14th September 1321 - “Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them, there is no third.” So said T.S. Eliot. Dante is undoubtedly one of the finest writers that ever walked the earth but it is the afterlife for which he is better known. His work “The Divine Comedy” is a classic of literature. It is an allegory about his walk through the three stages of the Christian afterlife – Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. It is written in the first person as a warning to politicians and others about corruption, set in 1300 and written in vernacular Italian rather than what was more usual at the time - Greek or Latin.
Born in Florence in 1265 to low aristocratic parents, but not wealthy ones, Durante, as he was fully called (Dante is a nickname) lost his mother when he was two. At school he was taught rhetoric, grammar, philosophy, literature and theology. He went on to study Tuscan poetry, painting and music. He was particularly struck with Homer, Virgil and Cicero. By the age of 12 his marriage was arranged to Gemma di Manetto Donati and they were to have three, possibly four, children, it is not known for certain. Dante though had already fallen in love with a girl called Beatrice Portinari. He claimed that this was love at first sight but was to remain unrequited; a courtly love. Beatrice died in 1290 and Dante never fully got over it. After her death he wrote a poem entitled “La Vita Nouvo” or the New Life. Also written in Italian this spoke of courtly love which Dante saw as the ideal and he centred his work not on himself but on his interpretation of love.
Dante worked his way up through the political system and became a Priore, which was a little like a governor. However, as usual in Italian cities, and Florence in particular, there were a lot of political machinations. There were two distinct groups fighting for power – the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. Dante was on the side of the former who won this particular struggle. However the Guelphs were to split between the White Guelphs and the Black Guelphs. Again Dante was on the side of the former who took control. They were more sceptical of the motives of the Pope, Boniface VIII, and went to Rome to seek out his intentions. Whilst they were there the Black Guelphs seized Florence and destroyed much of it. Dante was never to return to his own City. He was banned for life.
Much of the writing for the Divine Comedy was undertaken in Ravenna. The work tells of his own path to salvation and offers moral and philosophical judgements along the way. Each of the three sections, Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio) and Heaven (Paradiso) has nine further subsections with a tenth as a top, final stage. In Hell this is where Lucifer himself dwells. In this section Satan is up to his waist in ice and chewing on the three greatest sinners - Judas, Brutus and Cassius. The ninth stage is reserved for treacherous people who are buried up to their necks in the same ice. On his journey Dante speaks to various sinners at different levels.
In his journeys through Hell and Purgatory his guide is the Roman poet, Virgil. Once inside Purgatorio he climbs the Mount of Purgatory that has the first seven levels (One for each of the seven deadly sins). Eventually he reaches the top level, the Garden of Eden, where he must learn to reject earthly paradise for the heavenly one that awaits.
At this stage Virgil leaves him and the love of his life Beatrice takes him through the final stage of Heaven, or Paradiso. On his way up he meets Thomas Aquinas and King Solomon before reaching the top level symbolised by three rings for the Holy Trinity - The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit - where he meets God himself.
Dante died in 1321 and was buried in Ravenna. Florence regretted exiling one of the finest and foremost writers of any generation and asked for his body to be returned. Officials in Ravenna refused and were so worried that his remains might be stolen they hid them between the walls of a monastery. Nevertheless Florence had a tomb built for him in 1829 in the basilica of Santa Croce and it remains empty to this day. The words on it read: “Onorate l'altissimo poeta” which translate as, honour the most exalted poet.
Many of Dante’s phrases are household expressions today. “The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.” “The secret of getting things done is to act” and “All hope abandon, ye who enter here.”
One of the most telling quotes, I believe, is “Consider your origins. You were not made to live as brutes, but to follow virtue and knowledge.” Perhaps this is a message that is as relevant to world leaders today as it was to those in the fourteenth century.