Introduction to Dante’s Divine Comedy


          Having taught Dante’s Divine Comedy to hundreds of undergraduates over the last 20 years, I like to begin the first class with a no-nonsense quote from the great T.S. Eliot who said, “Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them. There is no third.” And while most of them will have read some Shakespeare, most have not encountered Dante. So I follow my Eliot quote with an equally bold statement of my own, that the Divine Comedy is the greatest poem in the western world! By now, their smiles elicit a happy confession on my part: “I’m in love with Dante, and I hope that by the end of this course you will appreciate him and his poem in ways you would not have expected.”


          I can trace my love affair with Dante back to an isolated incident when I was ten years old. Scanning the shelves in my small town library one day after school, I happened across a large copy of the Divine Comedy that was filled with the illustrations of the famous French engraver Paul Gustav Doré. I don’t remember how I knew about Dante, except that we were Italian Catholics and he was the one who wrote about Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. The text of the poem meant little to me at the time, but I was fascinated by the discovery of images, the likes of which I had never seen or even imagined.

          “Does your mother know you’re taking out this book, Michael?” the owl-faced librarian asked me over her tiny spectacles as she puckered sourly and made the large pages fan noisily by running her thumb over the half-opened book. (Did she know that scenes of utter and unspeakable horror just then spilled out over her cluttered desk? Or that hosts of angels flew back in as she snapped the covers closed?

          “Oh, yes,” I said unconvincingly as I followed the wire of her hearing aid down into her ample bosom, wondering where it went. “I’m getting it for her.”

          “Really.” she replied equally unconvinced, as her date-stamper cluh-clunked onto the little card. Then it cluh-clunked again on the little paper inside the back cover. With her two long middle fingers touching the edges of the cover, she slowly pushed the obviously dangerous book across her desk toward me and sniffed as she used the same two fingers to restore her spectacles to their accustomed place on the bony bridge of her overly-powdered nose. As a matter of fact, during the two weeks that book was in my possession, my mother did read all of it. In hindsight, that clunking date-stamper was like a strange key that opened the mysterious door to a world I have enjoyed living in ever since.

          Even at 10 I had already heard (and experienced) the phrase “love at first sight” as a kind of cautionary “yellow light” when you developed a quick and strong liking for something or someone. But how was I to know that in his Paradiso one of Dante’s central principles – in speaking about how the angels love God – is that sight precedes love – in other words that sight (knowledge) – just like the saying goes – takes precedence and love (an act of the will) follows upon that which has been seen (Par 28:109-113)? This, of course, was a subject of significant debate in the Middle Ages, and in his Paradiso Dante sides with the likes of Sts. Thomas Aquinas and Albert the Great. I’m no angel, but how is it that when I look back, my love affair with Dante started with the illustrations of his poem?

          Jumping ahead almost 10 years, my first real reading of the Comedy was as a sophomore at Saint Mary’s College of California in a Great Books Seminar. Years later, a second jump landed me in a doctoral seminar at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley taught by the famous Episcopalian priest, Massey H. Shepherd, Jr. It was really he who set me on fire about Dante. I owe him a great debt of gratitude.

          So, already teaching at my alma mater at that time,  I soon set about creating a course in my department where students, for their part, would read the entire Comedy, and I, for my part, would “sell the store” and share with them everything I could to round out Mark Musa’s superb translation and notes.


          Over the years, I have read the Comedy so many times that Dante’s amazing poem has become a part of me – of my own story. And since “selling the store” is very much a part of my teaching philosophy, I decided to “sell” it in a different way –  by re-creating the poem in narrative form instead of verse, as though Dante himself were telling it. That’s what I have done here, and to this I have appended abundant “who-what-and where” notes at the end of each Canto so the reader can appreciate and understand as much of the context as possible. My hope is that students, new readers, and even “repeat offenders” will find this version of Dante’s journey quite accessible, understandable, and enjoyable. And like Dante, may you, too, reach the end and see stars.



          Dante’s Comedy is a monumental work of poetic genius. But if we go looking for details about the man who wrote it, we may find ourselves disappointed. While the poem is not specifically “autobiographical,” one will find in it a few details about Dante’s life scattered here and there. And yet, on another level, the entire poem is one grand autobiography. It tells the story of Dante Alighieri – morally lost in mid-life – but who finds himself as he is led through the realms of the afterlife by a series of guides until he “comes home” at last in the Paradiso.

          We do not know the precise date in 1265 when he was born, though in Paradiso 22:109-17 he tells us that he was born under the sign of Gemini – mid-May through mid-June. He was the only child of his parents, Alighiero di Bellincione Alighieri and Bella degli Abati. His father was most likely a landed merchant and his family probably enjoyed some status. We know that his great-great grandfather was knighted by the emperor Conrad III and that he died in the Holy Land during the Second Crusade. Dante meets him in the Paradiso.

