Dante was born of a poor but noble Florentine family. Unusually well educated for his time and social class, he was knowledgeable in science, theology, and philosophy and was a well-known man of letters. He lived in politically tumultuous times and was active in his city’s government. During an absence from Florence in 1301, his party was overthrown and he was sentenced to exile in 1302. For a time, he tried to clear his name, but he was never allowed to return to his beloved Florence upon the threat of being burned. Dante wrote The Divine Comedy in exile and died in Ravenna.
Dante chose to write the masterpiece The Divine Comedy in Italian, although the language of scholarship at that time was Latin. Dante’s major writings in Latin include his political essay De monarchia (c. 1313; English translation, 1890; also known as Monarchy, 1954; better known as On World Government, 1957) and his compelling defense of the written vernacular as an appropriate medium of expression, De vulgari eloquentia (c. 1306; English translation, 1890). Although Dante used Latin for a number of very important letters and for a few poems, his language of choice was his native Tuscan dialect, which became the basis of modern Italian. His earliest major work—La vita nuova (c. 1292; Vita Nuova, 1861; better known as The New Life), a mystical-spiritual account of his love for Beatrice that combines prose and poetry—was written in Italian, as were Il convivio (c. 1307; The Banquet, 1887), a philosophical commentary on four of his poems, and a number of lyric poems. The greatest tribute to the eloquence of written Italian is, however, The Divine Comedy.
The work that Dante first titled La commedia (the adjective “divina” was added by others and first appeared in the 1555 edition) is an intentionally complex work. It is divided into three sections, or canticles: Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Heaven). The poem is subdivided into one hundred cantos: one for the prologue and thirty-three for each of the main sections. Each canto consists of three-verse units, terzine; each verse is composed of eleven syllables, for a total of thirty-three syllables in each terzina. The rhyme scheme that Dante invented for the poem, called terza rima, consists of each rhyme (except the first) occurring three times: aba; bcb; cdc, ded, and so forth. This scheme creates an interlocking pattern that produces a very closely knit poem.
Number symbolism plays an important part in The Divine Comedy. As a typical medieval poem, it relies heavily on mystical associations with numbers. It is not difficult to discern, for example, the relationship between one poem in three canticles and one God in the three form of the Trinity. The number two reflects the duality of nature as seen in the pairing of opposites such as corporeal and spiritual, active and contemplative, Church and State, Old Testament and New Testament, and the (inverted) mountain-shaped Hell and the purgatorial mountain.
Three signifies Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity; and other combinations. Dante’s terzine and terza rima are significant in this regard and are meant to honor the Trinity. Among multiple examples in the poem, the pilgrim is initially blocked on his path by three beasts, has three guides, spends three nights in Purgatory, and has three dreams there. The number four—the number of the seasons, elements, humors, directions, and cardinal virtues—combines with three to make the mystical seven: the number of days of creation, days of the week, days of Dante’s journey, virtues and vices (embodied in the structure of Mount Purgatory), and planets, among many other instances. Nine, the multiple of three times three, becomes the basis for the overall structure for each of the realms of the afterlife: There are nine circles of Hell, nine areas of Purgatory (ante-purgatory, seven ledges, and the garden), and nine spheres of Heaven.
In his famous “Epistle to...
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