Visual History of the World

(CONTENTS)
 

 


HISTORY OF CIVILIZATION & CULTURE

From Prehistoric to Romanesque  Art
Gothic Art
Renaissance  Art
Baroque and Rococo Art
The Art of Asia
Neoclassicism, Romanticism  Art
Art Styles in 19th century
Art of the 20th century
Artists that Changed the World
Design and Posters
Photography
Classical Music
Literature and Philosophy

Visual History of the World
Prehistory
First Empires
The Ancient World
The Middle Ages
The Early Modern Period
The Modern Era
The World Wars and Interwar Period
The Contemporary World

Dictionary of Art and Artists

 




The Middle Ages

5th - 15th century


 


The upheaval that accompanied the migration of European peoples of late antiquity shattered the power of the Roman Empire and consequently the entire political order of Europe. Although Germanic kingdoms replaced Rome, the culture of late antiquity, especially Christianity, continued to have an effect and defined the early Middle Ages. Concurrent to the developments in the Christian West, in Arabia the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century founded Islam, a new religion with immense political and military effectiveness. Within a very short time, great Islamic empires developed from the Iberian Peninsula and the Maghreb to India and Central Asia, with centers such as Cordoba, Cairo, Baghdad, and Samarkand.
 



The Cathedral Notre Dame de Reims, built in the 1 3th—14th century in the Gothic style; the cathedral served for many centuries as the location for the ceremonial coronation of the French king.

The Cathedral of Reims, by Domenico Quaglio

 

 


Italy in the Middle Ages
 


CA.600-CA.1500
 

 


Northern Italy under the Salians and Hohenstaufens: Welfs and Ghibellines
 

Out of the power struggles between the emperor, the pope, the aristocracy, and cities came the feud between the Welfs and Ghibellines.

 

The new trading routes that the Crusades opened up brought enormous 3 economic prosperity to the Italian cities in the 12th century.

As a counterweight to the popes and the nobility, 4 emperors had granted the cities increasingly more freedom.

The cities, however, now insisted on pursuing their own goals. The investiture controversy had already reduced the emperor's authority. In addition, the conflict between the Welf (or Guelf) and Hohenstaufen houses spread into Italy as both families claimed the rich inheritance of Matilda of Tuscany.

When the Hohenstaufen emperor 6 Frederick I claimed ownership of Italian territories and wanted to enforce his tax demands, the northern Italian cities formed the Lombard League against him.

The Lombards defeated the emperor in the Battle of Legnano in 1176 and were thus able to secure their financial and political freedom.
Two factions emerged out of this conflict: The Welfs supported the papacy, while the Ghibellines, who got their name from the Hohenstaufen castle of Waiblingen, supported the emperor. The partisanship in the dispute between the Welfs and Hohenstaufens, however, gradually slipped out of focus. "Guelf" and "Ghibelline" evolved into designations for rival factions in many feuds between families or political groups, particularly in the communes, which were split by outright civil wars.
 


3 A clothier at his loom,
fresco by Lorenzetti, 14th century


4 Crowning of a German emperor with the Iron Crown
of Lombardy, wood engraving, 19th century,
after a relief from the late 14th century


6 Frederick I Barbarossa on horseback fights
for a Lombard city, painting, 19th century



 For defense they retired to fortified towers, the 5 "tower houses," which were also meant to demonstrate the families' wealth and power.


5 The town of San Gimignano in Tuscany, from the Middle Ages,
with numerous fortified towers



The Guelfs in 13th-century 1 Florence saw themselves principally as good patriots who defended the liberties of the city.



1 The Piazza della Signoria in Florence with the Palazzo Vecchio


They had been exiled from the city but when the emperor died had come back to power. The declaration of the ideal of civic patriotism was meant to keep the hostile Ghibellines out of power.

At the end of the 14th century, the Guelfs were mainly the representatives of the 2 rich upper class in Florence, while the political representatives of the middle class belonged to the Ghibellines.


2 Florentine merchant in his warehouse, wood engraving,
late 15th century

 

 


Mathilda of Tuscany

The countess of Tuscany held a key position due to her wealth and the strategic location of her estates in central Italy. An adherent of Church reform, Matilda mediated between Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII, who met at her family seat in Canossa in 1077.

She rewrote her will several times before she died childless in 1115. At one point, she named the Church, and at another point the emperor, as heir to her fortune.

 Eventually the Welfs, the family of her last husband, also laid claim to the inheritance. The conflict was finally settled in 1213.



Henry IV asks the Countess Mathilde to mediate in his conflict with the pope, book illustration, early twelfth century

 

 

 


Matilda of Canossa


Countess of Tuscany, daughter and heiress of the Marquess Boniface of Tuscany, and Beatrice, daughter of Frederick of Lorraine, b. 1046; d. 24 July, 1114. In 1053 her father was murdered. Duke Gottfried of Lorraine, an opponent of the Emperor Henry III, went to Italy and married the widowed Beatrice. But, in 1055, when Henry III entered Italy he took Beatrice and her daughter Matilda prisoners and had them brought to Germany. Thus the young countess was early dragged into the bustle of these troublous times. That, however, did not prevent her receiving an excellent training; she was finely educated, knew Latin, and was very fond of serious books. She was also deeply religious, and even in her youth followed with interest the great ecclesiastical questions which were then prominent. Before his death in 1056 Henry III gave back to Gottfried of Lorraine his wife and stepdaughter. When Matilda grew to womanhood she was married to her stepbrother Gottfried of Lower Lorraine, from whom, however, she separated in 1071. He was murdered in 1076; the marriage was childless, but it cannot be proved that it was never consummated, as many historians asserted. From 1071 Matilda entered upon the government and administration of her extensive possessions in Middle and Upper Italy. These domains were of the greatest importance in the political and ecclesiastical disputes of that time, as the road from Germany by way of Upper Italy to Rome passed through them. On 22 April, 1071, Gregory VII became pope, and before long the great battle for the independence of the Church and the reform of ecclesiastical life began. In this contest Matilda was the fearless, courageous, and unswerving ally of Gregory and his successors.