          “Dante” – the name by which he was and is commonly known – was baptized Durante di Alighiero degli Alighieri in the famous octagonal baptistery of San Giovanni that sits in front of the cathedral in Florence. In Inferno 19:18, he refers to it as “my beautiful San Giovanni.” When he was six years old his mother died, and his father later remarried, taking for his wife Lapa di Chiarissimo Cialuffi. From this marriage, Dante had a half-brother named Francesco, and a half-sister named Gaetana. When he was 12 (1277) he was formally betrothed to Gemma di Manetto Donati, a member of the powerful Donati family. (Dante will place the evil Corso Donati in Hell, his good friend, Forese Donati, in Purgatory, and the saintly Piccarda Donati in Heaven.) Though Dante was a professional poet and writer for most of his life, it is interesting to note that he never mentions his wife, Gemma, in any of his poetry. The most reliable sources indicate that they had three, or possibly four, children: Pietro, Jacopo, Antonia, and possibly Giovanni. (Were his three sons named for Jesus’ closest disciples?). We are not sure when Dante’s only daughter, Antonia, entered the convent, but we know that she took the name Sister Beatrice.


          Dante Alighieri is the poet who writes the Divine Comedy, but he is also the poem’s main character or protagonist. Once in a while the poet steps into the poem, but most of the time, it’s Dante the character who is in the spotlight. Over the centuries Dante the main character has often been referred to by scholars and commentators as the “Pilgrim.” This gives him a certain quality that being a “traveler” does not. While all pilgrims are travelers, not all travelers are pilgrims. There is something less mundane and ordinary about a pilgrim because the pilgrim’s travels have an almost sacred or transcendent purpose. The pilgrim travels from home to a destination that is very special, even holy. The journey is undertaken, perhaps, in fulfillment of a vow, or as a penance, or in order to obtain some deep spiritual gift or insight, or grace, or even a cure at its destination. The destination is often a holy place or shrine that is the site of a great event or manifestation, and over time it has accumulated a great aura of attraction, and people go there to participate in some deeply personal way in the meaning and significance of the place.

          There is a great body of pilgrim literature from around the world replete with stories and adventures because humans have been making pilgrimages from time immemorial, and they continue to do so by the tens of thousands annually. One thinks of the great shrines of Hindus and Buddhists in Asia; Mecca and Jerusalem in the Near East; Rome, Santiago da Compostella, and Lourdes in Europe. In terms of pilgrim literature, Chaucer’sfamous Canterbury Tales is significant in the European literary tradition because he was influenced by the vernacular achievement of Dante’s Comedy, and his own work follows this vernacular trend.

          One of the consequences of undertaking a pilgrimage is that the pilgrim usually does not return home the same person who left. Crossing borders, meeting different people, encountering different cultures, foods, languages, and landscapes – not to mention the danger of mishap, illness, brigands, etc., all added character and status to a pilgrim. The experience was and is an amazing educational experience. The Divine Comedy is Dante’s pilgrimage journal.


          Dante’s Divine Comedy is a Christian poem and a Catholic poem, written between 1307 and 1321 – long before there were other Christian denominations. But, as I tell my students, one does not have to be a Christian to appreciate the poem. Dante’s goal in writing it was simply to remove readers from a state of misery and lead them (on a kind of pilgrimage) through mercy and forgiveness to the blessed vision of God. And each of the poem’s three successive parts fulfills this goal by placing the reader alongside Dante as a fellow pilgrim in search of the fullness of life with God.


          The Inferno is nothing short of a moral train wreck, a catastrophe of eternal proportions, and I dare say it’s these qualities that make it the easiest and most-read part of the poem. While the reader may have had some prior sense of Hell – formal or informal, Dante adds such amazing breadth and depth to what we may have known that we – almost – cannot know it in the “old” way again without the new and lasting overlays of Dante’s images.

          The ultimate tragedy of Dante’s Hell is that everyone there has chosen to be there. No one is in Hell by accident or mistake or against their will. In the Paradiso (5:19ff), Beatrice tells Dante that free will is God’s greatest gift to us, the gift most like Himself. Unfortunately, all of Hell’s inhabitants either ignored this gift or used it the wrong way, and the purpose of the journey down through Hell is to acquaint Dante and the reader with the nature of sin in all its forms and its consequences – ultimately coming face to face with the author of sin himself.

