As a boy, Dante Alighieri, born in Florence in 1265, glimpsed a lovely girl named Beatrice in a local chapel. Despite Dante’s unrequited, undying crush, the two rarely met and barely spoke. Both wed others in marriages arranged by their families, but Beatrice would forever remain his muse.
Drawn to Florence’s raucous political life, Dante served as a town prior. In 1301 civil war ripped the city apart. In Rome on a papal mission, Dante escaped the bloodbath but faced trumped-up charges of misuse of public funds. If he ever were to return, he would be burned at the stake. At age 36, he was penniless, friendless, homeless–as he put it, “a ship without sails or rudder, driven to various harbors and shores by the parching wind that blows from pinching poverty.”
Around 1307 Dante began work on a literary tour-de-force of 14,233 eleven-syllable lines organized into 100 cantos in three volumes: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Refining his Tuscan vernacular into a rich literary language, Dante portrayed a fantastic universe that stretched from the depths of hell to the heights of heaven.
La Commedia (a publisher added “Divina” later) begins on Good Friday in the year 1300. “The pilgrim,” his first-person narrator, loses his way in a dark wood, travels deep into the earth, and enters a funnel-shaped hell with nine concentric circles spiraling down into an icy center. In this abyss of darkness and fright, the damned are whipped, crucified, burned, butchered, transformed into shrubs and snakes, buried alive in flaming graves, skewered into rocky ground, frozen in ice, and immersed in mud, excrement, boiling blood, and pitch. The pilgrim manages to escape, then slogs through Purgatory before Beatrice raises him through the spheres of Paradise. His epic ends with a canto that T. S. Eliot described as “the highest point that poetry has ever reached or can ever reach.”
Dante’s masterpiece was an instant sensation, with its fame spreading quickly throughout the peninsula and beyond. People gathered in Italian villages for readings of La Commedia. Peasants memorized melodic lines and shared them as they worked the fields. Unlike other great writers such as Shakespeare or Cervantes, Dante, who died of malaria in 1321, became not just a literary giant, but Italy’s foremost national hero. No one can claim a greater hold on the Italian soul.
Dante’s legacy has proven to be timeless. In his memoir of Auschwitz in World War II, the writer Primo Levi recalled reciting from memory a canto from La Commedia to a young man who wanted to learn Italian. As he pronounced the poet’s words, Levi felt that he too was hearing them for the first time, “like the blast of a trumpet, like the voice of God. For a moment I forgot who we were and where we were.” Reaching across the centuries, Dante shone rays of light into an especially dismal ring of hell.
Adapted from “A” Is for Amore, which you can download for free by clicking here. Dianne Hales is also the author of LA PASSIONE: How Italy Seduced the World; LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language; and MONA LISA: A Life Discovered.