Immediately on his elevation to the papacy Gregory entered into close relations with Matilda and her mother. The letters to Matilda (Beatrice d. 1076) give distinct expression to the pope's high esteem and sympathy for the princess. He called her and her mother "his sisters and daughters of St. Peter" (Regest., II, ix), and wished to undertake a Crusade with them to free the Christians in the Holy Land (Reg., I, xi). Matilda and her mother were present at the Roman Lenten synods of 1074 and 1075, at which the pope published the important decrees on the reform of ecclesiastical life. Both mother and daughter reported to the pope favourably on the disposition of the German king, Henry IV, and on 7 December, 1074, Gregory wrote to him, thanking him for the friendly reception of the papal legate, and for his intention to co- operate in the uprooting of simony and concubinage from among the clergy. However, the quarrel between Gregory and Henry IV soon began. In a letter to Beatrice and Matilda (11 Sept., 1075) the pope complained of the inconstancy and changeableness of the king, who apparently had no desire to be at peace with him. In the next year (1076) Matilda's first husband, Gottfried of Lorraine, was murdered at Antwerp. Gregory wrote to Bishop Hermann of Metz, 25 August, 1076, that he did not yet know in which state Matilda "the faithful handmaid of St. Peter" would, under God's guidance, remain.

On account of the action of the Synod of Worms against Gregory (1076), the latter was compelled to lay Henry IV under excommunication. As the majority of the princes of the empire now took sides against the king, Henry wished to be reconciled with the pope, and consequently travelled to Italy in the middle of a severe winter, in order to meet the pope there before the latter should leave Italian soil on his journey to Germany. Gregory, who had already arrived in Lombardy when he heard of the king's journey, betook himself at Matilda's advice to her mountain stronghold of Canossa for security. The excommunicated king had asked the Countess Matilda, his mother- in-law Adelaide, and Abbot Hugh of Cluny, to intercede with the pope for him. These fulfilled the king's request, and after long opposition Gregory permitted Henry to appear before him personally at Canossa and atone for his guilt by public penance. After the king's departure the pope set out for Mantua. For safety Matilda accompanied him with armed men, but hearing a rumour that Archbishop Wibert of Ravenna, who was unfriendly to Gregory, was preparing an ambush for him, she brought the pope back to Canossa. Here she drew up a first deed of gift, in which she bequeathed her domains and estates from Ceperano to Radicofani to the Roman Church. But as long as she lived she continued to govern and administer them freely and independently. When, soon after, Henry again renewed the contest with Gregory, Matilda constantly supported the pope with soldiers and money. On her security the monastery of Canossa had its treasure melted down, and sent Gregory seven hundred pounds of silver and nine pounds of gold as a contribution to the war against Henry. The latter withdrew from the Romagna to Lombardy in 1082, and laid waste Matilda's lands in his march through Tuscany. Nevertheless the countess did not desist from her adherence to Gregory. She was confirmed in this by her confessor, Anselm, Bishop of Lucca.

In similar ways she supported the successors of the great pope in the contest for the freedom of the Church. When in 1087, shortly after his coronation, Pope Victor III was driven from Rome by the antipope Wibert, Matilda advanced to Rome with an army, occupied the Castle of Sant'Angelo and part of the city, and called Victor back. However, at the threats of the emperor the Romans again deserted Victor, so that he was obliged to flee once more. At the wish of Pope Urban II Matilda married in 1089 the young Duke Welf of Bavaria, in order that the most faithful defender of the papal chair might thus obtain a powerful ally. In 1090 Henry IV returned to Italy to attack Matilda, whom he had already deprived of her estates in Lorraine. He laid waste many of her possessions, conquered Mantua, her principal stronghold, by treachery in 1091, as well as several castles. Although the vassals of the countess hastened to make their peace with the emperor, Matilda again promised fidelity to the cause of the pope, and continued the war, which now took a turn in her favour. Henry's army was defeated before Canossa. Welf, Duke of Bavaria, and his son of the same name, Matilda's husband, went over to Henry in 1095, but the countess remained steadfast. When the new German king, Henry V, entered Italy in the autumn of 1110, Matilda did homage to him for the imperial fiefs. On his return he stopped three days with Matilda in Tuscany, showed her every mark of respect, and made her imperial vice-regent of Liguria. In 1112, she reconfirmed the donation of her property to the Roman Church that she had made in 1077 (Mon. Germ. Hist.: Legum, IV, i, 653 sqq.). After her death Henry went to Italy in 1116, and took her lands -- not merely the imperial fiefs, but also the freeholds. The Roman Church, though, put forward its legitimate claim to the inheritance. A lengthy dispute now issued over the possession of the dominions of Matilda, which was settled by a compromise between Innocent II and Lothair III in 1133. The emperor and Duke Henry of Saxony took Matilda's freeholds as fiefs from the pope at a yearly rent of 100 pounds of silver. The duke took the feudal oath to the pope; after his death Matilda's possessions were to be restored wholly to the Roman Church. Afterwards there were again disputes about these lands, and in agreements between the popes and emperors of the twelfth century this matter is often mentioned. In 1213 the Emperor Frederick II recognized the right of the Roman Church to the possessions of Matilda.
 

 

 


Northern Italy in the Late Middle Ages: Signori and Condottieri

 

New territorial states rose up among the many Italian cities and small dominions. These were characterized by unstable political conditions and conflict with neighboring states.

 

In the 13th century, after the end of the Hohenstaufen line, there was a power vacuum in northern and central Italy. The popes were then resident in French Avignon, and the papacy would later be split by the Great Schism. In southern Italy, the kings of Naples from the House of Anjou were fighting against the kings of Sicily from Aragon. France was distracted by the Hundred Years' War with England. The German kings and emperors from ever-changing royal houses concentrated primarily on Germany in their power politics and no longer had the resources to be active in Italian politics.

The poet Dante expected Emperor 7 Henry VII of Luxembourg to bring peace and unity to Italy, but the early death of the emperor in 1313 prevented the realization of these plans.


7 Henry VII of Luxembourg adjudicates at the trial of the
rebellious citizens of Milan, book painting, ca. 1350



In this chaotic period, northern Italy dissolved into innumerable city-states and dominions. Civil war-like clashes between factions and family feuds between Guelfs and Ghibellines plunged the cities into chaos. Communes were consequently forced to grant neardictatorial powers to a single strong "city lord," the sign ore (or signori)—when he did not usurp these powers himself.

The signori were descended either from old noble families such as the Estes in Ferrara, the Gonzagas in Mantua, or the 9 Visconti in Milan or, like the Medici in Florence, from the wealthy middle class.


9 Grave monument of Giangaleazzo Visconti,
first duke of Milan from 1395, marble,
16th century



Some of the signori were able to establish hereditary titles so that city-republics became principalities in the course of time.

The signori usually engaged mercenary leaders, the 8 condottieri, and their forces for the countless wars against each other.
 