          While Hell and Heaven are eternal, Purgatory is not. It is temporal and will disappear at the end of time. But this quality makes it no less important in Dante’s view than its eternal counterparts. One soon discovers there that sinners suffer terrible punishments and for equally grave sins as those in Hell. The one difference is that – even at the last moment of their lives – they sought forgiveness. For the souls in Purgatory, it is, as the word implies, a place of purgation, of cleansing, of rehabilitation – at the end of which they are completely purified of any touch of sin and are ready for Heaven and the Beatific Vision.

          Just as Hell is conceived by Dante as an immense pit of sin that extends to the center of the earth, so Purgatory is conceived of as a great mountain of hope and mercy  on the opposite side of the globe from Jerusalem. Like Hell, Dante’s Purgatory has several major sections where particular sins are punished and cleansed away. Unlike Hell, it is a place of light where one can see the sun and the stars. And whereas sinners shriek and curse in the eternal chaos of Hell, in Purgatory they sing the Word of God in unison. In Hell the force of gravity and despair pulls all evil to its source at the bottom, but in Purgatory one ascends, drawn gradually by the power of Heaven. And though he has not been there before, Virgil still accompanies Dante throughout Purgatory until, at the top of the mountain, they reach the Earthly Paradise or the Garden of Eden, where Beatrice assumes his role as guide and mentor through Heaven.

          Rising up into Paradise with Beatrice, Dante undergoes a transhumanization, a word he makes up to describe how he was able to experience all the glory and beauty of Heaven. In the Paradiso, Dante uses the Ptolemaic conception of the cosmos as the basic structure on which he builds this third and final canticle of his poem. With the earth at the center, the cosmos is arrayed outward as a series of nested crystalline spheres of increasing size and power. These are named for the known planets at the poet’s time, in addition to the stars and constellations in the firmament beyond. And beyond this, outside of time and space as we know it, is the abode of God, shaped like a stadium of immense proportions, filled with the Saints and angels. Once there, Beatrice takes her place near the very top of this heavenly “rose,” and St. Bernard leads Dante into the final section of the poem where he sees God.

          In Heaven, Dante learns as he rises through the great spheres that earthly values and earthly ways of thinking do not work as he expects. Two solids can inhabit the same space, for example, and higher and lower do not have the earthly connotations of better or worse. Heaven is a place of infinite diversity. Everyone Dante meets is in Heaven, and sees God, but according to the fullness of their individual capacity. No one wishes to be anywhere else than where they are. Early on, Dante learns from the souls he meets that they are all, as it were, in the great “stadium,” but they have come down to meet Dante as signs of their blessedness and to instruct him as he rises ever higher with his guide, Beatrice, who becomes more and more beautiful the higher they go.

          At the end of his Paradiso Dante sees God. Yes, he does! But what he sees is not quite what we expect with our earthly eyes. Having told the reader that he has reached the utter limit of his poetic ability, peering into the most brilliant of lights, the poet then gives himself over to the vision as it presents itself to him. To understand the image he will use here, early theologians held the view – current in Dante’s time – that there were two “books”: the book of Nature (all of creation) and the book of Scripture (the Word of God). When read together with scripture, the book of Nature was also a source of revelation that could bring us closer to the knowledge of God. So, as a prologue to his final vision Dante tells us that within the depths of this great light, he saw, as it were, all the pages of these books scattered across the universe, coming together and bound by Love. Only then does he see God – three different colored circles, the same in every way, but inhabiting the same space. Upon these circles (the Trinity) Dante sees imprinted a human face – the incarnate face of Christ. But comparing himself at that moment to the geometer striving to square the circle, he cannot fully comprehend, nor can he adequately express in words, what he saw. Except that he found himself in complete harmony with “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”


          In his Convivio, a wide-ranging but unfinished book that Dante began before starting the Inferno, he wrote that a poet creates “una veritade ascosa sotto bella menzogna,”a truth that is hidden under a beautiful lie. Following on this significant literary principle, and in order to have the greatest enjoyment of the poem, readers need to suspend their disbelief and forget that the entire Divine Comedy is a fiction. In it, Dante the poet creates a three-part journey through the afterlife that he intends, right from the beginning, to be taken as absolutely true. Everything Dante the pilgrim experiences, everyone he meets along the way is real.


          Think of a soaring Gothic cathedral, the boldness of its conception, and the symmetry of its shape. The Divine Comedy is that cathedral in poetry. Its exterior is impressive: the entire poem is 14,233 lines long; it has three parts (Hell, Purgatory, and  Heaven); each of the three parts is composed of 33 cantos or poetic chapters, with an introductory canto at the beginning of the Inferno – making 100 in all. The cantos themselves are not symmetrical, averaging approximately 140 lines long. The interior as Dante intends it, however, is not simply the “inside of the outside.” Dante’s “cathedral” contains the entire cosmos in the three major sections or canticles of the poem. With Dante the Pilgrim, one enters at the lowest level (Hell), proceeds gradually upward (Purgatory), and ends in the dizzying heights of the nave (Heaven).

