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BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY
Dante is called the Father of Italian Literature. This is due to "Divine Comedy", the first major work in the Italian language. It marked the down of Italian literature and the dusk of Latin supremacy. Dante championed the cause of this newborn literary language in "De Vulgari Eloquenti" (on the Vernacular Eloquence). In the early part of the century in which he was born, the literary language of Tuscany was still Latin. He was, therefore, very influential in establishing the dignity of Italian as a medium for great literature.
"The Comedy of Dante Alighieri, a Florentine by birth but not in Character" was the title Dante gave his work, according to a letter written by Dante to Can Grande Della Scala. Sent to his famous patron with the first Canto of "Commedia", the epithet "Divine" was attached to it centuries later, the feelings of the reading public for Italy's greatest masterpiece.
Dante was "Florentine by birth," the Alighieri's had for generations lived in the city of Arno. But to this epithet "Florentine by birth", Dante does add the bitter modifier, "not in character". In a passage in "Inferno" the inhabitants of the Arno Valley are compared to various beasts. Political strife, the bane of Italian city life, embittered his career, cut short his activity, made him an exile, a wanderer, a dependent. The Alighieri's were Guelfs. Theoretically, the Guelfs were the Pope's men and the Ghibellines were the Emperor's men. But cities adopted one side or the other according to their immediate advantage, and individuals blindly followed the party of their family.
The Pope, Boniface VIII, had a certain ancient claim on Tuscany, and wished to bring it under his power. He made certain demands on Florence, which Whites rejected. Dante took part in this objection. Finally, on May Day, open hostility broke out between the two parties in the city, and there was gruesome bloodshed. It was in that summer that Dante, in accordance with the custom of rotation in office was elected one of the six Priors. This council opposed the claims of the Pope and, to stop the scandal in the city, voted to banish leaders of both the Blacks and the Whites.
Dante along with a few others was sent to Boniface, to attempt reconciliation. During his absence the Pope induced Florence to accept a mediator - Charles of Valois, brother of Philip IV, King of France. Charles was a royal adventurer. When the gates opened to him he turned the city over to the Blacks. The Blacks then set up a Black government and set out to persecute their former opponents. Suites were brought out against many, including the absent Dante, charging malfeasance in office and various specific offenses. They were summoned to appear for trial. Knowing what the outcome would be, they refused to go and Dante was condemned in his contumacy (obstinate disobedience). His property was confiscated, and he was condemned to death by fire if be ever stepped in Florentine territory. This occurred in 1302, from this time on, he never saw his city again. His family remained behind while he became a wanderer.
LITERARY / HISTORICAL INFORMATION
The "Divine Comedy" was entitled by Dante himself merely as "Commedia", meaning a poetic composition in a style intermediate between sustained nobility of tragedy, and the popular tone of elegy. The word had no dramatic implication at that time, though it did involve a happy ending. The poem is the narrative of a journey down through Hell, up the mountain of Purgatory and through the revolving heavens into the presence of God. In this aspect, it belongs to the two familiar medieval literary types of the journey and the vision. It is also an allegory, representing under the symbolism of the stages and experiences of the journey, the history of a human soul, painfully struggling from sin through purification to the beatific vision. Other schemes of interpretation have been worked out and were probably intended, for Dante granted the medieval demand for a 3 fold or even four fold significance in this type of writing.
But the "Divine Comedy" belongs to other literary forms as well. Professor Grandgent has pointed out that it is also an "encyclopedia", a poem in praise of women, and an autobiography. It contains much of what Dante knew of theology, philosophy, astronomy, cosmography and fragments of a number of other branches of learning, so that its encyclopedic character is obvious. In making it a monument to Beatrice, he surpassed infinitely all the poetry devoted to the praise of women in an age when the deification of women was the commonplace of poetry. And finally he made it an autobiography - not a narrative of the external events of his life, but of the agony of his soul.
The "Divine Comedy" is a poem full of allegorical symbols and figurative meanings. In a letter to Can Grande della Scala, Dante wrote, "It is to be remarked, that the sense of this work is not simple but on the contrary one may say manifold. For one sense is that which is derived from the letter, and another is that which is derived from the letter, and another is that which is derived from the things signified by the letter. The first is called literal, the second allegorical or moral"
The "Divine Comedy" was the culmination of medieval imaginative literature on the subject of the otherworld. The medieval Christian visions of heaven and hell reflect the belief that at death the soul is separated from the body. Then it is judged according to the life it has lived on earth and assigned a place in the otherworld until the day of The Last Judgement, when it will be assigned its final place for all eternity.
These visions (genre of this type of writing) formed very popular literary works. Initially written as records of the vision itself they could later be modified or expanded. These visions were seen not as fictional but as factual. And hence they were often incorporated into chronicles of the period. They were used as didactic pieces in the Church and hence actively preserved and disseminated.
Generally they involved one individual visionary, in all cases here, a man. He could have been a saintly figure or a sinner. In some cases there is no separation of body and soul and the vision comes to the man. But in most cases the soul leaves the body, it lies unconscious but alive. A guide usually accompanies the soul. This could be a guardian angel or a saint who is somehow connected to the man. The guide is responsible for enlightening the soul about the meaning of the places he sees and also the meaning of the journey itself. He also serves as a protector.
In cases the visionary is led to hell first, descending into the pit of hell. The descriptions of hell vary considerably. In some visions all souls are grouped together but may suffer varying degrees of punishment. In the more highly developed works, there are separate places and torments for each type of sin.
The genre of medieval visions of heaven and hell culminates with Dante's "Divine Comedy". He was completely familiar with the tradition; and based on the centuries of speculation that preceded his work, Dante was able to prepare a cohesive, imaginative, literary and brilliant summation of the subject.
These medieval visions are a narrative by which the reader can understand the nature and mythology of the otherworld as it was constructed by Christians in the Middle Ages. Philosophical and theological texts also provide such information but these narratives provide understanding of what the idea of the otherworld might be for a popular Christian audience. These visions can be read as testimonies of personal religious experience, as bearers of archetypes and symbols, as documents in the history of the medieval church and as powerful and enduring literary and spiritual works.
Some important sources that Dante drew on are: "Eleventh Book of the Odyssey" and the "Sixth of the Aeneid". And the latter is significant in Dante having chosen Virgil as his guide. Next to these in importance are Cicero's "Vision of Scipio". Then follow the popular legends, which were current in Dante's age; an age when the end of all things was though to be near at hand, and the wonders of the invisible world had laid fast hold on the imaginations of men. Prominent among these is the "Vision of Trade Alberico". This vision was written in Latin in the latter half of the twelfth-century, and contains a description of Hell, Purgatory and Paradise (with its seven Heavens). Dante may also have taken a few hints from the "Tesoretto" of his teacher, Sir Brunetto Latini.