8 Equestrian statue of the Condottiere
Gattamelata in Padua,
bronze statue by
Donatello

see also collections


Duccio di Buonisegna (1255-1319)

Giotto (1266—1337)

Fra Angelico (1395–1455)

Jacopo Bellini (1400-1471)

Uccello Paolo (1396—1475)

Piero della Francesca (1415-1492)

Botticelli (1445-1510)

Pinturicchio (1454-1513)

Pietro Perugino (c. 1445—1523)

Donatello (c. 1386-1466)

The condottieri were eventually also able to establish territories for themselves, as was the case with the Sforzas, for example, who succeeded the Visconti in Milan in 1450.
In the meantime, the Valois in France and the Habsburgs in the Holy Roman Empire consolidated their dominions. The Valois, as relatives of the Visconti and Anjou, laid claim to Milan and Naples. The Habsburgs inherited southern Italy along with Spain, and attempted to reestablish the traditional supremacy of the Holy Roman emperor over Italy.

 By 10 subjugating neighboring signori, they were able to create expansive territorial states.

Consequently, Italy was caught between the 11 fronts of the great powers, and drawn into their conflicts.
 


10 The Battle of San Romano in 1432 between the quarreling city republics of Florence and Siena,
painting by
Paolo Uccello, ca. 1456

 


Paolo Uccello
Niccolo da Tolentino Leads the Florentine Troops

1450s


 


Paolo Uccello
Micheletto da Cotignola Engages in Battle

1450s

 


11 1525 battle between emperor Charles V and Francis I of France, near Pavia in Lombardy, 16th-century tapestry

 

 


Hundred Years’ War

Main
an intermittent struggle between England and France in the 14th–15th century over a series of disputes, including the question of the legitimate succession to the French crown. The struggle involved several generations of English and French claimants to the crown and actually occupied a period of more than 100 years. By convention it is said to have started in 1337 and ended in 1453, but there had been periodic fighting over the question of English fiefs in France going back to the 12th century.

Medieval legalities were such that one king could be the vassal of another king if the first had inherited titles outside his own kingdom. Such was the case with the English kings since William I, who, as the duke of Normandy, had conquered England in 1066. Marriage alliances and wars had altered the nature of the English titles in France, but, at the death of the French king Charles IV in 1328, Edward III of England was also duke of Guyenne (part of Aquitaine in southwestern France) and count of Ponthieu (on the English Channel). Furthermore, because his mother was Charles IV’s sister and because Charles IV had no sons, Edward III considered himself a legitimate claimant to the French throne. The other major claimant was the Count of Valois, a grandson of Philip III of France through a younger branch of the family.

A French assembly called to settle the question chose the Valois claimant as Philip VI. Edward III appeared to accept the decision, but when Philip VI, afraid of another king’s power in his realm, maneuvered to confiscate Guyenne in 1337, Edward III renewed his claim to the French throne and brought an army to Flanders.

Medieval warfare occasionally involved pitched battles that could be decisive. More frequently, however, warfare consisted of long and costly sieges conducted against important fortified cities. Even though the English armies of Edward III kept both Philip VI (d. 1350) and his son John II (reigned 1350–64) on the defensive, progress in expanding the area of English occupation was slow. Edward failed to press the advantage following his major victory at Crécy in 1346 in order to besiege the town of Calais. Edward III’s son Edward the Black Prince even managed to capture John II at the crushing victory of Poitiers (1356). This forced the French to try to reach some agreement. The treaties of Calais (1360) gave Edward III full sovereignty over lands that he formerly held as a vassal of Philip VI. However, when John II died in captivity, awaiting fulfillment of all the provisions of the treaties, his son Charles, crowned as Charles V, refused to respect the treaties and reopened the conflict. This time the French put the English on the defensive until Charles V’s death in 1380 halted progress in the reduction of English territory.

After 1380 both countries were preoccupied with internal power struggles, and the war lapsed into uncertain peace. Possession of Flanders remained the outstanding issue. Edward III’s grandson Richard II was eventually deposed (1399) by another grandson, who became Henry IV. In France, Charles V’s brothers fought over who should administer affairs of state in the name of Charles VI, who suffered from bouts of insanity that rendered him incapable of ruling.

One of Charles VI’s uncles, Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, died in 1404. His son and heir, John the Fearless, had a rival cousin, Louis, Duke d’Orléans, assassinated in 1407. Civil war broke out in France between the Armagnacs (supporters of Orléans and, later, adherents of the dauphin Charles) and the Burgundians. The English king, Henry V, upon assuming the throne following his father’s death in 1413, decided to take advantage of the French discord in order to campaign anew for the English claims on the French crown. When John the Fearless was assassinated in his turn by the Armagnacs, Henry V found an ally in John’s son, Philip the Good. By 1422, the Anglo-Burgundian alliance controlled Aquitaine and all France north of the Loire, including Paris.

Then English fortunes changed. Henry V died in 1422 leaving only an infant son. Weeks later the incapacitated Charles VI died, allowing his son to come to the French throne as Charles VII. The war’s turning point was reached in 1429, when the English army was forced to raise its siege of Orléans by a relief force organized by Joan of Arc. Although Joan was captured by the Burgundians, sold to the English, and tried and executed for heresy, Philip the Good became convinced that the English could never impose their authority on a region as large as France without more support from the native nobility. He therefore switched sides in 1435, and Paris once again came under the authority of the king of France. Charles VII conquered Normandy and, taking advantage of the internal dynastic struggles connected with the English Wars of the Roses, conquered all of Aquitaine by 1453. England retained only Calais, which it relinquished in 1558.

Historians have long considered the Hundred Years’ War a milestone in the development of national consciousness in western Europe. The English, after their many successes and frustrations, were finally cured of their taste for continental intervention, and the English monarchs turned increasingly to the problems of internal development. The hard-fought success of the house of Valois in securing the French crown helped insure that France would not become a realm in name only, partitioned among numerous independent princes.

Encyclopaedia Britannica

 


see also text BOCCACCIO "The Decameron" (1313-1375)


Decameron, painting by
Sandro Botticelli from 1487



see also text PETRARCH "Song Book"  (1304-1374)


 


Dante Alighieri,
painting by Justus van Gent,
ca. 1476




Italy

"Ah! servile Italy, griefs hostelry!
A ship without a pilot in great tempest!
No Lady thou of Provinces, but
brothel!...
And now within thee are not
without war
Thy living ones,
and one doth gnaw the other
Of those whom one wall and
one fosse shut in!"


From Dante's The Divine Comedy
Purgatorio: Canto VI
(Translation by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)




DANTE ALIGHIERI


"The Divine Comedy"

(Text translated by
James Finn Cotter)




Illustrations by

G. Dore
, W. Blake,
S. Dali



Illustrations by

Sandro Botticelli

 


Sandro Botticelli
Illustrations for Dante's "Divine Comedy"

The Abyss of Hell

1480s
 

 
 

Dante

Italian poet
in full Dante Alighieri

born c. May 21–June 20, 1265, Florence, Italy
died Sept. 13/14, 1321, Ravenna

Overview
Italian poet.

