Dante Alighieri

Journey Through the Afterlife

In 1929, over six hundred years after Dante Alighieri’s death, the great English Modernist poet T.S. Eliot proclaimed, “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them; there is no third.”

Surely Dante, living his final years as an exile in Ravenna, Italy, could not have imagined such global praise, having written the majority of his works in a mixed-Tuscany vernacular that was quite different from the scholarly Latin commonly used in his time; or, that the terza rima, the three-line rhyme scheme he invented for his most famous work, would continue to inspire and evolve into the 20th century.

Posthumous portrait of Dante Alighieri by Sandro Botticelli, 1495

Posthumous portrait of Dante Alighieri by Sandro Botticelli, 1495

Dante was born in Florence in 1265. From a young age, he was fascinated by poetry and literature. It is believed that he received formal education in grammar, language, and philosophy at one of the Franciscan schools in Florence. Among his teachers was Brunetto Latini, a respected scholar who profoundly influenced Dante’s intellectual development. Latini’s teachings on ethics, politics, and rhetoric left a lasting mark on the young poet.

Florence was a turbulent city, with constant clashes between factions supporting the pope and the emperor.  In his 30s, Dante got involved in the Guelph-Ghibelline conflict, a series of civil wars that divided the city. He aligned himself with the White Guelphs, who opposed the Papacy, and joined the guild of apothecaries, which gave him political opportunities usually reserved for philosophers.

The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.

Dante Alighieri

However, when Black Guelphs, backed by Papal forces, staged a coup, Dante found himself on the losing side. In 1302, he was stripped of his possessions and exiled from Florence, along with other prominent White Guelphs. This exile would last for the rest of his life. Though driven out of Florence, this exile marked the start of his most productive artistic period.

Illustration for Paradiso (of The Divine Comedy) by Gustave Doré, 1868

Illustration for Paradiso (of The Divine Comedy) by Gustave Doré, 1868

Dante is best known for his three-part narrative poem The Divine Comedy (c. 1321), a lengthy epic compiled of 100 cantos that follows his journey through Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio), and Paradise (Paradiso). The poem contrasts with Classical epics, taking place in contemporary times to represent Dante’s own struggles after his exile from Florence. However, it can still be read more comprehensively as an allegory for the individual’s journey to enlightenment.

The Map of Hell by Sandro Botticelli, c. 1480-90

The Map of Hell by Sandro Botticelli, c. 1480-90

Inferno is perhaps the most memorable of the three parts, with its brutal imagery, haunting depiction of Hell, and damning punishments for the historical figures Dante encounters. Modern-day Italian politicians are transformed into universal figures, becoming nearly as symbolic as the mythological characters they are placed side by side with. Dante follows his poetic muse Virgil—a nod to traditional logic and Classical influence—through the rings of the underworld and into Purgatorio, where Dante begins his moral cleansing before his ascent into Heaven.

The path to paradise begins in hell.

Dante Alighieri

The latter two parts have a greater theological focus, where human reason and suffering are complemented by spiritual illumination. This shift is symbolized by Virgil’s departure near the end of Purgatorio and the arrival of Dante’s new guide in Paradiso: Beatrice, his lifelong love.

Dante first met Beatrice when they were just kids, and he was immediately struck by love at first sight. Although he admired her from afar throughout his life, he never dared to reveal his true feelings. Following his parents’ wishes before their untimely deaths during his childhood, Dante married Gemma di Manetto Donati around 1285, and they had at least three children. Despite this, his heart and poetry always belonged to his beloved Beatrice, who remained his muse and the central figure in much of his work. 

Dante and Beatrice by Henry Holiday, 1883

Dante and Beatrice by Henry Holiday, 1883

While the idealized Beatrice doesn’t appear until later in the Comedy, her influence is apparent even in his earliest works, particularly La Vita Nuova (1295). Written as a prosimetrum (a mixture of prose and verse), Dante moves beyond the limitations of individual and courtly love to depict love as a sacred, virtuous endeavor. Drawing inspiration from the Provençal troubadours and blending it with current Christian ethics, Dante reimagined the romantic tropes through a mystical lens, developing a personalized, spiritual representation of love.

Convivio (c. 1304-07) bridges La Vita Nuova and The Divine Comedy both thematically and stylistically. Written across four books, this unfinished project of prose and verse is perhaps his most autobiographical and learned as he confesses his ever-growing love for philosophy. Similarly written in the vernacular, this encyclopedic text responds to his canzoni (a Renaissance-era song form) to showcase Dante’s vast knowledge of ethics, metaphysics, politics, and an array of other topics, defining him as a truly Modern man in pursuit of the greatest happiness.

It has been more than 700 years since Dante’s passing, yet his philosophical musings and layered writings still defy the possibilities of language. It would be hard to imagine Western literature without his inventive forms, appreciation of the colloquial, and representations of human behavior, struggle, and love.

Words of wisdom

“Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.” —Richard Feynmann

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” —Aristotle

“People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.” —Søren Kierkegaard

“Progress isn’t made by early risers. It’s made by lazy men trying to find easier ways to do something.” —Robert Heinlein

Bibliography

How did you like the episode?

Login or Subscribe to participate in polls.