          Though this cathedral imagery is rich with comparisons to Dante’s poem, I’d like to highlight the fact that the great cathedrals that rose in the Middle Ages were often referred to as “the Bibles of the poor.” While the literate rich could afford illuminated prayer books, most people were poor and illiterate. Imagine, though, the “wealth” of  imagery anyone – rich or poor – could enjoy in their cathedral. Apart from the spectacular architecture, the outside walls, particularly the entrances, would be covered with carvings of Jesus and the Saints. Inside there were more statues, murals, and paintings. But perhaps most magnificent of all were the windows, which were a kind of internal counterpart to the exterior statues. In the windows were depicted virtually every story from the Bible and Lives of the Saints. There one could see all the characters from these texts as light shining through the brilliant colors. These were not small images in a book, but large – almost living – representations of people who had stories to tell and people about whom stories were told. More than this, when the sun poured through particular scenes in the stained glass, not only could one see the scene more clearly on the window itself, one could actually stand in its projection onto the floor so that a worshiper could imaginatively “participate” in the scene. In this way, the faithful could pray or meditate on a particular scene or, if the projection was of a particular Saint, or the Virgin Mary, or Jesus, you could let their light fill and inspire you. So, not only did the stained glass windows serve a functional purpose of lighting the interior of the cathedral, as a whole they brought an added element of transcendence to the most sacred purpose of the building – the liturgy.

          With these great windows in mind, each canto in Dante’s poem also acts as a window both for Dante the pilgrim and the reader. As we move through the three levels of this literary cathedral, Dante presents us with views on sin, on repentance, and on beatitude. These “views” are both ideas, as in points of view, and literal images, as in scenes, tableaux, etc. What Dante does in words, his “windows” do with light. We both see through to the location of the particular canto and that place shines onto and illuminates the pilgrim and the reader. But not just externally. The purpose of the poem is to move the reader from misery to blessedness. For this to happen, an internal illumination is necessary, and so we walk through Dante’s cathedral, at each level being illumined within – spiritually, morally, etc. The Divine Comedy is a very different Bible of the poor, but their purposes are similar – to learn from the stories one sees by allowing those stories to shine on and into us and with the help of that light to reflect on the state of our souls.

          The labyrinth is another symbolic structure in many cathedrals, where walking the particular pattern is designed to take us on a personal, interior pilgrimage. Dante the pilgrim moved through the entire cosmos in his poem, which brings us to consider remarkable part of the exterior of his “cathedral.”


          Dante invented an amazing rhyme scheme called terza rima, an arrangement of three-line verses or tercets, where the first and third lines rhyme and the second line rhymes with the first and third lines of the next tercet. Thus: A-B-A / B-C-B / C-D-C / D-E-D, etc. The entire poem – all 14,233 verses – is set to this rhythmic pattern, and because the poem is not simply about a journey or a pilgrimage, but actually is a journey, one can imagine terza rima as a kind of walking rhythm that subtly undergirds the entire poem from beginning to end. Genius at work!

          Obviously, this rhyme scheme works spectacularly in Dante’s Italian, as a glance at the poem in its original language will show. However, the Comedy has been translated into numerous languages over the last seven hundred years – including scores of them in English – and there have been a few intrepid translators who have striven to preserve Dante’s rhyme. But the result is often stilted and somewhat unwieldy. Most translators maintain the tercet structure of the poem, but they do it in blank verse – without the rhyming.


          It doesn’t take long before the reader of Dante’s Comedy encounters the first aspects of its density. What I mean by this is that the poem isn’t simply made up of narrative and dialogue. No, it’s thick with hundreds allusions that Dante draws from numerous sources that give his narrative and dialogue flavor, context, and subtlety – and which also reveal the vastness of his learning. One might consider, apart from the Gothic cathedral image I highlighted earlier, a tall building – perhaps a warehouse – with many floors. Each “floor” is a branch of learning, and from these Dante draws resources to augment, clarify, give shape to, or explain what’s going on in the text. So, the reader will find – among others – allusions to history, mythology, theology, science, mathematics, geography, astrology, astronomy, meteorology, scripture, philosophy, literature, politics, and local culture and customs. In addition to these, he’ll often compare something to an ordinary human experience or to a scene anyone might have seen in their own lives. All of this, of course, adds a dimension of reality to the poem.