Dante was of noble ancestry, and his life was shaped by the conflict between papal and imperial partisans (the Guelfs and Ghibellines). When an opposing political faction within the Guelfs (Dante’s party) gained ascendancy, he was exiled (1302) from Florence, to which he never returned. His life was given direction by his spiritual love for Beatrice Portinari (d. 1290), to whom he dedicated most of his poetry. His great friendship with Guido Cavalcanti shaped his later career as well. La Vita Nuova (1293?) celebrates Beatrice in verse. In his difficult years of exile, he wrote the verse collection The Banquet (c. 1304–07); De vulgari eloquentia (1304–07; “Concerning Vernacular Eloquence”), the first theoretical discussion of the Italian literary language; and On Monarchy (1313?), a major Latin treatise on medieval political philosophy. He is best known for the monumental epic poem The Divine Comedy (written c. 1308–21; originally titled simply Commedia), a profoundly Christian vision of human temporal and eternal destiny. It is an allegory of universal human destiny in the form of a pilgrim’s journey through hell and purgatory, guided by the Roman poet Virgil, and then to Paradise, guided by Beatrice. By writing it in Italian rather than Latin, Dante almost singlehandedly made Italian a literary language, and he stands as one of the towering figures of European literature.

Main
Italian poet, prose writer, literary theorist, moral philosopher, and political thinker. He is best known for the monumental epic poem La commedia, later named La divina commedia (The Divine Comedy).

Dante’s Divine Comedy, a great work of medieval literature, is a profound Christian vision of man’s temporal and eternal destiny. On its most personal level, it draws on the poet’s own experience of exile from his native city of Florence; on its most comprehensive level, it may be read as an allegory, taking the form of a journey through hell, purgatory, and paradise. The poem amazes by its array of learning, its penetrating and comprehensive analysis of contemporary problems, and its inventiveness of language and imagery. By choosing to write his poem in Italian rather than in Latin, Dante decisively influenced the course of literary development. Not only did he lend a voice to the emerging lay culture of his own country, but Italian became the literary language in western Europe for several centuries.

In addition to poetry Dante wrote important theoretical works ranging from discussions of rhetoric to moral philosophy and political thought. He was fully conversant with the classical tradition, drawing for his own purposes on such writers as Virgil, Cicero, and Boethius. But, most unusual for a layman, he also had an impressive command of the most recent scholastic philosophy and of theology. His learning and his personal involvement in the heated political controversies of his age led him to the composition of De monarchia, one of the major tracts of medieval political philosophy.

Early life and the Vita nuova
Most of what is known about Dante’s life he has told himself. He was born in Florence in 1265 under the sign of Gemini (between May 21 and June 20) and remained devoted to his native city all his life. Dante describes how he fought as a cavalryman against the Ghibellines, a banished Florentine party supporting the imperial cause. He also speaks of his great teacher Brunetto Latini and his gifted friend Guido Cavalcanti, of the poetic culture in which he made his first artistic ventures, his poetic indebtedness to Guido Guinizelli, the origins of his family in his great-great-grandfather, Cacciaguida, whom the reader meets in the central cantos of the Paradiso (and from whose wife the family name, Alighieri, derived), and, going back even further, of the pride that he felt in the fact that his distant ancestors were descendants of the Roman soldiers who settled along the banks of the Arno.

Yet Dante has little to say about his more immediate family. There is no mention of his father or mother, brother or sister in The Divine Comedy. A sister is possibly referred to in the Vita nuova, and his father is the subject of insulting sonnets exchanged in jest between Dante and his friend Forese Donati. Because Dante was born in 1265 and the exiled Guelfs, to whose party Dante’s family adhered, did not return until 1266, Dante’s father apparently was not a figure considerable enough to warrant exile. Dante’s mother died when he was young, certainly before he was 14. Her name was Bella, but of which family is unknown. Dante’s father then married Lapa di Chiarissimo Cialuffi and they produced a son, Francesco, and a daughter, Gaetana. Dante’s father died prior to 1283, since at that time Dante, having come into his majority, was able as an orphan to sell a credit owned by his father. The elder Alighieri left his children a modest yet comfortable patrimony of property in Florence and in the country. About this time Dante married Gemma Donati, to whom he had been betrothed since 1277.

Dante’s life was shaped by the long history of conflict between the imperial and papal partisans called, respectively, Ghibellines and Guelfs. Following the middle of the 13th century the antagonisms were brutal and deadly, with each side alternately gaining the upper hand and inflicting gruesome penalties and exile upon the other. In 1260 the Guelfs, after a period of ascendancy, were defeated in the battle of Montaperti (Inferno X, XXXII), but in 1266 a force of Guelfs, supported by papal and French armies, was able to defeat the Ghibellines at Benevento, expelling them forever from Florence. This meant that Dante grew up in a city brimming with postwar pride and expansionism, eager to extend its political control throughout Tuscany. Florentines compared themselves with Rome and the civilization of the ancient city-states.

Not only did Florence extend its political power, but it was ready to exercise intellectual dominance as well. The leading figure in Florence’s intellectual ascendancy was a returning exile, Brunetto Latini. When in the Inferno Dante describes his encounter with his great teacher, this is not to be regarded as simply a meeting of one pupil with his master but rather as an encounter of an entire generation with its intellectual mentor. Latini had awakened a new public consciousness in the prominent figures of a younger generation, including Guido Cavalcanti, Forese Donati, and Dante himself, encouraging them to put their knowledge and skill as writers to the service of their city or country. Dante readily accepted the Aristotelian assumption that man is a social (political) being. Even in the Paradiso (VIII.117) Dante allows as being beyond any possible dispute the notion that things would be far worse for man were he not a member of a city-state.

A contemporary historian, Giovanni Villani, characterized Latini as the “initiator and master in refining the Florentines and in teaching them how to speak well, and how to guide our republic according to political philosophy [la politica].” Despite the fact that Latini’s most important book, Li Livres dou Trésor (1262–66; The Tresor), was written in French (Latini had passed his years of exile in France), its culture is Dante’s culture; it is a repository of classical citation. The first part of Book II contains one of the early translations in a modern European vernacular of Aristotle’s Ethics. On almost every question or topic of philosophy, ethics, and politics Latini freely quotes from Cicero and Seneca. And, almost as frequently, when treating questions of government, he quotes from the book of Proverbs, as Dante was to do. The Bible, as well as the writings of Aristotle, Cicero, and Seneca, as represented in Latini’s work, were the mainstays of Dante’s early culture.

