Dante – Italy’s greatest poet

Dante Alighieri was born in Florence – in the 13th century – although we have no precise record of Dante’s birthday, nor even the year. Scholars think he was born in about 1265, perhaps May-June time. There is a reference in ‘The Divine Comedy’ to him possibly being born under the sign of Gemini: “As I revolved with the eternal twins, I saw revealed, from hills to river outlets, the threshing-floor that makes us so ferocious” (XXII 151–154). In 1265, the sun was in Gemini between approximately May 11 and June 11. So perhaps this is an indication to us of Dante’s date of birth.

Dante is famous for his epic poem ‘The Divine Comedy’ written over a ten year period (1310-1320) where he describes, in great detail, a journey through the after life. The poem is very long, a weighty 14,233 lines. It is divided into three chapters or sections, each section consisting of 33 cantos or verses. Dante wrote in Italian and used a familiar style where he would draw on his own personal life experiences and address the reader directly. This was remarkably original and modern in comparison to the mostly religious manuscripts of the time.

La Comedia‘ was divided into three sections; Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. It recounts Dante’s personal journey through Hell and Purgatory and finally into Paradise. Virgil, the Roman poet is his guide through Hell and Purgatory, whilst Beatrice leads him through Paradise. Beatrice was a beautiful young woman who Dante loved and adored from afar throughout his life. She died tragically young in 1290. Like any good epic ‘La Comedia’ involves justice, romance, good and evil and most importantly, the terrible fate that awaits sinners when they arrive in the underworld. Dante’s depictions of Hell, the ‘Inferno’ have influenced writers, film-makers and story tellers from that day to this. It’s hard to get rivers of blood and fire out of your mind once you’ve read about Dante’s final resting place for murderers and thugs.

Dante’s poem became known as ‘The Divine Comedy’ or ‘La Commedia Divina‘ in Italian. Boccaccio, a great fan of Dante added the ‘divine’ epithet to the title to explain the subject matter as a journey through the celestial world to the afterlife. The magnificent painting by Michelino (below) is on the West Wall of Florence Cathedral (Santa Maria dei Fiori) it shows Dante about to enter the underworld. The Cathedral of Florence is at his left hand. The entry to the underworld, Inferno is to his right. Purgatory and Paradise are shown as a mountain in the background. This painting was created at least 130 years after Dante’s death and yet it portrays beautifully the journey that Dante was about to embark upon. Dante wrote The Divine Comedy around 1310-1320. During this period he was exiled from his home town of Florence and spent his days wandering through Northern Italy. Dante’s use of the Italian language placed him at the forefront of ‘Italian literature’ which featured the three so called ‘corone‘ crowns belonging to the pens of Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch.

Dante by Domenico di Michelino - the painting is on the West Wall of Duomo di Firenze, Santa Maria dei Fiori, Florence - 1465
Dante by Domenico di Michelino – the painting is on the West Wall of Duomo di Firenze, Santa Maria dei Fiori, Florence – 1465
Inferno, illustration by Sandro Botticelli - Inferno, 8th Circle of Hell. Dante and Virgil appear six times as they descend through the chasms.
Inferno, illustration by Sandro Botticelli – Inferno, 8th Circle of Hell. Dante and Virgil appear six times as they descend through the chasms (1482).
Allegorical Painting of Dante by Bronzino (1530)
Allegorical Painting of Dante on Mount Purgatorio by Bronzino (1530)

Dante’s journey through the afterlife was a personal journey but also a transcendental one, where Dante is progressing from the terrestrial world to the celestial heavens. It is his soul’s journey to God. Even his choice of guide is significant. Virgil, Roman writer, poet and historian guides him through the worldly, sinful reaches of Hell and Purgatory. Whilst his journey into Paradise is with Beatrice at his side. She is a symbol of perfection, beauty and divine knowledge. Dante’s life long love for Beatrice (Lady Bice) fascinated the Victorians and particularly the Pre-Raphaelite Group of Painters. The artist Henry Holiday painted an imaginary encounter between Dante and Lady Beatrice in the 1880s. Here Dante encounters Beatrice, his ideal woman by the River Arno in Florence.

