Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) was the famous poet of Florence, Italy who wrote the “Divine Comedy”. It tells of a journey through the worlds of the afterlife: hell, purgatory and heaven. He is the greatest Italian poet of all time. So far.
Dante wrote works in both Latin and Italian, showing that Italian and not just Latin could be a language of high art. The Divine Comedy, in fact, is the first great work of art in the West that was written in neither Latin nor Greek. His use of Italian helped to shape the language.
Dante is led through hell and purgatory by Virgil and through heaven by Beatrice, the love of his life who died young. There Dante meets many famous people, all put in their proper places in the afterlife according to their sins or saintliness:
- hell: devils, unbelievers, sinners, Homer, Hippocrates, Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Virgil, Ovid, Horace, Cicero, Caesar, Ptolemy, Galen, Averroes, Cleopatra, Alexander, Nicholaus III, Odysseus, Muhammad, Brutus, Judas, Satan
- purgatory: the repentant, Cato, Dante, Cain, Adrian V, Statius
- heaven: angels, saints, Aquinas, Augustine, Francis, Dominic, Peter, James, John, Beatrice, Bernard, Mary, Christ
The sin which will put Dante in purgatory is his desire to be famous.
Note that Statius, the Latin poet of the first century, worshipped the Roman gods as far as we know, but Dante supposes that he converted to the Christian faith sometime before his death.
Although it is a work of fiction it is based on the best knowledge of his day. In fact, it beautifully presents in verse the same view of the world that Aquinas wrote about in his long books of philosophy.
According to Dante, hell is under the earth, purgatory is a great mountain in what we call the South Pacific, on the opposite side of the earth from Jerusalem, and heaven is the heavens from the Moon up to God Himself, who is beyond the stars, outside the universe, outside of space and time. As Dante confesses, much of heaven is beyond the power of language.
At age 37 Dante lost everything: he was out of town when the party of the Black Guelphs took over Florence. As a White Guelph he could never return to Florence and spent the rest of life in Ravenna where he wrote the “Divine Comedy”.
Dante greatly admired Virgil, of whom he said, “Honour and light of the other poets, you are my master and my author, you are alone the one from whom I draw the beautiful style for which I am honoured.”
His house still stands in Florence.
Dante influenced the English poet Blake, among others.
Dante assumed that his readers knew about the history of Italy during the 1200s (especially the history of Florence) and about ancient writers, especially Aristotle, Virgil, Ovid and the Bible (as did most writers in the West from 1250 to 1650). If you have not read these, then read Dante with footnotes if you can. If you cannot, still read him!