History has given us something to be surprised or laugh at. A soldier in the Middle Ages who was exiled for rebellion against papal authority has risen to the status of a national hero in the modern era. Dante is considered the father of the modern Italian language because of his famed manuscripts, such as The Divine Comedy (Commedia in Italian), which has proven to be one of the greatest works of European literature.
As a soldier, he fought on the side of the White Guelphs, who fought for freedom from papal rule, against the Black Guelphs, who pledged allegiance to the papacy. In a harrowing series of events, the Black Guelphs came out victorious and were accused of corruption and financial wrongdoing; Dante was first exiled from Florence for two years in 1302 after he refused to pay a fine. Shortly after, he was banned for life and threatened with execution at the stake or beheading if he returned. Dante refused the promise of a pardon on the condition that he admits his guilt against this city.
For the next twenty years, the poet endured a nomadic existence, traveling from place to place in Tuscany and other locales at the invitation of friends or fulfilling diplomatic missions at the behest of others. He spent his final years in the city of Ravenna on the Adriatic coast, where he died of malaria in 1321.
While in exile, Dante wrote the masterpiece that would immortalize him. The Divine Comedy was written in the vernacular, or common language, of his day, which he called Italian. This sharply contrasted the contemporary writings of his day, as most writings at the time were in Latin, which only the most educated could read. The Divine Comedy describes Dante’s journey through Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio), and Paradise (Paradiso), accompanied by the ancient Roman poet Virgil and later by his beloved Beatrice.
Dante first describes traveling through the nine circles of Hell (Inferno). Sinners are assigned to the circles according to their sins: the least offensive is in the First, limbo, and the worst is in the Ninth, treachery.
The Second Circle of Hell is lust. In the fifth chapter or canto, Dante meets Paolo and Francesca. Both were married to other people, but they fell in love with each other and kissed while reading a book together. Francesca’s husband murdered the couple, and they landed in the Second Circle together.
Eventually, Dante and Virgil meet Satan, who has bat-like wings and three faces. He feasts on a sinner in each mouth. The story stretches further as Dante reaches Purgatory (Purgatorio), where sinners are cleansed of their sins in preparation for Heaven. Finally, Dante arrives in Paradise. There, he is guided by Beatrice, a character inspired by the real love of Dante’s life and the muse for many of his poems.
Dante’s Divine Comedy: Influence on Art
Dante’s works have exerted an enormous influence on art through the years. Numerous art pieces have been produced as allusions to parts of The Divine Comedy.
French sculptor Auguste Rodin’s bronze work shows Francesca and Paolo’s romantic but damning kiss. In this engraving, British poet and artist William Blake shows Paolo and Francesca being swept away in a whirlwind of irresistible desire. Blake made 100 drawings of the story while he was sick in bed.
Another artist, Rodin, designed a sculpture for his ‘Gates of Hell,’ two bronze doors inspired by Dante’s Inferno. His iconic sculpture, ‘The Thinker,’ also came from this work. The man resting his chin on his hand represents Dante.
A wood engraving by Romanian artist Gy Szabó Béla shows the ‘Eighth Circle of Hell,’ meant for those who have committed fraud.
He is overlooking a pitch-black pit as hairy demons holding pitchforks rise toward him. In the Comedy, these demons are supposed to keep corrupt politicians under the boiling lake of pitch depicted in the engraving.
British artist John Flaxman published a pen and ink drawing in 1807 that depicts Beatrice guiding Dante through the nine spheres of Heaven. They float among the planets and stars.
The National Gallery’s ‘Allegorical Portrait of Dante’ depicts the poet sitting on a rock, with his distinctive profile leaving no doubt about his identity. He turns to look across the water at small figures walking along the elevated circles of Purgatory. His right hand hovers in a protective or resolute gesture over Florence’s bell tower and cathedral (Duomo), illuminated from below by flickering flames. A large manuscript copies of his masterpiece opened to the 25th Canto of Paradise is in his left hand.
These works have given birth to several profitable art exhibitions where the results of Dante’s Divine Comedy are displayed in full glory.