          In company with the numerous allusions he makes throughout the poem, Dante freely uses symbolism and allegory to enrich the experience of his text, and he encourages the reader to interpret the poem – both as a whole and in its many parts – on at least four levels. And what’s amazing – and bold – about this is that these were, in his time, the four standard ways of interpreting Sacred Scripture. The first and most basic level of interpretation is simply to read the text literally. Basically, the reader considers the plain, historical, or informational content of what the words present to us on the surface. A second, deeper way of understanding and interpretation is at the level of allegory, where we wrestle with the meaning and significance of the words/text and the truth(s) hidden underneath them. A third way of interpreting aspects of the poem is on the moral level, seeking connections between the text and its meaning in the context of virtue, principle, or righteous living, and asking what are the moral implications of what I am reading for my own life. And, finally, there is a fourth level which we might call the mystical level, which has to do with reading/seeing the content of the poem from a spiritual or ultimate point of view.


          In the Divine Comedy, Dante is not only the poet, he’s also a pilgrim. And Dante the poet expects us to join Dante the pilgrim through the entire poem. Understanding these two important points is key to appreciating the significance of the poem. The Comedy is not simply a “tour” of the afterlife. It’s a real experience we’re invited to participate in right from the start. As noted earlier, this calls for a willing suspension of disbelief – only in this way can we enjoy the poem to its fullest.


          Of course, there is a moral dimension as well. As the poem opens, Dante finds himself lost in a dark forest which symbolizes what we might call a mid-life crisis. He doesn’t know how he got there, which frightens him even more. At dawn, he catches sight of a nearby mountain and decides to climb it in order to get his bearings. However, in quick succession, a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf drive him back into the forest. As we will discover, these ravenous beasts represent three major classifications of sins: fraudulence, violence, and lust. It becomes clear that Dante cannot escape this moral wilderness without help. That help appears in the person of the great Roman poet, Virgil, whose epic, the Aeneid tells the story of Aeneas, who escapes the destruction of Troy to follow his destiny and found a new civilization – Rome and its subsequent Empire. Simply stated, Virgil tells Dante he suffers from moral cowardice, and that if he wishes to escape from the forest and the beasts he must follow him down through Hell where he will see for himself the nature of sin and evil. Only then will Dante be ready to climb the Mountain of Purgatory where souls go to purify themselves before entering Heaven.

          But why Virgil as Dante’s guide? For his time, Dante was about as highly educated in the classical tradition as one could be. In this sense, one could hardly miss Virgil, whom Dante admired as one of the greatest of poets. Knowing this, it’s no surprise that Dante the poet adopts him as his guide. Virgil wrote the great epic poem of Rome – seat of both the material empire and the spiritual realm of the Church. Dante’s admiration of Virgil was so great that he adopted him as his mentor as he created his own epic, the Divine Comedy. Throughout the poem, Virgil represents the voice of human Reason as far as it can take one. Not only does he speak and guide Dante through the first two parts of the poem, but Dante quotes from Virgil frequently so that his presence can be felt both materially and spiritually. Yet Virgil does not simply appear on the scene. He acts as Dante’s guide through Hell and Purgatory because he has been commissioned by the force that energizes the poem from start to finish: Beatrice.


          Beatrice Portinari, born into a very wealthy Florentine family, was a contemporary and neighbor of Dante in his younger years. But their encounters during this time seem to have been few and far between. She married a wealthy banker and died when she was 25. Though their lives went in very different directions, Dante developed such a fondness for her that she later became the subject of an important volume of his love poems, the Vita Nuova. More significantly, she became for Dante the ideal of love, beauty, grace, and virtue that inspired him and energized his greatest work. In Canto 2 of the Inferno, Virgil tells Dante that it was Beatrice who appeared to him and sent him to act as Dante’s mentor and guide. She tells Virgil that it was the Virgin Mary who saw that Dante was headed for moral ruin and called St. Lucy for assistance. St. Lucy immediately went to Beatrice. So, both his journey and his poem are sanctioned and commissioned from Heaven. Though she is always just beneath the surface of the poem, and mentioned sparingly beforehand, she makes a spectacular appearance toward the end of the Purgatorio, where she assumes the role of Dante’s guide through the rest of the poem.

          At this point, I strongly dismiss from my students’ minds any notion that Dante and Beatrice were lovers. They were from very different social backgrounds and they rarely encountered each other. Nevertheless, a student will note, they were both married. Didn’t Dante’s inspiration by Beatrice amount to a kind of literary adultery? An interesting question, but the answer is no. Dante was a professional poet and an adherent of the “new style” of poetry that was coming into Italy from France, and he was also well-versed in the great romantic literature of the Middle Ages where great deeds of chivalry were inspired by the rituals of courtly love which, at times, had a definite sexual dimension along with the ideals of beauty, love, and virtue (think of the story of Lancelot and Guinevere). But this sexual dimension does not appear in, nor is it a necessary component of, Dante’s epic.


