Thanks to high-school classrooms around the world, many of us are familiar with Dante Alighieri and the first of portion of his epic poem The Inferno, which chronicles man’s descent into Hell. However, this poem is part of a much larger work known as the Divine Comedy, which tells then of man’s travel through purgatory and finally into the gates of paradise. This work is widely considered the most important piece of Italian literature ever written.
Dante was born in May of 1265 to a wealthy Florentine family who were intimately involved in the complex political environment of thirteenth-century Florence. The city's politics would play a pivotal role in the Inferno. Dante was betrothed to the daughter of a family friend when he was only twelve years old. Unfortunately for his one-day wife, Gemma Donati, it was already too late, for Dante had already fallen deeply in love with Beatrice Portinari.
While Dante would actually marry Gemma, he would love Beatrice from afar for the entirety of her life, which was tragically cut short in 1290. Five years after her death, Dante published Vita Nuova, which detailed his love for Beatrice. Vita Nuova, or The New Life, was not only his story of love, but also notable because it was written in Italian, while most works of the time period were written and published exclusively in Latin.
After Beatrice’s death, Dante began to involve himself in the politics of Florence. Florence was a tumultuous city, with the Pope and the Empire constantly at odds. Unfortunately for Dante in 1302 he was exiled by the faction known as the Black Guelphs, who were in league with Pope Boniface VIII, and Dante was not.
In exile Dante found his true poetic voice and in turn some of the most rich and important works of Italian literature were written. After alienating a few more of the political leaders of Florence, Dante began work on the Divine Comedy, which he completed in 1317. It is an allegory on the Christian afterlife as man moves from a state of misery to the joyful afterlife that you may deserve. The books are written in the first person, with Dante himself making the travel through the realms of the dead. The Roman poet Virgil is Dante’s guide through hell and purgatory, where he sees numerous characters of political influence--including multiple popes--in various states of torture. In the final book, he is led not by Virgil, but by his beloved Beatrice. She is the one who guides him through Heaven and to the true Paradise where God resides.
Dante’s Divine Comedy, launched him into the stratosphere as a poet. According to TS Eliot, Dante and Shakespeare share a class all their own, and no other poet living or dead could compare. Dante died on a diplomatic mission in 1321 at age 56, and his remains were interred in Ravenna where he was living at the time of his death. Florence came to regret the hasty exile of the beloved poet and to this day there stands an empty tomb in the basilica of Santa Croce bearing his name and the quote Onorate l’altissimo poeta – "Honor the most exalted poet."