Historical Heroes: Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri, the Florence native, was a forerunner of the Renaissance and the mind behind one of the greatest works of world literature, The Divine Comedy.
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In 1308, the exiled Florentine poet Dante Alighieri described how, midway through his life, he found himself lost amidst a dark wood, with no sign of a path. He had no idea how he had arrived where he was. His mind was fogged; it was as if he had woken from a deep slumber. After walking for a while, filled with trepidation, he came to the foot of a hill at the end of a valley. Raising his gaze, he saw the high upland bathed in the rays of the rising sun. He began to climb the barren slope, finally pausing for a while to rest his weary limbs. Not long after restarting, he found his way blocked by a gambolling leopard, its fine dappled fur rippling as it skipped before his feet. By now the sun had begun to rise in the heavens, and the sight of this fine frisking beast in the morning sunlight inspired Dante with hope. But this suddenly vanished when he caught sight of a roaring lion charging towards him. No sooner had he escaped from this fearful beast than he encountered a lean and slavering, hungry she-wolf, which caused him to retreat in terror down the slope, back towards the dark silence of the sunless wood. As he stumbled headlong downwards, he saw before him a ghostly form.

‘Help me!’ cried Dante. ‘Whatever you are – man or spirit.’

The shadowy figure replied, ‘No, I am not a man. Though once I was. I lived in Rome, during the reign of the good Augustus Caesar, in a time of false and lying gods. I was a poet, who sang of Troy…’

‘Canst thou be Virgil? The very one who has inspired me throughout my own life as a poet?’

‘I am he.’

‘Oh, save me from this ferocious wolf.’

‘She lets no one pass, and devours all her prey. She will gorge on all who try to get by her, until one day the Greyhound will come. He will hunt her through every city on earth. In the end he will drive her back to Hell, whence she escaped after Envy set her free.’

Then Virgil continued: ‘I think for your own good that you should follow me. Let me be your guide, and pass with me through an eternal place, where you will hear the hideous shrieks of those who cry out to be released, those who beg for a second death but are damned to torment for evermore. Next you will come to another place and gaze upon those who are happy amidst the fire, because they know that one day they will be purged and rise to take their place amongst the blessed. Then, if you wish, you too can see this blessed realm and its Emperor, to which I cannot lead you, because I was a rebel against his law. From that point on, only another spirit, far worthier than I, can lead you through Paradise.’

Dante replied: ‘Poet, I implore you in the name of that God you never knew, lead me through that place you have described, as far as St Peter’s Gate, which stands at the entrance to Paradise.’

So Virgil moved on, and Dante followed him.

Thus opens Dante’s La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy), now widely regarded as the finest poem in the canon of western literature. Its full ambition and scope are realized by the imagination which Dante lavishes on his descriptions of the land of the dead and the souls he encounters there. In many ways, his poem is an outline of the past world and many of its leading historical figures. It is imbued with the spirit of the medieval era, yet Dante’s psychological insight into the characters he encounters, and the vividness of their described afterlife, prefigures the coming age of the Renaissance. Each soul he meets on his journey is rewarded according to the life he or she has lived during their time on earth. In this, Dante’s thoughts are thoroughly medieval: this life is but a preparation for the life to come, when we will be rewarded, purged or damned, according to our just deserts. Yet although this ‘divine comedy’ is suffused with the theology of Catholic orthodoxy, as well as the Aristotelian philosophy which underpinned so much of its teaching, the poem is instantly recognizable as being of the modern era.

In a drastic break with tradition, the poem is written in the Tuscan dialect of Dante’s native Florence. At that time, all serious communication and learning was written in the Latin used by the Church, scholars and the educated classes. By writing in dialect, Dante was making his poem available to all. Even those who could not read were able to understand his words if they were read aloud. Indeed, Dante’s poem would play a significant role in establishing Tuscan as the basis of the Italian language which is written and spoken today, causing him to be seen by many as the father of the Italian language.

Yet for all its virtues, The Divine Comedy undoubtedly has its dark and vicious side. In 1300, some eight years before Dante began writing his masterwork, he had been elected to the Signoria, the council of nine who ruled Florence. Yet within two years of serving his two-month term of high office he had fallen foul of the rackety ‘democracy’ which prevailed in the deeply divided city. Consequently, he was sentenced to perpetual exile from his native land, with the warning that if ever he returned, he would be burned at the stake. Not surprisingly, several members of the opposing political faction which brought about Dante’s downfall would feature in the Inferno (Hell), the first of the three major sections of The Divine Comedy. Typical of these was Filippo Argenti, who in life had been a tall, silver-haired aristocratic figure, notorious for his wrath. A contemporary commentator mentions that he had once slapped Dante’s face in public, a major insult to which Dante would probably have had no recourse. Argenti’s brother is said to have seized Dante’s possessions after the poet’s banishment, and Filippo’s family were most vociferously opposed to those who sought Dante’s pardon and recall from exile.

Argenti makes his appearance early in the Inferno, as Dante and Virgil are being rowed across the River Styx, in the fifth circle of Hell, which is reserved for those who succumbed to the sin of wrath. Even though Argenti is covered in filth, Dante recognizes him. Virgil explains that, in the world of the living, Argenti had been a man filled with pride, ‘and there is no act of goodness to adorn his memory. He must live forever like a pig in muck.’ The sight of Argenti reminds Dante of the humiliation he suffered at his hand. Dante is filled with anger, and exclaims to Virgil: ‘How I would love to see him submerged in this filth.’ Virgil assures him that this will happen before they reach the other shore. Later, Dante sees Argenti being torn to pieces by his fellow wrathful damned. And such is Argenti’s own wrath that he even turns on himself, biting at his own flesh.

Paul Strathern is a Somerset Maugham Award-winning writer and academic.  He has written numerous books on history, science, philosophy, literature and economics. His latest is The Florentines: From Dante to Galileo.

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