will serve as a preparation for the humanism and the Renaissance, whose center was only in the Italian peninsula itself.

The verse

When you start reading it, you realize that all the lines are more or less the same size. They are endecabyllabic, which means that they have eleven poetic syllables, when the last syllable is not stressed (when it is, the verse has only ten syllables, to preserve the musicality of the verse; if you read it aloud half-singing you will perceive this). In turn, the stanzas are strung together in the way that came to be called dantesque terzinethat is, the end of the first line rhymes with the end of the third, and the second rhymes with the fourth and the sixth, and the fifth with the seventh and the ninth... well, it's a little difficult to explain without drawing, but the scheme is this: ABA BCB CDC and so on.

If you want to understand it in detail it is much easier to look it up on the internet. You will be even more amazed at the ingenuity it takes to rigorously follow this scheme during the more than 14 thousand verses that make up the Divine Comedy.

Enough about the form, let's go now to the content. The Dantesque journey through the "other world" lasts a week (from April 7 to 13, 1300) and is in the first person. This biographical trait is already noticeable in the first verse: "In the middle of the path of our life"(In the middle of our life's journey), that is, he sets off when he was 35 years old. At the beginning he finds himself in a dead end, surrounded by three beasts and is rescued by Virgil, his favorite poet, who proposes to guide him through the realms beyond the grave.

Hell

They begin with hell, on the lintel of which it is recommended: "Lasciate ogni speranza o voi ch'entrate"(Abandon all hope, ye who enter). This is not the place to hope for anything good, but a deep precipice that reaches to the center of the Earth, where Lucifer himself is imprisoned. This precipice arose with the fall of Lucifer from heaven, so tremendous that it generated an enormous hole, a void, a nothingness, as if alluding to evil itself, which is not a creature of God, it has no essence, it is only the deprivation of good, as cold is nothing but the deprivation of heat, or as darkness is nothing but the deprivation of light. In fact, Lucifer is there in a dark and frozen place (yes, in the middle of the ice, even if the fire was in other parts of hell). He has chosen to be nothing, instead of being faithful to the Good, and so he suffers unspeakably, he and those who followed him, angels and humans.

All of hell, as well as purgatory and paradise, are ordered by zones, as the scholastic mentality in vogue prescribed (take a look at the index of the Summa Theologica, by St. Thomas Aquinas, to get an idea of the extremes to which the virtue of order can go). Hell is funnel-shaped and is divided into nine circles, each lower and lower until reaching the Luciferian, divided by groups of sinners according to levels of severity of sin.

Sins

The lowest level is that of treason, the most serious sin according to the author, that is why in Lucifer's mouth are Judas Iscariot (the one who betrayed Jesus), Brutus and Cassius (the ones who betrayed Julius Caesar). In canto XIV, verse 51, a condemned man says: "Qual io fui vivo, tal son morto"(As I was alive, so am I dead), that is, the reprobate remains the same after his death, so that the penalties of hell are directly related to his sins on Earth. The consequences indicate their causes.

For example, those who on Earth were slaves of their stomach (gourmands) now find themselves continually with their mouths in the filthy mire. There you will find politicians, ecclesiastics (even Popes), nobles, merchants; all kinds of people. In the midst of this, Dante is greatly distressed and asks Virgil what he does not understand. He feels heavy in hell, he suffers with the suffering of others. He wants to get out of there.

Purgatory

After reaching Lucifer, they both enter through a passage and come out on the other side of the globe (yes, they knew that the earth was spherical, even if they still thought it was the center of the universe), and there they spot the mountain of purgatory. Lucifer's dreadful fall to the other side of the planet had displaced the land mass, generating, on the opposite side, a mountain. In the Bible, the mountain is the place of dialogue with God, of prayer, accessible to the human capacity, in spite of requiring effort and causing fatigue. There are those who suffer bittersweetly, purifying themselves of their imperfections while waiting for heaven sooner or later, already with hope. Seven terraces divide purgatory, according to the seven deadly sins, but now the order is reversed: at the beginning of the mountain are the most serious sins, which are farthest from heaven.

Unlike hell and paradise, in purgatory there are no angels, but only men. The marks that sins left on those people are inscribed on their foreheads, they can no longer be hidden from anyone, and little by little they are erased as they advance in their purgation.