Of these Rome presents the most inspiring source of identification. The cult of Cicero began to develop alongside that of Aristotle; Cicero was perceived as not only preaching but as fully exemplifying the intellectual as citizen. A second Roman element in Latini’s legacy to become an important part of Dante’s culture was the love of glory, the quest for fame through a wholehearted devotion to excelling. For this reason, in the Inferno (XV) Latini is praised for instructing Dante in the means by which man makes himself immortal, and in his farewell words Latini commits to Dante’s care his Tresor, through which he trusts his memory will survive.

Dante was endowed with remarkable intellectual and aesthetic self-confidence. By the time he was 18, as he himself says in the Vita nuova, he had already taught himself the art of making verse (chapter III). He sent an early sonnet, which was to become the first poem in the Vita nuova, to the most famous poets of his day. He received several responses, but the most important one came from Cavalcanti, and this was the beginning of their great friendship.

As in all meetings of great minds the relationship between Dante and Cavalcanti was a complicated one. In chapter XXX of the Vita nuova Dante states that it was through Cavalcanti’s exhortations that he wrote his first book in Italian rather than in Latin. Later, in the Convivio, written in Italian, and in De vulgari eloquentia, written in Latin, Dante was to make one of the first great Renaissance defenses of the vernacular. His later thinking on these matters grew out of his discussions with Cavalcanti, who prevailed upon him to write only in the vernacular. Because of this intellectual indebtedness, Dante dedicated his Vita nuova to Cavalcanti—to his best friend (primo amico).

Later, however, when Dante became one of the priors of Florence, he was obliged to concur with the decision to exile Cavalcanti, who contracted malaria during the banishment and died in August 1300. In the Inferno (X) Dante composed a monument to his great friend, and it is as heartrending a tribute as his memorial to Latini. In both cases Dante records his indebtedness, his fondness, and his appreciation of their great merits, but in each he is equally obliged to record the facts of separation. In order to save himself, he must find (or has found) other, more powerful aesthetic, intellectual, and spiritual sponsorship than that offered by his old friends and teachers.

One of these spiritual guides, for whom Cavalcanti evidently did not have the same appreciation, was Beatrice, a figure in whom Dante created one of the most celebrated fictionalized women in all of literature. In keeping with the changing directions of Dante’s thought and the vicissitudes of his career, she, too, underwent enormous changes in his hands—sanctified in the Vita nuova, demoted in the canzoni (poems) presented in the Convivio, only to be returned with more profound comprehension in The Divine Comedy as the woman credited with having led Dante away from the “vulgar herd.”

La vita nuova (c. 1293; The New Life) is the first of two collections of verse that Dante made in his lifetime, the other being the Convivio. Each is a prosimetrum, that is, a work composed of verse and prose. In each case the prose is a device for binding together poems composed over about a 10-year period. The Vita nuova brought together Dante’s poetic efforts from before 1283 to roughly 1292–93; the Convivio, a bulkier and more ambitious work, contains Dante’s most important poetic compositions from just prior to 1294 to the time of The Divine Comedy.

The Vita nuova, which Dante called his libello, or small book, is a remarkable work. It contains 42 brief chapters with commentaries on 25 sonnets, one ballata, and four canzoni; a fifth canzone is left dramatically interrupted by Beatrice’s death. The prose commentary provides the frame story, which does not emerge from the poems themselves (it is, of course, conceivable that some were actually written for other occasions than those alleged). The story is simple enough, telling of Dante’s first sight of Beatrice when both are nine years of age, her salutation when they are 18, Dante’s expedients to conceal his love for her, the crisis experienced when Beatrice withholds her greeting, Dante’s anguish that she is making light of him, his determination to rise above anguish and sing only of his lady’s virtues, anticipations of her death (that of a young friend, the death of her father, and Dante’s own premonitory dream), and finally the death of Beatrice, Dante’s mourning, the temptation of the sympathetic donna gentile (a young woman who temporarily replaces Beatrice), Beatrice’s final triumph and apotheosis, and, in the last chapter, Dante’s determination to write at some later time about her “that which has never been written of any woman.”

Yet with all of this apparently autobiographical purpose the Vita nuova is strangely impersonal. The circumstances it sets down are markedly devoid of any historical facts or descriptive detail (thus making it pointless to engage in too much debate as to the exact historical identity of Beatrice). The language of the commentary also adheres to a high level of generality. Names are rarely used—Cavalcanti is referred to three times as Dante’s “best friend”; Dante’s sister is referred to as “she who was joined to me by the closest proximity of blood.” On the one hand Dante suggests the most significant stages of emotional experience, but on the other he seems to distance his descriptions from strong emotional reactions. The larger structure in which Dante arranged poems written over a 10-year period and the generality of his poetic language are indications of his early and abiding ambition to go beyond the practices of local poets.


Dante’s intellectual development and public career
A second contemporary poetic figure behind Dante was Guido Guinizelli, the poet most responsible for altering the prevailing local, or “municipal,” kind of poetry. Guinizelli’s verse provided what Cavalcanti and Dante were looking for—a remarkable sense of joy contained in a refined and lucid aesthetic. What increased the appeal of his poetry was its intellectual, even philosophical, content. His poems were written in praise of the lady and of gentilezza, the virtue that she brought out in her admirer. The conception of love that he extolled was part of a refined and noble sense of life. It was Guinizelli’s influence that was responsible for the poetic and spiritual turning point of the Vita nuova. As reported in chapters XVII to XXI, Dante experienced a change of heart, and rather than write poems of anguish, he determined to write poems in praise of his lady, especially the canzone Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore (“Ladies Who Have Understanding of Love”). This canzone is followed immediately by the sonnet Amore e ’l cor gentil sono una cosa (“Love and the Noble Heart Are the Same Thing”), the first line of which is clearly an adaptation of Guinizelli’s Al cor gentil ripara sempre amore (“In Every Noble Heart Love Finds Its Home”). This was the beginning of Dante’s association with a new poetic style, the dolce stil nuovo (“the sweet new style”), the significance of which—the simple means by which it transcended the narrow range of the more regional poetry—he dramatically explains in the Purgatorio (XXIV).