          Though he began writing his Comedy around 1307 and finished in 1321, the year of his death, Dante sets the poem in the Spring of the year 1300. The journey begins with the Inferno on the night before Good Friday, continues through Purgatory a few days later, and ends with the Paradiso on the Wednesday after Easter.

          The events in the narrative are presented as having taken place in the past. But the writing of poem and the memory of these events are presented as taking place in the present. In this way, he can make events that already took place seem as though they haven’t happened yet. In line with this, Dante will encounter characters who will “prophecy” things that will happen to him or to Florence, for example, that have, in fact, already happened.

          Setting the poem in the year 1300 is significant for Dante on several levels. That was the year that Pope Boniface VIII initiated the Jubilee – a universal call for moral conversion. The Jubilee lasted a year and was originally intended to be celebrated every 100 years, but the time was later shortened to every 50 or 25 years. It is still celebrated to this day. During this time, Pope Boniface invited Christians everywhere to travel to Rome where they could visit all the shrines and holy places and in turn receive a general pardon for their sins. In Canto 18 of the Inferno, Dante implies that he was in Rome at some point during this year.

          Alongside his being a poet, Dante did some military service for Florence, and he was also involved for short periods in the republic’s fractious political life. The year 1300 was also significant for Dante because it was during that time he was elected as one of the six Priors of Florence. Though this was the highest governing body, its term of office was a short one – only a matter of months.


          Italy as we know it today did not come into existence until the unification of the country in the latter part of the nineteenth century. During much of Dante’s lifetime, the Holy Roman Empire existed without an emperor. This, and the fact that rulers often neglected their territories south of the Alps, enabled the formation of a series of independent republics in northern Italy – the major ones being Venice, Milan, Genoa, Pisa, Florence, and Siena. These republics and the many smaller cities and towns that comprised them were governed by two major political groups who were frequently in violent opposition to each other. On the peninsula, these two factions were known as the Guelfs and the Ghibellines. Back to these in a moment after a word about the rest of the peninsula.

          In 756, Pepin, king of the Franks and father of Charlemagne, conquered several large territories on the Italian peninsula and gave control of them to the papacy. Charlemagne later officially codified this gift which stretched diagonally from the area below Ravenna in the northeast to lands below Rome in the southwest. All of this territory was known as the Papal States, with the Pope as its temporal sovereign. The rest of the peninsula from north of Naples down to and including Sicily was the Kingdom of Naples.

          At the risk of oversimplifying, let me return to the Guelfs and Ghibellines and say a few words about these two groups that had such a powerful influence on politics and society in Dante’s time – an influence that will be felt even in Dante’s epic poem. The Guelfo (Guelf) faction took its name from the German House of Welf, a dynasty of Bavarian dukes in southeastern Germany. The Ghibellino (Ghibelline) faction took its name from the castle of Waiblingen in southwestern Germany and surrounding lands  controlled by the Welf’s enemies. The Guelf party was often grounded in business and mercantile interests and generally aligned themselves with the papacy and papal power. The Ghibelline party, on the other hand, was often comprised of wealthy land-owners, and generally connected themselves with the emperor and imperial power. The wrangling between these two groups eventually spilled south of the Alps and infected the politics of the northern Italian republics and city-states, including Florence.

          The city of Florence was already a powerful banking and mercantile center with interests and connections all over Europe. By Dante’s time, it had undergone several Guelf vs Ghibelline upheavals that were fraught with intrigue, violence, and destruction – not to mention radical changes in government. The stability of the republic was also threatened by outside interference and attempts at control both by the papacy and neighboring kings and princes. By 1289, the Ghibelline government of Florence was overthrown at the famous Battle of Campaldino (in which Dante took part) and Guelf control of the republic was re-established. However, by 1300 (the year in which Dante sets his poem), several years of infighting among the Guelfs led to a split resulting in the Black Guelfs who continued to support the papacy, and the White Guelfs who opposed the papacy, particularly the intrigues and outright attempts of Pope Boniface VIII to bring the powerful republic under his control. This was the political environment Dante the White Guelfs stood within as he assumed the role of Prior.


          The split between the Black and White Guelfs (the colors signify their respective party flags and banners) enabled the Whites to expel the Blacks and take control of the republic. In retaliation for this, Boniface VIII, whose ambassadors had also been treated with scorn by the Florentines, planned to attack and occupy the city. He sent Charles of Valois as his “peacemaker,” but this mission failed. Meanwhile, the Florentine government sent a delegation to Rome. Dante was among them. Boniface soon dismissed the delegates, but kept Dante in Rome. In November of 1301, Charles of Valois and the Black Guelfs seized control of Florence and with much violence and destruction expelled the Whites. The following year, Dante was accused of corruption in public office in absentia and was condemned to exile for two years along with a large fine. Maintaining his innocence, he refused to pay. He was later condemned to perpetual exile and threatened with burning at the stake should he ever return.

