At the age of nine, the young Dante Alighieri fell hopelessly in love with Beatrice Portinari, a young woman of about the same age, whose image would haunt him for the rest of his life and inspire one of the most famous female characters in universal literature.
In 1321, the year of his death, Alighieri completed his masterpiece, the narrative poem Divine Comedy. Born in Florence, in 1265, to a noble but poor family, Dante was forced to choose the generous dowry of the Donati family over his love for Beatrice.
He studied at one of the most prestigious educational institutions in the medieval world, the University of Bologna. From 1295, he became involved in politics and was elected to the Florence City Council. Involved in the conflict between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, Dante sided with the Guelphs and advocated the separation of Church and State, that is, the non-involvement of the Pope in non-religious matters.
His political choices and his views on the involvement of the pontiffs in political life and decisions made hime unpopular. Thus, in 1302, he was tried in Florence for baratteria, i.e. fraud and illicit enrichment, as well as conspiracy against the Papal see.
Sentenced to pay a huge fine of 5,000 florins, Dante, who was not in Florence at the time, evaded payment, so a few weeks later his sentence was commuted to death by burning at the stake and confiscation of property. Dante never returned to Florence and thus escaped the stake, but lived out his life in exile, poor and financially dependent on the support of benevolent nobles.
The central theme of Dante’s Comedy begins with one of the fundamental questions asked not only by Christians, but by every intelligent being: what happens after death? Originally titled Comedy and regarded as one of the literary monuments of the Middle Ages, Dante’s work was later given the attribute “divina” by the prose writer Giovanni Boccaccio.
“Dante’s verses have a great vivacity, the terrible pathos of Savonarola or Luther, and many scholars have tried to see in the Florentine’s work not the poet of Catholic Christianity, but a forerunner of the Reformation” (Alexandru Balaci).
The three parts of the Comedy describe the poet’s journeys into the Catholic realms of the afterlife (Hell, Purgatory, Paradise). A sincere but anti-papal Catholic, Dante did not shy away from throwing many popes and cardinals of his time into the flames of the imaginary Inferno. Only one pope was included in Dante’s Paradise, namely John XXI.
The Divine Comedy thus became an instrument with which the poet, who was condemned to death, exposed the hypocrisy and the vices of the clergy. According to one of Alighieri’s biographers, “Dante’s vehement attacks were to give rise to an anticlerical literature that was to develop in Italy, starting with the Divine Comedy and continuing through Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron to contemporary literature.” A gifted poet and a severe critic of the abuses of the Church, Dante did not, however, possess the virtues of a Christian, for, as the same biographer notes, he was a proud man, eager for revenge, cruel (at least in his writings), an admirer of pagans and their poetry, and therefore far removed from Christian humility and the concept of loving one’s enemies.
In his Comedy, Dante collected popular conceptions of the afterlife. His universe was built on ancient traditions and myths, pagan legends and superstitions, mixed with Christian elements. Not only the Inferno, but also Purgatory “benefited from an extraordinary stroke of luck: the poetic genius of Dante Alighieri…carved out for it an enduring place in human memory”—despite the fact that the doctrine of Purgatory does not originate in the Bible.
Biblical ideas are so plentiful in the Divine Comedy that some commentators note that the Old and New Testaments “so permeate his [the poet’s] language as almost to become one with it.” Yet the image of hell that emerged from Dante’s pen of inspiration was far removed from what the Bible says about death and hell, and the author himself never intended his literature to become a doctrine. Nevertheless, writes theologian Eldon Woodcock, “Dante’s portrayal has become the standard portrait of Hell for popular writers in subsequent centuries.” Woodcock also notes that even later Christian preachers, oblivious to the fictional nature of the Comedy, drew on its imagery to frighten their audiences.
Ironically, with the Enlightenment and Rationalism, the Christian faith and its God would be increasingly denigrated or rejected because of the exaggerations and grotesque images inspired by Dante’s Comedy.