Dante’s enduring influence

T. S. Eliot once said, “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them. There is no third.” But there was nothing about Dante Alighieri’s (1265–1321) early life or background to suggest greatness, certainly not that he would write one of the world’s most important literary works.  

lifelong love

He was born in Florence, Italy, during a time of intense political conflict, and although the Alighieri family was respectable, they didn’t stand out in terms of position or wealth. Dante’s mother died when he was only seven. At the tender age of nine, he met the love of his life, Beatrice di Folco Portinari (1266–1290), and although that deep affection would guide and inspire him for the remainder of his life, it was unrequited. When Dante was just 12, his father promised him in marriage to someone else. 

The young man studied great poets and philosophers, though not at a prestigious university; his education most likely occurred at a “chapter school,” one affiliated with a church or monastery. Afterward he became a pharmacist and a poet, making a quiet living for himself and his family (he married his intended fiancé, Gemma, and they had at least four children). 

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In Italy conflict escalated between the pope and the Catholic Church on one side and the emperor and the Holy Roman Empire on the other. In this battle Dante aligned himself with the victorious papacy. Initially it appeared he had chosen well for his future. But when his winning compatriots split into two factions, he suddenly found himself on the wrong side of power. His assets were seized, he was forbidden to hold any public office, and he was ordered to pay a fine.

When he refused Dante was sentenced to death at the stake and fled for his life, leaving behind his wife and children. Never again would he see his dearly loved Florence. During the next several years, he roamed about the country as an exile and a house guest, writing. He had already published one work of poetry describing his love for his long-lost first love, Beatrice.

Around 1317 Dante settled in Ravenna (his family eventually joined him). About 10 years earlier, he had begun in a casual fashion an epic, allegorical poem he called Commedia (Comedy) about the soul’s journey through the afterlife. Now he continued it in earnest, completing it in 1320, the year before he died. His masterpiece, divided into three parts, Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, draws strongly upon the medieval view of hell, purgatory, and heaven. The Italian poet Boccaccio (1313–1375) referred to Dante’s poem as “Divine,” not only because of its religious themes, but because of its sheer brilliance. The name stuck. Today few remember that it wasn’t always known as the Divine Comedy.

Not only was the writing itself celebrated, but so was its author, in ways no one could have foretold. Even now in the digital age, Dante’s influence endures. In Italy he is still hailed as the nation’s “Supreme Poet,” as well as the “Father of the Italian Language.” In a 2013 article for the New Yorker, author and critic Joan Acocello wrote, 

You’d think that a fourteenth-century allegorical poem on sin and redemption, written in a medieval Italian vernacular and in accord with the scholastic theology of that period, would have been turned over, long ago, to the scholars in the back carrels. But no. By my count there have been something like a hundred English-language translations, and not just by scholars but by blue-chip poets. … Liszt and Tchaikovsky have composed music about the poem; Chaucer, Balzac, and Borges have written about it. … The Divine Comedy is more than a text that professors feel has to be brushed up periodically for students. It’s one of the reasons there are professors and students.

why so divine?

Why the exalted status? It is, in part, due to the vivid manner in which Dante described the torments of hell, the uncertainty of purgatory, and the glories of heaven. These are themes every human must come to terms with. The images he left us not only made an indelible mark upon his readers, but on Western civilization itself. Who can look at Pierre Auguste Rodin’s statue The Thinker contemplating the gates of hell (a scene from Inferno) and not be moved as the pit of hell devours its newest residents? Famed poet T. S. Eliot also drew upon Dante’s influence in several of his works including “The Waste Land,” which echoes scenes of death and hell from the Inferno.

Dante’s epic poem has even reached into pop culture over the years, especially in America. Perhaps it is so accessible in part because Dante wrote for ordinary Italians in the first place. Aside from films of the poem itself and those countless English-language translations, references and allusions to it have appeared in dozens of movies and television programs: when the popular Yu-Gi-Oh trading card game finds inspiration from the master poet. 

Writer Rod Dreher, author of How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-Changing Wisdom of History’s Greatest Poem, wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal about Dante rescuing him from depression: 

On the evening of Good Friday, a man on the run from a death sentence wakes up in a dark forest, lost, terrified and besieged by wild animals. He spends an infernal Easter week hiking through a dismal cave, climbing up a grueling mountain, and taking what you might call the long way home. It all works out for him, though. The traveler returns from his ordeal a better man, determined to help others learn from his experience. He writes a book about his to-hell-and-back trek, and it’s an instant best-seller, making him beloved and famous. For 700 years, that gripping adventure story … has been dazzling readers and even changing the lives of some of them. How do I know? Because … [it]pretty much saved my own life over the past year. 

If testimonies throughout the last 700 years of Western civilization are any evidence, Dreher is not alone. CH

This article is from Christian History magazine #116 Twenty-Five Writings that Changed the Church and the World. Read it in context here!

By Rebecca Price Janney

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #116 in 2015]

Rebecca Price Janney is the author of Who Goes There? A Cultural History of Heaven and Hell.
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