          Readers might be interested to know that it took almost 700 years for the city of Florence to declare Dante innocent of all crimes. In June of 2008 the city council voted 19-5 to revoke his sentence. One wonders about the five nay-sayers, one of whom raised an excellent question: If Dante hadn’t been exiled, would he have written the Divine Comedy? While the poem is presented as a journey through the realms of the afterlife, and its goal is to bring those who live in a state of misery to the blessedness of Heaven, under all of this is the stern fact of exile. Yet Dante, well acquainted with the writings of St. Augustine, presents his poem to the reader with the Saint’s hopeful reflection in mind: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee” (Confessions). For Dante, our true home is in Heaven with God. But as we see at the beginning of the Inferno, Dante the Pilgrim has lost his way in the moral wilderness of a symbolic forest, and tells us this was an experience worse than death.  Wandering around northern Italy for the rest of his life with no place to call home, the pain of his earthly exile must, at some point early on, have given away to the realization that we are all exiles and that our lives are journeys back to our real home in Paradise. As a Roman Catholic he would have heard and read this doctrine many times. During his travels through Hell, it was made clear to him time and again that sin and evil erode the gift of our free will to the point where it is actually possible to choose eternal damnation – eternal exile. This is the tragedy of Hell. But very soon in his climb up the Mountain of Purgatory, he realizes the infinite power of God’s mercy when he meets a terrible sinner who repented in the last moment of his life. Not only this, in telling Dante his story, he expounds one of the most beautiful reflections on the mercy of God in the entire poem! As the saying goes, hope springs eternal. And as St. Paul reminds us in Chapter 8 of his letter to the Romans, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God” (vv31-35). Finally, the unfolding brilliance of Heaven reflects the glory of God until it overwhelms him into admitting that he no longer has the poetic ability to describe what he sees. Only then does his final vision of the Trinity reveal how all of creation – the entire universe – is bound together like pages in a great book titled Love. He knows that he is home at last when he realizes that he is in complete harmony with God and the universe that reflects Him.

          During the early years of his exile, the White Guelfs attempted to regain control of Florence, and Dante was among them. However, their efforts were fruitless and Dante abandoned them to become a party of one. During the succeeding years, his diplomatic skills were employed by various important territorial families and leaders who also gladly extended to him every hospitality. We know that he spent several years in Verona as a guest of the young nobleman Can Grande della Scalla to whom he dedicated the Paradiso. In 1318 Dante moved to the city of Ravenna where he was invited to live with its leader, Guido Novello da Polenta. He was much loved by the citizens and it was here that he completed the Paradiso. On his way back from a diplomatic mission to Venice he contracted malaria and died on September 14, 1321. He was 56 years old.

          The great church of Santa Croce attached to the monastery of the Franciscan monks in Florence is filled with monuments and tombs of famous Italians. Galileo, Michelangelo, Macchiavelli, and Rossini are among the many great Italians buried there. Perhaps the most imposing among the monuments is one many tourists think is Dante’s tomb. After all, his name is on it. But it is empty and, many might claim, deservedly so. Actually, Dante is buried in a very modest tomb just outside the Franciscan Monastery in Ravenna. The struggle and intrigue between Florence and Ravenna (and the clever Franciscan monks) over who should get Dante’s remains stretches over the next 550 years until the unification of Italy. But that is a story for another time.


          It should also be noted that, while Dante’s life and political career were at risk at the time of his exile, he took a significant literary risk as a poet by writing the Divine Comedy in Italian, not in Latin. While inhabitants of various parts of the peninsula spoke their own dialects, there was no standard Italian that was spoken everywhere. Latin and Greek were still the languages of scholarship and learning in virtually all fields of study, and would continue to be so for several more centuries. In the Roman Catholic Church, Latin prevailed as the language of scripture, theology and liturgy right down to the late 1960s. Dante’s Italian, which was basically the Tuscan dialect, eventually became the national language – a testimony to the influence and popularity of his poem. He has been described as the “father” of the Italian language, and is often referred to as il Sommo Poeta, the Supreme Poet.


          Dante simply called his poem La Commedia, The Comedy. It was his great literary successor, Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) who, after reading it, attached the word Divina, or divine – the title that comes down to us to this day. Boccaccio is probably best known for his famous story, The Decameron, a series of 100 short tales told successively over 10 days by seven young men and women who left Florence to escape the Black Death. Interestingly, it is nicknamed “The Human Comedy.” But his final great work was a series of lectures on the Divine Comedy published in 1373 shortly before he died. Following his literary predecessor, Boccaccio also wrote in Italian, as did Petrarch.


