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The Medieval Catholic World: Dante Alighieri was born in Italy in 1265 and lived in a culture steeped in the faith and doctrine of Roman Catholicism. In the 13th and 14th century, the Catholic Papacy was the seat of both religious and political authority in Europe, holding dominion over the continent with its powerful grip on both worship and governance. Dante was a devout Catholic, and The Divine Comedy is an expression of his religious ardor, unfolding across the three levels of the afterlife laid out by Catholic doctrine: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso

  • Dante’s descent into the underworld in Inferno serves as the first step in his larger journey to rediscover God’s path. By witnessing the depths of depravity to which the sinful have stooped and the magnitude of pain brought upon them as punishment, Dante studies the shadows of human life so that he and his readers might avoid them. Beyond his allegiance to God, Dante’s spirituality is his own, for in Inferno he does not hesitate to imaginatively cast popes and cardinals into the fires of eternal damnation. 

Dante’s Florence: Dante (1265–1321) spent the first half of his life in Florence, where he formed his religious, aesthetic, and political sensibilities. The politics of late 13th-century Florence were spectacularly tumultuous. The factions known as the Ghibellines and Guelphs were locked in a vicious conflict that raged across Tuscany for decades. At the time of Dante’s birth, the Ghibellines had a firm hold of Florence, but they were soon forced out by the Guelphs, backed by Charles d’Anjou. In the 1290s, the Guelphs, still in control, split into two sub-factions known as the White and Black Guelphs. In 1301, the Black Guelphs succeeded in flushing the White Guelphs from the city. Dante was one of those White Guelphs, and it was during the long exile he spent in Ravenna that he composed The Divine Comedy

  • Dante used the political struggles of his time as creative fuel during the composition of his epic. While his greatest concerns were grand and eternal in dimension, he drew on the headlines of his day to flesh out the particulars of his vision. Thus, The Divine Comedy, and in particular Inferno, contains numerous Guelphs and Ghibellines of Dante’s time, including Corso Donati, Brunetto Latini, and Farinata degli Uberti. 

Inferno’s Publication History and Reception: Dante likely began to compose Inferno in 1307 or 1308, although the precise date is unknown. He labored at The Divine Comedy for the rest of his life, completing Paradiso around 1320, the year before he died. 

  • Because Dante lived before the invention of the printing press in 1439, his works were initially circulated via hand-copied manuscripts. It is thus difficult to determine how widespread and influential Dante’s work was. However, several clues suggest that less than a century after Dante’s death, The Divine Comedy was already accumulating a great deal of critical attention. The Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio composed a biography of Dante and delivered a series of critical lectures about The Divine Comedy in the 1370s. By 1400, there were at least a dozen in-depth critical commentaries on the epic. 
  • In 1472, Johann Numeister and Evangelista Angelini da Trevi published the first print run of the epic, producing 300 hundred copies. Over the next century, at least six other editions were published across Italy, most notably Venetian publisher Gabriel Golito’s 1555 edition. It was Golito who first appended the word Divina to Dante’s original title of La Commedia. Scholars speculate that by Golito’s time, the work was exalted enough to be considered “divine.” Thus the adjective is a reflection of the poem’s popular and critical acclaim, not a result of Dante’s choosing. 
  • The poem’s acclaim has never waned in the seven centuries since its composition, despite the decreasing interest in the epic-poem form in favor of the novel and other media. The Divine Comedy has achieved the status of a classical masterpiece, akin to the works of Homer, Virgil, and Ovid, the very poets Dante most admired. 

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