Sky

At the top of the mountain they reach the earthly paradise, where Adam and Eve were and from which Dante accesses the heavenly paradise. And there Virgil is prevented from continuing to guide Dante. As a pagan poet, he is not fit to ascend to heaven, he simply cannot. However, at this point in the journey, his disciple is already sufficiently compunctionate and mended to cross the threshold of paradise.

In canto XXX of purgatory Dante sees a woman crowned with olive branches and dressed in the colors of the three theological virtues: faith (the white veil covering her face), hope (the green cloak) and charity (the red dress). Dante does not distinguish her at first sight, and when he goes to ask Virgil who this lady is, he realizes that Virgil has disappeared, she is no longer with him. Dante cries, meanwhile Beatrice comes to him, calls him by name and reproaches him for his bad life until then. It is his last conversion until he steps into the kingdom of the just.

Hand in hand with Beatriz, whose name means "she who makes blessed, happy", our protagonist enters paradise. The journey now will no longer be made by force of steps, with fatigue. Man's natural world falls short, and he has to turn to the supernatural, to the divine force, to be able to fly through the nine celestial spheres that remain to him in order to contemplate God. There he no longer suffers with what he sees, hears or feels. All is joy, charity, fraternity. The blessed receive Dante and his guide well, they are cordial, light in weight, swift in movement.

The saints

At a certain point, they meet St. Thomas Aquinas, who, being a Dominican, praises St. Francis of Assisi in front of the Franciscan St. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, who, in turn, immediately praises St. Dominic of Guzman in front of the Dominican Aquinas. Among other saints, Dante finds in paradise his great-great-grandfather Cacciaguida, who had died in the Holy Land in 1147 during a crusade battle. In canto XXIV, Beatrice invites St. Peter to examine Dante's faith. Using rigorous reasoning and scholastic distinctions, our "tourist from beyond the grave" says that faith is the principle on which hope in the future life rests, and the premise from which we must start to explain what we do not see. The prince of the apostles approves of him effusively and they go on. Then he will be examined in hope by James the Greater, and in love by St. John. 

Farewell

Having passed the nine celestial spheres, Dante has to face another farewell. Beatrice can no longer guide him in the empyrean, where the rose of the blessed is, the highest amphitheater where the Blessed Virgin Mary and the highest saints are.

In the XXXI canto of Paradise, St. Bernard of Clairvaux assumes the ultimate guidance of Dante, already at the gates of the contemplation of the Eternal. It is in the last canto of the work, XXXIII, where we read: "Vergine Maria, figlia del tuo figlio"(Virgin Mary, daughter of your son), and thus begins one of the most beautiful praises of the Mother of God. Looking directly into the divine light, he finds in it everything for which he hoped, everything that satisfies him. In that light he distinguishes the outlines of a human figure, and finds no words to describe God. All she manages to say is that now her will is moved by "l'amore che move il sole e l'altre stelle"(the love that moves the sun and the other stars).

Contemplation

Thus concludes the Divine ComedyDante's life: with an ineffable contemplation of the divine essence in the form of light. Through art and reason, represented in Virgil, Dante realized his errors; through human love, represented in Beatrice, he prepared himself to be in the direct presence of God; and through friendship with the saints, represented in St. Bernard of Clairvaux, he was able to attain endless beatitude. In hell, Dante's faith is confirmed, as he sees the veracity of so many things in which he believed; in purgatory he shares the hope of the locals for heaven; finally, in paradise, he can lovingly unite with the Creator and his holy creatures. During the passage through hell and purgatory the other creatures affected him inwardly only through the senses, for he did not truly commune with his surroundings. But, once in paradise, the angels and men he encounters are willing to help him, and so Dante opens up and welcomes these gifts. Everyone wins, because there is an inexhaustible source of good, which is Good itself.

Dante wonderfully knew how to capture and transmit the true, the beautiful and the good of reality, in spite of all the difficulties he faced in his life. The early death of Beatrice and the definitive exile from Florence could have left a tragic trait imprinted on his character. However, with the strength of his faith, he learned that the tragic in life - when there is one - is only the first chapter. There are still the next. Do not despair. Wait, follow the path of beauty with patience, embrace your true loves. You will be helped, you will have to repent many times, but, with God's grace, you will soon arrive where your own actions have led you.

The authorGustavo Milano

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