The chief imagination of Christendom,

Dante Alighieri, so utterly found himself

That he has made that hollow face of his

More plain to the mind’s eye than any face

But that of Christ.

                                                            —W. B. Yeats

          No apology is needed from Dante or anyone else, for that matter, that the Divine Comedy is a Catholic poem and that its author was a true believer. He clearly aligns the goal of his poem with the goal of the Christian life: salvation/redemption from sin leading to eternal life united with God. Though his Comedy is filled with theological, scriptural, and spiritual references, it is a poem – and, as hard as it might be to say these words, it is a work of fiction. And yet the poem is so compelling and so meaningful that we want it to be true. Why? Because Dante has taken truths from the realm of theology and re-imagined them in poetic form.

          God, through human agency, wrote the Bible; Dante wrote the Divine Comedy. It was apparently stated by Pietro di Dante, the poet’s oldest son, that “If the Faith were lost, Dante would restore it.” Certainly, Christian readers will recognize many of the themes and references he makes. But what is so continually remarkable is how he re-visions and re-shapes the tradition in his imagination and delivers it afresh with such artistic genius and integrity that we accept it as something new and worthy of our consideration – again and again. And more than that, we’re willing to accept what Dante presents as true. One of the chief reasons for this is that never once in his poem does he reject or refute or denigrate a single teaching of the Church or its tradition. As a matter of fact, it’s because he’s both an intelligent, highly educated, and devout Catholic and an accomplished, professional poet that he can create such an artifact as the Comedy that might “look like” theology but isn’t. On the other hand, Dante doesn’t hesitate to take the Church to task for the corruption and hypocrisy of some of its leaders, but he is always careful to separate the corrupt individuals from the still sacred offices they hold and which he respects.

          Earlier commentators and scholars might not have said it this way, but it’s hard to miss the modern acclamations that state Dante has single-handedly reshaped the Christian imagination. He himself is so inspired – like the great Prophets of Israel – that he refers to the Comedy the beginning of Canto 25 in the Paradiso as “this sacred poem

to which both Heaven and Earth have set their hand.” This is about as close as he dare come to claiming that his poem is like Scripture!

          But once the reader has read the Comedy it is hard to think of Hell, Purgatory, or Heaven apart from the magnificent and vivid imagery we have seen in these places while in company with him along his journey home. Nor can we fail to be amazed at the “ocean” of art the poem has inspired in various mediums in the last 700 years. This is proof that Dante and his poem are very much alive and continue to speak to and engage us from out of the past.

          And this constant engagement of the poet, the pilgrim, and the reader throughout the poem also highlights the theological, the scriptural, and the spiritual themes, opening them to meaning and significance in new ways. This, of course, is one of the glories of literature. Dante doesn’t replace these major themes, but he doesn’t hesitate to engage them head-on because he writes his “sacred poem” with a kind of divine authority – as Peter Hawkins calls it, “a sacred collaboration,” wherein the poet sees himself as “God’s scribe”(“Dante and the Bible” in The Cambridge Companion to Dante, p.138). On several occasions throughout the poem, Dante calls upon the muses, the gods, God Himself to inspire him. He wrestles with the unanswerable aspects of divine Justice, Mercy, and Love in the face of sin. He toys with the Divine Mind, as it were, in seeking to understand why we make bad choices if we are so filled with the Divine that we literally look like it! The Inferno begs the question that probably sparked the dialogue between Eve and the serpent in Genesis 3:4-5: “‘You will certainly not die,’ the serpent said to the woman. ‘For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’” And isn’t this the grand irony of the human condition? If we, created in the image and likeness of God, in fact, know the difference between good and evil, why do we choose evil instead of the good?

          Coming to grips with his own sinfulness in the first Canto of the Inferno, Dante the Pilgrim (and we, the reader?) realizes that he’s come to the midpoint of his life and has lost his moral bearings instead of finding the path to righteousness. In Canto 2, Virgil bluntly diagnoses his problem: he’s a coward. Dante’s all-too-human approach draws his readers into the great questions: the purpose of life, what awaits us after this life, how should we live, the nature of human freedom, how sin dehumanizes us, how do we learn from our mistakes or those of others, and so many others. Throughout the rest of the Comedy it becomes clear how living a virtuous life takes fortitude. Realizing that he’s not alone – he has Virgil as a guide, and the heavenly assurance of Beatrice, St. Lucy, and the Virgin Mary – Dante resolves to let his poetic art take him as far as it will go until – at the end of the Paradiso – it collapses upon itself. But this is not a spiritual or a literary disaster. All along Dante has been going home; all along he’s been anticipating the unitive embrace of his Creator – and at last he has both.

Michael F. Meister, FSC, PhD

Saint Mary’s College of California

August 15, 2020