After a bit of a break, we continue our tour through the arts as we now turn to literature.
Catholic Credentials: Lifelong Catholic; wrote perhaps the definitive work of Catholic imagination.
Nerd Credentials: Master poet; wrote one of the great works of world literature; pretty much created the popular image of Hell.
The son of a Florentine notary, Dante Alighieri’s life began in 1265 between May 18th and June 17th (judging by the fact that he self-identified as a Gemini). He was a member of the ancient Guelph family, which ruled the democratic Florence.
His new life began when he was nine years old when his father took him to a May Day party. There he met the then-eight-years old Beatrice, whom he instantly fell in love with, a love he carried for the rest of his life. This was despite the fact that he only met her again once, some nine years later. The story goes that he was walking down the streets of Florence when he saw her, dressed in white and accompanied by two chaperones. She turned and greeted him, which so overwhelmed the young poet that he had to retreat to his room to think of her.
Beatrice married a Florentine banker named Simone dei Bardi in 1287, while Dante himself married a woman named Gemma di Manetto Donati, whom he had been betrothed to since childhood, and who bore him four children. Beatrice died in 1290, and Dante composed his monumental dedication to her, Vita Nuova in 1294, celebrating his deep spiritual love for her.
In the meantime, of course, life went on, and for Dante it was never easy. He was deeply embroiled in Florentine politics, where the two ruling parties were the democratic Whites (of which he was a member) and the aristocratic Blacks, who had the backing of Pope Boniface VIII. The conflict (which is too complicated and full of politics to get into here) ended with Dante and his fellow Whites being utterly defeated in 1302. On trumped-up charges he was sentenced to permanent exile from Florence under pain of death by burning. He never saw his wife or his beloved city again, though three of his children later joined him in exile. He made an abortive attempt to reenter Florence by force through an alliance with rival families, but nothing came of it.
With this crushing defeat Dante withdrew from politics for a time and focused completely on his poetry, through which he attempted to come to terms with his exile. In particular, his Canzone of the Three Ladies he described himself as being visited by Justice and discovering that she too is an outcast, causing him to declare his exile an honor if he has such companions.
With the election of Henry VII as Holy Roman Emperor in 1308, Dante returned to politics. Hoping that the Emperor could restore his fortunes in Italy, he threw his full support and writing prowess behind the temporal ruler, composing De Monarchia in 1309, in which he argued that the Emperor, the temporal ruler of the world, was as necessary for man’s earthly happiness as the Pope was for his eternal salvation; the Pope entrusted with all things revealed of the divine, the Emperor with care of all things temporal. And just as the Pope’s authority came from Jesus, so the Emperor’s authority came from God.
Henry indeed entered Italy in September, 1310, and Dante continued to praise and exult him as a new savior, come to heal the wounds of the land. At the same time, he repeatedly urged the Emperor to take Florence, denouncing the city’s rulers for their opposition to Henry. In September and October of 1312, Henry finally laid siege to Florence, but the city withstood him and the imperial army withdrew. A year later, Henry died and Dante was left again without a patron.
Dante travelled to Lucca, where he came under the protection of the ill-fated Uguccinone della Faggiuola, a soldier who had temporarily taken control of the city. From there, in 1316, he became aware that there was talk in Florence of permitting his return, under certain conditions. Dante, however, angrily refused to accept any such conditions for his return. With the possibility of his return to Florence gone forever, Dante settled in Ravenna. It was there that he finally (mostly) completed his masterpiece: The Divina Commedia: the Divine Comedy; an allegorical journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven that contains virtually the full intellectual and artistic achievement of the Middle Ages. I don’t have either the time or the skill to do justice to it here, but it stands as one of the pillars of world literature; the greatest artistic achievement of its age. Moreover, Dante’s decision to write in Italian rather than Latin (over the objections of many of his contemporaries, who considered the material to elevated for the vernacular) made him almost the founder of Italian poetry. Far from the language debasing the material, the material elevated the language.
In the course of the first book of his epic, Inferno, Dante fixed forever the popular image of Hell as a pit of nine concentric circles, each one dedicated to punishing a particular sin. Most his hell is made up of fiery rock and sulphur, but at the very bottom, the lowest circle reserved for the worst sinners, it is frozen and icy. Here are the traitors punished.
Personally, my favorite book is the second one: Purgatorio. In it, Dante and his guide ascend the mountain of Purgatory, where repentant sinners work off their particular crimes while climbing to heaven. At the end, in the new Eden that stands at the very gate of Heaven, Dante meets Beatrice again, who rebukes him for his sins and faithlessness before inviting him to gaze his fill upon her beauty.
The third and final book, Paradisio, is, alas, not as evocative as the others, being largely devoid of the great imagery of the first two. Dante intended to revise and perfect the book, but he never had the chance: his life’s journey ended in 1321.
Dante had a mostly hostile relationship with the Church hierarchy of his time. His political aims and views were at odds with those of the Papacy of his day, and his bitterness at this is evident in the Inferno, where he envisions most of the Popes of his lifetime (including St. Celestine V) in Hell. This, in turn, has given rise to speculation that he was a kind of proto-protestant. However, it is clear from his writings that, despite his opinions of specific Church leaders and the behavior of the Church as an institution (and it must be admitted that there was a lot to condemn at the time), Dante revered the Church’s spiritual authority and believed all of her teachings, including regarding the supremacy of the Papacy. More importantly, his theology was perfectly Orthodox, from his moral thought to his views on the Saints, the Eucharist, Mary, and the path to Salvation.
Dante Alighieri was a man haunted all his life by love: his chaste, idealized love for Beatrice; his fiery, passionate love for Florence; and his inspired, uplifting love for God. Theses loves, combined with his struggles and sufferings, combined to give us one of the purest examples of Christian imagination ever committed to paper. He reminds us that our loses, our sufferings, and our failures can lead to something far greater than we could ever have imagined, if we will surrender to “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”
Vive Christus Rex!