This interest in philosophical poetry led Dante into another great change in his life, which he describes in the Convivio. Looking for consolation following the death of Beatrice, Dante reports that he turned to philosophy, particularly to the writings of Boethius and Cicero. But what was intended as a temporary reprieve from sorrow became a lifelong avocation and one of the most crucial intellectual events in Dante’s career. The donna gentile of the Vita nuova was transformed into Lady Philosophy, who soon occupied all of Dante’s thoughts. He began attending the religious schools of Florence in order to hear disputations on philosophy, and within a period of only 30 months “the love of her [philosophy] banished and destroyed every other thought.” In his poem Voi che ’ntendendo il terzo ciel movete (“You Who Through Intelligence Move the Third Sphere”) he dramatizes this conversion from the sweet old style, associated with Beatrice and the Vita nuova, to the rigorous, even severe, new style associated with philosophy. This period of study gave expression to a series of canzoni that were eventually to form the poetic basis for the philosophic commentary of the Convivio.

Another great change was Dante’s more active political involvement in the affairs of the commune. In 1295 he became a member of the guild of physicians and apothecaries (to which philosophers could belong), which opened his way to public office. But he entered the public arena at a most perilous time in the city’s politics. As it had been during the time of the Guelf and Ghibelline civil strife, in the 1290s Florence once again became a divided city. The ruling Guelf class of Florence became divided into a party of “Blacks,” led by Corso Donati, and a party of “Whites,” to which Dante belonged. The Whites gained the upper hand and exiled the Blacks.

There is ample information concerning Dante’s activities following 1295. In May 1300 he was part of an important embassy to San Gimignano, a neighbouring town, whose purpose it was to solidify the Guelf league of Tuscan cities against the mounting ambitions of the new and embattled pope Boniface VIII. When Dante was elected to the priorate in 1300, he presumably was already recognized as a spokesman for those in the commune determined to resist the Pontiff’s policies. Dante thus experienced a complete turnabout in his attitudes concerning the extent of papal power. The hegemony of the Guelfs—the party supporting the Pope—had been restored in Florence in 1266 by an alliance forged between the forces of France and the papacy. By 1300, however, Dante had come to oppose the territorial ambitions of the Pope, and this in turn provided the intellectual motivation for another, even greater change: Dante, the Guelf moderate, would in time, through his firsthand experience of the ill effects of papal involvement in political matters, become in the Convivio, in the later polemical work the Monarchia, and most importantly throughout The Divine Comedy, one of the most fervently outspoken defenders of the position that the empire does not derive its political authority from the pope.

Events, moreover, propelled Dante into further opposition to papal policies. A new alliance was formed between the papacy, the French (the brother of King Philip IV, Charles of Valois, was acting in concert with Boniface), and the exiled Black Guelfs. When Charles of Valois wished permission to enter Florence, the city itself was thrown into political indecision. In order to ascertain the nature of the Pope’s intentions, an embassy was sent to Rome to discuss these matters with him. Dante was one of the emissaries, but his quandary was expressed in the legendary phrase “If I go, who remains; if I remain, who goes?” Dante was outmaneuvered. The Pope dismissed the other two legates and detained Dante. In early November 1301 the forces of Charles of Valois were permitted entry to Florence. That very night the exiled Blacks surreptitiously reentered Florence and for six days terrorized the city. Dante learned of the deception at first in Rome and then more fully in Siena. In January 1302 he was called to appear before the new Florentine government and, failing to do so, was condemned, along with three other former priors, for crimes he had not committed. Again failing to appear, on March 10, 1302, Dante and 14 other Whites were condemned to be burned to death. Thus Dante suffered the most decisive crisis of his life. In The Divine Comedy he frequently and powerfully speaks of this rupture; indeed, he makes it the central dramatic act toward which a long string of prophecies points. But it is also Dante’s purpose to show the means by which he triumphed over his personal disaster, thus making his poem into a true “divine comedy.”


Exile, the Convivio, and the De monarchia
Information about Dante’s early years in exile is scanty; nevertheless, enough is known to provide a broad picture. It seems that Dante at first was active among the exiled White Guelfs in their attempts to seek a military return. These efforts proved fruitless. Evidently Dante grew disillusioned with the other Florentine outcasts, the Ghibellines, and was determined to prove his worthiness by means of his writings and thus secure his return. These are the circumstances that led him to compose Il convivio (c. 1304–07; The Banquet).

Dante projected a work of 15 books, 14 of which would be commentaries on different canzoni. He completed only four of the books. The finished commentaries in many ways go beyond the scope of the poems, becoming a compendium of instruction with much of the random display of an amateur in philosophy. Dante’s intention in the Convivio, as in The Divine Comedy, was to place the challenging moral and political issues of his day into a suitable ethical and metaphysical framework.

Book I of the Convivio is in large part a stirring and systematic defense of the vernacular. (The unfinished De vulgari eloquentia [c. 1304–07; Concerning Vernacular Eloquence], a companion piece, presumably written in coordination with Book I, is primarily a practical treatise in the art of poetry based upon an elevated poetic language.) Dante became the great advocate of its use and in the final sentence of Book I he accurately predicts its glorious future:

This shall be the new light, the new sun, which shall rise when the worn-out one shall set, and shall give light to them who are in shadow and in darkness because of the old sun, which does not enlighten them.

The revolution Dante described was nothing less than the twilight of the predominantly clerical Latin culture and the emergence of a lay, vernacular urban literacy. Dante saw himself as the philosopher-mediator between the two, helping to educate a newly enfranchised public readership. The Italian literature that Dante heralded was soon to become the leading literature and Italian the leading literary language of Europe, and they would continue to be that for more than three centuries.

In the Convivio Dante’s mature political and philosophical system is nearly complete. In this work Dante makes his first stirring defense of the imperial tradition and, more specifically, of the Roman Empire. He introduces the crucial concept of horme, that is, of an innate desire that prompts the soul to return to God. But it requires proper education through examples and doctrine. Otherwise it can become misdirected toward worldly aims and society torn apart by its destructive power. In the Convivio Dante establishes the link between his political thought and his understanding of human appetite: given the pope’s craving for worldly power, at the time there existed no proper spiritual models to direct the appetite toward God; and given the weakness of the empire, there existed no law sufficient to exercise a physical restraint on the will. For Dante this explains the chaos into which Italy had been plunged, and it moved him, in hopes of remedying these conditions, to take up the epic task of The Divine Comedy.

But a political event occurred that at first raised tremendous hope but then plunged Dante into still greater disillusionment. In November 1308 Henry, the count of Luxembourg, was elected king of Germany, and in July 1309 the French pope, Clement V, who had succeeded Boniface, declared Henry to be king of the Romans and invited him to Rome, where in time he would be crowned Holy Roman emperor in St. Peter’s Basilica. The possibility of once again having an emperor electrified Italy; and among the imperial proponents was Dante, who saw approaching the realization of an ideal that he had long held: the coming of an emperor pledged to restore peace while also declaring his spiritual subordination to religious authority. Within a short time after his arrival in Italy in 1310 Henry VII’s great appeal began to fade. He lingered too long in the north, allowing his enemies to gather strength. Foremost among the opposition to this divinely ordained moment, as Dante regarded it, was the commune of Florence.

