This year marks the 700th anniversary of the death of the Italian poet Dante Alghieri. He is best known as the author of the Divine Comedy – recognised as one of the greatest poems ever written. But why is it considered a masterpiece?
At the beginning of Dante’s epic poem he is lost in a dark wood when the Roman poet Virgil appears to him. Virgil says that in order to get out of the frightening wood, he will need to go on a journey. On this voyage, Dante travels through the circles of hell, climbs the mountain of purgatory, and finally arrives in paradise, where he sees the vision of God.
Dante’s vivid descriptions, particularly of Hell, which is violent and dramatic, and the punishments enacted on the damned, captured the imagination and have always fascinated readers. He drew some of his punishments from existing ideas. But the genius of the poem, was that the punishment fit the crime – they were perfectly suited to the sin. For example, the Italian Nobleman and politician of the 13th century Ugolino della Gherardesca.
Ugolino had been accused of treason but was ultimately betrayed by an Archbishop. The bishop had Ugolino, his sons and grandchildren imprisoned and left to starve to death. The common legend at the time was that Ugolino, in desperation, ate the remains of his family. Dante finds him gnawing at the Archbishop’s skull, feeding on his brains, a punishment, it could be argued, that fit the crime for both men.
In his poem Dante also meets Francesca Da Rimini, the daughter of the Lord of Ravenna. She explains she was in a political marriage to an older man but had fallen in love with his younger brother. Her husband discovered their affair and killed them. She is found in the cycle of lust being continuously blown about by a whirlwind, representing her uncontrolled passion.
He reinforced existing imagery, rendering it more believable; for example the image of Lucifer. In the baptistery of Florence is a mosaic of the Last Judgement where Lucifer is portrayed as a monster with 3 heads eating sinners. Dante’s representative of Lucifer resembles closely those mosaic. He describes Lucifer transfixed in ice, where everything is frozen, eating 3 sinners with his 3 horrible faces.
There is an element of reality, of non-fiction in his poem; the descriptions of well-known people, their stories, places and cities, helps readers envision the written word, rendering it more powerful.
Dante had a political motive in writing his poem; he believed he had suffered injustice at the hands of his political enemies. There is a personal vendetta, in particular towards Pope Boniface VIII, when Dante, in the Divine Comedy finds Pope Nicholas III, accused of Simony, upside down in a tomb with the tongues of fire licking his feet. Nicholas thinks he is talking to Pope Boniface instead of Dante. For Dante, the present Pope Boniface VIII was destined for hell.
During his exile Dante had passed through or stayed in many Tuscan cities; he describes the cities of Pistoia, Lucca and Arezzo, the cities of his readers. The most famous city was that of Florence from which he had been exiled. His frustration at the city and his predicament is expressed in the 26th canto inferno: “Florence rejoice so greatly art thou famed, o’er sea and land thy beating wings resound and even throughout hell thou art proclaimed”.
A portrait of Dante which is still visible today on the wall of the Bargello museum of Florence is said to have been painted by the famous painter Giotto. A friend of Dante, Giotto and another famous artist of the 1300’s, Cimabue, have their own verse in La Comedia: “Once Cimabue thought to hold the field. As a painter, Giotto now is all the rage, dimming the lustre of the others fame”.
Friends were important to Dante and the pain of losing your friends through war and plague was commonplace. In his poem, Dante is able to meet his friends again, something which might also have resonated with his readers.
Written in Italian and not Latin
Dante is often described as the father of the Italian language because he wrote in spoken Italian rather than Latin. In fact, Dante had travelled Italy to find the perfect vernacular. Writing in Italian, made his work more accessible to a wider population. His love of the language stemmed from his belief that “This vernacular of mine brought my parents together, for they spoke in it, so it is obvious that it had a share in begetting me and this is a cause of my existence.”
The structure of the poem and the beauty of the rhyme scheme
As each letter of the alphabet represents a different rhyme, we can clearly see how the poem is constructed. For example:
Godi, Fiorenza, poi che se’ sì grande, (a)
che per mare e per terra batti l’ali, (b)
e per lo ’nferno tuo nome si spande! (a)
Tra li ladron trovai cinque cotali (b)
tuoi cittadini onde mi ven vergogna, (c)
e tu in grande orranza non ne sali. (b)
Ma se presso al mattin del ver si sogna, (c)
tu sentirai di qua da picciol tempo (d)
di quel che Prato, non ch’altri, t’agogna. (c)
(Inferno, Canto XXVI)
This is known as the ‘terza rima’, or third rhyme, as each poem-section, consists of tercets with an interlocking three-line rhyme scheme. The last word of the second line provides the rhyme for the last words of lines 4 and 6. Likewise, the end word of the 5th line provides the rhyme for lines 7 and 9, and so on. In this example, ABA BCB CDC.
The Use of Christian Symbolism
The Divine Comedy is an allegory of damnation, repentance and beatitude. Within the poem there are continuous references to Christian belief and Symbolism, for example the numbers 3, 7 and 11.
3 represents the holy trinity, there are 7 virtues and 11 is the symbol of Justice.
The poem is composed of 3 lines in every verse and each line has 11 syllables. 11×3 is 33 which was the age of Christ when he died. The poem is divided into 3 sections or canticles: hell, purgatory and paradise. Each canticle consists of 33 cantos. The exception is Inferno which contains 34 because there is the introduction to the whole poem.
In the poem, Dante travels for 7 days accompanied by 3 people, the Roman poet Virgil, Beatrice and St Bernard. Christ dies and is reborn in 7 days.
Giovanni Boccaccio, a writer and poet, was moved to write Dante’s biography and honour him. At the age of 60, Boccaccio became the 1st public lecturer of the poem and it was Boccaccio who named the poem “divine” hence the title Divine Comedy.
Affronted families, political opponents, and the church had several motives not to encourage the publicising of Dante’s work. However, in 1373 a petition was made by the citizens of Florence for the establishment of a year of daily public lectures on the Divine Comedy.
Author: Sarah Cater is an official tour guide registered with the Comune di Firenze. She can be contacted via her Facebook page. Follow Sarah on Instagram @floeasywithsarah