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Dante Alighieri

Category: Writer

Dante by Botticelli

Durante degli Alighieri (c.1265 –1321), commonly known as Dante was a Florentine poet. The exact date of Dante's birth is unknown, although it is ‘generally believed to be around 1265’.

His principle poem, the Divina Commedia (originally called Commedia and later called Divina ("divine") by Boccaccio, is often considered one of the greatest literary works composed in the Italian language.  In Italy he is known as "the Supreme Poet" (il Sommo Poeta) and the "Father of the Italian language". This latter epithet was given because Dante wrote the Comedy in a language he called "Italian", based on the regional dialect of Tuscany, with some elements of Latin and of the other regional dialects. By creating a poem of epic structure and philosophic purpose, he established that the Italian language was suitable for the highest sort of expression. In French, Italian is nicknamed la langue de Dante. Publishing in the vernacular language marked Dante as one of the first to break from standards of publishing in only Latin.

As an adult, Dante entered the guild of physicians and ‘apothecaries’ [alchemists] and studied Tuscan poetry, the Occitan poetry of the troubadours and the Latin poetry of classical antiquity.  He also studied the works of mystics such as Saint Bonaventure and  Saint Thomas Aquinas.  We can thus see where his interests lay.

 

I think that his first spiritual experience occurred when he was about 9 years old.  All the history books say he “met Beatrice Portinari, daughter of Folco Portinari, with whom he fell in love at first sight and without having spoken to her”.  But it is very clear from the Divine Comedy that Beatrice is his Higher spirit.  The troubadors and many poets of the day pursued ‘divine love’ not earthly love, even if they were married.  Dialoghi de amore, and Fedele d’Amore were all techniques aimed at union with the Higher spirit.  In the Divine Comedy and his other poems Beatrice is described as divine, which should surely show what Dante believed and was pursuing.  The Divine comedy is an allegory of the Spiritual path.

The word "comedy," in the classical sense, refers to works which reflect belief in an ordered universe, in which events not only tended towards a happy or "amusing" ending, but an ending influenced by a Providential will that orders all things to an ultimate good – the Great Work. By this meaning of the word, the progression of the pilgrim from Hell to Paradise is an expression of ‘comedy’, since the work begins with the pilgrim's moral confusion and ends with the vision of ‘God’.

Dante's family was prominent in Florence, with loyalties to the White Guelphs, a political alliance that supported the Papacy and which was involved in complex opposition to the Ghibellines, who were backed by the Holy Roman Emperor.  The conflict between the two factions eventually overtook Dante and he was ordered to pay a large fine by the new government in Florence. All his assets in Florence were seized by the Black Guelphs and he was condemned to perpetual exile. He was told that if he returned to Florence without paying the fine, he could be burned at the stake. Dante, bitter at the treatment he received from his enemies, also grew disgusted with the infighting and ineffectiveness of his allies. It was at this low point that he wrote the Divine Comedy

When Uguccione defeated Florence, Dante's death sentence was commuted to house arrest, on condition that he should go to Florence to swear that he would never enter the town again. Dante refused to go. His death sentence was confirmed and extended to his sons. Dante still hoped late in life that he might be invited back to Florence on honorable terms. For Dante, exile was nearly a form of death, stripping him of much of his identity. In 1318, he finished the Paradiso, and died in 1321 (at the age of 56) .

Although I have no way of confirming this and it is, in a sense, pure speculation, I believe Dante was a manic depressive.  The accounts he provides are so graphically accurate of the two states of mania and depression that it cannot be coincidence.  Compare his visions with those of Edgar Allen Poe, William Blake or John Custance for example, and the similarities cannot be ignored.  In fact, Dante's Divine Comedy may be one of the most poetic and graphical accounts we have of what it means to be manic and depressive and what is possible in the manic state. 

References

  • The Divine Comedy - describes Dante's journey through Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio), and Paradise (Paradiso), guided first by the Roman poet Virgil and then by Beatrice. The Paradiso  has the most beautiful and ecstatic mystic passages of the three books in which Dante tries to describe what he confesses he is unable to convey: "all'alta fantasia qui mancò possa" - "at this high moment, ability failed my capacity to describe," So he was there, this is not a story this is a record

Dante's other works include

  • the Convivio ("The Banquet")  - a collection of his longest poems with an (unfinished) allegorical commentary
  • Monarchia  - which was condemned and burned after Dante's death by the Papal Legate
  • and, La Vita Nuova ("The New Life"),[ the story of his love for Beatrice. The Vita Nuova contains many of Dante's love poems

They are all spiritual in content

Observations

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