During these years Dante wrote important political epistles—evidence of the great esteem in which he was held throughout Italy, of his personal authority, as it were—in which he exalted Henry, urging him to be diligent, and condemned Florence. In subsequent action, however, which was to remind Dante of Boniface’s duplicity, Clement himself turned against Henry. This action prompted one of Dante’s greatest polemical treatises, his De monarchia (c. 1313; On Monarchy) in which he expands the political arguments of the Convivio. In the embittered atmosphere caused by Clement’s deceit Dante turned his argumentative powers against papal insistence on its superiority over the political ruler, that is, against the argument that the empire derived its political authority from the pope. In the final passages of the Monarchia Dante writes that the ends designed by Providence for man are twofold: one end is the bliss of this life, which is conveyed in the figure of the earthly paradise; the other is the bliss of eternal life, which is embodied in the image of a heavenly paradise. Yet despite their different ends, these two purposes are not unconnected. Dante concludes his Monarchia by assuring his reader that he does not mean to imply “that the Roman government is in no way subject to the Roman pontificate, for in some ways our mortal happiness is ordered for the sake of immortal happiness.” Dante’s problem was that he had to express in theoretical language a subtle relationship that might be better conveyed by metaphoric language and historical example. Surveying the history of the relationship between papacy and empire, Dante pointed with approval to specific historical examples, such as Constantine’s good will toward the church. Dante’s disappointment in the failed mission of Henry VII derived from the fact that Henry’s original sponsor was apparently Pope Clement and that conditions seemed to be ideal for reestablishing the right relationship between the supreme powers.


The Divine Comedy
Dante’s years of exile were years of difficult peregrinations from one place to another—as he himself repeatedly says, most effectively in Paradiso [XVII], in Cacciaguida’s moving lamentation that “bitter is the taste of another man’s bread and . . . heavy the way up and down another man’s stair.” Throughout his exile Dante nevertheless was sustained by work on his great poem. The Divine Comedy was possibly begun prior to 1308 and completed just before his death in 1321, but the exact dates are uncertain. In addition, in his final years Dante was received honourably in many noble houses in the north of Italy, most notably by Guido Novello da Polenta, the nephew of the remarkable Francesca, in Ravenna. There at his death Dante was given an honourable burial attended by the leading men of letters of the time, and the funeral oration was delivered by Guido himself.

The plot of The Divine Comedy is simple: a man, generally assumed to be Dante himself, is miraculously enabled to undertake an ultramundane journey, which leads him to visit the souls in Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. He has two guides: Virgil, who leads him through the Inferno and Purgatorio, and Beatrice, who introduces him to Paradiso. Through these fictional encounters taking place from Good Friday evening in 1300 through Easter Sunday and slightly beyond, Dante learns of the exile that is awaiting him (which had, of course, already occurred at the time of the writing). This device allowed Dante not only to create a story out of his pending exile but also to explain the means by which he came to cope with his personal calamity and to offer suggestions for the resolution of Italy’s troubles as well. Thus, the exile of an individual becomes a microcosm of the problems of a country, and it also becomes representative of the fall of man. Dante’s story is thus historically specific as well as paradigmatic.

The basic structural component of The Divine Comedy is the canto. The poem consists of 100 cantos, which are grouped together into three sections, or canticles, Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Technically there are 33 cantos in each canticle and one additional canto, contained in the Inferno, which serves as an introduction to the entire poem. For the most part the cantos range from about 136 to about 151 lines. The poem’s rhyme scheme is the terza rima (aba, bcb, cdc, etc.) Thus, the divine number of three is present in every part of the work.

Dante’s Inferno differs from its great classical predecessors in both position and purpose. In Homer’s Odyssey (Book XII) and Virgil’s Aeneid (Book VI) the visit to the land of the dead occurs in the middle of the poem because in these centrally placed books the essential values of life are revealed. Dante, while adopting the convention, transforms the practice by beginning his journey with the visit to the land of the dead. He does this because his poem’s spiritual pattern is not classical but Christian: Dante’s journey to Hell represents the spiritual act of dying to the world, and hence it coincides with the season of Christ’s own death. (In this way, Dante’s method is similar to that of Milton in Paradise Lost, where the flamboyant but defective Lucifer and his fallen angels are presented first.) The Inferno represents a false start during which Dante, the character, must be disabused of harmful values that somehow prevent him from rising above his fallen world. Despite the regressive nature of the Inferno, Dante’s meetings with the roster of the damned are among the most memorable moments of the poem: the Neutrals, the virtuous pagans, Francesca da Rimini, Filipo Argenti, Farinata degli Uberti, Piero delle Vigne, Brunetto Latini, the simoniacal popes, Ulysses, and Ugolino impose themselves upon the reader’s imagination with tremendous force.

The visit to Hell is, as Virgil and later Beatrice explain, an extreme measure, a painful but necessary act before real recovery can begin. This explains why the Inferno is both aesthetically and theologically incomplete. For instance, readers frequently express disappointment at the lack of dramatic or emotional power in the final encounter with Satan in canto XXXIV. But because the journey through the Inferno primarily signifies a process of separation and thus is only the initial step in a fuller development, it must end with a distinct anticlimax. In a way this is inevitable because the final revelation of Satan can have nothing new to offer: the sad effects of his presence in human history have already become apparent throughout the Inferno.

In the Purgatorio the protagonist’s painful process of spiritual rehabilitation commences; in fact, this part of the journey may be considered the poem’s true moral starting point. Here the pilgrim Dante subdues his own personality in order that he may ascend. In fact, in contrast to the Inferno, where Dante is confronted with a system of models that needs to be discarded, in the Purgatorio few characters present themselves as models; all of the penitents are pilgrims along the road of life. Dante, rather than being an awed if alienated observer, is an active participant. If the Inferno is a canticle of enforced and involuntary alienation, in which Dante learns how harmful were his former allegiances, in the Purgatorio he comes to accept as most fitting the essential Christian image of life as a pilgrimage. As Beatrice in her magisterial return in the earthly paradise reminds Dante, he must learn to reject the deceptive promises of the temporal world.