Dante and Beatrice - painting by Henry Holiday (1880s) Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool
Dante and Beatrice – painting by Henry Holiday (1880s) Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

Holiday was inspired by Dante’s ‘La Vita Nuova‘ a collection of love poems written from 1292-1294, where Dante discusses the idea of courtly love and the chaste adoration that he feels for Beatrice…….

o mi senti’ svegliar dentro a lo core – I felt awoken in my heart
Un spirito amoroso che dormia: a loving spirit that was sleeping;
E poi vidi venir da lungi Amore – and then I saw Love coming from far away
Allegro sì, che appena il conoscia – so glad, I could just recognise her (it).

Dicendo ‘Or pensa pur di farmi onore’ – saying ‘you think you can honour me’
E ‘n ciascuna parola sua ridia – and with each word laughing or mocking
E poco stando meco il mio segnore – And little being with me my lord,
Guardando in quella parte onde venia – watching from where it came
Io vidi monna Vanna e monna Bice: I saw Lady Joan and Lady Bice (Beatrice)
Venire inver lo loco là ‘v’io era: coming towards me (where I was standing)
L’una appresso de l’altra miriviglia; each one more beautiful than the other

E sì come la mente mi ridice, and as my mind keeps telling me..
Amor mi disse: Quell’è Primavera, Love speaks to me saying ‘This is Spring’
E quell’ha nome Amor, sì mi somiglia – and this is called Love it seems to me.

Beautiful, poignant and thoughtful.

Dante was exiled from Florence in 1302, Beatrice had died in 1290. He spent the rest of his life wandering, far from his beloved city. He was allowed to settle eventually in Ravenna, where he died after a trip to Venice. It is possible he contracted malaria. He writes of the pain of exile in the ‘Paradiso‘ section of the Divine Comedy. However for Dante his exile from Florence and subsequent wanderings provided the perfect framework for his epic poem. Similarly, Boccaccio when writing the ‘Decameron’ was able to take real events and weave a structure for his ten young people escaping the plague and telling stories to pass the time. Part of me wonders if in fact Dante was happy in his outsider status, exiled from Florence, and therefore giving him the necessary emotion and pathos to write his epic work.

The Decameron (1915) painted by JW Waterhouse. This lovely painting hangs in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight, England.
The Decameron (1915) painted by JW Waterhouse. This lovely painting hangs in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight, England.

NOTES: Dante – Key Points:

  • Dante – Born. 1265 c. and died 1321 c.
  • Before his exile he wrote ‘La Vita Nuova’ (1292-1294) a series of love poems translated into English in full in 1846. Perhaps this explains (partly) the Pre-Raphaelite interest in Dante.
  • Dante’s journey defined his life and created the framework for Divine Comedy – written 1308-1320
  • Dante exiled from Florence in 1302
  • Description of ‘inferno’ inspired numerous artists
  • Written in Italian – so accessible and direct in its language
  • Addressed concerns of the day – life – death – after life .
  • Influenced Boccaccio enormously. Boccaccio – 1313-1375 / Wrote the Decameron from 1348-1353
  • Massively influenced Chaucer, Milton, Tennyson
  • Known as Father of Italian language with Boccaccio & Petrarch

Further reading:

Dante and Beatrice - painting by Henry Holiday (1880s) Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool
Dante and Beatrice – painting by Henry Holiday (1880s) Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool
  • Lockdown musings: 15th April, 2020
  • London – Isle of Dogs
  • Status: Marooned

2 thoughts on “Dante – Italy’s greatest poet

  1. You’ve done it again, Janet! Another riveting and most erudite and informative piece, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. One learns something new every day – especially if one is in total lockdown and on the EducateD Traveller’s List!!!
    One small point confused me, however. As Pisces people are born between 19 Feb and 20 March, why do you say that Dante’s date of birth was probably under Gemini (21 May to 21 June) and that in 1265 “the sun was in Gemini (Pisces)”, when they are two totally different signs and at different times of year? – or am I being thick?.
    Beautiful photographs of the artwork, too – very. Many thanks!
    John

    Liked by 1 person

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