Dante


Dante
(Dante Alighieri, 1265-1321)
   Italy's greatest poet, known principally for his epic poem depicting his own spiritual conversion, La divina commedia/The Divine Comedy (written 1304-1319). Although he ended by being a great literary figure, his intention was to be a leading citizen of Florence, his native city. He fought in the city's armies, married and reared a family there, and held major public offices. In 1302, after a hostile political faction had seized control of the city, Dante was falsely accused of corruption and forced into exile.
   Even as a young man, Dante had been interested in intellectual matters. He attended philosophical lectures in the Dominican friary and even before his exile gained a reputation as a vernacular poet. His lyrics perfected the new style of love poetry known as the dolce stil nuovo ("sweet new style"), a phrase coined by Dante himself. His early La vita nuova /New Life (ca. 1293) is a hallmark of this style. A collection of philosophical tracts, Il convivio / The Banquet (ca. 1304-1308), written afer his exile, shows the influence of Cicero and Boethius as well as the scholastic philosophy he had acquired from his studies with the Dominicans. Shortly after he left Florence, he wrote a Latin treatise, De vulgari eloquentia / On Vernacular Eloquence, that praised his native Tuscan dialect as the ideal language for literary works, and his own poems, more than any other single factor, contributed to the establishment of Tuscan as the Italian literary language.
   Dante also wrote on politics. The chaotic political condition of Italy in his time convinced him that Christian society needed to be reorganized under the authority of a single ruler, a new Roman emperor. His Latin treatise De monarchia / On Monarchy presented philosophical arguments for the creation of one imperial government for the whole world that would restore peace, compel the corrupt and worldly popes to return from Avignon to Italy and reform the church, and defend Christian religion from unbelievers. This book bluntly criticized the popes and was condemned by the papal curia; it was not printed until after the Protestant Reformation.
   Dante's crowning achievement, however, was his epic The Divine Comedy. The poem, written in three parts, describes the spiritual journey of Dante himself, caught in a mid-life crisis of despair. In it he is rescued from an aimless and worldly existence and guided through Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Paradise), the three states of soul defined by medieval theology. It is significant that in his pilgrimage he is led from worldly despair and through Hell and Purgatory by the Roman epic poet Vergil, who symbolizes both the strength and the limitations of human reason; also significant that Vergil (Reason) cannot take him to his ultimate goal but can lead him only through Purgatory, where the blessed Beatrice (the girl Dante had loved as a young boy), symbolizing divine grace and sent by the Virgin Mary, takes over the role of guide to Heaven. This epic of the human soul has a cosmic significance, yet it also has many other points to make along the way. For most readers, the journey through Hell has seemed the most interesting, probably because there Dante takes the opportunity to settle scores with the corrupt politicians who had sent him into exile, the corrupt businessmen who put material gain above the salvation of their souls, and the corrupt popes who had prostituted their high office in pursuit of worldly power.
   In many respects, Dante's works are typical products of medieval civilization at its peak. His dependence on the thought of Aristotle and the greatest medieval Aristotelian, Thomas Aquinas, is one example. Nevertheless, in other respects, Dante's life and work point ahead to the conditions that would produce Renaissance civilization. He was not a member of the clergy but an educated layman, able to acquire an advanced philosophical education and to address major issues of both eternal and worldly life. From the perspective of later Renaissance humanists, his major defects were that he wrote in the vernacular rather than in Latin, that the style of his Latin works was not classical.
   Nevertheless, among Florentines, there was never any question of his greatness. His books, and especially his Commedia, were widely circulated in manuscript, printed (1472) within a few years of the introduction of printing, and frequently reprinted. Both Petrarch and Giovanni Boccaccio praised him; Boccaccio lectured on his works at Florence and wrote the earliest biography; and the three of them, together, became the "Three Crowns" of Florentine literature. One of the leading figures among the Florentine Neoplatonists, Cristoforo Landino, developed his lectures on Dante into an extensive commentary (published in 1481) that interprets the Commedia in terms of Neoplatonism. Most humanists of the 15th and 16th centuries (especially non-Florentines) were less favorable. The first great figure of 16th-century Ciceronianism, the Venetian humanist and poet Pietro Bembo, was dismissive when comparing Dante to Petrarch, criticizing him for attempting to write a epic poem in the vernacular and for addressing philosophical and theological questions far beyond his competence and also beyond the proper scope of poetry.

Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. . 2004.

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