Despite its harsh regime, the Purgatorio is the realm of spiritual dawn, where larger visions are entertained. Whereas in only one canto of the Inferno (VII), in which Fortuna is discussed, is there any suggestion of philosophy, in the Purgatorio, historical, political, and moral vistas are opened up. It is, moreover, the great canticle of poetry and the arts. Dante meant it literally when he proclaimed, after the dreary dimensions of Hell: “But here let poetry rise again from the dead.” There is only one poet in Hell proper and not more than two in the Paradiso, but in the Purgatorio the reader encounters the musicians Casella and Belacqua and the poet Sordello and hears of the fortunes of the two Guidos, Guinizelli and Cavalcanti, the painters Cimabue and Giotto, and the miniaturists. In the upper reaches of Purgatory, the reader observes Dante reconstructing his classical tradition and then comes even closer to Dante’s own great native tradition (placed higher than the classical tradition) when he meets Forese Donati, hears explained—in an encounter with Bonagiunta da Lucca—the true resources of the dolce stil nuovo, and meets with Guido Guinizelli and hears how he surpassed in skill and poetic mastery the reigning regional poet, Guittone d’Arezzo. These cantos resume the line of thought presented in the Inferno (IV), where among the virtuous pagans Dante announces his own program for an epic and takes his place, “sixth among that number,” alongside the classical writers. In the Purgatorio he extends that tradition to include Statius (whose Thebaid did in fact provide the matter for the more grisly features of the lower inferno), but he also shows his more modern tradition originating in Guinizelli. Shortly after his encounter with Guinizelli comes the long-awaited reunion with Beatrice in the earthly paradise. Thus, from the classics Dante seems to have derived his moral and political understanding as well as his conception of the epic poem, that is, a framing story large enough to encompass the most important issues of his day, but it was from his native tradition that he acquired the philosophy of love that forms the Christian matter of his poem.

This means of course that Virgil, Dante’s guide, must give way to other leaders, and in a canticle generally devoid of drama the rejection of Virgil becomes the single dramatic event. Dante’s use of Virgil is one of the richest cultural appropriations in literature. To begin, in Dante’s poem he is an exponent of classical reason. He is also a historical figure and is presented as such in the Inferno (I): “. . . once I was a man, and my parents were Lombards, both Mantuan by birth. I was born sub Julio, though late in his time, and I lived in Rome under the good Augustus, in the time of the false and lying gods.” Virgil, moreover, is associated with Dante’s homeland (his references are to contemporary Italian places), and his background is entirely imperial. (Born under Julius Caesar, he extolled Augustus Caesar.) He is presented as a poet, the theme of whose great epic sounds remarkably similar to that of Dante’s poem: “I was a poet and sang of that just son of Anchises who came from Troy after proud Ilium was burned.” So, too, Dante sings of the just son of a city, Florence, who was unjustly expelled, and forced to search, as Aeneas had done, for a better city, in his case the heavenly city.

Virgil is a poet whom Dante had studied carefully and from whom he had acquired his poetic style, the beauty of which has brought him much honour. But Dante had lost touch with Virgil in the intervening years, and when the spirit of Virgil returns it is one that seems weak from long silence. But the Virgil that returns is more than a stylist; he is the poet of the Roman Empire, a subject of great importance to Dante, and he is a poet who has become a saggio, a sage, or moral teacher.

Though an exponent of reason, Virgil has become an emissary of divine grace, and his return is part of the revival of those simpler faiths associated with Dante’s earlier trust in Beatrice. And yet, of course, Virgil by himself is insufficient. It cannot be said that Dante rejects Virgil; rather he sadly found that nowhere in Virgil’s work, that is, in his consciousness, was there any sense of personal liberation from the enthrallment of history and its processes. Virgil had provided Dante with moral instruction in survival as an exile, which is the theme of his own poem as well as Dante’s, but he clung to his faith in the processes of history, which, given their culmination in the Roman Empire, were deeply consoling. Dante, on the other hand, was determined to go beyond history because it had become for him a nightmare.

In the Paradiso true heroic fulfillment is achieved. Dante’s poem gives expression to those figures from the past who seem to defy death. Their historical impact continues and the totality of their commitment inspires in their followers a feeling of exaltation and a desire for identification. In his encounters with such characters as his great-great-grandfather Cacciaguida and SS. Francis, Dominic, and Bernard, Dante is carried beyond himself. The Paradiso is consequently a poem of fulfillment and of completion. It is the fulfillment of what is prefigured in the earlier canticles. Aesthetically it completes the poem’s elaborate system of anticipation and retrospection.


Assessment and influence
The recognition and the honour that were the due of Dante’s Divine Comedy did not have to await the long passage of time: by the year 1400 no fewer than 12 commentaries devoted to detailed expositions of its meaning had appeared. Giovanni Boccaccio wrote a life of the poet and then in 1373–74 delivered the first public lectures on The Divine Comedy (which means that Dante was the first of the moderns whose work found its place with the ancient classics in a university course). Dante became known as the divino poeta, and in a splendid edition of his great poem published in Venice in 1555 the adjective was applied to the poem’s title; thus, the simple Commedia became La divina commedia, or The Divine Comedy.

Even when the epic lost its appeal and was replaced by other art forms (the novel, primarily, and the drama) Dante’s own fame continued. In fact, his great poem enjoys the kind of power peculiar to a classic: successive epochs have been able to find reflected in it their own intellectual concerns. In the post-Napoleonic 19th century, readers identified with the powerful, sympathetic, and doomed personalities of the Inferno. In the early 20th century they found the poem to possess an aesthetic power of verbal realization independent of and at times in contradiction to its structure and argument. Later readers have been eager to show the poem to be a polyphonic masterpiece, as integrated as a mighty work of architecture, whose different sections reflect and, in a way, respond to one another. Dante created a remarkable repertoire of types in a work of vivid mimetic presentations, as well as a poem of great stylistic artistry in its prefigurations and correspondences. Moreover, he incorporated in all of this important political, philosophical, and theological themes and did so in a way that shows moral wisdom and lofty ethical vision.

Dante’s Divine Comedy is a poem that has flourished for more than 650 years: in the simple power of its striking imaginative conceptions it has continued to astonish generations of readers; for more than a hundred years it has been a staple in all higher educational programs in the Western world; and it has continued to provide guidance and nourishment to the major poets of our own times. William Butler Yeats called Dante “the chief imagination of Christendom”; and T.S. Eliot elevated Dante to a preeminence shared by only one other poet in the modern world, William Shakespeare: “[They] divide the modern world between them. There is no third.” In fact, they rival one another in their creation of types that have entered into the world of reference and association of modern thought. Like Shakespeare, Dante created universal types from historical figures, and in so doing he considerably enhanced the treasury of modern myth.

Ricardo J. Quinones

Encyclopaedia Britannica
 

 

 

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